From "The Forward"
Applying the Lessons Of
Entrepreneurship To Social Action
Feminism Israel Style
Or How Israeli Women and Jewish Women Work Together
BY JUDITH LERNER
On October 16, 2001, an extraordinary woman, Virginia
Snitow, died in her home in Scarsdale. Virginia was a
respected and beloved member of the Westchester
community. An activist, a humanist, a civil libertarian
and former teacher, she touched many with her creativity
and intelligence and her concern for the rights of
I knew Virginia for many years as we both struggled
in Westchester for women's equality, for civil rights,
for an end to nuclear proliferation in a then burgeoning
peace movement. These concerns took her beyond our
shores to her second love, Israel. Her emphasis on women
in Israel looms large especially today with conflict,
violence and hatred obscuring the needs for equality,
humanity and peace in that troubled region.
In 1979 Virginia received a call for help from
Israeli women for funds to pay the rent on the only
shelter for abused women in Israel. "Jewish men don't
beat their wives" said the incredulous Snitow. She soon
learned how wrong she was. So, in true feminist style,
she gathered some friends around her kitchen table and
set in motion an organization that could meet the needs
of not only abused women, but troubled households,
inadequate health care and discriminatory practices
against minority women in Israel. The rent was paid and
a group called US/Israel Women to Women was born.
It was clear to Virginia and the four women she
corralled, that the need in Israel for support and
target grants for shelters for health care clinics, and
for a myriad of social services that the government
could not or did not provide, was something the Jewish
community in the United States could effectively
endorse. They saw it as a partnership of Israeli and
American women to meet those needs. The group based
their giving as well as their work on feminist
principles. These founders were all Hunter College
graduates, descendants of immigrant parents with a
strong social consciousness and adherents to progressive
causes. They found their niche.
Virginia led the way. Always an ardent feminist and a
believer in the ability of women to meet the needs of
community and help empower other women. That was her
"mantra'. What the State could not do, civil society
(women's group) would do! The newly established group,
WTW would not tell the Israeli women what to do, but
would raise the funds and provide whatever help was
appropriate so that they could be the decision makers.
Thus feminist theory Israel style emerged. The group
advocated for inclusion of women's studies in the male
dominated university administrations in Israel. But most
importantly its services were to be inclusive. Education
for the newcomers, many from Africa, were to be provided
for on an equal basis with the older Sabra generation.
The Arab community would not be ignored. A center for
the Jewish Arab Economic Development focused on helping
Israeli-Arab women acquire entrepreneurial skills for
small businesses. Always these target grants stressed
that the women must be empowered to act for themselves.
They were encouraged to go on for higher education and
to run for public office. Outreach to Arab women was a
What could be more timely? WTW recognized that these
Arab women faced discrimination in education as well as
in the workplace. They also had the burden of
traditional customs and religious constraints. But with
the help of US/Is WTW these Arab women have organized
projects for child care teachers and shelters for abused
women. Many have embarked on joint projects with Israeli
women including leadership training and consciousness
raising. Sound familiar? Not unlike the US movement.
There were other examples of outreach for the Bedouin
women, a group that live in a strongly patriarchal
sub-culture. They too have benefited from support and
funds for skill training and start-up money for small
Orthodox women face a different problem in Israel.
Although it is ostensibly a secular state, Israeli law
is interpreted by one stream of Judaism, the Orthodox.
Getting a divorce in Israel is at the discretion of the
husband. If the husband denies the divorce, then that
ends the discussion. These women who are called
"agunat", are frequently compelled to remain in abusive
situations. Some find refuge in shelters where WTW
assists them through court proceedings.
And finally there is the question of the right to
worship at the Western Wall. All three groups the
Orthodox, the Conservatives and the Reform movements
have come together to challenge the right of women to
pray at the Wall. These 'Women of the Wall" have spent
years pursuing their cause. After 12 years of protesting
and lobbying, a judicial decision issued in the Spring
of 2000 upheld their right to pray. The government was
given six months to make appropriate arrangements. But
even now there is another delaying tactic in the Knesset
to overturn the decision. The women are still waiting!
After two decades of WTW, I felt it was time look at
the organization, the changes, its successes, its
strengths, its weaknesses. An interview with a board
member seemed like a good way to start.
I met with Gerry Goldberg of Larchmont whose mother,
Jewel Bellush, is the outgoing president of WTW. Gerry,
the mother of two college students spoke glowingly of
Virginia Snitow who she knew as a young woman. A
community spirited young woman today, involved in
women's issues, she was attracted to WTW for many
reasons. Virginia was one and, of course, her mother.
But more than that, Gerry wanted to make a contribution
as a Jewish woman that reflected her values which
included feminism, peace and justice. "A group that
would strengthen the democratic principals in the Middle
"Our Board is concerned with strengthening women's
equality in Israel" although she quickly adds, "In no
way does our Board presume to tell Israeli women what
they should do. We want to support their good efforts by
funding grassroots activities so that women are
empowered. They want to be certain that working class
women get a shot at a better life as well with adequate
health care and child care and so on. We want to be
pro-active. Get there before the need becomes a crisis.
We are non-political, so we provide for Arab women as
well as Jewish women."
"How does the violence in the Middle East, the fear
and turmoil affect your work?" I ask.
"There is a great deal of pressure on women during
these times" says Goldberg. "One cannot deny that this
puts a strain on Arab and Israeli women working
together. But we try to come together and dialogue and
keep lines of communication open."
"What about the US women of WTW, where do they stand
on these issues?" I ask.
"Our US women are a diverse group, diverse in our
political points of view. But what brings us together is
that we agree on human values of peace and justice for
all. We want Israel to be place where these values are
strong and that there is a grassroots movement that
includes all segments of the society."
She goes on to say, "Included in our outreach are
Jewish, Christian, Muslim and Druze women. Also Bedouin,
Russian, Ethiopian, Mizrahi and Palestinian women. The
multicultural group is evidence that women have the
capacity and ability to make this collaborative effort
What make this group unique their leaders say, is
their exclusive focus on women's issues and the creation
of a lasting partnership between Israeli and American
women. Again they state that although feminism if still
not fully integrated into the institutions and cultures
of the Middle East, US/ISWTW is a positive force in that
Jewel Bellush, the outgoing chair, in her remarks
about building the future, got it right when she said,
"Years of strife, war and terrorism have left their mark
on Israeli society and make it harder for women to take
their rightful place as decision makers among the
country's leadership. Yet quietly and persistently,
women from all facets of Israel society are joining
hands to build schools, health clinics, social programs
and communities. Together they weave the social fabric
that ensures the success of future generations and
builds understanding with others."
Could this happen? One would hope so.
The fact that this group has withstood the test of
time, is apparent. They are growing and they now have a
web site. For those interested in contacting them:
US/ISRAEL WOMEN TO WOMEN, 45 West 36th Street, 10th
floor, New York, N.Y. 10018."