After 10 years working among activists promoting environmentalism and Jewish law concerning women’s rights, Rachel Azaria, a Jewish politician, established the Yerushalmim political party in Jerusalem in 2008. Now as the councilwoman representing the party, she promotes a pluralistic and diverse future for Jerusalem and primarily represents the religious and secular youth of Jerusalem.
Azaria has led many campaigns for pluralism in Jerusalem, such as the campaign against segregation of women in the public sphere as well as the Kosher restaurants revolt against the Rabbinate certification. Azaria represented young families in the “Imahot Protest” in Jerusalem in the summer of 2011, in which she fought to bring free education to children ages three and up, a right that holds personal value as she has four children of her own.
While Azaria never planned on getting into politics, she now finds herself firmly ensconced in the field. Perhaps this is due to her firm belief that: “you can’t just give up on Jerusalem; it’s not an option.” She switched her title from Deputy Mayor to a member of a new party in the Knesset, formed in November 2015 by former Likud minister, Moshe Kahlon. Among her current goals are her plans to upgrade playgrounds with better equipment, get Jerusalem’s sanitation trucks to collect garbage at night, create an adequate number of preschools for the capital’s kids, ensure that all train platforms offer shade to waiting passengers, create bike stands and easy access for commuters, etc, all in addition to her fight against gender segregation, empowering secular Jerusalemites and changing the face of urban planning.
Having had an Orthodox upbringing, Azaria now works to encourage a better relationship between secular and Orthodox Jerusalemites. She has recently held successful secular Shabbat events about which she says: “When we started the Shabbat events for secular families, everyone was amazed that so many people showed up. They didn’t think there was anyone like them in the city. It has to do with the way you perceive yourself, and in Jerusalem, it’s about the way the non-Orthodox are starting to perceive themselves as they really are. Secular Jerusalemites had nothing to do in this city on Shabbat and we have to let them have what they need. Jerusalem was always a city filled with social activism but it’s become even more intense over the past few years. That’s what we do in Jerusalem. There is power in the system. I spent a decade in social change organisations and four years on the city council and I got more done in my first year in the city council than in the previous decade.
In addition to religious and secular tolerance, Azaria works tirelessly against the culturally-entrenched sexism that plagues Jerusalem. She is credited with bringing the now often used term, hadarat nashim—exclusion of women—from the women’s studies textbooks to the frontlines of Israeli society. Recently, for example, she fought against religious extremism in order to keep images of women in advertisements on the sides of Jerusalem’s buses. However, the bus company Egged refused to resolve the situation and instead avoided the issue all-together by removing all images of humans from bus advertisements. According to Azaria, this is because “there’s a very strong link between Egged and the radical ultra-Orthodox, a lot of behind the-scenes work. Now they’re using that power for segregation and the removal of women from the public sphere.”
Azaria has fought to battle sexism on all fronts, particularly calling to question religious extremism. “For a while, the Israeli public wrote off the Rabbanut, relegated its relevancy to the religious and ultra-orthodox sectors alone. However, many Israelis are coming to the realization that the Chief Rabbinate significantly affects all our lives through marriage, divorce, burial, kashrut, Shabbat, and more. Someone is making concrete decisions, and we have absolved ourselves of responsibility for ensuring that someone who shares our values be involved. It should come as no surprise that
the Chief Rabbis don’t really reflect the majority of Israelis. After all, they are largely elected by other ultra-orthodox rabbis, with almost no female representatives. It is perfectly logical that the newly elected Chief Rabbis reflect the Haredi –strictly Orthodox – world. That’s just how it’s done.
“They seem to fear the effect that women would have over the process. At the same time, the female, Zionist, religious world is undergoing a true feminist revolution, marked by struggles and changes in consciousness and values…We are re-defining the system, the power relations, and the internal dynamics. I have no doubt that if women were included in the Rabbinate’s electoral body, the end result would have been completely different.”
Azaria’s social efforts and powerful rhetoric distinguish her as a modern and progressive Jewish politician and a champion of a more tolerant future for Jerusalem.