Having laid the general ground for our subject, let us now begin to explore some of the specific ramifications in terms of the new movement that would start to develop in these years: the movement of Zionism. Religious Aliyah had been developing in greater numbers throughout the nineteenth century, due largely to strong messianic trends in the traditional Eastern European Jewish communities. It seems safe to say that many of the women who came to Palestine in these years must have experienced some change in their lifestyles. The very move to new locations more often than not has some effect in loosening the ideational structure that surrounds people in one location and opening them up to different questions and thus to different possibilities. As new currents began to move through the circles of the non-Chassidim (Prushim as they came to be called) in Eretz Yisrael in the late nineteenth century, there is no question that some women were affected. Some traditional Jews began to experiment with new ideas such as farming. This represents a severe shaking up of conventional horizons even within the traditional framework. Such new moods and ideas must have penetrated in some ways to the world of some of the women whose husbands made the transition to new ideas and lifestyles.

A. Women In the First Aliyah.

With the First Aliyah of the 1880’s and 90’s, those changes become more pronounced. The vast majority of the First Aliyah pioneers were, and remained, religious, but these were Jews who were already beginning to move within a new orbit of ideas. Many had started to be exposed, directly or indirectly, to the world of European ideas, and many were gripped by new national ideologies that opened them up to radical new possibilities in their own lives. Those who pioneered the new directions and decided to bring their families toEretz Yisrael were almost exclusively the men. The First Aliyah was almost entirely an Aliyah of families, and the decision-makers were usually the husbands. Nevertheless, once again, the world of women would be shaken up and horizons would be opened.

It is relatively easy to determine the change in lifestyle of the women of the First Aliyah, since it is easy to see where the families went and what they did. Many found their way to the land, spending at least some years in farming settlements. This would have meant a radical change in lifestyle for women who had been brought up in the urban or semi-urban reality of Eastern Europe.

It is far more difficult to evaluate the changes in outlook on the part of these women. The vast majority of literature that we have from the period is from men, and this allows no real glimpse into the minds of the women of the families. However, here and there, we have memoirs or stories written by women, which, of course, give an invaluable glimpse into their lives. We discover from some of the memoirs and stories that new aspirations were indeed stirring many of the women, even if they were still seen by most men as filling the traditional passive role of the Jewish wife and mother.

The stories of women such as Hemdah Ben Yehuda (the wife of Eliezer Ben Yehuda, one of the few secularists who came with the First Aliyah) and Nehamah Pukhachewsky, clearly demonstrate that some women were becoming increasingly aware of the narrowness of the role that traditional Jewish life had assigned them and were interested in breaking away from it. Nevertheless, the difficulties that lay in the path of even the more emancipated women are made equally clear from these writings. Pukhachewsky’s writings, which begin from a critique of the women’s role in the exotic but extremely conservative Yemenite community that develops in Palestine in those years, graduate to a damning critique of the men in her own Ashkenazi society, who subject their women to scorn and ridicule whenever the latter try to assert their independence.

It is worth mentioning in this context that there were women who were born into the families of the FirstAliyah, such as Sarah Aaronsohn who do strike out their own independent path. Among them, without question, many were influenced by a more radical reality – that of the Second Aliyah.


The Birth of Radicalism – The Second and Third Aliyot.

We now turn to look in detail at the period of the two radical Aliyot that developed in the years prior to and succeeding W.W.I.

The reason that any examination of the position of women in modern Israel should focus on this period is that the model of the new Jewish woman in the country was primarily constructed during this era. In addition, the myth of the equality of women developed on the basis of images that emerged in this period. Let us look, then at what was meant to happen in these years and, together with that, at what actually happened.

During the Second Aliyah, (1904-14) the real changes begin to form. It was primarily an Aliyah of young people, mostly single, who had been influenced by the socialist and radical movements in Russia and Poland. In the last part of the 19th century, the growth of radical, socialist and revolutionary movements in the Russian Empire (the largest Jewish centre in the world at the time) exerted a great influence on Jewish youth.

In the revolutionary movements, different kinds of relationships started to develop.

  • Ideas of equality, comradeship, and the eradication of the old traditional roles that separated men and women in the outside society no less than in the Jewish one, began to take hold.
  • Ideas of emancipation from traditional frameworks and from traditional mores and perspectives spread like wildfire among many of the liberally inclined educated youth of Russian, including the Jews. People who were drawn into the revolutionary movements, Jewish and non-Jewish, began to internalise different models of male/female interaction.

This was also true of those who joined the socialistic sections of the Zionist movements and began to find their practical expression in the Second Aliyah.

The majority of the Olim of the Second Aliyah were young men: perhaps only one in ten of the Olim was a woman. Many of the women were strong and extremely impressive characters such as Mania Shochat andRahel Yanait Ben-Zvi. These were not women who had any intention of seeing themselves in any subordinate role to men.

These women arrived with the expectation that in addition to sharing in the realisation of their Zionist ideals, they would be accepted as full and equal comrades by their male colleagues. What they encountered was very different. The majority of these young pioneers (chalutzim) sought work on the land, but finding work in the settlements of the First Aliyah was difficult for all chalutzim. They were resented by most of the religious First Aliyah settlers for their radicalism and their secularism, while farmers preferred to rely on cheaper Arab labour. Slowly, the persistent chalutzim began to gain acceptance with at least some of the farmers, but for the women among the pioneers, the task was far harder. The conservative farmers of the First Aliyah did not know how to relate to these radical independent women (in trousers!) and saw them as extremely threatening.

The salvation of the women (and, to a large extent of the men as well, if for different reasons), came with the beginning of the establishment of independent or semi-independent workers’ farms in the north of the country, a few years into the Aliyah. Many chalutzim came to these farms, determined to throw off the humiliations of the bitter experiences with the First Aliyah farmers. They felt that here, on their own farms, they could start properly to live the life that they had planned in their ideals and dreams. The women came with the same ideas. Here, at last, they would be properly accepted by their comrades as equals. It was for this that they had waited and planned. It was here, in these communes and kvutzot, that the new Jewish woman, free, emancipated and equal, would finally come of age. That was the theory.

Once again, the women were to be disappointed. Almost all of the women in these early settlements found themselves considered very much as second-class citizens. On the whole, they were not formally accepted as members, but rather had the status of day-labourers. Their opinions were not usually sought out, nor were they welcomed when given. But perhaps most humiliating, in the opinion of many of the women: their male comrades relegated them to the services – feeding, cleaning and laundering – rather than the productive life in the fields for which they longed.

In order to understand this development, we must first understand that the Second and Third (post W.W.I)Aliyot, tended to measure people’s worth by their contribution to the wider society in productive terms. They had come to the country to plant and to grow and they saw their essential contributions in these terms. Women, no less than men, had internalised these values. The productive individual rooted in the Land and working on the land -- brave, strong and determined to contribute to country and nation--was the ideal of these Aliyot. The mythic “New Jew” of these Aliyot was the ideal.

Unfortunately, as has been increasingly realised in recent years, the “New Jew” was basically a male Jew. The strong productive Jew, conquering his environment and his land, was an ideal based on heroic male self-images. There was little place for a woman inside these myths and ideals. When the woman came to the new independent workers’ settlements, expecting to be granted the fruits of equality, she found, all too often, that the emphasis on physical strength as a key to productive work in the fields played to the strengths of the men and to the detriment of the women. The importance of economic success in proving the viability of these independent workers’ farms meant that women, perceived - usually correctly - as lacking the physical ability to equal their male comrades in the hard field work, were relegated to the services, of far lower status than productive field work. Here and there, in individual settlements, women won the right to go out to the fields, but this was done without the commensurate male willingness to go into the services, still seen as women’s work.

The situation was further complicated when children began to be born in these early settlements. Those few women who had gained the right (usually through struggle) to work in the productive branches felt threatened that the need to look after their children would act against them and cause them to lose the fruits of their struggle. Some would take their children with them, into the fields and the dairy barns, rather than lose their hard-won position.

This whole situation was clearly untenable. Many of the women in the early workers’ settlements felt frustrated by the gap between their expectations and the harsh and unrewarding reality that they encountered on a daily basis. This was the primary motive behind the establishment of the first women’s training farm for agricultural workers at the Kinneret farm in 1911.

The prime mover and shaker behind this particular enterprise was Hannah Meisel, who had arrived from Russia with an agricultural degree in hand. Realising the accumulated frustrations of the “non-productive” women workers of the Second Aliyah, she persuaded the Zionist powers to open a training farm, in which women would be trained to work in productive agricultural branches that would play to their strengths rather than their weaknesses. Over the six years that the farm existed in Kinneret, many women – including Rahel Bluwstein, who would become famous in later years as the poetess Rahel, were trained in agricultural branches such as livestock and dairy agriculture and vegetable growing. Groups of women graduated from the farm and set off to found their own collectives or to join with men in establishing mixed farms. This was unquestionably a major step in the right direction, but the war for equality of women had not yet been won.

The farm at Kinneret also became the focal point of women’s political organisations. Meetings held there helped define the agenda and sow the seeds for separate women’s frameworks that would do what the men had so patently failed to do. The men were beginning to wake up to the fact that there was a "women's problem" in the workers’ movement. It was up to the women to do something about it.

The arrival of the Third Aliyah in the immediate post-war years provided a major boost. Firstly, there were many more women. The Aliyah itself was much larger and some 36% of all the immigrants were women. Secondly, most arrived within the frameworks of youth movement garinim (settlement groups) that had undergone collective training in the Diaspora, and many of the women had been trained before their arrival in Eretz Yisrael. Thirdly, these movement-affiliated groups tended to be more radical than their predecessors of the Second Aliyah. Most of them came from post-revolutionary Russia and their horizons tended to be wider than those who had come from Tsarist Russia.

In this context, it is worth mentioning one woman who came at this time as part of the labour movement, but whose story had diverged just a little from the normal pattern. This was Golda Meir, as she came to be called, a woman who had left Russia as a young child and relocated in the United States. She now made the decision to come to Palestine.

However, despite these advantages, there were some major struggles between the younger women and their older counterparts of the Second Aliyah. Notwithstanding the radicalism of the younger women, they tended to have more trust in the men of their groups and parties and saw less use for exclusive women’s frameworks, believing in many cases that they interfered with the general work of the workers’ movements as pioneers of Zionism.

This highlighted a weakness that all attempts at women’s organisation would encounter in the pre-StateYishuv and in the State of Israel. There were always large struggles and important goals that had to be accomplished within the society as a whole. In such a reality, the attempts of the women to organise for their own rights, could be considered not only divisive; it could – and often was – regarded as petty. Why couldn’t the women perceive their role as joining the larger struggle rather than demanding “special treatment?” When these complaints were first voiced, there is no doubt that even many women who were aware of the specific problems that faced women felt bothered, and even embarrassed, by the accusation.

When the Histadrut was formed as the umbrella organisation of all the workers’ groups in 1920, women found themselves divided as to whether to enter the organisation as a separate sub-unit or to play their part in the existing mixed workers’ groups and parties. The initial decision was not to submit a separate women’s list but to be content with representation as part of other bodies. However, when it became clear that of the 87 delegates to the initial founding convention of the Histadrut only four were women, the initiative for separate women’s representation was revived and a Women’s Workers’ Council was set up in 1921.

These years, in retrospect, need to be seen as the highpoint of the Jewish women’s movement in Palestine. It is from these years that many of the pictures of women working on the roads or in the fields of the newly emerging kibbutzim originated and it is these pictures that helped develop the myth of the emancipated Jewish woman in Eretz Yisrael.

But, despite the myth of women’s equality that was fostered in subsequent years and the pictures of happy pioneer women behind ploughs, building the roads or sitting on piles of rocks, the reality that women encountered was a hard one. Over the last 20 years, many researchers have taken the veil off the rosy picture of equality that had been built up over the years. This is not the place to go into detail, but the research is clear and unequivocal. Neither in the more radical parts of the society, represented by thekibbutzim and the Labour movement in general, nor in any other part of the society as a whole, did women come anywhere near equality. According to every social and economic indicator, women in pre-state Palestine were anything but equal.

There were certainly important advances. The old model of the passive domestic Jewish woman situated within a patriarchal family was indeed changing under the impact of events. Many women, even from the more conservative parts of society, were beginning to develop more of a sense of self-worth and independence, and fought through to at least a subjective self-emancipation which was clearly important. Nevertheless, in terms of actual equality within society, despite occasional breakthroughs, the picture was not over-encouraging. In comparison with the desires of many of the early pioneer women of the second and third Aliyot, the results had been meagre and disappointing.



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27 Apr 2015 / 8 Iyar 5775 0