Non Governmental Organizations (NGOs) in Israel, 1948-2000
Women’s organizations have been at the forefront of the struggle for women’s equality in Israel. In the early years of Israel’s statehood, they played an active role in providing women with essential services such as child-care and vocational training. In later years they concentrated on the struggle for gender equality, employing educational and political strategies. Both their organization and their goals, however, were invariably affected by the major dilemma that confronted them: women’s organizations vacillated between their commitment to the process of nation building and their pledge to enhance women’s share of the political and economic resources available to Israeli citizens. These two goals often appeared to be incompatible. During the formative period of the state women’s organizations showed preference for the national track, as their interests were subservient to national goals. Since the 1980s, however, more emphasis has been placed on gender equality, with more consideration being given to the interests of women per se. A concomitant change has occurred in the strategies adopted by women’s organizations and in their goals. In the early era, acting in concert with political parties and other established groups was a preferred strategy. In the later period, a plethora of grassroots associations opting to remain outside the political establishment challenged the existing political and social order. These shifts have been followed by a change of goals. Women’s organizations have transferred their attention from providing welfare services and acting as a state surrogate to political lobbying. These trends have not been unequivocal or linear. In 2000 some women’s organizations preferred acting within political parties while others chose the “external” strategy; some were principally involved in providing social services to women, with special emphasis on those subject to physical abuse, while others selected the political path, concentrating on legislation and leadership training. While not unique to Israel, the duality facing women’s organizations has been influenced by the particular historical, cultural, economic and political characteristics of the country, most of which constituted hurdles on the road to equality.
Women’s organizations in Israel operate under four major constraints: religious, ideological, political and economic.
Cultural-religious norms rooted in the ancient Jewish heritage form an ambivalent setting for women’s organizations. Traditional Judaism clearly relegates women to caring and domestic functions, treating them not as equal to men, but at best as different. According to this tradition, a woman’s honor is in her home and she is expected to cater to the needs of her family. In Hebrew she is termed eshet hayil (“woman of valor”) a term derived from Proverbs, where the woman thus designated also engages in economic activity which sustains the family. However, her virtue lies in her compassion and concern for others, particularly her family members. It is a fundamental Jewish tenet to multiply and bear children, and it is the exclusive responsibility of the mother to take care of the children.
In modern times the influence of religion has had both legal and social consequences. The legal basis of the state-religion nexus was laid down in the 1947 status quo agreement signed between Israel’s first premier, David Ben-Gurion, and the leaders of religious parties. This agreement postulated, among other things, religious jurisdiction over critical personal status laws (marriage and divorce), putting women at a disadvantage. As a result, women are not judged by their peers (i.e., by women), but plead their cases in the framework of laws prejudiced against females and in a court ruled only by men.
Religion has likewise imposed social constraints on the organization of women. Although Israel by and large is a secular society, adherence to Jewish tradition is widespread. Studies show that the majority of Israeli Jews, though far from being orthodox in the conduct of their daily life, have largely absorbed the values of their traditional faith. The significance of religion in Israeli society emanates not only from political expediency but from deeply rooted values, as the Jewish character of the state of Israel has been challenged only at the margins. The call for separation between state and religion has not gained momentum in Israeli society. Women’s organizations have therefore had to operate in a society whose fundamental values assigned primarily a domestic role to women.
The exigencies of security have had decisive effects on the country’s polity, economy, and ideology, as well as on women’s role in society. Even before the declaration of Israeli independence, Jewish settlers had to cope with Arab intransigence. Throughout the period under discussion (1948–2000) media headlines, political discussions and public attention reflected the primacy of security concerns. Israel spends far more on its security than do other Western countries, with annual military expenditures usually exceeding twenty percent of the GNP. This has been accompanied by a lengthy service of Israelis in the armed forces, particularly during the critical years of family and career building. Although women are also conscripted to the army (albeit for a spell shorter than that of men) they were until recently not allowed to join combat units. Many occupations previously closed to them are now open but most women soldiers are nevertheless secretaries, clerks, teachers and nurses. Rarely (if ever) does a male soldier serve his female commander a cup of coffee. The opposite is the common case.
The centrality of security in the nation’s life has had several implications for women’s organizations. First, women are socialized into nurturing roles in both the army and civilian life. Their service in subordinate and supportive roles sustains their secondary role in society. Second, and even more important, service in high-ranking military positions is the major avenue in present-day Israel for economic and political mobility. As officers retire in their early forties, they usually embark on a second career in business or in public service. For example, a large proportion of Israel’s city mayors were formerly high-ranking officers. Likewise, political parties, alive to the popularity of retired generals, avidly woo them. Recent prime ministers Benjamin Netanyahu, Ehud Barak and Ariel Sharon all held senior positions in the IDF. Seeking power and influence, women’s organizations have had to cope with this inherent constraint on gender equality in Israel.
Economic development has invigorated women’s activity in society, yet at the same time it has hampered their progress toward equality. The dramatic increase in the number of women joining the labor force could have been a driving force toward organizational activity, as studies have substantiated its association with economic privilege. In 1955 (there are no data on earlier years) only 26.5 percent of Israeli women were in the labor force; in 2000 their proportion was 48.2 percent (Statistical Abstracts 2001: 12–12 ). Among these the share of married women increased from 26.9 percent in 1970 to 55.6 percent in 2000 (Statistical Abstracts 2001: 12–20). These developments, however, have not eliminated wide occupational segregation. A study based on 1972 data showed that 75.1 percent of women were employed in “female” occupations, including clerical work, service work, nursing, teaching and social work. Twenty years later Dafna Izraeli (1991: 169) found that every second woman in the country was employed in a female occupation. In 2000 job segregation was still evident. Added to this are income differentials. During the period under review women continued to earn less than men and the income gap between men and women has since narrowed only slightly. Poverty, furthermore, is far more common among women than among men, especially in single-parent families. These gloomy circumstances restrict the activity of women’s organizations. Studies of involvement in public affairs show that individuals subject to economic deprivation are less likely to participate in political life and therefore are less inclined to join and be active in voluntary associations. Women’s organizations have faced difficulties mobilizing women among the disadvantaged sectors of society.
The structure of Israeli politics does not provide fertile soil for organized women’s activity. Successful mobilization has been inhibited by the concentration of power and the deep rifts plaguing Israeli society. To the present day, Israel is a highly centralized, politicized and bureaucratized country in which the state looms large. The country scores a record high on the measure of government consumption; a disproportionate share of the labor force is employed in public services, and the government controls natural resources and communication enterprises via public corporations. The state, furthermore, was traditionally viewed as a major instrument of social change, leaving little scope for grassroots activity. The role of political parties also hindered women’s organizations. In the past, Israel was termed a “party state,” in which political parties exerted predominant influence on social as well as political life. Although much of this power has waned, a survey (taken by the author in 2000) showed that only 8.7 percent of the sample would choose a voluntary association were they concerned about a public policy issue. Reluctance to be active in the civil arena may be attributed to the tendency of many Israelis to play only a passive role in politics and to disdain for sectarianism. Although interest groups and voluntary associations have mushroomed, and protest activity has risen, the call for unity rings out loud. The public are urged to ignore differences, to overcome divisions, and to rally around the flag. People are expected to harness their energies to the national interest, as defined by political leaders. Although this constraining factor applies to both sexes, the call for unity impinges more intensely on women than on men, since they are more vulnerable both economically and politically. Added to this is the dearth of women in decision making institutions. Although the number of women members in both the Knesset and the government has markedly increased, women remain heavily underrepresented. The only woman to have served as Prime Minister of Israel, Golda Meir, did not raise a feminist banner. Gender equality was not her top priority.
To summarize, women’s organizations faced four major constraints: the religious constraint questioned the legitimacy of women’s equality; the social constraint was linked to the ongoing state of war, which fosters adoration of military might; the economic arena did not provide a congenial environment because women, even though working outside their home, remained segregated and underpaid; the political constraint emanated from the robust state and party machinery on the one hand, and from the invalidation of what was deemed sectarian interests on the other. The means that women’s organizations employed to cope with these constraints throughout the years are the subject of the next section.
Women’s organizations in Israel are of two types: institutional and grassroots. The former tend to operate in cooperation with the political establishment, to be hierarchical and centralized, and to focus on the provision of services. Their goal is to influence “from within” in line with the general value system and the accepted order of priorities. The latter challenge the established political and social order and present an alternative to the existing power structure. They shun hierarchy and emphasize individual participation. Rather than providing services, grassroots organizations tend to use political means in order to exert pressure “from without.” Needless to say, this division in its pure form exists in theory only. Both types of organizations provide services to women, both tend to use a variety of means to promote their cause. Both, furthermore, tend to collaborate on matters of high significance to women. Yet the distinction between the establishment and the grassroots organizations may be helpful in understanding the general context in which women’s organizations in Israel operate.
The establishment women’s organizations may be divided into two categories: those operating (at least formally) outside the auspices of political parties, and those acting within a political party. Among the first are Na’amat (formerly the Mo’ezet ha-Po’alot, the Council of Women Workers) and wizo (the Women’s International Zionist Organization). Both may be termed “service organizations” focusing on assistance to the family, vocational training and coping with domestic violence. The second type of establishment organizations operate within political parties. The most important in terms of size and impact is Emunah, affiliated with the National Religious Party, which is widely engaged in charity and in providing childcare and educational services. Emunah’s major purpose is to instill religious values in women and youth and, obviously, to attract women to the party. An accredited faction within the party, Emunah has put heavy pressure on its leadership in every election campaign to include at least one of its members on the list. Women’s sections were also formed in other parties, on both the right and the left of the political map. Women’s units operated in the ultra-orthodox party Agudat Israel, in Mapai and in Herut (now part of the Likud), as well as in the left-oriented Mapam and the Communist Party. Even though these organizations operated within political parties, they were generally not involved in policy making but rather served as vote-winning agents. Worth noting is that regardless of the party’s ideology or orientation, women were underrepresented in its governing institutions. All party-affiliated women’s organizations were funded by the party and operated under their respective auspices. They did, however, differ in their strategies. Some, particularly Emunah, maintained a wide network of day-care institutions. Others, such as TANDI, the Democratic Women’s Association (acting within the Communist Party), focused on political activity among women.
Under the establishment rubric there are additional women’s organizations, including, among others, the Soroptomists, Hadassah, the Association of University Women, and B’nai B’rith Women. These organizations are active on a local basis, calling on women to volunteer and socialize with their like. Their impact on public life in Israel has been very limited. The advantage of the establishment organizations lies in the resources available to them. Most of them are well staffed, financed and managed, with branches throughout the country. The two major organizations, Na’amat and WIZO, which have a broad constituency numbering tens of thousands of women, are well known to the public.
Grassroots women’s organizations are invariably much smaller than the establishment organizations, consisting of a few dozen to a few hundred members. Likewise, grassroots organizations are far less organized, centralized, and hierarchical. Their main purpose is to free women from the economic, social, and psychological shackles that hinder their development as equal citizens in a democratic society. Grassroots organizations focus on enhancing awareness by structuring small-group activity and staging street protests. They also target their efforts at the media. Grassroots women’s organizations in Israel are too numerous to be counted. They include the Feminist Movement, Woman to Woman, an organization promoting women’s activity in sports (Lakhen), an organization against abuse of women in the media, the movement for women’s equal representation (Shin), and others. Women have also organized to address issues related to the Arab-Israeli conflict. Women in Green advocates continued Jewish settlement in the West Bank and Gaza, while a number of organizations, including Women in Black and Women for Political Prisoners, promote a two-state solution to the Israel-Palestine conflict.
The typology of women’s organizations in Israel would remain incomplete without the inclusion of the Israel Women’s Network (Shdulat ha-Nashim be-Yisrael, or the Shdulah), an organization combining both institutionalized and grassroots elements. Established in 1984 by a group headed by Alice Shalvi, a professor of English literature at the Hebrew University, the Network aims at increasing women s participation in public life and engages in intensive lobbying activity to advance legislation promoting gender equality. It is institutionalized because it is bureaucratized and well staffed. But unlike its predecessors, Na’amat and WIZO, it challenges the establishment, calling into question fundamental tenets regarding women’s role in society. It also firmly refrained from any linkage with a political party and acts as an independent organization.
The development of women’s organizations in Israel occurred in three consecutive stages: the first, from Israel’s independence in 1948 to 1969, when the foundations for structured action were laid. The second stage, from 1970 to 1990, was characterized by the rise of feminist ideology. The third period, from 1990 to 2000, may be portrayed as the era of politicization.
In the first era, the spirit of collectivism shaped the structure and activity of women’s organizations. Historical and political circumstances kept women at bay. Only when acting within their traditional roles were they accepted as fulfilling their national commitments. As noted above, women essentially adopted a social-service orientation, which neatly matched the needs of the state, then grappling with the massive tasks of absorbing immigrants and ensuring security. In the formative years Na’amat (then Mo’ezet ha-Po’alot) and WIZO dominated the scene.
Mo’ezet ha-Po’alot was established in 1920 as the female branch of the Histadrut (Labor Federation). Its activities were carried out mainly by an adjunct organization, the Organization of Work-at-Home Mothers, focusing on issues associated with traditional women’s domains which at the same time were of importance to the Histadrut, including welfare work with Histadrut members in cases of sickness, unemployment and social distress. Women, however, were defined as “members’ wives.” They were called upon to cultivate in their homes the atmosphere and cultural milieu deemed appropriate for the organized working-class dominated by men. As a result, there were internal struggles within the organization, the feminist members of which sought to articulate the needs of working women employed outside their homes.
During the first years of independence, the Mo’ezet ha-Po’alot continued to act in the service of the fledgling state’s interests by focusing on the problem of immigrant absorption. In addition to food distribution and relief work, it held Hebrew language courses, encouraged auxiliary farming in housing developments, and initiated basic vocational training. These activities, important as they were for the country’s economic and political development, were not granted the prestige and power they merited. Consequently, women were pushed to the margins, in some cases even to the “fringes of the margins” (Herzog 1992).
The fact that Mo’ezet ha-Po’alot was part and parcel of the Histadrut had organizational implications as well. Women became dependent on men’s political and economic resources. The authority to nominate women to governing Histadrut institutions was vested in a Central Committee, which used its prerogative to appoint and depose activists in accordance with its political interests. Selective sponsorship of leaders enhanced the Histadrut’s control of women in politics. The Histadrut made only token concessions to women’s demands for power. Women were not found in any of the policy-making bodies of the economic enterprises established by the Histadrut. Furthermore, women’s problems were not part and parcel of the national political agenda. Concentration on child-care and the welfare of women functioned as an outlet for the political energies of women, while it freed the men to deal with the “more important” issues of the day (Izraeli 1992: 203). There appeared to be more pressing problems than women’s status that required political attention.
WIZO (Women’s International Zionist Organization), the second largest women’s organization, aimed at “improving the standard of life for women and children in Erez Israel” and at training women as the mothers, wives and economic partners of men. Although it ran for election to the first Knesset, to which Rachel Cohen Kagan (1888–1982) was elected, WIZO later declined to adopt a political stance. Essentially a charity association that attracted upper–middle-class women who wished to act on behalf of the needy, it escaped the many political dilemmas faced by Mo’ezet ha-Po’alot. Its primary goal, as stated in the movement’s official publication, was “to provide an education and to give expression to the masses of women of diverse backgrounds who came from all countries of the world.” The national theme was unequivocally emphasized: “WIZO set itself the task of turning these human wrecks into good, useful citizens of the country.” To accomplish these goals WIZO established baby clinics, day-care institutions, training courses in sewing and homemaking, playgrounds for poor children, agricultural schools and youth centers. This list demonstrates the traditional orientation of the women’s association: keeping clear of the political scene.
The period 1970–1990 was characterized by three major developments. First, Israel witnessed the emergence and the institutionalization of organized feminism, with feminist associations expanding and feminist awareness growing. Second, a new major women’s organization appeared on the scene, the Israel Women’s Network. Third, as a result of these two developments the veteran women’s associations changed course, adding a feminist plank to their platform.
The participatory revolution documented by social scientists which portended the rise of feminism was late to arrive in Israel. Israelis were preoccupied with demography, security and the pursuit of the good life rather than with self fulfillment and civil rights. Students did not challenge the institutional order, consumers did not organize to safeguard their usurped rights and women on the whole remained passive, accommodating themselves to their traditional roles and inferior social status, bound up in their commonly sanctioned identities and roles. But after the Six Day War Israelis, women included, became more exposed to winds blowing from the Western world.
The inception of the Feminist Movement (FM) occurred in Haifa in the early 1970s. Academic seminars conducted by the founders continued later as consciousness-raising groups attended by students and teachers. In 1972, activists associated with these seminars formed the first radical women’s group in Israel, called Nilahem (Hebrew acronym for Nashim Le-ma’an Hevrah Mehudeshet, Women for a Renewed Society; the word also means “We shall fight.”) Separate sister organizations sprang up soon after in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, the former displaying a liberal stance and emphasizing the struggle against legal inequality, the latter more leftist-socialist, highlighting the link between the struggle of women and those of other oppressed groups, particularly the Palestinians. The Tel Aviv group began by petitioning for enactment of the Law of Communal Property (stipulating that the property accumulated by a couple in the course of their marriage be equally divided upon divorce) and for abortion on demand. The Jerusalem group staged demonstrations against the beauty contests. During the years that followed feminist activity took off. Feminist centers, shelters for battered women and rape crisis intervention centers were established in the big cities. Feminist movements were also involved in educational and awareness-raising activities. Centers for women’s studies were established at major universities. Feminist publications were regularly issued.
In 1984 a major breakthrough in feminist activity occurred with the establishment of the Israel Women’s Network. The Network was established in Jerusalem by women academics and professionals following a conference on Jewish women sponsored by the American Jewish Congress and attended by an impressive group of American-Jewish women, headed by Betty Friedan. Of the thirty-two Israeli women who participated in the conference, some proved willing to engage in establishing a voluntary association focusing on gender equality. The Network differed from its predecessors—Mo’ezet ha-Po’alot and WIZO—in three ways. First, rather than providing charity services the Network concentrated on the legal aspects of women’s equality. Although Israel incorporated in its legal code several laws promoting and safeguarding women’s equality, most of these remained on paper only. As noted above, there were marked gender disparities in society, the economy and the polity. In the mid–1980s there was no law regarding domestic violence, legislation regarding equality in the workplace was not implemented and women’s representation in the Knesset was at a record low. The Network’s leaders concentrated their efforts on a political agenda, promoting legislation to ensure women’s equality and committing the authorities to its implementation. Second, the Network gave precedence to legal, legislative and advocacy activity over the provision of welfare service, in the belief that women’s equality was to be gained by political means operated in the corridors of power, and not by playing an auxiliary role to the state’s welfare and educational agencies. In contrast to the veteran women’s organizations the Network did not establish day-care institutions or provide vocational training for women. For this organization, politics (in the widest sense of the word) was the name of the game. Third, in contrast to the earlier organizations, which were overtly or covertly linked to political parties, the Network was both multi-partisan and nonpartisan. It served as a forum for women of all political parties or none, providing a coherent, coordinated framework for the female voice in Israeli politics and society.
The veteran women’s organizations followed in the footsteps of the fledgling feminist movement. Already in 1976 Mo’ezet ha-Po’alot had changed its name to Na’amat, indicating that it was no longer a movement for working women (i.e., part of the Histadrut) but an independent women’s group. Both Na’amat and WIZO established departments for legal counsel and litigation and allocated resources to advocacy activities. In consequence, the politicization of women’s issues accelerated in the 1990s.
Between 1990 and 2000 women’s organizations underwent two parallel processes: they detached themselves from the political establishment on the one hand, and they politicized on the other. Politicization had five major manifestations: organizational autonomy, targeting the political agenda, legislative activity, political socialization, and coalition formation.
To begin with, the arena of women’s organizations underwent a marked change. Those associated with the establishment, such as Na’amat and WIZO, declined both in membership and in influence. Detachment from political parties was noticeable particularly in Na’amat, following the re-organization in 1993 of the Histadrut, under whose auspices the association operated. The introduction of the national health insurance law changed the Histadrut from an all-encompassing social movement to a trade union concentrating on workers’ rights. Na’amat, influenced by the winds of feminism blowing on the Israeli scene, struggled to survive as an autonomous organization, with its own agenda and constituency. Although it was still formally linked to the Histadrut, Na’amat increasingly opted for more independence and freedom of action.
Issues of women’s status in society were put on the political agenda. These included, first and foremost, violence against women, but also present were problems of women’s rights in the workplace, women’s personal status (benefits for single mothers), trafficking in women and the economic status of women. All women’s organizations followed the trail blazed by the Israel Women’s Network, adopting parliamentary lobbying as a major strategy. Aided by the Committee for the Advancement of the Status of Women formed in the Knesset in 1992, women’s organizations introduced legislation regarding, inter alia, alimony, women in business and women in corporations. Particular attention was paid to women’s health and to women with special needs.
In an effort to recruit women for involvement in politics, women’s organizations organized courses to train women and socialize them into the political world. Women’s organizations increased their political efforts during the ensuing electoral campaigns, soliciting funds and setting up a support system in order first to encourage women to present their candidacy for political office and then to help them get elected. The fact that women’s representation both in the Knesset and in the government increased significantly in the election to the fifteenth Knesset (1999) indicates that these efforts were not in vain.
Due to their high proliferation, women’s organizations evinced clear manifestations of rivalry and contention, with each organization attempting to further its own interests and mobilize its own constituency. At the same time, however, there were growing signs of collaboration on specific goals. One notable cause for cooperation was violence against women. Although the status of women in Israel markedly improved in the last decade of the twentieth century, many of them still fell prey to severe domestic violence. In 2000, seventeen women were killed by their spouses; 16,699 files were opened on grounds of abuse of women; 3,442 complaints were filed for sexual crimes, including rape. This is only one example of an area in which women’s organizations collaborated to deal with a pressing problem concerning women.
The story of women’s organizations in Israel is the story of state-building, since they mirror the developments that took place during five decades of independence. Initially, women’s organizations, while subservient to male-ruled institutions, played an important role in nation-building. Immigrant absorption, the most important task facing young Israel, could not have succeeded without the women’s organizations providing much needed services and mobilizing (women) newcomers. When society matured, and the Six-Day War opened its borders both physically and mentally, feminism entered. The beginnings were very modest, confined to the margins of society. But the process gained speed. Though the initial implant of the Feminist Movement was unsuccessful, ideas and structures took on two forms: one focused particularly on women’s abuse and well-being and the other mainly on women’s political power. Women’s organizations still provided services tailored to the needs of women, but these were based on a feminist ideology that encouraged women’s assertiveness and independence. This created a meeting ground between the two streams of feminism. The Israel Women’s Network initiated a process of turning the personal into the political, serving as a spearhead for the politicization of women’s issues.
Politicization had two characteristics. It involved the gradual detachment of women’s organizations from political parties and other establishment organizations. At the same time, it transformed both the image and the strategies of women: no longer were they responsible for only the welfare of women, but rather for their total being as humans and as citizens. Gender equality became a major target, to be achieved by litigation, legislation, empowerment and response to particular needs.
The question is to what extent has politicization been fruitful. Have women’s organizations in Israel promoted gender equality? Have they changed the status of women in society? The answer to these questions is equivocal. On the one hand, there are noticeable achievements. Legislation regarding equality between men and women is remarkably advanced and women are much better off than they were in the state’s formative era. Yet the picture is not all rosy and a great deal still remains to be done. Domestic violence is still rampant, the proportion of women at the apex of the political and the economic world is still minuscule and most women are not yet aware of their full rights. Nevertheless, the remarkable progress that has been achieved augurs well for the future.
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Yishai, Yael. "Non Governmental Organizations (NGOs) in Israel, 1948-2000." Jewish Women: A Comprehensive Historical Encyclopedia. 1 March 2009. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on April 29, 2017) <https://jwa.org/encyclopedia/article/non-governmental-organizations-ngos-in-israel-1948-2000>.