NEWS FEATURE: Assessing the State of Jewish Feminism in Israel

Print More

c. 2000 Religion News Service

JERUSALEM _ In 1984 a group of Israeli women held an unprecedented encounter with some of the leading lights of the American feminist movement including Betty Freidan, Cynthia Ozick and then Rep. Elizabeth Holtzman, D-N.Y., all of whom are Jewish.

It was the first such Jewish women’s encounter to span the yawning geographical and cultural distance between a more provincial Israel of the mid-1980s and the United States of the Reagan era. And out of the encounter, the Israeli feminist movement emerged in full force, bringing widespread changes to Israeli society.

This week some of the same personalities are together again in Jerusalem for a 15-year retrospective on the status of Jewish women in Israeli and American life.

And while the specific nature of the feminist struggle has changed over time, Jewish women in both societies say they still confront problems of sex discrimination, family and career juggling, and conflicting messages on women from secular society and religious tradition.”When we gathered here 15 years ago in an urgent inquiry about our joint status as women and as Jews, I thought that the adjective `urgent’ might be an exaggeration,”said Holtzman, now comptroller of the City of New York, and a keynote speaker at this year’s conference. “I was wrong. I will never forget the anger that erupted here, the burning need for change. I mistakenly thought that Israel was far ahead of the United States in women’s rights. After all, Israel had had a woman prime minister, women served in the armed forces _ facts that created a powerful, but erroneous appearance of equality.”I was totally unprepared for what I found: the bitter complaints about the political, religious and social discrimination that women suffered here,”she said.

Today, Holtzman acknowledged, advances have been made in all of those arenas.”But I believe there is still the same sense of urgency because the same ugly stereotypes of gender continue to deform our lives.”The issue, as we stand on the mountain of the last 15 years is to see where we focus our energies, where are the areas most susceptible to change, and what are our priorities.” While both Israeli and American Jewish women have entered the workplace in unprecedented numbers, women in both societies still face deep-seated problems in balancing the demands of work, family and community, Holtzman said at Sunday’s (Jan. 23) opening session.

Negative, and often violent, gender stereotypes are deeply embedded in American media messages that are exported abroad, she said. And while women in both Israel and the United States have entered the political arena in increasing numbers, they are still far from equally represented in the political halls of power.

In the Jewish religious world, a feminist revolution that began in the mid-1980s, is still under way. More and more women have become rabbis, cantors and students of traditional Jewish texts, said Holtzman, describing herself as a”relatively nonobservant Jew.”And women have begun to shape new ceremonies and liturgies expressing spiritual yearnings not found in the traditional male liturgies.

Yet significant portions of Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox Jewry have remained aloof from the waves of feminist-inspired changes.”The difficulties for women brought up in (religious) societies in which there is pervasive inequality are enormous,”said Frances Raday, a prominent Israeli feminist lawyer and one of the founders of the Israel Women’s Network. The Network emerged out of the 1984 conference, and is co-sponsoring this week’s event along with the American Jewish Congress.”Because every human being is free to live their lives as they want one cannot impose equality on someone,”Raday said, referring to the resistance to change among women in ultra-Orthodox Jewish society.”But what one can do is to insure that women have the education that will allow them to make a real choice,”she said.”Constitutional society has to protect women, and give them the option of saying `I prefer equality to tradition,’ or to say `I prefer equality within my tradition.'”DEA END FLETCHER

Comments are closed.