The sad lesson I learned when I ran for Israeli parliament

'My wife is great at running our home,' said one man. But the most painful comments came from the women

Elana Maryles Sztokman
New York
Friday 13 March 2020 20:38 GMT
Not a single woman participated in any of the failed coalition talks with Netanyahu's government
Not a single woman participated in any of the failed coalition talks with Netanyahu's government (JACK GUEZ/AFP via Getty Images)

On December 14, 2019, 87 days before the recent Israeli election – the third in a year-long political stalemate – I sat with a group of women and decided to form a new party. It would be a women’s party, and we were hopeful it could achieve great things. What I learnt was a hard lesson in Israelis’ attitudes toward my gender.

I just wasn’t prepared for some of what we encountered – from men, and more painfully, from women. I’ve been active in advancing gender equality in Israel for 25 years, but I didn’t quite realise how bad things could get.

We knew that the odds were against us, not only because of the time crunch, but mostly because Israelis were obsessing over one issue: whether Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu, awaiting trial on corruption charges, could finally be deposed by his rival Benny Gantz. Nevertheless, we decided to take our chances. We thought we could capitalize on discontent with the system and channel a message of new leadership. After all, the sole female prime minister was elected in 1969, and not a single woman participated in any of the failed coalition negotiations.

Plus, I thought Israel was having a gender moment. Although #MeToo was late to arrive and not particularly formidable, there is a grassroots women’s uprising in the country. In December 2018, after the twenty-third woman was murdered that year by a family member, and the government failed yet again to transfer an allocated 250 million NIS to prevent violence against women, 100,000 women took to the streets in a Woman’s Strike, the largest ever women’s protest in Israel. I thought: If we can mobilize those 100,000 women towards collective electoral power, we could finally make change.

At first, we saw many positive signs. We needed 100 women’s signatures to form the party and got 200 within days. We swiftly recruited an impressive and diverse list of 100 powerful candidates. We conducted an early internal poll showing that we could potentially get eight out of 120 parliamentary seats.

Then the obstacles arrived. Over a barbecue, my friend’s husband said that “women MKs don’t do anything but make noise.” I began to argue but was spoken over and then ignored. Another husband showed up to a party event and interrupted every exchange to tell us why Netanyahu was far superior. And dozens of people told us that this was “not the right time” to press on “minor” issues like gender, as if there ever is one.

The worst was the mockery. When we went to the Kiryat Shmona market, a produce vendor joked, “I’m the abused one in the family,” as he collected money from customers. “It’s a great idea – my wife is great at running our home,” another vendor at the Machane Yehuda market in Jerusalem laughed.

A comment on Facebook called the idea of a women’s party a “joke”. And one of our own media advisers told us not to use the words “women’s leadership” because he said it sounded “pathetic”.

Interactions with women were sometimes the most jarring. In a typical reaction, a feminist scholar who I admire(d) and who was offered a top spot on the list said, “I’m not interested. I wouldn’t vote for you. You have no chance.”

Another friend, a religious advocate for sexual abuse survivors and frequent lecturer to women-only groups, seemed to wilfully miss the point. “Why are you excluding men? Are you saying that there are no good men out there?” she asked. Cue facepalm.

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Indeed, many self-identified feminists were against us. A woman with whom I flew to Cyprus to support the victim of the Aya Napa gang rape accused me of not doing enough on the issue of sexual violence. Other feminists complained that our agenda was too narrow – if we weren’t anti-religious and anti-occupation, we could not claim to be feminists and our women’s party wasn’t legitimate.

Ironically, we never actually claimed to be feminists. Early on, the party decided not to use the word “feminist” so as to avoid generating antagonism. As a proud feminist myself, I bowed to the decision, and bit my tongue as I was told that feminists were thought of by most people as “radical” or “angry”.

The campaign left me both inspired and deflated. We ended up getting 2,777 votes – and I am grateful for every single one. But over 800 of our voters were lone supporters in their towns. And we didn’t achieve a single seat in parliament with those sorts of numbers.

Those facts tell us that our message spread widely – but it also says that many people seeking power for women may feel lonely. I can understand why.

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