Deborah S. Bernstein, ed., Pioneers and Homemakers: Jewish Women in Pre-State Israel (SUNY, 1992).

Barbara Swirski and Marilyn P. Safir, eds., Calling the Equality Bluff: Women in Israel (Pergamon, 1991).

Elise G. Young, Keepers of the History: Women and the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict (Teachers College Press, 1992).

Philippa Strum, The Women Are Marching: The Second Sex and the Palestinian Revolution (Lawrence Hill, 1992).

Orayb Aref Najjar, with Kitty Warnock, Portraits of Palestinian Women (Utah, 1992).

Since the early twentieth century and the rise of Third World liberation struggles, feminism and nationalism have been engaged in an uneasy alliance, with feminism all too often serving as the helpmate of nationalism. Though each independence movement has been shaped by its own cultural and historical specificity, women active in nationalist struggles have wrestled with similar accusations from their male compatriots. Nationalists from both the right and the left have denigrated feminism as an imported Western bourgeois ideology, charging alternately that it diverts women from their indigenous cultural and familial responsibilities on the one hand, and from the nationalist and socialist struggle on the other.

The articles in Pioneers and Homemakers explain the gender contradictions within the Zionist movement, particularly of the second and third waves of immigration, or aliyot (1904-1914 and 1919-1923, respectively). Many of these immigrants had participated in socialist organizations in Russia and Poland. They came to Palestine willing to experiment with more egalitarian forms of social organization than those they had left behind. They organized the moshavot and the kibbutzim, the Histadrut and the Representative Assembly, precursor to the Knesset. In creating an egalitarian, labor-oriented society, these immigrants simultaneously institutionalized a division of labor based on biological difference. Zionist ideology depended on the construction of a male pioneer, halutz, who would “conquer” the land and penetrate the “virgin” soil of Palestine. The gendered nature of the pioneer myth was linked to definitions of productivity and profitability. In the kvutza (the precursor of the kibbutz), “productive” labor resulted in marketable goods; “non-productive” work provided services for the collective such as cooking and cleaning.

After the birth of the first generation of children on the kvutza, the division of labor became solidified by essentialist notions of women and maternity. The kvutza allowed women to work by assuming some of the burdens of child care with nursery schools. Those duties, which traditionally were the mother’s, were shifted to all the women, married and single.

While Pioneers and Homemakers does not attempt to widen its critique of Zionism to include the movement’s treatment of Palestinians, the essays anthologized in Calling the Equality Bluff recognize that Israeli society has been stratified along ethnic, religious and national lines since its inception. Early Zionist formulations envisioned the Israeli state as consisting only of Ashkenazi Jews from central Europe. The Zionist founders did not figure in their plans for Israel either Palestinian Arabs, the inhabitants of the land, or Jews from the Middle East. The Israeli government granted citizenship to Palestinians, but refused to recognize them as a national group. Moreover, the Jewish leadership of Israel “shared the Western disdain for Arab culture, viewing it as unenlightened…backward and inferior,” a view which was extended toward “Oriental” Jews. The essays in Calling the Equality Bluff also effectively undo the gender-related distinction between “private” and “public” spheres by showing how the Israeli state limits women’s participation in politics and the labor force, as well as restricts their access to divorce and abortion. Since the religious courts have jurisdiction over family law, women remain at a disadvantage in domestic cases. About a quarter of the selections focus on Palestinian women in Israel, Arab Jews and lesbians.

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is the primary focus of Elise Young’s Keepers of the History. According to Young, the conflict rests on the “unstated axis” of “violence against women,” which is “inextricably linked to violence against nature” and informed by race and class politics. Young tries unsuccessfully to negotiate between the specificity of the Israeli-Palestinian context and “universal” narratives of gender and culture. But the links between different struggles often get lost in her rhetorical flourishes. While she condemns the literal rape of Palestinian women, much of her analysis depends on the metaphoric equation of the rape of women and the rape of the land. The Women’s Organization for Political Prisoners’ reports, Young writes, “are testimony of war as rape…. Land and women torn asunder, exploited, desecrated in the name of progress, are nationalism’s products.” The rape/women/land metaphor has historically underwritten reactionary strains of nationalism, since rape is tied to cultural meanings of female chastity, shame and family honor. Young fails to recognize the connections between the literal rape of Palestinian women and the rape metaphor in nationalist discourse. In her account, Palestinian women are not so much survivors of the occupation as victims of rape.

As the Palestinian women in Philippa Strum’s The Women Are Marching make clear, women’s participation in the intifada has altered traditional definitions of shame and honor. Where previously women were shamed by arrest — because of the sexual implications of contact with unfamiliar men — they are now honored in their communities. Eileen Kuttab, a Birzeit University professor, explains, “The women feel…their honor is really in protecting people, not their own bodies.” But if the intifada has changed some attitudes toward women, it has not yet sparked a sexual revolution.

She gives detailed descriptions of the structures, agendas and activities of the many women’s organizations that have emerged since the Women’s Work Committee was founded in 1978. Strum, who does not know Arabic, relied on English-speaking, middle-class, Palestinian women to translate conversations. Her primary access was to middle-class urban women in the West Bank and rural areas along the Jerusalem-Ramallah-Bethlehem axis. In spite of these difficulties, she carefully attends to class and regional differences by supplementing first-hand accounts with extensive written research. The organization of this material in journal format exemplifies personal narrative at its best. This thoughtful book is a remarkable work of feminist solidarity.

Orayb Aref Najjar and Kitty Warnock’s Portraits of Palestinian Women nicely complements Strum’s book by profiling individual Palestinian women. This work has its origins in four life histories produced by Najjar and Warnock for the Nairobi “End of the Decade” Conference in 1985. The dearth of written sources on Palestinian women convinced Najjar to update and expand the earlier texts. What emerges are the life histories of 21 Palestinian women in the West Bank of diverse backgrounds, whose collective experiences span the major periods of contemporary Palestinian history (British, Jordanian, Israeli and intifada). In addition to profiling well-known activists like Rita Giacaman, Mona Rishmawi and Zahira Kamal, this book presents the voices of farmers, refugees and artists: Umm ‘Ayyash, Aisha Shamlawi and Vera Tamari.

The Palestinian women in Marching and Portraits express various levels of feminist consciousness. While the women’s movement has encouraged economic empowerment through the formation of nurseries and food production cooperatives that are an extension of women’s domestic labor, it has not yet questioned the subordinate status of women in the family or in society. But Palestinian women, as both books illustrate, are determined to avoid the fate of Iranian and Algerian women, who were ushered back into the home following revolutions in their countries. Participation in the nationalist struggle has empowered women to struggle for gender equality. As one Palestinian woman told Strum: “Women cannot work in the streets in the intifada and return home as slaves!”

How to cite this article:

Purnima Bose "Israeli Women, Palestinian Women," Middle East Report 186 (January/February 1994).

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