Together, we can stem the tide of misogyny in Israel

This week I watched Women of Valor, a powerful and thought-provoking documentary about the trailblazing haredi (ultra-orthodox) feminist political activist Esty Shushan.  

Esty was born into a large Sephardi family steeped in learning, but her own learning and Jewish education was stymied by what was considered appropriate in her haredi circles. ‘It’s a shame you’re not a boy’ her father said to her on the one occasion he sat with her and they learned Talmud together.  

It took two decades of ‘keeping quiet and having a cake on the counter’ before she started to elbow for space for her and her female peers at the table, lobbying for political representation in haredi parties such as Shas and UTJ.  

Her story is one of swimming against the current.  

Esty went on to found a programme with NIF support, Nivcharot (The Chosen), that trains haredi women to become political leaders, so that they have agency, power, and visibility. Eighty women so far have graduated the programme under the banner ‘nothing about us without us’, and that leadership is starting to bear fruit at a local municipal level and in national leadership roles. Labor’s haredi candidate Michal Zernowitski is one such example.  

Esty and those like her understand that you can’t be what you can’t see, and that your lived experience needs to be understood and represented in corridors of power.  

But we are deeply naïve if we believe that the issue of women’s rights in Israel is restricted to the orthodox and ultraorthodox world.  

Just recently the issue of women’s performances in public events, events that are not aimed specifically for the religious community, has raised its head again. If members of the incoming coalition get their way (representing the interests not just of Shas and UTJ but also of religious Zionist Noam party representative and deputy minister Avi Maoz) then it will become legal to segregate public events funded by taxpayers’ money and cut roles for women to sing, dance and perform for a mixed audience.  

Within the IDF, women’s roles in the army – where they serve, how they serve, who they serve with, and how they’re treated – are once more being scrutinised.  It’s taking an already vulnerable and fragile reality (sexual abuse and harassment in the IDF have been frighteningly commonplace and woefully underreported) and putting it further into jeopardy.  

At NIF we have supported women’s rights for decades: from the first case of Alice Miller, the first female pilot, to the ending of discrimination of women across education, housing and political leadership, NIF has spearheaded change.  

I know intimately what the oppression of women looks like in Israel: being asked to cover up, being asked to move to another seat on the bus in Haredi neighbourhoods, not being given space to speak and lead in a public setting. 

At my liberal orthodox women’s yeshiva (the only one in the country to be teaching Talmud to women at the time) the rosh yeshiva came in drunk on Purim and declared to all the 18-year-old girls in the room: ‘you should all get married.’  

It’s this kind of casual creep that we need to guard ourselves against, as well as lobby against discriminatory policies and side-lining of women in public and political spaces.  

In this new-old battle for bringing equality we must all be allies and we must all be vocal. Not only women. Not only feminists. Everyone who is fighting for equality and democracy. 

Together, we can stem the tide.  

 – Atira Winchester, Director of Programming and Content

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