Conference on Women in Israel

An organization calling itself the North American Coalition for Women in Israel has been established to deal with what it terms the grim reality of the lives of women in Israel. The founding national conference took place here last week and for two and a half days explored the personal, professional and religious status of Israeli women, according to Ellen Bob, editor of The Journal, the publication of the North Shore Jewish community in Salem, Mass., who will emigrate to Israel in 1981.

The declaration of principles adopted by the 200 women attending the conference stated that "we support the struggle for equality of Israeli women through our activism. We recognize that the preliminary basis of this activism is aliya, thereby sharing the responsibility of improving Israeli society."

The declaration called on the Knesset and government of Israel "to allow secular solutions for secular people and we demand full expression and legal recognition to all branches of Judaism. We call on the Orthodox rabbinate to increase their sensitivity to women’s issues and to direct steps towards redressing sexual equality."

CITES POWER OF RABBINATE

Lesley Hazelton, author of "Israeli Women: The Reality Behind the Myth," told the conference that despite Israel’s Declaration of independence’s guarantee of equality irrespective of religion, race or sex, Israeli women face many legal and social obstacles to achieving equal rights, Ms. Bob reported. Primary among these, Hazelton said, is the absolute power vested in the Orthodox rabbinate by the Knesset in all matters of personal law. If feminism is to be achieved, she said, "there must be a separation of synagogue and state….The real issue is the political establishment of Orthodox Judaism."

Shulamit Aloni, Civil Rights Party Knesset member, warned that the power of the rabbinate in areas of marriage and divorce mitigate against democracy. "What makes (Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi Shlomo) Goren’s interpretations any better than mine?" she asked the audience. "The only place for imposed unity in a democracy is in the army."

Tomar Avidar, Attache for Women’s Affairs of the Israeli Embassy, said that women’s issues were not among the top priorities of the government of Premier Menachem Begin. The 92 member Commission on the Status of Women appointed during the government of Premier Yitzhak Rabin examined all aspects of Israeli life. It presented 241 recommendations to the Knesset last year, Avidar noted. The Begin government, however, has yet to take action on a single one of them, she said.

This is but one indication of the widespread belief that women’s issues are secondary to "the better of the nation, " according to Yoella Harshefi, author of the recently published "Behind the Gunsights. "Women activists are often told that their criticism is ill-timed and could only hurt Israel’s public image, she stated.

Harshefi, who declines to call herself a feminist along with many of the other Israeli participants, disagrees. "To say there is a wrong time to criticize is a vote of non-confidence in Israel, "she said. "Israel must not put up with anything that opposes our rights as human beings.

According to Ms. Bob, other speakers at the conference noted that among the obstacles to equality and the growth of the Israeli women’s movement is traditionalism of Middle Eastern society, and the constant fear among women that their husbands, brothers and sons might be killed. The Declaration of Principles, in this regard, stated that "peace in the Middle East will contribute to sexual equality in Israel. Jewish and Arab women working together can and should have an impact on solving the conflict."

The Coalition for Women in Israel was founded to support the efforts of the Israeli women’s movement, to develop a support system for North American o lot (women immigrants to Israel), and to provide education about the status of women in Israel, Ms. Bob reported.

These goals will be effected through the establishment of liaison in Israel; the development of a resource center; the publication of a newsletter, and the creation of local chugei nashim (women’s groups).

The organization will be headquartered in New York and the organizers of the conference agreed to act as coordinators until elections could be held. The Israel Aliya Center and the North American. Aliya Movement have been asked for organizational assistance, Ms. Bob stated. The conference was organized by an ad hoc group of New York feminist Zionists headed by Donna Nevel, co-director of the University Services Department of the American Zionist Youth Foundation. The conference was held in cooperation with more than 20 North American Jewish organization and institutions.

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