Union of Hebrew Women for Equal Rights in Erez Israel
The Union of Hebrew Women for Equal Rights in Erez Israel was established toward the end of 1919, initially in response to the opposition of the Ultra-Orthodox and Mizrachi movements to women’s participation in the forthcoming elections of a body that would represent the entire Jewish population of Palestine. Although women’s suffrage was widely agreed upon in the new Yishuv, it proved unacceptable to the religious sector. The Union, which led the fight for women’s suffrage until 1926, continued to work for full and equal political, legal and economic rights for women until the establishment of the State in 1948, when it merged with the WIZO organization.
Prior to the founding of the Union, women’s activity had focused primarily on assisting women in the fields of health and social service through philanthropic organizations and frameworks of one kind or another. Among these were eight associations— located respectively in Jerusalem, Jaffa-Tel Aviv, Haifa, Rehovot, Rishon le-Zion, Petah Tikvah, Safed and Tiberias—which had existed from as early as 1917, each working individually in accordance with local needs. While the Jerusalem group provided Hebrew classes, organized courses for young women, and hosted gatherings and lectures, those in Haifa, Jaffa and Tel Aviv dealt with elections for the local settlement committees, as did the association in Rishon le-Zion, one of whose members was Nehama Pukhachewsky.
In fact, the need to advance women’s status had arisen at the beginning of Zionist immigration to Palestine, with its introduction of the concept of the “New Woman,” which was itself due less to socialist influence than to the ideal of national revival formulated first by Hibbat Zion and then by Zionism. Now, faced by the hostility of the religious organizations, the time had come for political action.
The existing eight women’s groups combined to form a national union, spearheaded by the Jerusalem committee. The founding members were Dr. Rosa Welt-Straus, Dr. Miriam Nofach, Esther Yevin, Hasya Feinsod-Sukenik and Sarah Azaryahu. Though the Union was structured on a non-partisan basis in order to enable women activists also to be members of political parties, most of the members in fact belonged to no political party but were simply part of the Jewish population in settlements and cities (Azaryahu, 1977). Indeed, the Union reached out to women from every part of the political spectrum, perceiving women’s rights as an inseparable aspect of the Zionist vision for a new society. Those Union members who viewed women’s equality in society as a vital goal of their struggle were women who waved the banner of the Zionist idea and vision, basing their demand for equality on the Zionist idea of building a national home for the Jewish people. In the first speech Sarah Azaryahu made at the Union’s assembly before the community council elections, held in Haifa, she presented that national obligation in the following way:
We, the women of the latest wave of immigration, which has been going on for more than thirty years, since the Bilu group [first group arrived in Jaffa on July 6, 1882], did not come here as “ gentle creatures,” but as women of the nation who desire to fulfill the national duty that fate has imposed upon this generation (Azaryahu, 1957:158).
Learning from the experience of women’s movements in other countries that the right to vote did not necessarily ensure full equality in economic and legal matters, the new organization, from its very onset, broadened its scope to ensure full equal rights in all matters. Active in various places throughout the country, the Union had its center in Jerusalem. Like many other organizations of the time, it had a central committee and and a council, the latter—which met four times a year—being composed of representatives of the Union’s branches throughout the country (Council Decisions, CZA 135/14).
While most of the Union’s members were educated Ashkenazi professionals, the organization’s perception of women as continuing to fulfill their traditional roles while also enjoying equal rights created a broad common basis which enabled women with widely differing views to become members. The Union’s oft-stated goal in its various decisions was to obtain equal rights for women because they were members of society.
The Union made two vital decisions immediately upon its establishment. The first was to refer in the organization’s name to equal rights rather than to suffrage only, to indicate that the union’s final goal was “women’s equality in human society” (Azaryahu, 1977). The second decision was to create a list of independent, nonpartisan women candidates in the elections to the Constituent Assembly—an unusual move in the politics of women’s suffrage both in Palestine and elsewhere. The establishment of a women’s list for the elections was possible only because of the unique situation of the women in the country, which granted them the de facto right to vote even before any decision in principle had been made in favor of women’s suffrage. Sarah Azaryahu, who was aware of the importance of this unusual measure, called it “a one-of-a-kind maneuver so far unprecedented in women’s organizations in other countries.” (Azaryahu, 1977). This situation allowed the Union to form an independent power base, to ensure representation for women, to influence the decision-making process in the Yishuv’s institutions, and to reach as many women as possible and encourage them to be active in public affairs. It also strengthened women’s status in other parties and ensured that parties would reserve places for women candidates on their lists.
Additional topics on the Union’s agenda included opposition to child marriage, women’s right to citizenship at the time of their immigration to the country and their right to obtain certificates for their families abroad on the basis of their own income, without their husbands’ permission (Ha-Isha, 1926). The British authorities in Palestine did not recognize women as an independent entity, and based their refusal to prohibit child marriage on their policy of non-intervention with the religious customs of various communities. Child marriage was an accepted custom among the local Arab population and also among Jews who came from Oriental countries.
The Union of Hebrew Women raised the latter subject for discussion before the Mandate committee in the League of Nations, which met in Geneva to discuss details of the British Mandate in Palestine (Azaryahu, 1929). Rosa Welt-Straus, to whom the problem of child marriage was of special importance, continued to raise the subject for discussion at the committee of the League of Nations. The members of the Union were also in contact with Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook (1865–1935), negotiating with the chief rabbinate to try to convince them to change the situation (Union of Hebrew Women, 1925). Membership in international organizations enabled the Union members to make contact with women members of the British Parliament and request their involvement on behalf of women in Palestine. MP Eleanor Rathbone (1872–1946) even posed a question in the British Parliament on the subject of child marriage, but it took a long time and a determined struggle before the age of marriage was raised from thirteen to fifteen in the mid-1930s.
The Union members, who were acquainted with international feminist activity, felt that membership in international organizations would enable them to broaden their power base. They themselves expressed solidarity with the women’s suffrage movement which was active throughout the world at the time, seeing the women’s movement in Palestine as “one link in a long chain of liberation movements among women the world over, half the human population” (Azaryahu, 1977). Similarly, the Union’s leadership realized that contact with organizations abroad would enable them to appeal to these groups for help when necessary and lend greater force to their demand for suffrage in the Jewish community. Welt-Straus’s contacts with the International Woman Suffrage Alliance (IWSA) and the women who led it paved the way for the Union’s acceptance as a member in the IWSA. Its request to join the Alliance was initially discussed at a meeting of the Alliance’s leadership, at which the Union was accepted as a candidate for membership. It was granted full membership in 1923 (Jus Suffragii, 1920). Union representatives participated in four congresses of the IWSA held in Europe during the 1920s (Geneva, 1920; Rome, 1923; Paris, 1926 and Berlin, 1929). The Union’s acceptance into the IWSA in 1923 made it the first organization in the Jewish Yishuv in Palestine to win membership in any international organization.
Union members were similarly aware of their national mission to relate to Jewish society abroad, claiming that “the woman of the Yishuv is not fighting for herself alone, but for the rights of future Jewish women who immigrate to Palestine, and because of that, she sees no justification for concessions” (Azaryahu, 1977). The feeling of partnership in the national struggle and in the building of a new society was characteristic of the Union, as of other women’s organizations that were established at the time. Despite differences among these groups in world view and social perception, especially between the workers and the bourgeoisie, the ideological connection to Zionism was central to all of them.
Among the various Jewish women’s organizations that operated in the country during the Mandatory period, the Union of Hebrew Women was politically unique. Filled with faith in the Zionist ideal, which sought to build an egalitarian society in which Jewish women and men would live new lives, its members had every reason to believe that they would obtain equal rights and obligations in the new Zionist Yishuv in Palestine. This faith sustained them through many years of struggle, connected the women’s various constituent groups, and enabled them to ensure women’s participation in the political life of Jewish society in Palestine.
Azaryahu, Sarah. The Union of Hebrew Women for Equal Rights in Eretz Israel (Hebrew). Haifa: 1977 (reprint), English translation by Marcia Freedman, Haifa: 1980; (published first in 1949.
Azaryahu, Sarah. Chapters of a Life (Hebrew). Tel Aviv: 1957.
Azaryahu, Sarah. Report, 1929. Central Zionist Archive, J 875.
Berlowitz, Yaffa. Inventing a Country, Inventing a People (Hebrew). Tel Aviv: 1996.
Decisions of the Union Council. Central Zionist Archive, J35/14.
Ha-Isha 3 (1926), 32.
Jus Suffragii 15 (1920), 36.
Tahon, Rafi. The Struggle for Equality between the Sexes: The Story of Sarah Tahon (Hebrew). Israel: 1996.
Committee meeting, Union of Hebrew Women, February 10, 1925. Central Zionist Archive, J75/25.