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Allison Joyce/Reuters, via Corbis , ALLISON JOYCE

Watch Out, Bibi!

Merav Michaeli: The Knesset's Feminist Fighter

Merav Michaeli arrived in Israel’s Parliament last month with a speech slamming Benjamin Netanyahu over the lack of women in his Cabinet. She talks to Caroline Linton about why it’s better to have a ‘nonhusband,’ her work to achieve gender equality and why she wants to abolish marriage.

“So what do you think of the show Girls?” asks Merav Michaeli, the Israeli politician, just minutes after I meet her in New York. Michaeli is in town both on a vacation with her “non-husband” and to meet with American Jewish leaders. In an aside worthy of Hannah Horvath, she tells me that she would “definitely recommend that everyone go for a non-husband.”

“It’s a vicious circle—once you get married, it’s clear what your role is,” she says.

Michaeli has always been a well-known face in Israel: her grandfather was Rudolf “Rezso” Kasztner, a Hungarian Jewish journalist and lawyer who rescued 1685 Jews from Auschwitz—saving even more lives than Oskar Schindler—during the darkest days of the Holocaust. Following in his footsteps, Michaeli has been working in journalism since she was 19 years old. But in October of last year, she announced a different career direction: she would be running on a Labor Party ticket for the Knesset, Israel’s Parliament. She won in January, becoming one of 53 new members—and one of the Knesset’s 27 new female legislators.

In her first speech before the Knesset, Michaeli made a splash by speaking out for feminism. She called out Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu directly for not putting any women in his Cabinet, saying that women “pay the price in the home front when you decide to open a war front.”

“I arrive here after long years of feminist activism, as a feminist who does not aim to work only on the behalf of women,” she said. “I’m not here to beg for the minority I represent, I’m here because I believe that feminism and feminist thinking can change the entire way we think about society and state.”

Shortly thereafter, Michaeli gathered over 70 signatures from the Members of the Knesset for a letter asking Netanyahu to attend a meeting for International Women’s Day. Netanyahu refused. Michaeli says now that Netanyahu “doesn’t consider [feminism] a priority,” although she acknowledged that women also have to keep pushing to make their voices heard.

“We have to keep working on all frontiers,” Michaeli tells me. “There’s no one thing you can do that, if you do it, equality will come to the world. We have to keep working on all frontiers.”

There was more to Michaeli’s speech at the Knesset than just slamming Bibi’s track record. She also told the story of her grandfather Rezso, one of the founders of Israel and one of the first Zionists. During the war, he negotiated with Adolf Eichmann to buy the freedom of thousands of Jews and ferry them out of Hungary to safety in Switzerland. But Kasztner was assassinated in 1957 after being branded a Nazi collaborator—and it took many years before his name was cleared of the charges. Strolling out of the Knesset after her first speech, Michaeli laid claim to his legacy: “Rezso Kastner was my grandfather,” she said, which made her “part of the founding dynasty” of Israel.

“I certainly do not come as a victim,” Michaeli said during her speech. “If there is anything I have learned from the story of my grandfather, it is not to be a victim. Even when he was cast into the role of the ultimate victim—Jew versus exterminator-in-chief—he managed to take his fate and that of his community into his own hands. We, feminist women, don’t come as victims. We come as equals, to take our fate into our own hands and to shape the reality of the world we live in. “

Despite Michaeli’s storied heritage, her road to the Knesset was never a given. She started her career as a journalist at a radio station when she was 19 years old, and was on television by the time she was 21. In 1996, at what she calls the peak of her television success, she started a national lobby for rape crisis centers in Israel, in order to use her powers of publicity to help women. “I was already known in Israel, for the past 20 years, to be a political figure, not in terms of a party alliance, but as far as agenda goes,” she said.

Since then, she says, she became an activist and stepped down from television and radio, “partially because I became too feminist for them.” She wrote a column for Haaretz and was approached by various lobbies to run for government. So, last October, she did—and now here she is, an MP taking on the Parliamentary bigwigs with her “nonhusband” at her side.

As for her feelings on marriage and sex, Michaeli has never been one to gloss over her words. At a TEDx conference in Jaffa in November, she walked to the podium to the strains of “Here Comes the Bride” and declared, “We must cancel marriage.”

“Marriage is not about love,” Michaeli announced. “As an institution, political, legal, financial institution, it has nothing to do with love and romance.”

Additionally, in Israel, all marriages have to be performed as religious unions in order to be recognized by the state—meaning there is basically no form of civil marriage. (A 2010 law allows non-religious couples to marry in a civil ceremony, but does not provide a solution for interfaith couples or for Jews wishing to be married by a non-Orthodox rabbi.) It’s a state of affairs that leads Michaeli to conclude, “In Israel, there is no reason to get married, as long as there is no civil marriage. I’m a very strong believer in exercising the personal and political—if you believe in something, you live accordingly.”

Of course, Michaeli clarifies, she is not against “building a life together” with another person—but she’d like to see Israel redefine the traditional structure of marriage, to take apart the typical gender roles and rebuild something better.

Despite only just arriving at the Knessett, Michaeli says she already has “many plans” for her political, and feminist, future. “I wouldn’t say [they] are ready, but the thoughts and the intentions are already there.”

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