S.F. visit gives Israeli councilwoman fuel for her fight

Running for a seat on the Jerusalem City Council in 2008, Rachel Azaria wanted to put a campaign ad with her image on city buses — just like the male candidates do.

But the bus company turned her down. “No pictures of girls on buses in Jerusalem,” an advertising executive told her. “Not a 3-year-old and not an 80-year-old.”

That moment of unvarnished bigotry spurred Azaria — who went on to win election to the council — to begin fighting discrimination against women in Israel’s holiest city.

The 35-year-old visited the Bay Area recently as part of the 2012 cohort of Gvanim, a program of the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation that brings Israeli activists here to study Jewish diversity, American style.

She liked what she saw.

Rachel Azaria

“It’s pretty amazing to see how different streams of Judaism can work together in America — things we can’t make happen in Israel,” said Azaria, who is Orthodox. “I’m trying to learn what can be done differently in Israel.”

Her itinerary took her to Congregation Sha’ar Zahav, a Reform synagogue in San Francisco with a largely LGBT membership. There she and her fellow Gvanim participants met with Bay Area Jews from across the denominational spectrum.

Azaria was struck by the contrast between the apparent solidarity at that get-together versus what she witnessed at a Jerusalem City Council meeting just a day before she flew to California.

“There was a discussion on the budget for the Jerusalem Open House,” she said, referring to the center that serves the LGBT community in Jerusalem. “The ultra-Orthodox were obviously against it, and [one councilman] was speaking loudly and roughly against the LGBT community. He was basically calling for their execution. By the end of his speech [some] council members thought we needed to go to the police.”

That contentious atmosphere permeates Jerusalem politics, she said, especially when it comes to freedom of expression, worship and movement for women. Those are bread-and-butter issues for Azaria.

In her term, the Yerushalami party leader pushed back against Jerusalem’s religiously fueled de facto segregation of women, such as women being forced to sit in the back of buses (though it’s technically against the law). Her other areas of concern include the assault of women deemed immodestly dressed, men and women being forced to walk on separate sides of the street in some areas, and images of women being forbidden in public posters and other formats.

“We have only several basic laws in Israel, and one of them [guarantees] dignity and freedom for every person in Israel,” she said. “According to that, you can’t differentiate between men and women. [Discrimination] is obviously against the law, but no one ever says that.”

Last October, Azaria filed a complaint with Israel’s Supreme Court, which later ruled that haredi communities have no right to segregate municipal streets.

Azaria has some allies on the city council, and she has teamed up with other leaders, such as Anat Hoffman of the Israel Religious Action Center. She also has heard from women within the haredi community. “I got these calls from women who would whisper ‘Thank you,’ and hang up,” she said.

Not everyone, however, has been happy with her efforts. Six months ago, Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat stripped Azaria of several of her official responsibilities, which she interpreted as retribution for her activism.

Now that her Bay Area sojourn is over, Azaria said she planned to incorporate some of what she learned here into her fight back home. Her plan is to expand the debate about women’s rights in Jerusalem to create what she calls “a new language, a new ethos” surrounding women in the public sphere.

That’s something she knows will be a bitter pill for some in her hometown to swallow.

“For Americans, the notion of someone [forced to sit] in the back of the bus is horrifying,” she said. “It’s much harder to convince Israelis of that.”

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is a contributing editor at J. He was a longtime staff writer at J. and retired as news editor in 2020.