Ultra-Orthodox coalition party to end ban on women, but says nothing will change

Ultra-Orthodox coalition party to end ban on women, but says nothing will change

Responding to High Court petition, Agudath Israel, a member of United Torah Judaism alliance, says Council of Torah Sages will maintain the status quo regardless

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

Ultra-Orthodox party Agudath Israel has notified the High Court of Justice that it will remove a clause in the party regulations that forbids women from running for office on the party platform.

However, the party — which along with the Degel Hatorah party forms United Torah Judaism in the Knesset, and sits in the governing coalition — also stressed that the move was wholly symbolic, and that women would still effectively be barred.

The court told party representatives in early August that they must resolve a discriminatory clause which states that only men may be on the slate for elected public office.

And while the party on Monday agreed to remove the reference to men, it also noted that decisions on candidates continue to be under the purview of the Council of Torah Sages, UTJ’s policy-making council or rabbis.

“As the position of the Council of Torah Sages has not changed, and any candidates for membership in the party must vow to follow the decisions of the Council of Torah Sages, the change in the regulations will not bring about any actual change in acceptance to the party,” it said in a statement.

UTJ’s Yaakov Litzman leaves a session of his United Torah Judaism party’s Council of Torah Sages in Jerusalem on August 27, 2015. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

It was not clear whether the move would placate the court.

The petition to the court had been 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.

Agudath Israel, founded in 1912, predominantly represents the Hasidic branch of the ultra-Orthodox community, and joined with the Degel Hatorah party to form UTJ, which has a total of six seats in the current Knesset. Neither group, nor the Shas party, which mainly represents the ultra-Orthodox Sephardi Jewish community from Spain and north Africa, has any women candidates for Knesset or for municipal elections.

In August, Nivcharot posted on Facebook that the lawyer representing Agudath Israel admitted that there was no clear basis in Jewish law (halacha) to ban women from public office, but that according to the customs of the community it was not permitted.

“While there is no halachic problem with having women representatives, it is inappropriate,” he reportedly told the court.

Estee Rieder-Indursky of the ultra-Orthodox women’s group Nivcharot, interviewed on July 31, 2018. (Screen capture: i24 News)

Even if the parties allow women to join their electoral list, either voluntarily or by court order, it may only be a symbolic victory. The parties would be able to ensure that women were not placed high enough on the list to have a realistic chance of election.

But Nivcharot representative Estee Rieder-Indursky told i24 news 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.”

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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