No Woman No Cry
Recently, in the ongoing nightly saga of Israel’s domestic politics, the Israeli Supreme Court disqualified Aryeh Deri, the leader of the ultra-Orthodox Shas political party, from holding ministerial office. Suddenly some of his supporters suggested an unusual idea. Perhaps his wife, Yaffa, could be appointed instead. At that dramatic moment, if only for a moment, it seemed that Shas leaders were considering a radical innovation.
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The political parties representing ultra-Orthodox Jews (who use the term “Haredi,” meaning God-fearing or pious) do not permit women to run for office on their lists under the pretext of modesty. In Haredi society, where segregation between men and women begins already in kindergarten, this kind of discrimination is widely accepted as the norm. The idea that Yaffa Deri could serve as a minister instead of her husband was quickly discarded. It was an extreme expression of anger and despair and not of willingness to change the rules that exclude Haredi women from running in Haredi political parties. One extraordinary Haredi woman knows all about it.
In 2019, as Israelis were preparing for national elections in April (they were destined to return to the polling stations four additional times since then) this woman was about to break a taboo. Her name was Adina Bar-Shalom, an educator of Haredi women for decades and a daughter of Ovadia Yosef, the former chief Sephardic rabbi, who was revered as the most important authority of Jewish law, especially (but not only) among Sephardic Jews. Under the slogan, “returning the crown to its former glory,” Rabbi Yosef had helped found the Shas political party in the early 1980s to publicly restore the prestige of Sephardic Torah scholars and more generally to help Sephardic Jews gain their rightful place in Israeli society.
Bar-Shalom was listed at the top of the candidate list of a new political party—Achi Israeli (Brothers of Israel), whose founders also included retired Major General Gideon Sheffer, a former head of Israel’s National Security Council, and Ruth Yaron, a former senior diplomat and Israel Defense Forces spokesperson.
The party had a clear goal—to unite a divided Israeli society and break the invisible boundaries between “the four tribes” of modern Israel (in 2015, Reuven Rivlin, then Israel’s president, described the four tribes as secular Jews, modern Orthodox Jews, Haredim, and Arab citizens of Israel). Achi Israeli was also about to make history by including a Sephardic Haredi woman on its list of candidates. “I humbly believe that my father—the great Rabbi Ovadia Yosef—would support me running for office,” said Bar-Shalom in an interview with Makor Rishon in February 2019.
It’s hard to know whether or not Achi Israeli would have passed the electoral threshold (3.25% of total votes cast), thus allowing Adina Bar-Shalom to become the first Sephardic Haredi woman in the Knesset, as the party disqualified itself from running a few weeks prior to the April 2019 elections. This decision seemed puzzling. What happened?
According to people close to her at that time, Bar-Shalom dropped out of the race after being viciously attacked, vilified, and heavily pressured inside her community and by her extended family. She sued some of those who led attacks against her, alleging defamation, but eventually decided to let go of her political aspirations. Her fellow party members believe that the pressure stemmed directly from Aryeh Deri, who had regained the leadership of Shas and received the blessings of Rabbi Ovadia Yosef shortly before his death in 2013.
Bar-Shalom attacked Deri in one of her public appearances soon after she resigned her position in Achi Israel. She said she would not vote for Shas and explained that her father had established this party to support and promote the education of Haredi children. However, she concluded, Shas was not working on this goal.
A Quest for Middle Ground
Adina Bar-Shalom has gone far. She is well respected in both the Haredi community and larger Israeli society. Her work in the sphere of education, her stern calls for dialogue and understanding, her impact on inter-religious dialogue have all gained her national recognition, for which she was awarded the prestigious Israel Prize in 2014.
In 2001, after having been an educator for many years, Bar-Shalom founded the Haredi College in Jerusalem—the first higher education institution specifically for the Haredi community. Her father, Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, blessed this initiative. It was designed to help Haredim overcome the education gap and increase their chances of integrating into the job market. She also advocated for Haredi children to learn mathematics, English, and science in addition to Torah and Talmud. But the opposition to her was fierce, with angry posters and flyers posted on the walls and storefronts of Haredi neighborhoods. The leaders of Shas fought hard against any attempt to make these subjects mandatory in the Haredi educational system.
When the Haredi College finally closed in 2017 due to financial difficulties and lack of students, Bar-Shalom blamed Deri and Shas for not coming to her aid and not doing enough to save the project of her life.
Politically, Bar-Shalom is a voice of moderation on the Palestinian issue, following her father’s policy of the 1980s and 1990s. Meanwhile, Aryeh Deri regularly announces that Shas is an authentic part of Israel’s right wing and that the party’s dovish image of the 1990s is a thing of the past. Today, Shas competes with the far-right bloc of Bezalel Smotrich and Itamar Ben-Gvir for the support of extreme nationalists.
Both Bar-Shalom and Deri cite the legacy of Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, whose photo can still be seen in shops, cars, and homes of Shas supporters. Deri may be closer to Shas followers politically, but Bar-Shalom represents an important strand of Sephardic legal scholarship and political tradition—a voice of reason and humanity that focuses on the unity of the Jewish people.
What kind of influence on Israeli politics would a moderate Haredi female politician with a national reputation have in today’s Knesset? Her voice of moderation is bitterly missed today, when opposing tones in the public arena get louder by the day. Perhaps when Israelis get exhausted with polarization and partisanship, they will be ready for a politician like Adina Bar-Shalom.