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When women are given a seat at the table, the results will be better for all

Ittay Flescher
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Yael Yechieli speaking in the Knesset (supplied).

Published: 7 March 2024

Last updated: 12 April 2024

ITTAY FLESCHER meets YAEL YECHIELI, driving force behind the movement struggling for gender equality in Israel.

Yael Yechieli has been a feminist for many years, but after Israel’s election in November 2022, she knew that her activism needed to take the next step. Seeing the double calamity of Israel’s most right-wing government since its establishment come to power and the fact that only nine of the 64 coalition MKs were women, was of great concern to her.

On the day following the election, she formed a new organisation called Project 50:50. The initiative aims to achieve an equal 50-50 representation of women and men in all decision-making bodies, from the Knesset to local authorities and public NGOs.

Speaking to Plus61J from her home in Jerusalem, Yechieli explained that unlike some other feminists who seek to exclude men entirely from decision making, the 50:50 project emphasises the importance of partnership. “We oppose councils with only women just as we oppose councils with only men. The best outcomes happen when decision makers have representation from all the population, meaning a 50:50 split.” 

In between that election and today, Israel has experienced two major crises, and Yechieli attributes both in part to ignoring the voices of women. The first was the judicial overhaul, a plan to decimate the power of the courts largely designed by men that if implemented, would have dramatically expanded the power of Orthodox Rabbinic courts and weakened the rights of women across Israel.

The second was the October 7 attack, which was in part caused by male army generals routinely ignoring, dismissing and even threatening to punish several IDF junior female surveillance spotters who had been warning about the planned Hamas attack for several months.

A week after Israel’s municipal elections held on February 27, Yechieli was extremely proud of the gains made by her movement. After the 2018 election, only 16% of those elected to municipal councils were women. While the final results of the 2023 election are not yet out, there are now over 10 municipal councils in Israel that will have 50:50 representation for the first time, and many more women were elected than in 2018.

Yael Yechieli speaking at the launch of Project 50:50 in Tel Aviv
Yael Yechieli speaking at the launch of Project 50:50 in Tel Aviv

Asked how they made this change, she explained that in the year leading up to the municipal elections, volunteers from her movement approached several party leaders in majority secular districts for meetings, encouraging them to adopt a zipper list, meaning the candidates alternate from male to female in the top four places.

Yechieli also spoke about her time living in the US during 2020, where she noticed that States and municipalities with greater numbers of women in positions of leadership often took very different approaches to tackling Covid.

At the height of the pandemic, there was much praise for the manner in which the female leaders of Finland, New Zealand, Bangladesh, Barbados, Denmark and Taiwan demonstrated exceptional crisis management qualities that increased the willingness of their citizens to adhere to life-saving restrictions. This approach has been affirmed by academic research on the subject published in 2023.

One day, the Knesset should pass a law banning political parties that exclude women from their lists.

Yael Yechieli

Another turning point for Yechieli was the passing of former US Supreme Court Judge Ruth Bader Ginsburg, which made her even more driven to act, especially in view of  the appointment of Rachel Freier as the first Hasidic female justice to serve on the New York Supreme Court.

“In Israel, this would be impossible, because Haredi women aren’t even given the opportunity to study law at university,” she said, hoping that “one day, the Knesset should pass a law banning political parties that exclude women from their lists”.

Such a law already exists in France where in 2000, Socialist prime minister Lionel Jospin introduced a law forcing the lists for regional, municipal, senatorial and European elections to respect gender balance in order to be registered.

In 2021, France also adopted a bill which imposed quotas for the representation of women in the leadership positions of large corporations, defined as corporations of 1,000 or more employees.

In the most recent ranking of women’s representation in national parliaments, France now sits in 33rd place, with Australia in 58 and Israel at 62. Interestingly, the country who sits at number 1 is Rwanda, a nation that radically transformed its political system after the horrific Tutsi genocide of 1994.  

When asked about whether the Haredim’s policy of not running women on their political party lists has undermined religious pluralism and the importance of reflecting the will of the majority in Haredi communities, Yechieli explained that there is a huge difference between a moral and a democratic decision.

Volunteers from Project 50:50 protesting the judicial overhaul.
Volunteers from Project 50:50 protesting the judicial overhaul.

“If a whole class of students voted to throw a chair at a child they didn’t like, this would be democratic, but it wouldn’t be moral. Beyond the will of the majority, our society must also be guided by the rules of morality.”  

When Israel’s first government was formed in 1949, there was one female minister. This didn’t come about because of a popular vote. It happened because Israel’s first Prime Minister David Ben Gurion said he wouldn’t swear in a cabinet with no women, thus promoting Golda Meir to the position of Israel’s first Minister of Labour and Social Security.

Because 50:50 isn’t a single-issue movement, nor a women’s movement, people struggle to understand it.

At the same time, New Zealand also had one female minister in the cabinet, whereas today they are 50%. In Israel, women still only make up 25% of the current Knesset. Labor and Meretz are the only parties that have guaranteed 50:50 representation. The two haredi Parties of Shas and UTJ don’t allow women to stand for office at all.

Looking forward, Yechieli plans to expand the 50:50 initiative into Arab and Haredi municipalities to address the cultural barriers to women’s representation in these areas. One of them is from the corporate world.

“We have thus far been unable to gain support from major foundations, who look at the issue of representation through the lens of women’s organisations, that tend to mainly focus on issues like domestic violence or paid parental leave. Because 50:50 isn’t a single-issue movement, nor a women’s movement, people find it harder to understand us, as we aren’t trying to lobby on a specific topic,” she said.

Reflecting on Israel’s current dire gender situation since the Hamas war started - many women have had to take the roles of their partners both at home and at work (with over 200,000 men being drafted into the army reserves), Yechieli believes women’s views regarding how Israel fights the war are more important than ever.

Given that most Israeli security experts are heavily weighted towards men, Israel is missing out on having many creative solutions placed on the table for consideration, especially in hostage negotiations. “When women are around the decision-making table, the outcomes on matters such as peace, security, economy and education will be much better for all,” she said.

About the author

Ittay Flescher

Ittay Flescher is the Jerusalem correspondent for Plus61JMedia. Since moving to Israel in 2018 from Melbourne, where he was a high school teacher for 15 years, Ittay has been collecting stories about the people with whom he shares Jerusalem. He is also the Education Director at a youth movement that brings together Israeli and Palestinian teenagers to work towards equality, justice, and peace.

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