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Israeli Feminists – From Theory to Action

“Adam gave names not only to all the living animals, but to human reality as a whole. We have to give reality new names, names that reflect our truth as women.”

With these words Myra Glazer Schotz of the Beersheba Women’s Health Collective opened the first national feminist conference, held in Israel May 1.

Women ranging in age from 20 to over 60, from cities, kibbutzim and moshavim, converged on Beersheba. They represented the “older” organizations such as the Israel Feminist Movement, but also, quite a few new groups formed within the past half year, such as Women for Women which founded and runs the first shelter for battered wives in Israel, and The Second Sex publishing company which is dedicated to bringing important feminist literature to the Hebrew-speaking public.

The first group which reported to the participants was the Beersheba Women’s Health Collective, the one-day conference’s organizers. Formed mainly by Anglo-Saxons (people from English-speaking countries) who had spent two years together in a consciousness-raising group, the Collective concentrated on the women’s health issue because it was closest to the women’s personal experience.

On invitation from Soroka Hospital in Beersheba, three group members spent 24 hours in the wards and wrote a report sharply critical of the facilities and practices which they found. They also suggested concrete improvements, such as allowing husbands into labor wards and delivery rooms. At first the hospital was willing to work with the group in bringing about some of the recommended improvements— although ignoring several which the women felt were essential—but after the report was publicized, all cooperation ceased.

Summing up the group’s accomplishments thus far, Irit Zmora told the gathering that it had started prenatal classes, called attention to the importance of family planning and, perhaps most important, improved the attitudes of hospital nurses, midwives and doctors toward their patients. Although contact with the hospital has been renewed recently, some of the women feel that, rather than supply one institution with free labor, they should turn their energies in another direction, such as the opening of a women’s center in Beersheba, while at the same time continuing in the health field.

Two former battered wives and a volunteer representing Women for Women, the shelter for battered wives in Haifa, gave an impressive account of their work. Barbara, the volunteer, explained that until recently the plight of the battered wife in Israel was seen as a personal rather than a social problem. Once the definition was changed, a Knesset committee was appointed to look into the matter.

Receiving information from the police and from WIZO (Women’s International Zionist Organization), which runs Legal Advisory Bureaus throughout the country, they learned that between 30,000 and 50,000 Israeli women are physically abused by their husbands. Since its opening last November, 55 women and from 70 to 75 children have stayed at the shelter.

The speakers emphasized repeatedly that the shelter is only a temporary solution, a halfway house where a woman receives emergency aid in the form of a roof for herself and her child(ren) and a supportive environment while she sorts out her life. A woman lawyer provides free legal advice.

Lo (No) —Fighting Violence Against Women, has just opened a similar refuge in Herzliya. The shelter, called Assistance Center for Women, is staffed with the help of WIZO and has the cooperation of the Herzliyah municipality and the Ministry of Labor and Social affairs.

Dvora Friedman reported on the Rape Crisis Center, operating out of the Israel Feminist Movement, at 228 Dizengoff Street, Tel Aviv. The center was opened on February 1 and operates a 24-hour hotline.

Another new group, The Lesbian Feminist Organization —also known as Irgun Alef (an acronym) was introduced at the conference. Dr. Amalia Bergman said that the Society for the Protection of Personal Rights (a gay rights organization) neglects the problem of sex discrimination, while the Israel Feminist Movement ignores discrimination on the basis of sexual preference. At the end of the brief talk, about 25 women stood up and identified themselves as lesbians.

The formation of a group of single mothers in Jerusalem was announced. This is the first time that single mothers are organizing in this country.

I spoke about The Women’s Connection, a new group still in the process of registering with the Ministry of Interior as a nonprofit organization. The purpose of our group is to publish a bi-lingual, Hebrew/ English quarterly magazine called “Sichat Ray’ot” (Women friends’ talk), which will bring information and news to Israeli women and will serve as a forum for exploring the realities of being a woman in Israel.

Former Knesset Member Marcia Freedman spoke about still another new group, “Kol Ha-lsha” (The Woman’s Voice) which distributes feminist literature, posters and T-shirts in Hebrew and English.

The cumulative effect of reports from the various groups made quite an impression on me, as did the excellent organization of the conference and its friendly and open atmosphere. I returned to Jerusalem feeling that I had witnessed the dawn of a new phase in Israeli feminism, an awareness that, in addition to development of theory, concrete services such as shelters and hotlines must be offered women if they are to question their circumstances and try to improve them.