Politics in the Yishuv and Israel

by Hanna Herzog

A gender perspective on politics, including a discussion of women in politics, demands that one refer to politics not only at its formal-institutional level, but also “as […] any human relationship, at any level from the intrapsychic to the international, provided it can be shaped and altered by human decision and action.” (Boals 172). Politics resides in all human relationships, and to politicize means not only bringing individuals or issues into the arena of conventional electoral and governmental politics, but also bringing “to conscious awareness the political nature of existing social arrangements.” (ibid. 173). Thus, power is found in all social relations, and must be identified in various loci of activity. In itself, the formal-institutionalized political system, representing the political system, results from power relations. It is an historical outcome of the differentiation and institutionalization of the private-domestic as women’s sphere, and of the public as men’s domain. A gender perspective on politics perceives a continuing struggle over the boundaries of the political scene. Such redefinition of power and politics suggests a wide scope and though it does comply with a feminist agenda, it does not fit the constraints of an encyclopedia’s format. My analysis thus focuses on women in the formal political system.


Israel’s political system is a relatively new one, which began to take shape in the final decade of the nineteenth century with the immigration of Jews to The Land of IsraelErez Israel (Palestine). Most of the political parties thus lacked a long-established tradition. From the system’s inception, it was based on democratic procedures of representation and women were initially granted the right to vote as early as 1920. One might have expected that women would share equally in the process of building a nation and founding new political institutions, particularly since the Labor movement, the leading political force in the Jewish community in Palestine prior to the establishment of the State of Israel. "Old Yishuv" refers to the Jewish community prior to 1882; "New Yishuv" to that following 1882.Yishuv (the pre-state Jewish community), had adopted the principle of equality between the sexes as part of its socialist ideology.

Women’s right to vote was not taken for granted, however, and it was achieved only after a prolonged struggle between 1918–1926, which is generally overlooked in Yishuv historiography. Although Sara Azaryahu, a leading figure in the struggle, recorded the events in 1949, it was only in 1977, when the feminist group led by Marcia Freedman reprinted her booklet, that the struggle became more widely known.

Nor was equal representation in the elected bodies taken for granted. The proportional, list-based electoral method, first implemented during the Yishuv period, is considered relatively favorable for women. Nevertheless, women’s representation has always been low and has not changed dramatically over the decades. Jewish women, who constitute over half of the Jewish voters, serve in the Israeli Defense Force, sharing in what is considered, especially in a society subject to unending military threat, as a primary civic duty. Yet in all election campaigns, women's representation has never surpassed sixteen percent. As Tables 1 and 2 indicate, women’s representation in the Yishuv era was slightly better than during the state period. The fact that no clear growth trend in women’s representation is discernible underscores the minor significance that the issue has for parties’ political agendas and for the public. And though the number of women in the fifteenth Lit. "assembly." The 120-member parliament of the State of Israel.Knesset (elected in 1999) was close to double the previous figure (increasing from nine to seventeen) it is still too early to claim this as a turning-point. In fact, in the elections to the Seventeenth Knesset (2006), the number of women elected remained at seventeen.

In 2005, the Inter-Parliamentary Union service ranked Israel in fifty-ninth place, in descending order, in terms of women serving in a lower, or single, house. Israel’s position is far below the Western democratic states that constitute Israeli society’s frame of reference.

While Jewish women’s representation has been low, Arab Israeli women are barely discernible in Israeli politics. Only one Arab Israeli woman has ever been elected to the Knesset, in the 1999 elections. Their absence from politics is particularly salient since their proportion in electoral participation is identical with that of Jewish women and men, and often exceeds it.


Governments in Israel reflect coalitionary power relations and are the highest decision-making forum. Women’s participation in government thus not only symbolizes women’s status but also reflects their ability to share in drafting national policy.

Representation of women in the Va’ad Le’ummi—the equivalent of government in the Jewish community in Palestine prior to the establishment of the State of Israel. "Old Yishuv" refers to the Jewish community prior to 1882; "New Yishuv" to that following 1882.Yishuv period—was achieved only after a struggle. Representation in the National Council was proportional to achievements in the General Assembly. But the ultra-orthodox who opposed women’s suffrage were equally opposed to women’s participation in the first National Council, elected in 1920. The compromise reached was that a woman could be elected, but only as a deputy, and such a position would remain only on paper. Rahel Yanait Ben-Zvi, who served as a deputy, played a very active role in the National Council, encountering strong opposition from its ultra-orthodox members. In 1925 four women were elected to the second National Council, but none were elected to the council’s three executive committees.

In 1931 two women were elected to the third National Council. This was the first time that a woman—Henrietta Szold—joined the council’s executive committee. Szold headed a women’s party that was working to set up a social services department in the National Council. The three seats it won in the General Assembly did not entitle it to representation on the National Council or its executive. The recently-founded Mapai, which was trying to bolster its status as a leading agent in the Yishuv, relinquished one of its seats on the council’s management in favor of Henrietta Szold. During the term of the Fourth Elected Assembly, which lasted from 1944 until the assembly of the Provisional State Council (moezet ha-medina ha-zmanit), which lasted from May 14, 1948 until the sitting of the first Lit. "assembly." The 120-member parliament of the State of Israel.Knesset on February 2, 1949, three National Councils were elected, and five women served in each one. One woman—Rachel Cohen-Kagan (1888–1982), representative of the Women’s Party—served on the last of the three executive committees, elected on June 16, 1947.

The founding of the state of Israel in 1948 did not improve matters for women. In the sixteen successive governments elected between 1949 and 2003, only ten women served as ministers: Shulamit Aloni, Shoshana Arbeli-Almozlino, Sarah Doron (b. 1922), Dalia Itzik (b. 1952), Limor Livnat (b. 1950), Tzipi Livni (b. 1958), Golda Meir, Ora Namir, Yehudit Naot (1944–2004) and Yael (Yuli) Tamir (b. 1954).

Of these women, the most prominent was Golda Meir, who served as minister of Labor and of Foreign Affairs, and eventually as prime minister. Though her achievements were cited as proving women’s equal status in Israel, her case is actually more an exception than the rule. Golda Meir never considered herself as representing women or women’s organizations. Apart from herself, there was no other woman in her government, which was one of the largest ever, with twenty-four ministers. From 1948 until the late 1960s there was merely token representation of women in government, with only one woman serving in each government.

In the late 1960s, when awareness of women’s parliamentary under-representation grew in much of the western world, even token representation dwindled in Israel, culminating in the 1988 government with twenty-six all male ministers. While feminist movements in most western democracies were on course for changing society, Israel remained in thrall to the euphoria of 1967, with its celebration of power and machismo. The situation improved in the Rabin-Peres government (1992–1996) which had two women ministers and one deputy-minister, and in the first Sharon government (2001–2002), with three women ministers (11.5%) and two deputy-minister (see Table 5).

Knesset committees

A major and significant part of the Knesset’s work is carried out by committees. Women's representation in all Lit. "assembly." The 120-member parliament of the State of Israel.Knesset committees (apart from the Committee for the Advancement of the Status of Women) has always been less than men’s. During the fifteenth and sixteenth Knessets (1999–2003), women were relatively highly represented in committees dealing in issues considered “female”—education, culture and sport, the Labor and Welfare committee, the Public Services committee and the Constitution, Law and Justice Committee. In the fifteenth Knesset, there were women members in all standing committees, except the Joint Budget and Defense Committee.

In the Knesset’s not particularly women-friendly political landscape, the cross-party Committee for Women’s Status deserves special attention. It was founded in 1992, during the thirteenth Knesset, which was more disposed toward women than its predecessors – with eleven women MKs, two women ministers, and a deputy-minister. The committee’s objectives were to initiate legislation advancing women's status: achieving equality for women, promoting their interests, and preventing discrimination against them. Most of the women MKs were, or had been, active members of the Israel Women’s Network; that is, they defined themselves as feminists. At the same time, some of the committee’s members (especially those who represented the one-hundred percent male religious parties) belonged to parties whose attitudes to women’s issues were not necessarily positive.

The Women’s Status Committee has chalked up several successes. Some relate to organizational frameworks (such as the governmental service for advancing women’s status), to the creation of mechanisms that supervise government institutions (such as the committee’s authority to request reports from government entities regarding issues concerning women) and to protecting women from sexual harassment. It has also successfully introduced a broad range of critical issues to agendas of both the Knesset and the general public: educating for gender equality, offensive advertising, single families, homosexual and lesbian rights, the status of Arab women, and Basic Law: Women’s Rights. In the range of issues it addresses, the committee has made a strong contribution to establishing a feminist agenda, even though disagreements along party lines occasionally impact on the committee and party interests sometimes supersede feminist interests.


Historically, the Labor party in its various political configurations has tended to promote women more than other parties. With Labor’s decline, the civil rights parties became the champions of women’s representation. In most Knessets, there was a purely symbolic representation of one woman in the right-wing parties. Though some changes occurred during the 1990s (Table 6), the number of women in this bloc is insignificant, considering its increased electoral power. During the late 1950s, the 1960s and the early 1970s, the National Religious Party had a token woman on its list, but as the party moved further to the right, and its religious doctrine became more extreme, that lone woman temporarily disappeared until Gila Finkelstein of the NRP was elected in 2003.

On the whole, women’s representation in the Jewish community in Palestine prior to the establishment of the State of Israel. "Old Yishuv" refers to the Jewish community prior to 1882; "New Yishuv" to that following 1882.Yishuv period was slightly better than post-1948. It is striking that, apart from the fourth elections in the Yishuv, half of the women elected to the General Assembly represented women’s parties. Women’s parties were the most energetic force working for suffrage and for politicizing additional women’s issues, but they failed to become a meaningful political power following statehood.

Women’s parties

The proportional electoral system which applied in the Jewish community in Palestine prior to the establishment of the State of Israel. "Old Yishuv" refers to the Jewish community prior to 1882; "New Yishuv" to that following 1882.Yishuv favored women. They had good prospects for being elected via an independent list, and the very existence of such a separate list sparked off a contest with the general parties, which in consequence also increased their representation of women. Prior to the elections for the first General Assembly, women’s associations organized to fight for suffrage in a party named the Union of Hebrew Women for Equal Rights in The Land of IsraelErez Israel. Whereas women’s organizations in other countries were called suffrage organizations, the Yishuv women underscored equal voting rights, and viewed suffrage as another milestone on the road to equality. Once suffrage had been won, the women’s party fought for the welfare and improved legal status of women and the family.

With statehood, a proportional voting system was adopted with a one-percent qualifying threshold that rose to 1.5 percent in 1992—a system that could have been helpful for continued organizing by women’s parties. Approximately twenty parties usually run for office in Israel’s national elections, with an over-varied organizing basis. There have been only a few attempts by women to organize, and their achievements were negligible, at least in terms of representation.

Two women’s lists participated in the first Lit. "assembly." The 120-member parliament of the State of Israel.Knesset elections in 1949. They can be seen as adjuncts of feminism’s first wave in Israel. One was a religious list that broke away from Ha-Po’el Ha-Mizrachi, protesting women’s non-representation in a safe slot on the party’s list, but it failed to pass the qualifying threshold. The second—the WIZO list—was headed by Rachel Cohen-Kagan, who was the sole representative elected on behalf of the party. Cohen-Kagan’s initiative brought the Law for Equal Rights for Women–1951 onto the Knesset’s agenda. Immediately after the election, WIZO decided to cease all political activity.

In 1977, feminism’s second wave in Israel spurred an attempt by women’s parties to organize. There had been a previous alliance between Marcia Freedman (b. 1938) and the Citizen Rights Movement (CRM) during the 1974 elections. Freedman had joined Shulamit Aloni’s list, hoping it would encourage feminist discourse. However, when this proved an unsuccessful alliance, Freedman founded an independent women’s party. Its leaders saw themselves as the next generation of women pioneers, and aimed to emulate past achievements and unify women around cross-party problems. The party won close to six thousand votes, but did not pass the qualifying threshold.

In the 1992 elections, Esther Hertzog, together with Ruth Resnick, a former Meretz member, set up a women’s list which was supported by leading feminists, including Rachel Ostrowitz, one of the editors of the feminist magazine Noga, and Dina Blachman, one of the founders of Israel’s Feminist Movement. Like its predecessors, the list called on women to transcend the ideological issues that divided them and to combat discrimination against women. Its electoral achievements were meager, even though feminist awareness was growing in the early 1990s and several organizations and structures were working on women’s status. Claims that the changes in the electoral system effected in 1996 would improve the prospects of a women’s party were grounded on the achievements of an immigrants party, and the strengthening of Shas, representative of the Lit. "Eastern." Jew from Arab or Muslim country.Mizrahi population.

Another unsuccessful attempt to found a women’s list occurred in the 1999 elections for the fifteenth Knesset. Activists cited insufficient resources as the reason for failure, but the true explanation is more complex. While Shas and the immigrant parties represented communities, it is harder to define the community of women. In Israel’s political culture, a discrete political identity for women still lacks legitimacy. Moreover, Israeli feminism is developing in conjunction with a multicultural discourse that is becoming more diverse and prevents the shaping of a uniform feminist identity that can attract women and meld them into a single political force.

Local Government

The battle for participation in the committees of Jewish communities and the moshavot continued longer than the struggle on the national level.

Under the Mandate for Palestine given to Great Britain by the League of Nations in April 1920 to administer Palestine and establish a national home for the Jewish people. It was terminated with the establishment of the State of Israel on May 14, 1948.British Mandate, women in Haifa and Tel-Aviv were entitled to vote for the va’ad kehila (community council), and Rachel Gruzovsky (Gur) was elected to Tel Aviv’s va’ad ha’ir (city council) in 1914. Women in Jerusalem could vote from 1931 onwards, in Safed from 1922, in Ekron from 1924, in Kefar Sava from 1939, and in Petah Tikvah from 1940. By 1948, women in all Jewish localities had gradually won the right to vote and seek office. Women’s representation in local government during the Jewish community in Palestine prior to the establishment of the State of Israel. "Old Yishuv" refers to the Jewish community prior to 1882; "New Yishuv" to that following 1882.Yishuv era remains unresearched, and accurate data on the proportion of representation have not yet been collected.

In municipal elections, the situation was different. The municipalities were under the Mandate’s direct authority. A law governing elections in mixed populations of Arabs and Jews, enacted in 1926 by the British Mandate, granted the right to vote to men only. A motion to include all the municipalities under such a law was withdrawn after the local women joined forces with the International Union of Women’s Suffrage, assisted by Eleanor Rathbone, a British MP who was a League member.

In 1948, with the creation of the State of Israel, every woman—Arab and Jewish—was entitled to vote in the first elections held. From 1950, when the first local government elections were held, up to and including 1965, there was a moderate fall in women’s representation. The lowest point was in 1965, when women accounted for only 3.1 percent of elected representatives. During the 1969 elections, there were first signs of a reversal in the trend, in Jewish localities. Over time, two coexisting phenomena became apparent: an increase in women’s representation, with a growing number of women in local councils, and a growing number of women in councils where two women already held office (Table 7).

The gradual increase in women’s representation in local government stemmed from structural changes in local authorities that started in the late 1970s. It also derived from a growing process of localization that created a more distinct separation between national and local politics, with a stronger emphasis on local needs and on representatives who would deal with them. The political system and the electorate now preferred local activists who were not necessarily affiliated with the large parties. In local politics, the rules of the game were changing, allowing new players to join in. Awareness of the need for gender equality and for women’s involvement in politics heightened. The convergence of these two trends is reflected in the moderate but constant rise in women’s representation in local politics (Table 7).

Perhaps the most significant change has been in the paths women take to enter local politics. The waning power of the major parties put an end to dependence on the parties’ mechanisms, which often discriminated against women. Instead, women found a warmer welcome in small, local, independent parties. Up to 1978, when the electoral method was changed, women who headed a local authority were compromise candidates, and generally did not head the list during the run-up to elections. More women now began to run for elections as heads of a list and of local authorities, and four women were elected as heads of localities. One woman was elected in the 1989 elections (in Or Yehudah), and one in 1993 (Savyon), both heading the local councils of small localities. Several candidates ran in the 1998 local elections and achieved breakthrough results—women became mayors of two mid-size towns, Herzliyyah Pituah and Netanya. Seeking election as head of local authorities improved women’s prospects for entering the local authorities: out of thirty-four candidates, twenty-one were elected and headed their lists for the local authorities.

Together with these structural changes, public norms and attitudes were modified, as was the image of women politicians. The Israeli public became more willing to see women politicians serving on local councils and as mayors. Women no longer eschew the political arena and its demands. They are entering politics via new approaches, which include setting up and heading lists.

Finally, a localization process has generated a new agenda for local government, grounded on working for the well-being of people and place. Many issues once considered “female”—welfare, education, culture and quality of life—have become pivotal issues on the local agenda. The transition from “male” politics to more “female” politics offers women an opening, but simultaneously attracts new players who compete with them. As a result, feminist consciousness has become a highly significant factor. A 2002 survey of women members of local councils showed that seventy-five percent saw their job as a mission, and believed that women have a distinctive role that is sorely needed in politics. There is a growing tendency towards stability and willingness to continue political activity. For twenty-five percent of them, it was their second term of office, or more, and fifty-one percent planned to run again.

In Arab local authorities, the situation is less propitious. Arab women’s representation has always been extremely low, and few women have ever been elected to office. In the 1998 elections, women were elected in only two out of sixty-three Arab local authorities, Nazareth and Kefar Karr’a. Arab women in elected office account for less than one percent of all women elected to local authorities. This meager representation is noteworthy in view of the fact that Arabs constitute a third of the total elected officers in Israel’s local authorities.

A Culture of Inclusion and Exclusion

Women’s status in Israeli political arena has been shaped by two major contradictory forces that operate simultaneously. On the one hand, women are defined as part of the collective and are recognized, treated, and organized as a social category, mainly on the basis of traditional roles as wives and mothers. On the other hand, the politics of identity has been restricted by marginalizing and denouncing social identity as a basis for political action, and thus excludes women.

Paradoxically, the building blocks of both the inclusionary and exclusionary forces have the same origins. Five basic components have produced the political culture of exclusion and inclusion of women in Israeli politics: the myth of equality, the binary gendered world perception, Jewish and Palestinian traditions, the lack of separation between State and Religion and the Israeli-Arab conflict. These components overlap partially, inter-connect partially, and may be contradictory; nevertheless, they operate simultaneously as inclusionary and exclusionary mechanisms and thus neutralize women’s power in institutionalized politics.

The Myth of Gender Equality

For years, Israelis were convinced that their society enjoyed gender equality, both in the pre-state period and once the state was established. A direct result of the belief in this myth, so far as the political field was concerned, was that women, as a group, did not consider the system as discriminating against them, did not believe that they had a different political agenda, and did not develop political behavior patterns that differed from men’s. Even in the context of general social issues, women’s problems are not considered problems of political significance. Moreover, feminist ideas and ideology encountered opposition, being categorized as foreign, extreme and/or consensus-breaking. In addition, the heads of the major women’s organizations who were close to the seat of power, tended to appropriate “women’s problems” for themselves, often creating the illusion that “things are being taken care of.” Dependence on party mechanisms and the male agenda were considered normative. “Feminist” issues entered the public agenda when they were “framed” differently, as a problem of society as a whole (for example, battered women) or as a problem proven to be legitimate (a long school-day as a solution for ethnic inequality).

Various recent studies have found that there is no gender gap in most traditional indices for examining political behavior. The fact that there is no gender gap and that women do not exhibit unique behavior patterns and/or political preferences, reduces their political negotiating power. They do not form a group that is courted by male politicians or whose demands men feel impelled to accede to. The absence of a gender gap, compounded by the vital force of the equality myth, is reinforced by additional components in Israeli culture.

A Binary Gendered World

In Israel, a binary perception of the world subordinates women to traditional female roles and frames women in politics as a deviant and marginal phenomenon. Such binarism is also discernible in what is ostensibly the most egalitarian legislation: the Law of Defense Service (1949) and the Law of Equal Rights for Women (1951). In both laws, it is motherhood that grants women their equal citizenship status while simultaneously relegating them to the margins of the public world.

The simultaneous inclusion and exclusion of women in the public sphere is reproduced through gender segregation in the labor market, in the military, in politics and in cultural spheres.

The gendered binary framing of the world is also nurtured by the cultural legacy of both the Jewish and Arab citizens of Israel. Both societies have a strongly-rooted patriarchal tradition.

Lack of Separation Between Religion and State

The patriarchal pattern is supported and replicated in the political and legislative arrangements in Israel, which do not separate religion and state. Exclusive judicial authority on issues of marriage, and partial authority over matters of divorce, are in the hands of the rabbinical, Islamic and Christian courts. The personal-religious laws of the various ethnic-religious groups in Israel, which apply patriarchal principles, are binding on all citizens of the state, whether religious or secular. Moreover, the norms regarding personal status in the different religious affiliations are determined by exclusively male institutions, in which women have no part. As a result, women are fettered in patriarchal frameworks and distanced from participating in public life or offering services under the aegis of state laws. This is exacerbated by the involvement in political life of the religious parties, whose influence on women’s status thus goes beyond the laws of personal status.

Despite the exclusionary power of the lack of separation between state and religion, women tend to accept this lack of separation as their contribution to the unity of the nation. The overriding role of religion as the social definer of the collective in the Jewish society as well as in the Arab community in Israel, includes women as part of the collectivity and thus accords them an important role in constructing the nation’s solidarity.

The Arab-Israel Conflict

The binary world perception has been further empowered and validated by the prolonged conflict and the institutionalization of the perception of security threats. This is mirrored in the substantial emphasis accorded to the army, militarism and male culture, on the one hand, and to the family and family values, on the other.

Women's bodies and social roles represent the nation’s honor and symbolize the social boundaries of the collectivity. They are perceived as representing the collective, as the nation’s mothers. They are considered responsible for the nation’s continuity, both in their central role of child-bearers and as inculcators of the culture and education of the next generation. In such cultural perceptions, women’s place in the private sphere is not only reproduced, but also empowered. This empowerment is accompanied by a strong sense of belonging and contributing to the collective, and thus it blurs the discriminatory dimensions and subordinates which are hidden behind the allocation of gendered roles. In Jewish society and in the Arab-Palestinian one as well, women are mobilized to familial roles in order to sustain identity, the boundaries of the collective, and solidarity. The gendered world created by the dominance of the Arab-Israeli conflict is taken for granted by both men and women, since society as a whole is required to guard the nation’s solidarity and internal cohesion. Moreover, life in the shadow of security threats has set up social barriers between Jews and Arabs. The national solidarity required of women hampers the understanding that women in both national groups possess an extensive arena for collaborating in the struggle to advance their status.

Only in the past decade, with the growth of the feminist movement, has there been growing awareness of the links between the security claim and women’s status. In turn, this new awareness has led to the creation of several women’s organizations for promoting peace, and to collaboration between Jewish and Palestinian women who are citizens of Israel.

The simultaneous existence of inclusionary and exclusionary processes largely explains the weakness of the feminist movement in Israel, which results from unequal economic, cultural and political opportunities, as well as from inequalities in terms of income, power and social prestige. At the same time, while exclusion creates subordinated social feminine enclaves, it also has the potential for social change. An ongoing segregation that exists alongside growing awareness of the need for women’s inclusion in the collective has the potential for generating a new agenda, and even for crystallizing a feminine claim challenging the existing social norms and socio-political institutional arrangements.



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How to cite this page

Herzog, Hanna. "Politics in the Yishuv and Israel." Jewish Women: A Comprehensive Historical Encyclopedia. 27 February 2009. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on May 18, 2021) <https://jwa.org/encyclopedia/article/politics-in-yishuv-and-israel>.


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