New politics of religion and gender in Israel

On June 18, the Center for Middle East Policy (CMEP) at Brookings hosted a groundbreaking discussion exploring religion, politics, and gender in contemporary Israeli society. The event marked the launch of a new research initiative examining important changes in Israel’s politics and society. The discussion was moderated by CMEP Fellow Natan Sachs, and featured panelists Adina Bar Shalom, president and chairwoman of the Haredi College of Jerusalem, and Member of Knesset Rachel Azaria of the Kulanu party. CMEP Director Tamara Cofman Wittes provided welcoming remarks and introduced CMEP’s new research initiative.

Status, opportunity, and women in the public sphere

Azaria began by describing her experiences working to combat issues of segregation and attempts to remove images of women from the public sphere— something she personally experienced when running for office in Jerusalem. In Israeli society today, Azaria noted, the loudest voice against fundamentalism is coming from Orthodox feminism. According to Azaria, the efforts to promote women’s causes in religious societies has also served as a bridge between Orthodox Jewish women and Israeli Arab women, who grapple with similar challenges and have also begun to fight for a voice in their communities.

Bar Shalom presented her vision for improving educational opportunities for both men and women in the ultra-Orthodox (Haredi) community, something she has pioneered through her college. Previously, most ultra-Orthodox had few opportunities for higher education, both because they lacked basic education in key disciplines—such as math and English—and because of societal barriers to entering mixed-gender universities. Her college offered preparatory education and an environment constructed to suit ultra-Orthodox norms. Bar Shalom noted is something she has been strongly criticized for from certain parts of the Haredi community, but for which she got crucial support from her father, the late Sephardic Chief Rabbi Ovadia Yosef. Bar Shalom remarked that throughout Jewish history, ultra-Orthodox Jews were often at the height of academia and intellectual life in their respective communities, and there is no reason that this should not continue, she said. She firmly believes that children in the ultra-Orthodox community need to understand the world as it is, and grow up to have a choice between becoming rabbinical scholars— something she noted the majority will not attain— and joining the general workforce, but in order for that to happen they must be given the requisite tools to advance in society.

The future of women’s representation in the Knesset

Bar Shalom said that though she chose not to run for the Knesset in the last election, despite invitations to do so from existing parties, she hopes that in the coming years Orthodox women will have a voice in the Knesset. Azaria noted that in the last election there was an effort by ultra-Orthodox women to run for the Knesset and to have their voices heard.

According to Bar Shalom, the lack of women’s representation in the Knesset is a problem across the political spectrum, not simply an absence of Orthodox women. Bar Shalom stressed that increasing women’s participation in elected government will ultimately depend on women themselves leading the charge. The majority of the seats currently are occupied by men and they will not simply give them up—it is up to the women to fight for them.

Gender, religion and politics in the 20th Knesset

Azaria said she anticipates that the current coalition will likely grapple with a number of issues on the fault lines of religion and state— including the budget (particularly the issue of child subsidies), reforming the rabbinical courts, the issue of certification of kashrut (Jewish religious dietary laws), and the ongoing struggle to find a feasible legislative compromise regarding army service for ultra-Orthodox men. However, due to the narrow coalition, Azaria said that in regard to personal-status issues, little progress can be expected for the time being.

On the matter of finding the balance between religion and state, the panelists were in agreement that religion should not be used as a means for stymieing social progress. Azaria noted that while Israeli society is very liberal, the religious authority is Orthodox. The challenge for Israeli society today is to find a language for traditional, but liberal, Judaism. Azaria argued that attempting sweeping social changes through legislation alone is not sufficient to bring about this change. She proposed two key steps that Israeli society can take to further this goal. The first step, according to Azaria, is for traditional and secular Jews to take on a greater role for anything having to do with Judaism, rather than abdicate this responsibility to the ultra-Orthodox community, in particular by surrendering the issue to the ultra-Orthodox when negotiating coalition agreements. The second step is for both the Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox societies to change from within, a process that she noted is already occurring, to some degree.

Bar Shalom remarked that Judaism is a religion to live by, not to perish by, but that for religion to thrive, its laws and traditions must be suited to the times. Those elements that work, she argued, should be adapted and what no longer works should remain in the past.

Listen to the full audio recording (in either English or Hebrew) here.