The Israeli opposition official fighting for more women at the table
Na’ama Schultz was the first female director general of the Israeli Prime Minister’s Office. Now in the opposition, she says, it's even more essential to fight for women's rights
When she was director general of the Prime Minister’s Office, Na’ama Schultz, a longtime senior aide to former Prime Minister Yair Lapid, was driven both by her feminist beliefs and the goal of creating a better future for her three young daughters.
Now, she told Jewish Insider in a recent interview, it is those two factors that are pushing her to continue the quest to reach a compromise with representatives of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s right-wing government on its controversial plan to reform the country’s judicial system.
The negotiations have yet to yield a solution but Schultz, who is part of the opposition’s team and remained tightlipped about the discussions, insisted, “I really want to give them a chance to succeed.”
Schultz, who was the first woman to serve as director general of the Israeli Prime Minister’s Office, did, however, express deep concern over the lack of women in the current government, both in official and supporting roles.
“It’s really sad to see the huge drop of women in senior government positions,” said Schultz, who was one of nine women to head government ministries, a record, in the previous government.
Under the current government, there are no female director generals in any of the 29 ministries and only a handful hold official positions or key government ministries. This is partly because two of the four political factions in the current coalition – the Haredi United Torah Judaism party and the Sephardi Orthodox party, Shas – do not allow women to run on their slates. In addition, the three parties making up the Religious Zionism faction have only three female Knesset members between them.
“I’m sure that will be reflected in public policy,” Schultz continued. “There’s no way that if women are not around the table that the policy will be the same, but that is what we are actually fighting for now.”
Schultz said she believed that while sidelining women was not inherent to the character of Netanyahu’s own Likud party, the largest in Israel’s Knesset, “as they give up on other values to be in this government, they are also giving up on this value, and that is part of the problem.”
“That is why I think that we have to do whatever is in our power to bring them back on track,” she said.
Schultz, who was also director general of Lapid’s office while he was alternate prime minister in rotation with former Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, described her longtime boss as “unusual in political life.”
“Lapid has always surrounded himself with strong women like me and he, like me, deeply believes that women bring something vital and different to the table,” continued the mother of three, describing how her journey into public life was guided by clear markers that appeared throughout each one of her pregnancies.
“It might sound romantic or maybe even naïve,” Schultz recounted. “I’ve always been a very socially involved person, but in retrospect, near the end of each of my pregnancies, or just after the birth of my children, something happened that gave me another push to look for meaningful actions that would make my daughters’ lives better.”
During Schultz’s first pregnancy in 2006, the Second Lebanon War broke out and her pilot husband was called away for service. It was a scary time for many Israelis, with Hezbollah rockets raining down almost daily, and was a particularly fragile time for the first-time parents to be apart. During her third pregnancy, in 2011, Schultz recalled how the social justice protests over the high cost of living in Israel highlighted to her the country’s socioeconomic challenges.
“I had a lot of signs that pushed me to the public area,” she explained. “I went through a process and in the end, it was clear to me that I wanted to do something significant, something that will ensure my daughters have a good, safe and quiet life in Israel.”
At the time, Schultz did not really know what exact path she would take, but not long after she’d made up her mind about finding work in the public sector, Lapid, a well-known media personality, announced he was entering political life. It was 2012, and Schultz had been reading his columns closely.
“I really identified with many of the things he wrote, and the values he represented,” she told JI. “I thought, maybe this is my opportunity.”
In true Israeli style, she put out feelers to try to get in touch with the future prime minister, and thanks to “Israel being a very small country,” Schultz snagged a meeting with him.
“Quickly, I found myself becoming a partner in establishing Yesh Atid, a party that has changed the fate of Israel politics, and the rest is history,” she continued. “I never imagined this would be the route I would take when I first started.”
Schultz remains committed to Yesh Atid today, more than 10 years later, and believes that the opposition party, the second largest in the Knesset, has “been a huge success politically.”
“We created the political center in Israel, and in only a decade we have become a major and lasting player in the political field,” she said. “We have the largest grassroots and volunteers’ operation in the country – there’s no other party that has so many volunteers.”
“In 2015, most people thought that we were going to disappear from the political map, but we are still here,” Schultz added. “In my opinion, political power is the tool, not the purpose and so, I think that we’ve made a very big change.”
Even as Lapid and his cohorts sit in the opposition with no clear political path back to the top, Schultz said she feels sure he will become prime minister again.
“More than that, I’m sure he should be,” said the former director general. “In the short term that he was prime minister, he did an excellent job and I’m really looking forward to seeing what he can do with a full term.”
In the year and a half that Schultz headed the Prime Minister’s Office, she says that her main achievement was creating an environment of harmony among the various government offices.
“It was the first time that all the director generals of government ministries worked together as a close group,” Schultz described. “We had a very good communication working to solve problems. There were no egos, only a deep belief that this is how you are meant to work together.”
On the current political issues that are dividing the country, Schultz said she sees the protests over judicial reform in an optimistic light.
“I think they are the best thing that has happened to Israeli society,” she explained. “They show awakening values and a great love for the State of Israel – I didn’t know that so many people cared so much about this country.”
“A large part of the public is fighting for the identity of Israel,” Schultz went on. “It’s not something technical or to fix some laws, as many people think – this is about the identity of Israel, it is about whether Israel will remain a liberal, democratic Jewish state, or whether the balance between the Jewish and the democratic will be violated.”
“This is why it cannot end with one side winning the situation,” she concluded. “When you’re talking about identity, you cannot win. We have to talk and agree and move forward together. I really think that we have an opportunity to do something big here that will ensure the continued existence of the State of Israel as a Jewish democratic state.”