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Ultra-Orthodox Women Enter Israel’s Election Race to Anger and Protest

B’Zchutan, a party founded for and by Haredi women, has nine candidates in the March 17 vote, pushing for a greater voice and rights for what they say is an "invisible" group. But not everyone is happy about it.

by Harriet Salem
Mar 13 2015, 1:15pm

Image via Reuters

Gila Yashar was handcuffed to her hospital bed when Ruth Colian, leader of a fledgling ultra-Orthdox women's party B'Zchutan, made a surprise visit asking her to stand as a candidate in Israel's upcoming election. Falsely arrested on the orders of the head rabbi during a four-year battle to divorce her abusive husband in Israel's Beth Din [religious court], Yashur says she realized in that moment it was finally time to stand up and be counted.

"My husband calling the police was just a way to humiliate and abuse me… We [women in religious communities] have no evidence of the injustices done to us, everything happens behind closed doors," she told VICE News. "People always say ok, I agree but this is not my problem. Everything in my life is fine. I reply it can be your problem. You might think you have the perfect marriage, but everything can change in a moment."

B'Zchutan — meaning "thanks to them" in Hebrew — is a party founded for and by women of the Haredi community, one of the most conservative of all Jewish Ultra-Orthodox sects. It announced on Thursday that it was entering nine last-minute candidates into Israel's election, scheduled for March 17. The party is unlikely to win even one seat, but the women behind it say it is an important first step in giving Israel's religious women a voice.

Haredim make up approximately 10 percent of Israel's population and follow a strict interpretation of the Torah. Men dedicate much of their lives to religious study, while women are typically tasked with home making and bringing in an income, often from jobs such as working with children, and discouraged from pursuing educational opportunities or positions with professional status. In a recent interview with the Jerusalem Post, Colian said the division of labor in the community was "completely lop-sided, adding: "We are slaves, we are invisible, we are the weaker sector."

"Why shouldn't we have the same rights? Why shouldn't a man and a woman be paid the same? It's not un-Halacha [against Jewish law]," said Yashar adding that in the Haredi community breast cancer mortality rates are double that of the general population just because it's considered "immodest" to talk of cancer. "Why should women die for that?" she asked. A recent study also found that Haredi women have one of the lowest life expectancies in the country, far below that of Haredi men.

Another of the party's central demands is reform of religious courts that govern all matters to do with marriage and divorce in the communities. Currently presided over by Haredi rabbis, who have little contact with women, the courts are accused of insensitivity to issues such physical and sexual abuse of women.

"There are too many times when they're sitting there and hearing the story of an abused women and instead of [showing] sympathy they humiliate her with questions that are not relevant to the case," Hayah Eichler, spokesperson for B'Zchutan, told VICE News.

In the context of mainstream feminism the demands seem may run-of-the-mill, but in the insular and conservative Haredi communities the party has faced anger and fierce criticism for even daring to exist.

Distributing leaflets on Wednesday night in Beit Shemesh — a town 21 miles west of Jerusalem that sprang to notoriety after ultra-Orthodox men spat on an 11-year-old girl whose clothes they deemed immodest — the B'Zchutan activists met with disapproval from some of the local community.

"Beit Shemesh is one of the most difficult places. It's very closed, very conservative… People were saying it's not the place for women to be inside the Knesset. Men and women, saying it's not right, it's not modest," explained B'Zchutan's Eichler.

Only one Haredi woman, Racheli Ibenboim, has ever held a seat in the Knesset before and she was forced to step down after threats were made to her family by the community."

Only one Haredi woman, Tzvia Grinfeld, has ever held a seat in the Knesset before for the left-wing Meretz party. Another ultra-Orthodox woman, Racheli Ibenboim, was forced to step down from her in position at the Jerusalem City Council after threats were made to her family.  Although her political career has ended, Ibenboim continues to campaign for women's rights within the community as an activist.

"This is a community where you can still be ex-communicated. It's a patriarchal community led by a few extremist men, there is real resistance to change on every level," said B'Zchutan's Eichler. "But we're not advocating anything that is against Halacha [Jewish Law]," she added, noting that many women in the Torah occupied "positions of power."

While the party's leader has released an audio recording of her being "blessed" by a high-ranking rabbi to show that the women's decision to stand is accordance with Halacha, even he is too afraid to be publicly named.

The woman standing for B'Zchutan are risking a lot. Several activists have received anonymous threats that their children will be thrown out of religious schools and that relatives will be fired from their jobs if they continue their activism and the group is also subject to intimidation on social media.

"This is a process," said Yashar. "We know it's not going to happen today, or tomorrow but you have to start somewhere."

Many of those who do backB'Zchutan are too fearful to speak out publicly, but slowly and quietly the number of supporters is growing, the women say. "We have a lot of people who secretly contact us. They say, I cannot show my face, you cannot use my name in the Haredi community, but I will help you in any way I can," explained Eichler. "It's a real shift, and it's important."

Yet it is not just from inside the religiously conservative Haredi community that B'Zchutan have faced fierce criticism. An attempted meeting in Beit Al, a far-right national-religious settler community in West Bank, on Friday night was boycotted by residents after angry protests from inside the community.

While the settlers in Beit Al practice a relatively relaxed form of Judaism in comparison to Haredim, here the primary concern was that women were trying to lure voters away from the pro-settlement National Religious Party. "People here get very emotional about politics," said one woman at the event who did not want to be named but said she would not be voting for B'Zchutan. "Especially in here in Beit Al, here we will pay with our blood of our children," she added in reference to the belief that the group would take votes from the community's bulwark extreme-right parties.

There's certainly a long way to go. But the B'Zchutan women say that in such closed communities even opening the door to debate is a "revolutionary act." For women living in our community feminism is just "about burning bras," 23-year-old Malka Weinstock, who hosted the event in Beit Al, told VICE News. "But women here have a voice and we want to help them use it."

Follow Harriet Salem on Twitter: @HarrietSalem