There likely won’t be a single ultra-Orthodox woman in the courtroom on February 8, when the High Court of Justice hears a petition arguing that an ultra-Orthodox Knesset faction’s non-admission of women is discriminatory and unconstitutional.
Attorney Tamar Ben-Porath will make her case that the Agudat Yisrael faction of the United Torah Judaism party has a discriminatory clause in its regulations barring women from membership, which she maintains is a violation of Israel’s Basic Law: Human Dignity and Liberty and other anti-discrimination laws.
While the secular lawyer from Herzliya — who is representing herself as “a woman, and a citizen” of Israel — presents her argument, a group of ultra-Orthodox women who campaigned last year to be elected into the ultra-Orthodox parties will root her on. But they won’t participate.
“As you know, for the Haredi community, it’s very hard to turn to the High Court. The High Court is not their playing field. And when I turned to the High Court, I didn’t necessarily do it in the name of the Haredi women. I don’t presume to represent the Haredi women. I am representing a woman in Israel in 2016 who thinks that there is no room for a directive like this in a party,” Ben-Porath told The Times of Israel.
In its defense, the Haredi faction will argue that technically one doesn’t need to be a member of the United Torah Judaism party to run on the Knesset list, and therefore the clause does not bar female candidates from running. Moreover, it has responded to the court, the ultra-Orthodox community — with the exception of a “minority of minority” of women — is opposed to electing female lawmakers, for reasons of modesty.
Just look at the failed bid of the ultra-Orthodox all-female Ubezchutan party in the last elections, it wrote in a response to the court. Ubezchutan received just a touch over a 1,800 votes nationwide, falling behind even the Breslov party by several hundred votes. (In the ultra-Orthodox city of Bnei Brak, it noted, just 30 of over 80,000 voters voted for the all-women’s party. Israel’s marijuana party got dozens more votes.)
“The petitioner neglects to mention the results of those protests, which prove above all doubt that the public of Haredi women want and desire that same imagined ‘discrimination,’ against which a minority of a minority of women, some of whom aren’t even Haredi, oppose from time to time,” Agudat Yisrael has argued to the court.
Agudat Yisrael, which was founded in Poland some 100 years ago and along with the Degel HaTorah faction makes up the UTJ party, further argued that women do play an active role in various organizations it runs.
“This is not a matter of disrespect, certainly not of gender discrimination or exclusion. It is a separation for religious reasons and modesty, which men and women dedicated to the Torah and its mitzvot [commandments] see as a supreme value in all their actions, and therefore the party founded and oversaw a number of separate organizations for men and women and children, which are all housed under the party,” it said.
How it started
Ben-Porath first lodged her petition just days before the March 17, 2015 election. According to the court statement, she attended a conference with the Haredi activists campaigning to be included in the parties, and after writing several letters to the government office that oversees the party registry, decided to take the issue to the High Court.
“Just like a party can’t announce that polygamy is allowed, or that children can be beaten, or any other lifestyle from the Middle Ages, I’m saying that [Agudat Yisrael can’t have] a directive in its regulations that says a woman can’t be a member of the party,” she said.
Agudat Yisrael is not the only ultra-Orthodox faction to exclude women — the Shas party and Degel HaTorah faction don’t have female representation either — but Ben-Porath’s case seeks to strike a specific clause in its party guidelines that says women cannot participate.
On the matter of the clause, Agudat Yisrael responded in a written statement that it referred to party membership only — but said that not being a member of the party does not block one from running on the list.
“If the petitioner had done minimal investigation before she rushed to file a petition, she would have discovered that one of its party members right now on the party list [MK Rav Eichler] is not a member of the party at all!!! Moreover, a significant number of those on the candidate list submitted to the 20th Knesset and previous Knessets were not members of the party at all,” it wrote.
But beneath the technical issues, Ben-Porath said there was a “very deep legal question,” namely whether a party has the right to uphold standards in line with its religious worldview, or whether it must abide by the state laws.
And in a heated back-and-forth with the faction, she also addressed her role in the petition.
“The sad, unfortunate reality is that women from the Haredi community are reluctant to turn to the courts to fix the discrimination. The belittling language the respondent uses about those same women who boldly ‘raised their heads’ and dared let out the ‘cry of equality’ is proof of the violence that men in the Haredi community use against those who dare open their mouths,” she wrote.
‘Not only a problem for Haredi women’
The leader of the Ubezchutan party, Ruth Colian, is no stranger to the High Court. In 2013, she unsuccessfully petitioned the court to have all funding cut off for political parties that have no women on their party slates. She also submitted a petition to disqualify Joint (Arab) List MK Hanin Zoabi over the firebrand Arab MK’s swearing-in to the Knesset, which Colian maintained was deemed invalid by her anti-Israel remarks. But while Colian, who studied law, is crossing her fingers for Ben-Porath, she is playing no formal role in this legal battle.
“Listen, of course I support this step, I just hope that it’s accepted. And even if it isn’t…she should continue this effort,” she said.
But Esti Shushan, the founder of the “no representation, no vote” movement, which has also been advocating female inclusion in the UTJ and Shas parties, nixed turning to the High Court to resolve this issue.
“We’ve long said and declared that the issue of Haredi female representation is not solely the problem of Haredi women. This issue affects all women, in every community in Israel,” she said.
Shushan ruled out filing a petition in the High Court on behalf of her cause, a move that would be considered deeply controversial in her community, which — despite its presence in politics — is largely non-Zionist and would scorn court intervention in its affairs.
“At this stage, no. The fact that we aren’t there only strengthens the claim that this isn’t our problem [alone],” she said. Because of threats they’ve received since they’ve launched the campaign, “because we act within the community, rather than outside it, we cannot be part of the petition, but certainly… we welcome this step,” she said.
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