Politics

Say hello to Israel's first all-women ultra-Orthodox Jewish party

Members of Israel's B'Zhutan: Haredi Women Making Change party.

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TEL AVIV, Israel — For the first time in Israeli history, a party made up entirely of ultra-Orthodox Jewish women is running in a national election. But the day before Tuesday's vote, its members were embroiled in a court case over whether or not their highly conservative group’s newspapers would even publish their campaign ads.

There are two main papers that members of Israel’s ultra-Orthodox Haredi sect read. But their editors say the ads for the all-women party are “offensive to the sensitivities of their community.”

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Unlike more mainstream Israeli voters, most of the ultra-Orthodox group’s members don’t have access to Facebook and other social media, so the traditional Haredi newspapers are their main sources of information.

That’s just one of countless obstacles for Ruth Colian, a 33-year-old law student and mother of four who heads the newly formed B’Zhutan: Haredi Women Making Change party. Their numbers are few but the pressure they exert is being felt in Israel’s highly conservative ultra-Orthodox communities.

They’re a “women for women” party that seeks to address issues that affect women specifically, explains Hayah Eichler, the party spokeswoman. “A lot of the problems we talk about are magnified in the Haredi community,” she says.

In particular, rates of domestic violence, wage discrimination and deaths from breast cancer are almost twice as high in ultra-Orthodox communities, according to Israeli media reports.

The party also seeks reform in the rabbinical court system that is exclusively run by men, particularly around issues of divorce in which women face routine discrimination.

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At the national level, women’s issues are rarely a priority.

Colian and her supporters say that every time a security issue gets discussed in the Israeli parliament, the Knesset — which is often — women’s issues are off the table, meaning that change gets postponed indefinitely.

Although Israel’s ultra-Orthodox Jewish communities tend to vote in higher percentages than the national average, women are expected to vote as their husbands do and not to seek political office.

Ultra-Orthodox Jewish bride and groom in Jerusalem, Israel.

Haredi men often have very little non-religious education and are encouraged to do nothing but study Torah. It usually falls to the women to make a living as well as take care of large families.

Colian’s party advocates for better quality education and access to higher education for women. That way, they might gain greater autonomy and higher paying jobs to better fulfill their role in the community. The party says that’s impossible to do under the current circumstances.

“They are supposed to be able to provide for the family but also [are] discouraged from doing it,” says Eichler.

Colian’s fight began when she tried to run for student union president at her Haredi university but was rejected because of her gender.

In 2013, she tried to enter politics through the traditional ultra-Orthodox parties — the Ashkenazi party, United Torah Judaism, and the Sephardim party Shas. The Shas eventually formed a “women’s advisory committee,” which Colian dismisses as an appeasement measure and says the women would accept nothing short of representation.

When the ultra-Orthodox parties refused to offer her a place on the ballot, Colian lodged a petition with the High Court of Justice, calling on the state to withhold funding to parties that exclude women. Her petition was denied. Only one ultra-Orthodox woman has ever served in the Knesset.

Forming an all-women’s party would be a last resort — but Colian believed the situation called for it. So on Jan. 19, B’Zhutan: Haredi Women Making Change was born.

For Haredi women seeking to enter politics, consequences can be severe. While Colian’s family is supportive, she worries that her activism will negatively affect her children who attend ultra-Orthodox school.

In December 2014, a campaign to pressure ultra-Orthodox parties to accept women called “No Female Candidate, No Vote” was met with fierce opposition and threats of excommunication.

“All women who go near a political party that is not under the leadership of the Torah sages” would find their children banned from Haredi schools and their employer boycotted by the community, ultra-Orthodox Rabbi Mordechai Blau said, according to Haaretz.

Denied access to Haredi parties, but risking social ostracization if they seek representation elsewhere, women like Colian pay a heavy price.

This week when they walked the streets of Beit Shemesh, a neighborhood that has seen a lot of upset about women in public space, they were called “shiksas” and “whores” by men and school children. Buses that go through this neighborhoods no longer put advertisements on the outside that show pictures of women for fear of sparking controversy.

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Colian seeks to work beyond the Haredi community and represent the voices of all women. “I like the way they’re reaching out to women across the board,” says Eichler, her main spokeswoman, who is not ultra-Orthodox.

And Colian identifies as a feminist, which is rare for someone in her community, and has talked about “breaking the glass ceiling” for Haredi women.

Still, the party does not want to stop being Haredi.

When asked at a January news conference why she did not want to join a secular party, Colian said, “we want to preserve our identity” and participate in politics while remaining Haredi.

A small embattled group with few resources, their campaign activities have been limited.

“We’re trying to set precedents that Haredi women can’t be denied access to the media just because they’re women,” Eichler said.

Though the party is hopeful, this time around Colian’s election list is only expected to garner a few hundred votes, and no seats. But in other ways they do seem to be having an impact.

“We also realize we’ve already started making a difference — the Ashkenazi party put a woman in their campaign ads for the first time ever because they’re afraid of us,” Eichler said.

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