- Feminist Art Hitting the Shores of Israel:Three Case Studies in Impossible Times
The purpose of this article is to demonstrate the ways in which major themes in early feminist art in the United States were simultaneously explored in Israel. This will be demonstrated by a showcase of three local artists. While such artists were few and their work was considered negligible, they nonetheless produced a vast and complex body of feminist art in Israel during the 1970s. The reasons for the degrading attitude of the Israeli mainstream art world toward artists inspired by feminism will be addressed and explained in light of the unique cultural climate in Israel and its position toward feminism in general and toward the second wave feminist movement in particular.
Introduction: The Israeli Circumstances
In 1979 Israeli art critic Sara Britberg-Semel addressed the issue of local feminist art, which—unlike in the United States—was scarce in Israel.1 Not only did she dismiss the existence of such a category in Israel, but she asserted that there was not even a distinct category such as "women's art" to be found in Israel in the 1970s. She wrote that while there is art in Israel, and there are women artists, the combination of the two has no real meaning in the local context.2 In 1990, some ten years later, Israeli curator Ellen Ginton also attempted to explain the absence of feminist art in Israel during the 1970s. In a catalog for an exhibition on the subject of Israeli women artists in the 1970s and 1980s she wrote that painter RaffiLavie, a formative figure for a generation of outstanding women artists of the 1970s, who supported and encouraged many of them, was also the most influential figure behind the local consensus that "there is no such thing as women's art." Lavie believed that gender should have no meaningful effect on the artist's work—a belief that ruled Israeli artistic discourse on the subject up until the 1990s.3 Lavie and his circle—immersed in abstract, conceptual, minimalist, and pop art—actively discouraged anything such as women's art or indeed feminist art. [End Page 111]
Thus, Israeli artistic production deriving from feminist ideology was limited in presence and resonance during the 1970s, perceived by the local Israeli art scene as "anecdotal." This is undoubtedly due to key persons who were unfavorable to the movement and its aims. Nonetheless, the reasons for its lack of acceptance must not be understood solely in terms of the conditions of the local art scene, but rather seen within a wider cultural environment and various broader circumstances. Although it is beyond the scope of this article to present the development of the feminist movement in Israel as whole, one should bear in mind that the feminist movement, which flourished in the United States and Europe in the 1970s, was not easily transplanted into the young state of Israel (established in 1948). The unique conditions in Israel, including the pioneering collective institution of the kibbutz, which proclaimed equality between the sexes, and the dominant role of the army, to which women were also conscripted, created the impression, or rather the illusion, that women in Israel were already emancipated.4
Although in pre-statehood Israel late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century Zionism promoted the idea of gender equality in the spirit of European and US first wave feminism, it is now known that this was mostly rhetoric. In fact, centuries-old patterns of masculine dominance in economical, cultural, and political centers were maintained.
Today there is a consensus in Israeli gender and feminist research, based on extensive work done over the last fifteen years, that in spite of attempts to adopt principles benefiting the welfare of women, no actual first wave feminism ever became an integral part of Israel's social culture.5 Furthermore, the movement in Israel never gathered the momentum needed for it to develop into second wave feminism—radical, Marxist, psychoanalyst, or otherwise—as it did elsewhere in the world. Another likely reason for the relative lack of enthusiasm for first wave feminism, and later for second wave feminism in Israel, is that...