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Women in Israel:
In Politics & Public Life

by Naomi Chazan, Former Deputy Speaker of the Knesset

(Updated August 2013)


Women in Israel: Table of Contents | In the Military | In Science & Technology


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While some women have been involved in political life since the founding of the first Jewish political institutions at the turn of the century, women in Israel are still under­represented in many areas of public life. Despite entrenched myths of equality between men and women, women face a wide gap between the excellent legislation on record and the difficult realities facing those women who choose to pursue a political career.

- In The Government
- In The Knesset
- In Knesset Committees
- Leadership Roles in the Knesset
- In The Judiciary
- In Local Government
- Political Parties
- The Histadrut
- Civil Service & Public Sector
- Conclusion

The Government

Since the establishment of the State of Israel, only thirteen women have served as cabinet ministers, including former-Prime Minister Golda Meir and former-Vice Prime Minister Tzipi Livni. While every government since 1992 has included at least one woman minister, at least seven of the thirty-three governments have featured zero women in power positions.

Of the twenty-two ministers in the 33rd Government (2013 - Present), only four are women - Limor Livnat (Minister of Culture & Sport), Sofa Landver (Minister of Immigration Absorbtion), Tzipi Livni (Minister of Justice) and Yael German (Minister of Health) - though this still represents a record number of women ministers in one government. Another two women - Tzipi Hotovely and Faina Kirshenbaum - hold deputy minister positions in the current government and another woman, Shelly Yachamovich, is head of the opposition. The 32nd government (2009 - 2013) had only three women ministers.

Women Government Ministers Since 1948
NAME
PARTY
PORTFOLIO
YEARS
Golda Meir
Labor
Prime Minister;
Labor;
Foreign Affairs
1949 - 1961;
1963 - 1966;
1969 - 1974
Shoshana Arbeli­Almozlino
Labor
Health
1986 - 1988
Shulamit Aloni
Labor:
Meretz
Without Portfolio;
Education & Culture;
Communications, Arts and Sciences
1974 - 1977;
1992 - 1996
Sarah Doron
Likud
Without Portfolio
1983 - 1984
Ora Namir
Labor
Labor and Social Welfare;
Enviornment
1992 - 1996
Dalia Itzik
Labor
Communications;
Environment
1999 - 2001
Yuli Tamir
Labor
Immigrant Absorption;
Education
1999 - 2001;
2006 - 2009
Ruhama Avraham
Likud;
Kadima
Without Portfolio
2006 - 2009
Orit Noked
Independence
Agriculture & Rural Development
2009 - 2013
Tzipi Livni
Labor;
Kadima; Ha'Tnuah
Vice Prime Minister;
Foreign Affairs;
Regional Cooperation;
Immigrant Absorption;
Education;
Justice
2001 - 2009;
2013 - Present
Sofa Landver
Yisrael Beiteinu
Immigration Absorption
2009 - Present
Limor Livnat
Likud
Communications;
Education; Culture & Sport
1996 - 1999;
2001 - 2003;
2009 - Present
Yael German
Yesh Atid
Health
2013 - Present

The Knesset

From the first Knesset in 1949 to the mid-1990's, the number of women parliament members (MK's) remained relatively constant at around eight to ten members, or 7 to 9 percent of the 120­member house. Towards the end of the 1990's and into the 2000's, though, this number began to grow and during both the sixteenth ('03-'06) and eighteenth ('09-'13) Knessets it hit a then-record high of 24 women members. The nineteenth knesset, inaugurated in February 2013, boasted a new record high of 27 women members.

Women MKs have proposed a high number of bills, have chaired committees, and have served as Deputy Speakers.

In each Knesset, nearly two­thirds or more of the women members have represented center or left­of­center parties. In the Likud­led fourteenth Knesset, three of the nine women Knesset Members represented coalition parties, while six represent opposition center and left­wing parties.

Women in the Knesset play an important part in shaping government responses to a variety of issues, particularly on the domestic front. Notable legislative successes to date include progress in the areas of affirmative action, comparable worth and equal pay legislation, and strict measures in cases of violence against women. In general, women Knesset Members have been less successful in participating in some of the high­stakes issues such as finance and defense.

Women Members of Knesset Since 1949
Year
(Knesset #)
No. of Women
% of Total
 
Year
(Knesset #)
No. of Women
% of Total
1949 (1)
12
10%
1984 (11)
10
8.3%
1951 (2)
12
10%
1988 (12)
9
7.5%
1955 (3)
14
11.7%
1992 (13)
12
10%
1959 (4)
10
8.3%
1996 (14)
9
7.5%
1961 (5)
12
10%
1999 (15)
18
7.5%
1965 (6)
10
8.3%
2003 (16)
24
20%
1969 (7)
9
7.5%
2006 (17)
17
14.2%
1974 (8)
11
9.2%
2009 (18)
24
20%
1977 (9)
9
7.5%
2013 (19)
27
22.5%
1981 (10)
8
6.6%
 

Knesset Committees

For many years, women's seats on Knesset committees followed a predictable pattern. Until 1984, no women had served on either the Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee or the Finance Committee, the two most powerful Knesset committees. Women Knesset members instead tended to be assigned to the more domestic or socially­oriented committees.

This pattern is slowly changing. In the thirteenth Knesset begining in 1992, the Education Committee was chaired by a woman, and women sat on the House Committee, the Foreign Affairs and Security Committee, the Labor and Welfare Committee, the Immigration and Absorption Committee, the Interior and Environment Committee, the Economics Committee and the War against Drugs Committee.

By the eighteenth Knesset in 2011, six women sat on the Finance Committee and two belonged to the Foreign Affiars and Defense Committee. In addition, the Committee on the Status of Women, the Science & Technology Committee and the Subcommittee on Trafficking in Women were all headed by women.

Leadership Roles within the Knesset

Most of the top positions in the Knesset continue to be assigned to men, but women have made some definite progress in this area.

In the eighteenth Knesset, one woman - Orly Levi-Abekasis - serves as one of the Deputy Speakers, another - Yirdena Miller-Horovitz - is the Secretary General and two women - Tzipi Hotovely and Ronit Tirosh - are committee chairpersons. Tzipi Livni, who has held minister portfolios in past governments, is the current of the largest Knesset party, the Labor Party, and is the head of the opposition.

The Judiciary

Women have become a central part of the Israli judicial system.

For many years at least one of Israel's Supreme Court justices has been a woman. At present, five women sit as judges on the 15-person Supreme Court and one of them, Dorit Beinisch, is the current President of the Court. Beinisch served for ten years as a justice on the Supreme Court, from 1995 to 2005, and in September of 2006 she was sworn in as the first woman to ever hold the position of Supreme Court President, succeeding Aharon Barak. Beinisch also previously served as the first woman State Attorney of Israel from 1989 to 1995 and she was succeeded by the second woman State Attorney, Edna Arbel, who served from 1996 to 2004.

Women also comprise nearly 51% of all magistrate and district court judges, making it very likely that more women will be appointed to the Supreme Court in the future. Additionally, more than 44% of all lawyers registered in Israel are women.

Local Government

Municipalities

Since the founding of the State, only four women have served as mayors of municipalities. One of the four was a Christian Arab. Currently, there is one woman mayor - Miriam Fireberg of Netanya.

In 1975, a reform in local government laws designated the position of mayor as the only directly elected political office (until 1995, when the position of Prime Minister also became subject to direct election). As a result, the position of mayor gained prestige, competition increased between male candidates and fewer women were supported by political parties. Women candidates have since had little success in mayoral elections. Twenty-nine women ran for mayoral slots in 1989, only one was elected; ten women ran in 1993; none were elected; in 2008, one women was elected as a mayor but only one other woman finished in the top 3 of candidates in any of the other 16 mayoral elections.

Local Councils

The largest increase in women's political leadership has been in the sphere of local government. While the number of women MKs has remained relatively stable since the early days of the state, the number of women participating in local politics has increased systematically. In 1950, 4.2 percent of local representatives were women; by 1978, 5.5%; and in 1993, 11%. In 2011, there were many women local representatives though only one woman, Yael German, was serving as a mayor of a local authority.

The figures of women in local government suggests that political parties consider the inclusion of at least one woman on local councils a political necessity.

One way to increase the number of women in local government is to encourage the councils to accord priority to women's concerns. To this end, the Center for Local Government has encouraged the establishment of working women's committees in all Jewish and Arab local councils. Legislation has also been proposed to mandate that every local council include a member of the Women's Council or an Advisor to the Mayor on the Status of Women, to be funded jointly by the local authority and the Ministry of the Interior.

Political Parties

Many women are involved in political parties, but their numbers have tended to not be reflected in party leadership or on party lists for elected office. In the January 2013 election, however, three parties that won representation in the Knesset were headed by women - Shelly Yachimovich for Labor; Tzipi Livni for Ha'Tnuah; and, Zehava Gal-On for Meretz - possibly signaling a changing of the guard of sorts.

Most parties on both sides of the political spectrum comprise a women's division that encourages women to become politically active, provides means in support of their interests and promotes women's advancement within the party.

Some of the smaller parties, including those with a religious platform, discourage women from running for office although Emunah, the women's branch of the National Religious Party, has run independently in local elections and won a seat on several occasions.

The two entrenched major political parties - Likud and Labor - as well as a number of the smaller or up-and-coming ones have developed internal guidelines for increasing women's participation. The Labor party adopted a clause requiring that women fill at least 30 percent of all leadership positions. In the Likud party, at least 20 percent must be women. The left­of­center, smaller Meretz party, for example, adopted the highest standard currently in place: a 40 percent clause.

While these guidelines suggest a commitment to change, the reality both within the parties and on the floor of the Knesset is quite different ­ particularly since the above guidelines have not yet been applied to party lists for Knesset elections. In the current 19th Knesset, among the 31 Likud-Beiteinu party members, only seven are women (22.5%), though eight of the 19 Yesh Atid members are women (42%). Four of Labor's 15 members are women as are 1 of the 6 from Ha'Tnuah and three of the six Meretz party members. The religious parties - Shas, The Jewish Home and United Torah Judaism (combined 29 members) - have only two women members, both part of the reenergized Jewish Home party. The Arab parties of Hadash, Ra'am-Ta'al and Balad (combined 12 members) have three women in the Knesset.

In recent years, legislation has been proposed to obligate parties to open their ranks to women, by curtailing government support to parties with less than 25% women candidates.

The Histadrut

Within the Histadrut, the monolithic federation of labor unions in Israel, women are nominally represented at each level. The Histadrut has adopted a resolution declaring that thirty percent of its leadership must be women after having a long history of being unofficially discriminatory based on gender despite the meteoric rise of Golda Meir in the Histadrut's early leadership.

The Histadrut has had up-and-down relative successful in tapping into the leadership potential of its women members. In the mid-1990's, 19% of the Executive Committee, 25% of its deputy chairpersons, 30% of the representatives and 22% of the 1154 delegates to the Histadrut Convention were women. In 2011, however, only 3 of the 31 deputy chairpersons were women - Talia Livni, Shula Cohen and Ariella Sisav.

Civil Service and Public Sector

In addition to elected and appointed positions, close to 60 percent of employees in the civil service and the public sector are women. Forty­three percent of all working women are employed in these sectors, as compared to 19.5 percent of working men.

Women work in nearly all areas of the civil service, yet the classic pyramid structure of high representation at the lower levels and minimal representation in the top ranks fully applies. At the lower levels, 92 percent of the positions are filled by women, though some of the top positions include no women at all.

Affirmative action

The first Affirmative Action legislation, which applied only to directors of state corporations, was enacted in 1993, and in 1995 a broad amendment concerning the entire civil service was passed. Through a combination of lobbying by women's organizations and judicial action, this progressive legislation is now being more broadly interpreted and more widely enforced.

The case of Affirmative Action reflects one clear example of the successful complementary work of women's advocates in the Knesset and in the non­profit sector. The 1993 amendment to the Corporation Law requires ministers to appoint women as directors of government corporations in which they are under­represented. When the legislation had been in place for a year without notable improvement, the Israel Women's Network petitioned the High Court of Justice which ruled in its favor and reaffirmed the responsibility of ministers to appoint directors with equal gender representation in mind. The court also stated that temporary measures were needed to countermand discrimination existing in terms of work, wages and representation. As a result, the number of women department heads in government ministries increased to 30 percent in 1995 (from 14% in 1984) and women directors of government corporations increased from about 1.5 percent to 19 percent.

Conclusion

The limited number of women in public life can be attributed, to a large extent, to the political structure itself. The system of proportional representation, which actually encouraged women's representation in Europe, has not had the same effect in Israel. A great deal of power is granted to the political parties, in which women tend to be under­represented, particularly at the decision­making levels. Also, the absence of majority parties necessitates the establishment of coalitions with smaller parties, to form a government. This tends to strengthen the role of the small religious parties, which are generally opposed to the participation of women in public life. Other small parties, such as the Arab and ethnic parties, have also discouraged participation of women.

Most politicians begin their careers early-often with student politics. After graduation, women are apt to leave the political arena for less demanding careers.

Another path into national politics is through local government, in which, until very recently, women played a very minor role.

A third course is via the army. A large number of high­ranking officers vie for Knesset spots after retiring from a military career. Because of systemic discrimination and job differentiation according to gender, few women rise to high rank. Since the elections to the thirteenth Knesset, a fourth path into national politics has emerged: party primaries. While primaries are more accessible to women, they require three things that women candidates tend not to have in abundance: money, public exposure and organization.

Cultural pressures to marry early and start a family are strong among Israeli women. As a result, many women who are interested in politics sacrifice their own aspirations in the name of marriage and family. For mothers of young children, any type of career, and a political career in particular, is difficult because of the incongruence between the typical school day, which ends at 12:30 or 1:00 p.m., and the workday, which ends several hours later. Like any latecomers to politics, women who begin a political career, or return to politics after their children are grown, find themselves at a significant disadvantage.

Given Israel's excellent educational opportunities for women, strong legislation and history of women politicians, men and women should be equally represented within the ranks of public leadership. Nevertheless, women have been consistently under­represented in virtually all areas of public life.

In the sphere of government, the number of women representatives has increased slightly- both in the Knesset and in local representation, but women candidates have not had much success in mayoral elections.

Many political parties now stipulate a minimum number of women on all party lists, but these requirements are not yet implemented on all levels of party activity.

Sixty percent of public servants are women, but most are concentrated in the lower ranks of the civil service. As the Affirmative Action legislation enacted within the past five years is put into practice, women's representation in the higher ranks is improving substantially.

Women's under­representation at all senior levels of involvement and decision­making is self­perpetuating. Where women do not constitute a critical mass, they cannot and do not promote other women.

In addition to legislative change, the work of government bodies, non­government women's organizations and grassroots activist groups are instrumental in directing and channeling the intellectual power and leadership potential of Israeli women.


Sources: "Women's Rights in Israel," Near East Report, (December 21, 2011); "Women Knesset Members," Jewish Women's Archive; "Municipal Election Results," Arutz Sheva, (November 11, 2008);  Histadrut Leadership; Knesset; "The Histadrut," Jewish Women's Archive; Wikipedia

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