The profuse media coverage showered upon Israel on its fiftieth anniversary largely failed to consider more critical perspectives that might have cast a different light on the celebrations. While some commented on the familiar divisions between secular and religious Jews, left and right, or immigrants and “native” Israelis, their analyses remained superficial. There was little or no attempt, including in the pages of such progressive magazines as The Nation and Tikkun, to examine how the Zionist project and the persistence of the Arab-Israeli conflict is based upon and, at the same time, masks not only ethnic and racial power relations but also gendered divisions of labor and power. [1]

Zionism as an ideology and a movement constructs very particular notions of femininity, masculinity and gender relations. Through persistent references to the survival of Israel and the Jewish people as a whole, the assertion of an aggressive and highly militarized masculinity is justified by the need to end a history of weakness, suffering and persecution. Images of the exceedingly masculine Israeli Jewish male — pragmatic, protective, aggressive and emotionally tough — are contrasted with traditional notions of femininity — women as obedient wives and mothers — and with images of the helpless and powerless Jew in the diaspora associated with the Holocaust. The Zionist conception of masculinity also contrasts with the perceived backwardness and weakness of the “Arab” enemy. In sum, Jews not born in Israel, women and Arabs — all characterized as non-masculine — became the background against which the “new” Jewish male was encouraged to assert his masculine identity.

Nevertheless, the Zionist project, like other nationalist projects, provides women with a compelling vision of collective identity, with a community in which they can be members and political participants. In reality, however, women do not have much say over their social and political inclusion; their participation in the Zionist project depends to a large extent on their willingness to comply with the gendered division of labor and power within the movement. While men are expected to be liberators and protectors of the Jewish people, women — cast as symbols of the nation, vulnerable and in need of protection — are assigned primary responsibility for the reproduction of the nation and for the transmission of its culture.

War and the threat of war contribute to the subordination of Israeli women within the patriarchal Zionist project. [2] Jewish women in Israel are charged with maintaining the home front and lending support to men in battle. Generally speaking, Israeli Jewish women are expected to contribute to the Israeli national collectivity and its security without challenging their traditional roles and prevailing gender inequalities.

This expectation led Marcia Freedman, one of the founders of the Israeli feminist movement and a former member of Knesset, to conclude that in Israel, “the liberation of women…[is] seen as a threat to national security.” [3] The Israeli public has always viewed feminism as an extreme and foreign movement that threatens the stability of a society fighting for its survival. Given this perception, it is not difficult to understand why the women’s movement in Israel has remained relatively small or why so few women have been involved in the official political arena. As with women in other parts of the world, Israeli Jewish women are expected to limit their political involvement to narrowly defined “women’s issues” or stay out of politics altogether. The number of women in the Israeli Knesset has never exceeded 10 percent. Currently there are nine women (out of 120) in the Knesset — 7.5 percent — the same percentage as in Israel’s first Knesset in 1949.

According to Yael Yishai, “Women in Israel have vacillated between the two alternatives: mobilization to the feminist banner or integration with institutions associated with the national flag.” [4] Yishai argues that Israeli women’s involvement in politics is marked by an irreconcilable tension between efforts to advance their own social, political and legal status as women and their mobilization in the service of the state and its male-dominated political elite. This tension may partially explain the marginalization of women in the official political arena in Israel. Despite this tension, the political involvement at the grassroots level has increased in the past two decades. With the emergence of women’s peace groups in Israel in the early 1980s, Israeli women have become more aware of the tension between the national flag and the feminist banner.

Prior to 1982, there were few attempts by women to organize as women around questions of war and peace. The first direct attempt to challenge the prevailing political consensus and to address gender inequalities occurred with the 1977 establishment of the Women’s Party by Marcia Freedman and other leading figures in the Israeli feminist movement. The national election campaigns of the Women’s Party linked gender inequalities to the need to end the Arab-Israeli conflict. The party’s platform stated that “the existing political situation consumes most of the Israeli society’s resources and diverts the people’s and government’s attention away from crucial social problems.” [5]

These ideas, which had rarely before been articulated in the Israeli political arena, were met with nearly uniform hostility. The majority of Israeli society was not ready to hear the principled positions of women who not only challenged the prevailing political priorities but also linked their own oppression with the oppression of others, especially Palestinians both in Israel and in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Despite the fact that the Women’s Party did not win enough votes for a seat in the Knesset, its establishment and its political platform represent an important milestone in the history of women’s political activism in Israel.

The Israeli invasion of Lebanon triggered for the first time massive anti-war protests in Israel, sparking the emergence of two major women’s protest groups: Women Against the Invasion of Lebanon and Parents Against Silence. Both groups opposed the Israeli invasion and demanded the immediate withdrawal of Israeli forces. The most striking difference between the two groups was their relationship to feminism. The members of Parents Against Silence, which the Israeli public referred to as Mothers Against Silence, publicly disassociated themselves from feminism and insisted that they were simply mothers (and fathers) worried about their sons in combat. Women Against the Invasion of Lebanon, on the other hand, consisted of women who had been active in the Israeli feminist movement; their protest against the war explicitly opposed Israeli sexism and militarism.

The Israeli public’s general view of feminism as a threat to the state, coupled with the crisis atmosphere triggered by the invasion, helped generate public hostility toward Women Against the Invasion of Lebanon. In contrast, the public’s reaction toward Parents Against Silence was mostly sympathetic. The divergent public reactions suggest that women in Israel still had very little room to become politically active as women, let alone as feminists. The only legitimate articulation of political dissent for women was to embrace motherhood and emphasize care and protection, in compliance with conventional notions of femininity and gender relations. [6]

The start of the Palestinian intifada in December 1987 was a watershed for the political involvement of women in Israel. Whereas pre-intifada attempts by Israeli women to organize as women were unable to challenge seriously the prevailing patriarchal order and mobilize large numbers of women, the intifada sparked the emergence of numerous exclusively female peace groups. Groups such as Women in Black, the Women’s Organization for Women Political Prisoners, Shani — Israeli Women Against the Occupation, the Women and Peace Coalition and the Israeli Women’s Peace Net initiated demonstrations, letter campaigns, local and international peace conferences and solidarity visits to the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

The emergence of a multitude of women’s peace groups provided some Israeli women with new opportunities to step out of their prescribed roles as mothers and keepers of the home front and to take positions on what was the most crucial matter in Israeli politics: the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Israeli women have gradually come to realize, if not always publicly acknowledge, that the broad array of problems often defined as “women’s issues” cannot be treated in isolation from structures of militarization, inequality and oppression reinforced by Israel’s military occupation of Palestinians. Informed by implicit feminist principles, women peace activists in Israel articulated important connections: (1) between different systems of domination and structured inequalities; (2) between practices of violence used against Palestinians and the unprecedented rise in violence against women in Israel; and (3) between the struggles of Palestinians for liberation and self-determination and those of women throughout the world, including in Israel.

Despite the movement’s cautious relationship with feminism, the magnitude of women’s political organizing triggered a serious backlash within Israeli society. Women involved in various peace initiatives, especially Women in Black, became targets for verbal and sometimes physical abuse that was almost always laced with both sexual and sexist innuendo. This backlash against women peace activists once again underscored the little space available for women’s political activism and dissent in Israel.

The September 1993 Oslo accords were interpreted by some women peace activists as an opportunity to become at last part of the Israeli national consensus. These illusions were short-lived. Israeli society is deeply divided on the content and the implementation of the accords. Similar divisions surfaced within the women’s peace movements. While some women are convinced that the Oslo accords are a step toward a comprehensive peace, others argue that they perpetuate Israeli domination of Palestinians. The women’s peace movement, unable to reach a consensus, began to founder. Women in Black, one of the most visible segments of the Israeli peace movement, gradually abandoned their weekly vigils. Similarly, the Women and Peace Coalition was unable to transcend these divisions and halted its work.

At the same time, the uncritical embrace of the Oslo accords by the international community gave rise to the 1994 establishment of the Jerusalem Link — funded by the European Community. It serves as the coordinating body of two independent women’s centers: a Palestinian center, the Jerusalem Center for Women, located in East Jerusalem, and an Israeli center, Bat Shalom (Daughter of Peace), in West Jerusalem. Bat Shalom soon became a regular meeting place of the Israeli women’s peace movement. Its sudden emergence as a center of political organizing and its close links to several MKs from the Labor and Meretz parties has elicited mixed reactions from some veteran women peace activists. Bat Shalom has been criticized for its unequivocal endorsement of the Oslo process, its failure to criticize Labor and Meretz policies, and its patronizing approach toward Palestinian women. Despite these criticisms, Bat Shalom was able to capitalize on its organizational base and financial strength to organize demonstrations and public fora dealing with such issues as Jewish settlements, the torture of Palestinian political prisoners and the closure and the annexation of Jerusalem. Bat Shalom’s leadership and core members include many feminists and the center regularly features discussions linking gender to other political issues. There has been a clear reluctance, however, to use the discourse of feminism to articulate the center’s mission statement and objectives. This reluctance to carry feminist banners helps reinforce the public’s view of feminism as a threat and forces women to embrace modes of political mobilization that do not challenge conventional gender roles.

The search for non-threatening slogans is evident in a number of women’s groups which have burst onto the Israeli political scene in the past two years. Groups such as Women and Mothers for Peace and Four Mothers have explicitly utilized the discourse of motherhood to challenge government policies against Palestinians and the occupation of southern Lebanon. Founded by women with no previous involvement in the women’s peace movement or in official Israeli politics, these groups have received prominent coverage in both Israeli and international media and a relatively warm reception from the Israeli public and many elected officials.

The February 1997 establishment of Four Mothers by four mothers from northern Israel whose sons are on active duty in Lebanon was motivated by a helicopter crash that killed 73 Israeli soldiers on their way to Lebanon. The movement, which currently has hundreds of active members across Israel and thousands of supporters worldwide, calls for a unilateral Israeli withdrawal from Lebanon. Its immediate goal has been to put the Lebanon issue back on the public agenda by impressing upon both the general public and political and military decision makers that Israeli citizens are paying an unconscionable price for the questionable security they receive from Israel’s self-proclaimed “security zone.” There is a consensus among Israeli analysts that Four Mothers deserves at least some of the credit for forcing Netanyahu’s hard-line government to consider a withdrawal from southern Lebanon.

Given the history and dynamics of women’s political mobilization in Israel, these women are well aware that if they are to challenge successfully the Israeli national consensus on Lebanon, they must do so by embracing their traditionally praised roles as mothers of their own sons and their morally authoritative status as mothers of the nation. [7]

The examples of women’s political organizing discussed here and the backlash atmosphere within which they have operated demonstrate the hollow myth of gender equality in Israel. The result of successful Zionist propaganda both at home and abroad, this myth has been constructed and largely sustained by an Orientalist contrasting of Israel’s “civilized” culture with its “backward” Arab neighbors. The juxtaposition of the supposedly liberated Western Israeli woman with the stereotypically veiled and oppressed Arab woman has diverted attention from the structural inequalities confronting Israeli women, and the striking similarities between them and women in other parts of the Middle East.

As long as the myth of gender equality prevails, masking not only gender inequalities but innumerable other discriminatory practices on the basis of race, ethnicity, class and sexual preference, it will be difficult for women peace activists to link their struggle for gender equality to that of a just solution to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. To challenge this myth requires a critical examination of the Zionist project from the perspectives of both its Palestinian and Jewish victims. Progressive struggles for social and political change in Israel/Palestine should begin with an articulation of a new vision of society and politics based on the principle of equality and justice for all.


[1] The bimonthly Tikkun devoted two issues (March-April and May-June 1998) to the topic of “Israel at Fifty” The Nation designated its May 4, 1998 issue for coverage of Israel’s fiftieth anniversary celebrations.
[2] Because it is designed to challenge the myth of gender equality in Israel, this article deals exclusively with the political mobilization of Jewish women who are portrayed as liberated and Westernized. It is important to note, however, that Palestinian women who hold Israeli citizenship have been involved in the women’s peace movement.
[3] Marcia Freedman, Exile in the Promised Land: A Memoir (New York: Firebrand Books, 1990), p. 108.
[4] Yael Yishai, Between the Flag and the Banner: Women in Israeli Politics (Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 1997), p. 232.
[5] Quoted in Simona Sharoni, Gender and the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict: The Politics of Women’s Resistance (Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 1995), p. 105.
[6] For more on these groups, see Sharoni, op cit, pp. 106-109; and “Motherhood and the Politics of Women’s Resistance: Israeli Women Organizing for Peace” in Alexis Jetter et al, eds., The Politics of Motherhood: Activist Voices from Left to Right (Hanover, NH: New England University Press, 1997), pp. 144-160.
[7] The comparison to the four biblical mothers, and especially to Sarah, has been a common theme in the movement’s political campaign.

How to cite this article:

Simona Sharoni "The Myth of Gender Equality and the Limits of Women’s Political Dissent in Israel," Middle East Report 207 (Summer 1998).

For 50 years, MERIP has published critical analysis of Middle Eastern politics, history, and social justice not available in other publications. Our articles have debunked pernicious myths, exposed the human costs of war and conflict, and highlighted the suppression of basic human rights. After many years behind a paywall, our content is now open-access and free to anyone, anywhere in the world. Your donation ensures that MERIP can continue to remain an invaluable resource for everyone.


Pin It on Pinterest

Share This