By Beverly Gertler
The Unorthodox, a film sponsored by JOFA in the 2019 Israeli Film Festival at the Marlene Meyerson Jewish Community Center in Manhattan,. is based on the true story of the early days of the Shas political party in Israel.
As I watched the film, I found myself wondering why JOFA had chosen this particular film to co-sponsor. The film features only a handful of women, clearly failing the Bechdel test for female representation. Furthermore, although the movie highlights the significant efforts of Shas to remedy discrimination against Sephardic Jews in Israel, it noticeably lacks any discussion of the treatment of women within the Israeli Orthodox political scene.
Feminism, particularly intersectional feminism, acknowledges that marginalization and discrimination do not exist in distinct and clear categories. The term “intersectional feminism” was coined by law professor Kimberlé Crenshaw in discussing a 1976 court case against General Motors in which the company had refused to hire black women but was found not guilty of both sex-based and race-based discrimination because the company did hire women (white women) and black people (black men). We now recognize that discrimination comes from a variety of factors, and we cannot ignore the experiences of other marginalized groups.
The Unorthodox tells the story of the founding of the Shas party in Israel. The protagonist, Yaakov Cohen (Shuli Rand), is motivated to create a religious Sephardic political party when his daughter Heli (Or Lumbrozo) is expelled from a Bais Yaakov school because of her Sephardic lineage. In one particularly poignant scene, the school administrator accidentally refers to Heli by the name of a different Sephardic student, indicating that the school views Sephardic students as basically interchangeable. In another scene, an Ashkenazic client and politician refuses to pay Cohen for a significant amount of work he’s already completed. The client challenges Cohen to sue him in rabbinic court, knowing that the beit din will favor a well-respected Ashkenazic leader over a struggling Sephardic businessman. Turned off by the corruption within mainstream rabbinic institutions, Cohen is moved to put together a grassroots movement to advance the needs of the Sephardic Orthodox community. His movement eventually becomes the Shas party, now a major player on the Israeli political scene.
The film leaves a hopeful impression that over the years the Shas party has greatly improved the lives of Sephardic communities throughout Israel. However, as recently as 2010, Slonimer Hasidim in the Israeli town of Immanuel made headlines for refusing to comply with a court order requiring the town to integrate the Ashkenzic and Sephardic religious girls’ schools.
One might hope that Shas—and the country—would take the lessons learned from the party’s formation and rise to power to address the still-present discrimination against women. The film’s early scenes of Sephardic children being banned from schools and the violent intimidation of those who dared to oppose the mainstream rabbinic leadership are eerily reminiscent of the recent actions of leading haredi rabbis in Israel regarding women in politics. In response to some haredi women seeking representation within the religious political parties, Rabbi Mordechai Blau, a leader of the Agudat Yisrael party, was quoted by Israeli newspaper Ha’aretz as saying that any woman who “comes close to a party without the leadership of the great sages of Israel will find herself without a ketubah, forbidden to study in the educational institutions, and her business boycotted.”
There has never been a female MK from Shas . Adina Bar-Shalom, the daughter of the late Shas leader Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, had to face the difficult choice of running for office under a different political party or remaining within Shas behind the scenes, as Shas still does not allow women to run for office. Ultimately, she chose to stay behind the scenes of her father’s party.
Shas has done significantly good work in fighting discrimination, but there is still much more work to be done. One should take to heart the messages of revolution, upheaval, and equality portrayed so elegantly within The Unorthodox to continue to fight injustice, be it race-based, sex-based, or any other combination of factors.
Beverly Gertler is an attorney and a feminist. She currently lives in New Jersey with her spouse and daughter.