For women, there were other indications that, despite some impressive progress over the years, we are still fighting against primitive ideas and cultures. Certainly there was room for women to be optimistic during the campaign, as I wrote and spoke about over the past few months. There were women leading bold campaigns across almost all the parties, including most notably the ultra-Orthodox women who launched a feminist movement in their communities and started an all-women’s party. And I was really excited about Tsipi Livni for a while – the idea of a woman realistically competing for Prime Minister was invigorating, and her entire political strategy seemed to have matured and evolved over the past decade, not to mention her more open embrace of feminist values.
However, my optimism underestimated the looming threats on the horizon. From the beginning, Livni was brutally attacked by the right as being incapable of leading, attacks that had a clear gender overtone about women being too weak or spineless to be “real” leaders. Gradually, Livni’s face began to disappear from billboards. Even the Times of Israel ran an editorial which repeatedly referred only to Herzog as the opposition leader, completely ignoring the fact that Livni and Herzog were meant to be equal partners. And at the 11th hour, two days before the elections, Livni announced that she was letting go of her condition of rotation as Prime Minister. That was a crushing blow for women and feminists everywhere. I don’t know what political strategists were telling the Zionist Camp people that in order to win, Livni needed to step aside, but clearly none of them had spoken to people like me. I am certain that I’m not the only person in the country who thinks that Livni is a more suitable candidate for PM than Herzog. But I felt alone.
Other low-points in the campaign? The worst was undoubtedly Eli Yishai’s campaign of chocolates to get women’s votes. He was giving away bars of chocolate for women with the message, “Women, for the next 20 days, as you clean for Pesach, reward yourself with a cube of chocolate.” The really disturbing thought is that lots of people in Eli Yishai’s world apparently thought that this is a good way to reach women, like you would appeal to children in shul by giving them candy. Some 100,000+ people (how many women? I’d like to know), bought into this. That troubles me. But at least – here’s that glimmer of hope – Eli Yishai is not going to be in this Knesset. Hurrah! Eli Yishai and his clan did more damage to women than any other Knesset member I can think of. (They were the staunchest and fiercest opponents to women’s advancement on every front. I am so very relieved to see them go.)
In fact, the part of Bibi’s reelection that disturbs me the most is the role that he is going to give the religious parties in his coalition. Ben Dehan, for example, who was Deputy Religious Minister and would likely get the same position if Jewish Home enters the coalition, was responsible for legislation such as arresting rabbis who conduct weddings outside of the rabbinate. (He used to be head of the Jerusalem Rabbinical Court and has a vested interest in empowering that office.) United Torah Judaism’s MK Litzman, who apparently has been promised the health ministry (again), is part of the apparatus that promotes gender segregation and extreme readings of halakha over, say, health. Under his auspices, the Health Ministry has not only conducted gender-segregated conferences where women were not allowed to speak as experts or sit in the audience or receive awards for their work, but he also advanced the idea of separate hospitals for men and women. So much for forward thinking in the face of the health crisis. The idea of misogynistic, ultra-Orthodox men running the Interior Ministry, the Health Ministry, the Religious Ministry, or the Finance Ministry absolutely terrifies me. We know what these men believe, we know what they are capable of, and the future is gloomy.
Still, I would like to keep my focus on the glimmers of hope. The sheer number of women MKs has gone up slightly, from 27 out of 120 to 29. It’s not a huge gain, and is still far from the equitable 50% that we should be aspiring to, but it signals another small step in the gradual increase of women in the Knesset over the past decade. Whether this will have a parallel in the cabinet remains to be seen but is unlikely, and Netanyahu has quite an appalling record of including women in his cabinet (last government he had 2 out of 18). Also, not all the women in the Knesset espouse the kind of feminist ideology that I would have hoped for, and there are some Bibi-like fear-mongerers among them.
But in spite of the fact that there some women MKs who are on the wrong side of the gender debates, I think that the real hope in this Knesset will come from some of the women themselves. Meretz, the only party with a female majority in its Knesset representation (3 women to 2 men) has some phenomenal women – MK Zehava Galon, MK Tamar Zandberg and MK Michal Rosen are all articulate, active warriors for justice whom I respect greatly. They have also all been tireless legislators, expending great efforts on smart bills to promote a better society. The Zionist Camp also has some great women. Merav Michaeli, Sheli Yachimovich and Stav Shafir, who all hold top posts in the party, have also been tremendous voices both for gender equality and social equality more generally. Merav Michaeli knows no fear, and speaks with honesty and power. And Stav Shafir, the rising star of the party who recently wowed liberal Zionist Americans with her vision, is a force to be reckoned with. In the past Knesset, she took up her perch in the Finance Committee and refused to allow the corruption and lack of transparency in the budget allocations to continue. Her work in publicizing the machinations of this committee is probably one of the most important activities to have emerged from the past election. I hope she continues, and is emboldened by all her new support, and helps promote real reform once and for all.
Overall, despite the alarming state of the current government, and despite the fact that Bibi won by spreading ideas that take us backwards as a civilization, I actually do still believe that there is a growing feminist consciousness around the country. In the grass-roots, increasing numbers of women have had enough of the old ways of thinking.
One of my greatest sources of optimism is the new group called Women Wage Peace. This is a group of thousands of women across Israel – Arab and Jewish, religious and secular, from the north, center and south – who have been banding together over the past few months to try and make real change on the ground. The group was founded following last year’s awful war, and is based on the belief that there must be another way. The group, which has been holding protests at dozens of intersections around Israel and held its largest rally two weeks ago with 3,000-5,000 women in front of the Knesset, is promoting the idea that Israelis are tired of all the fear-mongering, and believe that peace is possible. The group also believes that a key to achieving peace is including more women in decision-making.
Women Wage Peace, and women like Zehava Galon and Staf Shaffir inspire me. But if we are going to make Israel a place where all people can thrive, we have quite a lot of work ahead of us.