Female purification as an argument in Israel’s election campaign

Jewish Orthodox women, at a bus stop in Jerusalem, in 2017.

The Government of Netanyahu promotes institutional publicity with celebrities to promote post-menstrual Jewish ritual bath

In the last two decades, Israel has tripled the female presence in the Kneset (Parliament), going from nine deputies in 1997 to 30 in the elections last April. Before the repetition of the legislative ones, summoned for the next month, the polls foresee, given the configuration of the electoral lists, that the parliamentarians will continue occupying only a quarter of the seats. Its representation is still far from the 45% bar, already surpassed by countries such as Sweden and Spain.

With only one candidate as head of the list – the ultraconservative Ayelet Shaked, former Minister of Justice – women are relegated or displaced by male leaders in the main parties. In this climate of stagnation of female political presence in Israel – which had a prime minister, Golda Meir, almost half a century ago – the Government of Benjamin Netanyahu – in which only two ministers appear – is preparing to launch an institutional campaign to promote the ritual bath of postmenstrual purification.

The Ministry of Religious Affairs, whose head is Isaac Vankin, an ultra-orthodox affiliated with the Shas (ultra-religious Sephardic) party, has contracted through the government’s advertising agency the production of an advertisement for television and digital platforms with the aim of “making the perception of ritual baths is more attractive, ”the Haaretz newspaper reported Monday.

For this, it will feature the image of local female celebrities, who will encourage the Israelis to dive completely three consecutive times, naked and standing seven days after menstruation. Jewish religious law prescribes that women are impure after the period, and therefore they are not allowed to have sex with their husbands if they do not go through the ritual of the mikveh before, a small pool of rainwater usually located in a synagogue or religious center.

The secular sectors of Israel consider, according to Haaretz, that the Ministry has exceeded its legal powers, limited to the offer of religious services to citizens who demand it, to launch an advertising campaign aimed at promoting obedience to a commandment of Halacha or Jewish law.

This government department already unleashed the controversy five years ago when it hired advertisements in the Hebrew media to review conversions to Judaism. The institutional campaign then focused on conversions approved by reformist rabbis, a mainstream among the Jewish community in the United States, so that they could be supervised again in Israel in accordance with the strict orthodox rabbinate ritual.

Religious courts have virtually exclusive jurisdiction over family matters, in general, and for divorces, in particular, for Jews in the State of Israel, which account for about 80% of its nine million inhabitants. Civil marriage is not contemplated in Israeli legislation, although the State recognizes the validity of those celebrated abroad.

The announcement of the institutional campaign to promote post-menstrual purifying ritual baths has come after the controversy arisen last week in the city of Afula, in northern Israel, by the permission granted by local authorities to an outdoor musical performance with separation between men and women in the auditorium. “It was a black day for gender equality in Israel,” warns writer and columnist Iris Leal. “It was not a meeting in the synagogue or a private act, and a basic principle was violated.” The final decision of the Supreme Court to prohibit gender separation was communicated to the Afula authorities when the action had already concluded.

The mikveh institutional campaign is part of the coalition agreement that Prime Minister Netanyahu agreed with the ultra-religious parties to be able to form in 2015 the most conservative government in the history of Israel. Electoral polls on the elections of September 17 published last weekend point to a repetition of the blockade that prevented the formation of Cabinet after the apparent victory revalidated by the right-wing forces, which added 65 seats compared to 55 in the center , the left and the Arab parties.

Pact with the ultra-religious parties

The veto of former Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman to a new pact with the Jaredi or ultra-Orthodox forces then forced Netanyahu’s failure. The ultra-religious parties – precisely those who have the least presence of women on their lists – are now afraid of being excluded from the next coalition, and therefore are preparing to execute previous agreements, such as the campaign for the mikveh, on the edge of extinction of the legislature.

In Israel, women have, however, made legal progress. Before the Kneset was dissolved for the April election call, a group of deputies from several parties promoted the approval of a law for the prohibition of prostitution, in a pioneer measure that has placed the country among the top ten that have been Daring to take the plunge.

In the middle of next year, when the new legislation enters into force, it will cease to be tolerated to offer and receive sex in exchange for money, even if they are adults who freely consent to it. Violators will be fined 2,000 shequels (about 500 euros), which will be multiplied successively in case of recidivism until they reach 20,000 euros.

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