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Nashim: A Journal of Jewish Women's Studies & Gender Issues 7 (2004) 128-150

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"Not a Suffragist"?

Rachel Yanait Ben-Zvi on Women and Gender

Dedicated to the memory of my mother, Shoshana Kleiner, a pioneer in Palestine/Israel (1902-2003)


The Rachel Yanait Ben-Zvi Project

Rachel Yanait Ben-Zvi was a leading woman activist in the Yishuv (the pre-state Jewish community of Palestine/Eretz Israel) and in the early years of the State of Israel. As she said of herself, her biography parallels and reflects a critical period in the modern history of the Jewish people.2 Her life story illustrates the shaping of the ideology of Labor Zionism and its realization in the formation of the "New Yishuv," its character, and its accomplishments. A prolific writer, she authored ten books, participated in the editing of six more, and published over five hundred articles and short responses.

This paper is based partly on a series of unpublished interviews with Yanait, conducted on an almost weekly basis between June 1977 and October 1979 at her home in Jerusalem. The interviews were done in three rounds. In the first, she spoke freely on topics and periods of her choice. In the second, she gave a chronological account of her life story, from her early childhood in the Jewish Pale of Settlement in the Ukraine, through her career in the first half of the twentieth century as a leading figure and prominent educator in the Yishuv, and up to and past her years as Israel's First Lady, when her life partner, Itzhak Ben-Zvi, was President. In the third round of interviews, I asked her to focus and elaborate on topics, events, and persons relevant to my research on the Yishuv.3 [End Page 128]

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Figure 1
Golda Lishanski (Rachel Yanait Ben-Zvi), Vilna 1907. (Yad Ben-Zvi Photo Archive)

In preparation for the interviews, I reviewed Rachel Yanait's books, articles, and notes and waded through some public and private archives. I am aware of the weaknesses and vulnerabilities (but also the strengths) of the oral history methodology and of the use of life stories, autobiographies, or memoirs that were written or recounted many years after the events. To offset this, I have made an effort to locate relevant archival and published contemporary primary sources, some of which go back to the end of the nineteenth century.4 [End Page 129]

Commenting on historical-historiographic issues in the study of women, Deborah Bernstein noted the paucity of contemporary primary sources at our disposal when writing on marginal groups that did not participate actively in the public sphere, particularly if their members were not in the habit of writing.5 A recent study by Tamar Hess reveals, however, that this is not the case with pioneer women of the Second Aliyah period (the second wave of Zionist-oriented immigration to Palestine, 1904-1914), who left a rich variety of autobiographies, memoirs, letters, and diaries. 10% of these women (over 20 out of the "hard core" of 200)—not all of whom were political or social activists like Rachel Yanait Ben-Zvi or Deborah Dayan—told their life stories.6

In her study of women workers between the two World Wars, Bat-Sheva Margalit-Stern used the rich autobiographies of both ordinary women and leaders, including written and oral memoirs. She cites several collections published during the Mandate period; edited by Ada Fishman (Maimon), Rachel Katzenelson-Shazar, Lilya Basevitz and Yocheved Bat-Rachel, they document over 150 women. Margalit-Stern identified some gendered characteristics in these sources. They reflected everyday life, and they focused on the influence upon the writers' lives of interpersonal relationships in the ideological, work, and romantic spheres. This focus, and the women's undervalued self-perceptions, resulted in the marginalization of women's historical experience, which was ignored in canonical historical research.7

Rachel Yanait may be counted within the small, select group of women who played an active political...


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