Essay | The Women Who Shaped Israel

They don’t get the respect they deserve — even Golda! And Why We Need More Female Political Leaders in Israel ASAP And Why the Status of Women in Israel Is More Precarious Than Ever
By | Apr 26, 2023

I’ll come right out and say it. Looking back at Israel’s history, there’s a glaring absence that helps explain some of the arrogance and intransigence of many of its leaders today—their pugilistic tone and appalling inability to listen and to forge the trust required for the country to move forward, not backward. There are not enough women in the upper echelons of politics, or for that matter, people of any gender who value and practice empathy and consensus-building. Israel’s hyper-macho political culture is one of the factors tearing the country and its democracy apart.

There’s an even deeper failing that if not addressed could doom the great endeavor of Israel, and in this case, I am not talking about the lack of resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The situation for women in Israel right now is more precarious than it is in most modern democracies. Should the judicial reforms announced by the current right-wing government proceed, the government would be in a position to roll back current laws protecting women’s equality, even possibly curtailing women’s freedom of movement in public spaces, such as buses (it’s been tried before and blocked by Israel’s Supreme Court), and restricting access to abortion under pressure from evangelical allies in the United States.

In theory, women are equal to men in Israel: The 1948 Declaration of Independence called for full gender and racial equality, and a “Women’s Equal Rights Law” was shepherded through the first Knesset in 1951 by the only other woman besides Golda Meir (1898-1978) to sign the declaration, Rachel Cohen-Kagan (1888-1982). This astonishing woman took on the task of women’s equality with relish and humor: Former Justice Minister Pinchas Rosen once recalled that when Cohen-Kagan stood up in the Knesset to speak about equal rights for women, “she did not pass up the opportunity to remark with a mischievous smile that she also supported equal rights for men.” Her bill was not adopted in its entirety, and, like other women’s rights bills that have passed since, hasn’t been fully enforced. That’s partly because there’s a darkness pervading the heart of Israeli governance: the fundamental inability of certain powerful religious segments of the State of Israel’s population to accept changes in women’s roles and lives, even though the vast majority of Israelis—including many Orthodox Jews—support them. The societal breakdown we’re seeing today may be represented as left versus right, or secular versus religious, but in reality it’s also about the role of women.

Henrietta Szold (Illustrations by Isaac Ben Aharon)

It wasn’t supposed to be this way. The dream was that a new Jewish state would not only bring an end to the centuries-old European stereotype of the “feminized Jewish man,” who was frail, weak and learned, but also to the second-class status to which women were too often relegated in Jewish and other communities. Israel, as imagined by early Zionists, was to be a secular modern state, and gender equality was considered to be one of the tenets of modern statehood, according to Margalit Shilo, professor emerita of history at Israel’s Bar-Ilan University. While Zionism quickly embraced the ideal of the new aggressive Israeli man (and we are seeing some of the consequences of this today), support was far more lackluster when it came to women’s equality.

Today’s societal breakdown may seem like it’s left versus right, or secular versus religious. In reality it’s also about the role of women.

“Theodor Herzl, a little before the second Zionist conference in August 1898, decided that women were equal in the Zionist movement and could take their place in the congress,” says Shilo, author of many books on the forgotten women of Israel. Of course, what this meant to women on the ground in the Yishuv—the pre-state Israel period that stretched from the 1880s to independence in 1948—is a different story. In practice, Herzl was ambivalent about the role of women; tellingly, the protagonist of his utopian 1902 novel, Altneuland (The Old New Land), declares that his wife is not interested in the national elections of the Jewish state and prefers to stay home with their baby. Indeed, women had to fight to be included in the Yishuv’s self-governing institutions. Their campaign for suffrage was bitterly resisted by both the ultra-Orthodox and Sephardi communities, who held fast to deep-seated Jewish religious beliefs relegating women to the private sphere. Not until the 1926 Second Constituent Assembly was it decreed that women had equal rights, again at least on paper, in all areas of civil, economic and political life.

Manya Shochat (Illustrations by Isaac Ben Aharon)

These historical struggles, beginning long before David Ben-Gurion struck his fateful bargain with the Orthodox at the cusp of independence, set the stage for the vulnerable state of secular values in Israel today. That deal, which ceded personal status issues such as marriage and divorce to the rabbinate in return for the Orthodox parties’ support for statehood, has had lasting effects in limiting Israeli women’s political, economic and social options. In essence, it created a theocracy inside a parliamentary democracy by absorbing the authority of the rabbinate, controlled today by the Orthodox, from Ottoman law. Unforeseen by Ben-Gurion and Israel’s other secular founders, the ultra-Orthodox population would surge rather than vanish, turning these parties into coalition powerbrokers that could wield civil power through the Israeli government, including the Ministry of Religious Affairs, and other institutions.

But the power of the ultra-Orthodox was not yet cemented during the pre-state period, making “the Yishuv an era of great opportunities for women,” at least in those professions that were open to them, says Shilo. Those were the same fields accessible to women in the United States and Europe, an outgrowth of the progressive movement that was building steam around the same time as Zionism. Via these professions, immigrant Jewish women brought some of the greatest hits of Western civilization to pre-state Palestine—education, public health and social work.Although generally less well-known than their male counterparts, countless strong women helped build Israel into what it is today, and not only as wives and mothers. We would be remiss not to celebrate at least a few of them when we are marking Israel’s 75th year. Even the most famous don’t get the kind of widespread recognition they deserve. One of the best-known pioneers of the pre-state period was the brilliant Baltimore-born visionary leader Henrietta Szold (1860-1945), who first visited Israel in 1909 and settled there permanently in 1933. In the United States she is heralded as the founder of Hadassah, a rare women-run organization of the time (which gave American women direct opportunities to improve life for people living in Ottoman-era Palestine), and although not credited, she was the de facto editor (even rarer) of the then-very-male Jewish Publication Society. She should also be known for completing rabbinical school at the Jewish Theological Seminary, although she was only allowed to attend on the condition that she not ask to be ordained. In Israel, Szold is also remembered as director of the Youth Aliyah, an agency established by another enterprising woman, Recha Freier (1892-1984), which rescued thousands of Jewish children from Nazi Germany and delivered them safely to Israel. Szold also opened Israel’s first nursing school, raised funds for and established Hadassah Hospital in Jerusalem with its inclusive mission of helping Jews and Arabs alike, and set up the first professional social work agencies in Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, Haifa and Petah Tikva, replacing what she disdained as “the old Lady Bountiful system” that was not based “on justice to the unfortunate.”

Golda Meir, Aida Maimon and Rachel Cohen-Kagan (Photo credit: GPO / Courtesy of the Knesset)

Szold was also unique in that she was included in the leadership of major Zionist organizations and, in 1931, became the first woman to serve on the executive committee of the National Council, the governing body of the Yishuv, which was responsible for everything from education to defense. She commanded respect as an intellectual powerhouse: In a speech she gave in 1896, one month before Theodor Herzl published Der Judenstaat (The Jewish State), Szold had outlined her vision of a Jewish state in Palestine as a place to ingather diaspora Jewry and revive Jewish culture. “I can’t think of any other woman who was as influential in so many areas,” says Shilo. An authoritative biography by Dvora Hacohen, To Repair a Broken World: The Life of Henrietta Szold, Founder of Hadassah, came out in 2021, but Szold has yet to be included in the first tier when it comes to recognizing Israel’s founding figures.

After many years of an upward trend, women’s presence in the political arena is now in retreat.

Another towering figure was Szold’s friend Manya Shochat (1878-1961). A colorful character, she established a small experimental farming collective at Sejera in the Lower Galilee in the early years of the 20th century that some consider to be the prototype for the kibbutz movement. She believed that the then-common practice of hiring Arab farmworkers was not a good model on which to build Jewish life in Palestine, and that European Jews like her should be trained to do the work themselves. At Sejera, women wore pants and participated as equals. Shochat also pushed the envelope in regard to other occupations considered off-limits to women. “She was one of only a few women who belonged to Hashomer, an association that protected the early Jewish settlements, and was known for dressing in Bedouin clothes and riding horseback throughout the land on her protective routes,” says Francine Klagsbrun, author of the 2017 book Lioness: Golda Meir and the Nation of Israel. Lauren B. Strauss, director of undergraduate studies of the Jewish Studies Program at American University, describes Shochat as “a revolutionary in Tsarist Russia who came to Palestine and helped start the kibbutz movement and formed armed self-defense units.” Largely unknown in the United States, Shochat has been rediscovered in Israel in recent years.

Adina Bar-Shalom (Illustrations by Isaac Ben Aharon)

However, it is Ada Maimon (1893-1973) whom Israelis celebrate as the mother of Yishuv feminism, says Pnina Lahav, author of the 2022 biography The Only Woman in the Room: Golda Meir and Her Path to Power. Maimon is not well-known outside Israel, but in 1921 she founded and ran the influential Women Workers Council (WWC), a subgroup of the Yishuv’s powerful Histadrut trade union, to fight for women’s interests. In a failed effort to curb the group’s independence, the Histadrut pushed Maimon out in 1928 and replaced her with a leader then still known as Golda Meyerson. It wasn’t a good fit—Golda had other goals besides advancing women, which incensed Maimon and other WWC members, and the two women remained at odds throughout their lives. Like Shochat, Maimon also established a working farm that gave women the skills needed to break into agriculture, the dominant industry of the time. After 1948, she served in the first and second Knessets, spearheading laws related to women’s equality, and never gave up on her quest for “equality in all walks of life” between women and men.

Alice Shalvi (Illustrations by Isaac Ben Aharon)

Which brings us to Golda Meir, who preferred to be called by her first name. As the only female prime minister so far of the State of Israel—as well as the first female head of a government in the Middle East since ancient times, one of the first three women to lead a modern nation and the only one of those three not to follow a husband or father—she certainly has more name recognition than almost any other Israeli woman. Without the American money and support raised by the Russian-born, Milwaukee-raised Golda, there might not even be a Jewish state. But her many achievements and the wonder of Golda herself—how she came to be the only woman operating at the highest levels of power—are still underappreciated. To gain the trust of the men around her, this vastly talented woman had to, consciously or unconsciously, adopt their values and, to some extent, their behavior, says Lahav. This strategy catapulted her into many powerful positions unattainable to other women, including Israel’s first female foreign minister and, finally, head of state from 1969 to 1974.

Shulamit Aloni (Illustrations by Isaac Ben Aharon)

Golda also possessed empathy, was a good listener, valued consensus and cared deeply about issues that affected women and children. But unlike Maimon, her overriding goal was statehood, and once that was achieved, the Labor Party unity she believed was required for the new country to survive and absorb massive numbers of immigrants. According to Lahav, Golda felt she didn’t have the luxury of focusing on women specifically. Nor, having mastered the subtleties of being the only woman in the room, did she invite many other women in. One woman she did mentor was Esther Herlitz (1921-2016), who in 1966 became the first woman to serve as an Israeli ambassador (to Denmark) and later served in the Knesset. It is also noteworthy and often forgotten that as minister of labor, Golda pushed through maternity leave and other policies that transformed Israeli women’s lives, long before these policies were common in other countries. For years, she was pointed to as proof of women’s equality, both in Israel and in the diaspora, covering up the lack of it. Although she is revered by many American Jews, these achievements have been shamefully ignored in Israel, and some feminists today believe that her leadership, particularly in regard to her role in the 1973 Arab-Israeli War, was judged harshly in part because she was a woman.

Ada E. Yonath (b. 1939) is a biochemist and crystallographer best known for her pioneering work on the structure of ribosomes. In 2009 she became the first Israeli woman (and only one to date) to receive a Nobel Prize (in chemistry). (Illustrations by Isaac Ben Aharon)

Golda’s unwillingness to prioritize women’s rights also vexed lawyer and writer Shulamit Aloni (1928-2014). Aloni was 30 years younger than Golda and, when it came to feminism, her chief nemesis. Aloni pushed aggressively for women’s rights and civil rights in ways that irritated Golda, who had no patience for what are now known as second-wave feminists, with their sweeping critique of Israeli society—she famously once called their American counterparts “bra-burners.” Golda did her best to torpedo Aloni’s political career, while Aloni, equally unbending, never gave Golda the respect she deserved, says Lahav. In 1974, after Golda resigned, Aloni became the first woman other than Golda to serve in the cabinet, as minister without portfolio. Aloni later went on to found and represent Meretz, a left-wing party, in 1992. She served as minister of education from 1992 to 1993, then minister of communications as well as minister of science and culture. Her strong views shaped contemporary Israeli civil society: At her death, The New York Times heralded her as “an early champion of civil liberties, challenger of religious hegemony and outspoken opponent of Israel’s occupation of the Palestinian territories.” She minced no words about where she saw Israel going: On the cover of her 2008 book, Israel: Democracy or Ethnocracy?, she declared, “The state is returning to the ghetto, to Orthodox Judaism, and the rule of the fundamentalist rabbinate is becoming more profound.”

Ofra Haza (1957-2000), an iconic Israeli singer and songwriter of Yemenite ancestry, was famous worldwide and helped popularize Mizrahi culture. (Illustrations by Isaac Ben Aharon)

Alice Shalvi (b. 1926) is another unstoppable giant of Israeli feminism—at age 96 she recently joined demonstrators on the streets of Jerusalem to protest the proposed judicial reforms. Born in Germany and educated in England, she was already pushing for women’s inclusion in the Jewish world before she made aliyah in 1949. She has never held political office, but she paved the way for women’s rights in other ways. After being denied a deanship in 1973 at the Institute of the Negev (now Ben-Gurion University) on the basis of gender, Shalvi organized other female faculty members and shone a spotlight on the ugly discrimination women faced in Israeli academia. As founding director of a progressive school for Orthodox girls, she made sure they studied the same Jewish texts as boys did, training a generation of Orthodox feminists. Like Aloni, Shalvi helped build the civil and legal infrastructure that promotes Israeli women’s rights. In 1984, she founded and led the Israel Women’s Network, one of the premier organizations populating Israel’s civil sphere, focusing on consciousness raising, advocating for litigation and legislation to improve the status of Israeli women, and increasing the number of women elected to national and local government.

Many consider Rachel Bluwstein (1890-1931) the founding mother of Hebrew poetry. (Illustrations by Isaac Ben Aharon)

The odds have always been stacked against women climbing the ladder to Israel’s highest political strata. In 1949, there were 11 women out of 120 members in the Knesset. Since then the number has plunged to as low as seven women and reached an all-time high of 35 in the 2021-2022 Bennett-Lapid government, according to a recent article by the Israel Democracy Institute (IDI). Since the new far-right coalition forged by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu took over last fall, the number of women has fallen to 31. As a result, Israel is currently ranked 97th among 190 countries in representation of women in its parliament, down from 61st place last year, and below countries such as Kazakhstan, China, Morocco, the UAE, Singapore, Mali, Egypt and Bulgaria, according to monthly data collected by the Switzerland-based Inter-Parliamentary Union. Among OECD countries, Israel ranks 31st out of 38. Knesset representation, however, is just one indicator. Women in Israel hold far fewer ministerial positions than men; representation peaked at nine during the Bennett-Lapid government. Only six women out of 38 are in the current cabinet. “After many years of an upward trend,” the IDI report says, “women’s presence in the political arena is now in retreat.”

Aida Touma-Suleiman (b. 1964) is a Christian Palestinian who has been in the Knesset representing the Arab party Hadash since 2015, and was the long-time chair of its Committee on the Status of Women and Gender Equality. (Illustrations by Isaac Ben Aharon)

But numbers don’t begin to tell the full story. Only two women have led the foreign ministry (one of them Golda) and to date, no woman has held either of the two other most prestigious portfolios—defense and finance. The IDI also reports that the party pipeline for women is drying up: Women are now less likely to serve as party leaders, a critical route into higher leadership. The report concludes that as long as the ultra-Orthodox parties persist in their refusal to include women on their slates, there will be little chance of gender parity in the Knesset. And while one would hope that women would be taking the lead in municipalities, female mayors in Israel are surprisingly rare, and only one of the country’s three largest cities, Haifa, has ever had a female mayor, Einat Kalisch-Rotem (b. 1970), who was elected in 2018.

Another daunting obstacle to political power for women has been the prominence of the country’s military, in particular its elite units, in launching young men into politics. This dynamic began in the Yishuv era, when only small numbers of women (such as Shochat) were part of the Hashomer groups. And although women made up as much as 20 percent of the Haganah, the Jewish paramilitary organization that led the fight against the British for independence, they were often expected to cook and clean at the same time they carried a gun, according to some accounts. In the early years of the state, women were eligible for combat duty, including piloting warplanes. The first female Israel Air Force (IAF) pilot, Yael Rom (1932–2006), earned her wings in 1951 and led the parachute drop at the Mitla Pass at the start of the 1956 Sinai campaign. Shortly afterward, women were barred from combat positions out of fear for their safety. In 1994, a brave young woman named Alice Miller (b. 1972) successfully petitioned the Israeli Supreme Court to allow women to take the pilot entrance exams. Although she didn’t qualify for medical reasons, her victory empowered female Knesset members to successfully pass a bill that allowed women to volunteer for any military position they could qualify for. In 2001, Roni Zuckerman (b. 1981) became the first IAF female jet fighter pilot, and in 2014, Oshrat Bacher (b. 1979) was appointed Israel’s first female combat-battalion commander. Today, despite the opposition of religious Zionists, many more combat and combat-intelligence units are open to women. Even so, the military is “not a path to political leadership for women,” says Moment Israel Editor Eetta Prince-Gibson. “Rather, such women are seen as exceptions.”

Left to right: Sara Aharonson (1890-1917) was a member of Nili, a ring of Jewish spies working for the British in World War I. When eventually caught, she was tortured and took her own life to protect other members of the intelligence network; Vicki Shiran (1947-2004) was an Egyptian-born Israeli social activist dedicated not only to feminism, but to fighting discrimination against Mizrahim in Israel; Yael Rom (1932-2006) was one of the first female pilots of the Israeli Air Force. (Photo credit: IDF Spokesperson’s Unit/CC BY-SA 3.0 / Courtesy Alma Shiran)

One such exception is Tzipi Livni (b. 1958), who after Golda, held more top leadership positions than any other woman in Israel. An IDF officer who worked for the Mossad, Israel’s spy agency, before finishing her law studies, she served in six consecutive Knessets from 1996 to 2019. She was Israel’s first female minister of justice, minister of agriculture and minister of housing and construction, as well as vice prime minister. In both 2008 and 2009, Livni’s party, Kadima, won enough seats for her to lead the government, but ultimately she was unable to put together a coalition. Now retired, Livni has fallen off most people’s radar, as has Ayelet Shaked (b. 1976). Shaked, a former software engineer, held several cabinet posts in various governments, including minister of justice from 2015 to 2019. She fought to limit the power of Israel’s Supreme Court, proof that not all female political leaders see the world the same way.

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I have left the Israeli Supreme Court for last. Implementation of the looming reforms that have sparked recent mass protests would be a potent strike against the future of women in Israel. Today six out of 15 justices are women, 40 percent, making it the major branch of government with the highest proportion of women, and the only one to be led by a woman, Esther Hayut (b. 1953), currently chief justice and president of the court. The impressive status of women on the court, of course, was a long time coming: It took until 1976 for the first female justice to be appointed, Miriam Ben Porat (1918-2012), followed in 1981 by Shoshana Netanyahu (1923-2022), the current prime minister’s aunt. Dorit Beinisch (b. 1942) was the first woman to serve as president of Israel’s Supreme Court (2006-2012).

Israeli legal expert Gabriela Shalev, the first woman to be appointed as Israel’s ambassador to the United Nations (2008-2010), is convinced that some of the right-wing furor regarding the court has to do with the fact that it is and has been led by women, and that its rulings—on petitions such as Alice Miller’s appeal to be allowed to take the air force pilot test—have advanced women in a variety of arenas. “The turning point was when Dorit Beinisch succeeded Aharon Barak as Chief Justice in 2006,” Shalev says. “Barak was the ‘rabbi’ of the secular majority in Israel, and he was admired widely throughout the country for his human rights work and for establishing the Basic Law of Human Dignity and Liberty. Dorit was a woman and a very liberal one, and once she became chief justice, all the macho and misogynist attitudes came out. This was the start of the attack on the Supreme Court.”

Esther Hayut (Illustrations by Isaac Ben Aharon)

So how did a new state that promised gender equity, a state that was founded in 1948, not 1776 or 1792, end up with women’s rights still so contested? Shilo, the historian, says that “the declaration of equality was deceiving…People confused the declaration with its fulfillment.” For example, while the IDF conscripted women into military service at a time when few other countries did so, giving a superficial impression of equal status, their actual status within the military remained unequal. Several other factors came into play: After 1948, most immigrant women came from undeveloped countries that themselves lagged behind on women’s equality, and many arrived lacking formal education, “which is the basis for women’s equality,” Shilo says. Also, as exemplified by Golda’s approach, the aim of the newly established Jewish state “was foremost to gain security and to absorb the newcomers. Equality for women was moved aside.” Shilo’s final factor may be the strongest one: “the traditional attitude of Judaism toward women,” which is exacerbated by the lack of separation between religion and state in Israel.

Shikma Bressler (Photo credit: Twitter)

As the IDI has reported, the ultra-Orthodox (now commonly referred to as Haredi) parties are impeding women from entering the upper echelons of political leadership. The power of the religious and far-right parties outstrips the numbers of people they represent. Unchecked, they could achieve any number of anti-progressive goals at odds with the current society, whether it’s an Israel in which women are confined to separate public spaces and barred from many, or are expected to work to support (with the additional help of government subsidies) husbands who study Talmud full-time.

I don’t want to end on a down note. Israel’s Haredi citizens are not one bloc: There are those who support women’s rights, at least in the secular realm, and some have even wrangled with the rabbinate on matters such as agunot (“chained women”) not being granted a religious divorce (known as a get) or for increased educational opportunities. These include Adina Bar-Shalom (b. 1945), founder of the first college for Haredi students in Jerusalem, and Leah Shakdiel (b. 1951), who won a landmark 1988 Supreme Court case against the Ministry of Religious Affairs that allowed her to sit on a religious council in a town in the Negev. The Haredi feminist group Nivcharot has undertaken extensive grassroots organizing to empower Haredi women, demanding that Haredi parties include women on their party lists for the Knesset.

Moreover, new waves of feminism keep breaking on Israel’s secular shores. Amazing women such as Shikma Bressler (b. 1980), a physicist at the Weizmann Institute of Science, are leading the protests against the current Israeli government today. Women in fields as varied as finance, science, business and high tech are breaking multiple ceilings—although success stories remain rare, says Danielle Ofek, first vice president and head of high tech for Bank Hapoalim International (BHI) and head of Parliament51, a social impact venture aiming to achieve gender equality and equal opportunities for women.

But the fundamental conflicts baked into the bones of the nation must be addressed if Israel wants to be a modern democratic state—which these days not only requires equal rights for women but for LGBTQ people, as well as for Israel’s non-Jewish citizens. (That’s a whole other story but, many argue, connected, for how can a state that lives with its women as second-class citizens under Jewish law be expected to treat Palestinans any differently?) Then again, it could be that in the long run not enough Israeli voters will care if the Jewish state is a modern democracy. That, of course, is today’s trillion-shekel question.

Thank you to Ido Aharoni, Ami Aronson, Linda Gallanter, Pnina Lahav, Francine Klagsbrun, Danielle Ofek, Judea Pearl, Letty Cottin Pogrebin, Eetta Prince-Gibson, Shulamit Reinharz, Margalit Shilo and Lauren B. Strauss for sharing their recommendations about which women to include, more of whom we will cover in the future. I am also grateful to the Jewish Women’s Archive.

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One thought on “Essay | The Women Who Shaped Israel

  1. Lynn Bartner-Wiesel says:

    What a beautiful essay, Nadine! you reminded and taught me more about our female leaders in Israel, that I didn’t know about. When I was a kid in the 1970’s, I thought that every person had the realistic opportunity to be a president, prime minister, or even a monarch thanks to Queen Elizabeth… I was a little kid). It was mostly because of Golda Meir in particular. She was in our TV, newspapers in our home so often. She reminded me of my father’s mother’s family (also of Russian decent); hard working with Hadassah, B’nai’ B’rit and our synagogue. I thought anything could be, if we dreamed it, (and worked really hard).

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