This JewFem blog focuses on feminist issues in Jewish life. It tackles Jewish education, synagogue life, Israel, Jewish community, bits of pop culture, and more. This blog is written by Dr. Elana Maryles Sztokman, writer, educator, and researcher, contributing writer at the Forward Sisterhood, author of the book, “The Men’s Section: Orthodox Jewish Men in an Egalitarian World”.
The City of Modi'in, Israel, may yet see 50% female representation on its City Council in the next election. Mayor Haim Bibas, speaking at an evening dedicated to women in leadership last week, said that he personally hopes to see women as fully equals in the local party lists in 2013.
"We need to hold Mayor Bibas to that promise," responded event moderator Yifat Zamir, Executive Director of the organization We Power that organized the evening.
Meanwhile, equal representation remains something of a pipe in Israeli leadership. According to Zamir, there are only six women mayors in Israel, out of 154 cities and towns – a paltry 3.8%. Out of some 3,000 members of municipal councils, only 300 are women. Modi'in has a 17-person city council and only three women – 17.6%, slightly above the national average.
"If you want to influence what is going on in your city, you have to be willing to sit at the table," said Modi'in City Council member Levana Shifman, who also heads the Committee on the Status of Women. "We sit around and discuss the budget and make the real decisions about what happens around you – in schools, in parks, in business. This is where you have a real opportunity to influence and make a difference."
As I listened to Levana speak, I thought, if Levana were to head a party, I would definitely consider joining her list. Definitely.
We Power is a fantastic organization run by all of three women that promotes women's entry into politics – local and national. They run courses all over the country training women in political skills to facilitate women's entry into local municipal councils as well as the Knesset.
"When I was first elected to the Knesset in 1996, there were only seven women," MK Marina Solodkin told the crowd of some 350 people at the Einan Hall in Modi'in. "Today, even though we have 25 women in the Knesset – the most in Israel's history [20.8% -- EMS], I still find it to be regressive. I grew up in the Soviet Union at a time where women were fully equals. This was a big adjustment."
Israel ranks 58th in the world in terms of female political representation, according to The Inter-parliamentary Union rankings. The country that leads in female representation, interestingly, is Rwanda, which became the first country ever to have a female majority in 2008. Today, Rwanda has 56% female representation, and Andorra has 53% female representation. I am hoping there is a doctoral student out there writing about these two remarkable countries and how gender works there.
MK Einat Wilf told the crowd that she has been promoting a bill written by We Power that would offer financial rewards to parties that have 30% representation. Wilf reported that the two new religious Sephardic parties currently in formation – one headed by Haim Amsallem and one headed by Aryeh Deri – both are considering allowing women to join their lists. Rabbi Ovadiah Yosef and MK Eli Yishai of Shas have both expressed fierce opposition to women's role in politics. "This is very scary for them," Zamir said.
"It's interesting to note that countries with the highest female representation also have the best women-friendly social policies," Wilf added, emphasizing that it is not enough to have women in power but women in power must advance policies for issues such as child care, health care, and work-life balance.
"Women are undoubtedly legislative leaders", Solodkin added, complimenting MK Shelly Yachimovich, a contender for the next head of the Labor Party, for her legislative prowess.
I was particularly struck by the atmosphere of collaboration expressed by the women on the panel. Each woman mentioned women from competing parties with whom they work productively to advance social issues. It reinforces the idea that women in leadership bring a vital set of skills that is often missing in male-dominated cultures of power.
"When we sit down at the table, we get things done," added Modi'in City Council member Vivianne Elboim. "We don't have time for nonsense. We want to make things happen, efficiently and quickly."
Bibas added that whenever he has a problem, he calls on the women because they are the best problem-solvers. "Women are less bogged down by their egos than men," he said. "They are practical, and know how to execute a plan."
"Promoting more women in power is not just for the women," he added. "It will be an improvement for all of society and for the whole country."
I'm starting to look forward to the next elections.
Dr. Elana Maryles Sztokman is a leading writer on issues of feminism, Judaism, Orthodoxy and education. Elana holds a doctorate in education and sociology from Hebrew University of Jerusalem, and wrote her dissertation on the identity development of adolescent religious girls in schools. She then went on to do post-doctoral research, thanks to a grant from the Hadassah Brandeis Institute, on the "other" side of the mechitza, i.e., on identities of Orthodox men.
The Men's Section: Orthodox Jewish Men in an Egalitarian World investigates a fascinating new sociological phenomenon: Orthodox Jewish men who connect themselves to egalitarian or quasi-egalitarian religious enterprises. Sztokman interrogates the ideologies and motivations of more than fifty such men in the United States, Israel, and Australia.
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