While more women than ever are running for municipal government in Israel in the local elections of 2013, Moran Nagid stresses that this is not enough. In this article, she surveys the unique appeal of local politics for women in Israel and suggests a means of improving the situation.
On Tuesday, October 22, 2013, local elections will be held in Israel. The crisis in voter turnout and trust that faces Israeli democracy is even more severe when it comes to local politics. In 2008, when the last elections were held, the Israeli voter showed a lack of interest in local politics and the voting rate is in decline. Although no one can predict whether the upcoming municipal elections will mark a real change in voter turnout, a female wind of change is blowing in the current election campaign.
The current election campaign brings tidings of increased women's representation in local politics in Israel, as an unprecedented number of women are running for mayor or city council—including in the Arab and ultra-Orthodox sectors. Women are running for office in 44 of 73 Arab municipalities, and on half of the lists in which women are running, women are in the top five spots. In addition, for the first time, a list of women is competing in the elections in the ultra-Orthodox city of Elad.
What Motivates Women to Participate in Local Politics?
The rise in women's participation in local politics may reflect a desire to participate in decision-making processes. This assertion is consistent with the fact that in the 2013 elections for the 19th Knesset, a record number of women were elected. However, it seems that participation of women in politics at the local level is qualitatively different from other areas in which women participate, since the local level is particularly well-suited for effecting change, and this is especially true in the case of women.
The strong affinity of women to local politics is connected to the fact that the issues on the agenda of the municipality are familiar to women and especially relevant to them. In an interview in Yedioth Ahronoth, Michal Zernowitski, the head of "Ir "Va-Em," the "mothers' party" in the ultra-Orthodox city of Elad, has explained the matter this way:
"Ultimately, the women of the city are the ones who spend more time in Elad; they are the ones who use public transportation more; they are the ones who spend many hours in the parks and gardens; they are the ones who interact with the teachers and principals of kindergartens, day care centers and schools, and are the ones who organize activities for their children in the afternoons and school vacations. The mothers in Elad are the ones who go to the well-baby clinics and, in most cases, to the health clinics too. Therefore, it's only natural for women and mothers to be the ones to take care of all of these matters on the city council. And we shouldn't forget that these issues are the basic foundation of services for the city's residents."
Women are running for several local councils in Israel in order to impact issues that touch their lives and the lives of their families and children. They wish to change the processes of local decision making, which they believe lack the perspective of women and mothers.
In my view, however, women are motivated to participate in local politics by more than just an affinity to the areas of activity in which local authorities are involved. Local politics by its very nature is accessible to women and encourages their participation. It is conducive to women because the impediments that characterize national politics are much less pronounced at the local level. In addition, the physical and substantive proximity between elected officials and voters in local politics makes it easier to find a connection between the needs of the residents and the platforms of the representatives. Thanks to the direct and unmediated connection with the electorate in local politics, women do not need partisan political support or even a large amount of capital in order to run. Thus, for example, the ultra-Orthodox women running for city council in Elad did not wage a conventional campaign, their pictures did not appear on posters and signs, and they did not have the backing of an established political party; rather, they gained their support through word of mouth, by means of "a friend brings a friend."
Local politics is also attractive to women because it allows for cooperation and alliances based on agreement on local issues. This is in contrast to national politics, where alliances are based on agreement on controversial political and ideological issues. Local politics enables individuals who do not necessarily have similar ideologies to unite around a common social objective and run together for the local council. This explains how an Ashkenazic woman, a Sephardic woman, a woman from the "Lithuanian" branch of Orthodoxy, a Hasidic woman, and a woman from the national-religious community were able to form a joint list to promote the interests of women and mothers in Elad. Although these women probably have different lifestyles and views, they managed to unite as women based on agreement on the interests that they share, in order to advance them effectively on the local level.
Is Local Politics a Stepping Stone to National Politics?
Although involvement in local politics can serve as a convenient springboard to national politics, this is not necessarily the case. There are some goals that are best served through local politics and that may be hindered by transferring involvement to the national level. For example, while the feminist movement in Israel emerged in the early 1970s and became established on the local level, its effort to become a national movement failed. Nevertheless, change on the local level can lead to change on the national level. A good example of this can be found in the struggle of women in pre-state Israel for the right to vote. This initiative began in Rishon Letzion in 1919 and spread to the other communities of the Yishuv in 1920 following its success in that locale.
Municipal politics is not limited to being local. Women see their candidacy in one locality as shared with women running for the local authority in other places. This strengthens their ability to act and have influence beyond their local area. In this way, local politics can serve as an effective and convenient instrument for promoting social goals and agendas that ultimately affect all of society, independent of national politics.
Perhaps this realization is what led MK Haneen Zoabi to give up her seat as the first female Arab Knesset member of an Arab party and announce her candidacy for mayor of Nazareth. In a press release, she stated: "My candidacy has significance beyond the borders of this city, which is the capital of the Arab public ... This is the first time an Arab woman is running for mayor in a direct election."
A Great Deal Remains to be Done
Changes are indeed taking place in local politics in Israel, but they are not enough. Only 12% of the elected officials in local authorities in Israel are women. Only 376 women have been elected to municipal councils out of 3,250 elected council members. Similarly, of 255 heads of local councils, only five are women. Research by the Knesset Research and Information Center found that the percentage of women elected to local authorities in Israel is lower than in any other country included in the study. In 38% of the local authorities examined in that study, there are no women on the municipal council whatsoever.
In order to change this reality, increase women's representation, and boost women's influence, we must recognize that women still face significant impediments that prevent their involvement in politics. One way of countering these obstacles could be setting quotas for suitable representation of women in local government. This would enable more involvement of women in local government—a place that is so natural for them, but from which they are absent nonetheless.
Moran Nagid is a member of the research staff of IDI's Democratic Principles project.
This article was published in Hebrew on the Walla news portal on October 16, 2013.
For a Hebrew version of this article that includes sources and references from the Hebrew press, see the IDI Hebrew website.