Episode 30: Women in Israeli Politics: An Election Primer (Transcript)
[Chanting voices in Hebrew]
Nahanni Rous: On April 9, Israeli voters head to the polls.
Woman 1, in Hebrew: “Tonight's news, We’re going to elections...”
Netanyahu, in Hebrew: “We’ve agreed unanimously to submit a bill for dissolving the Knesset, and holding elections in April. The ninth of April will be election day; the Knesset will be dissolved the day after tomorrow.”
Nahanni: It’s a chaotic and potentially momentous election. At least twelve parties are expected to win seats in the next Knesset, Israel’s parliament. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is facing indictment on corruption charges. A new alliance of centrist parties is running neck and neck with Netanyahu’s right of center Likud party...
Nahanni: But beneath these dramatic headlines, there’s something else going on. More Israeli women are running for Knesset than ever before, and they’re speaking out about women’s issues. Is anyone listening?
Nahanni: Welcome back to Can We Talk?, the podcast of the Jewish Women’s Archive. I’m Nahanni Rous. We have a special episode this month: our first contribution from a reporter in the field. Linda Gradstein was NPR’s Israel correspondent for nearly two decades. It just so happens that I was Linda’s assistant in Jerusalem many years ago. Linda’s now a freelance journalist, and she teaches journalism at NYU Tel Aviv and Hebrew University. Here she is on the line. Hi Linda!
Linda Gradstein: Hi, Nahanni!
Nahanni: So, this election is interesting from a gender perspective. Before the election was announced, there was some momentum building around women’s issues. There were nationwide strikes over violence against women.
Linda: Right, but in the election campaigning, women’s issues have been pushed aside by the issue that in Israel comes back over and over: security, an area where women politicians have been seen as weak. I sat down to talk about all of this with Elana Sztokman, a writer and feminist thinker in Israel. We’ll hear her thoughts, and we’ll hear from some of the candidates themselves.
Nahanni: First, for the big picture. How many women are currently in Knesset and what is likely to happen in the next election?
Linda: There are currently 35 women in parties across the political spectrum, which is the highest number it’s ever been. That’s out of a total of 120 so it’s more than a quarter. But only one party, the dovish Meretz party, is led by a woman, Tamar Zandberg, and the Ultra-Orthodox parties don’t have any women at all. There’s no way to know what’s going to happen in the next Knesset. While there are about 40 women who may potentially become Knesset members, we have a parliamentary system in Israel, so it all depends on how many seats each party gets, and the women are often pretty far down the list.
Nahanni: Even though this is potentially a big election for women, men are dominating the headlines right now… with one exception: Ayelet Shaked.
Linda: That’s right. Ayelet Shaked rose in the far Right Jewish Home party… and she’s currently the Minister of Justice. She left Jewish Home to form a new hardline party called New Right with Education Minister Naftali Bennett. He’s the official head of the party, but in this campaign, Shaked is the one who’s been grabbing the headlines. She’s secular, attractive, and has been outspoken in trying to limit the power of the Supreme Court. I recently attended a campaign event in the Jewish settlement Efrat where she spoke. And, she admitted that being a politician exacts a personal price.
Ayelet Shaked: I’m here instead of sitting near my daughter’s bed and reading her a story. So, yeah. We are seeing that women are taking more and more leadership positions and I can tell you that more women are daring. Really, when we were trying to build the party, we didn’t ask Caroline to join us because she’s a woman, or Shirli to join us because she’s a woman. We asked them to join us because what they are doing.
Linda: Shaked says the New Right party promotes women; half of their Knesset slate is female, including 4 of the 6 top spots. As Justice Minister she has has worked on issues of domestic violence and called to increase sentences for men who murder their wives or daughters. Yet the “New Right” party’s main focus has nothing to do with feminist issues. The party wants to officially annex 60-percent of the occupied West Bank, a move that would spark outrage in the international community, and preclude any possibility of a two-state solution with the Palestinians. The party also wants the death penalty for Palestinian terrorists. Most prominently, Shaked wants to take power away from Israel’s Supreme Court, which she labels as “Leftist.” She has two bills in the works which would give the Knesset power to overturn Supreme Court rulings and to appoint Supreme Court Justices.
Linda: Shaked also sparked a controversy in Israel with a strange campaign ad. Campaign ads in Israel are often funny or satirical. But Shaked’s ad was over the top, even by Israeli campaign standards. The ad features Shaked in a white silk jacket... promoting a perfume called “Fascism.”
[Audio from Shaked’s ad]
Linda: Her black hair blows in the wind, and the 42-year-old Justice Minister strikes sultry poses. A voice whispers Shaked’s political goals...
[Voice from the ad whispers in Hebrew]
Linda: ...a judicial revolution, separation of powers, restraining the supreme court. In slow motion, Shaked reaches for the perfume bottle labeled “Fascism,” and spritzes herself while the word “Fascism” flashes across the screen. Shaked chimes in: To me, it smells like Democracy. The ad quickly went viral. Some people were convinced it was a spoof produced by the Left. Others saw it as a creative way to spark interest less than a month before the elections. Shaked rejected criticism that the ad objectified women, but feminists like Elana Sztokman didn’t buy it. Elana is a writer, sociologist and feminist activist in Israel.
Elana: She’s using her sexuality in a really quite a blatant way. She’s going into the persona of the completely objectified woman. So this is interesting for Ayelet Shaked because she has been the target of a lot of sexist tropes.
Linda: When that happened in the past, feminists on the left sprang to her defense.
Elana: A lot of the feminist community that doesn’t agree with all of her policies, like her tendency to want to restrict the high court... the high court is really important for feminist activism, for any activism, the high court is one of our few tools for political activism in Israel, so she wants to limit that and limit individual freedoms, which is a very anti-feminist stance. But nevertheless when she was attacked for her appearance and her looks, and a picture of her in a bathing suit went viral and all of that, the feminist community came out and defended her and said no matter what, we as women have to defend attacks against women, that’s just what we do.
Linda: With regard to Shaked’s sexy perfume ad, Elana says most of the public uproar has nothing to do with the objectification of women. Most people are focused on whether the ad is an endorsement of fascism or a dig at the Left.
Elana: The issue of gender has become really secondary, from my conversations with women. It’s not the main point. It’s like, we shouldn’t even bother talking about the gender piece, because the fascist piece is much more important, which of course is another example of women’s issues being thrown under the bus for the sake of larger democratic issues, which happens all the time.
Linda: Elana says there’s a myth in Israel that women are more equal than in other countries based partly on the fact that Israel is the only country besides North Korea that drafts women into the army.
Elana: We thought “Oh, Israel has women soldiers so all this equality,” but in fact women until the 90s were often making coffee and experiencing a lot of sexual harassment and also couldn’t get into the most important jobs.
Linda: Beginning in the 1990’s many more jobs in the army opened to women, including combat positions. But the vast majority of senior army positions are still staffed by men.
Elana: There’s a lot of subtle, invisible sexism.
Linda: That’s true in politics as well.
Elana: You know, in politics we have the myth of Golda.
Linda: Golda Meir was Prime Minister of Israel from 1969 to 1974. She was one of the first women in history to head a country. That was a long time ago, Elana says.
Elana: But also, she wasn’t a feminist. She’s a perfect example of why it’s not enough to have women, but you need women who have a feminist consciousness who have coattails for women. Golda had no coattails for women. She’s didn’t pull any women up with her and she didn’t aspire to, and when people would say, “Oh yeah, Golda’s the toughest man in the cabinet,” she didn’t question any of the underlying gender assumptions of that statement.
Linda: Gold Meir was also famous for not hiring or promoting women. Fifty years later, a quarter of the seats in the Knesset are filled by women. But Elana says its important to look not only at how many women are in the Knesset but at what issues they champion. The very first piece of legislation passed in the outgoing Knesset was a collaboration between female Knesset members on the Right and Left on the issue of sexual harassment.
Elana: Which says to me that women politicians have the ability and the potential to redraw political alliances and allegiances. Because then something like violence against women is not a Right-Left issue.
Linda: At the grassroots level, women from across the political spectrum have also come together over the issue of domestic violence. Last year, 25 women were killed by their spouses or other family members. In many of the cases, they had told police they feared for their safety. One women’s group said 200,000 women in Israel are victims of domestic abuse. In December, tens of thousands of Israelis demonstrated against this, blocking major highways and even causing flight delays at Ben Gurion airport.
Elana: It seems like women around the world are having something of a moment... I think it’s pretty clear to anybody observing the world that these past two years have seen some kind of explosion when it comes to women and power and voice.
Linda: The strikes created momentum around women’s issues. But that has dissipated now with the focus on elections.
Elana: We just haven’t figured out how to turn this into real political power. Nobody has harnessed this yet for its political power.
Linda: In Israel, political power revolves around the issue of security. A top job in the army is one of the best ways into politics and that’s still very much a man’s world.
Linda: The new force in the upcoming elections is the centrist Kahol Lavan, or Blue and White Party. It’s headed by three generals and a former television presenter. The party is posing a serious challenge to Netanyahu’s Likud party, and could potentially be in a position to put its leader in the Prime Minister’s seat. That’s partly because Israelis are dissatisfied with Prime Minister Netanyahu and weary of his corruption scandals. Elana Sztokman says many voters put their trust in this slate of army generals as the surest way to beat Netanyahu. But she thinks this focus on former generals is a mistake.
Elana: We still think that the same skills needed to run a war are the same skills needed to run a country, and they’re not.
Linda: In Israel’s electoral system, you vote for a political party, not a person. The more votes the party gets, the more seats they get in Knesset. Politicians who are higher up on a party's list have a better chance of serving in parliament. That can be an obstacle for women, too. While there are women on every party slate except the ultra-Orthodox, they’re often far down on the list and therefore not likely to make it to the Knesset... The Kahol Lavan party is a merger of two previous parties. Tehila Friedman is a party member of one of them, Yesh Atid.
Tehila Friedman: They took two parties and kind of smashed them together and the outcome is very poor in terms of women.
Linda: As a result of the merger, several women were pushed even further down on Kahol Lavan’s list.
Linda: Friedman is an Orthodox Jewish woman and an educator. She has been active in local government, and promotes religious pluralism and democracy. She said that Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid had committed to 40 percent of his slate being women. That was tossed aside when Kahol Lavan was formed. She says it’s still hard for women to rise to the top spots in Israeli politics.
Tehila: The Israeli society naturally is very concerned about security issues and when someone wants to be alternative to the Likud administration, and to create a party to replace the Likud, so the place of security is high. I mean, that’s Israel today.
Linda: Friedman says women are seen as weak on security. But even women with impressive security credentials can be shunted aside. Tzippi Livni was one of the highest ranking women in Israeli politics. She had a long career in Israel’s Mossad, or secret service. She entered politics and rose to become Foreign Minister. In 2009 she actually won more votes than Netanyahu, but was unable to form a coalition. In January, on live television. Party leader Avi Gabbay announced he was ending all ties with her party. A visibly shocked Livni quit politics weeks later. Many said Gabbay would not have behaved so insensitively to a man. Here’s Elana Sztokman again.
Elana: Tzippi Livni is an example of the often invisible barriers that women face. She faced a very subtle kind of sexism. She was criticized by the fact that she won but didn’t make a government... the reason she couldn’t make a government is she stuck to her principles and said there are certain parties I’m not going to go into the government with, so she’s punished for having principles and being perceived as not strong enough, not ruthless enough. You get this all the time: Tzippi Livni is not ruthless enough. It’s the same trope that Hillary Clinton got... you know, are you tough enough, or Tzippi will you be able to answer the phone at 3 o’clock in the morning. There’s this perception of women as weak.
Linda: In some cases, the lack of female representation is cultural. Israel’s ultra-Orthodox parties do not field women candidates. The Supreme Court recently ruled that the ultra-Orthodox parties must allow women to run for election, although it’s unlikely to happen. There is one ultra-Orthodox woman, Michal Zemowitz, who is running on the slate of the center-left Labor party, but she’s so far down on the list that she has little chance of making it to the Knesset. Elana says the fact that she’s running says more about the ultra-Orthodox world than about Israeli politics.
Elana: I think that there are fringes, that there are lots of pockets of people in the religious world who are clamoring for change. So I think that’s what she’s reflecting. And I think that by running she opened the door for others... not necessarily to run in politics, but to hold progressive views.
Linda: Zemowitz may not make it to the Knesset this time, but another Labor politician, Stav Shaffir, is a rising star in Israel. Elected at age 27 as the youngest female Knesset member in the country’s history, she’s made a name for herself as an anti-corruption warrier who has been critical of Netanyahu. Another outspoken woman is Tamar Zandberg, the head of the Meretz party.
Linda: In the Arab sector as well, which makes up 20 percent of Israel’s population, women are under-represented in politics. One exception is Aida Touma-Sliman, a current Knesset member with the progressive predominantly Arab party Hadash. Touma-Sliman is a radical feminist and an outspoken critic of Israel’s policies. She’s the current chair of the Knesset Committee on the Status of Women. She says it took a while for her male colleagues to get used to her.
Aida Touma-Suleiman: That was the first time that they see someone who is coming really from the margins of the opposition, not only opposition but also Palestinian woman, and chairing a committee. It was a challenge to overcome all the stereotypes, the political attitudes of delegitimizing whatever I’m representing.
Linda: Touma-Sleiman has work with other female Knesset members from across the political spectrum on women’s rights issues, but she says that cooperation only goes so far.
Touma-Suleiman: If I will raise sexual harassments done by soldiers to Palestinian women on the checkpoints, none of those women will stand up with me. So I will try to promote the things that we can agree on, and I will continue to fight the things that I believe in and nobody want to work with me about.
Linda: She says she is focusing her efforts now on getting more Arab women, especially Bedouin women in southern Israel to vote.
Linda: Aida Touma-Sleiman of Hadash and Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked of the New Right party couldn’t be farther apart ideologically, but they both agree that they pay a price for being female lawmakers.
Touma-Suleiman: I didn’t come to the Knesset to make friends, I came to struggle. To tell you the truth, when you are in the Knesset there is no time for either family or friendship [Laughs]. But really, I’m not looking for friendship. I’m looking for cooperation, I’m looking for political alliances, and I’m looking for struggles.
Linda: There’s no way to predict what will happen the upcoming election. But one thing is clear. Women still have a lot of struggles in front of them for true political equality in Israel.
Nahanni: And we’ll be watching for the results. Thank you, Linda, for this primer on women in Israel’s 2019 election!
Linda: Thanks a lot, Nahanni!
Nahanni: That’s Linda Gradstein, speaking with us from Jerusalem. Thank you for joining Can We Talk? Judith Rosenbaum directs the Jewish Women’s Archive. Becky Long is our production assistant. We had help this month from Ned Lazarus. Our theme music is by Girls in Trouble.
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Nahanni: I’m Nahanni Rous. We’ll be back soon.
[Theme music fades]
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Jewish Women's Archive. "Episode 30: Women in Israeli Politics: An Election Primer (Transcript)." (Viewed on November 21, 2019) <https://jwa.org/podcasts/canwetalk/episode-30-women-in-israeli-politics-election-primer/transcript>.