Mizrahi Feminism in Israel
The phrase “Mizrahi feminism” has been increasingly used to refer to the academic discipline and literature, as well as the practices, which seek to extend the liberal Israeli feminist discourse into a multicultural context—specifically, to include women originating in Arab/Muslim countries. Mizrahi feminism perceives the dominant version of feminism current in Israel as urging gender equality and human rights for all women. Because it attempts to maintain a universal perspective, this approach fails to exhibit sufficient sensitivity to the specific needs of those women who by birth, choice or coercion belong to various ethnic, cultural or racial groups. Mizrahi feminism aspires to include in the feminist struggle for women’s rights those Jewish women from Muslim and Arab countries who reside in Israel and whose way of life is an integral part of Israeli multi-culture and society (Ella Shohat, 1994). The characteristics and ethnic origins of Israeli women that are of particular interest for the study of Mizrahi feminism are those that find expression in a) the histories of Mizrahi women and a comparison between these histories and those of women from other cultural groups in Israel as well as in the world at large; b) the histories of Mizrahi women in relation to the history of Mizrahi men who, like them, are Jewish-Arabs living in Israel—a state that is in conflict with the Arab countries; c) in the narratives of the oppression and subservience they experienced as Mizrahi women; d) in their diverse cultural legacies as women who came from various Muslim and Arab countries with different cultures and who have undergone both empowerment and disempowerment; e) in the narrative of the self-image and social positioning of Mizrahi women within Israeli society, which have been affected by both global and local economies.
The term “Mizrahi feminism” is not all-inclusive. In this respect it has much in common with such terms as “multi-culturalism” (Taylor, 1995; Kymlika, 1995), “cross-cultural feminism,” “trans-cultural feminism” and even “cross-national feminism” (Grewel and Kaplan, 1994; Mohanty, 1988). Moreover, like African-American feminists (hooks, 1984), Mizrahi feminists are concerned with what they believe is the insensitivity to their struggle on the part of liberal feminists. They suffer from inferior positioning as second-class citizens in a male-dominated hierarchy that is based on race, status and ethnic origins. Thus, they insist upon a feminism that is at once both revolutionary and materialistic in the Marxist sense and that points to changes needed in the present global and national societal power structures, which permit only a minority of privileged women to achieve equal standing with men. This may well be the only issue on which one can find a consensus among women of Mizrahi origins, regardless of their level of education or religious affiliation, whether or not they identify with Mizrahi feminism, and whether or not they define themselves as traditional, ultra-Orthodox, right-wing religious nationalist Zionists, or even as secular Israelis.
The dominant dialogue in feminist circles in Israel today is rooted in Ashkenazi culture, because most of the activists have a Western European or North American orientation and a large number of the female activists are themselves of western origin. Their feminism is often filtered through a modern religious or secular perspective, immersed in the Zionist ethos, and, in most instances, identified with the moderate Israeli political left. However, the “left” in Israel has a rightist liberal-capitalist orientation. The Israeli feminist agenda was developed within this context. Thus, one can identify two fundamental struggles within Israeli feminism, one being universal and the other particularist. First, there is the universal feminism that lies at the core of liberal western feminism, which fights for women’s rights as part of the larger struggle for human rights. This is the type of feminism expressed in the enlightened and Eurocentrist literature of such philosophers as Susan Okin Moller (1998), where the discussions focus on equal representation of women in public sector and commercial institutions. This discourse, which reveres the liberty of the individual, sees the fight for women’s rights largely in terms of abstract judicial entities whose unique cultural identity has been discarded. The basic struggle is similar in all liberal feminist organizations in the west: a struggle for equal pay, equal opportunities, senior management opportunities, and so on. A second struggle, which is unique to Israel, focuses on three issues which define the current Israeli experience: the struggle for peace, the struggle for women’s equality in religious institutions, and the struggle for women’s equality in the military and defense establishments.
Mizrahi feminism challenges these two basic struggles of Israeli feminism, pointing to the inherent tension that exists within it: the tension between the rights of the individual and the citizen as expressed in liberal democratic political theory and the rights of groups within the society, who have been marginalized because of their inferior community status, which is directly related to their ethnic, racial and cultural backgrounds. A second tension exists between liberal feminism, which opposes the exclusion of women and fights gender inequality (S. Okin Moller, 1998), and multicultural feminism, which argues in favor of the rights of women of minority groups to fight for their distinctiveness, based on their group’s ethnic identity. These multicultural feminists oppose the sisterhood relations of the liberal feminists (hooks, 1984) and fight the discrimination shown them by those who call themselves their “sisters.”
Multicultural feminism has supplied Mizrahi feminism with many of the intellectual tools it uses to criticize not only the Israeli feminist movement and its agenda but also many of the groups and organizations who identify with it.
Israeli feminism has been grappling with this tension since its inception in the 1970s as a movement which claimed to represent all women in Israel. It took Mizrahi feminism twenty-five years to develop the necessary resolve to provide a distinctive voice to express the plight of Mizrahi women as a separate group of women with distinctive needs. Up until the mid-1990s, the few Mizrahi feminists worked within mainstream Israeli feminism, joining in the struggle until it became clear to some of them that their efforts benefited only women from the stronger socio-economic strata, namely women belonging to the European- and American-oriented Israeli bourgeoisie. In short, women of Ashkenazi origin.
Since finding their voice in the 1990s, Mizrahi feminists in Israel have been challenging Israeli Ashkenazi feminism on two fronts: first, the identification of Israeli Ashkenazi feminism with its liberal agenda of fighting for the status of that minority of women who are already privileged, and second, the adoption of goals which blur the lines of difference between freedom and individualism and between equality and uniformity.
Mizrahi feminists argue that women’s struggle for the expression of individualism—for example, their demand to be admitted into Israel Air Force pilot training courses—is not necessarily a fight for wider autonomy and freedom for the majority of Israeli women when compared with what they have today. They argue that showing that women—or at least some of them—are able to carry out tasks usually reserved for men does not necessarily serve the aim of gender equality. Rather it is a way of conforming with the prevailing patriarchal hierarchy.
Until the emergence of an organized Mizrahi feminist voice, the Israeli Ashkenazi feminists were assumed to speak for all Israeli women. However, this feminist movement failed to deal with the particular issues facing women of non-Ashkenazi background. Very few non-Ashkenazi women were active in the Israeli feminist movement, while those who were active in it were seldom questioned about their specific needs or desires in the wider context of the feminist movement’s policies and positions. This was so even though they brought their experiences of oppression and alienation with them when they attended movement activities. The Ashkenazi leadership of the Israeli feminist movement tended to reflect the same patronizing, oppressive attitude towards the Mizrahi women as that displayed by Ashkenazim to Mizrahim in Israeli society at large—an attitude never discussed until the emergence of the Mizrahi feminist movement in the mid-1990s. This silence caused many Mizrahi members of the feminist movement to become embittered, and this in turn created tension between Ashkenazi and Mizrahi feminists (Dahan-Kalev, 2001).
Many of the Mizrahi feminists identified and explained the growing tension differently than did Ashkenazi women, seeing it as rooted in the bias against them as women of Mizrahi ethnic origins. The Ashkenazi women for their part fueled the tensions by expressing their disappointment at the relatively small number of Mizrahi women who joined the struggle for equality. While these tensions undermined the relations between the two groups of women, they remained hidden until the 1995 Feminist Conference at Givat Haviva, when all hell broke loose. In essence, the tensions stemmed from the Mizrahi feminists’ sense that they were being patronized and condescended to by the Ashkenazi feminists. While this patronization and condescension were not direct or overt, the Mizrahi women perceived them as implied in the critical and biased attitudes adopted by Ashkenazi feminists to the culture and the societies from which the Mizrahi women came. The Ashkenazi women, in their roles as the first and second generation of new western-oriented feminists, condemned the traditional, patriarchal lifestyle which so many of the Mizrahi women lived and found meaningful. The Ashkenazi-dominated Israeli feminist movement was fighting for the rights of all women to control their own bodies, including full reproductive rights; for celebration of both their bodies and their femininity; for political representation; for positions of senior management on the directorship of the boards of large firms and institutions; equal opportunity in the military; and for religious rights in general and in particular for reform of personal status laws (dealing with marriage and divorce). However, most Mizrahi women were fighting for survival. Their struggle was against poverty and unemployment, for the right to obtain a basic education for their children and for their own personal growth, for the ability to resume schooling in order to acquire a minimal education, as well as to receive at least the legal minimum wage from their employers.
Many Mizrahi women remain religiously observant and continue to live a Mizrahi lifestyle. They find themselves trapped between the Mizrahi traditional values in which they were raised and the women’s rights movement, which inter alia strongly advocated sexual liberation. The economic situation of Mizrahi women, when generally compared to that of Ashkenazi women, is lower. They are struggling to survive and to protect their jobs on a daily basis and therefore they cannot afford political struggle over liberal rights. As a result, many Mizrahi women feel alienated from “western” feminism and some began to give expression to these feelings as soon as feminism first appeared in Israel (Seri 1984; Raz 1984). Thus the tension between Mizrahi and Ashkenazi feminists became inevitable and their agendas developed in different directions regarding certain issues (Dahan-Kalev 2001). Ashkenazi feminists pointed an accusatory finger at Mizrahi women who continued in their traditional lifestyles, as well as at other groups, such as Palestinian women, and often placed the blame for the subordination within those cultures on the women themselves (Hanita Raz, 1983). This attitude among Ashkenazi feminists implied that those who did not join the feminist movement or did not share their feminist view were either the victims of patriarchal societies—living without being aware of how subordinated they were—or were women who aided and abetted a culture that oppresses women.
When the Mizrahi feminists began their struggle their main complaint was against the Ashkenazi feminists, whom they described as—like the Zionist establishment of the time—ignorant and insensitive in the patronizing attitude they displayed towards the women from non-Ashkenazi cultural groups in general and from Mizrahi backgrounds in particular. The combination of the liberal feminist and Zionist ideologies created a context of oppression and discrimination which Mizrahi feminists felt was at best condescending and at worst degrading. They devoted their struggle to exposing and overcoming these attitudes towards Mizrahi women and to forging their own brand of Mizrahi feminism.
CRITICISM OF THE REPLICATION OF OPPRESSIVE ATTITUDES TOWARDS MIZRAHI WOMEN WITHIN THE ISRAELI FEMINIST MOVEMENT
Nation- and society-building in the state of Israel included the ingathering of Jews from all over the Diaspora. Their absorption was based on policies of westernization and secularization, which were aggressively implemented. The state and Zionist institutions which dealt with immigrant absorption adopted patronizing and discriminatory policies towards immigrants, especially those who came from Arab and Muslim countries. The Ashkenazi Jewish population displayed patriarchal attitudes which fostered a bias that was especially marked vis-à-vis the Mizrahi women (Dahan-Kalev, 2001). Ashkenazi women generally also displayed these biases and those who established the feminist movement brought these prejudices with them to the movement. Many, though by no means all, of these Ashkenazi feminists were linked through family or political ties to the center of political life in Israel and to public resources. In contrast to women of Mizrahi origin, the Ashkenazi women had more opportunity to advance economically and to realize their potential through higher education. Many of the early activists of the country’s feminist movement came from socially and economically privileged groups. It rarely occurred to them to ask Mizrahi women about their lives or their agenda, nor did it occur to them to ask what the groups had in common or how their life experiences differ. When Mizrahi feminists began organizing in the 1990s, their efforts focused on an agenda different from that of the Ashkenazi women. First and foremost, the movement sought to severely criticize and rebel against the Ashkenazi feminists for ignoring the plight of the Mizrahi women, who until the massive influx of immigrants from the former Soviet Union comprised half the female population in Israel.
The Mizrahi agenda has two foci: 1) An attack on what it regards as the misrepresentation of Israeli society as solely a western society—a representation which continues to deny that its Mizrahi immigrants and citizens have been oppressed and subordinated and which refuses to grant the Mizrahi stories of oppression in their countries of origin equal status in the narrative of the founding fathers and the nation building alongside those of people who experienced the Holocaust and the pogroms of Eastern Europe; and 2) a multicultural approach that takes into account the effect of globalization in Israel, which has deepened the poverty and sense of hopelessness among women of Mizrahi origins (Dahan-Kalev, 2001).
Before globalization arrived in Israel the country’s culture was largely multicultural while at the same time displaying the character of one unified hegemonic culture that was nurtured by the Zionist ethos, and which subordinated the other cultures in Israel to its hegemony. The Zionist ethos was basically Eurocentrist, and it subordinated all the other cultures—Arab, traditional and religious—of both the Mizrahi Jews and the Israeli Arab. Mizrahi feminists opposed the Ashkenazi feminists’ unilateral campaign which demanded equal rights for women as part of the larger struggle for human rights. By campaigning for all in the liberal, western tradition, they were in effect ignoring the specific needs and plights of all women who were not Ashkenazi and/or middle class. Despite the fact that the women who were active in the feminist movement in Israel claimed to speak for all women and sincerely believed they represented all women, the Mizrahi feminists constantly pointed out to them that they did not in point of fact do so. The Ashkenazi feminists relied on stereotypes that were embedded in the sociological and political research carried out by establishment institutions.
These stereotypes were perpetuated because men and women immigrants from non-western countries were perceived as living exclusively traditional stagnating lifestyles which trapped them (similarly to Arab women) in closed communities where women were oppressed and discriminated against. This perception displayed Orientalist ways of thinking (Said, 1979) which are expressed in Zionist ideology.
The Mizrahi women who took part in Israeli feminist organizations had encountered these stereotypes all their lives but hoped that in their meetings the Ashkenazi feminists, who themselves had been the victims of patriarchal subordination, would be sympathetic to their plight and would also acknowledge the cultural oppression they had suffered. However, the Mizrahi women were disappointed by the Ashkenazi feminists. They pointed to the fact that Ashkenazi feminists frequently exploited their superior status vis-à-vis Mizrahi women to establish themselves in the wider society. For example, in their struggle for recognition of the feminist women by the Zionist establishment, Mizrahi feminists more than once reported how the Ashkenazi women in positions of authority made decisions at the expense of and prejudicial to Mizrahi women. The Ashkenazi women provided the educational and social welfare services that Mizrahi women needed. The majority of Ashkenazi women who worked in the education and social welfare system had some kind of higher western education, which most Mizrahi women lacked. Most of the teachers, social workers, psychologists and higher-ranking bureaucrats the Mizrahi women encountered were Ashkenazi women. Hence, the Mizrahi women, most of whom came from working-class backgrounds and required services for both themselves and their children, found themselves dependent on Ashkenazi women in positions of authority who made decisions that directly affected their own lives and the lives of their children (Dahan-Kalev, 2001). This situation created a relationship of dependency between those giving and those receiving the services. The process also created a stereotype of Mizrahi women as inept victims of a community that has its roots in Arab societies which were understood to be oppressive, backward and inferior to western societies. As providers of the services, the Ashkenazi women saw themselves as those who were integrating and acculturating the Mizrahi women to the western way of life in the name of the Zionist nation state. Their efforts gained them recognition and public standing in the eyes of the Zionist establishment. However, at the same time, in the eyes of women from Mizrahi origins, they were seen as oppressors, as was later reported by some Mizrahi feminists (Eliezer, 1996, Dahan-Kalev 2001, Seri, 1983).
In denouncing these acclaimed contributions of Ashkenazi women, the Mizrahi feminists noted that the acclaim existed even when the discriminatory attitudes towards them were also recognized. This was undoubtedly one of the most powerful factors contributing to the stereotyping of them as a group. Mizrahi women were often aware that Ashkenazi women were blind to the Mizrahi women’s experiences and to the power relations and dependence that existed between the two groups. However, Mizrahi women as a group were too weak to change their situation.
With the rebellion of Mizrahi feminism in 1995, the full weight of these grievances and tensions came to occupy a central position within the general feminist discourse in Israel. At first, the response from Ashkenazi feminists was largely to deny that these grievances had any relevance to the feminist agenda. Moreover, many Ashkenazi feminists charged that the raising of these grievances by Mizrahi feminists harmed the movement’s struggle (Dahan-Kalev, 2001). To them Mizrahi feminists seemed sectorial, their strategy influenced by clannish values rather than by a liberal “universalist” value system. In the eyes of some Ashkenazi feminists the aims of Mizrahi feminists undermined their own struggle to achieve autonomy, gender independence and equality for all women. Ashkenazi feminists also regarded as nostalgic and sentimental the aim of some Mizrahi feminists to return to their Arab-Jewish roots. The Mizrahi feminist movement was severely attacked for whittling away at the attempts to unify women in a common cause and “sisterhood” which is the credo of all feminism (Dahan-Kalev, 2001).
At the end of the twentieth century, while this crisis was brewing at the center of the Israeli feminist debate, in the world at large a new feminism was taking root—the so-called “third wave” of feminism. This new wave began to give voice to novel ideas regarding women’s needs and unique relations which attacked many preconceived stereotypes about women in the third world. From feminist scholars such as Amadiume (2001) and Toubia (1998), one could learn that feminists living in the countries in the southern hemisphere unequivocally support the communitarian side in the liberal/communitarian debate taking place in their countries. This is precisely because they realize that they live on a number of levels in countries that are undergoing rapid economic and technological changes and thus are absorbing new movements and trends in societies whose cultures are just as patriarchal as the western world but practiced in a traditional way. Researchers also found that at the same time that women in the third world show a willingness to embrace western liberalism they also show a willingness and capacity for adapting themselves and their cultures to changes that invade their traditional lives, such as those that are involved in the transition from traditionalism to nationalism. This adaptation is not necessarily violent and often involves an integration of the new nationalistic ideas with the old communal way of life. Researchers have reported on the complex way in which women in third world societies deal with issues affecting their complex lives. They live in countries which on the one hand are adopting western values and are thus post-colonialist, while on the other they are becoming more nationalistic and increasingly fundamentalist. Many women in Israel, especially women with Mizrahi backgrounds, strongly identify with these ideas. This was evident in the deep commitment of both numerous Israeli Ashkenazi and many Mizrahi women to Israeli nationalism, to right-wing parties, to the Jewish settlements in the West Bank and Gaza Strip and to the Shas Mizrahi party. Such commitments of these Israeli women are all based on their traditional Jewish lifestyles in their respective communities. Israeli Ashkenazi feminists challenged the legitimacy of tribes or large extended family groups that serve as autonomous communities. Thus, in their view, Mizrahi communities became minorities in which the individuals belonging to them were characterized and judged on the basis of their ethnic origins. This attitude had ramifications not only for cultural and gender relations but also on the positions taken by Ashkenazi feminists on the issue of patriarchy. The same stereotypes that were directed at the Mizrahi community at large were expressed by Ashkenazi feminists in the context of the feminist struggle as a way of branding Mizrahi men as sexist only on the basis of their ethnic origins. Hence racist distinctions were drawn by Ashkenazi feminists about issues that involve both ethnicity and sexism. Few Ashkenazi feminists have expressed any public criticism of the way in which Mizrahi women are ridiculed and demeaned in Israeli culture.
The Mizrahi feminists’ struggle for their own space within the Israeli feminist movement has led to a significant change in the agenda of the Ashkenazi feminists (Dahan-Kalev, 2001), some of whom, particularly the radicals in grassroots organizations and lesbian groups, have taken up the issue of their specific identity and their relationships to other groups in the social hierarchy of the country. For example, the status of Mizrahi women has been compared to that of the status of ultra-Orthodox women and to that of those women who identify with the Shas Sephardic Orthodox party, Palestinian women, Russian immigrant women and so on. Mizrahi feminists catalyzed the debate on identity among Israeli feminists. Issues that had previously been discussed only between Mizrahi feminists themselves—such as what is involved in being an Ashkenazi feminist as against being an Israeli feminist—now moved to center stage. More broadly, Mizrahi feminists were responsible for placing the issue of feminist identity and its relationship to multiculturalism on the agenda of the feminist movement in Israel. This eventually led a number of Ashkenazi feminists to publicly support the struggle of the Mizrahi women (Shadmi, 2000). The Mizrahi feminists, for their part, remained in touch with feminists from all walks of life and cultures, from the liberal Ashkenazi and Arab feminists to new groups, including newcomers from the former Soviet Union and from Ethiopia. This was done largely through activities related to the peace process. One such framework was the “Women Build a Peace Culture” project in 2000. Another example was the coalition which in 1999 initiated action in support of those working women whose livelihoods were threatened by globalization in Israel, in the framework of the organization “My Sister (Ahoti)—For Women in Israel.” With this progress, some Mizrahi feminists hoped that the feminist dialogue would also develop into a broader, more comprehensive discussion of issues such as multicultural feminism, welcoming positions favoring and opposing the cultural rights of different groups. However, this did not happen.
A cloud of criticism continues to float above the struggle of the Mizrahi women’s movement. It is still often dismissed as a factional struggle, falsely accused by some Ashkenazi feminists of defending the unworthy non-western traditional cultures which still exist in Israel, despite the fact that the women in these cultures still have no control over their bodies or their lives.
As with liberal feminism in the United States and in Europe, Israeli-Ashkenazi feminism is based on the feminist premise that a patriarchal hierarchy is a way of subordinating women and that this social order is more prevalent in non-western cultures (Mohanty, 1988). The criticism of Mizrahi women frequently involves an attack on their lifestyle within the traditional community, claiming that their identity as women is dependent on their men, who deny them the freedom to control their own bodies and sexual preferences and the freedom to choose when to get pregnant. This criticism also extends to those women living in all traditional communities within Israel who are compelled to accept customs such as arranged marriages, bigamy, female genital mutilation and even murder in the name of family honor.
Mizrahi women claim that mainstream feminists tend simply to deny the rights of Mizrahi and other feminists who come from other cultures by ignoring their existence and in so doing push their causes to the edges of the feminist agenda. In doing so they dismiss them as irrelevant to the struggle of Israeli feminism.
The Mizrahi feminists challenged this blindness on the part of the Ashkenazi feminists. They argue (not necessarily justly) that the narrow-mindedness of Ashkenazi feminists prevents the Israeli feminist movement from seeing that Israel is a state in which there are many cultures. The status of women in these different cultures, just like the status of women in the western cultures, is affected by numerous factors such as age, family positioning, motherhood and children, family relations and other factors which determine who is to occupy the second-class status within their communities. These factors affect all women in all cultures but they are perceived differently when looked at only through the prism of Western liberalism. Different women need to use different strategies to deconstruct their different value systems on the way to achieving rights for women in their different cultures. Add to this political factors such as western attempts at cultural colonialism and post-colonialism within traditional Muslim societies, together with the religious lifestyle of women from Asian and African countries (which in reality is more secular and traditional than religious), and what one gets is a more complex picture of the situation. This situation cannot be explained as solely a result of their religion or their tradition or ethnicity, or their belonging to an extended family or tribe. These women’s lives are shaped by as varied a combination of influences as are the lives of Ashkenazi women.
If there is one major distinctive factor that has affected the lives of both Ashkenazi and Mizrahi women in Israel it is the radical historical changes they have experienced. However, both groups experienced different historical experiences; these differences separate Mizrahi women from Ashkenazi women and it is these differences in historical experiences that ultimately explain why Mizrahi women continue to be disadvantaged. Since Ashkenazi women have more power than Mizrahi women, Ashkenazi women have better jobs and occupy more influential positions than their Mizrahi counterparts.
There is also the crucial and somewhat volatile issue of sexuality. Demand for control over one’s body—which is central to the Ashkenazi feminist struggle—is advocated in a society which also comprises women living in traditional, ultra-Orthodox and modern Orthodox communities. This issue, the nucleus of the radical western feminist struggle, especially threatens traditional and religious value systems and hence it is a particular source of danger to those women who remain within their traditional communities. Ashkenazi feminism challenges the religious tradition; confrontations with the patriarchal establishment often result in the tightening of control over the women within the traditional groups. Hence the liberal feminist struggle often has a paradoxical outcome: while it may contribute to the liberation of women living within the more permissive society it is also the cause of more control being exercised over those of their sisters who live within the more traditional communities, making their lives even more oppressive. In fact, Ashkenazi feminist activism (unintentionally) serves to widen the divide and sequester those women living in traditional communities. In this respect, the Ashkenazi feminist struggle is inherently “selfish,” because it ignores the potentially damaging repercussions on their Mizrahi, Haredi Orthodox or Palestinian sisters. The Ashkenazi women have not found a way to bridge this gap between women living within traditional societies and those living in communities where their freedom and humanity as women can be celebrated.
Ashkenazi feminists ignore the fact that Mizrahi women are dealing with double the amount of tension and problems. Mizrahi feminists have found themselves in a situation where they have to separate themselves and their issues from Ashkenazi feminists, creating a distinct agenda which differs greatly from that of their Ashkenazi sisters. In response to this, the Ashkenazi feminists charge them with harming the unity of the women’s movement, undermining its power and breaking up the sisterhood. An example of this dispute may be found by looking at how Mizrahi women have had to fight on several fronts: against oppression from men in general and also as Mizrahi women oppressed by men from the same ethnic backgrounds—men who are, in turn, also discriminated against because of their origins. Ironically, Ashkenazi women culturally oppress the Mizrahi women despite the fact that both groups of women are often the targets of sexism and discrimination on the part of Israeli men. When Ashkenazi women tried to connect with Mizrahi women in order to help them, the efforts were often interpreted as patronizing reminders of the pattern set by the previous generation of Israeli women. A good example is Mother Tongue, a project by Tal Ben Zvi, an Ashkenazi woman who in 2002 presented it at an exhibition on the identity of Jews of Arab and Muslim countries at the En-Harod Museum of Art. The generation of Ashkenazi patronage, created by both men and women in the emerging Zionist state, was perpetuated in the next generation of Israeli women, reinforcing the stereotype of Mizrahi women as needy victims, weak and dependent on the Ashkenazi establishment.
This attitude became even more militant towards religiously observant Mizrahi women who choose to maintain the traditional Orthodox lifestyle, such as the Israeli Jewish women who identify with the Shas Mizrahi religious/political movement. The essence of Israeli Ashkenazi feminism is that it seeks to fight misogynistic practices. In doing so it often points to practices in families from the lower socio-economic groups such as large Mizrahi families, ultra-Orthodox families, or the Arab extended family or tribe, in which women are expected to be primarily childbearers and carers. The Ashkenazi feminists, who defend a woman’s right to exercise control over her own body and oppose forced marriages, are thus critical of women who accept them. In addition, in its struggle for gender equality, the Ashkenazi feminist movement invades territory which is traditionally male-dominated, such as orthodox religious law. Thus, the religious Mizrahi women (like many of their modern Orthodox peers) again find themselves in a double bind. On the one hand, they want liberation but on the other hand they want it within their traditional Mizrahi lifestyle. Many Ashkenazi non-religious feminists see this as an unachievable and contradictory agenda. It also challenges the Ashkenazi feminists, who are not cognizant of the dangers posed by a direct ideological upheaval, rather than employing indirect strategies that might be more useful in such complex situations.
Many Mizrahi women not only do not see the struggle against religious conservatism as one worthy of top priority on the feminist agenda but also warn of the deep rift such a debate could cause within the Israeli public (even though at first glance it seems as though they passively comply with the Orthodox men, who justify the oppression of women). Mizrahi women, most of whom have grown up in religiously observant homes, are women whose identity, personality and values are deeply embedded in a traditional system which gives meaning to their lives. In opposing specific practices of traditional Judaism, Mizrahi women find that they are not at home in the finely woven fabric of traditions in which they have been raised. This often leads them to experience lack of meaning in their lives and a disintegration of family ties. Many Mizrahi feminists report these devastating experiences (see e.g. Ella Shohat, Destroyed Yards).
Mizrahi feminism is interested in exposing the bind in which these women are trapped without condemning or blaming them for being partners in the patriarchal system. Mizrahi feminism does not ignore the cultural foundation; it is aware of and sensitive to values and practices which constitute the lives and identities of Mizrahi women who belong to the ultra-orthodox Mizrahi community, such as the Shas movement. In order to bring about change, Mizrahi feminism recognizes that changes must come from the women themselves and from within the traditional fabric of their lives, through partnership, not resistance.
The Mizrahi feminists call on traditionally observant women to take part in their activities, at the same time expressing sensitivity to their lifestyles and obligations within the traditional value system. The Mizrahi feminist movement is confident that a process of change has begun within the traditional Mizrahi communities. It is responding to the changing reality and conflict of interests growing in traditional communities, since Mizrahi women cannot exist in a vacuum. To understand this, we need only observe how ultra-orthodox women are acquiring higher education, both religious and secular, and taking on positions of responsibility in Shas-run public institutions and non-profit religious institutions, as well as those under the authority of the other Orthodox sectors. They also serve as directors of Shas day-care centers nationwide. Nevertheless, these are strategies adopted by (Orthodox) women who are interested in improving their status and position within the community but not to the extent of “throwing the baby out with the bath water.” That is to say: They wish to refrain from unraveling the fabric of the traditional lifestyle to which the identity of these women has been stitched and where all they experience has meaning, from which they draw strength, succor and hope. Israeli feminism should not expect these women at their public rallies to demand that Shas place a woman in a realistic spot on its Knesset list. At the same time, one cannot say that the women who comply are not feminists just because they do not employ the methods of the non-religious Ashkenazi feminists.
The feminist literature dealing with women in the Third World and women in emancipated societies raises another question concerning the blind spot typical of western feminism, and in our particular case of Ashkenazi feminism. It is possible that those women who abandon their traditional upbringing for a western lifestyle may have lost their chance to impact on their traditional societies on such issues as female identity within the protective society of women. They may be missing a chance to unify women and provide supportive frameworks for young women coming of age (Moraga and Anzaldua, 1983). When Mizrahi women abandoned their traditional lifestyle, it often brought them not emancipation but alienation. The progressiveness and modernity they anticipated within the Zionist ethos did not include equal opportunity or parity for them. The large, extended Mizrahi family in which they had grown up was often replaced only by the hierarchy of poverty. They found themselves isolated and pitted against both men and women, all of whom had more resources at their disposal. Their socioeconomic status is low as compared with Mizrahi men, Ashkenazi men or Ashkenazi women. In this competitive reality, the Mizrahi women found themselves hired for the most menial jobs paying the least amount of remuneration. They found that advancement and higher education were not available to them, so after work they returned home to begin the second shift as the unpaid housekeepers whose job included cleaning, cooking and raising the children (Dahan-Kalev, 2001).
This situation became even worse in the 1990s as Israeli society became more affected by globalization. Thus, Mizrahi women, who were already on the bottom rung of the socio-economic scale before globalization (alongside Palestinian and new immigrant women), became its immediate victims. Parallel to globalization came the acceleration of another process, the privatization of government social welfare services. (The privatization began earlier but took place very slowly [Arnon, Arie, Ron Amihai, 1991]). Women in the lower-income brackets were the hardest hit by the changes. Ironically, the peace process deepened the poverty among these women while women in other sectors of society were reaping what were called the “dividends of the peace process” (Bichler, 2002). Mizrahi feminism puts these women squarely in the forefront of its agenda. It exposed the discrimination against women employed in textiles, electronics and tourism (including trafficking in women) and the discrimination and injustices they endured as contracted workers of employment agencies. This is in marked contrast to the experience of better-off women, both Mizrahi and Ashkenazi, who were hired directly by companies in both the private and public sectors. The struggle of the Mizrahi women is not just about human rights or liberation and equality, the very cornerstones of liberal feminist movements in the West. Their struggle focuses on the challenges they are facing as a result of the economic effects of globalization, the international and national policies that have dismantled every last shred of social welfare benefits at the expense of the women who are struggling daily for their existence. Women who are trapped in their jobs are women who fear that their livelihoods—meager as they are—will be threatened. They fear that their continued employment will be jeopardized if they organize a public protest drawing attention to their wretched working conditions. This was the experience of Mizrahi women activists in movements such as Ahoti and its branches in the north and south of the country in 1999–2001, when they approached exploited women workers to organize them and try to get them to fight for their social rights (Dahan-Kalev 2005). The much-publicized struggle of the single mother Vicky Knafo ended pathetically: at risk of starvation, she accepted the offer of a pornographic Internet site to publish her picture for NIS 2000 (Ynet.co.il, 14.9.04).
The concept of Mizrahi feminism is gaining acceptance as a way of describing the literature and the practical applications which aspire to expand Israel’s liberal feminist dialogue. The liberal feminist movement concentrates on promoting gender equality and equal rights for all women, a fight for women’s self empowerment within the culture and the society in which they live and function on a day-to-day basis. Mizrahi feminism presents a challenge to Israeli feminism. It reaches in a dialectical way past Ashkenazi feminism to the problematic roots in the Arab Jewish cultures which shaped Mizrahi women. Mizrahi feminism is not about a single, homogeneous, cogent theory drawn up by some political feminist movement. It is rather the expression of a very real perspective of women in the poor and lower socio-economic brackets of Israeli society. Mizrahi feminism seeks to release women from bonds of oppression of all kinds. It aspires to ensure that the women’s self-respect and dignity will be protected together with society’s support for the lifestyle they choose to live, no matter what it is. (This is also true of modern-Orthodox women. See Kolech.) This challenges the current wave of globalization which is “blowing up” all sense of solidarity, and which fosters atomistic isolated individuals within societies as well as an atmosphere of rivalry which pits the interests of one individual (and one group) against the other.
In this sense, Mizrahi feminism offers a message of support to both women and men within the Mizrahi communities. While Mizrahi feminists do not ignore the militant human rights struggle and the fight for the rights of the individual as championed by liberals worldwide, they see these as of less importance than the struggle for the immediate survival of women. In any case, power and resources are distributed unequally. The universal and cultural values from which these rights have grown are still largely ignored. As long as the Mizrahi feminist narrative is deprived of a legitimate and equal status alongside that of the narrative of the Holocaust and the pre-state uprisings, it may be presumed that Mizrahi women and men will be denied the dignity and self-respect they deserve, as well as the parity with Ashkenazi men and women they have earned as citizens of Israel.
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