NEW YORK (JTA) — American Jewish women have idealized Israeli women as feminist role models since the days of prestate Israel, when women were photographed plowing fields alongside men. Post-independence posters featured images of female soldiers fighting alongside men. A chain-smoking Golda Meir served as Israel’s prime minister nearly 50 years before a major American political party would even nominate the first woman for president.
It’s a persistent myth of female empowerment, but a myth all the same.
“Until recently there was a perception that Israel had real equality for women,” said Francine Klagsbrun, a New Yorker and author of the recently published biography “Lioness: Golda Meir and the Nation of Israel” (Schocken). “Women were in the army. Only later did we learn they often had servile positions and in the yishuv [prestate Israel] women were laughed at when they tried to build roads. It was not the equality women here believed they had.”
Israeli and American Jewish women have learned much from each other since Israel was born 70 years ago. There has been an intertwined mutual influence, say leaders in both countries. American 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 the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance, who splits her time between the Riverdale neighborhood in the Bronx and Jerusalem. “It’s more like a tandem walk than either group having more impact than the other.”
“We were seen as superwoman,” agreed Anat Hoffman, a Jerusalemite who is the director of Women of the Wall and the Israel Religious Action Center, which advocates for civil and religious rights. “But we suffer from the disparity of salaries and domestic violence” as American women.
“For too long, Israeli women were romanticized and objectified. How many times I heard the sentence ‘but I thought you guys were so strong!’ No, I’m much more like you than you can imagine,” she said. “Romanticizing has done neither of us a lot of good.”
Golda Meir had much to do with that romanticization. In 1948, the Kiev-born, Milwaukee-raised kibbutznik was the face of Israel during a barnstorming fundraising tour of the United States ahead of the inevitable war for independence. She went on to serve in a wide range of Jewish Agency and government roles before becoming prime minister in 1969, a position she held until 1974. 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,” Klagsbrun said.
Overall, American Jewish women have had greater impact on Israelis than the reverse, she said.
“Once the feminist movement became important in America, it very much influenced Israelis in forming their own,” Klagsbrun said.
Klagsbrun was one of three women and 11 men on a Jewish Theological Seminary commission that led the Conservative movement to decide in 1983 to ordain women as rabbis and cantors.
Yet there was resistance to American feminism among many Israelis. Writer and political activist Betty Friedan wrote in The New York Times in 1984, “On my first pilgrimage to Israel, in 1974, Golda Meir had refused even to meet with me. Hostile Israeli women leaders, like so many male Jewish leaders in the United States, considered ‘women’s lib’ a threat to the Jewish family.”
That resistance continues today, some say.
Elana Sztokman, a writer focused on gender issues and a rabbinical student in Israel’s Reform movement, was raised in Brooklyn and moved to Israel in 1993. She lives in Modiin and is involved with Women Wage Peace, a grassroots organization that brings together women from every sector of Israeli life — religious and secular, conservative and progressive, Arab and Jewish — to press for a settlement to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
“In my experience, Israelis aren’t really interested in influencing America or being influenced by America,” Sztokman said. “There is a resistance of native-born Israelis to impact by American-born women.” By way of example, she noted a distinct lack of interest by the Hebrew-language media in covering events spurred by American issues, like a March for Our Lives in Tel Aviv.
“There’s a common sentiment here that Americans come here, stay in expensive hotels and have a lot of money to spend without really understanding the nuances of Israeli life,” she said. “Israel is also preoccupied with its own issues,” like terrorism and security.
Nevertheless, “We the feminist movement, the social change movement, have learned a tremendous amount from American Jewish activists,” said Hamutal Gouri, a founding leader of Women Wage Peace. “Especially when Israel started building its civil society and social change movements, so much was influenced by theories and practices of Jewish American organizers.”
Women of the Wall, which advocates for women to pray as they wish at the Western Wall, embodies the influence and limits of largely American feminist ideas in Israel. Americans launched the group in 1988. They were in Israel for the First International Feminist Jewish Conference when Rivka Haut organized a group of 70 to pray together at the Kotel. Klagsbrun headed the procession while carrying a Torah scroll, making her the first woman in history to bring one to the Western Wall.
The prayer group meets at the start of each month at the Western Wall to pray and has met fierce resistance from the Orthodox rabbi who controls the site. Members have been arrested for trying to read from a Torah scroll.
But while a 2013 poll found that half of Israelis supported the aims of Women of the Wall, and many of its members and supporters are native Israelis, there has been no public outcry to hold the government accountable for agreements it has made with the group and broken.
Women of the Wall continues to be regarded as an American import.
“The issue of religious courts, of divorce, of agunot, still thousands of them here, that’s far more important than praying at the Kotel,” said Alice Shalvi, founding chair of the Israel Women’s Network. “I’m expressing the feeling of the vast majority of Israeli-born people.” Agunot are women who are unable to remarry because their estranged husbands refuse to grant them a religious divorce, or get.
There are areas in which Israeli women are ahead of their U.S. counterparts, interviewees said.
Israel has a higher percentage of women elected to its national legislature, the Knesset, than do America’s Senate or House of Representatives, according to a new report on the state of women’s issues in Israel. It was commissioned by Israel’s Dafna Fund and the New York-based National Council of Jewish Women and released in late March.
It has been two decades since Israel’s High Court granted a woman the right to become a combat pilot. Today over 90 percent of the Israeli military’s positions are open to enlisted women, including selected combat roles. All U.S. military combat positions opened up to women in 2015. A third of Israel’s military personnel are women, compared with about 14 percent in the U.S. armed forces.
“Israel’s Declaration of Independence mentions women, unlike ours,” said Kaufman, adding that Israelis are more adept at using the legal system to further women’s rights. In Israel there is universal paid maternity leave and women can also obtain safe, legal abortions, unlike growing swaths of America. And Israeli law requires at least one woman to be on each public company’s board of directors.
But in other ways, Americans take a lead.
Hoffman said there is a certain expectation of being treated fairly that American Jewish women have which Israelis do not.
“It was bred out of us as very young girls,” she said. “I’m so grateful for ecology, feminism, itemized bills. Americans have a sense of fairness from your Constitution or Bill of Rights. They expect some things that Israelis can’t even dream of.”
“There is a lot of cross-fertilization” between the two communities, said Nancy Kaufman, CEO of the National Council of Jewish Women. Her organization convened a symposium in Israel in March that brought together 260 Israeli and American women.
“We are constantly engaging with Israelis when they come to the U.S.,” she said, “and we would love to formalize an exchange program.”
Shalvi, a longtime Jewish educator, described how she was influenced by religious feminists in America. On her first visit to New York, in 1977, she met Judith Hauptman, a Talmud scholar and future rabbi, and Arlene Agus, who revived the ancient custom of celebrating Rosh Chodesh (the start of each month) as a women’s holiday. They told her about Ezrat Nashim, a group advocating for greater ritual roles for women, Shalvi told JTA. At the time she was principal of Jerusalem’s Pelech school for Orthodox girls, which from its founding included Talmud study. Yet she had never thought of women leading worship.
On her second visit to the U.S., in 1979, Shalvi was first called to the Torah. And burst into tears.
“I realized it was the first time I had seen a Torah scroll up close,” she said. “I was 53 years old and thought if I’d been a boy, I would have done this 40 years earlier. The unfairness and injustice of it struck me so.”
Since then there has been enormous growth in the number of women seriously engaged in Torah scholarship, from the plethora of post-high school seminary programs for girls in Israel to graduate programs in Talmud for women in the U.S., including at the Orthodox Yeshiva University, and in Israel at Bar-Ilan University.
Despite the cross-fertilization of ideas, a mystique about Israeli women still has a hold on American Jews, said Galit Peleg, Israel’s consul for public diplomacy in New York.
It has been revived by Wonder Woman herself. Since portraying the superhero in the 2017 film, Israeli actress Gal Gadot has since been nearly ubiquitous in American media, charming late night talk show hosts and audiences alike with her confidence and warm candor.
“She’s not a Woody Allen,” said Peleg, meaning a neurotic, weak, Diaspora-type Jew. “She’s the Israeli woman that kicks ass.”
Peleg recently spoke to a group of Americans at a pre-Passover event and mentioned, in passing, having served in Israel’s military. From that moment on, that’s all the American Jewish women wanted to hear about, she told JTA.
It seems that the Wonder Woman effect – the image of Israeli women as strong, confident, funny and warm – tenaciously clings to the way American Jewish women think of their Israeli sisters.
Yet there are challenges unique to Israeli women, say experts.
“The state of constant conflict and a divisive political landscape is a reality that especially marginalizes women’s voices,” according to the NCJW/Dafna Fund report. “Rising nationalism and religious fundamentalism that is increasingly part of the political atmosphere is further preventing the inclusion of women’s voices in public debate.”
There are also ways in which Israeli women are trying to bring their confidence to American Jews.
Take Supersonos. The organization was created in Israel three years ago by advertising executive Hana Rado to increase women’s visibility as speakers, on panels and at conferences, and on boards of directors. Supersonos has grown rapidly in Israel and in newer outposts in Berlin, London and New York, said Keren Kay, a co-founder. Three years ago it had 100 women in its network of professionals. Now it has over 2,000, said Kay, who lives in New York.
“We’re taking already-empowered women and putting them at influential junctions – conferences, media, seminars, board members and management,” she said. “The ‘men’s club’ is going out to drinks after work. We are trying to create the same network for women.”
But the culture gap has an impact: Supersonos holds networking events in New York. And though there have been powerful women working on the same issues in the American Jewish community for years, Kay was unaware of them.
“It’s a dialogue,” said Women Wage Peace’s Gouri. “I wish there was more of a dialogue and that there was more of an exchange. There is so much for us on both sides to learn. We need to come together in more meaningful ways to leverage our collective impact.”
NCJW’s Kaufman said: “We have a lot to learn from the Israelis and we have a lot to offer them in building civil society. There’s learning back and forth from both sides. We’re going to try to build this woman-to-woman relationship over the next 70 years.”