- Gender in Israel: New Studies on Gender in the Yishuv and the State
The 26 papers brought together in Gender in Israel comprise an audacious and successful effort to present a feminist analysis of Israeli society, past and present.1 Following the best critical tradition of feminist scholarship, this new collection contributes to deconstructing the still-dominant androcentric discourse on nation-building in the yishuv (Israel’s pre-state Jewish community) and in the State of Israel. That deconstruction ipso facto challenges the ways in which women are represented in our collective memory and recreated in our collective consciousness.
In the first part of this brief review, I wish to point to several of the factors contributing to the success of these two volumes. In the second part, based on some of their recurrent themes, I will suggest some directions for further research.
One of this collection’s outstanding features lies in its presentation of different and variegated women’s voices, including many that have not always been heard, thus establishing agency for women from different backgrounds and sectors. Thus, together with the thoughts and deeds of elite women, veteran Israeli women and successful career women, we learn about those of religious Zionist and ultra-Orthodox women; we gain new insights into the experiences of newcomers from Ethiopia; we hear the voices of women who lived on the margins of society in the yishuv, such as neglected daughters and their mothers, or mentally ill women; and we glimpse representations of female Shoah survivors in Israeli cinema. This inclusive feminist trend extends to research on men and manhood and on the clash between different forms of Israeli masculinities, be it in the political-legal sphere or in the artistic realm.
Gender in Israel is also successful in its address of what the Israeli academic canon still defines as “irrelevant issues”—i.e., feminist issues. Some of these relate to the private sphere, including, inter alia, the family, personal status, motherhood, women’s bodies and sexualities as sites of control and regulation, and women’s silenced voices. [End Page 192] Others relate to the public sphere, including the gendered Israeli welfare state; representations of women and identities in the media and in the arts; women’s struggles to play an active role in the country’s defense; and feminist worldviews based on Jewish sources. Issues relating to working and professional women—for example, in the fields of law, medicine and psychiatry—come in for some particularly innovative discussions. Of special interest in this context is the powerful light shed on the history and sociology of the medical profession in both the yishuv and the state, and on the women and men who succeeded in turning it into a flagship of social and scientific achievement in Israel.
Last but not least, these volumes bring together some highly qualified scholars from different disciplines—history, sociology, media studies, literature, law—and with different theoretical and methodological perspectives. With its innovative and provocative insights, this well written, well documented and theoretically up-to-date collection covers large portions of a complex reality and paints a captivating picture.
In the hope that future studies will achieve the high standards of this collection, I would like to point out two large issues that remain to be addressed: Mizraḥi women and their role and agency in the yishuv and Israeli society; and the relationship between feminism, civil society and institutionalized politics in Israel today.
A recurrent theme in the collection is civil society and the ways in which social actors, individually and through organizations, may refashion society according to women’s needs. To be sure, “civil society” is a contested concept, and there are those who refer to it as an empty envelope, to be filled with particular senses according to social and cultural contexts. In the present discussion, however, I shall use this term in the prevailing sense accorded to it by such thinkers and feminists as Alexis de Tocqueville...