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Dec 20, 2018

The Next Women Mayors in Israel

A Guest Post by Dr. Harold Goldmeier

Dr. Harold Goldmeier speaks for free to public forums about political and social policy matters. He teaches international university students in Israel courses in Business, Middle East Politics, Modern Zionism. Harold.goldmeier@gmail.com

Women own a political agenda different from men. My review of platforms adopted by women first and foremost address the “other” infrastructure having to do with improving the quality of life.  A slew of Israeli women candidates for mayors and local regional council leadership positions running for election in unlikely winnable races actually won. The story behind the events, to borrow a phrase, is “fraught with background.” 

The success of women in Israel’s local elections is enthralling local and international media. Haredi women fielded candidates following the August Supreme Court urging Haredi parties to lift their ban on female candidates. Throughout the summer, Haredi women, “we are the last suffragets,” demanded parity on the ballots. Hadassah Magazine (September 2018) ran an article titled, “No Voice, No Vote, Say Feminist Haredi Women in Israel.”  The ineluctable phenomenon is concomitantly linked to the large number of women candidates in America and were elected.

Let me first tell my readers that this election is our third casting of ballots since making aliyah nearly seven years ago. It continues to be a manifest feeling of privilege and inspiration to vote in a Jewish state. It is the ultimate act of ratifying homeland sovereignty and democracy. 

We live in notorious Beit Shemesh. Despite palpable tensions between secular residents, Haredim, and Modern Orthodox residents the voters and polling staff of every persuasion were helpful and happy. The long lines were a beautiful sight. Sounds sappy but true.

The morning we voted in our first election I read a story about a family voting in Israel’s first election on 25 January 1949. The nation of Israel was newly independent.  Voter turnout was 86.9%. The father woke the family early. They prayed, ate a hearty breakfast, and he instructed everyone to dress in their finest Shabbat clothes. Together they proudly marched to the polling station wherein the rabbi and his wife cast their ballots. They exited with broad smiles and beaming with pride to the wonderment of their children and others waiting to vote. I pray we can all continue to honor the gift of freedom with such joy and pride.

The 2018 local elections swept eleven women into top offices. Some are cheering this as another landmark in the advancement for women’s rising place and influence in a country whose political landscape personifies the intersection of gender, religion and power politics. Their election adds gravitas and energy coming on the heels of other recent women’s rights advancements of
•    Women accepted into combat units and pilots in the IAF
•    The appointment of Esther Hayut to President of the Supreme Court
•     President Reuven Rivlin and Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked installing Hana Mansour Khatib as first-ever female judge, or qadi, for Israel’s Sharia Court 
•    Attorney Shira Ben-Eli appointed the first woman legal advisor to the Rabbinical Court Administration

In America, “all politics are local,” said the warmhearted, jolly, tough, and astute former Speaker of the House, Tip O’Neill. In Israel, all local politics are staging areas for playing-out national politics except this time. 

For instance, Modern Orthodox, Ashkenazi, Dr. Aliza Bloch of Beit Shemesh remarkably defeated Moshe Abutbol, a Haredi, Sephardi male incumbent. Mayor Abutbol was backed by the Ultra-Orthodox. National politicians and rabbinic leaders ordered their followers to vote Abutbol back into office with the force of a religious decree. 

Abutbol’s protagonists allegedly have a well-laid long-term plan to turn Beit Shemesh into a partner with Haredi dominated cities Bnei Brak, Modi’in Illit and Betar. This block will become the base of the Ultra-Orthodox in national elections. Residents of the three cities are recognized by the government as among the poorest populations of Israeli cities with the least amount of secular education. Adding Beit Shemesh raises their profile, because of its substantial numbers of Anglo immigrants and working Haredim. In this election, one Haredi candidate dropped out of the race late supposedly at the urging of the claque, in order to consolidate support behind the incumbent when polls showed the race tightening and Bloch a real threat to the Haredi control of the city.

Religious affiliation and gender were the overriding issues and most talked about. It was an “us” against “them” kerfuffle. But Bet Shemesh voters most wanted a Mayor to improve the quality of life in the fastest growing city in Israel. Sephardim and Haredim crossed over to Bloch giving short shrift to the candidates’ heritages, national parties affiliations, religious streams, and gender. Bloch’s victory depended on 4,000 or more Haredim voting for her beyond her natural base. It was heartwarming to see a video taken when results were announced of Haredim, Sephardim, Modern Orthodox, and secular Jews joyfully dancing together in unity.  

To paraphrase one prominent modern rabbi I’m giddy with joy over Bloch’s win. His three takeaways are, It’s a miracle…a return to classic Torah, i.e., traditional Jewish concepts of Torah and rabbinic authority away from the recent hijacking of it by political interests, and…there’s a tremendous opportunity here to improve the city for everyone not just the self-interests of the Ultra-Orthodox. 

Like O’Neill warned, it’s all about local issues, the usual concerns of roads, schools, garbage, rising property taxes, etc. meant more than other considerations. One resident puts it this way: “For some people in Gimmel (a new neighborhood built especially to pack the city with more Haredim), this is why they didn't vote for Abutbol. To their credit, the Irya (city officials) built a first-rate basketball court complete with lights in Gimmel. Some religious extremists destroyed it within a week. The court has been sitting unused for about a year. The lights have never been turned on. Rather than upset the extremists and rabbonim behind them, Abutbol did nothing. Currently, it's an eyesore and tremendous waste of taxpayer $.”

The big deal about electing women to positions of leadership is they focus on the “other” infrastructure needs of a community and not national agendas. That is Mayor Bloch’s platform and that of two other women elected Mayors of their cities.
Voters re-elected the first female Mayor of Netanya, Miriam Feinberg. Feinberg is a social worker and once served as the head of Netanya’s welfare and health department. First elected Mayor in 1998, she was reelected in 2003, 2008, 2013, and again in 2018.

Feinberg is proud of her achievements expanding art and cultural events, tourism, revitalizing the look and accessibility of Netanya, using social media for city officials to better communicate with residents. Her administration dedicates services for the smooth absorption of immigrants constituting 35% of the residents from France, FSU, Ethiopia, South America, and Anglos.  Netanya has become an upscale desirable community in which to live, and the price of housing reflects the successes of Feinberg’s priorities. 

Dr. Einat Kalisch Rotem was elected Mayor of Haifa with aid from the endorsement by Ultra-Orthodox rabbis. Kalisch Rotem reportedly won in a landslide victory capturing 57.8% of the vote. A good win in politics is 52%. She earned a doctorate in architecture and urban planning. She teaches at the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology’s graduate school.

Top concerns for Kalisch Rotem are cleaning up the allegedly toxic environment from chemicals and preventing the expansion of refineries in Haifa Bay. “We are ruining our bay, giving it up to the industries instead of to tourism, sailing, water sports,” she claimed three years earlier. Better public health services remain her priority including investing more money to reduce air pollution, modernize monitoring stations and standards, and make Haifa a cancer-free city from environmental causes.

 On Facebook, I asked members of a Bet Shemesh group their top agenda items for the new Mayor. The unscientific poll responses largely fell to matters including
•    Better city planning, diversifying architecture, and reducing the urban plight
•    Safer schools and more of them with better construction, smoke alarms and exits   
•    The quality of education, youth counseling and recreational services must be upgraded for all children including special needs students
•    Expanding accessibility to local healthcare
•    Cleaning streets, garbage pick up and litter control
•    Expanding local art and cultural events
•    Building and maintaining parks, green strips, sports, and recreational facilities, and youth centers for alienated and latchkey teens

Improving quality of life tops the agenda of women elected officials. They don’t give short shrift to foreign affairs, security issues or national political aspirations, but voters can count on quality of life issues topping the agendas. Women are realizing what men have known that winning elections is the tour de force for change. My wish for newly elected city leaders is from Dr. Seuss in Oh, The Places You’ll Go! “So be sure when you step, Step with care and great tact. And remember that life's A Great Balancing Act. And will you succeed? Yes! You will, indeed! (98 and ¾ percent guaranteed) Kid(s), you'll move mountains.”

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1 comment:

  1. One deatil of your coverage of Mayor Boch is off. She's just as Sephardic Moroccan(nee Ben Hammou) as the incumbent Mayor. Her background, experience and energy made her appealing to a lot of groupsin Bet Shemesh that you might not have expected her to garner votes from (including a number of Chareidim who managed the instruction that they weren't allowed to vote for a female candidate for mayor by not voting for mayor but only city council) but ultimately it was the votes of all the soldiers from their bases coming in a day later with other people who couldn't get to the polls that put her over the top.


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