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Israel Has Fewer Women in Parliament, But More Women Workers Among the Ultra-Orthodox

Manuela Borraccino

The current legislature of the Israeli Parliament “marks an historical setback in women’s representation”: the Coalition has an overwhelming majority of men, and only nine women out of 64 members (14%). In the Knesset there are only 29 women out of 120 deputies (24%), with only six women out of 30 Ministers, after the record of nine women Ministers in the previous Government.

Among the few women who have been included in the electoral lists, in “marginal and not very realistic“ positions – complain jurists of the Forum of Israeli Law Professors for Democracy — some were elected in fact for their opposition to women’s rights and equality, including for their effort to boycott draft laws geared to protect the victims of sexual violence and offer answers to domestic violence.” This was confirmed by the expulsion from the Knesset’s chamber of the recently appointed Minister for the Promotion of Women’s Condition, May Golan (of the Likud Party), known for her extreme right positions against immigrants and women’s rights, in addition to being proud of regarding herself a racist. On the night of May 1, a few minutes after taking the oath for her new post, the Minister attacked verbally an opposition deputy  who criticized her, until she was removed from the chamber: it was a “most embarrassing “scene even for the standards of the Israeli chaotic political life,” said the Israeli newspaper Haaretz.

“The lack of adequate representation in the Government and in the Knesset deals a heavy blow to women’s condition in Israel and it can be expected that it will affect profoundly their lives for the worst.” “Moreover, the women lawyers attack the fact that “there is an attempt to neutralize women’s organizations to fight for their rights and get reparation in the courts,” in violation of both the 1979 UN Convention on the elimination of all forms of discrimination against women (CEDAW), as well as UN Resolution 1325 of the year 2000 on the inclusion of women in peace processes.

Haredi Women Are Making Their Way Into The Professions

The greatest concern of Israeli jurists are Haredi women and Israeli Arabs. Today, they write, the ultra-Orthodox are in high positions in the juridical, economic and communication professions, but glass ceilings persist: that of the central identity ethos for Haredi women of the study of the Torah, which hinders them from accessing parties and politics, institutions and decision-making centers where the face of ultra-Orthodox society is forged. “Perhaps, precisely as a reaction to the ‘spring’ of Haredi women,” reflect the jurists, “winds of restoration and exclusion are blowing in the ultra-Orthodox society, as expression of an unprecedented religious extremism and a regulation of modesty, a tendency that stifles hope and the spirit of initiative.” In this regime change,” they point out, “ultra-Orthodox women will be the most affected because they suffer a double marginalization: as women and as members of  patriarchal, hierarchical and authoritarian society that does not recognize the principles of equality and women’s rights.”

In 2021, the number of ultra-Orthodox reached 1,225,000: between adults and girls, the estimated number of women is some 600,000. The integration of Haredi women in the Israeli labour market has grown rapidly, also with the objective to make a reality the principle of a “society of scholars,” in which men dedicate their life to the study of the Torah. There are increasingly more Haredi women in the media and in high technology and information technology sectors. In the decade spanning 2002 to 2011, the rate of employment among Haredi women was 50%: in 2013 it increased to 68%. 

The percentage of employed women religious continues to be inferior to that of lay women: in 2014, Haredi women were 71% as opposed to 79.5% of non-Haredi Jewish women. However, the gap has been reduced even more in the last years: moreover, the ultra-Orthodox women are no longer only professors, but are now present in all University Faculties and many therapeutic professions, social services, human resources offices, clinical psychology, graphics and design, accounting, fundraising and campaigns. 

Not Only a Home Angel

The entrance of Haredi women in the labour world did not fail to cause a change in the relationship between spouses: the woman is not only the angel of the home, but the one who provides the family’s sustenance and enables her husband to study. It’s not surprising, point out the jurists, that extremism and the exclusion imposed in the last years are a reaction to the power and positions of influence that women gave acquired over the last decades. “The women,” note the Israeli jurists in the recent work to which we referred, “are now seen as those responsible for the ‘secularization” processes that are taking place in the ultra-Orthodox community: their entrance in the labour world has gone inevitably by the hand of the advent of worldliness  in the religious enclave. This is the consequence: “aggressive regimentation of women and an unprecedented religious radicalization.” 

That is why the ultra-Orthodox parties and men that control them don’t represent the women, half of the Haredi population, or that part of the population called “new Haredis: or “Haredi Israelites.” For years a bitter struggle has been waged to broaden the ultra-Orthodox official school system, which it’s hoped will include more crucial subjects  for more ultra-Orthodox children than has been the case up to now. And this because of the dramatic impact that this school system will have for the Israeli economy and its capacity for future recovery, given the important percentage of ultra-Orthodox graduates in the total of the Israeli population and the demographic projections that the Haredis will be a third of the Israeli population in the coming decades. “The low educational level of the Haredis, their detachment from the rest of Israeli society and the fact that a good part of the children are not taught basic essential subjects are very concerning questions, as it implies a threat for the country’s progress and that of its citizens, including those that belong to the ultra-Orthodox community.”

Domestic Violence Among Arabs and Few Measure to Counteract It

The Document of the Forum of Israeli Law Professors for Democracy closes with a chapter dedicated  to Israeli Arab women, another category strongly discriminated against since 1948. Applied to them also is the inter-sectional analysis, that is, the interdependence of the different types of domination of those that are victims: as women, as members of a patriarchal society and as individuals belonging to an underprivileged national minority. It’s no mystery that the Government wants to restrict the activities of human rights organizations of Arab women. “To the segregation of women that has been happening for years under the pressure of ultra-Orthodox Jews, is now added the ethno-religious segregation between Arabs and Jews, which will violate women’s rights even more.

In addition to the hardening of complicated procedures for the family regrouping of Palestinian women married to Israeli citizens, it’s worrying that domestic violence, femicides  and so-called “honour crimes” between Israeli Arabs  are not prosecuted and punished with the vigour reserved for Israeli Jews. “Whereas 94.3% of cases are prosecuted between Israeli Jews,” the report reads, “only 56% of cases end up in the courts when the victims are Israeli Arabs: and whereas among Jews the rate of sentences is 75%, between Arabs it’s only 34%; the average sentence for femicides is between 14 and 18 years for Jews, whereas for Arabs the average is 5.5 years. If the jurisdiction of rabbinical courts was extended in the matter of marriage and divorce, it’s very probable that the implementation of Sharia law would also increase between Arabs, to the great detriment of women. 

In conclusion, “the totality of actions, commitments and legislative changes initiated by the Government and the Coalition with the judicial reform,” conclude the jurists, “will deal a mortal blow to the rights of all Israel’s women and will mark a regression of their condition in the gravest way since the foundation of the State.” 

Translation of the Italian original into Spanish by ZENIT’s Editorial Director and, into English, by Virginia M. Forrester