Women in Israeli Politics

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Women are also underrepresented in local government, although there has been a steady increase in the percentage of women in local councils. Between 1948 and 1996, only three women have served as mayors of municipalities. In 2011, sic out of 154 mayors of cities and town in Israel are women. The number of women in local politics has increased steadily, from 4.2% of local representatives in 1950 to 15% in 1998. In addition, close to 60% of employees in Israel's civil service and public sector are women, though they tend to be concentrated at the lower levels of the hierarchy.

Women often participate in political parties, and most parties include a women's division that promotes women's interests within the party. Women, however, are underrepresented in the party's leadership. Many of the major parties have instituted internal standards regarding the percentage of women in leadership positions, but these standards have not been applied to the party lists for Knesset elections.

Israeli Politics & Society

Why are women underrepresented on all levels of Israeli politics? Naomi Chazan, former Knesset member, argues that the political structure itself makes it difficult for women to rise to power. In Israeli politics, politicians tend to advance through the political parties, the army, and the local government, all of which lack proportional representation by women.

But why is there such a low percentage of women in all of these institutions? Chazan also attributes the lack of women leaders in Israeli public life to Israeli culture's emphasis on the traditional family. Particularly in their child-rearing years, women are encouraged to focus on home and family, rather than pursuing demanding careers. As a result, by the time women would begin to enter politics, they are at a significant disadvantage to their male counterparts, whose political careers are well under way.

Yael Yishai, in Between the Flag and the Banner: Women in Israeli Politics, explains that Israeli society pressures women to place the interests of the country over those of women as a particular group. Israel is a nation built on a well articulated collective vision, both as a result of its unique ideology as a Jewish nation-state, and its constant coping with external threats. This vision demands devotion from its adherents, often at the expense of their particular subgroup. Women, therefore, are encouraged to contribute to the collective national vision rather than the particular feminist vision. Their role in the national vision, furthermore, has often been limited to being supportive and nurturing wives and mothers.

The Future

What can we expect in the coming years for women in Israeli politics? The trends in the last several years give some grounds for optimism, with increasing numbers of women in top leadership positions. Yet Israel still has a long way to go before it can successfully realize the ideal of equality of men and women. Entrenched cultural assumptions and the political structure itself remain barriers to women's full participation in all levels of Israeli politics.

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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.