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Israeli Feminist Scholarship

Israeli Feminist Scholarship
Gender, Zionism, and Difference

More than a dozen scholars give voice to cutting-edge postcolonial trends (from ecofeminism to gender identity in family life) that question traditional approaches to Zionism while highlighting nationalism as the core issue of Israeli feminist scholarship today.

July 2014
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384 pages | 6 x 9 |

The last two decades have given rise to a proliferation of scholarship by Israeli feminists working in diverse fields, ranging from sociology to literature, anthropology, and history. As the Israeli feminist movement continually decentralizes and diversifies, it has become less Eurocentric and heterocentric, making way for pluralistic concerns. Collecting fifteen previously published essays that give voice to this diversity, Israeli Feminist Scholarship showcases articles on Ashkenazi, Mizrahi, Palestinian, and lesbian identities as well as on Israeli women’s roles as mothers, citizens and activists, and soldiers.

Citing evidence that these scholars have redefined their object of inquiry as an open site of contested and constructed identity, luminary Esther Fuchs traces the history of Israeli feminism. Among the essays are Jewish historian Margalit Shilo’s study of the New Hebrew Woman, sociologist Ronit Lentin’s analysis of gendered representations of the Holocaust in Israeli culture, peace activist Erella Shadmi on lesbianism as a nonissue in Israel, and cultural critic Nitza Berkovitch’s examination of womanhood as constructed in Israeli legal discourse.

Creating a space for a critical examination of the relationship between disparate yet analogous discourses within feminism and Zionism, this anthology reclaims the mobilizing, inclusive role of these multifaceted discourses beyond the postmodern paradigm.



Introduction. Israeli Feminist Scholarship: Gender, Zionism, and Difference

Esther Fuchs

Chapter One. The Evolution of Critical Paradigms in Israeli Feminist Scholarship: A Theoretical Model

Esther Fuchs

Chapter Two. Politicizing Masculinities: Shahada and Haganah

Sheila H. Katz

Chapter Three. The Double or Multiple Image of the New Hebrew Woman

Margalit Shilo

Chapter Four. The Heroism of Hannah Senesz: An Exercise in Creating Collective National Memory in the State of Israel

Judith T. Baumel

Chapter Five. The Feminisation of Stigma in the Relationship Between Israelis and Shoah Survivors

Ronit Lentin

Chapter Six. Gendering Military Service in the Israel Defense Forces

Dafna N. Izraeli

Chapter Seven. The Halachic Trap: Marriage and Family Life

Ruth Halperin-Kaddari

Chapter Eight. Motherhood as a National Mission: The Construction of Womanhood in the Legal Discourse in Israel

Nitza Berkovitch

Chapter Nine. No Home at Home: Women’s Fiction vs. Zionist Practice

Yaffah Berlovitz

Chapter Ten. Wasteland Revisited: An Ecofeminist Strategy

Hannah Naveh

Chapter Eleven. Tensions in Israeli Feminism: The Mizrahi

Ashkenazi Rift

Henriette Dahan-Kalev

Chapter Twelve. Scholarship, Identity, and Power: Mizrahi Women in Israel

Pnina Motzafi-Haller

Chapter Thirteen. Reexamining Femicide: Breaking the Silence and Crossing “Scientific” Borders

Nadera Shalhoub-Kevorkian

Chapter Fourteen. The Construction of Lesbianism as Nonissue in Israel

Erella Shadmi

Chapter Fifteen. From Gender to Genders: Feminists Read Women’s Locations in Israeli Society

Hanna Herzog





Born in Tel Aviv, Esther Fuchs is Professor of Hebrew Literature at the University of Arizona in Tucson. Her many previous books include Israeli Women’s Studies and Sexual Politics in the Biblical Narrative.


Introduction Israeli Feminist Scholarship

Gender, Zionism, and Difference

Esther Fuchs Zionism and feminism are discourses that share a complex relationship with European modernity. Along with Foucault (1984, 39) I understand “modernity” not as a distinct period, but rather as a “way of acting and behaving that at one and the same time marks a relation to belonging and presents itself as a task.” With roots in the eighteenth century, both movements were spurred by a consciousness of the discontinuity of time, a break with tradition, and a conviction of novelty. At the same time, both can be conceived as responses to European humanism, which excluded women and Jews (among other classed, racial, and colonial “others”) from the definition of “man” as the agent of history. In light of this exclusion, both claimed a new collective identity and subject position for Jews and women based on the promises of rationalism, individualism, liberty, and equality. Zionist and feminist manifestoes demanded that Jews and women reform themselves before deservedly laying claim to the “rights of man” (Hertzberg, 1970; Mendes-Flohr and Reinharz, 1980; Eisenstein, 1983; Tong, 1998). Both movements argued for social and political change that will make women and Jews more like the “man” of Enlightenment humanism. Both struggled to “gain a place in linear time as the time of project and history” (Kristeva, [1981] 1997, 201).

The nation-state that emerged in Europe in the eighteenth century, while embracing the Enlightenment ideals of liberty, fraternity, and equality, excluded the Jews, women, and colonized minorities from full participation in the new bastions of power: the military, government, and university. European nationalism was buttressed by imperialist and racist ideologies that rationalized colonization, imperial mapping, arbitrary borders, and the enslavement of blacks as commodities in a new international order. Imperialism and Orientalism—the perception of the Orient as inferior to the West—were interrelated with anti-Semitic and heterosexist ideologies (Arendt, [1951] 1968; Said, 1978; Spivak, 1987; Mosse, 1985; McClintock, 1995). Sexual and racial difference had to be reformed, transformed, and suppressed before these “minorities” could claim full citizenship in the modern nation-state. These exclusions were buttressed by anti-Semitic, racist, and antifeminist ideologies that argued that Jews, women, and blacks are essentially, inalterably “different”—that is, inferior to the Eurocentric “humanist” norm (Weininger, 1906; Gilman, 1985; Gilroy, 1994).

Early Zionists and suffragists sought to reform Jews and women in accordance with European Enlightenment. As modern movements feminism and Zionism were embedded in Eurocentric notions of humanism that included liberalism, capitalism, socialism, and colonialism. To the extent that both were mobilizing ideas, both struggled to claim totalizing representation of the political interests of their constituencies—(all) women and (all) Jews. Both Zionism and feminism were later identified as modalities of European modernisms by multicultural, postcolonial, and poststructuralist postmodernists in the last decades of the twentieth centuries. Both discourses seem to have lost their mobilizing appeal as global movements, and their essentialist uses have been replaced by analytic practices, notably within academic frameworks.

The analogies between feminism and Zionism must not overshadow the serious and obvious differences between them. This reader creates a space for a critical examination of the relationship between these disparate discourses. This reader is about the difference(s).


The Western suffragist discourse on the civil rights of women was reenergized and transformed in the 1930s by Virginia Woolf (1929, 1938) and in the 1950s by Simone de Beauvoir (1952). Both analyzed the lingering effects of male dominance after the official integration of women into the Western body politic. Woolf theorized the continued impact of patriarchy on women, and revalorized women’s difference, while de Beauvoir developed the concept of the “Other” and called for women to liberate themselves from the modern shackles of patriarchy. The Women’s liberation movement that emerged in the 1960s sought to implement the social and political implications of the Second Wave in feminism. The American Second Wave generated analyses of the oppression of middle-class American women (Friedan, 1962) and patriarchal knowledge systems that objectified “woman” and sexual difference (Millett, 1970). In the 1980s as feminism began to become institutionalized as an academic field (de Lauretis, 1986), it was questioned as a white, middle-class, Western idea (Moraga and Anzaldua, 1981; hooks, [1982] 1986; Spivak, 1987; Mohanty, Russo, and Torres, 1991). Western feminism was displaced by multicultural and postcolonial “feminisms” (Warhol and Herndl, 1997; Narayan and Harding, 2000).

The concept of gender as a criterion of analysis (Scott, 1988) was also subverted and destabilized as resting on a male/female, masculinity/femininity dualism that cannot account for the politics of sexual difference (Butler, 1990; Weedon, 1999). Poststructuralist analyses of gender and feminism raised the question of language as the inescapable mediation of the politics of sexual identity (Spivak, 1997).

The debates between identity politics and poststructuralist feminism (Nicholson, 1990), black and white, “first” world and “third” world feminists, brought to the fore the politics of difference within feminism. Inderpal Grewal and Caren Kaplan (1994, 1–36) proposed a theory of “scattered hegemonies” that will displace the hegemonic, homogenizing, and mystifying divisions of “Western” versus “non-Western” feminisms. Susan S. Friedman (1998) argued for a deconstruction of oppositional essentialisms, and for a feminist practice of border crossing and epistemological encounter. Chandra T. Mohanty (2006) argued for decolonizing feminism and demystifying capitalism through struggles of solidarity across borders in her reconfiguration of “feminism without borders.”

In Imperial Leather: Race, Gender, and Sexuality in the Colonial Contest Anne McClintock (1995, 352) states, “All nationalisms are gendered, all are invented and all are dangerous.” McClintock clarifies that as “imagined communities” (Anderson, [1983] 2006) nations are not simply phantasmagoria but rather systems of cultural representation whereby people come to imagine a shared experience of identification with an extended community. Nations are historical practices through which social difference is both invented and performed. “Nationalism becomes as a result, radically constitutive of people’s identities through social contests that are frequently violent and always gendered” (McClintock, 1995, 353). Despite rhetorical assertions regarding the nation-state’s investment in equality, no nation in the world gives the same access to rights and resources to women as to men. While subsumed symbolically into the body politic, women are excluded from direct action as national citizens. “Nationalism is thus constituted from the very beginning as a gendered discourse and cannot be understood without a theory of gender power” (McClintock, 1995, 355). In light of the fact that all nations are gendered, just as all feminisms are inevitably nationalized, Caren Kaplan and Inderpal Grewal (2006, 66–81) propose the term “transnational feminism” as an appropriate replacement for the contentious, totalizing, and homogenizing concepts of “global” or “international” feminism. “Transnational” as a term is useful only when it signals attention to uneven and dissimilar circuits of culture and capital. Through such critical recognition, the links among patriarchies, colonialisms, racisms, and feminisms become more apparent and available for critique or appropriation. The history of the term “international,” by contrast, is quite different. Internationalism as a concept is based on existing configurations of nation-states as discrete and sovereign entities (Kaplan and Grewal, 1999). The concept of transnational feminism marks critical practices that bring the economic and governmental into cultural criticism. Such practices enable the interrogation, subversion, and disruption of globalizing capital. Feminist scholarship that is relational rather than comparative helps us critique the material conditions that construct and put in motion the production of feminist knowledge.


The Zionist narrative has multiple points of textual origins, and its interpellation—or production of agencies and subjects—is doubled by pedagogic texts and historical practices (Bhabha, 1994). The idea of a secular national collective return to Zion, the Jewish homeland, was articulated by Moses Hess ([1862] 1945), who presented it as a necessary social and political step in the process of the normalization of the Jews and their inclusion in the family of nations. In response to the false emancipation of the Jews by the European nations, Leo Pinsker ([1882] 1935) advocated self-emancipation. Theodor Herzl ([1896] 1970) proposed an establishment of a Jewish state in collaboration with and under the auspices of established political powers, including the Ottoman regime and European governments. A nonpolitical cultural Jewish center in Zion was proposed by Ahad Ha'am ([1897] 1961), who interpreted Zionism as a humanistic and moral responsibility.

Cultural Zionism was reenergized in the 1920s and 1930s by H. N. Bialik, the poet laureate who engaged in a massive modernization and recirculation of Hebrew classic sources (Schweid, 1971). The philosopher Martin Buber rethought Zionism as a theory of humanistic ethical Hebraism modeled on biblical prophetic traditions. In the early years of the state, after the establishment of Israel in 1948, Zionism emerged as the object of historical reconstruction and contested political interpretations. The triumphs and failures of Zionism were ironically represented by the novelist S. Y. Agnon, who won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1967 (Fuchs, 1985). In the 1960s and 1970s, Zionism became the object of academic analysis. The scholar Gershom Scholem (1971) insisted on scientific distance even as he read Zionism as a modern modality of Jewish mystical traditions of paradoxical redemption, rather than as a secular revolution in traditional Judaism (Kurzweil, 1971).

In the 1980s a “new” or “revisionist” historiography emerged that questioned Zionism as a nationalist ideology. The terminology of hegemonic Zionist histories was questioned. Thus, the terms “aliyah”—immigration—or “yishuv—settlement—were questioned as nonobjective and nonscientific substitutes for settler–colonial activities during the pre-state foundational period of Israeli nation building (Kimmerling, 1983). The Labor Zionist terminology of “redemption of the land” and “redemption of labor” were critically re-examined as nationalist legitimizations of class warfare between an early capitalist model of colonization based on Arab labor, and a second socialist–collectivist model that excluded Arab labor (Shafir, 1989). New histories were written of the War of 1948 that questioned its representation as the “war of liberation” (Silberstein, 1991; Rogan and Shlaim, 2001). The fate of Arab Palestinians who fled as a result of the war and became refugees beyond the unstable borders of the new state was revisited as the tragic result of both Arab and Israeli policies (Morris, 1987, 1999). The status of Arabs who remained in Israel as a national minority was critically examined (Lustick, 1980). Drawing on Edward Said’s Orientalism (1978), Ella Shohat (1989) questioned the exclusion of Mizrahi Jews from Eurocentric representations of Zionist identity. In the 1990s new cultural critiques of Zionist meta-narratives appeared, targeting militarization and heroism (Zerubavel, 1995; Kimmerling, 2001), Zionist rejections of traditional European Diaspora culture (Boyarin, 1997), Israeli interpretations of the Holocaust (Porat, 1990; Zertal, 1998), the idealization of the Sabra (Oz, 2000), ideals of the body (Weiss, 2002), and heterosexual norms of masculinity (Raz, 2004). The politics of literary canonization was critically reexamined, notably previous exclusions of women, Mizrahi, and Arab writers (Fuchs, 1987; Gover, 1994; Berg, 1996; Hever, 2002; Gluzman, 2003; Brenner, 2003). This critical discourse was defined as “post-Zionist,” and extensively reviewed and widely debated (Silberstein, 1999, 2008).

Post-Zionism was bitterly attacked as a symptom of cultural decline and disorientation (Schweid, 1996; Hazony, 2000). Some suggest that this new discourse betrays a confused desire to return to origins, to a pre-Zionist situation, a time when the Land of Israel was still only a Promised Land (Attias and Benbassa, 2003). The post-Zionist dream of pure origins resembles in this regard the purist doctrine of the extreme right wing seeking a return to the biblical land. The Post-Zionist demand that the historian identify with the position of the victim and the vanquished rests on a reductive ethics of purity that refuses to admit the history of the last two centuries, in which the land was “dirtied” by the strife and tribulations of two people over it. In this sense the “imagined community” of Post-Zionism is no more realistic than the “dreams” and “designs” of the early Zionist settler–colonists (Troen, 2003).

Uri Ram (2008) contextualizes Post-Zionism within a broader framework of what he defines as the “globalization of Israel.” According to Ram, Post-Zionism is the preferred ideology of Israeli libertarian, coastal, middle-class citizens over against the collectivist, neo-Zionist ethos of the Jewish settlers in the territories of biblical Israel, and their many supporters in the religious and right-wing parties. Ram sees Post-Zionism and neo-Zionism as two opposing identity paradigms emerging from the classic schism in previous generations between civic and ethnic Zionism. “Neo-Zionism accentuates the messianic and particularistic dimensions of Zionism, whereas post-Zionism accentuates the normalizing and universalistic dimensions of it” (Ram, 2008, 233).


The postcolonial deconstruction of Zionism and the postmodern deconstruction of feminism suggest that as distinct modernist narratives both have reached a point of completion (Feldman, 1999; Shohat, 2006). Both Zionism and feminism have been transformed by difference (McClintock, 1997). Gender difference is an effect of relations of knowledge and power (Foucault, 1980) and the cultural production of subjectivities and bodies (Butler, 1990). “The effect of poststructuralist theory is to see difference as material, as produced, but as ungrounded in any fixed nature” (Weedon, 1999, 24). Difference cannot be thought outside of situated, located, and politically positioned narratives of identity that construct the subject through a process of identification (Hall and du Gay, 1996, 1– 17). Cultural identity, or what Homi Bhabha (1990, 1994) refers to as the “nation,” is mediated through such discourses of identity or narrations that are nevertheless doubled. Post-Zionist counter-narratives of the nation disturb the ideological or essentialist identities constructed through pedagogic discourses of cultural identity. To use Derrida’s deconstructive terminology, the condition of Zionism’s possibility, is at the same time its condition of impossibility (Thomassen, 2006, 6).

This reader opens up an interval or spacing between gender and Zionism in which both discourses intersect through various articulations and performances of difference. With Derrida, I understand “difference” here as a historicized space where women and nation intersect (Kaplan, Alarcon, and Moallem, 1999, 1–16). Each essay focuses on the problem of difference differently, and all of them refuse essentialist definitions of the difference they examine.

In “The Evolution of Critical Paradigms in Israeli Feminist Scholarship: A Theoretical Model,” I call attention to different discourses of Israeli feminism. My argument is that contemporary Israeli feminism evolved through three phases: the liberal phase of the 1980s, the radical phase of the 1990s, and the postmodern phase since the turn of the millennium. All three phases overlap, each continues to be influential in academic and activist contexts, and all are linked by a commitment to critical thinking. By deconstructing first the state, then the nation, and finally Israeli feminism itself, Israeli feminists have continuously deepened their commitment to a transformative politics of knowledge. In the 1980s the liberal critique was focused on exposing the myth of gender equality in Israeli society by drawing on empiricist and positivist social scientific data. The implicit solution seemed to lie in increasing women’s access to male-dominated privilege through incremental inclusion. A top-down model of legislation, governmental and parliamentary commissions, and greater inclusion in existing male-dominated leaderships was believed to hold the key to eliminating discrimination. The radical critique of the 1990s pursued two modalities: a reconstruction of women’s cultural and literary traditions and a reevaluation of nationalist ideologies as inscribed in Zionist historiography and ethnographic culture. Rather than greater inclusion and equality, radical feminism pursued an analysis of cultural politics and transformational revisions of literature, politics, law, and society as inevitably gendered apparatuses that reproduce the problem even as they apparently seek to eliminate it. The postmodern phase ushered in a redefinition of power as discourse, thus paving the way to critiques of feminist scholarship and processes of knowledge production. In addition it introduced the concept of difference as fundamental to all definitions of feminist collective identity, thus enabling a powerful critique of hegemonic articulations of totalizing feminist agendas. The cultural politics of differences between and among Israeli women was analyzed by Mizrahi, Palestinian, and lesbian theorists who highlighted the institutional and discursive silencing of marginal women. The foregrounding of discourse and difference turned the critical lens on Israeli feminist scholarship itself, opening out new fields of research and activist agendas. The essay ends by urging scholars to move from a definition of postmodernism as the sign of a depoliticized, late capitalist affirmation of the multiplication of difference along ever-widening axes of analysis, toward a critical redefinition of postmodernism as a form of anti-essentialist critical practice.

In “Politicizing Masculinities: Shahada and Haganah” Sheila H. Katz draws out parallel tropes in early Zionist and Palestinian nationalist discourses. She argues that the woman question in both nationalist discourses was keenly embedded in redefinitions of true modern masculinity. Sovereignty over one’s land and control of one’s destiny were framed as major themes in the politicization of masculine identity. The new political ideal, the nation, demanded the ultimate sacrifice from real men. In Palestinian nationalism this sacrifice was defined as “shahada,” or martyrdom, while in Jewish nationalism it was defined as “haganah,” or self-defense. Texts written almost entirely by Jewish and Arab men, both in-and outside Palestine, imagined the new collective communities as masculine. As leaders and propagandists, men defined problems and solutions in ways that linked nationhood to manhood. Zionism was configured as a transition from effeminate exilic passivity to self-assertion and independence. Both nationalisms defined themselves in relationship of rebellion or continuity with their fathers. Sacrificial heroism in both national discourses was naturalized as a condition for achieving security, freedom, and dignity.

In “The Double or Multiple Image of the New Hebrew Woman” Margalit Shilo proposes that the reinvention of the new Hebrew man in Zionism was inspired by a search for perfection modeled on the myth of biblical manhood, working the land and rooted in nature. The reinvented Hebrew man was entrusted with the preservation and promotion of land, language, and labor. The new Hebrew woman in the meantime was a default creation falling into three categories—the invisible woman, the traditional woman, and the new woman—each framed as a secondary, auxiliary, and complementary counterpart. The early settlements at the turn of the century did not live up to the professed commitment of Zionist ideologues to gender equality. For the most part, women of the first “aliya,” or wave of settlement, were the wives and mothers of farmers and agriculturalists, often excoriated for their passivity and bourgeois manners. Modernization and secularization as cherished Zionist ideals offered urban women few professional outlets, mostly as teachers in coeducational institutions. The liberated woman remained more an ideal than a reality even in the early military defense organizations and kibbutzim. In the 1920s, urban women’s organizations dedicated themselves to securing equal voting rights, while socialist, mostly single women had to insist on equal participation in public life. Defined in masculine terms, Zionism offered the female settlers the option of gender imitation or traditional marriage and reproduction. The conflicting options of revolution and traditionalism left many women frustrated in their struggle to support the Hebrew men’s national adventures, and to reinvent themselves in their new ancestral land. The heroines who emerged from the settlement period 1888–1948 were exceptions whose eventual fame hardly reflects the fate of most women who immigrated to Palestine during that period.

Judith T. Baumel’s “The Heroism of Hannah Senesz: An Exercise in Creating Collective National Memory in the State of Israel” subjects an icon of Zionist heroism to special scrutiny. Baumel studies the process of canonization that inscribed the memory of Hannah Senesz in the national historical interpretation of the Holocaust and Zionist resistance. Baumel traces the early biography of Senesz as a precocious idealist, who left Hungary on the eve of World War II to join a struggling kibbutz in Palestine under the British Mandate (1917–48). Contrary to national myth, Senesz was one of a larger group of Palmach (Jewish defense organization volunteers) who were recruited to participate in a British mission. Baumel points out flaws and excesses in the plan to rescue British pilots behind German lines, and questions as well the reckless sacrifice of the young parachutists whose mission was practically suicidal. Senesz was captured by the Hungarian Nazi authorities and executed after refusing to ask for a pardon. Baumel highlights a sub-narrative that is as widely circulated, namely, the futile attempts of Hannah’s mother to extricate her from her prison, and the anguish both mother and daughter suffered as a result of what the mother will later define as the failure of the Zionist leadership to respond to her pleas. Baumel deconstructs here the mythic polarization between Holocaust victimization and Zionist heroism by reframing the narrative as the story of a mother and a daughter, of individual courage, idealism, and determination. Determined not to let her daughter’s memory fade, Hannah’s mother, a survivor of a Nazi death march, immigrated to Israel and pressed her case against a Zionist functionary who was eventually indicted and prosecuted for negligence. Baumel notes that other posthumous processes, such as the publication of Hannah Senesz’s poems, the ideological controversy about her “true” kibbutz affiliation, and subsequent narrative and dramatic representations of her defiant loyalty to her mission canonized her memory, though other parachutists, both men and women, also perished on this mission. Hannah Senesz reemerged as the subject of historical contentions and academic debates about the policies of the Zionist leadership during the Holocaust of 1933–45.

Ronit Lentin’s “The Feminisation of Stigma in the Relationship Between Israelis and the Shoah” argues that Holocaust (Shoah) survivors who immigrated to Israel were defined by the normative, hegemonic Zionist discourse as outsiders in need of rescue and protection. As representatives of effeminate exilic Jewry, the survivors were stigmatized against the norm of Hebrew masculinity. Stigmatized as outsiders, the survivors were understood as strangers, and excluded from privileged discourses of national heroism (gevurah). The Shoah has become gendered as the quintessential representation of Jewish powerlessness, effeminate passivity, and victimization. Powerlessness thus became associated with the memory of the European destruction of Jews, while masculinity defined the very essence of Zionism. The sin of exile exacted a terrible price from the Jewish minority in Europe, and the Zionist leadership vowed to learn the only lesson taught by the catastrophic results of anti-Semitic violence—which was to affirm its commitment to sovereignty and military security. But while the memory of the Shoah was used as a moral justification for Zionist policies of self-defense and preemptive aggression against Palestinian “enemies,” Shoah survivors were constructed as strangers rather than “natives”—as neither insiders nor outsiders, as ambivalent models of a discarded gendered identity. Despite stigmatic representations of cowardice, indolence, and immorality by the Zionist leadership during the first decade of statehood, the historical record shows that Shoah survivors participated in military struggles and were as productive as others in the labor sector. Their story of double victimization has been repressed in the hegemonic national narrative.

Dafna Izraeli’s “Gendering Military Service in the Israel Defense Forces” argues that the military has been, contrary to expectation, a crucial site for producing and reproducing gendered regimes of power in Israeli society. The institution most frequently cited as proof of women’s national partnership in effect serves as a primary agent in the construction of their difference. Though women conscripts do perform crucial work in for the Israel Defense Forces, their contribution is perceived as secondary and expendable. One reason for this public perception is the traditional exclusion of women from combat and reserve duties. Though military conscription is compulsory for both sexes, women serve two years, compared to the men’s three years, and constitute a third of the military force. Thus women are perceived as not fully belonging, and make up the “rear” that requires the protection of an army run by men. The military–industrial sector is intertwined with the state’s economic, political, and social elites, and as a potential employer provides material benefits to men with full military training and experience. It also provides such men with symbolic capital or social resources on which to draw after their release from military duty. Women are usually excluded from decision-making processes regarding their own role and status, and even the highest-ranked women do not participate regularly in the meetings of the general staff. Even women instructors of combat, or women who perform vital intelligence work, and women commanders of male platoons are restricted by formal rules and informal gender norms. Token women in highly prestigious units double their efforts to perform masculinity by mimicking the style, tone, and conduct of male commanders. For the most part women serve by performing a variety of stereotypically feminine functions, such as nurturing, caring, and bringing a civilizing effect or a touch of home and family, and the promise of physical and sexual charm, as prize for male heroes. While women’s accomplishments are belittled so as to aggrandize male achievement, women’s presence and ability to perform similar jobs promotes male competitiveness and provides incentives for achievements. Despite a few legal victories that opened up doors to combat duties and prestigious military units, and despite formal equities, the essay predicts that this course of incremental action will not lead to radical change. Such change may be achieved through a shift to peaceful policies, the creation of a voluntary and professional service that will replace the compulsory draft, and a demilitarization of Israeli society and culture.

Ruth Halperin-Kaddari’s “The Halachic Trap: Marriage and Family Life” deals with restrictions and discriminatory practices embedded in Israel’s domestic law. As in other nation-states, private life is governed by religious law, which traditionally favors male interests. For the Jewish population in Israel the stricter Orthodox interpretation of Halachah usually applies to marriage and divorce issues, flanked with a competing civil jurisdiction dealing strictly with property issues during divorce. During marriage, extramarital affairs carry far harsher consequences for women than for men. Divorce cannot take place without the husband granting his wife a formal bill of divorce. This opens the door to monetary extortion by which “anchored” wives (agunot) are willing to give up economic benefits in exchange for their freedom. Despite prohibitions on minor marriage and bigamy, there are frequent concessions made in the Muslim community governed by Shari’a law. In light of restrictions on marriage eligibility, many couples circumvent the law by seeking civil marriages abroad, or in the Jewish secular majority, by opting for nonmarital cohabitation. Same-sex couples have also won significant legal victories in the 1990s, notably in the area of adoption and reproductive rights. In the last decade, legislation was passed recognizing single-parent families, the majority of which are led by divorced women, and according them basic benefits. Israel’s familistic and pro-natalist ethos promotes reproductive technologies and protects and regulates surrogacy, but the Halachic provisions of paternity undermine the mothers’ equal status even in this area. Non-Jewish women’s status is equally precarious, notably that of Muslim women due to lesser access to a civil court system, and to the patriarchal social and national ethos that favors a more conservative interpretation of Sharia law. Despite the formal legal prohibition of polygamy and unsupervised unilateral divorce by the husband, the laws are not enforced. Guardianship is granted to mothers only during early childhood and later reverts to the father. Efforts by Muslim women’s organizations to increase access to a civil court system are opposed by male leaders of the community.

Nitza Berkovitch’s “Motherhood as a National Mission: The Construction of Womanhood in the Legal Discourse in Israel” approaches state law as a Zionist script, a cultural mechanism that produces the meaning of the social category of women. Specifically, the essay focuses on two early foundational laws, which do not pertain to Palestinian women: the law mandating military service, and the law promoting maternity. Berkovitch argues that despite the egalitarian emphasis in Zionist ideology its policies incorporate and mobilize women into the nation-state not as individuals and citizens but as wives and mothers. Israeli society is shaped by two interlinked gendering forces-.the public ethos of military service, and the private ethos of familial traditionalism. While Israel as a state extends citizenship privileges to all its members, as a nation it privileges ethnic, primordial identity based in the family. It also privileges the family as the primary construction of womanhood, though secondarily, women as public agents are expected to serve the state as warriors as well. Berkovitch’s reading of the legal statutes and the parliamentary discussion of them uses Foucault’s definition of discourse as rhetoric that both reflects and produces subjects, agents, and identities. The 1949 Defense Service Law is scrutinized because it exempts married and pregnant women from the military draft. This exemption was not contested in parliamentary debates, which seemed to agree that high birth rates and demographic priorities should take precedence over the right and duty of soldiering. Thus, the law both includes and excludes women from full Israeli citizenship. Motherhood is thus constructed as the highest priority, duty, and privilege of Jewish Israeli girls. The privilege of military duty is extended to Jewish Israeli girls only if it does not compete with a more urgent national mission. Differential military regulations thus produce and reproduce gendered definitions of citizenship. The 1951 Equal Rights Law, though it did moderate the discriminatory edge of prior Ottoman, Muslim, and traditional Jewish law, extended gender equality to one particular social category of women who earned their rights for having fulfilled their family duties, namely, wives and mothers. A review of litigation cases reveals that women reproduced their wifely and maternal roles in cases they brought before the court, thus participating as active agents in redefining and improving though not eroding the basic social categories that defined their national mission in the first place. The essay does not deny state law’s commitment to the ideal of gender equality, but suggests rather that this commitment is ambivalent and contingent.

In “No Home at Home: Women’s Fiction vs. Zionist Practice” Yaffah Berlovitz identifies a women’s literary tradition of protest and resistance to mainstream male-dominated representations of the nascent nation. Berlovitz highlights three types of narrative with roots in pre-state Hebrew literature: a collectivist story that complements the dominant male-Zionist narrative, a national–personal genre that provides a model of female heroism missing from the mainstream male tradition, and a feminine–critical genre spanning several generations of Hebrew literary production. The critical authors of this genre foreground the alienation and marginality of women and their futile struggles to participate meaningfully in the national enterprise. Using the metaphor of a house that fails to become a home, women authors criticized the hegemony of the masculine interpretation of nationalism by representing self-destructive female characters, or romantic narratives about love affairs between Jewish heroines and Arab men. Berlovitz argues that male-authored novels about similar relationships reveal a high level of anxiety and competitiveness with the Arab male lover over a woman who is presented as a prized object. Women novelists, on the other hand, use the love plot as an indirect critique of patriarchy and the nation. They idealize the Arab lover by attributing to him characteristics that their Israeli Jewish counterparts sorely lack: a refreshing innocence, idealism, an appreciation for beauty, and above all the ability to love a woman. Berlovitz suggests that the romanticized representation of the Arab character functions as a critique of the Israeli–Zionist man and his arrogation to himself of the authority of shaping and representing the nation. The feminist critique traced here suggests that a greater participation of women in state policies would have subverted the segregationist ethos between Jews and Arabs. The love plot and its doomed denouement carries with it a critique of separatist national policies, and opens up possibilities for border crossings between dichotomized gendered and ethnic identities. The authors often use the heroines’ voice as explicit critiques of nationalistic and misogynous attitudes.

In “Wasteland Revisited: An Ecofeminist Strategy” Hannah Naveh examines relationships between Zionist constructions of gender, geography, and economics. Her close reading of a Hebrew short story by a contemporary woman writer develops an ecofeminist approach to a much broader ideological text. Naveh notes that on the one hand, romantic representations of nomadic culture in Hebrew literature tend to focus on the desert as an image of freedom and link it to biblical myths of origins. On the other hand, mainstream representations tended to demonize the desert as a threatening space, an attitude that is common to Western discourses about the desert. The desert was imagined as requiring cultivation, rather than as a contact zone where hybrid transactions take place, including the ability to give up and let go of the capitalist impulse to striate and exploit the desert. The Western patriarchal ideology of domination is often embedded in a related ideology of mastery over nature and the environment. Naveh notes that women are suspect in the desert, yet women’s art and writing suggest that the desert often provided an occasion for shedding civilized restrictions of conventional femininity and going nomad or native. The dual process of loss as acquisition and the alliance of women and desert spaces are two major themes in the rereading of Savyon Liebrecht’s short story “Apples from the Desert.” The essay suggests that the heroine, Victoria, a submissive Sephardic wife and mother, is liberated by her trip to a desert kibbutz. The traditional Jerusalemite who sets out to reclaim her rebellious daughter reinvents herself through her contact with the desert kibbutz. The story is read as a progressively unfolding mutual dialogue between traditional and modern, urban and agricultural, civilized and desert cultures which reverses the roles of mother and daughter and redefines their relationship as a political alliance against conventionality and hierarchy.

“Tensions in Israeli Feminism: The Mizrahi Ashkenazi Rift” by Henriette Dahan-Kalev traces the historical development of a Mizrahi feminist consciousness. Drawing on black feminist theory she examines the historical manifestations of ethnic discrimination and marginalization within the Israeli feminist movement. As a national movement with roots in European culture, Zionist projects of modernization and development discriminated against Mizrahi immigrants from Middle Eastern countries, who were perceived as uncivilized and backward. Modernization policies rationalized economic exploitation, unequal educational opportunities, and exclusionary practices that produced Mizrahi Jews as second-class citizens. Despite the state’s commitment to ethnic equality in theory, as in other democracies, ethnic, national, class, and gender inequities emerged as systematic problems in Israeli society. Dahan-Kalev argues that the ethnic difference was reproduced in the feminist movement, despite the rhetoric of sisterhood and solidarity. Not only was the leadership dominated by Ashkenazi women, the priorities of the movement focused on career advancement and breaking gender barriers to elite positions for professional women. The dominant feminist agenda did not include the concerns of a majority of working-class women trapped in low-income, low-status, labor-intensive jobs with few prospects for breaking out of the cycle of poverty. Dahan-Kalev traces the evolution of the process that led to the analysis of the double oppression of Mizrahi women along gender and ethnic lines. She identifies a phase of self-empowerment in the early 1990s that led to the creation of a separatist Mizrahi feminist faction within the larger movement. The Mizrahi feminist agenda is committed to deconstructing the ethnic binary in general in addition to gendered power asymmetries. Thus, its rejection of a culture of elitism that caters to the interests of the few at the expense of the many is not merely an issue of cultural but of political difference.

Pnina Motzafi-Haller’s “Scholarship, Identity, and Power: Mizrahi Women in Israel” shifts the analysis to the politics of knowledge and provides a critical examination of scholarly representations of Mizrahi women. The goal here is to deconstruct the category of “Mizrahi women” as a predetermined, objectified, and essentialist topic constructed for the most part by arbitrary definitions of gender and country of origin. Drawing on black feminist and postcolonial theory, the essay identifies three hegemonic approaches to Mizrahi women as objects of academic study. The earliest paternalistic and Orientalist approach diagnoses modernizing mechanisms that will improve their parental and social skills. The second approach taken by feminist sociologists represents Mizrahi women as uneducated, lower-class laborers, advantaged only in comparison to Arab women laborers. These approaches silence the Mizrahi intellectual woman and render her invisible. The third approach, which recognizes the Mizrahi woman as a subject in her own right, emerges only in the mid-1990s, and is still unfolding. The coming to voice of Mizrahi feminist intellectuals is a process threatened by the negation of their difference, the denial of this collective identity and its distinctive material and symbolic claims. The double exclusion of the Mizrahi woman’s voice from cultural representation denies her the privileged identity of an “Israeli” subject position, though theoretically she is part of the national collective. This state of affairs was altered only in the late 1990s. Thus hegemonic academic representations reproduced the essentialist, predetermined definitions of Mizrahi women, rather than challenging them. Hegemonic “scientific” statistical data on the ethnic gap do not provide a theoretical or analytic explanation, as they fail to attend to the politics of knowledge, the ideological bias of scholarly construction. Feminist data fail to intersect gender with ethnic and class differences. Motzafi-Haller suggests that hegemonic feminism posited the privileged Ashkenazi male as the norm, while distancing itself from the allegedly uneducated and less-deserving women whose existence they erased on their path to equality with the norm. A future research agenda must posit the Mizrahi woman as the starting point of research. The research must follow a trajectory of identification from a minority perspective that is relational, considers other collective identities, and is always aware of the context of power. The goal is not to create more knowledge about Mizrahi women, but to displace current scholarly practices by focusing on the daily experiences of Mizrahi women so as to subvert the transparency of the male Ashkenazi subject.

Nadera Shalhoub-Kevorkian’s “Reexamining Femicide: Breaking the Silence and Crossing ‘Scientific’ Borders” focuses on a major concern for Palestinian feminism: honor killing. The essay redefines this cultural tradition as femicide, and demands that it be treated as both a crime and a human rights violation. The broadening of the concept allows border crossings between disciplines whose distinctiveness forestalls a full appreciation of the socioeconomic, political, and cultural interlocking systems of oppression that simultaneously threaten the victims’ lives. The essay contextualizes this particular form of femicide within a global context of legitimized male violence against women. Shalhoub-Kevorkian links the growing pervasiveness of femicide to the rise of nationalism in the Middle East, on the one hand, and to the gendered embrace of equality, subject to traditional propriety, on the other. On the one hand, Palestinian nationalism promotes women’s public resistance against political oppression, on the other hand it insists on adherence to Islamic definitions of female sexuality, which often enhance women’s subordination to patriarchal authority within the extended family and clan community. The essay argues that Palestinian women in the West Bank during the occupation were subject to both Israeli and Palestinian violence, and that gender and nation are interlinked differently within this particular local context. The linkage of femicide to codes of masculine honor locally and globally often leads to the exoneration of the male perpetrators of this hate crime. This exoneration is made possible by constructing knowledge regimes that legitimize male control of female sexuality. This control is rationalized as a form of male power because the very definition of one’s honor depends on the behavior of another. This behavior includes a long list of daily practices and may implicate women in a web of unwarranted accusations even when asserting their will in matters of marriage or betrothal. In an attempt to overturn the language of domination and control, the essay crosses “scientific” boundaries by focusing on firsthand reports of victims of the threat of femicide. Victims of rape and incest usually opt for silence, and when they reveal their traumatizing experiences they tend to use cultural metaphors that objectify them and prevent them from articulating their point of view and personal pain. Shalhoub-Kevorkian coins the term “voxicide” in considering the multiple regimes of silencing—colonial, sexist, national, and religious—which deprive the victim of consciousness and voice. This language must not be used by Western colonialists to condemn the totality of a cultural collective identity, but should rather inspire the enabling of cultural change and boundary crossings. Shalhoub-Kevorkian proposes to expand the definition of femicide in such a way as to criminalize the social collaboration with and legitimization of the process of intimidation, terrorization, and dehumanization leading up to the murder itself. She recommends a strategy defined as “dialoguing with the muted” and continuous discussion of femicide as part of a broader goal toward political and social liberation from tyranny, colonization, and national oppression.

Erella Shadmi’s “The Construction of Lesbianism as Nonissue in Israel” argues that the invisibility of lesbians in Israeli representations of women derives from the heterosexual definition of Zionism as a nexus between God, masculinity, family, and land. Within this national and religious context female sexuality is constructed as a depoliticized, auxiliary, and functional fact, while lesbianism is erased as a nonissue. This state of affairs drove lesbian feminists into silence and invisibility. In the early seventies, lesbians joined the feminist movement in the hope of finding a non-heterosexist space for political self-definition. While lesbian feminist activism was accepted, lesbian identity remained closeted until the 1990s. It was feared that the lesbian issue would detract from the feminist agenda through sensationalist misrepresentation. When the lesbian issue was articulated as a public issue, it was done within the discourse of civil and individual rights in the 1970s. Within this theoretically genderless yet still homocentric context of queer theory and praxis, the lesbian community had to forfeit its original feminist transformative and revolutionary vision. In the 1980s the feminist lesbian movement began to emerge into public discourse as a distinct group. Shadmi identifies three major points of empowerment and alliance that supported the lesbian– feminist movement: the peace movement that linked nationalism with gender analysis, the emergence of Mizrahi and Palestinian feminisms, and the political organizations for civil liberties and individual rights. On the other hand, lesbian feminism has been constrained. Ignored by mainstream public discourse as well as academic feminist publications, lesbianism as a political revision of heterosexuality and Zionism has been co-opted and neutralized. The original radical vision of the lesbian feminist movement may yet be reconstituted as part of an ongoing process of identity formation despite its current orientation and its alliance with other radical groups.

In her essay “From Gender to Genders: Feminists Read Women’s Locations in Israeli Society” Hanna Herzog notes that Israeli gender studies has evolved from a focus on woman as a unitary social category to a genders perspective that sees women in every class, race, ethnicity, and sexuality. The hierarchical relationships between Israeli women and the various forms of knowledge their positioning produces make it impossible to refer to a feminist politics of knowledge that applies to all women in Israel. Herzog argues that it is possible to channel the differences into alternative modes of sociopolitical diffused activities. Following Kuhn’s model of revolutions in paradigms of knowledge, Herzog proposes that a shift has occurred in Israeli sociology in the 1990s that has moved from “Israeli women” to “wo/men in Israel.” The earliest phase of social research was based on a model of modernity, which evaluated families on a continuum from traditional to modern. In this early phase that spanned the 1960s and the 1970s, women were defined as a sexual biological category. In the 1980s, the criterion of gender equality emerged as a social analytic lens. Social institutions including the military and the family began to be considered as aspects of a gendered regime that structured Israeli society in general and that reproduced itself. In the 1990s, revisions of historical accounts of the pre-state era highlighted the role of women as active partners in shaping national and social institutions despite prevalent discrimination. A new research agenda via the researcher’s reflexivity raised the issue of the privileged position of the feminist conducting social research. This shifted attention to the objects of inquiry—poor women and female victims of rape-.and reconfigured them as informants and shapers of feminist knowledge. The interest in the researcher’s social location as producer of knowledge created new feminist Mizrahi and Arab– Palestinian research agendas. The stratification of sexuality and queer theory enabled the emergence of a reexamination of masculinity, notably Mizrahi and Palestinian masculinities. In view of such multiplicities, is a shared feminist agenda for social change possible? This dilemma reveals that a feminist politics that represents all women in Israel is impossible. However, while a unified separatist feminist movement is no longer feasible, the understanding of feminist knowledge as a political force practiced diffusely by various subjects in various ways is possible.

In one of the most notorious anti-Zionist and anti.feminist books that has ever been published, Otto Weininger presents Jews in feminine terms, and women in Jewish terms (Weininger, [1905] 2005; Harrowitz and Hyams, 1995). The abstract universalizing Woman and the equally essentialist Jew Weininger posits do not deserve the rights, prerogatives, and privileges that Aryan men deserve. Zionism does not represent all Jews, just as feminism does not represent all women, but as intellectual traditions they are interested in investigating, examining, and promoting the interests of these collective identities (Laqueur, 1978; Shimoni, 1995; Sachar, 1996; Cott, 1987; Offen, 2000). Both traditions are interested in questions of autonomy, assertiveness, and power, yet both in their postmodern phases show critical self-awareness, and are keen to revise earlier overreaching generalizations on behalf of a universal Woman or universal Jew (Spivak, 1987; Mohanty, 2006; Scott, 2011; Kimmerling, 1983; Shafir and Peled, 2002; Shohat, 2006). In both cases difference emerges as a crucial challenge to earlier representations that favored the white, middle-class woman, or, in Zionism, the Ashkenazi man (Almog, 2000). Both Zionism and feminism have been forced to revisit, revise, and question assumptions and both reached a crisis of consciousness which has forced a critical reorientation. But much as Lyotard’s definition of “the Jews” as the outcasts, nomads, immigrants, blacks, and women is appealing, we cannot ignore the fact that each collective identity has a separate history, visions, and challenges. This reader asks questions on behalf of women who identify as Jews, Zionists, Israelis, women, or feminists to various degrees. The scholars hold both Zionism and feminism to account, revealing their promising, fraught, and tortuous relationships, and opening out new trajectories toward a long overdue dialogue between Israel studies and Women’s studies.




“An excellent volume. Many of us who teach Women and Judaism courses have longed for a good book that would serve to introduce students to the many concerns in Israeli feminist scholarship and life. This book fits the bill.”
Lynn Davidman, Robert M. Beren Distinguished Professor of Modern Jewish Studies and Professor of Sociology, University of Kansas