Pushing for political power for Israeli women

Pushing for political power for Israeli women

Staff Writer, New Jersey Jewish News

Michal Yudin, founder of WePower, an organization in Israel devoted to helping women gain political power, will speak, together with WePower executive director Ifat Zamir in Whippany on May 25. Photo courtesy WePower
Michal Yudin, founder of WePower, an organization in Israel devoted to helping women gain political power, will speak, together with WePower executive director Ifat Zamir in Whippany on May 25. Photo courtesy WePower

Despite the high profile of women politicians like the late Golda Meir and Tzipi Livni, Israeli politics remains a largely male affair, with women making up only 17 percent of the 120-member Knesset. Native Israeli Michal Yudin is hoping to change that.

“I realized that women are really not involved in the big decision-making questions,” said Yudin, the former chair of the immigrant absorption department of WIZO (Women’s International Zionist Organization). “There are incredible, quality women who could be involved in the Knesset, in politics, where the most important decisions are made in the life of the nation.”

In 2000, Yudin founded WePower (Women’s Electoral Power), a nonpartisan organization dedicated to bringing Israeli women into the political process. In the last municipal election alone, WePower trained 300 women to run for election. In the next election, the goal is to raise the number of women on municipal councils from 350 to 1,000 out of 2,700 such positions, and Yudin wants to double the number of women, currently 22, in the 120-member Knesset.

On May 25, Yudin and WePower’s executive director, Ifat Zamir, will speak on the Aidekman campus in Whippany at a meeting sponsored by the Community Relations Committee of United Jewish Communities on behalf of JWIN (Jewish Women in Network) and the Jewish Women’s Foundation of New Jersey. JWIN, a political network for experienced and prospective Jewish women elected officials in New Jersey, has similar goals for the Garden State.

NJJN caught up with Michal Yudin after she arrived in New York.

NJJN: How did you get involved in women’s issues?

Yudin: I was involved in absorption at WIZO during the mass immigration from the former Soviet Union and during Operation Solomon from Ethiopia. I saw how decisions were made by the government, and how absorption was mishandled in so many ways. We had 4,000 volunteers working with immigrants throughout the country, and we did our own fund-raising. We worked with the elderly, with single mothers, with children in day-care centers. And whenever we came to the government, there were always reasons they lacked funds.

I realized women must be in the government [to change this attitude]. The state brought these people to the country but would not take full responsibility for them. [The cost of] their daily needs were falling on our [non-governmental] organization. I realized unless women have political power, there would not be any significant social change.

NJJN: Do women bring something unique to the political table?

Yudin: Yes. Women are very good multitaskers. But they also view social needs differently. They will go all the way to work on behalf of, for example, elderly Holocaust survivors who have been neglected by the government for years, or the issue of trafficking in women, or domestic violence. Women can be more persuasive than men — they are better negotiators, and they have take on certain topics that men don’t have on their agendas. Women are also more common-sense oriented and can get things done in a friendlier way than men. I mention women’s issues because men aren’t interested in them, but women can handle any topic: security, defense, infrastructure, economics.

NJJN: Do women in Israel face challenges unique to Israeli culture?

Yudin: Our biggest problem is that Israel is a very chauvinistic society. Between the Orthodox and the military, they still view women as lesser. The [fervently] Orthodox, in many ways — although they would not pronounce it — forbid women to run for office. But there is a tremendous trend of change among ultra-Orthodox women. We have a list of women would who like to run.

The military is another handicap. They always use the excuse of security, but there are some tremendously talented women in the Knesset today who could run things completely differently. Our biggest problem is getting women to the top of the pyramid, the highest echelons in society — director general, CEO, or the top in academic circles. But it’s starting to change.

NJJN: WePower works with women across the economic, ethnic, and cultural spectrum in Israel. Does that present specific challenges?

Yudin: Yes. We work with Bedouin, Druze, Arab Muslim, Christian, Orthodox, and secular women. We would like to see women in all parties elected everywhere. A week ago I met with some Arab women lawyers in Nazareth. They are driven to take on more responsibility. We also work with men to help them realize that when women are in power, the whole community benefits.

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