There is a new feminist revolution happening in Israel, and it is emerging from one of the most surprising places: Ultra-Orthodoxy.
Over the past two years, ultra-Orthodox or haredi women have been organizing around feminist issues. They began with a campaign during the 2012 national elections, when a small group of women led by haredi journalist Esti Shushan and others formed a group called “Lo nivcharot; lo bocharot” (LoNiLoBo), which means, if we can’t be elected, we will not vote for you. It was a call to the haredi political parties to allow women to run on their lists. The LoNiLoBo group petitioned the High Court of Justice to declare it illegal for a political party to prohibit women from running — but unfortunately they lost, and the religious parties seemed no worse for wear, considering their election results.
The LoNiLoBo group gained traction during the 2013 municipal elections when four haredi women ran for spots on municipal councils in four different cities — Jerusalem, Petach Tikva, Elad and Safed. This time, the women were noticed. They received threats and curses from rabbis and haredi political leaders, and one — Racheli Ibenboim, who ran in Jerusalem on the Bayit Yehudi party list — had to pull out because of the threats. Nevertheless, one of the women, Shira Gergi of Safed, won and became the first haredi woman to sit on a municipal council. In fact, she became the first woman to sit on the Safed council in over 20 years.
This week, the haredi feminist movement reached a new milestone with the formation of the first ever religious women’s political party. Ruth Colian, a 33-year-old activist and mother of four who had run for a seat in the Petach Tikva municipality, held a press conference on Sunday in which she announced the formation of “U’Bezchutan” — literally, “in their [women’s] merit” — to run in the coming elections. Even the secular feminist movement does not currently have its own party. (There have been three attempts in Israel to advance a Women’s Party in Israel: in 1979, led by former MK Marcia Freedman; in 1992 led by Ruth Reznik, and in 1999 led by Esther Herzog. All times, they failed to meet the electoral threshold, but impacted the elections in different ways ).
The formation of a women’s party is a very different political strategy than forming an advocacy group to get religious parties to allow women on the lists. This approach takes the movement for social change outside of the existing systems and suggests that change for women can only come when women have a “room of their own.” If the LoNiLoBo movement says that haredi women have faith in the parties of their religious sector but just want to have a voice, the U’Bezchutan movement says that such faith is waning.