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Lilith Feature

Israel at 51 and Beyond

LILITH was stunned by how many females were missing from all the heroic retellings and media markings of Israel’s 50th anniversary. Despite considerable gender inequities in Israeli society, there have been plenty of women to celebrate (aside from Golda) among Israel’s creators, dreamers, builders, fighters, peacemakers and prophets. So here, in a toast to the State of Israel at 51 and beyond, we applaud some of the Israeli women who have made a difference and who will shape the country next year and in years to come. They are just the tip of an amazing iceberg.

Creating Democracy
1 MK (Member of the Knesset) Limor Livnat is Minister of Communications. A member of the right-of-center Likud party, she’s the only woman of 18 cabinet members, and only one of six women cabinet members since the establishment of the State! (Building a democratic state with gender equality remains a great challenge—even in a country with one of the highest voter turnouts in the world.)

2 Tikva Levi coordinated “We Are Here and This is Ours,” the first feminist conference for Mizrahi, Sephardi and Ethiopian Jewish Women in 1996, marking a revolution in Israeli feminism. She directs Hila, the Public Committee for Education in Low-income Neighborhoods, Villages & Development Towns.

3 Marcia Freedman is often credited with energizing the new wave of feminism in Israel in the early 1970s and was a Civil Rights Party Knesset member. She founded, with other feminists, the first shelter for battered women in Haifa, in 1977. She was one of the first lesbians to go public in Israel.

4 Zehava Gal’on led the struggle against religious coercion at a much publicized flashpoint of conflict, keeping a multiplex theater in Petach Tikva open on Shabbat. She was the first director general of B’Tselem, an information center for human rights.

5 Shulamit Aloni, former MK, founded the Civil Rights Movement (1973) and merged it to head Meretz (1992). She was a provocative minister of education, and later of communications. As a journalist she spurred formation of the Office of Ombudsman. A public figure who has not always identified as a feminist, she nevertheless made important gains for women, and younger women activists on the left refer to her as a role model.

6 Miriam Ben-Porat, among the 40% of Israeli judges who are female, is one of the few women consistently in the public consciousness. She is State Comptroller and Public Complaints Commissioner, a non-partisan public watchdog in a disputatious culture.

7 Anat Hoffman—Jerusalem City Councilwoman—is consumer advocate, outspoken on women’s issues and equity in municipal services to Arab and other minority sectors.

8 MK Naomi Chazan is Deputy Speaker of the Knesset, a staunch feminist and director of the Truman Institute for Peace. “Israel is undergoing an identity crisis because for the first time in fifty years we have to look at ourselves in the mirror. We don’t have the luxury any more of defining ourselves in terms of the enemy because we’re not quite sure who the enemy is,” she says.

9 Tal Yarus-Hakak, an acclaimed activist in the lesbian feminist community (KLAF), is an advocate on behalf of single parents.

10 Caroline Kharman—the only woman in her mostly Druze village to join the army, she is the first Christian women to become an officer in the Israel Defense Force. (One-fifth of Israel’s 6,000,000 citizens are not Jewish.)

11 MK Yael Dayan—a pragmatic politico and early activist for peace—she chairs the Knesset Committee on Women and has been responsible for bringing to the Knesset the first open discussions on issues around homosexuality and the rights of sexual minorities.

12 Frances Raday is a law professor at the Hebrew University specializing in labor and gender equity issues. She represented Naomi Nevo in the equity in retirement case.

What your favorite song left out
Hebrew University professor Rivka Maoz presented “The Image of Women in Songs of the Palmach” (the commando arm of pre-state Hagannah) at the 1998 diaspora gathering of professors of Hebrew language and literature. The egregious portraits of female passivity, the sheer left-out-ness and distortions in these Zionist songs, were met with groans and knowing laughter—a refreshing testament to the wised-up feminist assumptions of the audience. Then the lights were turned low, and everyone sang the old songs, this time with a little more sadness in their voices than usual, not only for a time that was past but in sorrow for how the women had been excluded.

13 Nabila Espanioli is a social worker, psychologist and educator as well as a peace activist and feminist. She directs the Al-Tufula Center for Women and Early Childhood Education in Nazareth, where young women are trained to work in early childhood education in the Palestinian community in Israel.

In Academic Life
14 Marilyn Safir is the first president of the newly formed Israeli Association for Gender Studies and coordinates the Israel Feminist Forum, an online chat group that has become a “must read” for Jewish feminists all around the world. She directs Project Kidma at Haifa University, which introduces women from minority groups to the university environment and trains police officers about violence against women.

Stumbling blocks on the road to gender equality in Israel
15 Sharon Shenhav, an international women’s rights lawyer, is Director of the International Jewish Women’s Human Rights Watch in Jerusalem. She examines several gender equality issues the Zionist dream has yet to make a reality:

Peace. The Jewish people sing of Shalom, and we pray for it daily. Women, young and old; Jewish, Christian and Muslim; Palestinian and Israeli; Ashkenazi and Mizrachi, have been at the forefront of the peace movement in our region. Women in Black, Mothers for Peace, Bat Shalom and Engendering the Peace Process are some of the groups that have taken to the streets and schools to bring their message to the Israeli and Palestinian public. But despite their unique grassroots involvement, no women sit at the negotiating tables where the “peace talks” take place.

Women’s safety. Women’s organizations, working together, succeeded in lobbying the Knesset to enact strong legislation, the much hailed Prevention of Violence in the Family Law of 1991. Unfortunately, despite this excellent legislation, enforcement by the criminal justice system has been weak.

Work. Economic equality continues to be an elusive goal for Israeli women. In 1995, statistics showed that 55% of undergraduate students in Israel were women. In addition, over 50% of all graduate students are women. Better educated than their male counterparts, women find themselves earning less. The gap between the average salary for a man and the average salary for a woman is over 30%. As unemployment rises in Israel, the percentage of women out of work is far higher than that of men. New immigrant women and unskilled women in development towns find that even minimum wage jobs are disappearing as textile factories move to Jordan, an unanticipated byproduct of the peace process.

Marriage and divorce. Like Jewish women elsewhere, many Jewish women in Israel are unable to obtain a religious divorce because their husbands refuse to deliver the get or bill of divorce. But in Israel such women (agunot or “chained women”) have no recourse to secular courts. Civil (i.e., secular) marriage and divorce do not exist because in the early days of statehood, the secular majority in the government granted exclusive jurisdiction over marriage and divorce to the religious courts.

And no religious court permits a woman to serve as a judge. The rabbinical courts in Israel permit only men ordained as Orthodox rabbis to become religious court judges, or dayanim.

A new approach applies human rights concepts to the get injustice. The Jerusalem-based International Jewish Women’s Human Rights Watch, at the 50th Anniversary of the ratification of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, is establishing a central database that will include cases of Jewish women who have been denied their basic human right to remarry and to found a family.

16 Ruth Calderon founded Alma Hebrew College in Tel Aviv, “a new liberal arts center for the interdisciplinary study of Hebrew culture and contemporary Jewish identity.” She moderates a Friday afternoon TV program where religious and secular guests discuss Jewish texts. She’s also co-founder of Elul, a Jewish studies “learning community” of Israeli women and men from divergent points on the religious spectrum. (Alma has been attacked by the left for “tricking” secular Jews into Jewish studies, and by the right for placing sacred texts in a secular context. Read Gail Hareven’s article on p. 18 for more on polarities in Israel.)

17 Henriette Dahan Calev is a political scientist and women’s studies professor at Ben Gurion University in the Negev, and specializes in race, class and gender studies. She has been instrumental in creating space within Israeli feminism for Mizrahi women.

Artists and Social Change
18 Amalia Kahana-Carmon’s fiction takes us into a world where sexuality and creativity bring characters back to life when disappointment has deadened them. She is considered to have paved the way for subsequent female Hebrew writers and she has been compared to Virginia Woolf and James Joyce. Her writing is still not widely available in translation.

19 Chava Alberstein sings in Yiddish as well as Hebrew. On her latest album, “Crazy Flowers: A Collection,” she asks, “Loving your country is a natural thing. Why does love end at the border?”

20 Savyon Liebrecht’s work “reflect(s) a deep yearning for reconciliation between people on opposing sides of conflicts,” says Lily Rattok’s intro to recently published Apples from the Desert, her first book in English. (The title story first appeared in LILITH in 1989.)

21 Gabi Lev, whose innovative theater pieces in English and Hebrew create feminist midrash, re-imagines the lives of Bible women with extraordinary resonance for our lives today. “It has been our theater company’s great privilege,” she writes, “to work with holy writings, which by their nature are capable of becoming vessels for the powerful meanings without themselves breaking…. So, after the Holocaust, Megillat Esther alludes to something more than when it was originally written. The present uncannily affects the past. And this tells me something about the nature of life.”

22 Gila Almagor, noted actress in Israeli films, is also the author of two now-classic autobiographical novels made into movies, Summer of Aviya and Under the Domim Tree. She pioneered in portraying the lives of post-Holocaust orphaned adolescents in the new state.

23 Shulamith Hareven, novelist, poet and essayist whose titles have appeared in English to rave reviews (City of Many Days; The Miracle Hater), is the first woman member of the Hebrew Language Academy.

24 Naomi Shemer, composer and lyricist of the much beloved “Jerusalem of Gold” (Yerushalayim shel zahav), a song of longing for ancestral lands associated with the Six Day War that rivals “Hatikvah.” as a national anthem. “On the Honey and on the Sting” (Al hadvash ve al haoketz), occasioned by the Israeli withdrawal from Sinai, implores protection for the bitter and the sweet: “Please don’t uproot that which has been planted.”

25 Noa—Achinoam Mni, who grew up in New York and returned to live in her native Israel at the age of 17, has both Israeli and international albums. Her crossover music integrates Yemenite elements, fabulous drumming, ululation—and pop music.

26 Sara Levi-Tannai in the 1950’s created the Inbal Dance company with works drawn from Yemenite culture.

27 Yehudit Arnon Is a dancer and choreographer who determined at 19 that she would be a dancer even though she was told she was too old. She went on to found a professional dance school, based at her kibbutz on the Lebanese border, and the Kibbutz Contemporary Dance Company, which recently received raves in New York and Washington.

28 Michal Govrin, writer, poet and theater director. Her provocative novel, The Name, which bridges the chasm between secular and the sacred, was just published in the US. 

29 Dana International is the 1998 winner of the immensely popular Eurovision song contest for her song “Diva Maria.” This transsexual star of Israeli music, whose soaring career has helped to overcome prejudice, recently turned down an offer to join the Spice Girls.

30 Rina Yerushalmi, founder (in 1988) and producer, director of Itim Theatre Ensemble, a troupe of 15 actors who gestate unusual productions—most recently a four-part piece, VaYomer, VaYelech (And He Said, And He Walked)—reinterpreting events from the creation of the world to the receiving of the Ten Commandments.

Gathering the Exiles
In this category, a tribute to the millions of nameless mothers who kept their families together, fed and comforted and soothed and encouraged and cajoled them, and served as brave examples and intermediaries on their behalf in a land that was at once both home and strange.

31 Nagist Mengesha, director general of Fidel, the Association for Education and Social Integration of Ethiopian Jews, an advocacy organization that aims to “avoid paternalism by empowering the Ethiopian community.” In addition to addressing government policies, it trains Ethiopian professionals in education and social welfare to address the needs of Ethiopian students.

32 Shulamith Katznelson, founder of Ulpan Akiva in Netanya where Hebrew and Arabic are taught using a conversation/immersion technique. Since 1951 it has been known for its openness to all peoples.

33 MK Sofa Landver (Labor) is chairperson of the Russian Immigrant Association in Israel. She made aliyah in 1977 from Leningrad (St. Petersburg), worked as a speech therapist and was elected to the Ashdod Municipal Council.

34 MK Marina Solodkin (Yisrael Ba’aliya, the Russian immigrant party) is an economist and political commentator. Born in Moscow, she made aliyah in 1991, and is the author of Civilizational Discomfort: Soviet Jewry in Israel (in Russian). She’s writing a book in English on the Russian factor in Israeli politics.

35 Bracha Arjwani is the petite and physically hardworking organizer of Ma’ahal, a tent city across from the Prime Minister’s office, which since 1994 continues to draw attention to the plight of the homeless and to the lack of low income housing. Approximately 300,000 barely visible people cannot find affordable housing and shuttle between relatives and supportive friends.

36 Ida Nudel—former refusenik, tireless trouble maker for good causes, established “Mother to Mothers,” which operates after-school centers in Ashkelon, Ofakim, Beer Sheva and Netivot, served by volunteers—a help especially to single mothers.

37 Belaynesh Zivadia, first Ethiopian Jew (male or female) to serve in the diplomatic corps. She is Consul of academic affairs and minorities in Chicago.

The Personal/The Political
38 Gila Svirsky is director of Bat Shalom, a feminist center for peace and social justice located in West Jerusalem. In 1994, after the Oslo Accords, they joined with Jerusalem Center for Women in Arab East Jerusalem to form Jerusalem Link and sponsor joint demonstration against human rights violations and promote feminist ideas to the Israeli and Palestinian public.

39 Galia Golan—a founder of Link (see above) and a spokesperson for Peace Now. She is a US-born political scientist, expert in Soviet foreign policy. She founded the first women’s studies research center (Lafer) in Israel at Hebrew University.

40 Ruth Rasnic—founder of the second battered women’s shelter, in Herzliya. Its need for financial support spurred the founding 20 years ago of US/Israel Women to Women, which continues to sponsor a variety of women’s projects in Israel.

41 Nadera Shalhoub-Kevorkian, a professor at the Hebrew University, initiated the first hotline in 1992 for Palestinian women who are victims of abuse. Working within a traditional culture where the solution to a rape might be for the rapist to marry his victim, she works to make the welfare of the victim a priority.

42 Rachel Ostrowitz has persevered creatively and gutsily for 20 years as editor of Noga, the only Hebrew-language feminist magazine, published in Tel Aviv with support from US/Israel Women to Women.

43 Michal Aviad, a documentary filmmaker, most recently chronicled the lives of adolescent Moroccan working class girls in “Jenny & Jenny.”

44 Dahlia Ravikovitch a poet whose subjects are love and politics, made it early into the canon of poets studied in school. Her latest book in English is The Window.  

Women as Religious Leaders
45 Alice Shalvi, founder of Israel Women’s Network, former head of the Pelech, an experimental Orthodox school of girls, has been appointed rector of the Solomon Schechter Institute (Conservative rabbinical school) in Israel. After a lifetime of feminist leadership, her decision to affiliate with the Conservative movement should have sent a clarion call to Orthodox institutions.

46 Rabbi Einat Ramon is the first Israeli-born Conservative woman rabbi. Although she had to come to the US to be ordained, the movement now trains women rabbis in Israel. Concerned with laws of marriage and divorce in Israel, she says, “Potentially every Jewish woman in this country could become an agunah.

47 Joyce Rosman Brenner, the first Reform appointee to a local religious council—in Netanya—is a psychotherapist at the feminist Counseling Center for Women. She has worked to make gender and women’s studies a specialization in the curriculum for social workers.

48 Debbie Weissman directs Kerem, a training institute for humanistic Jewish education, preparing teachers for secular high schools. She was the first president of Jerusalem’s groundbreaking egalitarian-as-it-gets Orthodox synagogue, Kehilat Yedidya.

49 Rabbi Naamah Kelman is the first woman ordained as a Reform rabbi in Israel. She was a founder of the first Progressive (Reform) preschool that grew into an elementary school in Bayit Vegan, Jerusalem. She coordinates the new Beit Midrash, a liberal yeshiva for post college English-speaking students, and directs educational initiatives at Hebrew Union College.

50 Aviva Zornberg, the Scottish born, Cambridge educated Orthodox Bible teacher with a worldwide following, teaches traditional religious texts using perspectives from comparative literature and the female experience.

51 Rabbi Gila Dror is the first woman president of the Masorti (conservative) Rabbinical Assembly, since 1994. She leads Congregation Eshel Avraham in Beer Sheva.

New women’s organizations enrich Israeli society

Women also are responsible for “many of the new organizations and coalitions and expansions of existing organizations that,” according to Bar llan University Professor Dafna Izraeli, not only “enrich civil society and democracy In Israel [but also] provide women with a potential power base.” The Committee for the Advancement of the Status of Women was established in 1992 by a coalition of women Knesset members across the political spectrum and became a permanent standing Knesset committee in 1996. Since then, the Knesset has passed over 40 legislative measures in areas such as equal pay, affirmative action and domestic violence. Israel Women’s Network was founded in 1984 by Alice Shalvi as the first umbrella organization linking Israel women’s groups for the purpose of working on women’s issues. The IWN has urged women to get out and vote, and encourages persons of any sex to vote for women—regardless of party. For more information on legislative issues, read the IWN Newsletter; for statistics on issues such as housing, higher education, check out The Israel Equality Monitor, published by Barbara Swirsky. Project Nisan trains high school girls of various backgrounds to become leaders. Sama Salach-Zreik, its new director, is the first Arab to lead a co-existence organization in Israel. Israel Association of University Women’s scholarship program is unique in having no age restrictions and has over 20 years granted doctoral and master scholarships to more than 300 women. The Counseling Center for Women, a nonprofit mental health center informed by feminist perspectives, was founded by a collective of women therapists in 1988. It offers therapy and trains welfare officers on gender-sensitive issues in therapy. The Israel Sexual Assault Victims Help Center Union, founded in 1990, is an umbrella for centers in cities and towns across the country, with 24-hour emergency hotlines and programs such as the Clotheslines Project and Take Back the Night marches. Women of the Wall began in 1988 when a group of Israeli and foreign women were violently attacked when they went to pray at the Western Wall and read from a Torah scroll while wearing prayer shawls. Following an unsuccessful appeal to the Israeli Supreme Court, a government committee came up with the solution—they should pray somewhere else. The women object, and the struggle goes on. They gather every new moon to pray together [watch LILITH’s Tsena-rena column for updates]. The Feminist Studies Association is the umbrella group for women’s studies centers at universities across the country. Women’s Organization for Political Prisoners (WOFPP) was founded in 1988 to bring to Israeli public attention incidents of human rights violation suffered by individual Palestinian women in military jails. Women in Black, in response to the intifada, began gathering every Friday afternoon, wearing black at a central square in Jerusalem to mourn victims of violence and call for an end to the occupation. The demonstration spread to 33 other locations in Israel and became a symbol of peaceful protest that was imitated around the world. (The founding woman wished to remain anonymous.) Women in Green conduct their protests against Israeli concessions of occupied territory in the peace process. (Evidence that women want to be heard on this side of the political spectrum also.)

Did you know?

  • Most female kibbutz members continue to be employed in education domestic work or public service while most men are employed in agriculture, industry or production management.
  • The Government Companies Law of 1975 was amended in 1993 to require equal gender representation in the board of directors of every government corporation; in some cases men were actually asked to resign so that their seats could be given to women!
  • Israel has the world’s most far-reaching sexual harassment law, passed in 1998 by the Knesset with a vote of 18-1. The new law deals not only with the workplace but also forbids sexual harassment in the school, in the army, and on the street.
  • In 1998 Israel elected its first female mayor of a city, Miriam Fireburg (Likud) of Netanya.
  • And some foremothers: Rosa Welt-Straus (1858-1938), was chairperson of the “Union of Hebrew Women for Equal Rights in Eretz Yisrael,” which in 1926 won the right for women to vote and be elected to the governing body representing the Jews in pre-State Israel. Rachel Kagan signed Israel’s Declaration of Independence; the only other woman to sign was Golda Meir. She was a member of the first Knesset, representing the women’s party, and introduced the first bill addressing women’s equality—but did not vote for the final legislation because it exempted marriage and divorce laws from the rule of equality.

In This Feature