- Women in the State of Israel: The Early Years by Sharon Geva
Women in the State of Israel: The Early Years
Jerusalem: Magnes Press–The Hebrew University of Jerusalem, 2020. ix + 293 pp. Hebrew.
Sharon Geva is what the French call une intellectuelle engagée, an intellectual who considers it her duty as a historian to take part in the making of a better and more just society. She has the courage and the talent to do research and write and/or speak about such “unimportant” things as feminism and human rights. She does so while remaining faithful to her discipline, so that she greatly contributes to our understanding of the gendered social order, in the past, the present and the future.
Accordingly, and not surprisingly, her first book, To the Unknown Sister: Holocaust Heroines in Israeli Society, based on her doctoral thesis in history and published in Hebrew in 2010, illustrates roles played by Jewish women in the Shoah. It describes, through the prism of women’s narratives, the way Israel coped in the 1950s–60s with the female survivors who arrived in the country. In the same spirit, Geva initiated and managed a project in which her students, instead of taking a test, wrote entries for the Hebrew-language Wikipedia on about eighty women who had not been accorded sufficient presence in the construction of Jewish Israeli identity. As one might expect, she also runs a feminist blog,1 giving a name and a voice to some of the women silenced by official history; and she presents the stories of extraordinary women, too many of whom have been lost by time, in a weekly radio program aired by the Israel Broadcasting Authority
Like her humanist activism, her first book and the numerous important papers she has published in Hebrew and English during the last decade, Geva’s new book, Women in the State of Israel: The Early Years, published in Hebrew in 2020, reflects her feminist engagement. In this well written book, she exposes and deconstructs the gender order of the Jewish state during the 1950s and early 1960s by systematically scrutinizing women’s magazines and women’s sections in the leading Hebrew press. She also uses women’s memoirs and interviews, together with findings gleaned from the Israel State Archives, the Israel Defense Forces Archives and the Central Zionist Archives. From all these diligently and artfully combined sources, the [End Page 165] discourse about gender (in)equality in this early period emerges, together with the mechanisms that caused women to internalize and express the idea that their rights should be subordinated to state interests, thus becoming themselves complicit in entrenching gender boundaries.
The “early years” referred to by Geva are mostly “forgotten years” in the feminist research agenda, so that we know rather little about them. This is strange, for the “early years” are actually those in which the “equality bluff”2—the Israeli gender equality myth—was at its peak. Roland Barthes defines myths as taken-for-granted assumptions and “depoliticized speeches” that saturate everyday life and are spread in society, mainly via the media, everyday language, official documents, state practices and legislation. He claims that the (so well) concealed ideological and power-based nature of hegemonic myths makes them pivotal and effective in the legitimization of the social order.3 Viewed through this prism, the gender equality myths of Israel’s early years appear as a key component of the state’s pioneering socialist-Zionist founding ethos. They depict the Israeli-Jewish woman as having played an equal part in the Zionist project of creating the foundations of what became the State of Israel4 and as being present more than ever in the early years of statehood, epitomized by the figures of Israel’s ”female pioneers” and kibbutz women, its female soldiers and, of course, leading political figure Golda Meir.5 As Nitza Berkovitch suggests, “The leadership of the new state, presented themselves as following the route that they have started before the state was established, was aware of the ideological importance of the idea of sexual equality. It was not a mere commitment to the...