Small step forward

Following Hiddush report, Margi Undertakes to Appoint Women to Religious Councils

In a letter to Hiddush head Rabbi Uri Regev, the religious affairs minister writes that Shas leader Rabbi Ovadia Yosef also favors appointing women council members. Regev: ‘Breakthrough is welcome but Shas still views women as decoration and not a single woman is in charge of a council’

Religious Services Minister, Yaakov Margi. 24.10.2007. Photo: Michal Patal, Flash 90Religious Services Minister, Yaakov Margi. 24.10.2007. Photo: Michal Patal, Flash 90

The leader of Shas, Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, supports appointing women to religious councils, Religious Affairs Minister Yaakov Margi of Shas says in a letter to the head of Hiddush, Rabbi Uri Regev. Margi declares that he “will work to improve the representation of women in the makeup of the religious councils that will be appointed in the future.” However, he confirmed that he has appointed some 40 men to head councils (and not a single woman), and claims that he did so “according to personal qualifications.”

This is the first time Shas has announced its formal support for appointing women to religious councils. In the past the party approved such moves reluctantly, in an attempt to block the appointment of Reform and Conservative representatives. Just a few years ago the party’s representative was still trying to torpedo the appointment of a women to the religious council in Acre.

Margi sent his letter in response to the Hiddush report “Women on Religious Councils, the Revolution that Wasn’t,” which came out in early March of this year ahead of International Women’s Day on March 8. The report revealed that 23 years after the Shakdiel verdict, which ruled that women must not be discriminated against in appointing religious councils, only 22 women serve on them. Women constitute just 5% of council members, or one woman out of every 20 members. The report further reveals that there is not a single chairwoman of a religious council. Nearly half of the religious councils are headed by appointees of the religious affairs minister, in lieu of a chairperson, all of them men.

In the wake of the report’s harsh findings, Hiddush head Rabbi Uri Regev wrote to Israel’s attorney general, Yehuda Weinstein, and to Religious Affairs Minister Margi, informing them that unless significant steps are taken to achieve gender parity at all levels on the religious councils, Hiddush will petition the High Court of Justice. “Such serious discrimination, on such a broad scale, is unforgivable and intolerable and cannot be accepted,” Regev wrote.

In his letter of reply, Margi writes that since taking up his post he has appointed 26 women to religious councils. The Hiddush report found that Margi had appointed only 20

Such serious discrimination, on such a broad scale, is unforgivable

women by the beginning of March. Apparently the minister includes in his calculation councils whose makeup remains incomplete.

“Such a large number of women on the religious councils in a period of two years was not appointed in the entire history of the ministry in its various incarnations,” Margi writes. The minister says that his office introduced a directive stipulating that, “the local authorities and rabbis ought to work toward appointing women to the religious councils. As an aside, I will note that this directive also meets with the opinion of the Rishon Lezion Rabbi Ovadia Yosef Shlita.”

According to Margi, legal interpretation of the Women’s Rights Law constrains his ability to compel city councils and rabbis to appoint women. Margi’s reply concerning the important issue of appointing overseers for religious councils that have no makeup is far more problematic. He says that he appointed 20 teams of overseers (usually two people) “based on personal qualifications of experience and relevant education and after receiving the local authority’s recommendation.”

Hiddush head Rabbi Uri Regev welcomed “the breakthrough in the positions of Shas’ leader and the religious affairs minister.” However, he added that, “the fact that only one religious council has more than one woman member shows that Shas still views women as decoration and not as partners to decision making, and that the religious establishment has yet to internalize the principle that women have equal standing. The explanation that out of dozens of council heads the minister was unable to find a single suitable woman is embarassing and baseless.

“With all due appreciation for the progress the minister reports,” Regev insists “that the legal obligation to appoint women to public posts be implemented in practice to the letter, and not merely as a fig leaf. This obligation was repeatedly underscored by the Supreme Court, and the time has come for the religious councils establishment to internalize the fact that women are worthy of serving not only as secretaries and ritual bathhouse attendants, but also as council members and overseers.” Regev further stated that, “Hiddush and other organizations will go to court if the minister and attorney general fail to implement the instructions of the law regarding gender equality.”

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