Israeli female leaders of all ideological stripes are lauding the historic 2020 presidential election, in which Senator Kamala Harris of California broke several barriers at once, about to become the first woman, first black and first South Asian to be vice president of the most powerful nation on earth.
“Kamala Harris’ election as VP is a celebration for all women, another big crash through yet another glass ceiling. This is a great present we gave ourselves for the 100th anniversary of the 19th Amendment and the vote [for American women],” says MK Merav Michaeli of Labor.
“I have every faith that President Joe Biden and VP Kamala Harris will work to create a much more equal society for all and I am working on following their footsteps to create a better future here in Israel,” Michaeli says.
Harris' election also won praise from Likud MK Sharren Haskel, on the other side of the spectrum.
“Congratulations to Kamala Harris. It’s amazing to see a woman like Kamala breaking a glass ceiling and reaching such a key position in leadership, as vice president of the U.S.A.," says Haskel.
"Kamala’s story is an inspiration to so many little girls from various ethnicities. Although I hold a different point of view and ideology from her, I am very glad she was elected and hope she will be a very proactive vice president,” she says.
Male legislators such as MK Oded Forer of Yisrael Beitenu, who chairs the Knesset Committee on the Status of Women and Gender Equality, also expressed their well wishes.
“In addition to the congratulations to the president-elect, I would like to congratulate his vice president, Kamala Harris, who gives hope to girls all over the world and represents the world in which we want to raise our daughters: the world of unlimited opportunities,” Forer says.
“I’m deeply moved and excited,” says former MK Einat Wilf of Harris' election.
“It has ramifications far beyond the United States. People look to the U.S. as a kind of trend-setting country. … [While] much of the Western world is well ahead of the United States when it comes to the status of women, this is still a top position and she might even end up being [president].”
Israel is ahead of the U.S. in the sense that it can boast having had a woman in its most senior governmental position, with Golda Meir serving as prime minister from 1969 to 1974.
However, there is debate in Israel on just how much progress Meir represented.
“I wouldn’t say there was such progress before [with the election of Meir]. She was the sole woman, there by herself in the government, and when she left, it was done. There were no more women,” says Michal Gera Margaliot, executive director of the Israel Women’s Network.
“It’s very difficult to talk about gender equality with the same perspective after 50 years, but she didn’t see herself as a feminist and it wasn’t important for her to promote other women," Margaliot says.
"I think that a lot of her legislation involved social policies like laws protecting pregnant women, which I think is feminist, but she didn’t do it from a feminist point of view."
Margaliot contrasts that point of view with the vice president-elect’s attitude, as indicated in her speech Saturday evening after the race was called for Biden, when Harris said: “While I may be the first woman in this office I will not be the last.”
This indicates the priority she places on helping more women get elected to political office, but also her understanding of her position as a role model for all girls, who now understand that a woman can lead in the executive branch, Margaliot says.
“We know that we can’t be what we can’t see, and the fact that Kamala Harris acknowledged that was inspiring and emotional because she … knows what it means for others. I think it’s incredible,” she says.
While celebrating Harris’s win, Israeli female leaders feel less optimistic about the chances to replicate her success in the political arena at home.
In the 51 years since Meir assumed office, only one other woman has come close to the premiership when Tzipi Livni, who was designated acting prime minister from 2006 to 2009.
Wilf says the prime ministerial position has eluded women in part because of the influence the religious parties hold in conservative Israeli politics.
“I think a part of it has to do with the fact that we’ve had quite a few decades of right-wing governments that rested on Haredi parties that tend to be generally anti-women in positions of power,” she says.
“Even though there is far greater female representation in the parliament since the time of Golda, it has not yet translated into more women in high positions of government and in the Prime Minister’s Office.”
The structure of Israel’s parliamentary system makes it more difficult for women to attain these offices than in the US presidential system, Wilf says.
“If someone decides half of their cabinet is going to be women and they operate in a political system where [he or she] chooses the cabinet ministers, then that person can decide in 2020 and just do so,” she says.
“If it’s like the Israeli parliamentary system, where cabinet ministers are a part of the horse-trading between parties, your ability to be a senior minister will depend on the fact that you bring independent political power. You have your own party.
“For example,” she says, “Tzipi Livni was able to be a senior minister when she had her own party and was able to negotiate with that power base.”
“In my opinion, more parties need to be led by women and to have primaries. The more that happens, the more women will participate in politics,” she said.
While it might be easier for women to gain senior positions in U.S. government, as evidenced by the Biden-Harris win, the recent election results did not yield all positive results for women.
A total of 117 women were elected to Congress, which is 10 fewer than two years ago.
In addition, while the most-ever Republican women were elected to the House of Representatives (12), there is still a large gender gap when it comes to women being represented in right-wing politics, something which differentiates the U.S. from Israel.
“One of the differences between U.S. and Israel is that in the U.S. there is a huge gap in representation between the Democrats and Republicans. While there is a gap between Israel’s center-left wing and right wing, the difference is much smaller than in America,” Margaliot says.
In 2018, Republicans comprised approximately 13% of the 102 women elected to the House.
When it comes to the future of Israeli women in politics, Margaliot said the progress is not linear.
The Israeli government sworn in last May included a record number of women (eight) as cabinet ministers. However, they did not get the top ministries. Miri Regev was tasked to lead the Transportation Ministry, but she had been angling for the position of foreign minister.
“We see all kinds of progress but unfortunately it’s not linear and it’s not secure, at least not yet, but we will make it happen, We can talk about the right to vote, which I hope is secure forever, but other things like the number of women in parliament and women in senior positions in politics, none of it is secure,” Margaliot says. “And if you don’t pay attention, it just goes back to the status quo [with nearly all men].”
While women were given the right to vote in the U.S. in 1920, they have been enfranchised since Israel’s founding in 1948.
Wilf hopes that Harris’ election as vice president marks a return to progress for women, in both Israel and the U.S.
"Another reason why I’m so happy about Kamala Harris is that there has been a sense in recent years [that there has been] a bit of a kind of handmaid’s tale, a sense of setback for women,” she says.
“Even in Israel, there seemed to be a setback with the fact that Blue and White was led by men and felt almost no need to pretend that it cared about female representation. The same goes for Likud,” she says.
“I hope her election symbolizes that we are back on tracking, continuing our advancement."
MK Tamar Zandberg of Meretz agrees.
“Four years ago, we were close to choosing a woman [former U.S. secretary of state Hillary Clinton] for the most powerful post in the world. However, Donald Trump went in the opposite direction and took America a big step backward in the fight for humans rights, equality for minorities, and the feminist movement,” Zandberg says.
“I remember how at every rally, as Hillary Clinton got off stage, mothers reached out to her with their daughters to express what an unusual example and inspiration she is to them.”
As for when Israel will get its second female prime minister, Wilf says: “I think ultimately that the more women we are going to have in the Israeli Knesset, the more it will translate into the cabinet and the prime ministership over time.”
Article written by Tara Kavaler. Reprinted with permission from The Media Line