Visiting Israeli’s mission: Boost power of women

By Eric Berger, Staff Writer

When Michal Yudin talks about the inequality among women and men in Israel, she deals in numbers:

Women make up more than half of the population in Israel, but only 32 of the 120 Knesset members are women.

Only 2 percent of the mayoral positions in Israel are held by women, according to Yudin’s organization, WePower, which seeks to bring more women into the public arena.

And women make up only 18 percent of the seats on boards of public companies in Israel.

“To me, a democracy without 50 percent of the potential sitting in the political arena is a handicapped democracy,” she said. 

Yudin, who is 70 and runs about 10 miles daily, started WePower in 2000. She visited St. Louis last week to meet with local Jewish leaders, speak at a Jewish Federation of St. Louis event and fundraise.

The organization uses a mix of advocacy, lobbying and training programs to try and increase the number of women in leadership positions in Israel.

Before WePower, Yudin served in the Israel Defense Forces and worked for the Israel Aliyah Center, helping young Jews to either immigrate to Israel or come for long-term programs. She met her husband in 1981 while in the United States and then started volunteering with a number of  organizations. 

As a leader of Woman’s International Zionist Organization during the ’90s when there were was an influx of immigrants from the former Soviet Union, she requested more funding for the organization from government officials. 

“Most of the time, we were turned down,” Yudin said. The reason, she believes, is because the request game from a woman from a women’s organization

“I came to the realization that we could do so much more if we had more women in the political arena,” Yudin said.

She and her husband, Michael Yudin, now split most of their time between Florida and Tel Aviv.  (The similarity of their names sometimes creates problems at airports, she said.)

In the United States, women also do not have equal representation. In the U.S. Senate, only 20 women are among its 100 members. 

“Here in America, you also need more women in the political arena,” Yudin said.

Yudin said women in Israel face different hurdles, in part because of the ultra-Orthodox political parties that have no women as members in the Knesset. 

WePower is trying to introduce legislation that would provide political parties with additional funding if 40 percent of their Knesset members were women. The Knesset has passed legislation that requires government-owned companies to increase the number of women who serve as directors of their boards.

Around the world, Yudin said, “affirmative action is the one tool that broke the glass ceiling.” 

During her trip, Yudin met with local leaders, among them Rabbi Susan Talve of Central Reform Congregation, and she attended a sisterhood class at Congregation B’nai Amoona. Yudin is trying to raise $250,000 for WePower.

With the ultra-Orthodox parties now part of Israel’s ruling coalition, some of WePower’s goals may have to wait until after the next election, when Yudin hopes the right-wing parties will not be part of the coalition. 

“There is no halachic law to prevent women from running for office,” she said. “It goes back to the biblical times, when there were women leaders.”

Of the legislation to tie government funding to representation in the Knesset, Yudin said, “I believe this is doable. It’s just a matter of time.”