Celebrating 300 Years of Jewish Journalism: Where Are The Women?

Gloria Averbuch 

“300 Years of World Jewish Press” was commemorated by a three-day conference in Jerusalem in January. From a Jewish woman’s point of view, the conference might well have been titled “300 years of exclusion from the world Jewish press.”

An account of the history of the Jewish press, written by six men, was presented to each journalist at the conference. In reviewing this book I find that not one board member of the World Union of Jewish Journalists, past or present, has been a woman, Not one keynote speaker at the three conferences commemorating world Jewish journalism has been a woman. In fact, in this entire history of 300 years of Jewish journalism, there is no mention of any women whatsoever.

One hundred journalists from 15 different countries attended the conference, most of them Ashkenazic men over 50 who spent three days mourning the death of the Yiddish language and emphasizing the need to “keep the Israel propaganda rolling.”

The only speaker to break the tone of status quo was Murray Zuckoff, editor of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency. He called for a more alive, responsible, and sophisticated Jewish press. The audience loudly applauded his suggestion for a re-evaluation and new direction for the Jewish press. He pointed out that few young people are entering the field of Jewish journalism and that the Jewish press traditionally deals with a shallow and blindly optimistic view of Israel. He stressed the need for more in-depth writing on Israel and its problems—discrimination against women and Sephardic Jews—and an examination of the quality of life in Israel.

Approximately 15 women attended from such countries as the U.S., Italy, France, England and Austria. I asked each woman journalist what she felt the relevance of women’s issues was to the conference and to her work as a writer. Several of the American women told me that they work mainly helping their journalist husbands, and one of them even writes her articles under her husband’s name. Many of them gave negative or nervous replies to my inquiries on women’s issues. One woman stammered, “Oh, it isn’t that I’m against women’s lib …” to which her 14-year-old daughter confidently remarked, “Oh yes you are.”

The European women journalists were considerably more responsive on the subject of Jewish women. Two women represented an Italian Jewish paper, Shalom, which features a regular column on Jewish women. Marta Halpert, an Austrian who lived in Israel for five years, was the only woman owner as well as editor of her own publication. Her Neue Welt, a revival of Theodore Herzl’s original periodical, also features a regular column on Jewish and Israeli women.

Of special interest to women journalists will be a private “over coffee” discussion I had with one woman who asked to remain anonymous. A successful journalist since the age of 20, she described the practice of what she called “horizontal progress” in the journalism field. It has been her experience that on every newspaper staff, the women are expected to sleep with their male bosses in order to get ahead. She emphasized that this is not just an isolated incident, and that she has resisted this insulting “requirement” for years.

On the last day of the conference, Shimon Peres, then Israeli Minister of Defense, held a question-answer session for the journalists. When he discussed with amusement the admission of women into West Point, several women turned to me and encouraged me to stand up and say something. These women, with such urgent looks on their faces, were some of the same women that just a day ago had responded negatively or apathetically to my inquiry on women’s issues. It was their sudden, unspoken request for representation that encouraged me to stand and challenge Peres, something I ordinarily might never have done.

Since he had mentioned West Point, I asked Peres what was he doing to improve the shortage of “koach adam” (manpower) in the Israeli Army. What new military training are Israeli women receiving? I translated “koach adam” as “people power” for which I received several boos among the surprisingly numerous cheers.

Peres smiled at my translation and answered that women in the army were being trained for responsible positions in such fields as medical care and communications. (Women in the Israeli Army are traditionally telephone switchboard operators and secretaries.) The advantage of this training lies not only in improving the army, he said, but in helping to make women better wives and mothers.

The confrontation, which included another question on women in politics, brought about unexpected results. I was congratulated on my questions and my one copy of LILITH went from hand to hand.

As one of the few young women, representing the only alternative publication at the conference, it is clear to me that Jewish journalism, like Jewish culture and religion, needs its history re-examined and its direction re-defined.