I moved from Jerusalem to Yeruham in 1978, as a sabra finding an outlet for her Zionist idealism. Together with a group of olim from the West, we settled in Yeruham, the first development town in the Negev, founded in 1951 during Israel’s greatest immigration period. We were committed to halakhah, social responsibility, the pursuit of peace, and ecological concerns. Note that women’s issues were not part of the baggage, though the group was fanatically democratic in its decision-making processes and in our marriages we were struggling with egalitarian notions of homemaking and child-rearing.
I ended up marrying a member of the group, a third-generation American Jew, son of civil rights activists, psychologist Moshe Landsman. I brought my classical Zionism, he brought his democratic values. And so we blended our causes: babies, fostering children from broken homes, improving the educational system of our economically depressed town, working toward peace, and promoting the human rights of the neighboring Bedouins.
Like many women of my generation, I awoke to women’s issues as a political cause only later. Throughout the seventies, when Marcia Freedman was serving as Israel’s only second-wave feminist Member of Knesset (there had been a first-wave representative, Rachel Kagan, in 1949), I did not even notice her. I was then going through other upheavals—the Yom Kippur War, Gush Emunim, anti-government demonstrations, Peace Now, the Likud coming to power, Sadat and the peace with Egypt, the Lebanon war, and so on. For me and my group, it was extraordinary enough to insist that Zionism should switch from militarism to peace, from settling the land so that we can reclaim it to settling among disadvantaged people so that we can make a social difference—throughout all this, women’s issues remained invisible.
Then in 1983 I was approached by Baruch Elmakiess, the brilliant Moroccan then running for mayor on the Labor party ticket. He wanted a revolution in Yeruham: power to local leadership. Many Yeruham residents, especially those from Asia and Africa and their descendants, are thought to lack culture—or, at most, to have an inferior culture. Baruch Elmakiess wanted to assume responsibility for his own community and, together with other young Mizrahi leaders, teach the Ashkenazi snobs of the big cities a thing or two about the abilities of the “other Israel.” I was flattered to be the only Ashkenazi invited to lead the revolution with them. But then something dawned on me: I was very different from the mothers, wives, sisters and daughters of these guys, and their outlook was not feminist. Yet, these young men respected my difference and saw its political effectiveness. They, unlike the established elite, were ready to carve new ways in society. Though they wanted me for my expertise in education, welfare and grassroots social activism, as the first woman in the history of Yeruham to serve on the Town Council, I had an additional responsibility whether they (or I, for that matter) had intended it or not: to promote women’s issues.
Everything else followed from this realization. When the time came to elect representatives to the local Religious Council in January 1986, I said, “Include me because I can become Israel’s first Religious Councilwoman.” They said, “You’re crazy, but we’ll do it. Why not another revolution? Let’s show the world we have more guts than the self-appointed progressives anywhere else.” They supported me throughout the long two years and nine months of the Supreme Court battle. The Ministry of Interior Affairs applied pressure and threatened budget cuts to convince them to drop me. But they believed I could be an excellent administrator on the Religious Council, and they had their honor—no one in Jerusalem was going to tell them how to run their affairs in Yeruham. I was not an anonymous woman, I was well known locally. They wanted me, not just any woman, and if the rules of democracy meant that by supporting me they would support all women, so be it. Predictably, the only person who got credit and fame during the course of this battle was I and I alone. None of the other important revolutions in town had merited anybody’s attention. The press loved writing about me as the only enlightened creature in a primitive hole—an outrageous lie!
My five years on the Religious Council started on October 25, 1988, and they were a piece of cake! I had worked much harder on the Town Council. Yes, I broke new ground—to date, fourteen women serve or have served on Religious Councils in townships throughout Israel, following the landmark Supreme Court decision on my case. They teach about me in law schools as a cornerstone of equality before the law. They teach about me In Judaic studies as a case of halakhic change in modern times. One high-school civics textbook quotes my case in its chapter on the Supreme Court. But what I really want to teach is a new way of looking at Israeli society in general.
My revolution would not have occurred if I had lived in an established Israeli Jewish township. The impetus had to come from Yeruham, where embittered young Moroccan leaders had the guts to start a second Zionist revolution, a revolution of social power. Their deeds color everything in a different light. Zionism is not a certified, top-down process; it now has to grow from the bottom up, and allow its structures to change accordingly. The dice of leadership were cast a few generations ago; they need to be cast again, with new players, politicians, academics, rabbis, and with women, too. And if we don’t have a constitution, maybe that is a good thing, because grand narratives may coagulate too rapidly around the interests of a self-appointed elite, instead of giving voice to the rainbow across our country.
Leah Shakdiel, an educator and activist, was the first woman to serve on an Israeli religious council. She lives in Yeruham.