Jerusalem, Oct 30 (EFE).- As Israel experiences another period of political instability, a revolution in the making is taking place among the conservative ultra-Orthodox Jews. “No voice, no vote,” a group of women shouts, decrying parties keeping them from running for office.
“Why not?” wonders Haredi Esty Shushan, founder of Nivcharot, an ultra-Orthodox and feminist organization calling on women not to vote for Israeli religious right-wing blocs until they are included in political processes and positions of power.
Shas and United Torah Judaism (UTJ) parties hold the majority of the Haredi votes and have close ties with opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu. According to recent polls, they are expected to win respective eight and seven seats in Israel’s November 1 elections.
Fighting for the right to vote freely and to stand as a candidate at elections seems to belong to a different era in Israel, which defines itself as a democratic state and had 34 of its 120-seat parliament filled with women. Israel was even one of the first countries to have a woman — Golda Meir (1969 to 1974) — serve as a prime minister.
But in a parallel ultra-Orthodox universe where women can only sit at the back of buses, are required to cover their hair, and are not allowed to wear trousers, touch any man other than their husbands or even sing, a budding revolution of Haredi feminists evokes that of the suffragettes in the early 20th century.
RELIGIOUS FEMINISM: A PARADOX
“As long as we stay out of politics, they will continue to silence us, to drop us to the back of whatever, to erase us from everywhere they can,” says Shushan, a 45-year-old filmmaker and journalist.
The mother of four adds that she was labeled “schizophrenic” by a prominent rabbi for challenging the ultra-Orthodox status quo and has received “threats and insults” from her community and was called a “fake Haredi.”
This is a price that many ultra-Orthodox women are not willing to pay, even if they sympathize with equality and long for their own participation in politics.
“I really believe in the power of women. If we are 50% of the population, Parliament needs our opinion. But I was brought up to obey the laws of the Torah and the rabbis, and I truly believe in that too,” Rivka Ravitz, a 46-year-old researcher at Jerusalem’s Hebrew University, tells Efe.
At the age of 18, Ravitz started her career as an assistant to her father-in-law, who was a Knesset lawmaker at that time and later became chief of staff to Israeli president Reuven Rivlin (2014-2021).
She rubbed shoulders with US former president Barack Obama, former German chancellor Angela Merkel, Pope Francis and Russian president Vladimir Putin. US president Joe Biden also knelt before her after learning she is a mother of 12 children.
Aware of her privilege as a relative of prominent politicians, Ravitz describes rebels like Shushan, whose movement trains ultra-Orthodox women on rights and leadership, as “heroines.”
“Revolutions are not easy,” she adds.
In 2019, a secular lawyer took the ultra-Orthodox case to the High Court of Justice, which ordered the UTJ to abolish its party regulations that exclude women from running for office.
But Shushan denounced during an electoral campaign that “22 women officially asked to be part of ultra-Orthodox parties but they were not accepted.”
“In the Orthodox community, we don’t do that. Women get into politics but they don’t get elected. It’s not going to happen,” UTJ lawmaker Yitzhak Pindrus stresses with a big smile.
In 2008, Tzvia Greenfeld made history by becoming the first ultra-Orthodox woman to sit in the Knesset, but she had to do it with the left-wing Meretz party. A handful of Haredi women have tried to follow in her footsteps and join left-wing factions.