Feminism in Contemporary Israel
The first wave of feminism in Israel washed over the country as early as the pre-statehood Yishuv period. It manifested itself in the voices of women who claimed inclusion in the public sphere. Phrased in terms rooted in socialist discourse, women of the left sought a way to enter the male world as equals, chiefly in the hakhsharot (pioneer training camps), in the “labor battalions” and the kibbutzim, and in political activity within the workers parties and the Histadrut (Bernstein, 1987; Fogel-Bijaoui, 1992c; Izraeli, 1981). Concurrently, in the general public, women sought to preserve their distinctiveness as women and to gain civil equality in recognition of their contribution as women and mothers (Herzog, 1992).
This early feminist struggle reached its peak in 1919–1926 with the fight to obtain the right to vote for Yishuv institutions. As was the case across the world, women in Palestine also believed that achieving suffrage would bring equality. And, like women around the world, their counterparts in Palestine would also need several more decades to free themselves from the illusion that equality would necessarily result from the formal right of participation.
The second wave of feminism in Israel started evolving, though very slowly, around the time of the 1973 Yom Kippur War and more emphatically in its wake. Only a calamity of the magnitude of that war could have succeeded in impelling the issue of women’s inequality into the awareness of a group of women who launched an as yet uncompleted effort to place the issue of women’s status on Israel’s social and national agenda.
In the USA and Europe, the wave of feminism during the 1960s was one aspect of the civil protest movement that flooded through the Western world. The liberal wave that washed over the West left Israel largely, though not totally, untouched. Voices of social protest against ethnic discrimination were first heard in the early seventies, with the emergence of the “Black Panther” phenomenon, a movement that demanded the re-allocation of economic and political resources and of social prestige. In 1970, upon her return from the United States, Shulamit Aloni—founder of the Citizens’ Rights Movement—was the first to ask “Does Israel need a women’s rights movement?” In 1972, the first radical women’s movement was established (Freedman, 1990; Ram, 1993).
It is noteworthy that this period marks the onset of the second feminist wave in Israel, signified by the establishment of Nilahem—a Hebrew acronym standing for “Women for a Renewed Society” but also meaning “we will fight.” It is unsurprising that, in a society where the dominant discourse is military, the women who challenged that dominance chose to call their movement by a name taken from the military lexicon, with the intention of transforming its meaning.
The initiative for the foundation of this movement came from two faculty members at the University of Haifa: Marcia Freedman, a philosopher, and Marilyn Safir, a psychologist, both originally from the United States. Their seminar engendered a radical movement that was critical of the degree to which women were suppressed in a male-dominated society.
Ostensibly these developments can be viewed within the framework of the liberal social movements that flooded the West during the 1960s. In practice, however, the Israeli story is more complicated. In the West, and especially in the United States, the decade was marked by the students’ revolt, the struggles against the Vietnam War and those against discrimination suffered by blacks and women. In Israel, by contrast, a very different frame of mind prevailed. Caught up in the euphoria that followed victory in the 1967 Six-Day War, the country experienced a surge of national pride and deep admiration for the armed forces. This was attended by a belief, both explicit and implicit, that brute force constituted the way to resolve international problems.
Post-1967 Israel was preoccupied with the question of borders and territories. In a society where the military, and more particularly a fighting army, is the centerpiece of social identification, civil society and civil demands are marginalized. Moreover, with the army as the fulcrum of the social ethos the emphasis was naturally on men and on masculinity as the almost ultimate model of the “civilian” who participates in and contributes to the life of the community. The collective identification with the Six-Day War encompassed men and women alike.
The appointment of Golda Meir as Prime Minister in 1969, together with the economic boom that followed the 1967 war, which enabled large numbers of women to enter the labor market, helped entrench the dominant myth of equality in Israeli society. Women were not aware that in practice they were channelled into “feminine” occupations and were secondary players in the work force. They did not internalize the fact that the majority of their social functions revolved around family- and home-based activity. In post-1967 Israel, women constituted fewer than seven percent of the members of the Knesset, and only four percent of local government representatives. They were almost completely absent from the decision-making level in the economic, political and social spheres.
In many areas of Israeli society, the Yom Kippur War of 1973 constituted a watershed. For women, the war served as a kind of magnifying mirror which reflected with painful clarity Israel’s social structure and their place within it. The three weeks of hostilities until the cease-fire, together with the subsequent months of stepped-up mobilization of reservists, revealed the full intensity of the gendered role division that existed between men and women and the marginality of women in the public sphere. The massive and swift mobilization of the country’s males when the war erupted brought civilian life to an almost complete standstill. Factories, businesses, offices and schools closed down. Without men the national economy virtually ground to a halt. Public transportation was sparse: there were no women bus drivers. For the first time it was disclosed that neither of the two bus cooperatives that monopolize public transportation in Israel (Egged and Dan) allowed women to become members or employed women as drivers on a contract basis.
Thus in 1973, women were excluded from the three major role systems of the war effort: the military leadership, the civilian administration, and war production. Many women reported a feeling of helplessness during the war. However, the feelings of anger and frustration were soon channelled into areas of activity that are considered legitimate for women: concern for the soldiers and helping to treat the wounded, the widows, and the orphans. Women baked and knitted for the men at the front, inundated the hospitals that cared for the wounded, and of course looked after family members who remained at home. The longer the hostilities persisted, the greater became the number of caring and integration roles that were added to female tasks.
As hostilities died down, the mobilized reservists began returning home. First to be released were those who held key positions in various sectors, so that the civilian economy could be revitalized. The war had been relatively short in terms of social change. Unlike World War II, which lasted for several years and in the aftermath of which many women entered the work force, in Israel the war of 1973 only intensified the traditional role division between men and women. However, the war did have the effect of creating an awareness of what that role division meant in terms of women and their place in society and also in relation to society as a whole. The waste of human capital that occurs in a gender-stratified society was fully manifested in the first three weeks of full hostilities, before the cease-fire took effect.
The first body to react to the situation was the Israel Defense Forces (IDF). The process of self-criticism carried out by the military high command after the war, combined with the need to bolster combat units with males and the growing recourse to advanced technologies, led the army to reassess its policy toward women. The adoption of the new technologies, whose operation required trained and high-quality personnel, opened many new military fields to women and afforded them new opportunities. Women’s functions in the military became more diverse, a trend that has continued ever since.
While the IDF always makes new missions available to female soldiers on the basis of need—generally in order to offset manpower shortages—it does not pursue this policy in order to promote gender equality. A legal battle was required before the Air Force would allow women into the pilots’ training courses, at least formally. The Military Advocate General did not oppose the attempt by the plaintiff, Alice Miller, to enter the course on grounds of principle against women pilots—that would have been too blatantly a sexist stance. Instead, he cited “defense expenditures.” The military’s logic was that, given Israel’s security situation, the investment involved in setting up a special course for women would be incommensurate with the high costs of maintaining Air Force preparedness and combat capability. Gender equality is perceived as a luxury. That was the IDF’s position after the Yom Kippur War and it remains unchanged a quarter of a century later.
Many women were actively involved in the large number of protest movements that sprang up in the wake of the Yom Kippur War. Nevertheless, the increasing attention paid to feminist concerns after the war should not be considered a foregone conclusion. We should bear in mind that two contradictory voices made themselves heard after the Yom Kippur War. One was trenchantly critical of the government and of the social order that had consolidated itself in Israel. But another—which became increasingly dominant—demanded national mobilization and the closing of ranks. The strength of this latter call made it difficult for the protest movements, and doubly so for women, to cut their way through to the political center. Besides, feminism as a social movement was received in Israel with profound reservations. It was perceived as an American import, alien to the Israeli spirit. Worse, the demands of feminism were seen as a threat to the collective solidarity and to women’s readiness to accept the dominant national agenda, which—certainly in the aftermath of the 1973 war—revolved around the security discourse and the centrality of the Arab-Israeli conflict.
It was precisely because the gendered role division had reached an unprecedented level during the war that the seeds of the feminist approach, which had been sown before the war, could thereafter flourish. The offspring, although initially small, proved sturdy.
Politically, this was first seen in the success of Ratz, the Citizens’ Rights Movement (CRM), in the elections to the eighth Knesset held on December 31, 1973, soon after the formal conclusion of the Yom Kippur War. (The elections had originally been scheduled to take place on October 30 of that year.) Ratz was the first party in Israel to be formed by a woman, Shulamit Aloni, and to espouse human rights, civil rights and women’s rights as policy guidelines. Marcia Freedman, a declared feminist, held the third place on the Ratz list. The public protest against the blunders associated with the war, together—undoubtedly—with the frustration generated among women by the status to which they were relegated during the hostilities were translated into votes. In the event, Ratz won four seats.
Ratz was the first Israeli political party to indicate the connection between the dominance of the security discourse and the inequality of women. Ratz placed the issue of women’s rights and women’s status in the family and in society—and not just in legislation relating to marriage and divorce—on the national agenda. In the eighth Knesset the conspiracy of silence about violence against women in the family was broken. For the first time the subject of battered women was discussed. (It was during this period that Ruth Resnick, a member of Ratz and of the feminist movement, established the first shelter for battered women.) The issue of abortion was also dealt with extensively and the feminist argument relating to a woman’s right to her body was voiced. Admittedly, the Knesset did not enact legislation to legalize abortions. But the mandates of the official committees which it formed were sufficiently broad to include, for instance, the “social clause”—which defined the social and economic conditions in which women lived as legitimate considerations in decisions on whether to permit abortions.
A perusal of the press and of the official Knesset Record dating from this period reveals that neither the legislature nor the public was sympathetic to or enthusiastic about the new themes that had been placed on the political agenda. Nevertheless, they could no longer be ignored. This was amply demonstrated in 1975, which was designated International Year of the Woman, when then-Prime Minister Yizhak Rabin appointed a commission to examine the status of women in Israel. It took the commission some time to complete its research and to prepare its report, which in fact was not submitted until 1978—to a new prime minister, Menahem Begin. The report examined the place of women under the law and in education, the military, the labor market, the family, and in decision-making centers, and investigated the plight of women in distress. The findings for the first time revealed the scale of the inequality between the genders and constituted an eye-opener for many women (and men). Appended to the report was a booklet containing 241 recommendations for action that was required in order to promote the status of women and bring about equality between the genders in Israel. The marital status of women was the only issue on which the commission could not reach unanimity: this was due to the lack of separation between state and religion, as well as to the dominance of Jewish tradition.
The importance of the report drawn up by the Commission on Women’s Status lay not only in its recommendations, but also in the opportunity it provided for women from different spheres to work together. Approximately one hundred women participated in the commission, and it constituted the first encounter between women politicians and women academics. Participating in the plenary and in the sessions of the sub-committees served as a means for consciousness-raising. It was clear that the work invested by all those involved in preparing the commission’s report constituted a formative experience for a new generation of leadership.
One of the few resulting political achievements was the creation of the position of Advisor to the Prime Minister on the Status of Women. During the decade that followed, only forty-one of the commission’s recommendations were implemented. Nevertheless, the report of the Commission on Women’s Status should be seen as a breakthrough. Even though some years would elapse before its implementation began, and women’s organizations still continue to battle for its full implementation, the report serves as a symbolic document of Israeli society’s commitment to making changes in women’s status.
From the late seventies, feminist organizing in Israel intensified. Its features are varied and it comprises different forms of social-feminist endeavors: feminist writing, translations of leading international feminist articles, texts written locally, and a feminist journal, Noga. Shelters for battered women and rape crisis centers have been established. Various mutual support groups were set up by women. A women’s party was founded in 1977; though it did not attain the minimum percentage of votes required, it was clearly another milestone in the feminist fight.
The chief characteristics of this organizing are conscious defiance, grassroots initiatives, and the absence of direct dependence on parties or institutionalized political parties. Many organizations highlight a single issue—violence against women, rape, agunot, offensive advertising, and so on (Fogel-Bijaoui, 1992a). Although most of them are small and marginal, one can still claim that, to a great extent, the merging of the different voices changed the public climate on the issue of women’s status.
Alongside the radical feminist organizations, the Israel Women’s Network was established in 1984, defining its main mission as advocacy work with Knesset members, decision-makers, and policy-setters. The Network was yet another innovation in the community of women’s organizations in Israel. Most of its founders came from academia. Their entry into feminist activities constituted more than crossing over the line separating the academy from politics, for it was those women who eventually opened gender and women’s studies tracks in Israel’s universities and colleges, thereby helping to expose the gendered-political aspects of the academic discourse.
Under the influence of the feminist organizations, the concept “feminism” was interpreted as less and less threatening in the institutionalized organizations as well. Increasingly, Na’amat, wizo and even Emunah embarked on consciously feminist activities, linked with consciousness-raising through training, journalism and political efforts. They also displayed greater willingness than heretofore to collaborate with other organizations on specific issues, such as those relating to women’s status in the rabbinical courts.
In 1992, during the thirteenth Knesset, an ad-hoc Committee on the Status of Women was established, which became a statutory committee in 1996. In comparison with its predecessors, this Knesset was more “women-friendly.” The majority of the women MKs were members of the Israel Women’s Network, that is, they defined themselves explicitly as feminists: “When the Committee was set up, we didn’t ‘reinvent the wheel,’ but a new engine was added to the wheel, a feminist, militant engine that crossed the lines of party, [ethnic] origin, age, and religion” (The Committee on the Status of Women, 1998: 4). It constituted a successful attempt by women politicians to go beyond party squabbles and to cooperate with each other on shared issues impacting on the status of women.
The committee chalked up more than a few achievements. Some are linked to setting up frameworks dedicated to dealing with women’s status (such as the state authority to promote women’s status) and to creating supervisory mechanisms for state institutions—for example, the committee’s authority to request reports from state institutions on issues concerning women. Others relate to legislative initiatives, introducing to the agenda of the Knesset and of the public topics such as educating for gender equality, fighting offensive advertising, single families, lesbian and homosexual rights, women in sport, preventing sexual harassment, police attitudes to victims of rape and violence, the status of Arab women, and the Basic Law—Rights of Women. A scrutiny of the topics discussed by the committee reveals an attempt to address different groups of women, as well as widening public debate on people suffering on grounds of their sex. On these issues, too, the committee made a significant contribution in institutionalizing a feminist agenda.
It should be noted that the most significant phenomenon in the community of feminist organizations in Israel is that radical grassroots organizations raise new issues which are gradually adopted by the large organizations. In consequence, the former, and their leaders, remain permanently at the margins as a kind of eternal avant-garde, constantly initiating new ideas that a priori are considered radical and impossible. Over time, the issues they raise are adopted by establishment women organizations and, to some extent, are eventually institutionalized, enter the public agenda and lead to activity in the Knesset. Notable examples are the issues of domestic violence, sexual harassment and rape. Thus, the boundaries between the extra-establishment feminist discourse and the political discourse are no longer impermeable.
Since the late 1970s, but more emphatically in the last decade of the twentieth century, there has been an outburst of voices: secular and religious women, Mizrahi women, Palestinian women living in Israel, lesbians, single mothers, mothers of soldiers, Women in Black, Women in Green, women with political views from the right and left, liberal, Marxist, and radical feminists, as well as women who consider gender as an essentialist social category, and those who see it as constituted by social process and thus capable of reinterpretation and change. All these voices are involved in the public political discourse, some loudly raised, some whispering and others in deafening silence.
The logic of feminist thinking rules out delegitimizing any one of this choir of voices. If gender is a result of power-oriented social construction, then any idea of a single, all-inclusive gendered identity must have a coercive element. Attempts to describe this identity and to act in its name, are power-driven, normalizing, and exclusionary endeavors. Feminism’s attempts to speak in the name of “The Group” have been negated in light of the demand to keep feminist discourse open and constantly changing. Implementing such an idea in the political arena is highly problematic. A political movement must have a group identity in order to mobilize political power; in the absence of consensus over a common identity, it is almost impossible to generate political mobilizing. Hence, feminist politics in Israel, as in many other places, is divided and there are more than a few disagreements between the feminist organizations. One solution is to conduct politics of identities, attempting to bridge or, more correctly, to neutralize disagreements extending beyond the agreed issue. Examples may be found in the modus operandi of the Israel Women’s Network, or that of Women in Black who agreed on a single slogan, refusing to debate on other feminist issues apart from that of “End the Occupation” (Helman & Rapoport, 1997), or other attempts to set up an ad-hoc coalition (like ICAR [International Coalition of Agunah Rights], which deals with the issue of agunot and recalcitrant husbands who refuse to grant their wives a divorce).
The feminist voice is growing ever more diverse, preventing the formation of a uniform feminist identity that can unite women around it and crystallize into a single political force. The multi-vocal non-unified participation of feminist organizations in the formal institutionalized political arena leaves the feminist women’s organizations outside the power foci of decision-makers, but they have clearly become an influential social force that must be reckoned with. Obviously, this is the achievement of a “movement,” though not a movement that wins seats in the Knesset. It is a movement that aims to change the public agenda and in this sense, as well as being a political force, it is extending the borders of politics.
Bernstein, Deborah. The Struggle for Equality: Urban Women Workers in Prestate Israeli Society. New York: 1987; Fogiel-Bijaoui, Sylvie. “Feminine Organizations in Israel—The Current Situation.” International Problems, Society and Politics (Hebrew). 31 (1992a): 65–76; Ibid. “From Revolution to Motherhood: The Case of Women in the Kibbutz, 1910–1948.” In Pioneers and Homemakers, edited by Deborah S. Bernstein, 211–233. Albany, New York: 1992b; Ibid. “The Struggle for Women’s Suffrage in Israel: 1917–1926.” In Pioneers and Homemakers: Jewish Women in Prestate Israeli Society, edited by Deborah S. Bernstein, 275–302. Albany, New York: 1992c; Freedman, Maricia. Exile in the Promised Land. Ithaca, New York: 1990; Helman, Sara, and Tamar Rapoport. “Women in Black: Challenging Israel’s Gender and Socio-Political Orders.” British Journal of Sociology 48 (1997): 682–700; Herzog, Hanna. “The Fringes of the Margin—Women’s Organizations in the Civic Sector of the Yishuv.” In Pioneers and Homemakers, edited by Deborah S. Bernstein, 283–304. Albany, New York: 1992; Ibid. “Homefront and Battlefront and the Status of Jewish and Palestinian Women in Israel.” Israeli Studies 3 (1998b): 61–84; Izraeli, Dafna N. “The Zionist Women’s Movement in Palestine, 1911–1927: A Sociological Analysis.” Signs 7 (1981): 87–114; Ram, Uri. “Emerging Modalities of Feminist Sociology in Israel.” Israel Social Science Research 8 (1993): 51–76.