April 30, 1998
A Woman’s Voice
Israel has always meant a lot to my parents, butit was my mother who took the Jewish state personally. She waspregnant at the time Israel was being created, in the spring of 1948,and to this day, she still describes the joy -- the triumph! -- ofbringing a new life into a world where the blue-and-white flag couldproudly fly.
Israel was an answer to Hitler, a womb of peacefor the rebirth of the Jews. But it was also something more. Implicitin the message that my mother directed at me, but not to my brother,who's four years my junior, was the understanding that, as a youngwoman, I had a particular stake in the Jewish state.
It's easy to see why she regarded Israel as anescape from every stricture that was making American women such as mymother chafe in the postwar era.
Israel was agrarian, not urban; egalitarian, notpatriarchal; practical, not intellectual; socialist, not competitive.My mother implicitly believed Israel's Declaration of Independence --passed only week's before my birth -- which guaranteed equality toall citizens, irrespective of race, religion or gender. What a greatplace to be a woman! In the United States, Bess Myerson was thebest-known Jewish woman, for winning the Miss America Pageant. But,in Israel, Golda Meir was the real thing, a woman with real power tobuild a nation.
Inevitably, Israel and I grew up. The kibbutzmovement devolved into the typical patriarchal nuclear family, andthe military placed women into subsidiary roles or granted themreligious exemptions, leaving men to do the fighting. Israel becamemasculinized by war and terrorism, by its unfinished business withthe Palestinian population, and by the pressures of absorbingmillions of immigrants.
The stronger the American feminist movementbecame, the weaker the Israeli women's agenda appeared. Americanjournalists first researching the status of women in Israel couldn'tbelieve their eyes; they emerged, feeling duped and angry, as ifthey'd been sold a bill of goods. I remember the sense of betrayal,verging on shame, I felt upon learning that Israeli women were not onthe front lines of battle, and that job status was linked to militaryexperience.
Women such as me had been raised with grandioseexpectations of a new world order -- not a nation grasping forstability while enduring decades under siege. We had expected aPromised Land of our own in Israel, and we were amazed, naïvely,I now see, that we didn't get it.
As we celebrate Israel's 50th birthday, it is timefor American Jewish women to take stock of how the myth -- and thereality -- of Israel has operated within our own lives. It seemsclear now that Israel's problems, its inability to make good on theDeclaration of Independence, has had an ironically energizing impacton Jewish feminists in the United States. Had Israeli women beenafforded equal rights, would we -- and our tradition as a whole --have been motivated to organize to expand our own religious andsocial roles? We typically credit the American women's movement forreinvigorating Judaism, but, in fact, it might also be the very lackof such vigor among women in the Jewish state that lit the fire ofnecessity.
Over time, Israeli feminist leaders such as AliceShalvi have warned us of the cost of war on Israeli society. In theinitial glow of the Oslo accords, women in Israel clearly expectedthat, finally, action would be taken on a host of domestic issues:family violence, education, equal rights for women. Now, in light ofthe peace stalemate, all bets are off.
That's why it's up to us to support and encourageworthy programs that can improve Israeli life.
Three programs, among many, deserveattention:
* Na'Amat, the Women's Labor Zionist Organizationof America Inc., is the largest Jewish women's organization in theworld, and arguably no group does more to improve the day-to-daylives of women in Israel. It provides day care for more than 25,000children, free legal aid, a shelter for battered women in Tel Avivand a support system for single-parent families. Na'Amat has 50,000members in the United States, and it needs you. Contact: (212)725-8010
* Jewish Women International (formerly B'naiB'rith Women) maintains the Children at Risk program -- including aresidential treatment center for boys, ages 7 to 13 -- which isespecially aimed at breaking the cycle of crime and violence thatbesets too many Israeli families. Contact JWI at (202)857-1300.
* The New Israel Fund supports rape crisis centersand programs to stop domestic violence, but it's theleadership-development program that interests me. Since 1993, theNisan Young Women Leaders program has trained more than 100 girls,ages 15 to 17, throughout northern Israel to be "agents ofchange."
"Nisan endeavors to imbue young Jewish and Arabwomen with motivation, sensitivity, creative energy, and dreams of abetter country," says the program's web site. A worthy goal, indeed.Contact: (310) 312 4864.
Perhaps full attention to the women's agenda inIsrael awaits the arrival of peace. We can't wait until then.
Marlene Adler Marks is senior columnist of TheJewish Journal. Her e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org. Beginning onMay 16, she will teach "Writing and Reading for Heart and Soul" atthe Skirball Cultural Center.
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