When the New Israel Fund organized the conference “Women and Politics: Navigating from Advocacy to Policy” last December, they surely predicted heavy-duty discussions of how to move women into legislatures, lobby for women’s issues, and change laws both in the U.S. and Israel. What they couldn’t have predicted was the most memorable moment of the six-hour evening of panels and workshops. The ambitious New York program featured women activists and leaders from both countries, including Congresswoman Nita Lowey (D-NY) and Members of Knesset Colette Avital and Hussniya Jabarra. After Avital described the difficulties she faced as a female diplomat and political figure in Israel, Jaban’a, the first Arab woman to have a Knesset seat, was to have spoken on parallel issues. The moderator announced that “because Hussniya says her English is not so fluent, she would like to ask Colette to translate for her.” Audience members, expecting Jabarra to speak in her native Arabic, instead listened to her tell in flawless Hebrew her experiences as a girl and ambitious young woman in a restrictive culture. As the two women leaned toward each other on the podium, Avital rendered into English Jabarra’s first-person narrative, and the scene provided a small-scale emblem of the coexistence efforts the New Israel Fund works to create.
And on another podium…The United Jewish Communities’ General Assembly (the largest annual gathering of Jews) met last November in Atlanta, bringing two notable women to address a spellbound audience of about 3,000. In the past, the G.A. (as it is always referred to in Jewish organization speak) has habitually spotlighted male speakers, most often rabbis who lectured in their loudest homiletic style. This time a packed house was treated to a Canterbridgean-accented, articulate and direct analysis of Jewish life today by Alice Shalvi, rector of the Schechter Institute in Jerusalem. She was followed by the dulcet-toned Rabbi Shira Milgrom of Congregation Kol Ami of Westchester, who reminded us of how too often we fail to acknowledge what’s good in our lives. The women sounded to their rapt listeners very different from the male speakers who’d been exhorting us at the G.A. for years.