Women in Israeli Politics

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Role in Public Life

Yet this progressive legislation sharply contrasts with women's actual role in public life. In the state's history, women have been vastly underrepresented in all levels of Israeli politics, from the cabinet to local government. In recent years, however, there has been some progress, particularly in the Knesset.

Between the founding of Israel in 1948, and the fourteenth Knesset in 1996 only 6 women served in the cabinet of Israel. In 2011, only three out of the 30 cabinet ministers are women.

The most significant exception regarding women's leadership in Israel's cabinet is, of course, Golda Meir, who served as Israel's prime minister from 1969 to 1974. Golda Meir is often seen as the symbol of women's equality in Israeli politics. Meir, however, did not promote women's interests in her legislative activity, and did not appoint any other female ministers. She took pride in her description as "the only man in the cabinet," and did not see herself as suffering from discrimination on account of her gender. In her autobiography, My Life, she asserted that, "being a woman has never hindered me in any way at all."

She also took care not to repudiate traditional gender expectations by focusing on her role as mother and homemaker. Her book includes many photographs of her strolling with her baby grandchild, and her famous kitchen was a meeting place where many critical state decisions were made. Other women in the Israeli cabinet have followed Meir's example by promoting their general political interests rather than focusing on women's interests.

In the Knesset, as in the cabinet, women have been underrepresented. Until the 14th Knesset, between eight to ten women served as members of the Knesset at a time out of a total of 120. The number of women increased to 16 in the 15th Knesset, 18 in the 16th Knesset, 17 in the 17th Knesset, and 25 in the 18th Knesset. This rate of representation, however, remains low relative to other western countries.

Modest Improvements

In recent years, women have increasingly risen to positions of leadership in the Knesset. In May 2006, Dalia Itzik became the first female Speaker of the Knesset. In late 2008, Tzipi Livni became the leader of Kadima, the Knesset’s largest party, and, following the 2009 elections, the Opposition Leader in the Knesset. Women are also beginning to serve on more powerful committees. Until 1984, there were no women members of either the Foreign Affairs and Security Committee, or the Finance Committee, but there have been women on both committees recently. Yet the number of women on these committees still remains small.

In the judiciary, the number of women, particularly in powerful roles, has also been rising. In 2006, Dorit Beinish became the president of the Supreme Court. Five out of the 14 Supreme Court justices in 2011 were women. Half of Israel's magistrate and district courts' judges are women, so the number of female Supreme Court justices is expected to continue to rise.

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Rachael Gelfman Schultz

Rachael Gelfman Schultz holds a B.A. in religion from Harvard University, and completed her M.A. in Jewish Civilization at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. She is a Jewish educator in Karmiel, Israel.