Meet the women shaking up Israel's ultra-Orthodox community

In mid-November, women from the organization “Nivharot” (“chosen” or “elected” in Hebrew) held a conference in Jerusalem’s Mishkenot Sha’ananim quarter. It was attended by activists in the ultra-Orthodox community, both women and men, who are struggling to ensure Haredi women have the right to run in the next elections under the slogan: “Not Elected — Not Voting.”

Already in the months preceding the conference, which was designated for leading activists in the social struggles within the Haredi community, the breakthrough was clearly visible. The struggle had repeatedly been declared as having no chance of success by ultra-Orthodox men who control the Haredi parties. What started as an esoteric campaign eventually become the subject of one of the most intensely debated issues within the Haredi community.

When Nivharot was founded two years ago, its members chose Sara Shnirer, a prominent educator and the founder of “Bais Yaakov,” the Haredi educational network for girls, as its symbol. Shnirer is viewed as a trailblazer for Haredi women, despite often fierce opposition by politicos and rabbis, which eventually turned into enthusiastic support. The Haredi myth about Shnirer glosses over her early years, during which she took on the rabbinical establishment, which did not see eye to eye with her about the need for women’s education. Instead of dwelling on this period, it has become customary to extoll the wall-to-wall support she enjoyed in later years. Choosing her as a symbol for Nivharot brings the early years back in focus: this is how Shnirer started off, the rest will eventually join.

A petition submitted to Israel’s High Court of Justice by women’s organizations against the bylaws of ultra-Orthodox Agudat Israel party, which prevents women from running in elections, is still pending. The three Haredi parties — Agudat Israel, Degel HaTorah (which ran jointly with Agudat Israel under the United Torah Judaism alliance), and Shas — created, before the recent elections, the “women’s council,” headed by Adina Bar Shalom, daughter of Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, the spiritual leader of the Sephardic Shas party, who died in 2013. During her keynote speech at the Nivharot conference, Bar Shalom announced she would run for the Knesset in the next parliamentary election, presumably not as a candidate of Shas.

Facebook boycott

In addition to the petition to the High Court, there are other noteworthy struggles gaining momentum which concern women in the ultra-Orthodox community, including: an action against withholding salaries and improving pay for kindergarten and school teachers (as well as Haredi workers in general); the fight against sexual abuse in the Haredi community and creating Haredi organizations to support this struggle; organizations to support women who are divorced or about to be; the fight against discrimination in the acceptance of Mizrahi women into educational institutions; a growing demand for national ultra-Orthodox education and educational institutions that teach core subjects; setting up parents’ associations in Haredi schools, and many more.

A significant number of these struggles are led by ultra-Orthodox women. No longer merely a curiosity, these struggles — which have engulfed the entire Haredi sector, from the rank-and-file members all the way to the rabbis — have become a central issue in the community. Last month a Haredi caucus was established in the Labor Party, led by Haredi women who aspire to become members in the Knesset or part of Israel’s regional councils.

The leaders, both female and male, of these struggles were in attendance at the conference, and drew a clear connection between these struggles and the demand to see women as representatives of Haredi parties. Not a single leader was absent; all of them are activists who have paid a significant personal price for their choice to take part in the fight. There was a palpable sense of history in the making.

It is true that the discourse centers what has been termed “the new Haredi” (sometimes referred to as “the young,” “modern,” or “Israeli”). This label was created years ago by spokesmen of the historic Haredi movement and assigned to the growing (both politically and within the community) group of Haredi women and men of the “soft” kind: those who are testing the limits of the sector, who work and study at academic institutions, those who are active in social media and whose social agenda consists of political issues that differ from those of the previous generation. But despite this, it is impossible to disregard just how far the discourse has spread beyond the “new Haredis.”

Ultra-Orthodox Facebook groups, thousands of people strong, have included heated debates concerning the place of women in both politics and leadership. After one of the group moderators cast doubt over the Haredi women’s demands, hundreds of women protested silently and boycotted the group debates for 24 hours. This had an immediate effect: the moderator retracted his statement and the group decided on new, more equitable limits of discussion. In parallel, the debate on Haredi radio stations and websites intensified, strongly influenced by Hillary Clinton’s candidacy, contrary to the stance of newspapers which are considered more “establishment,” and which keep mum on these issues, as do ultra-Orthodox politicians themselves.

Thanks to the attackers

Esti Reider and Esti Shoshan, two of the “Haredi suffragettes” (together with Tali Farkas and Michal Tshernovitzki) spoke to Local Call about where the struggle stands, and its short- and long-term goals.

Reider: “The goal of the conference was to help Haredi activists meet and create a network of cooperation between them. We believe in solidarity between struggles — every activist, man or woman, has been and is being victimized, and that victimization is the modus operandi of the establishment. We hope that women will understand this and become empowered, and know that it is not necessarily directed against them personally. We also want to strengthen the presence of Haredi women in political debates and in the centers of decision-making in our society, which is undergoing a renewal. If a new political movement is created, we want to ensure that women are included.”

Shoshan: “We also wanted to show what an equitable and respectful conference should look like. The panel had an equal number of men and women, had equal representation of Mizrahis, the Left and the Right both had a voice, and there were also non-Haredi and non-religious speakers. All this was done in order to strengthen our claim that the change is not taking place in a small, insular, and non-influential community. The sidelining of women is taking place in Israel, and integrating them into the centers of power will influence not only women but Israeli society in its entirety.”

What led to choosing Sara Shnirer as the symbol of Nivharot?

Reider: The previous elections took place on the 80th anniversary of her death. As election day and the anniversary of her death drew nearer, we grew closer. When we became a bona fide movement, the choice became obvious. We are graduates of Bais Yaakov, we were part of Batya, Bais Yaakov’s youth movement. We learned the verses that Sara Shnirer used to quote by heart.

“We learned later, after leaving the confines of Bais Yaakov, that her biography had been somewhat embellished, in that we were not told she was divorced. We were told that she received the support of the rabbis, but were not told that that took place only after the fact. It is only natural that we should use her image. One woman, alone against the entire establishment, takes action. ‘From the stones that are thrown at us we will build Bais Yaakov,’ she used to tell her students. Today it is shaming in social media and not real stones, but we channel it as well.”

Do you sense a change among Haredi women?

Shoshan: “There is a great change. Women who vigorously opposed us are telling us today: ‘we may not agree with everything you say, but there is something to it.’ I would love to take all the credit for this change, but the truth is that we should be thanking Dov Halbertal and Mordechai Bloy (spokesmen of the Haredi establishment who attacked Nivharot, E.B.). Every time Halbertal publishes another article against women, we feel that even our greatest opponents shift uncomfortably in their chairs. Every time someone suggests to put us in a cage or mutters ‘stay in the chicken coop’ in our direction, women who may not have seen eye to eye with us suddenly give us an encouraging word.”

Reeder: “We work hard. We believe that spreading information will not be in vain. We hold workshops, take part in hours-long discussions on Facebook, and feel that there is progress being made. We have never had a huge army behind us. The personal price is too high. But we have quality team — and this is all we need to make history.”

Sanctions in a closed society

Michal Tshernovitzki, chairperson of the Labor Party’s Haredi caucus and activist in Koach LaOvdim – Democratic Workers’ Organization, who spoke at the conference about her struggle to set up a parents’ association at her children’s school, added another aspect: “We are here in order to speak to how social activity can be integrated into family and society. Prices, profits etc. I think this is the most significant subject in political and public activity. It cannot be done without the agreement and support of the spouse and the family.

“Of course, it is often the spouse who pays the price — someone who would possibly prefer to shy away from publicity. Everything flows into the home. Of course, the choice to abstain from action, at the request or veto of the spouse, can be challenging to the marriage.

“Is this something specific to the Haredi society, or does this matter cut across cultures? In my opinion, this subject cuts across sectors. When a woman takes part in a struggle, the spouse and children are with her for better or for worse. What is indeed specific about the ultra-Orthodox society is that, unlike the secular society where most struggles are led by what is called “the young bachelors,” in our society almost everyone first starts a family and only then begins taking part in these kinds of activities. The question “what will people say” is certainly more bothersome in Haredi society than elsewhere, and the Haredi establishment has more ways to penalize us than in the secular society. Moreover, Haredi feminism is a rather new phenomenon, and here as well, our husbands are catapulted into the vanguard of the fight.”

What will happen in the next elections?

Shoshan: “The coming elections will be to the regional councils. We hope that quite a few Haredi women will want to run. Every election includes female candidates, but they eventually give up because of threats of various kinds. At the conference we launched leadership programs to provide practical tools and support for women who choose to run.”

Will we see an ultra-Orthodox woman in the next Knesset?

Reider: “In the next Knesset we will probably see Michal Tshernovitzki as a member of the Labor Party. Perhaps also Adina Bar Shalom, who is being courted by a number of parties, and maybe another Haredi woman. This will be a nice achievement that we, among others, will take credit for. But it will not be the end of our activity.

“Haredi women are pushed to vote for Haredi parties. They read the street posters signed by the most important rabbis, which instruct women to vote for Haredi parties. They want to feel a part of the community and that the party they identify with represents them as well. Until there is a Haredi woman there, and by “there” I mean not only the Knesset, but all centers of decision making — community management, regional councils, and the Haredi parties — we will carry on the struggle.”