A Hiddush special report on Women on Israel's Religious Councils

80% of Israel's religious councils have only one woman

Only 70 women currently serve nationwide (on 58 of Israel's religious councils). They represent 17% of the total 407 religious council members throughout Israel.

A woman reading Torah, source: WikipediaA woman reading Torah, source: Wikipedia

These findings of Hiddush's research, which was conducted in honor of Women's Day, were very troubling. Hiddush has actively monitored and pursued this matter since publishing its 2011 Report on Women on Religious Councils.

In response to Hiddush's demands, Israel's Attorney General required the Ministry of Religious Services to appoint women to at least 30% of the positions on Israel's religious councils and to appoint them to senior roles. Hiddush's most recent research, as of February 27, 2017, shows that only 20 councils adhere to the Attorney General's requirements. Nationwide, as reported above, women constitute only 17% of religious council members, and only 4 women nationwide serve in senior positions. Gender equality is a glaring area in which the official religious establishment blatantly refuses to accept Israel's core values as a Jewish and democratic state. Hiddush and partnering organizations will soon challenge this ongoing discriminatory policy before the Supreme Court!

Throughout Israel there are 132 municipal religious councils which oversee and fund the rendering of religious services to the Jewish population in their respective communities. They are meant to be democratically elected. However, since the law governing the creation of these councils was designed to primarily cater to political interests, it requires “advice and consent” by the local municipal council, the local chief rabbi(s) and the Minister of Religious Services. This is a sure prescription for trouble and deadlocks, and it’s no wonder that 74 of the 132 councils (that's 56%!) remain un-elected.

By law, these 74 un-elected religious councils are replaced with two appointees, selected by the Minister of Religious Services, who are responsible for administrating local religious affairs instead of a full panel of Religious Council members (who would represent the diverse makeup of the local municipal council). The appointment process gives further political clout and control to the Minister. An ongoing, systemic failure in this process, which Hiddush has taken up, is the conscious and intentional disregard for the principle of gender equality when appointing for these senior positions. This is, we maintain, in breach of Article 6 of the 1951 Law of Equal Rights for Women, which mandates that women should be equally represented in public bodies, if they possess the necessary qualifications. It also disregards repeated Supreme Court rulings regarding gender equality considerations, and is in breach of the Attorney General’s most recent directive, following Hiddush’s intervention.

Last August, following Hiddush's demands, a directive came from Israel's Deputy Attorney General, Attorney Erez Kamenetz, to the Ministry of Religious Services to appoint women to at least 30% of the positions on Israel's religious councils and appoint them to senior roles. The Attorney General instructed that the councils with 5 members should include at least 1 woman, the councils with 7 members should include at least 2 women, and the councils with 9 or 11 members should include at least 3 women. However, of the 57 councils with female members, only 20 (35%) meet these requirements. Of these 20 councils, 11 have only a single female representative, but they meet the Attorney General's requirements due to their small sizes. Even the newly established religious councils, which were created after the Attorney General's directive in August 2016, do not meet this fundamental requirement, with the exception of one council.

The Shas party's Religious Services Minister Azoulay has not appointed a single woman, despite Israeli law and the commitment the Ministry made to the Attorney General's office

46 councils (79% of those that are elected, rather than appointed by the Ministry of Religious Services) include only 1 female member each. The councils that exceed the Attorney General's minimum requirements are: Sdot Negev, Kiryat Bialik, Oranit, Efrat, and Raanana, which has the highest number of female council members (4). In order for all religious councils nationwide to operate in accordance with the Attorney General's requirements, it would be necessary to appoint another 49 female council members.

These findings are based upon the Official Government Gazette, combined with direct communications with the religious councils, including those that are over the Green Line, which do not appear in the Gazette. Only 44% of Israel's municipalities have elected religious councils - the rest have appointees selected by the Ministry of Religious Services, in lieu of elected councils.

The Shas party's Religious Services Minister Azoulay has not appointed a single woman, despite Israeli law and the commitment the Ministry made to the AG office in the past to exercise affirmative action in this arena. Minister Azoulay explains his refusal to appoint women as “appointees” over religious councils, arguing that he cannot replace appointees who have been filling those roles for years. It not only unreasonable that appointees cannot be replaced, but it provides the Minister with an excuse for not appointing women to meet the gender equality requirement. The Attorney General requires that at least one of every two political appointees selected by Minister Azoulay be a woman.

To date, only 4 women have been appointed to this senior position (in the 4 cities of Yavne, Netivot, Acre and Nazareth) and only last year(!), while Minister Azoulay extended the terms of male appointees in 18 municipalities! Hiddush is currently working on a petition to the Supreme Court, in cooperation with other organizations, requiring the Religious Services Ministry to submit to the Attorney General's requirement to appoint at least one woman for every municipality without an elected religious council and to ensure that all new religious councils are comprised of at least 30% female members.

The religious councils are but one example of the politicization of religion and state matters in Israel, and of the religious establishment's deliberate disregard for fundamental principles of religious freedom, equality, proper governance, and compliance with civil law and court rulings. Gender equality is an area in which the official state religious establishment refuses to internalize the fundamental values of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state, for which the equal status of women in society is a central and essential element. On International Women's Day, we must be aware that this societal battle wages on, making progress in countering this institutionalized discrimination, albeit at a slow and frustrating pace. The struggle for representation of women on religious councils is a clear example of the importance of the activities of civil society organizations. The NGO community and the need to safeguard the independent judiciary are essential for promoting the fundamental values of democracy. They are supported by the overwhelming majority of the Israeli public, in the face of the cynicism and political horse-trading exemplified by the leading powers in the Israeli Knesset and government.

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