Exile in the Promised Land: A Memoir

EXILE IN THE PROMISED LAND: A MEMOIR by Marcia Freedman. Firebrand, 1990. 234pp., $8.95.

She could have been any one of us, a transplanted American fresh out of graduate school, moving to Israel in July of 1967 with her husband and young daughter, trying to adjust to a new land where women’s roles were still defined in all-too-familiar ways despite the lip service Israel’s pioneers had paid to redefining traditional gender expectations.

But here’s the twist. As we identify with Freedman’s struggles to correct the sexist ideas of her neighbors, then of her larger community in Haifa, the drama takes an extraordinary turn. Because of the peculiarities of Israel’s system of political representation by parties, Freedman, active in local politics, wins a parliamentary seat in Israel’s Knesset in 1974. As the third of three representatives of Shulamith Aloni’s new Citizens Rights Movement, Marcia Freedman finds herself in 1974 driving to Jerusalem with Aloni and Aloni’s brother-in-law (also catapulted into the Knesset) for her swearing-in ceremony. This is the book that gives us—as none has before—the “You were there” experience of an American-born woman stalking through the corridors of power in Israel.

How does a ’60’s-style hippie decide what clothes to don for her swearing-in? (A long tweed skirt and a turtleneck sweater “that was all right for academe but a little too tight for politics.”) Will she remember the Hebrew words for the oath of office, taken individually in front of her fellow Knesset members, almost all men of middle age or older and almost all uncomfortable with her presence as a woman, a younger person, a decidedly left-of-center peacenik? (“I was about to take an oath of office that would bind me irrevocably to the state of Israel and I didn’t even know all the words.”) And how will she later reconcile their condescending pleasantries with the fact that these nice men vote against legislation protecting women from domestic violence and from unjust abortion and divorce laws? (She’s spoken of, in Hebrew, as, “the American, the crazy feminist.”)

It’s in the details of her political confrontations, both with Aloni (no feminist, Freedman would assert) and with the men around her (even those as liberal as she on some issues) that we are privileged to have an insider’s view of Israeli politics. And even though the political landscape has changed considerably from what it was in the “70\s when she left office, the struggles over women’s rights, which she fearlessly championed, still continue. One needs only to follow LILITH’s news columns in Kol Ishah to recognize that abortion rights are still a political football in Israel, and that the ugly attitudes Freedman faced two decades ago are still present in the minds of men who equate women’s desire to pray as a group at the Western Wall with “whorishness.”

Along with the political mapping out here, there is another text as well. Freedman tells unsparingly of the alterations in her personal landscape, her shift in sexual identity as she and her husband dissolve their marriage and she comes out as a lesbian, does not run for a second term in Knesset and becomes active in creating what became icons in the nascent Israeli feminist movement: the Haifa women’s bookstore, consciousness-raising groups, a rape crisis center, the Women’s Aid Fund.

One of the recollections most revealing of the differences between Israel and the United States, between Berkeley (where Freedman has lived since the early 1980’s) and Haifa, is the reaction of Freedman’s teenage daughter, who chose to live with her father in California as Freedman was wrestling with whether or not to stay in Israel. Her daughter, who had been uncomfortable with her mother’s notoriety and outspoken lesbianism and feminism in Israel, reports that in Berkeley, “You’re a heroine.”