Women learned from each other

JEWISH women in Britain and America have idealised Israeli women as feminist role models since the days of pre-state Israel, when women were photographed ploughing fields alongside men.

Post-independence posters featured images of female soldiers fighting alongside men.

The image of empowered Israeli womanhood depicted by a chain-smoking Golda Meir as prime minister has held on tenaciously for nearly 50 years . . . but it’s a myth all the same.

“Until recently, there was a perception that Israel had real equality for women,” said Francine Klagsbrun, author of the recently published biography Lioness: Golda Meir and the Nation of Israel.

“Women were in the army. Only later did we learn they often had servile positions and in the yishuv [pre-state Israel] women were laughed at when they tried to build roads.

“It was not the equality women here believed they had.”

Israeli and Jewish women in the West have learned much from each other since Israel was born 70 years ago.

American and European women were inspired by powerful Israeli role models. And Israelis absorbed — often slowly — feminist ideas from their sisters abroad.

“The mutual influence has been enormous,” said Blu Greenberg, founder of America’s Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance, who splits her time between New York and Jerusalem.

“It’s more like a tandem walk than either group having more impact than the other.”

Anat Hoffman, a Jerusalemite who is the director of Women of the Wall and the Israel Religious Action Centre, which advocates for civil and religious rights, agreed: “We were seen as Superwoman.

“But we suffer from the same disparity of salaries and domestic violence as women elsewhere.

“For too long, Israeli women were romanticised and objectified. How many times have I heard the sentence ‘but I thought you guys were so strong!’

“No, I’m much more like you than you can imagine. Romanticising has done neither of us a lot of good.”

Golda Meir had much to do with that romanticisation. In 1948, the Kiev-born, Milwaukee-raised kibbutznik was the face of Israel, serving in a wide range of Jewish Agency and government roles before becoming prime minister in 1969. Since then, there has not been another woman in the role.

“She continues to be seen as a woman who made it, one to emulate, a strong woman who knew how to use both her political and womanly skills to get ahead,” said New Yorker Klagsbrun.

“Overall, our Jewish women have had greater impact on Israelis than the reverse,” she added.

“Once the feminist movement became important over here, it very much influenced Israelis in forming their own.”

Yet there are areas in which Israeli women are ahead of their more Western counterparts.

For instance, Israel has a higher percentage of women elected to the Knesset than, say, do America’s Senate or House of Representatives.

It has been two decades since Israel’s High Court granted a woman the right to become a combat pilot. But today, more than 90 per cent of the Israeli military’s positions are open to enlisted women, including selected combat roles.

A third of Israel’s military personnel are women, compared with about 14 per cent in the American armed forces.

Hoffman said there is a certain expectation of being treated fairly that British or American Jewish women have which Israelis do not.

“It was bred out of us as very young girls,” she said.

“Jewish women abroad expect some things that Israelis can’t even dream of.”

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