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“Dialogue” Sparks Action

As an outgrowth of the 1984 American Jewish Congress America-Israel Dialogue, “Woman as Jew, Jew as Woman: An Urgent Inquiry,” the AJCongress has formed a National Commission on Women’s Equality.

This commission will concentrate on the specific areas of women and work; women and politics; women and religion; and women and the family. An initial Statement of Purpose reads: “Our goal is full equality for women and the sensitization of Jewish women and men to equality of women as a key to Jewish survival.” It will also act as a support group and network for a newly formed Israel Women’s Lobby, a women’s rights group that has emerged from the Dialogue.

Lisa Blum, chief editor of the Jewish Student Press Services Israel Bureau, reports:

As Yizhak Shamir and Shimon Peres opened a second round of unity talks at the King David Hotel in Jerusalem, July 31 Haifa City Councilwoman Yael Rom (Likud) and Jerusalem City Council-woman and former Knesset member Tamar Eshel (Labor) arrived on the scene to express their concern about the status of Israeli women. They were accompanied by former U.S. Rep. Elizabeth Holtzman, author Betty Friedan, LILITH editor Susan Weidman Schneider, and other American and Israeli Dialogue participants.

The three-day Dialogue dealt with such varied topics as religious practice, politics, family, work, and the 1985 U.N. Conference on Women in Nairobi. The 30 participants and 50 official observers were joined by twice that number of listeners after pressure from them and the participants forced the sponsors to open the Dialogue sessions.

The sponsors expressed surprise at the “unprecedented” interest in the conference. “The role of the American Jewish Congress was simply to bring women together in the hope, but not really the expectation, that something would come of it,” remarked Ted Mann, president of the AJCongress and one of the few men in attendance.

Conference speaker Dr. Dafna Izraeli reported that the issue of women ranks low among Israeli concerns. In one study quoted by the Tel Aviv-based sociologist, university students asked to list 17 social issues in order of priority and placed women at the very bottom. “Women in this country suffer from the Golda Meir effect—that any women who is able can make it,” said Izraeli. “But it has been pointed out to me that if you’re going to be a Golda Meir you’ll have to divorce your husband and abandon your children.”

While American sociologist Cynthia Fuchs Epstein pointed to the exclusion of American women from “many clubs at which business is conducted and political decisions are made,” Izraeli blasted the myth of women’s equality in the army. She compared the importance of the male military elite in Israel to that of corporate managers in the United States. (Col. Amira Dotan, head of the women’s corps of the Israeli Army and a participant in the Dialogue, said that she could not comment on this to reporters without Army clearance.)

Shulamit Aloni, the only female head of an Israeli political party—the Citizen’s Rights and Peace Movement—explained that “during pioneering times women shared equal responsibilities (with men). But they didn’t really get equal rights or status.” With the establishment of the State, the problem became more complex. “For example, a few years after 1948 Golda wanted to run for mayor of Tel Aviv. The religious parties decided they wouldn’t be in a coalition with a woman. So Golda didn’t become mayor,” Aloni said.

In recent years, when she brought the issue of battered women to the Knesset “the men giggled.” They also laughed at the issue of rape, “until three women over 70 were raped in their bedrooms that same year,” Aloni said.

While most of the participants debated strategies and tactics for direct action to raise consciousness and improve the status of Jewish women in both countries, author Cynthia Ozick took on what she called the “philosopher” role (See “Bima,” p. 51). Betty Friedan noted, “Feminism is the one ‘ism’ in the United States which brought Jewish women back to Judaism.” Former U.S. Rep. Elizabeth Holtzman, Brooklyn’s D.A., encouraged Israeli women to fight for equality. “Going against women will only be tolerated to a breaking point. If regressive steps are taken in Israel, it may raise Israeli women’s consciousness.”