Sisterhood Blog

Reversing Israel's Chronic Underrepresentation of Women in Politics

By Elana Maryles Sztokman

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The City of Modi’in, Israel may yet see 50% female representation on its city council in the next election. Mayor Haim Bibas, speaking recently at an evening dedicated to women in leadership, 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,” the event organizer and panel moderator Yifat Zamir, Executive Director of the organization We Power, said.

But equal representation has thus far remained elusive in Israel. According to Zamir, there are only six women mayors in Israel, out of 154 cities and towns — that’s 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 with only three women on it.

“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.”

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. The organization runs 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 — 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 Ovadia 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.

“Promoting more women in power is not just for the women,” Mayor Bibas 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.


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