Suffrage in Palestine
The building of an egalitarian Jewish society in pre-state Israel was a keystone of the Zionist plan in general and of its socialist component in particular. Ideas that had their source in the French Revolution and democratic ideas from the west had a profound influence on the political perceptions that informed the leaders of the new Yishuv and their institutions. The goal they set was to organize the Yishuv on a constitutional basis, and the election of local committees was the first step toward independence for the Jewish settlements. The question of women’s suffrage arose locally, in every community, and in some communities women even succeeded in being elected. The very existence of local elections in some settlements was due to the ability of women’s mutual-aid societies to organize as early as World War I, informed by an awareness of women’s rights throughout the world. Each activist’s unique personality and her community activity led to women’s ability not only to vote but to be elected.
In the Jaffa community council elections in 1918, three women were elected: Ada Maimon, Fania Metman-Cohen, and Esther Yevin. These three were representatives of the first women’s organization in Jaffa to ensure women’s right to hold office in the community council. One year and a local struggle later, two women— Nehama Pukhachewsky and Adina Kahanovsky—were elected to the Rishon le-Zion community council. Since Pukhachewsky won first place among all those elected, she should have been appointed head of the committee. She declined the position, but remained active in community life. In 1919, after a protracted struggle and persuasive meetings conducted by the Haifa Women’s Union, Rahel Luntz was elected to the Haifa local council. These local successes laid the foundation for the struggle on the national level.
With this experience of women’s participation in local elections, it was now certain that women’s place was assured in the public institutions. Women had already participated in the first assemblies that took place to plan the elections and in the establishment of representative groups. Women participated in the elections held during those years and even ran an independent list. Their struggle ensured their right to remain within these institutions and thwarted any attempt to block their continued participation. Thus the struggle for women’s suffrage in pre-state Israel differs from that around in the world since, in the latter, women fought for the right for inclusion in the public institutions.
The initiative to organize the new Yishuv came from Bezalel Jaffe (1868–1925) of the Palestine Office in Jaffa. In two meetings, the first held in Petah Tikvah on November 18, 1917 and the second in Jaffa on January 2, 1918, it was decided to organize for the establishment of the public institutions of the Yishuv, and a temporary committee was appointed to hold elections for the Constituent Assembly within three months. About forty male representatives of various groups and communities were elected to the committee, and one woman, Rahel Yanait Ben-Zvi, who was a representative of the workers. It was decided that the elections would be “honest, equal, secret, inclusive, with no regard to status.” The matter of women’s suffrage remained open and allowed the temporary committee to decide that “concerning sex, the temporary committee shall debate on whether the times and conditions are suitable to implement this matter in reality.”
The fact that women’s suffrage had not been decided upon came to the attention of women in various places and women’s organizations in parts of the country that were already under British occupation. The women hastened to organize and respond. About two months after the committee elections, on February 13, 1918 (1 Adar 5678), twenty-three women from Rishon le-Zion sent a sharp and angry letter to Bezalel Jaffe, the representative of the organizational committee, saying:
Taking note of this significant moment, a time when all the matters of our people in the country are being put in order, when every member of the public needs to participate without regard to sex or status: We, the undersigned, demand our right to participate in the elections to the Constituent Assembly of the Histadrut.
They protested the very debate and said that their demand to participate in the elections needed no proof because the Zionist Congress had already granted women the right to vote.
Since the war had not yet ended, elections for the Constituent Assembly could not be held and the planning group met again in Jaffa on June 18, 1918. They then determined unequivocally that “The right of active voting is given to every Jew in liberated territory, regardless of sex.” The next meeting in Jaffa, which took place in November 1918, called for elections for the Constituent Assembly that would represent all Jewish residents of the country and determined: “Every man and woman aged twenty years and up shall participate in the elections of the people’s delegates to the Constituent Assembly.” Following this decision, women in the country had the feeling that their places were assured in the assembly that had yet to be elected.
The elections were scheduled for June 1919, but if the women believed that there was no longer a threat to their right to vote, the opponents of women’s suffrage thought otherwise. The matter of women’s suffrage became a point of controversy between the ultra-Orthodox parties and the Mizrahi movement on the one hand and the workers’ parties and the general public on the other, causing repeated postponement of the elections. The ultra-Orthodox parties staunchly opposed women’s participation in the elections and the Mizrahi party joined them in the hope of achieving a compromise. The Mizrahi movement sought to postpone the decision for one or two years in order to persuade its own members and the ultra-Orthodox residents of Jerusalem to accept women’s right to vote. In response, the working committee of the women’s union sent an angry letter of protest to the temporary committee in Jaffa, maintaining that since Herzl’s time the Zionist community in Palestine and the Diaspora had opted for women’s equality. The letter accused the Mizrahi movement of trying to revoke women’s suffrage only in Palestine. They pointed out their loyalty to the Zionist community and expressed the hope that they would always have an assured place “without noise or fuss,” and that they would not have to begin a struggle.
The women in Rishon le-Zion also wrote to protest against the attempt to prevent women from obtaining the right to vote and to be elected. The letters convey anger and astonishment rather than a spirit of battle. The women were surprised by the opposition to their right to vote because they saw themselves as partners in the Zionist enterprise that had begun forty years earlier. They were well-versed in all that was going on in the Jewish world as well as in international women’s movements and were angry that the Mizrahi movement in Palestine was adopting a different policy from its counterpart abroad, which did not oppose women’s suffrage. Despite the struggle that the women of Rishon le-Zion waged, they presented themselves as people who were not a part of the “modern suffragist” movement, which they claimed was declining throughout the world.
The exposure of this double standard in the Mizrahi movement brought about no change. Following the demand to include women, the ultra-Orthodox community and the Mizrahi movement continued to oppose the elections for the Constituent Assembly, which were postponed six times and finally scheduled for April 1920. The main reason for the postponement was hesitation on the part of the Mizrahi movement, which on the one hand sought cooperation with secularists for reasons of national necessity and an affinity for the values of the modern world, but on the other hand was unable to sever itself completely from the ultra-Orthodoxy of the old Yishuv. Even a few ultra-Orthodox representatives participated in the election of the delegates. The moderate ultra-Orthodox believed that they would win a majority in the elections and then, with the power of their numbers, would be able to annul the granting of women’s suffrage. According to a compromise between the ultra-Orthodox and the temporary committee, special ballot boxes were set up for the ultra-Orthodox community throughout the country. Ultra-Orthodox women did not vote, but it was agreed that each ultra-Orthodox vote would be counted twice. Twenty parties competed in the elections held on April 19, 1920, only four of which included women on their lists: the Union of Hebrew Women for Equal Rights in Erez Israel, which was referred to as the Women’s Organization list, the Progressive Party, the Workers’ Union and Ha-Po’el ha-Za’ir. The ultra-Orthodox population and the residents of Jerusalem participated in the elections, but not on the same day.
Twenty-two thousand voters—seventy-seven percent of those eligible—participated in the elections. Fourteen women were elected, constituting 4.5 percent of the three hundred and fourteen delegates. The Union of Hebrew Women gained five delegates. Together with two women who were elected as representatives of the Progressive Party who were also members of the Union, they constituted half the women who were elected. The other seven women elected were from the workers’ parties. These results were a defeat for the ultra-Orthodox, who did not have a large power base and were not the largest faction. The ultra-Orthodox refused to accept the election results and demanded new elections in six months without women’s participation. When their demand was rejected, they walked out of the first meeting of the Constituent Assembly (renamed Asefat ha-Nivharim [Elected Assembly]) in October 1920. However, they continued to serve on the Va’ad Le’ummi (National Council or, as referred to by the Mandatory authorities, the General Council), which was composed of delegates from the Asefat ha-Nivharim.
The crisis erupted anew during the second meeting, which convened in March 1922. Not only did the ultra-Orthodox refuse to participate, but so also did the Mizrahi party. Both groups announced that they would abstain from the elections until women’s suffrage was annulled. The Zionist leadership was aware of the significance of ultra-Orthodox participation, since if they left, the entire right-wing bloc might follow. In September 1923, the members of Mizrahi demanded a referendum on women’s suffrage in which only men would vote. The women rebelled against this initiative and in March 1924 the Union of Hebrew Women organized a day of propaganda for women’s rights in Palestine. The day’s events took place in cities and on agricultural settlements, attracting women from all segments of the Yishuv, from the right and left, together with many men who opposed the referendum and supported women’s suffrage. Henrietta Szold expressed the event’s spirit at a public rally held in Jerusalem where she called upon the Yishuv to “preserve at all cost the principles of equality and justice on which our national enterprise is based. Women are devoted partners in the labor and suffering for our homeland’s existence; therefore they must participate equally in determining its character.” In addition, the Hadassah organization demanded of the National Council that “The elections law that the Constitutent Assembly passes [must] recognize Hebrew women’s full right to ‘elect and be elected’ as befits the society reborn in our people’s national homeland.”
Since the threat of the referendum still loomed, the Union mobilized Jewish women’s associations, primarily Zionist ones, in Europe and the United States. Members of the Union took advantage of the Zionist Yishuv’s concern for its reputation and its need for international support. They also contacted organizations throughout the world and asked them to send telegrams and letters to the National Council urging the defeat of the referendum proposal. The Union’s many connections, especially those of its leader, Dr. Rosa Welt-Straus, aroused support from Jewish and general women’s organizations worldwide. The Hadassah organization and women’s organizations in Germany, Austria and Poland sent letters of support. The Hebrew press, which published the telegrams received, also emphasized their importance. Armed with this support, the women flooded the national committee with protests against any attempt to revoke women’s equal rights as citizens. The members of the Union presented the statements from their overseas supporters to the National Council and, in a pamphlet, urged them: “Countries all over the world give women the right to vote, and shall our people in our national homeland take rights away from women when they have exercised them for five years? Will Palestine go forward or backward?” Despite their disclaimer of being part of the worldwide women’s movement, they did not hesitate to avail themselves of the achievements of women throughout the world.
At the third meeting of the Constituent Assembly, in June 1925, after a tough period of pressure from Mizrahi and the ultra-Orthodox, the delegates learned of a secret agreement that had been signed between the ultra-Orthodox and the leadership of the National Council, which determined that the granting of suffrage to women was a religious issue and therefore was not within political jurisdiction. However, the ultra-Orthodox agreed to put the matter to a vote by secret ballot, with women’s participation in the assembly conditional upon the results. The agreement sparked vehement opposition among the delegates, but the Mizrahi representatives defended it vigorously, claiming that giving women the right to vote was tantamount to strengthening the left wing, since in any case ultra-Orthodox women would not participate. Sarah Azaryahu, a representative of the Union of Hebrew Women, read out telegrams and letters sent by women’s organizations all over the world, disproving the claim that women’s suffrage was a religious issue. To this end, she displayed two ultra-Orthodox propaganda announcements which contradicted one another: the first from the 1920 elections, which in the name of Torah instructed women to vote, and the second from the 1925 elections which, also in the name of Torah, forbade women to vote.
In September 1925, in order to prevent a rift in the Yishuv, the National Council accepted a proposal by Mizrahi to hold a general referendum. The proposal was accepted on two conditions: women would also participate, and the religious sector would promise in advance to abide by the results. The referendum was set for November 8, 1925. The Union of Hebrew Women was divided as to whether to agree to the referendum. The central elections committee felt it was important to win the support of the Union of Hebrew Women and wrote a letter asking that the Union not oppose the referendum. Rabbi Luria wrote: “If the referendum provides a solution to the question by a large majority of votes, we will definitely solve not only the question of women in Erez Israel, but also that of the Yishuv’s organization in general.” Hope was strong that the referendum would bring about a solution to the problem that had delayed the holding of the Constituent Assembly, but opposition to the very idea of a referendum, especially among the members of the Union of Hebrew Women, was no less forceful.
Esther Yevin, a member of the committee in Tel Aviv, wrote to Sarah Azaryahu in Jerusalem to express the opposition of the women of Tel Aviv to the referendum and their anger that such a referendum was even taking place. She criticized the National Council severely:
The referendum is shameful in itself and pains us even more because the National Council has allowed itself to go beyond its mandate and decide on something over which it has no competence. It is also insulting since by a majority of two votes (seven against five), it has assumed the right to determine the fate of half the Yishuv and to decide that, even without that half, the organization will remain whole.
The women decided to demand the cancellation of the referendum. They went to the press and invited other women’s unions to join them.
Support for their demands came from a completely unexpected source. Within a short time, posters appeared in Jerusalem criticizing the referendum in the name of ultra-Orthodox rabbis. Ultra-Orthodox leaders could not go against the rabbis, but also could not retract their agreement to hold a referendum. The Mizrahi movement responded with open displeasure to the rabbis’ posters and announced that there was again no point in holding a referendum. For the first time, the Mizrahi movement turned its back on the old Yishuv, and its organ, Ha-Tor, attacked the ultra-Orthodox for opposing the building of the country. The Mizrahi movement also expressed its willingness to participate in the second elections to the Constituent Assembly according to the instructions of the National Council, with women receiving the right to vote and hold office.
The elections for the second Constituent Assembly took place in December 1925, boycotted by the ultra-Orthodox. As a result, only 56.7 percent of the voting public participated. Of two hundred and twenty-one delegates, twenty-five women (twelve percent) were elected. The Union of Hebrew Women was especially successful since thirteen of the twenty-five elected women were members, among them Leah Kook, the representative of the religious movement in the organization. The other twelve delegates mostly belonged to left-wing groups, though they also included some from the right. The increase in the number of women in the second Constituent Assembly enabled them to increase their representation on the National Council. Of thirty-eight members of that committee, four were women—Esther Yevin and Sarah Azaryahu of the Union of Hebrew Women, Rahel Yanait Ben-Zvi of the Labor Union and Ada Maimon of Ha-Po’el ha-Za’ir. At the end of its first meeting, the second Constituent Assembly in January 1926 decreed equal rights for women in all areas of civil, economic and political life in the Jewish Yishuv in Erez Israel.