Court rules ultra-Orthodox party must end ban on women within 21 days

Though coalition’s Agudath Israel agrees to change regulations, it stresses move is ‘symbolic’ and ‘devoid of meaning,’ as its rabbis won’t allow women to run regardless

Illustrative: Ultra-Orthodox Jewish women in Mea Shearim, Jerusalem (Miriam Alster/Flash90)
Illustrative: Ultra-Orthodox Jewish women in Mea Shearim, Jerusalem (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

The High Court of Justice instructed ultra-Orthodox party Agudath Israel on Thursday to change its party regulations within 21 days to allow women to run for office, in line with an agreement reached in September on the matter.

Currently a clause in the regulations stipulates that only men may run on the platform.

Agudath Israel along with the Degel HaTorah party forms United Torah Judaism in the Knesset, and sits in the governing coalition. The two parties announced a split this week, though they called it a “procedural” move and said they may reunite before the upcoming April elections.

The party agreed in September to remove the clause, following a three-year legal battle over petitions filed by multiple women’s groups, including some representing ultra-Orthodox women.

The party stressed at the time of the agreement that it was a symbolic move only, as the Council of Torah Sages — which decides on the party’s makeup and guides its actions — would not approve a female candidate for office.

However, the court in its ruling this week stressed that in future, women who claim to meet requirements and are barred from the party will be able to take legal action on the basis of the decision.

Following the ruling a senior source in Agudath Israel told Haaretz it was “largely populist and devoid of meaning.”

Members of the ultra-Orthodox United Torah Judaism party at the Knesset on September 13, 2017 (Flash90)

“The party does not discriminate against women and represents them well. Not putting women on the list is based on a historic decision of leading rabbis since the state’s foundation, and the High Court knows there is no plan to change this,” he said.

“We will respect the High Court’s instructions by changing the wording of the party regulations because these are semantics without any real significance,” he said, but stressed that “this isn’t going to change in the next few decades.”

The petition to the court was brought by Tamar ben-Porat, a secular woman, who was joined by attorneys Neta Ziv and Neta Levy of Itach Ma’akei — Women Lawyers for Social Justice, representing 10 women’s organizations that wished to join the petition. The petition was also supported by Nivcharot, an ultra-Orthodox women’s movement that likens itself to the suffragettes of the early 19th century.

Nivcharot representative Estee Rieder-Indursky told i24 news following the September that symbolic victories were also important. “For us it is not 2018. It is 1918,” she said. “We are in the middle of the suffragist fight.”

Attorney Neta Levy disagreed that the ruling was insignificant, saying the court was “sending a clear message that women cannot be discriminated against in Israeli parties.”

Yesh Atid MK Aliza Lavie, former head of the Knesset’s Committee on the Status of Women and Gender Equality, took issue with the claim the male ultra-Orthodox legislators gave proper representation to women, noting that “at Knesset deliberations on the health, well-being and personal security of ultra-Orthodox women, ultra-Orthodox MKs were usually absent.”

Lavie called the court ruling “the beginning of a process” and expressed hope it would have “many implications on the daily lives of ultra-Orthodox women as well as the upcoming [female] ultra-Orthodox leaders.”

About 11 percent of Israel’s 8.5 million citizens are Haredi, or ultra-Orthodox. Recognizable by the men’s black hats and long black clothes, they often lead insular lives, separated from the more secular Jewish majority and closely adhering to Jewish laws. Ultra-Orthodox women traditionally dress in long skirts and long-sleeved shirts, covering their hair if they are married. Men and women sit separately at synagogues and weddings, and women and men who are not relatives refrain from physical contact.

Not only are women excluded from politics, but most of Israel’s ultra-Orthodox media — which includes four daily newspapers, two main weeklies and two main websites — refuse to show images of women, claiming it would be a violation of modesty.

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