Ideology without revolution: Jewish women in Israel - Dina Hecht and Nira Yuval-Davis

In-depth article on the historic role of women in the zionist movement and the development of feminism in Israel.

Submitted by Ed on June 11, 2013

Ideology without revolution: Jewish women in Israel - Dina Hecht and Nira Yuval-Davis


'In the State of Israel almost every woman is a working woman.

'You meet the working woman on your way to Israel – stewardesses aboard planes and on the ground (the supervisor in the airport's control tower is also likely to be a woman). Often a policewoman will be the one to stamp your passport, and a pert young woman will greet you at the reception desk of your hotel ...

'[Women] are the most dextrous in packing orange crates or strawberry baskets, and they are most expeditious in packaging colourful flowers... and they take part in growing them ...

'True, only one out of every three adult women works outside her own household and is designated statistically as "belongs to the work force", but those who stay at home work at their daily chores, taking care of their family and rearing their children ... none will deny that the work they do is vital and that they are contributing directly both to the welfare of their family and to the image of Israel's society.'2

A state that relies to the extent that Israel does on outside financial and human resources has to produce a comprehensive public relations policy which is conducted abroad even more vigorously than at home. The brazenness of this venture determines the constant high pitch at which zionist propaganda is maintained.

With the resurgence of Western feminism Israeli propaganda has found not only a new market abroad but also many enthusiastic mouthpieces to further laud the so-called advances and achievements of Israeli women. Indeed women play a considerable role in the export image of Israel: women conscripts, women in the kibbutz, a woman prime minister and 'dextrous orange-crate packers' – all have become successful propaganda currency, and the myth of the equal, liberated or emancipated Israeli woman, although weakening in Israel, is still potent abroad.

In an article 'Revolution Without Ideology: the changing place of women in American', C.N. Degler laments 'that in America the soil is thin and the climate uncongenial for the growth of any seedlings of ideology... and so long as [American working women] do not advance such an ideology, American society surely will not do so, though other societies, like Israel's and the Soviet Union's, which are more ideological than ours, obviously have.'3

That is as may be; but the myth of the supposed liberation and equality of Israeli women, while perhaps gratifying a deep-seated need for feminists in search of identity, cajoles most Israeli women into a state of spirited resignation – content with a public image that bears little or no resemblance to their actual situation.

The dextrous [female] orange-crate packer today is likely to earn 40 per cent less than her male counterpart, and that despite the equal pay law of 1964.

During the premiership of Mrs Meir, there were only nine women among the 120 members of the Knesset; at present there are eight. There is not a single woman city mayor, and in the civil service – the largest employer of the female labour force – 40 per cent of employees are women, but in the highest grade only 4 per cent are women.4

Some women are indeed conscripted into the army, but in recent years about half of those reaching conscription age have been exempted – a far higher proportion than in the case of men. Of those taken into the army, 60 per cent are employed in clerical occupations; only 30 per cent of army job classifications are open to women.

Chen, the Hebrew acronym for Women's Corps, means (as a word) "Charm". And indeed chen adds to the IDF [Israel Defence Forces] the grace and charm which makes it also a medium for humanitarian and social activities.

'Today, of course, the goals of chen have changed and chen girls play purely non-combatant – though thoroughly essential – roles within the IDF framework.

'The raison d'etre for women's present-day service in the IDF is threefold:

'1. Indirect reinforcement of the IDF's combat forces, by fulfilling a variety of administrative, professional and service duties, thus releasing a larger number of male soldiers for fighting missions.

'2. Preparing women to defend themselves, their families and homes, due to the unique security circumstances of Israel.

3. Assisting in the IDF's educational and social enterprises... and participating in the national extra-military missions of the IDF as an absorbent of immigration, tutor and rehabilitator of socially disadvantaged youth, etc.'5

The verbiage of the official propaganda deserves to be quoted extensively, not only to contrast the myth which it propagates about women in Israel with their actual situation, but also to expose the underlying zionist ideology and overt political priorities.

The recent change of leadership implies no qualitative change in the zionist character of Israel. The new government's first year in office was marked by an intensification of the old policies of territorial expansion, perpetuating the traditional zionist conflict with the Arab world and the indigenous Palestinians. The added Lebensraum reinforces Israel's dependence on immigration of new settlers.

There has clearly been an increase in the degree of fanatic militancy with which the same zionist aims are pursued. But more important is the further crystallisation of the innate structural and ideological relationship between zionism and the Jewish religion. The role of religion in Israel is, on the one hand, to confirm and reinforce the hegemony of the zionist state over all the Jews in the world, and on the other to legitimise the zionist claim on 'the Land of Israel', that is, Palestine, as the homeland of the Jews and their exclusive estate. Un­der the patronage of the coalition of the Likud and the National Religious Party, the aims of zionism are given not merely a religious endorsement but also the fresh impetus of literal biblical justification.

It is only against this background that a coherent exposition and analysis of women's lot in Israel is possible.

Women's role in the early colonization period

The distinguishing features of Israel as a zionist state are reflected in the distinctive situation of Israeli women compared to that of women elsewhere in the capitalist world.

It is true that the issue of the role of women in the zionist enterprise was and still is a prominent one. The pressure to bolster the position of women started in the early years of this century with women settlers for whom 'the commandment of settling the land was sacred'.2 Throughout the history of the Jewish settlement in Palestine, the zionist movement has undertaken tasks for which it was under­manned; the 'conquest of labour' and the 'conquest of the land' (euphemisms in Hebrew for agricultural colonisation and the eviction and displacement of Arab peasants and workers in order to provide jobs for Jewish workers) required the active participation and backing of women. Indeed, these were the first 'lucky breaks' for those women settlers whose zionist ideology was tinged with feminist notions – ­some did MEN's jobs. The rest were duly despatched to the com­munal kitchen or laundry. However, both received their proper plaudits as each in turn fulfilled her designated role – to release more men for frontier duty.

The frontiers of Israel can hardly be described as fixed, either phys­ically or metaphorically. Within their ever-expanding domain, zionist objectives may vary and the words used to describe them may change, but the role of women remains the same – to man the rear.

From the beginning, in order to create a socio-economic base from which zionism could expand, a rapid increase of the Jewish population was required. The Jewish communities abroad furnished the enterprise with both economic and human resources, which in turn enabled zionism to expand territorially, absorb more immigrants and command further financial support. This process inevitably escalated the economic conflict with the indigenous population into a political-military one, which in turn has required further resources from abroad and has thus tied zionism irrevocably to the production and re­production potential of the Jewish world outside. The embryonic Jewish society in Palestine has suspended, so it appears, the tasks of generational reproduction and rearing, and relegated them to the Diaspora – the rear.

Palestine was the frontier outpost; this defined the demographic characteristics of the early waves of Jewish im­migration – 'aliyot – especially the second wave (1904-1914) and the third (1919-1923). Scarcity of women – not an unusual feature of a colonial process – was but one aspect of it. Most of the immigrants were young and single, or childless couples; the proportion of children under 14 was exceptionally low. In other words, there was a very low ratio of dependants to economically active adults. In effect the zionist settler population in Palestine was almost entirely a combatant labour force. These characteristics were even more accentuated in the kib­butzim and work brigades (plugot 'avodah) which were, so to speak, the spearhead of the zionist effort to establish exclusively Jewish agricultural structures. There, men outnumbered women by four or five to one.

Such disparities in the sex ratio might have created a favourable attitude towards women, maybe even a feminist bias. But in Palestine this was not the case. In her book 'Fifty years of the Working Women's Movement' Ada Maimon cites many instances of discrimination and ridicule of women, especially those for whom 'The New Socialism', 'Proletarisation', and 'Productive Jewish Labour' were values inextricably connected with equality between the sexes.

Sexist attitudes prevalent among the settlers in the collectives were reinforced by the zionist form of colonisation. Kibbutzim and other collectives, where the majority of members were men, refused persistently to accept more than a limited number of women – just enough to maintain the necessary services. Some collectives had women not as full members but only as hired help. The women in Degania – in the early years before this collective became a kib­butz – were not considered members with equal rights. They were not registered in the annual contract which the collective made with the Palestine Office of the zionist movement, as the male members were, and did not receive the monthly salary which the Office paid to the men both in Degania and in neighbouring Kineret. When the women demanded to be included in the contract the retort was that 'women work for the men, not for the Palestine Office of the zionist movement'.6

A brief 'History of the Working Women in Israel' published by the Women Workers' Council provides a partial picture and numerous rationalisations of the state of affairs.

'...These were women of strong character and marvellous emotional powers, and they knew how to translate faith and enthusiasm into deeds. This is the sole explanation of their ability to go out daily and do "a man's job" when they were really delicate damsels only recently separated from their parents' loving care and from their university desks. Their hope was that the formation of the pioneers into specific settlement units, in an independent but co-operative framework... would also solve the problems of the working woman... it soon became apparent that even in the new life context which she had helped form the woman was put into her traditional place. Most of the women worked in the kitchen, in the laundry and in the children's quarters.

'The situation of the women who arrived with the third wave of immigration (after the first world war) was much the same. These belonged to the "labour brigades" and the co-operative groups engaged in public works – road-building and construction. They fought for their right to break up gravel, to hew stones, to work on scaffolding and to take part in literally building the country. However, since there wasn't enough work to go round, it was first given to the males in the group.

'Many reasons for this were offered: these jobs were not for a woman; her productivity was doubtful, since soon she would give birth and would be out of the work circle; the woman's wage was lower than the man's, so that her contribution to the commune was smaller; and to begin with, why should she work on construction when she could earn money doing other, more feminine, things... Some of the agriculture groups decided to open laundries or restaurants in the cities, as a means of providing their women with employment; they would also serve the group members working in the cities. In other groups, the women went out to do paid housework, so as to be able to add their share to the common till.' (Our italics.)

The missing pieces in this picture puzzle are those depicting the indigenous population; unlike other immigrant-settler forms of colonisation, zionism sought not to exploit the local inhabitants but to displace them. Thus Jewish settlers found themselves in direct economic competition with the Arab labouring classes in the productive sector. In the mode of production that existed in Palestine in the 1920s and 1930s, the Arab wage labourer was often a seasonal migrant or part-time worker, who earned wages only to supplement his family produce and who could rely in return on the supportive service and maintenance functions that the extended family provided.

Compared to these Arab workers, Jewish members of collectives, co-operatives, work brigades or kibbutzim were at a considerable disadvantage; not only were they novices who lacked any experience in manual labour, but in addition they had no comparable servicing and maintenance support, and were completely dependent on the higher ­cost market economy for consumption.

It is in this economic context that the collectivised forms of Jewish settlements evolved and that the division of labour within them, as well as the socialisation of domestic labour, can be explained. The status of individuals within the group was directly correlated with their earning ability; their earning ability was measured against the productivity of the Arab male wage labourer7 . The arbiters were employers such as the mandatory authorities in public works and the Jewish farmers (early settler – land owners) in agricultural work who had little or no stake either in the successes of the zionist enterprise or in the achievement of the equality of women. The collective fear that 'women's work will cause a deficit', induced by the Palestine Office of the zionist movement which provided financial support, and shared by women members of the collectives, was reinforced by the plain fact that at the time women's wages in the labour market were lower than men's wages. In consequence, the sexual division of labour found its use in the economic battle against the local population. The combatant forces at the front were the all-male Jewish collectives, contending with the Arab wage labourers. The women formed auxiliary forces in the rear to match the challenge of the Arab ex­tended family.

Surrogate emancipation

The token few who crossed the sexual divide did so obsessed with the need to live down their femininity, or as Golda Meir put it, 'rights – they had in abundance; [they struggled] for equality in duties... road construction, hoeing in the fields, house building or guard duties... and not to be condemned to kitchen work... I for one continued to be more concerned with the quality of our food than with women's liberation'.8

In 1921, a year after the establishment of the Histadrut (zionist trade union federation), the first conference of working women resolved – not surprisingly – that:

'...the Women Workers' Council is mandatory in order to arouse the members to action, and to stimulate and move the various factors to find work for the working woman... We have come to the Land of Israel to work, to devote all our energy and dedication to labour, and this pioneering work is not to be measured by the worker's output; everything according to capability, and we are to have equal rights in life and at work...' (footnote 2 - our italics).

Equal rights in life and at work they have not achieved to this day, but the Women Workers' Council (Mo'etzet Hapo'alot) took the lead, with other women's organisations following suit, and became on the one hand a centre of surrogate emancipation and on the other, one of the principal agents of zionism in the development of an alternative to the real emancipation of Jewish women.

The scope, structure, activities and power of those women's organisations are outside the scope of this article. It will suffice to say that they offered a wide enough framework within zionism to a large number of suitably-disposed women to train, improve, help, advise, absorb, educate, propagandise and plan for other women thus not eliminating women from public life but rather confining them to what is broadly known as 'women's affairs'. In the early stages of zionism such activities meant channelling and controlling the growing number of disillusioned or unemployed women into so-called 'teaching farms' and other training courses and sharing the burden of qlita (absorption) of single female immigrants.9

Then as now, their ideological role was to reconcile the inherent conflict between zionism and the accomplishment of women's emancipation. By addressing themselves to the very reasons for women's discontent and glorifying their sacrifices as contributions to national unity and other zionist expediencies, these organisations and their women leaders have succeeded time and again in taming the militancy of their members. The same zionist expediences provided Israeli women and their organisations with new challenges which could be misconstrued as real feminist opportunities.

The challenge of military needs

If women were deprived of their 'rightful' share in the 'conquest of labour' and 'the conquest of the land', the escalation into war of the conflict with the Palestinian population and the neighbouring Arab countries appeared to spell a 'real chance' for aspiring feminist-zionist women – for once they were needed.

The early Jewish settler women – it was alleged – had to masquerade as Arab women, veil and all, whenever they walked in the streets, so great was their fear of the Arab population. Not until 1907 , when a defence organisation 'Bar Giora' was founded by Y. Ben Tzvi (later the second Israeli president), did Jewish women unveil and walk about 'with a whip or a stick in hand'. Regional 'defence' organs like 'Bar Giora' sprang up across the country as Arab opposition to zionism grew. These organs later fused into what was known as the 'Hagana' (= defence), the embryonic IDF. The skills of Jewish women in disguising themselves came in handy when the Hagana sent oriental Arabic-speaking Jewish women, dressed up in Arab garb, into Arab neighbourhoods to obtain information, while 'elegant ladies trans­ported arms in their cars'. Apart from such daring pursuits women were allotted essentially auxiliary tasks: quartermasters, nurses, drivers, signallers, messengers and guards.

By 1942, when the women in the Hagana numbered 10,000, the men 50,000, a special department for women was set up and a principle enacted that women should 'be part of the defence force, also in the [military] posts, so that a considerable number of men in defence duties could be released for field forces and Palmah' (Hebrew acronym for plugot mahatz = shock troops).10

Here too, as on the economic battleground, some women did cross the sexual divide, but this was the exception, not the rule. The ex­ception was blown up out of all proportion in a myth prevalent both inside Israel and outside. The rule, not the exception, was reinforced in 1943 when Jewish volunteers formed the' Jewish Brigade' in the British Army; Jewish women were urged to volunteer for the ATS. Four thousand did just that and slotted neatly into the British Army structure and its idea of a women's corps, in addition to which 'they excelled... especially in their concern for the Jewish soldier, cut off from his family... among strangers. They organised clubs for cultural activities and instilled the atmosphere of the land of Israel in the camps, they celebrated Jewish festivals, produced a Hebrew leaflet and made pleasant the life of the Jewish soldier.'11

During the early stages of colonisation, zionism almost failed in the efficient utilisation of Jewish women's enthusiasm and willingness to take part in the enterprise. The long period of enforced unem­ployment to which Jewish women had been subjected reached its peak, at the height of the economic crisis in 1940-41, with the Histadrut directive that no Jewish family should have more than one bread­winner (the head of the family). As the war progressed, this trend came to an end. 'Mo'etzet Hapo'alot' was beside itself to find women who would work in the labour camps set up to provide for the war effort. One thousand eight hundred worked in those camps; 'they worked for the war effort and infiltrated new occupations'.[see footnote 10 - libcom ed.]

At the end of the war, the participation of women intensified.

Jewish women were sent from Palestine to Europe as shlihot (emissaries). How many were sent is obscure but their tasks were clear; nurses, social workers, nannies, domestic science instructors and tea­chers were sent to refugee camps in Sweden and Italy and in the American, British and French zones in Germany. They 'opened Hebrew schools in the camps... organised public life... ad­ministered health education and youth training, and bore the responsibilty for running the camps,' but most importantly they were entrusted with carrying out tasks that required a real commitment to zionism: 'the selection of candidates for ha'apalah' (= upwards struggle, a Hebrew euphemism for illegal Jewish immigration to Palestine). They trained, equipped and transported those candidates to ports where others took over.[see footnote 10 - libcom ed.] The processing and absorption of displaced Jewish immigrants occupied women before and during the so-called 'war of independence'.

The British mandate's policy of restricting the admission of Jews into Palestine, in order to appease the growing opposition of the indigenous and neighbouring Arabs, triggered off in response bitter anti-British violence. Jewish immigration assumed, despite its illegality, the scale of a powerful national movement. The British intercepted thousands of displaced Jews en route to Palestine and sent them to camps in Cyprus where again the internal operation was organised by shlihot who, as in the European camps, prepared the immigrants for the tasks awaiting them in Palestine.[see footnote 10 - libcom ed.]

The dual role of women in Israel

After the establishment of the State of Israel, Jewish immigration was finally under zionist control, a control that asserted itself through one of the first laws to be enacted in Israel – the Law of Return. This law provided the legal basis for the demographic objectives of the zionist leadership; to achieve a high Jewish population growth in Israel through mass immigration of Jews, and so enable them to 'survive' in the heart of the Arab world whose population numbered well over 70 million, and to contain a 14 per cent Arab minority having a high rate of natural increase. Hundreds of thousands of Jews arrived between 1948 and 1951, during which time Israel's population more than doubled.

It was then that the principal duality of Israeli women's role was crystallised and found its expression. It mirrored the duality in the attitude of the zionist leadership towards demographic issues, epitomised in the official euphemistic terminology 'aliyah pnimit or 'aliyah hitzonit (internal or external ascent12 ) used in the ongoing debate on the respective roles of natural growth and immigration in securing zionist demographic aims.

The military service law, which was passed in 1949, exempted from conscription married women, pregnant women and mothers (as well as women who for conscientious or religious reasons did not wish to be conscripted), thus in effect categorising Israeli women into mothers who carry out their 'demographic duty to the nation' – 'aliyah ­pnimit – and surrogate mothers who carry out their duty to the nation by mothering Jewish immigration – 'aliyah hitzonit. In the self-image of the IDF as a 'melting pot', women soldiers are the stirring spoon. Men soldiers from 'backward countries' (Oriental Jews) receive a fairly comprehensive training programme in the army where they acquire a knowledge of Hebrew and basic education and skills. The trainers are almost exlusively women, while women who do not possess these skills, possibly arriving from similar 'backward countries' are not even recruited, for reasons of 'low quality'. Throughout the fifties, women soldiers often 'volunteered' to work in transit camps for immigrants, 'pitching tents, digging drainage ditches,... [providing] medical care, general instruction, [and] education of children – humane activities that carry a blessing for the State as a whole'.[see footnote 10 - libcom ed.] The accent on the absorption of immigrants shifted, as the waves of emigration ebbed; this did not change the essence of women's role in the army, but merely redirected it.

Surrogate motherhood is, of course, not confined to immigrants but is the underlying theme of a woman's life in the army irrespective of her occupation, be it regimental quartermaster or radar operator, and is a consequence of the manifest need for 'normalisation' that is evident in the wake of every war, the more so in Israel where war and the eventuality of war recur periodically.

Yet the army is no mere melting pot and its main function is still to further Israel's territorial expansion by military means. Women are not left out and as well as manning the traditional rear – clerical, administrative and light technical occupations – some are required to do even more.

In September 1977, '...on one historic evening... the Israeli navy commissioned nine girls as seawomen, the first in the navy, the first perhaps in any navy in the world... The original idea', said the (male) commander of the training base, 'was to train girls for these duties in order to release boys for sea duties, all this in the framework of the general utilisation of manpower...'. He went on: 'Dear (female) officers, the work is not behind you but in front of you... You are not designated for warfare duties, but the duty you will carry out from tomorrow was carried out until yesterday by a (male) commander'.13 Other women in yet another first course 'were qualified as tank drivers, gunners, and tank commanders'.14

This in no way implies that sexual divisions in the army have finally disappeared, but rather that the rearrangement of the map of Israel has taxed the already stretched manpower at the front to the extent that a reappraisal of what constitutes the rear is urgently required. Neither sea women nor women tank commanders will see combat. The female sailors will patrol the home shores, as no doubt they did during the recent invasion, while the navy was bombarding targets in Lebanon from the sea. Similarly, the female tank unit will be engaged only as instructors, 'thus releasing [male] soldiers for combat duties' (ibid).

In the same vein, but in other words, an interim report presented by the 'Committee for woman's status in Israel', headed by Knesset member Orah Namir states that 'conscription and regular [army] services do not exhaust the possible contribution of women, especially not in technological areas. Women are capable of carrying out more duties and thus alleviating the [current] manpower shortage'.

Internal and external growth – reproduction and immigration

That women both work and at the same time produce children is regarded as necessary to the continued survival of the Jewish state; and for those who might have lost sight of the future shortage of cannon fodder, the Koenig report is one reminder. This secret memorandum, 'Handling the Arabs of Israel', submitted to Prime Minister Rabin in 1976, was leaked in the newspaper 'Al-Hamishmar on 7 September 1976. Its author, Israel Koenig, Northern District Commissioner for the Ministry of the Interior, and as such in charge of Arab affairs in the Galilee, points out that 'the rate of natural growth of the Arab population is 5.9 per cent per annum, in comparison with 1.5 per cent for the Jewish population... On this basis, by 1978 the Arabs will constitute over 51 per cent of the population in the [nor­thern] district... Their growth in the Galilee is dangerous to our very control over the district...'. The report purports to evaluate, and suggests ways to counteract, the so-called threat implied in such a ratio. One telling proposal is that 'the government should find a way to neutralise the granting of allowances to Arab families with many children, which could be done either by linking it to economic status or by taking [the administration of] these allowances away from the national insurance and transferring them to the Jewish Agency... for Jews only'.

The double bind is that while in zionist theory the raison d'etre of the state of Israel is asserted to be the provision of a haven for all the Jews of the world, in zionist practice the raison d'etre of Jews is to maintain the state of Israel. In other words, the very existence of the zionist state supersedes the supposed values of its ideology, chiefly the well-being of Jews.

As early as 1943, at a Mapai (Labour) party conference on the 'labour force' Ben-Gurion expressed his concern that the Jewish population in Palestine was in a state of demographic and moral decline. He suggested that the majority of Jews in Palestine did not fulfil their reproductive commitments to the nation, that the average of 2.2 children per family was not enough, especially when there is no im­migration (there was very little immigration at the time) and if this went on, the Jewish community would extinguish itself.15 , 16 In the school of 'Jewish demographic decay', Ben-Gurion was but one pupil. Attention to the question was called by Roberto Bachi, a professor of statistics, who, in a series of articles published between 1939 and 1944, pointed out the threatening implications of the difference between Arab and Jewish rates of natural increase, and called for for­mulation of a population policy to curb the fertility decline among Jews in Palestine that would be in keeping with the political objectives of the Jewish community. His was the 'liberal' suggestion that families should have, ideally, three, four or even more children and that financial inducements be offered in the form of family allowances and easy credit facilities for big families.17

The overtly reactionary voice in this school was that of the late Abraham Adolf Fraenkel, a professor of mathematics at the Hebrew University, who, in a number of articles published between 1942 and 1944, translated the mathematics of the indefinite continuation of differential demographic patterns between Jews and Arabs into Hebrew journalistic terrorism. That Jewish families should be urged to have children was not enough; definite policies to achieve this objective should be implemented. 'Total war' should be waged against gynaecologists who performed abortions. Abortion, according to Fraenkel, was not only immoral, a terrible crime tantamount to murder, but also a major reason for the low Jewish birth rate. To substantiate his assertion that controlling the number of abortions would effectively increase the dwindling birth rate he argued that 'Among the many means by which Hitler attempted in 1933 to in­crease the German birth rate the one effective measure was the war against abortions'. In this vein he proposed that persons involved in the illegal act of induced abortion be liable to heavy punitive measures.18

The same reasons underlying those discussions of the early 1940s underlie also the recent concern over population growth in Israel. After the establishment of the state, developments in population policy were shaped generally according to the relatively liberal view, but it was the nationalist-religious camp that kept the issues alive and brought pressure to bear at all levels, especially and most effectively in the administrative machine, where the religious parties had con­siderable power (as partners in most government coalitions). They fought systematically against the establishment of public family planning services, and campaigned against existing abortion regulations and against women's service in the armed forces.

A 'natality committee', headed by Bachi, was appointed on 1 April 1962 by the then Prime Minister Ben-Gurion. The committee was to undertake research and advise the government on matters concerning natality policies and consider means by which large families could be assisted. Of all the recommendations which the committee submitted in April 1966, only one was implemented – the establishment of the 'Demographic Centre' in 1968 to act as an administrative unit in the Prime Minister's Office. The aim of the centre is 'to act systematically in carrying out a natality policy intended to create a psychologically favourable climate, such that natality will be encouraged and stimulated, an increase in natality in Israel being crucial for the whole future of the Jewish people'.[see footnote 15 - libcom ed.]

According to Zina Harman, its first director, the centre is now undergoing 'a period of reappraisal and reorganisation of its aims'.19 This is hardly surprising; until now the activities of the centre have not gone beyond 'research, publicity and experimentation'. 'Research' means an enquiry into Israeli attitudes towards having a third and fourth child. 'Publicity' means promoting the image of large families through the media; and 'experimentation' is merely a small-scale programme whereby couples intending to have another child may, under certain conditions, apply for a low-interest loan for the purpose of acquiring a larger apartment.[see footnote 15 - libcom ed.]

What transpires is that Israel cannot afford the investment in a 'demographic revival of the nation' which, according to calculations made for the natality committee, would cost about 12 per cent of the gross national product (1969 figures). What remains are the cheap solutions; to continue the orchestrated ideological onslaught on small families, to publicise the large ones, to hope for a renewed flow of immigration, and perhaps to declare 'total war' on abortions.[see footnote 15 - libcom ed.]

'Fetal wastage'

The relative 'ideological pluralism' that was tolerated in the first thirty years of the state brought about a situation where family planning services were absent in an otherwise extensive public health service, and expertly performed abortion could be obtained for a fee which was easily within the means of the well-to-do. Thus despite severe legal penalties, abortion became a common method of family plan­ning – more so after 1952, when the Attorney General recommended that a blind eye should be turned to abortions, and abortionists not prosecuted, provided that the abortion was expertly performed. This practice went on with only one exception.20 In 1963 the Attorney General's 'recommendations were cancelled as a result of their dubious legality but in practice the same principles apply'.21

In 1972, unofficial 'committees for pregnancy termination' were set up in some Qupat Holim hospitals. Their function was to consider cases where abortion was demanded by a patient. These committees and the criteria which they followed in deciding for or against abortion were not endorsed by law.[see footnote 21 - libcom ed.]

The voice of the zionist demographic warriors was only subdued, not silenced. Thus in 1974 Professor Y. Helbrecht of Hasharon Hospital wrote, expressing a 'professional' opinion, that 'the future of the State of Israel depends on the number of its Jewish inhabitants and on their quality... Immigration and natural growth are the basis of our existence in this country and should supplement one another... Even if we succeed to gather in the remnants of our diasporas, we shall remain few in number in the great sea of the neighbours surrounding us, and it is therefore imperative that we direct all our attention to the maximal reduction of what is called "fetal wastage"...'[see footnote 21 - libcom ed.]

This state of affairs, riddled with contradictions, continued until February 1977, when the Knesset passed the Abortion Law amend­ment that permits abortion on the following grounds:

'1. That continuation of pregnancy constitutes danger to the woman's life.

'2. That a danger exists that the continuation of the pregnancy will cause physical or mental damage.

'3. That a danger exists that the child will be a physical or mental cripple.

'4. That the pregnancy is the result of rape or incest.

'5. That the woman is under marriageable age or over 45.

'6. That severe damage might be caused to the woman or her children as a result of difficult social conditions of the women's environment, for example that a great number of children reside with her.'.[see footnote 21 - libcom ed.]

This amendment – a temporary victory for the pro-abortion lobby – was due to come into effect in February 1978, but four months after it was passed the right-wing Likud-NRP coalition came to power. One of the main points in the coalition pact was a pledge to repeal the amendment. At a press conference held in February 1978, it was announced that the coalition was preparing a counter-amendment which will only allow abortion on grounds permitted by Jewish religious law; social and economic grounds will not be taken into consideration.22 This might appear as merely another exaction of a price by a religious party for its participation in a coalition, again at the expense of women; but in fact it is a tightening up of zionist demographic policy.

Convergence of Zionism and religion

In Israel, the religious parties get only 12.5 per cent of the votes, and only 22 per cent of all Israelis regard themselves as religious.23 Moreover, it is often officially declared that 'Israel is a state of [temporal] law, not of religious law.' In fact, the body of laws in Israel is derived from as diverse and non-religious origins as British statute and common law and relics of Ottoman legislation; there is also a considerable volume of laws that have been passed since that state was established.

But these are not the only binding laws. 'Like the British regime that preceded it [the State of Israel] has maintained... the rule of the autonomy of religious communities in all [matters] concerning family law, and although laws passed by the Knesset have reduced the ap­plication of this rule it is still firm and established in matters of marriage and divorce.'24 'In these matters the biblical law applies to Jews and their own religious laws apply to Muslims and to Christians';[see footnote 24 - libcom ed.] and to this day, according to the law of Israel, everyone is born into some religious community and is subject in issues of personal status to the religious establishment of his or her community and to its traditional laws. On identity cards there is no mention of citizenship, only of religious-ethnic grouping.

In other words, 'The legislature conceded almost complete non­interference in the existing state of affairs... In these matters [marriage, divorce and most aspects of marital relations], not only is the rule which is applied not a law passed by the Knesset, but the civil courts have no jurisdiction... disputing parties have to address their pleas to the rabbinical courts.'[see footnote 24 - libcom ed.] One of the published 'basic principles' of the last (Rabin) government asserts that 'the Government will safeguard the status quo in the State as regards religious matters.'[see footnote 24 - libcom ed.]

The fact is that many aspects in the lives of all citizens are governed by religious dogma. The nationalist quest for identity coerces the non­religious population into submission and explains the recurring tactical coalitions between ruling parties and religious parties.

In 1970 the Knesset passed an amendment to the Law of Return which turned this collusion into a permanent covenant. The amend­ment concluded another chapter in the debate about 'Who is a Jew'. The answer was couched in terms of religious dogma: A Jew is either a person whose mother is Jewish, or a convert to Judaism. This had come about, despite the secular origin of the zionist movement, when it became clear that any attempt to define 'Jewishness' for all Jews, wherever they were, in different places and diverse cultures, without resorting to religion, or any attempt to found a secular state, would necessarily have caused a rift between the movement and a con­siderable number of Jewish communities, thus weakening zionism and reducing its appeal. For this reason, the new Jewish state had to define 'Who is a Jew' within religious constraints and guarantee Jewish religious culture, legislation and traditional values in all matters where these are not in direct conflict with zionist aims and especially where they reinforce them.

Conversely, the religious sector, and more specifically the NRP, see the state as an instrument best suited to impose the biblical law on the Jewish nation. Their intentions were clearly formulated by Chief Rabbi [Shlomo] Goren, who in the anthology 'Religion and the State' (NRP publication 1964) wrote:

'When it comes to determining the quality of life for the whole nation, we are bound by the Torah [= religious law] and the teaching of the prophets [to use] state compulsion... We are bound therefore by [religious] dogma and common sense to use the machinery of the state in order to maintain the laws and values of the Torah.'25

Women in Israel carry the brunt of the pact between religion and zionism. This may be inferred from the substantial body of law, mainly but not exclusively concerning family, marriage and divorce, which discriminates explicitly against them. According to Jewish religious law, women have an inferior status. Thus, for example, women are not even allowed as witnesses in rabbinical courts, which have jurisdiction on all matters of personal law.

Yet Israeli women are not merely pawns in a callous political game. Nor does Israel's order of priorities, in which women come far down, result from a paternalistic oversight or neglect. It is, on the contrary, a reflection of the convergence of religious and zionist aims.

The principle that 'a woman is her husband's property', coupled with the imperative to 'be fruitful and multiply', expresses the Jewish religious attitude towards women as instruments for ensuring generational reproduction of the husband individually and of the race collectively. That 'a woman is her husband's property' is stated in the binding law of the State of Israel.26 That, and the promise of the then Prime Minister, Y. Rabin, to the Minister of Religious Affairs, Y. Raphael, in July 1975, that 'the [proposed] basic law concerning women's rights shall never be allowed to pass'26 exemplify the two principal parameters determining the present mode of oppression of women.

The guiding Mishnaic principle of the law, which dates from the end of the second century, states that a woman becomes her husband's property in marriage – that is to say, in one of three ways: by a payment, by contract, or by coition. From then on she is forbidden to all except her husband and cannot sever the tie until he dies or divorces her. Although she may ask for it, she can only be the passive recipient of the divorce (the term in Hebrew is banishment). The principle that a woman is her husband's property does not extend only to the husband. If a man dies leaving his wife childless, she cannot remarry until her husband's brother has had an opportunity to claim her.

The consequences of this range from the tragic to the obscene.

Although in modern Israel it is seldom carried to its logical conclusion, in 1967 a case occurred in which both the brother and the widow were deaf mutes. The ancient ceremony called halitza, whereby the brother and the widow exchange prescribed phrases and a spit for a shoe, which releases the brother from the obligation, could not therefore be carried out, and the couple were required instead to perform yibum (= levirate marriage). However the brother was married already, so in order to avoid an intercourse that was mere fornication, the Rab­binical Court, armed with permission from both the Chief Rabbis as a protection against bigamy, sanctified a marriage for a night. A hotel room was hired by the court, intercourse took place in front of male witnesses, and divorce was given the following morning, leaving the woman free to marry whom she pleased.[see footnote 26 - libcom ed.]

The religious concern with the reproduction of the race will even allow polygamy in 'modern' Israel: if the marriage fails to produce children, if the wife is committed to an institution for the insane, or if she is declared 'rebellious', which means that she leaves her husband against his express wish.[see footnote 19 - libcom ed.] The same concern marks the persistent opposition of the religious sector, headed by the National Religious Party, to women's conscription into the army. As early as 1959 the NRP protested that conscription was a major reason for the decline of the Jewish birth rate.[see footnote 15 - libcom ed.] The protest paid off; one of the points in the coalition agreement between the ruling Likud and the NRP is the relaxation of the procedures according to which women are exempted from army service. The exemption of women on religious grounds is currently automatic.27

Preservation of ethnic purity is just as important to the religious sector as it is in keeping with zionist aims. In Israel a variety of marriages are prohibited. In the first place, marriage of a Jew to a non-Jew is not possible. (If a mixed marriage takes place abroad, it is not valid according to the binding religious law.) Within the Jewish community, there are various complicated prohibitions. The offspring of certain categories of prohibited unions are condemned to be labelled as bastards, down to the tenth generation. This label in turn carries with it its own marital restrictions. The penalty of bastardy is the one to which the majority of the conformist population is vulnerable.

A vast network of self-appointed informers ensures that the rabbinical authorities have up-to-date lists of culprits and potential culprits. These lists, known as 'the blacklists', are computerised and distributed by the Ministry for Religious Affairs. In 1975, through a press leak, the existence of 144 such lists became public knowledge. They include names of bastards, suspected bastards, divorcees and their lovers, suspect converts, and persons whose Jewishness is 'doubtful' – all are psulei-hitun (= unfit for marriage).[see footnote 19 - libcom ed.]

The instances in which the religious minority has succeeded in affecting the situation of women in Israel adversely are too many to enumerate; to the detriment of women and the alarm of secular zionists this influence is growing, especially since the inception of Gush Emunim, a vociferous nationalistic-religious movement whose supporters are to be found in most zionist parties. For such people Israel is none but the 'Greater Israel' promised by the Scripture. For them religion is an endorsement of racist and nationalist demagogy, and women are tools for the preservation of ethnic purity.

Against this background the non-religious majority tries in private life to regard the religious aspects of the law as an extension of the bureaucracy, everyone hoping that his or her own case is routine, not one of the horror-story exceptions. In recent years, immigration of Russian Jews of 'suspicious' marital circumstances and the increasing number of war widows have made the exceptions more and more common, and one can observe a growing discontent among the non­religious sections of the population, expressed by various movements and platforms which call for liberalisation of the law.

The Zionist feminists

Recent years have seen the budding of an Israeli feminist movement. Realising the gap between the myth of their supposed liberation and the reality of their imprisonment, Israeli feminists have set out to challenge the status quo.

Emigrées from English-speaking countries have provided the im­petus to the Israeli women's movement as well as the model on which it operates. The movement concentrates its activities in large cities, where consciousness-raising groups operate in Hebrew and in English – a telling fact about both the class nature and the national composition of these groups.

The 1973 war, too, provided Israeli feminism with a considerable boost, judging by repeated references to it as the occasion when Israeli women realised that they had been cheated, so to speak, of their fair share in the national burden. Shulamit Aloni, campaigner for human rights, champion of 'groups which are discriminated against', describes in her book 'Women as Humans' how 'the shock came after the Yom Kippur war; only then did it become apparent how far Israeli society had regressed in all that concerns the inclusion of women in responsible roles in the economy, in the community, in national security, and in the alleviation of the burden in a time of national emergency. The consequences of this shock continued to be felt well into the elections to the eighth Knesset in December 1973.'[see footnote 26 - libcom ed.]

This kind of feminist writing is essentially at odds not with the ethos of the regime but with the way it functions. It contends with the regime not over its policy of territorial expansion and military aggression, but over how best to carry out this policy with women's aid. This is not a new school but a variation of the old feminist-zionist theme: the desire to 'share the duties required by the zionist enterprise.

When [Haim] Barlev, Minister for Commerce and Industry, declared (19 November 1973) that 'more workers will be required in the economy; they will come from among the 'olim (= Jewish immigrants) and volunteers from abroad',28 he incurred the wrath of the feminist movement and of one Pnina Kreindle in particular. She responded in the feminist movement's organ Nilahem (Hebrew acronym for 'Women for a Renewed Soceity' which also means 'we shall fight'): 'Is this possible? How has the big work potential of women in Israel been forgotten?'[see footnote 28 - libcom ed.]

In Ms Kreindle's opinion the answer is illustrated by the news ('Yom-Yom', an economic magazine, 20 November 1973) that Cabinet Minister [Pinhas] Sapir established an emergency economic committee which is composed of 48 men 'and not a single woman!' 'It is clear, therefore, that with such "balanced" composition the existence of women could easily have been forgotten.'[see footnote 28 - libcom ed.]

Kreindle is no pessimist. True, she is furious that 'during the war and after it, "Africa" was a closed club for "men-only". Women were kept in "cotton wool" and their wings were clipped'. And she doubts 'whether an appropriate justification exists for the brushing ­aside of women in the army especially at a time of acute shortage of good manpower'.[see footnote 28 - libcom ed.] Yet she thinks that 'something does "move" in Israeli society' and cites the example of another feminist – Dr Dorit Padan-Eisenshtark (head of the Department of Behavioural Sciences in the Ben-Gurion University) who leads a team planning a 'women's reserve service'. 'The team is charged with inserting women into "masculine" professional domains, so that during emergencies the economy can [go on] functioning in a normal fashion'. She and other feminists congratulate the Ministry of Labour on its intention to further implement its policy of encouraging women's work by 'training 60,000 housewives... especially in technical jobs, so that in an emergency they can be integrated into the manpower structure, and re-activate the economy as a whole, not just the vital plants'.[see footnote 28 - libcom ed.]

This brand of feminism lends its unqualified support and gives its uncritical consent to a regime whose own policies induce an ac­cumulation of internal socio-economic and political strains, a regime which is in the process of losing control over the economy to an extent that could very well impede its future expansion and retard its war abilities. The sterner face that zionism has acquired as a result of the May 1977 elections may if nothing else help the women's movement to lose this particular contingent of feminists.

Others in the movement, most prominently Knesset members Shulamit Aloni and Marcia Freedman, set out to charge at the religious flank of zionism, proposing liberal laws and amendments that would make possible civil marriage, abortion and 'equal rights for women', the latter by a new basic law. This light brigade sets out to wrench from the legislature a host of reforms in women's status at work, welfare tax and other domains in which women come under the repressive thumb of the religous authorities.

Although they succeeded in inserting such women's issues as clauses in various party political programmes, they were defeated time and again in the Knesset and its committees, where strategically situated National Religious Party politicians blocked every proposal, while other politicians clamoured for 'national unity'.

National unity, in this context, is no mere empty phrase, but an expression of the need shared by both 'left' and 'right' wings of zionism for a cohesive ideological framework that will prop it up and provide it with the righteous posture necessary for accomplishment of its policies. The Jewish religion is such a framework; its imperatives and prohibitions – especially but not exclusively in matters concerning women – are in keeping with 'demographic-national needs'. To 'be fruitful and multiply' as well as the penalties (bastardy) designed to prevent 'racial impurity' are in harmony with the zionist exclusivist claim over Palestine.

Some feminists are misguided enough to think that a trade-off is possible – that zionism will exchange 'liberal' laws for women's political consent and for their active economic support, at the price of giving up the benefits which collusion with the religious sector provides. The mainstream of the movement and its front runners in particular have no qualms about the aims of zionism, only concern for the best ways of achieving those aims.

In the most thorough critique to date, Lesley Hazleton's Israeli Women – the Reality Behind the Myth, the author provides a com­prehensive exposition of just what the title promises, but stops short of carrying it to its logical anti-zionist conclusion. In the concluding chapter 'The political challenge', she plays her very own zionist card: she complains that Y. Yadin – Deputy Prime Minister and leader of the new Democratic Movement – is reluctant to come out against the 'superficial symbolism of Judaism' when he could in his capacity as archeologist and leader of the Masada dig... 'erect an alternative to religiousness in the form of a strong and concrete historical bond [that will link] the Jews to their political and cultural heritage in their own country'. In tune with the rest of the zionist doves she coos:

'Security is a central problem... it is involved with the existential security of the state in all its aspects: Security in its Jewishness, security in its existence and continued survival...'[see footnote 19 - libcom ed.]

On similar lines, Israeli feminist Joan Yaron, addressing the International Tribunal on Crimes against Women in Brussels in March 1976, enumerated a list of Jewish women's grievances, describing their inferior position in the economy and their subordinate social status. 'The question could be asked', she said, 'how is it that in a modern democratic state based on socialist [sic] principles, such anomalies could be possible?'29 In the rest of her testimony she proceeded to put the blame squarely on the religious law, but even her thorough ex­position of the malpractices which take place in Israel, with religious blessing, does not disguise the fact that Ms. Yaron, like the rest of the feminist movement, is in the end no threat to zionist Israel, and that she accepts the self-portrait of the state in the fashion of early 1976 – 'modern democratic and socialist'.

  • 1The authors acknowledge fruitful discussions with A. Ehrlich and are grateful to him for allowing them to make use of material contained in an article by him which he intends to publish in a forthcoming issue of Khamsin.
  • 2'The Working Woman in Israel' in Features of Israel, Israel Information Centre nd.
  • 3C. N. Degler, 'Revolution without Ideology' in Lifton R. J. (ed) The Woman in America, Beacon Press, Boston 1964.
  • 4Committee for the Status of the Woman, Recommendations, Prime Minister's Office, Jerusalem, February 1978 (Hebrew).
  • 5'Chen' – The Woman's Corps, IDF spokesman, Israel Defence Forces, 30 May 1977. (Our emphasis.)
  • 6A. Maimon, Fifty Years of the Working Woman's Movement, Ayanot Publication or Am Oved.
  • 7This point is discussed from a different perspective in A. Ehrlich's article (see footnote 1).
  • 8G. Meir, 'My Life', Ma'ariv Publication, 1975 (Hebrew).
  • 9On these farms, unemployed women were engaged in growing vegetables. The produce was sold mainly to the British Army. On no account, even at the price of failure of the enterprise, was the produce sold to Arab town mer­chants ('Isha Va'em Beyisrael', Woman and mother in Israel, p353).
  • 10See 'Isha Va'em Beyisrael', Woman and Mother in Israel, Masada Publication (Hebrew).
  • 11ibid, from a report by Hana Levine, a Jewish woman officer.
  • 12The Hebrew words hagirah (migration) and mehagrim (migrants) are used by zionists to describe all migratory movements of gentiles, as well as those of Jews who go from and to places other than Palestine. The Hebrew words 'ali yah and ha'apalah (ascent and upward struggle) are used to describe Jewish immigration to Palestine. Conversely, the Hebrew word yeridah, used by zionists to describe the emigration of Jews from Palestine, means descent.
  • 13Yedi'ot Aharonot, 15 September 1977.
  • 14Yedi'ot Aharonot, 18 May 1978.
  • 15See D. Friedlander 'Israel' in B. Berelson (ed) Population Policy in Developed Countries, McGraw-Hill 1974.
  • 16D. Ben Gurion, Three Issues, Hapo'el Hatza'ir, Vol 27. (Hebrew) quoted by Friedlander, ref 15.
  • 17R. Bachi 'The Decline in Fertility: a national danger', Ha'aretz, 5 August 1940 (Hebrew) quoted by Friedlander ref 15.
  • 18A. A. Fraenkel Fertility in the Jewish Community in Palestine, Aharonson Publication 1944 (Hebrew) quoted in Friedlander, ref 15.
  • 19L. Hazleton Israeli Women, the Realtiy Behind the Myth, Idanim Publication 1978 (Hebrew).
  • 20The exception was the indictment of two doctors in 1971. Their offence, however, was not having performed an abortion, but having made use of the facilities of Qupat Holim (Histadrut health service). The double standard came under fire. The establishment reacted in the only way it could by doing nothing. The case remained open for nine months. One of the accused died, and the case against the other was dropped.
  • 21Report submitted to the Minister of Health by the Committee appointed to examine the restrictions applying to induce abortions, in Public Health Vol 17, No 4, November 1974. Published by the Ministry of Health, Jerusalem.
  • 22Ha'aretz, 29 February 1978.
  • 23Ministry of Religious Affairs Survey, published in Yedi'ot Aharonot, 8 July 1975.
  • 24Israel Government Year Book 1976 (Hebrew).
  • 25Rabbi Goren 'Religion and the State', National Religious Party Publication 1964 (Hebrew) quoted in S. Aloni Nashim Kivnei Adam (Women as Humans).
  • 26S. Aloni Nashim Kivnei Adam (Women as Humans), Mabat Publication 1976 (Hebrew) pp9 and 47.
  • 27Ha'aretz, 18 June 1978.
  • 28P. Kreindle 'What Happened to Israeli Women in the War' in Nilahem – organ of the Feminist Movement in Israel, No 4, September 1974 (Hebrew).
  • 29Reproduced in Toda'ah, organ of the Feminist Movement – Jeruslaem Branch, June 1976 (Hebrew).