Political Parties in the Yishuv and Israel
Women’s parties have been an integral part of politics in the Yishuv and Israel since the pre-state 1920s. Moreover, women’s parties have had far-reaching impact on women’s issues in particular and on social processes in general.
Parties representing sectorial interests characterize the Israeli political system, probably more than in any other country. The most conspicuous exception are women, who constitute half of the population, share distinct common interests and, as has been borne out by copious research conducted since the 1970s, experience common discrimination, in the labor market as well as by religious, military and other authorities.
Studies of women’s participation and representation in politics discuss women’s parties mainly in terms of marginality, curiosity or irrelevance to political life in Israel. They imply that women tend neither to vote for women nor to support feminist-based platforms. However, since women’s parties have been a part of the political picture in the country for many years, even since before statehood, it is worthwhile examining the widely accepted assumptions about women’s parties in Israel and demonstrating these parties’ contribution to women’s rights in Israel.
Women’s parties participated successfully in all four elections to the Asefat ha-Nivharim (Elected Assembly, the governing body of the Yishuv) between 1920 and 1944, achieving the highest representation of women (fifteen percent) in the last assembly before the foundation of the state. According to Sarah Azaryahu (1947/1980), two women’s parties—the Association of Women (which for technical reasons was listed under this name but in fact had already banded together as the Union of Hebrew Women for Equal Rights in Erez Israel) and the Progressive Party participated in the 1920 elections to the first assembly and seven of their members were elected, two from the Progressive Party and five from the Association of Women. An additional seven were elected from the two labor parties. The fourteen women elected to the assembly of three hundred and fourteen members constituted 4.5 percent of the total members.
In the 1925 elections to the assembly a united women’s party The Union of Hebrew Women for Equal Rights in Erez Israel, gained thirteen seats in the assembly of two hundred and twenty-one delegates. They were, again, half of the women elected from all parties, who totaled twelve percent in the assembly. In the elections to the third assembly in 1931, another women’s list Histadrut Nashim Ivriot (Hebrew Women’s Organization) joined with the Union of Hebrew Women to form a united party headed by Henrietta Szold. The three women who were elected from the United Women’s Party constituted half of all the women elected; together, they were 8.5 percent of the seventy-one members in the new assembly. Two women’s organizations combined forces to form a united party that participated in the fourth assembly elections in 1944. Named respectively Women’s Association for Equal Rights and Zionist Women’s Association WIZO, they won four out of the twenty-five seats gained by women in the assembly. Thus, in the last assembly before the foundation of the state, women’s representation reached fifteen percent of the 171 delegates.
Two women’s lists participated in the 1949 elections to the first Knesset. One of them, a group of women who had seceded from a religious party (Ha-Mizrachi Workers) in protest against the lack of representation, failed to reach the required one percent threshold for election. The other, which succeeded the pre-state women parties WIZO and the Union of Hebrew Women for Equal Rights, entered the first Knesset with one representative, Rachel Kagan Cohen , a radical feminist. In 1973 the Citizens’ Rights Movement, headed by Shulamit Aloni, entered the Knesset. Although it was not a “proper” women’s party, it was supported by the feminist movement, whose representative, Marcia Freedman, was one of the three members of the newly formed party to enter the Knesset. In 1977 a women’s list, supported by Freedman and headed by Shoshana Ellings, ran in the elections but gained only a third (6,000) of the votes required for entering the Knesset. In 1992 a women’s party was founded by Shin, the Israeli movement for women’s equal representation. Headed by a veteran feminist activist, Ruth Reznik, well known for her work against violence against women, the list gained fewer than 3,000 votes.
Two women’s parties were founded in 1999. One of them, Equal Representation, was founded by Shin and headed by Esther Hertzog. Financial, organizational and personal difficulties led to a traumatic gathering of the party’s active members and a decision to withdraw from the elections shortly before they took place. Pnina Rosenblum, a women’s party named after its founder, lacked only a few hundred votes to enter the Knesset.
Women’s parties also played a role in local government, both before and after the founding of the state. Two women, representing two women’s parties, were elected to the local council of Jerusalem in 1932; four women from two women’s parties were elected in Jerusalem in 1938; one woman from a women’s list was the only woman to be elected to the council of Petah Tikvah in 1940 and one woman from a women’s list was elected to the elected body in Haifa in 1941. In 1989 a women’s list headed by Yehudith Huebner of Emunah, the women’s section of the NRP (National Religious Party), entered the municipal council in Jerusalem. A representative of a Muslim women’s list was elected in Umm al Fahm, an Arab local council, in the 1993 elections.
Nevertheless, although women’s parties have been an inseparable part of political life in the country since the 1920s, they have never gained public recognition either by the media, by academia or even by women’s organizations. Moreover, it appears that female politicians, being committed to male-dominated parties, support the widely accepted delegitimization. Various scholars have noted the tendency of women politicians to comply with their party’s expectations at the expense of women’s collective interests Thus, for instance, Hanna Herzog argues that women put the interests of the male parties before their own interests as a sector and that women politicians and women’s divisions in parties function as “gatekeepers” against other women. Herzog cites examples of how women Knesset members from different parties gave up women’s interests when these were presented to them as conflicting with the interests of their party.
Anti-feminist attitudes become more accentuated when it comes to women’s parties. One of the efficient means of de-legitimizing and denying the prospects of women’s parties is by attributing to them a self-evident proof of “failure.” For example, Hanna Herzog maintains that “on the one hand, women are recognized, treated and organized as a social category, yet on the other hand, political action on the basis of their social identity has been denounced and its legitimacy denied.” Nevertheless, Herzog inadvertently contributes to the same de-legitimization which she unveils by ascribing the terms “feminine,” “marginal” and “irrelevant to politics” to the 1947 WIZO party, thus perpetuating the image of its failure. Similarly, Herzog denounces the 1977 women’s party, claiming that “the meager electoral achievements of the list indicate that in the Israeli political culture there was no legitimization for separate organization of women” (1999:347).
Another example of this attitude is Doron and Schoenker-Schereck’s study (1998), which also contributes to the strengthening of the “failure/irrelevance” theory. They describe the two women’s parties from the 1949 elections, the religious women’s party and WIZO, that gained one seat in the Knesset, as a failure. They argue further that “The new women’s list lacked the political principles on which all parties since the Yishuv times were based. The failure was double. … The electoral potential did not turn into a political power because the gender identity was not associated with a political connotation.” They sum up: “On the basis of the 1949 two women’s parties’ experience, it can be inferred that women do not tend to vote for women … the limited scope of support indicates that a party that promises to act on women’s issues only cannot guarantee political success” (1998, 130). They argue that women do not consist of a homogeneous group; they share common problems but they are far from being ‘sisters in distress’; they differ from each other in age, in personal status and in their views. These differences cannot be ignored. The most basic and common denominator, sexual identity, is not strong or attractive enough to translate it into a political power (131). Doron and Schoenker-Schereck conclude that the nearly four percent of support garnered by the 1949 women’s parties was a failure, whereas Aloni’s 1973 party, which gained only 2.5 percent support, was, in their view, successful. Similarly, Brichta argues that, self-evidently, women do not vote for women as “women tend to reject the idea of getting organized politically in order to support women” (1975, 88). Referring to the 1949 women’s parties, Weiss claims that whenever struggles over political representation take place, women’s lists are doomed to fail (1973, 162).
Not surprisingly, the 1992 women’s party was also described as a failure and analyzed in terms of reproach. By suggesting the “natural tendency” of women to refrain from voting for women’s parties, and the “impracticality” of women’s parties in terms of “wasted” votes, scholars foster the image of self-evident, expected failure of women’s parties. They state that: “Women as a target group tend to vote irrespective of their interests or their identity as women. From a practical point of view it is difficult to found a women’s party that is based on consensus over the subject of the urgency of gender equality” (1998, 140).
Dafna Sharfman, too, claims the failure of the 1977 women’s party, but acknowledges the fact that this party had some significant consequences, among which were the founding of the Women’s Center and the first shelter for battered women in Haifa, by the ex-party activists.
However, women’s parties, although hardly acknowledged and largely underrated, had far-reaching impact in terms of advancing women’s rights and role in politics and in society at large. The impact of the 1977 women’s party was evident in terms of the feminist messages that were presented to the public through the pre-election broadcasts. The indirect influence of women’s parties can be perceived in the proportional change of women’s representation in the elections—from seven women (5.8 percent) elected in the 1988 elections to eleven (9.1 percent) in the 1992 elections. The poor rate of women’s representation lasted from 1959 (7.5 percent in the fourth Knesset) until 1992, when the 6.6 percent of the twelfth Knesset again increased to the 9.1 percent of the first three Knessets. Significantly, although comparatively few in number, the majority of the women elected had been active members of the distinctly feminist Israel Women’s Network and brought their feminism to bear on legislation.
Among the indirect achievements of the 1977 women’s party was the appointment, for the first time, of an advisor to the prime minister on women’s status, and the impact on the final report of the Prime Minister’s Commission on the Status of Women (published in 1978). This report became a crystallized version of the women’s party platform. To this day it is used as a point of reference in measuring the progress made in women’s rights.
While the 1999 women’s party has also been described as a failure it may have had an indirect impact, impelling other parties to increase the number of women in “realistic” places on their lists of candidates. As a result, women’s representation rose from nine (7.5 percent) in the fourteenth Knesset (1992) to sixteen (13.3 percent) in 2000. (However, the improved placing of women may also have been inspired by the success of the nine women MKs in placing women’s issues on the legislative agenda.)
Azaryahu describes the indirect influence of the pre-state women’s parties, showing how they were most effective as a means of pressuring the parties to enlarge the proportion of women on their lists, thus impacting on the pre-Knesset institution. Thus, “in the first three elected assemblies the number of female representatives elected via the ‘women’s list’ was almost always equal to the number of women representatives elected through the lists of all the Yishuv parties together. But in the fourth elected assembly [in 1944] the ‘women’s list’ constituted only twenty percent of female representatives elected by parties and fractions” (Azaryahu 1977: 56–57). Also, the percentage of elected women grew from ten percent in the third assembly to fifteen percent in the fourth—a proportion again achieved only in 2002. Azaryahu describes in detail various crucial struggles and achievements of the Association for Women’s Rights, in matters such as inheritance, property, guardianship and bigamy.
The most conspicuous struggle of Rachel Kagan Cohen, the WIZO representative in the first Knesset, was over The Law of Equal Rights for Women (passed in 1951), which grants married women equality in civil matters—the right to sign a contract, to own private property and to take legal action. Cohen-Kagan’s legislative proposal also included a section that promised legal validity for civil marriage and divorce laws, but this was rejected. Imperfect though it was, this law became the first feminist law of the new state and the basis for significant developments in the legal rights of women in Israel.Thus it may be said that since the 1920s, women’s parties have contributed significantly to political, legal and social achievements of women in Israel’s male-chauvinist society. Women’s parties have been the catalyst for increasing the representation of women and for accelerating feminist awareness and activities throughout the gendered history of Israel in the twentieth century.
The important aspect that has been overlooked or ignored, consciously or unconsciously, intentionally or inadvertently, is that women’s parties have since pre-state days played a major part in some of the most important social processes in the country. The extent of their impact on issues such as violence and gender power relations in the family, basic human rights, political and economic equality and social struggles generally, demands feminist and public acknowledgement as well as open-minded study.
Moreover, several surveys suggest that there is, in fact, more support than supposed for women’s parties. For example, in “A Survey of Women’s Political Representation” (July, 1990), thirty-three percent of women and twenty-five percent of men declared their readiness to vote for a women’s party as a satellite party. Some eighteen percent of the women and some fifteen percent of the men declared their readiness to vote for an independent women’s party. A survey carried out by Degani and Degani and submitted to the 1999 Equal Representation women’s party, found that forty-seven percent of the women replied that it was either important or very important that a party representing women participate in the forthcoming elections; 21.6 percent of the women and 8.7 percent of the men replied that it was highly possible or very highly possible that they would vote for a women’s party that strives to achieve equality between men and women in all spheres of life.
In conclusion: women’s parties have played a major, though so far unacknowledged, role in the social and political history of Israel: they had a significant impact on women’s participation in power centers, political and others; they played a major part in the struggle for women’s right to vote and to be elected; they brought into focus the economic discrimination against women, who constitute half of the population in the labor market; they made feminist discourse about gender equality widely known and discussed.
That all this has generally been unacknowledged reflects the fact that women as a sector are marginalized and discriminated against in the writing of Israel’s history, no less than in everyday life. Consequently, any activity that strives to bring about a fundamental change in the situation receives the same treatment by the decision makers, media leaders, etc.—all controlled by men.
The underrating of the significance and potential of women’s parties serves to perpetuate women’s political exclusion. Silencing and denying the significant impact of the women’s parties is probably one of the most efficient means used by male-dominated power centers, including the indirect manipulation of women against women’s parties, to prevent any major change in the gender-power relations in society. Finally, one may conjecture what Israeli society—its gender relations, its social structure and even its security problems—might have been, had the 1949 women’s party (WIZO) not ceased to exist.
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