Home / Articles / Passover, Chocolate Bars, and Women in Israeli Politics
This week Jews around the world are celebrating the Passover holiday. Just a year ago, the Israeli parliamentary elections happened to coincide with preparation for this holiday, when many Jews do a thorough cleaning of their homes to remove any traces of leavened bread.
Just days before Israelis headed to the polls in March of 2015, the ultra-Orthodox Yachad party held an event for women in the ultra-Orthodox community to garner their support. Not only did the Yachad party have no women on its list of candidates (similar to other ultra-Orthodox parties), but Yachad also wouldn’t include any pictures of women on any the party’s promotional materials. At the event, the party handed out chocolate bars to the women that had had the following message printed on the wrapper:
“Divide your Passover cleaning into 20 individual tasks that are easy to complete. Each time you finish one – reward yourself with square of chocolate. You’ll be amazed how, in just 20 days, …you will have finished everything and reached your goal! That’s when you’ll deserve a really big square of chocolate!”
Needless to say, this incident angered Haredi (ultra-Orthodox) women and Israeli society at large. Is this really the party’s vision for female participation in the political process? That women will cast a vote for a party that has no female candidates to represent them because they were given a patronizing chocolate bar?
Internationally, Israel has a very good and promising track record in terms of female parliamentary members. However, this progress is not necessarily uniform across demographic groups and there is still much work to be done.
Women in Israel’s Knesset
Last year, Israel voted in the most women that have ever served in its parliament—the Knesset. In terms of female representation in its national legislature, Israel is doing quite well both when compared to its past, and in contemporary international comparison.
Currently, 32 out of the 120 Members of Knesset (MKs) in Israel are women (26.7%).
From the founding of the state through the early 2000s, female MKs ranged between 6%-12% of the total legislative body. With the exception of the 17th Knesset (2006-2009), women have made huge strides since the 90s holding 20% or more of the Knesset since the early 2000s.
Women have also served in other high-profile government positions in Israel’s short history. Notably, Golda Meir was Israel’s Prime Minister from 1969-1974 and was one of the first women to serve in such a prominent position worldwide. Additionally, Dalia Itzik served as speaker of the Knesset following the 2006 election and temporarily filled the role of Head of State after President Moshe Katzav’s resignation in 2007.
The percentage of women in Israel’s Knesset is relatively high in an international comparison as well. As of February 1, 2016, Israel is tied with Australia in 54th place worldwide for the percentage of women in the lower or single parliamentary House. For comparison, the U.S. is ranked 95th with 84 female members of Congress out of 434 (19.4%) and 20 out of 100 female senators (20%). At 26.7%, Israel’s female representation surpasses that of the global average in a single or lower house (22.7%). It also surpasses the average in Europe (OSCE member countries) which stands at 25.6%.
The number of women in the Knesset is certainly not the only or necessarily the most effective way to measure female efficacy and leadership in Israeli politics. Those who study representation in politics discuss the distinctions between descriptive, substantive, and symbolic representation in evaluating how well a demographic group is represented in government.
Descriptive representation answers the question: do government bodies reflect the demographics of the population it represents? For example, if women make up 50% of the citizens in a country, we would expect women to make up 50% of the legislative body as well.
Symbolic representation concerns the message the representation sends to citizens of the country and the world at large. Does a young girl growing up in the society believe that she can be a national leader when she grows up because she sees women in powerful positions now? Does the rest of the world deem the country as being “progressive” and valuing gender equality?
Substantive representation is concerned not with the number of women or perception of them, but rather with how significant of an impact female parliamentarians have as a result of the positions they hold. Are women occupying powerful leadership positions within the legislative body and/or their parties? What types of legislation do they champion and pass?
Some indicators of substantive representation are which positions of power within the government are held by women—both how highly ranked these positions are and what areas of policy have female leadership. There are currently three female ministers out of 21 (14.3%). One of these ministers, Gila Gamliel, is the first to serve in Israel’s newly-created Minister for Gender Equality position. Ayelet Shaked and Miri Regev hold the positions of Minister of Justice and Minister of Culture & Sport respectively. Women serve as the chairs of two out of the twelve permanent Knesset Committees: the State Control Committee and the Committee on the Status of Women and Gender Equality. Both the Foreign Affairs and the Finance committees (powerful committees in areas of government that, internationally, tend to be more male-dominated) are chaired by men, though female MK Tzipi Hotovely serves as the Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs. Overall, 8 out of the 35 members of the Finance Committee are women (22.9%) and 12 out of the 41 members of the Foreign Affairs & Defense Committee (29.3%).
Breaking it Down by Political Party
Of the ten political parties that currently hold seats in the Knesset, only one is led by a woman (Zehava Galon, Meretz). Three other women serve in the #2 position in their party lists and another three serve in the #3 position. All in all, half of the parties in Knesset have a woman in one of the top three seats in the party and half do not.
The breakdown of the number of women in each party is important because most of the “rules” or “goals” for female participation in Knesset come from the parties themselves and vary among them. Israel’s Basic Laws, which effectively act as the country’s constitution, do not have any specific stipulations regarding gender and running in the political parties. Unlike some countries that have mandated gender quotas, through the constitution or through legislation, Israel can be said to have what are called “voluntary party quotas”—meaning that certain parties choose to impose quotas or policies internally to ensure a minimum level of female candidates.
In general Israel’s political system is very party-based because of its electoral system in which voters select parties rather than individual candidates. It’s not clear what effect this “party focus” has on the inclusion of female candidates. On the one hand, if a voter is choosing a party rather than an individual, the gender of the candidates might matter less to the voter. It’s like choosing brand rather than selecting a specific item. On the other hand, the party-centered system might encourage a more-balanced gender ratio because that could help the party appeal to wider demographic. Regardless, the way the system is set up certainly allows for a broad variation in policies between the parties.
There have been a number of proposals to implement laws that would either require or incentivize parties to adopt rules regarding gender representation on party lists. One option would be a national campaign to encourage all parties to internally adopt gender quotas. An alternative option would be to tackle this issue from the angle of party funding. A law could be passed that would provide extra funding to parties that exceed a certain percentage of female candidates or restrict funding to parties that fall below a certain threshold.
As mentioned above, the absence of female Knesset members is most stark in Israel’s Haredi political parties. The ultra-Orthodox parties that currently hold seats in the Knesset, Shas and United Torah Judaism (UTJ), as well as the Yachad party that ran in the 2015 election but did not win enough votes to pass the electoral threshold and obtain seats, did not have any female candidates on their party lists for the March 2015 election.
The first political party for Haredi women, called B’Zhutan (which roughly translates as “thanks to them” in the female form of the verb) was formed in the lead-up to the 2015 election. The party, headed by ultra-Orthodox activist and feminist Ruth Colian, was created in large part to protest the lack of female representation on existing Haredi party lists. Though B’Zhutan did not obtain enough votes to surpass the electoral threshold, its formation has called attention to what is perhaps a turning point for Haredi women in Israeli politics.
Slavery to Freedom?
It seems that the inclusion of female candidates on ultra-Orthodox party lists may play out in Israel’s Supreme Court. In early February of 2016, a case against the United Torah Judaism Party came before the high court. United Torah Judaism does not allow women to become members of the party. UTJ claims that this does not bar women from being candidates since one is not required to be a UTJ member in order to run on their list of candidates, while Attorney Tamar Ben-Porath, who argued the case, claims that UTJ’s policy is a violation of basic rights. Interestingly, the case is not being argued by or on behalf of ultra-Orthodox women. Rather, Tamar Ben-Porath is arguing for representation of women on the ultra-Orthodox party list as ‘a woman, and a citizen’ of Israel. This highlights a major question about the progressive but non-uniform nature of female political representation in Israel today: does improving female participation in the Haredi parties where it is lacking fall to ultra-Orthodox women or to Israeli society at large?
 The discrepancy between 32 female MKs currently and 28 in the chart below is due to the inclusion of four more female MKs since the 2015 elections for various reasons. MK Tamar Zandberg (Meretz) gained a seat when Meretz was granted a fifth seat in Knesset following the counting of absentee and soldier ballots in the wake of the election. In August, MK Danny Danon (Likud) was appointed as Israel’s ambassador to the United Nations and his Knesset seat was filled by MK Sharren Haskel. In October, Danny Atar (Zionist Union) resigned, leaving the spot to Yael Cohen Paran. In November, MK Yinon Magal (Bayit Yehudi) was stripped of his role in Knesset because of sexual harassment claims and was replaced by MK Shuli Mualem.
 Inter-Parliamentary Union, https://www.ipu.org/wmn-e/world.htm. This OSCE average includes data from the Nordic countries which tend to have high female participation (the average percentage of female parliamentarians in the Nordic countries are isolated is 41.1%).