Ultra-Orthodox woman eyeing Labor seat wants to be the left’s Ayelet Shaked

Michal Zernowitski, 38, supports public transportation on Shabbat and backs civil unions, but says calls to shutter the rabbinate are ‘populist’

Marissa Newman is The Times of Israel political correspondent.

Michal Zernowitski, a Labor party activist who is running in the 2019 national elections. (Courtesy)
Michal Zernowitski, a Labor party activist who is running in the 2019 national elections. (Courtesy)

She backs public transportation on Shabbat, supports gay marriage and civil unions, rues the gender separation in ultra-Orthodox academic colleges, and is adamant a peace deal with the Palestinians is entirely within reach — if only Israel wills it.

Altogether, hers are not particularly eyebrow-raising positions for a Labor candidate in the opposition party’s upcoming primaries. But when said candidate happens to be an ultra-Orthodox mother of four, some may find their foreheads involuntarily furrowed.

It’s a reaction that Michal Zernowitski, 38, is accustomed to. And one the former computer programmer hopes to change with her campaign, under the banner “Shattering Conventions.”

“I’m in the Labor party and not United Torah Judaism and Shas,” she remarked of her liberal and dovish views in a recent interview with The Times of Israel, and “it’s not only because there is no room there [in those parties] for women.”

At her campaign headquarters in south Tel Aviv, part of a shared working space, a handwritten sign on the door reads, “We’ll do our part, and God will do the rest.”

Her part: Attempting to secure a realistic spot on the Labor party slate on February 12. The party’s primaries will see a crowded field of 44 candidates, among them 14 Knesset members — some of whom are seen as shoo-ins — vie for spots. Recent polls show the openly discontented, fragmented center-left party under the leadership of Avi Gabbay poised to receive under 10 seats unless it merges with other factions. The state of “crisis” within the embattled party is acknowledged by Zernowitski, who is holding out for the creation of a center-left bloc ahead of the April 9 national vote.

Labor Party leader Avi Gabbay (left) and MK Shelly Yachimovich at the Labor conference in Tel Aviv on September 14, 2017. (Flash90)

The activist founder of the Labor party’s ultra-Orthodox branch in 2016 (which she said includes “hundreds” of Haredi Labor activists), Zernowitski is hoping to score the votes of the so-called “New Haredim,” namely the cohort of working, integrated Israeli ultra-Orthodox, who don’t feel bound by their rabbis’ orders to vote for Haredi political parties United Torah Judaism and Shas.

Theirs is a “natural partnership,” insisted Zernowitski, referring to those segments of the ultra-Orthodox community and the Labor party. Haredim “are pretty moderate from the diplomatic perspective, and on economic issues, tend slightly to the left.”

‘There are no Haredi women in politics’

Born and raised in the ultra-Orthodox city of Bnei Brak in central Israel, Zernowitski was educated in the Beis Yaakov school system and was among the first to pursue BA studies (in her case, in computer science) offered to ultra-Orthodox women as part of academic programs tailored for the community. Degree in hand, she later worked in high-tech as a programmer for 15 years before quitting to pursue her political career.

As a child, politics caught her interest, but it was only in recent years that she seriously considered pursuing it, she said.

“As a girl or teenager, you can dream ‘I’ll be such-and-such,’ but then very quickly you understand the reality in which you live, that there are no Haredi women in politics, that it’s really not obvious that you can” enter the political arena, she said. (The only ultra-Orthodox woman to serve in parliament was the former left-wing Meretz MK Tzvia Greenfeld.)

“And then you sort of give up on it, because you say, it’s not for me, it’s something other people do. And then it took a few years until you say, actually, why not?”

The ultra-Orthodox United Torah Judaism and Shas parties hold an emergency meeting at the Knesset on September 13, 2017. (Flash90)

As part her activism, Zernowitski was also involved in the “No Representation, No Vote” campaign by Haredi women protesting the non-inclusion of women in the ultra-Orthodox parties during previous Knesset elections. “I think one of the following two things will happen very quickly: Either there will be women in the Haredi parties, or there won’t be Haredi parties,” she opined on the parties’ ongoing refusal to field female candidates.

In 2010, she joined the Labor party at the prodding of former leader Amir Peretz. Three years later, she launched an unsuccessful campaign to serve on the city council in Elad, where she now lives.

Stepping out of a ‘ghetto’

As Zernowitski began to pursue her higher education two decades ago, Israeli journalist Yair Sheleg coined the term the “New Haredim” to refer to those who began to integrate into the Israeli workforce. The New Haredim are increasingly upwardly mobile, fashionably dressed, vacation-taking, shopping-enthused, restaurant-frequenting, more at ease with the modern world and Israeli society than their elders, and increasingly impervious to the authority of their rabbis, in his description. Had Sheleg been writing in 2019 instead of 1999, his illustration would likely have made reference to smartphone use or the ubiquity of Bluetooth earpieces.

Considered pejorative in the more conservative quarters of the ultra-Orthodox world, the label was proudly adopted by those who identified with its sociological depiction and persists, twenty years on.

It is this loose coalition of voters (precise numbers unknown), deeply Israeli and fed up with insular community-focused politics, that Zernowitski is hoping to court and that she claims could deliver 3-4 of the Knesset’s 120 seats.

A high-tech company that employs ultra-Orthodox women in Modiin Illit, 2009. (Abir Sultan/Flash90)

The ultra-Orthodox establishment, meanwhile, has largely ignored her political bid, she said.

“It’s a community that sort of lives in parallel to Israeli society, with a separate education system, in separate cities. It’s a sort of living in a ghetto,” she said of the Haredi community. “In the past few years, tens and hundreds of thousands of people have stuck a toe out of [the community] — not in the religious sense, because they are religious and Haredi — but in the sense of integrating in higher education, in the workforce, some of them go to the army.

“They are also less dependent on the community and many of them are driving changes in the Haredi community. They want to bring it to a more liberal place, or deal with all sorts of issues like labor rights and education and the like. And they feel they don’t have political representation.”

Citing the recent mayoral election in Beit Shemesh, in which hundreds of ultra-Orthodox residents voted for Aliza Bloch instead of the incumbent Haredi candidate, narrowly securing her win, Zernowitski touted what she described as an untapped voter base. In Jerusalem, too, though he didn’t win, secular candidate Ofer Berkovitch had the support of his constituency, she maintained.

Ultra-Orthodox girls enter their school in Beit Shemesh, on September 8, 2014. (Flash90)

“If you take that to the national level, and say that 20 percent of Haredim won’t vote for Haredi [parties], those are a huge number of votes, it’s insane.”

“I think it will only escalate. It’s like a pressure cooker that will explode,” she said.

But are the New Haredi voters, like Zernowitski, left-wing? Figures from a 2016 Pew Research Center study of Israelis found that 52 percent of Haredim identified as centrist, 47% said they were right-wing, and just 1% described themselves as left-wing. That same study found that 64% of Haredim said that a Palestinian state cannot coexist peacefully alongside Israel, while 22% said it can.

“I think that overall, the Haredim are somewhat centrist,” she said.

“Israeli society as a whole is not so left-wing,” she acknowledged. “But that’s the work. Because I think that if you sit down with someone and ask them about their positions, most Israelis — in very high percentages — including the Haredim, believe in a welfare state, think… people should receive good healthcare in the public system, and this is something that we’ve all been raised on” in Israel.

Most, she added, would support the establishment of a Palestinian state under the right conditions.

Shabbat, marriage, and state-run education

As part of her platform, Zernowitski backs increased public transportation on Saturdays, the Jewish day of rest.

“I’m religious and I don’t travel on Shabbat; there are those who do. It doesn’t make sense that those who have a car can — and those who don’t, and want to visit their grandmother in Beersheba, can’t. And therefore, our position is that it be left to the municipal authorities to decide what happens in each city, in accordance with the character of the city and its residents. And between the cities, there needs to be public transportation on some sort of Shabbat schedule.”

While she voices support for non-Orthodox marriage in Israel, which currently does not exist, Zernowitski maintained that calls to break up the Chief Rabbinate — which oversees all personal status issues in Israel — are “inflammatory or populist.”

“As part of the services — again, I’m a social democrat — the state should offer to its citizens and for free are religious services, each according to their religion, but it doesn’t need to be coercive. The problem today is not that the rabbinate offers religious services — it’s that it coerces them. That if you want to get married you need to do it through them or travel abroad.”

Zernowitski also champions folding the private ultra-Orthodox school system into the state-run system, a move she argued would contribute to higher enlistment rates for Haredim — most of whom eschew military service — when they reach the age of 18. By the time the state intervenes to encourage integration into the army or workforce, it’s very late in the game, she argued.

“In the end, a boy who is in a school that is state-run from the age of 3 until 18, and it doesn’t matter that he’ll be studying with Haredim and will be receiving Haredi values, in parallel, he’ll be getting the state education… From there, the draft will be simpler and more obvious,” she said.

Soldiers study religious texts in the IDF’s ultra-Orthodox ‘Netzah Yehuda’ unit at the Peles Military Base in the northern Jordan valley, August 2013. (Yaakov Naumi/Flash90)

“The solutions don’t start at the age of 18. Just like the solutions for employment can’t start at 18. That’s what’s being done today, so there are those who succeed, and there are those who fail and don’t manage to make up 12 years of study in six months. But it’s the same.”

In the same breath, she said Israel should be focused on reaching a peace deal and “we shouldn’t be thinking, ‘how do we draft everyone,’ but the opposite: How do we make it so that we need the military less.”

“It’s simply our responsibility to secure an agreement, to do everything for a deal and all the talk of ‘there isn’t a partner, there is a partner’ is simply irrelevant,” she said of peace talks with the Palestinians. “We, our leaders, need to go into a room with their leaders — regardless of who they are… and not leave until we have a deal. I think it’s a matter of will, and nothing else. If there will be a will, there will be a deal.”

Zernowitski said she believes many on Palestinian side want a peace deal, “and that for their leaders ultimately, there have the will, they have proven it for many years.”

A party in ‘crisis’

“Yes, the party is in crisis, you can’t say otherwise. But you can’t know what will happen until the election,” said Zernowitski of the Labor party, noting that other parties dwindled and later made a comeback.

Amid talk of forming a center-left alliance to counter the Likud party, she said: “We are in favor of merging [with other parties]. I don’t think there is anyone opposed to it. It’s clear, because no one wants each of us to end up with 10 seats [apiece] and what will come from that — that’s not how you do a revolution.”

MK Amir Peretz of the Israeli Labor Party (R) and Avi Gabbay, leader of the Israeli Labor Party (C) and Director General of the Jewish National Fund Danny Atar at a Labor party conference in Tel Aviv on January 22, 2019. (Flash90)

While saying she supports her party chair Gabbay for premier, she signaled that whoever was elected the leader of a center-left bloc would receive her support, calling on the leaders of the various centrist parties — Benny Gantz’s Israel Resilience, Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid, Labor, Tzipi Livni’s Hatnua, and the like — to get in a room and cut a deal.

She was also dismissive of claims that Gabbay’s abrupt severing of the Zionist Union alliance with Livni — in front of rolling television cameras, without notifying her in advance — was either related to her gender or beyond the pale.

“First of all, I think the issue of ‘as a woman’ needs to be taken out of the equation. Because Tzipi Livni is a very strong woman. She’s also done things like this during her political career. I think saying that it was done because she was a woman belittles her and belittles all women,” she said.

Zionist Union chairman Avi Gabbay (L) announces the shock breakup of the Zionist Union as his erstwhile partner, head of opposition Tzipi Livni, looks on, during a party faction meeting in the Knesset on January 1, 2019. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

“To say that I would have done it this way — no. But it probably reached a point between the two of them in which they couldn’t continue together, and we don’t know, we weren’t in the room,” she said.

“As I said, I hope everyone will unify in the end,” she added.

Among Israel’s lawmakers, she praises various Labor MKs, Meretz’s Ilan Gilon, and former Joint (Arab) List MK Dov Khenin for their legislative activities. From the other side of the aisle, while she said she found Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked’s views deplorable, the work ethic of the powerful minister earned her admiration and rare praise for a right-wing lawmaker.

Her comment elicits a curious mirror-image comparison: Until recently, Shaked was the sole secular MK in a right-wing religious nationalist party; should Zernowitski enter the parliament, she could be the only religious lawmaker in a left-wing party. And both share a certain inscrutable professionalism.

“She has a worldview that is diametrically opposed to everything I believe in; really, I don’t think there’s a single thing we agree on. But the way she operates politically, showing up in the morning and knowing how I want this country to look and simply doing everything on my watch to reach that vision, and whatever I manage to do, I do.”

Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked at an Israeli Bar Association conference in Jerusalem on January 17, 2019. (Noam Rivkin Fenton/Flash90)

“I hope that when I get to the Knesset, that’s exactly how I’ll operate,” she said.

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