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Women's Studies in Israel

by Marilyn P. Safir
Last updated July 5, 2021

In Brief

Crucial to the establishment and development of Women’s Studies programs in Israel was the “New Women’s Liberation” movement, which began in the 1970s at the University of Haifa. Feminist activity at the university quickly spread to other institutions, with many later establishing Women’s Studies programs. By 1994, four of the five Israeli universities offered Women’s Studies programs, though they were underdeveloped. The Israel Association for Feminist and Gender Studies (IAFGS) was established in 1998. IAFGS, along with each of the Women’s Studies programs at Israeli Universities, is funded by the Ford Foundation. Academic institutions now view Women’s Studies positively, especially as a result of the Ford Foundation’s grants to the university programs, though there is still work to be done to improve the programs.

The Feminist Movement

The history of Women’s Studies (WS) in Israel cannot be examined without considering the related history of the “New Women’s Liberation” movement that began at the University of Haifa in 1970 (Safir et al.). Women immigrants from the United States and other English-speaking countries, who had believed that Israel was an egalitarian country, discovered that their expectations clashed strongly with the reality of women’s situation. This dissonance resulted in their creation of, and participation in, consciousness-raising groups that were the impetus for the new movement. The first Israeli women to refer to themselves as feminists were university lecturers and students. The movement spread to Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, where it also initially attracted university students and graduates.

During the 1970s Jewish feminists established women’s centers in Haifa, Tel Aviv, and Jerusalem and lectured on what would later be considered WS topics in high schools, army bases, and A voluntary collective community, mainly agricultural, in which there is no private wealth and which is responsible for all the needs of its members and their families.kibbutzim. A feminist publishing house, The Second Sex, was founded in Tel Aviv, and a women’s health collective was established in Beersheba, led by university lecturers. Activity at the University of Haifa continued. In 1971–1973 the core group met with Martha Mednick, a psychologist from Howard University who had come to study kibbutz women. Her account of the new feminist scholarship and the women’s studies programs that had begun to blossom in the United States planted the idea of initiating Women’s Studies in fertile ground at the University of Haifa.

As a result of this early feminist activity, informal faculty forums were created at other universities. Many of the participants in these forums went on to establish the women’s studies programs of the 1980s and 1990s. In 1973, independently of the feminist groups spreading throughout the country, Mariam Mar’i led a consciousness-raising group in Acre that was composed of Arab college students and graduates. These activists eventually created the first training institute for Arab pre-school feminist teachers, Dal Tiflal Arabi. In 1973 the first Women’s Studies text, a photocopied compendium of classical articles from abroad (some translated into Hebrew) was compiled—unofficially—by Dorit Padan-Eisenstark of Ben-Gurion University. Nine years later, in 1982, the first Hebrew textbook was published by Dafna N. Izraeli, Ariella Freedman, and Ruth Shrift. Individual WS-type courses (primarily in the social sciences) began appearing at the various universities during the mid- to late 1970s. Feminist scholars within and beyond Israel’s borders began to challenge the generally accepted myth of women’s equality in Israel from the pre-state era to the present. The women’s forums at Hebrew University and the University of Haifa began to plan programs for Women’s Studies.

The connection between local and international feminism can be illustrated by the First International Interdisciplinary Congress on Women: Women’s Worlds, held at Haifa University in 1981. Chaired by Marilyn Safir and co-chaired by Dafna Izraeli and Martha Mednick, the congress resonated both nationally and internationally. More than six hundred participants from thirty-six countries, some of them world-renowned scholars, came to present papers and participate in conference activities. The conference received intensive local and international media coverage. The New York Times’s front-page article praised the Congress for providing a forum at which feminist scholars from the humanities and social sciences might form an international network. Donna Shalala, at that time President of Hunter College, in her keynote address and in interviews that were quoted in all the national media, stressed the importance of establishing WS programs at universities.

During the congress the Senate of the Hebrew University approved the establishment of the Program for the Study of Sex Differences in Society. (When the program organizers, Galia Golan and Amia Lieblich, originally sought faculty support for their proposal they were dismissed with the claim that Women’s Studies was not considered an academic discipline. “Sex differences” was apparently a more acceptable field [Galia Golan, personal communication 1983]). However, in 1982, senate approval of the Women’s Studies program at the University of Haifa went smoothly, with Na’amat providing funding for the introductory courses of the program from 1983 until 1988. In 1984 Arlette Adler founded a unique project at the University of Haifa named KIDMA, an acronym for the Project for the Advancement and Involvement of Women in Society. One aim was to bring WS topics to women who would not ordinarily be a part of the university community by inviting them to the university and by bringing the university into their communities.

The 1980s also saw the diversification of the feminist movement. For example, feminists from the secular kibbutz movements persuaded their federations to create “departments for the advancement of sex equality.” Lecturers from the WS programs were invited to give talks on relevant topics at various kibbutzim. Lesbians organized Klaf, the Community of Lesbian Feminists, whose members often presented lectures in Women’s Studies classes at the universities. Orthodox Jewish feminists (most of them students or college graduates) set up study groups and all-women prayer groups. Women of the Wall, a religiously pluralist group which insisted on women’s right to group prayer at the Western Wall in Jerusalem, including Torah she-bi-khetav: Lit. "the written Torah." The Bible; the Pentateuch; Tanakh (the Pentateuch, Prophets and Hagiographia)Torah reading and the wearing of prayer shawls, was established in 1988. Lit. "Eastern." Jew from Arab or Muslim country.Mizrahi feminists, most of them students or college graduates, organized to explore the connection between gender and ethnic oppression in Israel.

The mid-1980s saw the creation of feminist organizations and frameworks that extended beyond the local sphere to become national in scope. These included the Israel Women’s Network, which was established in 1984 following a meeting of Israeli and American women entitled Woman as Jew; Jew as Woman sponsored by the American Jewish Congress and organized by Harriet Kurlander of AJC’s Women’s Division. Alice Shalvi, active in the Women’s Forum at Hebrew University, was among the founders and served as the first chairwoman. A majority of the co-founders and members of the first board were feminist scholars. The Network has engaged in a plethora of activities on a wide range of issues, including women’s political representation, women’s employment rights and women’s health and has co-sponsored many public meetings and projects with the various Women’s Studies programs.

Establishment of Women’s Studies Programs

These early feminist activities had an impact on academic life. By 1994 four of the five Israeli universities offered Women’s Studies programs: the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Haifa, Tel Aviv, and Ben-Gurion (Beersheba). The various programs had somewhat different structures, foci, and names. All were minors’ programs and received neither budget nor faculty lines.

Tel Aviv University’s program, which evolved from a forum organized in 1986 by Rina Shapira and Delilah Amir, was headed for ten years by the latter. In the context of this forum a WS concentration for an M.A. in Sociology was opened three years later. While not an M. A. program, this was the first program that enabled students to focus on WS in a graduate program. During the following year two separate B.A. minor programs were set up, one in social sciences and the other in the humanities (Singer, 2002). However, at Ben-Gurion University the program had still to be called The Program for the Study of Sex Differences in Society in order for it to gain approval in 1989. While both types of programs focus on WS topics, there is a philosophical difference. Women’s Studies programs generally focus on similarities between men and women and advocate societal changes to remedy inequality, while programs entitled “Sex Differences” tend to place an emphasis on differences and remain more “objective.”

The Haifa program, which clearly evolved from the feminist movement of the 1970s, continues to combine activism with academic pursuits. It was also the largest WS program through the beginning of the 1990s. Three courses with a specific focus on feminist theory and philosophy formed the required core: Psychology of Women; The Status of Women in Israel; and Women’s Movements as Political Movements. They were taught respectively by Marilyn Safir, Deborah Bernstein, and Dafna Sharfman, three of the five program founders (the other two were Naomi Golan and Judith Hill). By the 1993–1994 academic year enrollment in the Introduction to WS consisted of almost ten percent of the freshman class. More than fifty-five courses were cross-listed in the Social Sciences, Humanities, Education, and Social Work faculties—from every department save Mathematics/Statistics and Economics. Since 1986 an Introduction to WS has been offered that presents the basic tools necessary to analyze the status of women in society, including the concept of gender and issues of androcentrism in the various disciplines. The lecturers in this course were originally drawn from a pool of lecturers, researchers, and activists until a WS scholar, Sharon Halevy, was hired in 1996. Lectures are combined with discussions in small groups, inspired by consciousness-raising groups of the early 1960s and 1970s. These workshops enable the students to connect “the personal and the political” and to relate the subject matter and bibliography to their own lives. The students, mainly women, come from all sectors of Israeli society.

The WS program at Haifa University serves as an efficient bridge between academia and feminist grass-roots organizations in the city. This interaction encourages feminist activists to begin their studies or to return to academia, while also involving students in various feminist grass-roots organizations. The diversity of participants gives them opportunities to comprehend how being a woman in Israeli society affects each differently, according to her cultural background and experience, and how this relates to double oppression. Although these issues are taken for granted in the United States, multiculturalism and diversity have been considered by Israeli feminists and by WS activists only since the mid-1980s.

Social work curricula had been based on traditional psychodynamic and “family-system” theories that perpetuate stereotypical and biased beliefs about men, women, and families. This traditional curriculum had yet to incorporate a feminist analysis of society and of therapy. In 1991 the Ministry of Social Welfare’s Department for Women and Girls in Crisis, headed by Yosefa Steiner and Ada Pletiel-Grosbard, requested that the University of Haifa’s Women’s Studies program and Project KIDMA develop a postgraduate Women’s Studies course for experienced social workers. The course was designed to expose social workers to the new feminist theories about women, gender, sexuality, and therapy, as well as to raise their consciousness. A special feature of the course was The Feminist Theory of Violence against Women, a non-existent issue in the normal social-work curriculum. Upon completion of this course the social workers became agents of change in their own agencies and “experts” on issues concerning women and violence against women. The model developed for this course, currently employed in other universities around the country, has influenced the curriculum of the schools of social work, where since 1992 WS coordinators have been lecturing to first-year students on feminist theories of therapy and violence against women and encouraging students to become involved in feminist organizations such as shelters, rape crises centers and the hotline for battered women. As a result of the cooperation between Haifa’s WS Program and the Ministry of Social Welfare these changes have had a nationwide impact on the social work curriculum.

In 1989 Hebrew University’s B.A. Program on Sex differences in society was incorporated into the Lafer Center for Women’s Studies, where its courses have the largest annual registration within the university. The Center, which also offers an interdisciplinary specialization for an M.A. in Gender Studies, has attracted an exciting and varied group of visiting scholars. In addition it has been very successful in attracting funding for scholarships for graduate students in WS (Lafer Center Brochure, undated).

Aliza Shenhar, the first woman in Israel to be elected rector of a university (Haifa, 1991), granted a half-time faculty post for Women’s Studies and funding for a full-time graduate student WS coordinator. Prior to her appointment as rector Shenhar served as Chair of the General Studies Program (GS) where, in 1985, the WS program found its permanent home. During this period Project KIDMA began offering courses for academic credit, the first of which, sponsored by Na’amat, was offered in Karmiel, in an attempt to attract women to complete or to begin academic studies. A number of women have begun their university studies as a result of this program. After Shenhar left the university in 1994 to serve as Israel’s ambassador to Russia, funding she had granted to the WS program was gradually absorbed for use not connected with WS. Deborah Bernstein, who chaired the WS program from 1996 to 2001, began working on the development of an interdisciplinary M.A. in WS. Tamar Katriel, who served as chairperson beginning in 2001, successfully negotiated approval from the various university committees by the spring semester of 2003. Haifa University has not found the necessary internal budget and has been unsuccessful in obtaining external funding; despite its leading role in the previous decades, it now (2003) lags behind other universities.

In contrast, Tel Aviv University’s Forum succeeded in attracting several endowments to fund student scholarships. Noteworthy progress occurred in 1998, when a contract was signed by the (U.S.) National Council of Jewish Women (NCJW) and Tel Aviv University’s first female rector, Nili Cohen, who was actively seeking ways to support this program. The agreement included a permanent endowment to establish the first undergraduate department in Women’s and Gender Studies at an Israeli university. The NCJW also awarded the university a generous grant to expand the activities of the Women’s Forum. The department, headed by Hannah Naveh, enrolled its first students in 2001. (Singer, 2002)

Bar-Ilan University is a good example of internal university support of such programs. Beginning in the middle 1980s, Dafna Izraeli had unsuccessfully made efforts to establish a WS program. In 1998, as a result of Bar-Ilan’s decision to develop its graduate programs and to move toward greater interdisciplinary work, she was asked to develop a graduate program in Gender Studies. Her proposal was finalized in 1998–1999 and opened in 2000 as the Interdisciplinary Graduate Program in Gender Studies, granting both M.A. and Ph.D. degrees. Though a late bloomer in the field of WS, Bar-Ilan University now has the broadest range of activities as a result of the university’s success in raising funds to establish various institutes. The Fanny Gottesfeld-Heller Center for the Study of Women in Judaism, directed by Tova Cohen, was established in 1998. The Ruth and Emanuel Rackman Center for the Advancement of the Status of Women (based in the Law School), directed by Ruth Halperin-Kaddari, was established in 2000. In 2003 the Program in Gender Studies was incorporated into the newly established Rachel and J. L. Gewurz Center for Gender Research. Following the death of Dafna Izraeli in 2003, the Center was chaired by Tova Cohen. What is obvious is that major steps have been made by the various WS programs when large external endowments were made by foreign donors.

Establishment of WS programs at colleges throughout Israel is lagging, although most offer one or two courses. In 1994 Sylvie Fogiel-Bijaoui succeeded in establishing the first center at such a college: the Center for Research on Gender at Beit Berl College for Education. Unfortunately the Center was closed in 2002 (Bijaoui, 2003). In 1998 Michal Palgi founded the Gender Studies Program at Emek Yezreel College, which she heads. The first Center for Gender Equity in Education was opened in the fall of 1994 at the Kibbutz College of Education, also known as Seminar ha-Kibbutzim, with Malka Enker as founding director. Enker accepted this role following a commitment from her colleagues that the chair would be rotated and all of the program members would fill this position. The Center undertook a variety of projects aimed at finding ways to work towards gender equity within the existing system. A core curriculum in gender equity was and continues to be offered to students. It consists of a cluster of interdisciplinary courses specifically designed to examine from a feminist perspective the validity of concepts, theories, and generalizations in the various fields of study as they relate to education. In addition to the core curriculum the Center developed in-service training programs for teachers in the field and workshops for staff and students on prevention of sexual harassment [Malka Enker, personal communication].

As a result of feminist and WS activists’ efforts, nonsexist materials for primary and secondary education are becoming increasingly available. Although new materials have been prepared, schools continue to use older texts because of limited funds. One early program was published by the Family and Sex Education Office of the Ministry of Education. A more comprehensive project, “To Be a Boy, To Be a Girl, Does It Really Matter?” (Ben Tsvi-Mayer, 1985), for junior-high school students, was developed at the Oranim Kibbutz Teachers College. It includes one unit on sexism and language and another unit for English as a second language. The pre-school feminist teacher training institute Dal Tiflal Arabi of Acre has been at the forefront in developing gender-fair teaching material for Arab students.

The critical financial support of all Israeli WS programs by feminist members of US/Israel Women to Women deserves mention here. Formed in 1982 by Virginia Snitow, this group continues to raise money to fund feminist projects in Israel. A major project, beginning in 1985 and eventually encompassing the five universities, was the sponsorship of a series of WS public lectures—the Virginia L. Snitow Lecture Series. This series (with between five to seven lectures a year at each of the universities) strengthened the connections of all the Women’s Studies programs to their communities. In addition, US/Israel Women to Women has periodically funded university courses that otherwise might not have been offered: at the University of Haifa, Women in the Arab World, taught by Mariam Mar’i, was the first such course taught by a woman. The course has also been taught by Nabila Espanioly.

The Israel Association for Feminist and Gender Studies

Although discussion on the formation of an Israeli WS Association began in 1983 the idea gained momentum only in 1996, following a meeting called by Sylvie Fogiel-Bijaoui at Beit Berl College. Veteran and new WS scholars from all the universities and some colleges responded and the Israel Association for Feminist and Gender Studies (IAFGS) was finally established in 1998. Until elections were held in 1999 the organization was run by a steering committee composed of Bijaoui, Ruth Halperin-Kaddari of Bar-Ilan University, Orna Sasson-Levy and Galia Golan of Hebrew University, Elana Luria from Ben-Gurion University, Ariela Friedman and Orly Lubin of Tel Aviv University, Sharon Halevi, Hanna Safran, and Marilyn Safir from Haifa. A major goal of the new organization was to strengthen the ties between, and broaden cooperation among, WS scholars and researchers in academia and in the field. Other major goals included the initiation of new courses and the development of new programs throughout Israel, encouragement of the advancement of feminist scholars within academic institutions, and the establishment of networks for researchers and teachers. It was agreed that an annual conference held in different areas of the country was imperative. The IAFGS has an ongoing commitment to enabling representation of the various sectors of Israeli society as well as of the geographic areas. It was decided to maintain this representation by encouraging the members to keep these goals in mind when voting. The first board, elected in 1999, was composed of Hawla Abu Baker, Sylvie Fogiel-Bijaoui, Sharon Halevi, Dafna Lemish, Pnina Motzafi-Haller and Elana Luria, with Marilyn Safir serving as first president. Membership eligibility is based on self-definition as a feminist scholar and/or researcher.

While the IAFGS was in formation, a serendipitous meeting in 1997 between Galia Golan and Alison Bernstein, a vice president in the Education Division of the Ford Foundation, took place. Golan told Bernstein of the exciting developments in Women’s Studies and of difficulties encountered because of lack of available funding. Ultimately, this meeting resulted in the Ford Foundation funding not only each of the programs at the five universities, but also the IAFGS, beginning in 1999. These awards greatly enhanced the status of WS within the academic community. Ford funding supported the IAFG newsletter originally edited by Dafna Lemish and Sharon Halevi and greatly expanded by Yaffah Berlovitz and Yael Rozen, thereby creating a WS community. This was also aided by an electronic e-mail list that enables instant communication.

Being a feminist academic, especially one closely connected with the feminist movement, poses a constant dilemma. Israeli students attend the university to establish academic credentials and to receive a diploma. Following completion of mandatory army service, the vast majority begin their studies in their twenties at the age at which their American peers are completing their B.A. degrees. Except for a minority of aware students, they have not come to hear lectures on feminism or to participate in a consciousness-raising group. In addition, most Israeli universities are relatively insensitive to issues that are commonplace at top American universities. Because of religious and cultural traditionalism and the resulting emphasis on marriage and family (Azmon and Izraeli, 1993; Safir and Rosenmann, 2003), many of the messages of feminism are threatening both to the traditional student and to the establishment. This necessitates a “liberalization” of feminism—to be “politically correct” regarding issues of family, marital rape and lesbianism—and negotiating with university authorities in such a way that they support these programs. However, WS students impact the university curriculum by bringing their new insights and awareness to traditional courses. By demanding that their teachers refer to gender issues and by writing papers analyzing gender in courses where this is not the focus, they educate both teachers and fellow students. Since WS courses are cross-listed, students who take the courses in their major field are introduced to these ideas even when they do not minor in Women’s Studies. That academic institutions now view WS positively, especially as a result of the Ford Foundation’s grants to the university WS programs, suggests that continued development and expansion may be expected. However, in view of current (2003) economic difficulties and university budget cuts, this view may be overly optimistic.


Y. Azmon and Dafna N. Izraeli (1993). “Introduction: Women in Israel: A sociological overview.” In Women in Israel: Studies of Israeli Society, vol. 6, edited by Y. Azmon and Dafna N. Izraeli, 1–24. New Brunswick, New Jersey: 1993.

Ben Tsvi-Mayer, Shimon. To Be a Girl, To Be a Boy (Hebrew). Kiryat Tivon: 1985.

Bijaoui, Sylvie Foigel. “Feminist Epistemology in Israel Revisited.” (Hebrew) Fourth Conference of IAFGS. No 12–13 (July-August 2003): 26–30.

Izraeli, Dafna N. A Short History of Women’s Studies at Bar Ilan University (unpublished). Tel Aviv: 2002.

Ibid., Ariella Freedman and Ruth Shrift. The Double Bind: Women in Israel (Hebrew). Tel Aviv: 1985.

Safir, Marilyn P., J. Nevo and B. Swirski. “The interface between women’s studies and feminism in Israel.” Women’s Studies Quarterly 3 and 4 (1994): 116–131.

Singer, A. A History of the Women’s Forum at Tel Aviv University. Unpublished manuscript. Tel Aviv University: 2002.

Statistical Abstract of Israel. Central Bureau of Statistics. Jerusalem: 1992.

The Status of Women in Israel (Hebrew). Israel Women’s Network, Jerusalem: 1987.

Safir, Marilyn P. and Amir Rosenmann. “The Israelis.” In Encyclopedia of Sex and Gender. New York: 2003.

Swirski, Barbara and Marilyn P. Safir, eds. Calling the Equality Bluff: Women in Israel. New York: 1993.

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Safir, Marilyn P.. "Women's Studies in Israel." Jewish Women: A Comprehensive Historical Encyclopedia. 5 July 2021. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on September 27, 2021) <>.