From left: Master of ceremonies Allison Kaplan Sommer, International Visitor Leadership Program alumnae and Member of Knesset Sharren Haskel of the New Hope party, and Ruth Wasserman-Lande of the Blue and White party speak with audience members during a panel discussion following the film, March 1. Photo by David Azagury
By Stephanie Baric
“A Woman of Valor” is a biblical poem sung before the Friday night Shabbat meal in ultra-Orthodox households. Considered an ode to feminine strength and qualities, it is also a song of gratitude for hard working women. In recent years, Jewish feminists have been recasting the poem to challenge gender stereotypes. Israeli filmmaker Anna Somershaf chose “Women of Valor” as the title for her documentary film about ultra-Orthdox, or Haredi, women fighting for their right to political voice and representation.
“For me, a woman of valor is a woman who is strong and brave, who fights for her rights and the rights of other women. The Haredi women in the film are women of valor,” said Somershaf.
“Women of Valor,” which advances gender equality and the empowerment of women through U.S. foreign policy, was made possible by a culmination of multiple, overlapping projects in 2018 supported by the Department of State and Mission Israel. The film itself was supported by a public diplomacy grant. Somershaf is an alumna of the Department’s International Visitor’s Leadership Program (IVLP), and most of the Haredi activists featured in the film participated in a women’s leadership program in Jerusalem made possible by embassy funding.
“This is an example of holistic public diplomacy programming in action. We are promoting a shared society in Israel through equality, inclusion, and the empowerment of all women, across all spheres,” said Deputy Cultural Affairs Officer Alison Brown. “From national and local political representation [and] participation in the economy through entrepreneurship training [to the] development of high-tech skills [and] women engaged in peace-building, we are delighted to see our grantees and program beneficiaries succeed. They are bringing their stories to a wider audience which helps inspire and empower the next generation of brave women.”
The film premiered at the Jerusalem Film Festival in July 2021. Shot over five years, the documentary follows Esty Bitton Shushan, a Haredi women’s rights activist. In 2012, Shushan launched a social media campaign protesting the ban on Haredi women running as candidates for ultra-Orthodox parties under the slogan “no voice, no vote.” In 2015, along with Estee Rieder-Indursky, Shushan co-founded Nivcharot (“elected” or “chosen”), the first and only Haredi feminist organization in Israel.
When asked about the focus on Haredi women’s political voice and representation, Shushan responded, “There are a lot of issues related to women’s rights that need to be addressed, but with no voice and no seat at the table where decisions are being made that directly affects our lives, there will be no change. Using a top-down, bottom-up approach, we are advocating for the participation of women in decision-making whether it is in their neighborhoods or in the Knesset [Israeli Parliament].”
Somershaf began shooting the film in 2017.
“Even though I am not Haredi or religious, the more I learned about the political challenges Haredi women face, the more I felt the need to take action. Their situation affects me as a citizen of this country and the absence of Haredi women from public decision-making affects our society as a whole,” said Somershaf.
In 2018, Somershaf was selected to participate in the Department’s IVLP project called “Changemakers: Leadership Development for Women.” Along with five other Israeli women, she traveled to Washington, Denver, and New York, and spent two weeks examining the U.S. political system and how women participate at local, state, and national levels of politics.
“All of the women in ‘Changemakers’ were engaged in some form of social activism,” said Somershaf. “My biggest takeaway from my time in the U.S. is that cinema is a powerful tool for social change, especially when it is combined with women’s solidarity in advocating for their rights.”
When asked about what changes she experienced as the documentary was being filmed, Shusan said, “A decade ago, when I began my activism, I was one crazy woman no one understood. Two years later, we were five crazy women.”
The film opens with activists putting up posters in MeaShe’arim, an ultra-Orthodox neighborhood in Jerusalem. One of the posters criticizes women for asking for political representation, as a way to grab attention and create awareness about the systematic exclusion of Haredi women in politics by ultra-Orthodox parties. Nivcharot’s marketing campaign is reminiscent of the “Guerilla Girls,” a group of anonymous women artists and activists who papered New York City’s streets, subways, and the facades of art museums with posters calling out racial and gender inequities in the art world.
In addition to community activism, Nivcharot also has also engaged in policy advocacy. Working with Souria Bishara, a lawyer and supervisor of the International Human Rights Clinic in the Faculty of Law at Hebrew University in Jerusalem, Nivcharot filed a report to the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) in 2017 titled, “Israel’s Responsibility for Eliminating the Discrimination against Ultra-Orthodox Jewish Women in the Right to Equal Participation in Public and Political Life in Israel.” The Committee on CEDAW called on the government of Israel to take action to resolve the issue of Haredi women’s rights to political participation. After petitioning Israel’s Supreme Court in 2015, demanding that Agudat Yisrael, the leading Haredi party in the Knesset, accept women into its ranks, three years later the court issued a ruling stating that the party must remove or amend its bylaws.
Nivcharot has also provided leadership training in partnership with the Women’s International Zionist Organization (WIZO), which promotes women’s empowerment in Israel, through funding from the U.S. embassy. The leadership program, titled “A New Social Order,” was designed to open doors for women to positions of power, decision-making, and influence. During the first round of training, Nivcharot received applications from 100 women, and 30 were accepted into the program. As part of their training, the women visited the Knesset.
A powerful moment in the film is when the women stand together as a group and stare down in silence at the plenum hall where members of the Knesset and the government sit. The group decides to confront Haredi members of the Knesset.
“I spoke to many ultra-Orthodox men who off-camera expressed support for their cause,” said Somershaf, “but they are afraid to say anything. They, too, are victims of the patriarchal system.”
To date, four cohorts have graduated from the women’s leadership training program, with a fifth cohort currently enrolled.
Of the 30 women who graduated from the leadership program, 22 registered to become members of Israel’s two ultra-Orthodox parties, Shas and YahadutHaTorah (United Torah Judaism). The women informed the parties that if they were not allowed to become members, they were prepared to take the parties to court. One woman ran for local government and another ran for the Knesset. Racheli Morgenstern campaigned for a position on the city council in Petah Tikvah, a suburb of Tel Aviv.
When asked in a television interview why she did not win, Morgenstern said, “The public isn’t ready yet.”
Hila Hassan Lefkowitz, who ran for the Knesset, ran as a candidate of the inclusive Haredi party called Am Shalem in the Knesset elections in 2021. Although the party was not elected to the Knesset, it was a historic moment for Haredi women in politics.
“Starting in 2017, I advocated that we support the film and the leadership training because I could see the potential for social change,” said Ellen Schnitser, a public diplomacy specialist based in Embassy Jerusalem’s Branch Office in Tel Aviv. “What we achieved over the last five years has exceeded my expectations. Not only are more Haredi women activists joining the movement, they are claiming their right to a seat at the table. This inspires me to redouble our efforts because it shows that transformative change is possible.”
In honor of Women’s History Month, the embassy organized a screening of “Women of Valor” in Tel Aviv, March 1, hosted by Deputy Chief of Mission Jonathan Shrier and his wife Stephanie Baric, president of diplomatic spouses and partners of Israel. During a panel discussion, two IVLP alumnae now serving as members of the Knesset, Ruth Wasserman-Lande and Sharren Haskel, shared their experiences in shattering the glass ceiling for women in politics. The audience of 120 women’s rights activists, students, and diplomats were able to identify with the women of Nivcharot and articulate the universal message of the film.
“Men in my community are using the same arguments to perpetuate patriarchy and prevent us from realizing our rights,” said Samah Salaime, a Palestinian citizen of Israel and feminist activist. “It is time to work together for gender equality.”
With the U.S. premiere of “Women of Valor” at the Atlanta Jewish film festival in February 2022, Somershaf and Shushan are working on a global campaign involving educational screenings that will mobilize further support for Haredi women’s political rights in Israel. In March 2022, they celebrated International Women’s Day with a Facebook poster featuring dozens of Haredi women, including their photos and names, posing as the American icon Rosie the Riveter under the slogan ‘Yes, we can. The elected or chosen one.’
Stephanie Baric is an employee family member and the president of the Diplomatic Spouses and Partners of Israel.