Jewish Women Leaders: Mourning One's Loss, Watching Another On the Rise

Let’s face it. It’s hard for women to rise to the top in the Jewish world. Whatever the reasons, only a handful of women sit at the highest echelons of major Jewish organizations. And so we mourn the loss of June Walker, former head of Hadassah who spent this last year as Chair of the Conference of President of Major American Jewish Organizations, not just for the many contributions to the Jewish community but for the example she set for Jewish women, and the doors she opened.

Walker was only the second woman in the Conference of Presidents several-decades-long history to hold the position of Conference of Presidents chair. As the JTA notes, the nomination was “something of a departure for the Presidents Conference, the main communal umbrella body on foreign policy, which in recent years has been headed by prominent businessmen.” In contrast to the Wall street businessman, Walker was “a respiratory therapist, former college professor and health-care administrator,” and “a longtime community activist.”

In other words, she rose to power in the Jewish world not because she wielded her checkbook, but because she was smart, dedicated to the community, and hard-working.

Aged 74 at her death, Walker was born at a time when women had to fight even harder to climb the professional ladder: “Walker went a long way beyond the housewifely routines inculcated by her mother,” notes the JPost, “who insisted that women should ‘iron their husbands’ underwear.'” Regardless of whether she did or did not follow her mother’s directive, it didn’t stop her from rising above the station such a sentiment would seem to advocate for women.

Even a seven-year battle with cancer didn’t sideline Walker from pursuing her duties for Hadassah, the Conference of Presidents and various other Jewish organizations. In the weeks before her death, she attended the 94th National Hadassah convention, presided over a meeting of the Conference, and attended various other events.

But as we mourn the loss of this remarkable woman, we can also take heart in, and keep our fingers crossed for, the rise of another strong female Jewish leader — Tzipi Livni. Currently the front-runner to succeed Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert when he steps down in September, Livni would be the second woman to ever hold the position. But she still has a hard-fought battle ahead of her — and part of that fight will no doubt revolve around her being a woman.

Like Walker, Livni is well-respected and even well-liked, but in a race for Israel’s top political position, the question facing her is, is she tough enough? To help beef up her “toughness” factor, Livni has hired former aides to “warrior-politician” Ariel Sharon to help run her campaign, reports the Telegraph.

But her main competition in this political contest, former defense minister Shaul Mofaz, has hired the “New York based Republican political consulting firm of Arthur Finkelstein, most recently known for the ‘Stop Her Now’ campaign against Hillary Clinton.” We can only assume that means he’s gearing up for a no-holds-barred attempt to use Livni’s gender against her in his campaign. And it could work:

Naomi Chazan, a former member of the Knesset, or Israeli parliament, said that the leadership of Ms. Meir, who served from 1969 until 1974, was an exception rather than the rule, and had opened few doors for female successors. “She (Ms. Livni) is going to be attacked, subtly and not-so-subtly, because of her gender,” she said.

But if anyone has shot at overcoming gender biases and proving she is tough enough for the position, it’s a woman who served as a Mossad secret agent, the “daughter of Jewish guerrilla fighters” who “was told war stories in her childhood by Menachem Begin.”

Both Begin and Sharon, Livni’s role models, were tough-as-nails men who ultimately fought for peace. That’s just the combination Livni is now offering Israel, with a record devoid of corruption, and it’s just the combination Israel needs.

–Rebecca Honig Friedman

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