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VCU Menorah Review Summer/Fall 2006
Number 65
For the Enrichment of Jewish Thought

By Way of Introduction: Reflections on Israeli Women’s Studies: A Reader

N.J.: Rutgers University Press
By Esther Fuchs

When I published my monograph, Israeli Mythogynies: Women in Contemporary Hebrew Fiction in 1987, there was but a single book-length scholarly anthology in Hebrew on Israeli women. While a few edited volumes appeared since then in both Hebrew and English, mostly in the social sciences, the first and so far the only interdisciplinary anthology of feminist essays The Equality Bluff was published in 1991. Since then, however, numerous book-length studies and scores of essays were published in sociology, political science, anthropology, literature and history. The purpose of this anthology is to introduce major trends that developed in the 1990s, as well as work done in the 1980s and even in the 1970s. The chronological overview matters because it helps us understand a trajectory of scholarly evolution as well as its most significant results.

Guiding my selections was not just a scholarly principle, but a pedagogic one as well. In 1995 I began teaching a course on Israeli women. While I could not possibly use resources in Hebrew, a language that was inaccessible to most of my students, I found that resources in English are far too specialized for this kind of course. The available anthologies in English were special issues in academic journals, mostly in the social sciences, which made them rather difficult to use in the classroom. The students showed great interest in the articles I assigned, and so the next year I proceeded to add a few articles. Despite the avid interest in the materials I had them read, everyone agreed that it would be nice to have a textbook, something we could “hold in our hands.”

True to the original title of my course, I selected scholarship by and about Israeli women. Israeli women are both the object of inquiry and the subjects who constructed the research. As subjects, they include Israeli scholars teaching in Israel as well as in Europe and the United States. The essays I selected are either significant historically, substantively or theoretically. They begin new lines of inquiry, make connections between disparate bodies of knowledge, offer innovative methodologies or shed light on uniquely Israeli configurations. For the most part I opted for non-technical and not overly theoretical essays that may be valued by scholars and students in women’s studies in general as well as in Israel studies, Jewish studies and Middle Eastern studies. Therefore, though all the articles have gone through a refereeing process, I believe they should appeal to the non-specialist and to non-academic readers.

If national identity is a criterion of selection, theory and method are another. Israeli women’s studies are a field that is not simply interested in women as topics, or objects of inquiry. It is rather a field of critical studies using gender as a basic analytic category. Whether the object of critical inquiry is society or literature, politics or culture, Israeli feminist scholarship challenges rather than describes the status quo. It is thus not only by and about, but also for Israeli women. In this sense it is an engaged, deeply political, though not necessarily partisan, scholarship. Its critical inquiries seek to reintroduce and re-evaluate women’s experiences and discourses as valid, even crucial objects of inquiry. For the most part it focuses on social processes and structural dichotomies (e.g., public/private; national/feminist) that have hindered equality and empowerment. Though critique is at the very center of this academic enterprise, scholars are equally interested in reconstructing the neglected social and literary history of Israeli women. Produced in both the social sciences and the humanities, Israeli feminist scholarship is both empiricist and poststructuralist, seeking to reveal the “truth” or “reality” beneath popular representations, as well as to expose the gendered narratives, or meta-narratives through which truths and realities are constructed.

The earliest essays of the 1970s argued that gender disparity is a social and legal problem that could somehow be remedied through appropriate change and reform. Based on this research, Anglo-American feminist work, and the work of the Israeli feminist movement, popular publications began to criticize the Israeli myth of equality. In the 1980s scholars sought to exemplify and document the manifestations of inequality in the workplace, the legal system, the kibbutz, the army and the family. The first phase of Israeli women’s studies sought to open up a space in academic discourse for feminist analysis. In the 1990s the concern is to explain how and why inequality works, linking it to fundamental social structures and cultural processes that could not be easily changed. While the early phase focused on society, the second focused on the nation, moving from a reformist vision to a more radical one. The compass in the 1990s was broadened from a concern with state apparatus to national ideologies although both continue to be foci of concern. The pioneers of the field sought to open up a space within the Israeli academe for feminist analysis and discourse, while their followers linked this analysis to fundamental concerns in Israel’s national life, war and peace, security and survival. The exclusive focus on the social sciences in the 1980s has begun to include cultural and literary studies as the interest in history and literature as modes of narrating the nation grows. As Israeli feminist scholarship increases in volume and as its scope broadens, it has become increasingly self-conscious, turning the lens of critical inquiry on itself, its own theories and methods of inquiry. “Israeli women” has become a problematic, totalizing category as specific national and ethnic minority discourses are asserting their differences.

The discussion of gender in the following articles straddles the modern and postmodern divide, as some scholars tackle the issue of sexual politics—power relations between “real” men and women, while others focus on textual politics or the hegemony of masculinity as repressive power in cultural scripts and national discourse. Gender is discussed as both the social construction of sexual difference and as the masculine control, via interlocking systems of knowledge and representation, of women’s bodies, activities and subjectivities. Masculinity then is an epistemological and discursive regime, and men too can participate in dismantling it. The essays I included here reflect the critical investigation of woman as other, as the devalued side of the gender binary, as well as to woman as historical subject creating social change, and re-visioning traditional texts and conventional discourses. Both projects of critique and reconstruction are necessary methodologies or research procedures; both are based on a feminist theory of revision. The essays make the gaps in knowledge about and by Israeli women visible, and interrupt the silences by analyzing and interpreting Israeli women’s experiences and texts. Feminism inspires here both the critique of the organization and institutional manifestations of the state and the Zionist ideology that has inspired its establishment in 1948. This reader then offers a first comprehensive feminist revision of Zionism as a meta-narrative (or totalizing interpretation) and Israel as a political reality.

Despite their diverse approaches, most of the essays grapple with the deeper roots of gender asymmetries in Israel. While social scientists see the root of the problem in social processes and political constructions, cultural critics find it in the masculine hegemony inscribed in representational and symbolic systems, in the structure of the literary and cinematographic canons and in nationalist mythologies. The section on myth and history deals with the mythological interdependence of Zionism and masculinity in the late 19th century, and the social structures and political pressures that have pushed women and feminism to the periphery during the early decades of the 20th century. The next section on law and religion traces the causes of disparity even further back to halachah, or Jewish religious law, and its imbrications with the secular legal system in Israel. The section on society and politics exposes the social and political constructions of gender, the ways in which relations of center and periphery in society and politics are maintained and reproduced by patriarchal dichotomies (e.g., public versus private, national versus feminist, majority versus minority) that determine and define the collective behavior of men and women. The section on war and peace exposes the ways in which the Arab-Israeli conflict exacerbates gender hierarchies and how Israeli women politicize their marginal status to counter both militarism and sexism. The section on literature and culture delineates the exclusion of women from privileged representations and analyzes work by contemporary women authors and film producers to claim their own space and voice.

In the 1990s a growing awareness of the traditional exclusions of citizen Arab authors from the Israeli literary canon was combined with a growing awareness of similar exclusions of Mizrachi authors. A new consciousness of Holocaust survivors and their descendants, the suppression of testimonies and memoirs in the 1950-60s, the “second generation,” has emerged as a previously silenced Ashkenazi group within the Israeli cultural panoply. Though regarded as a privileged Ashkenazi immigration, gender stereotypes of Jewish immigrants from the former USSR, and of the less privileged and smaller Ethiopian immigration reveal an ambivalent attitude toward the newcomers on the part of Israeli citizens. The influx in the 1990s of Jewish immigrants choosing to (in the case of the Russians) or doomed to (in the case of the Ethiopians) cultural autonomy, in addition to the massive influx of non-Jewish “foreign” workers add to the growing perception of the general decline of “Israeliness” as a unitary national identity. Because multicultural and postcolonial discourses are still in the process of emerging in Israel’s intellectual life and in its academe, difference, in general, is not yet regarded as a source of empowerment for individuals and as a symptom of intellectual maturity and academic sophistication.

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