Henriette Dahan Kalev*
Published in Women’s Studies International Forum, Vol. 24:1-16.
The idea of women’s liberation was
imported in the 1970s from the West by liberal feminist activists who
The Israeli women’s movement since its beginning in
the mid 1970s has been dominated overwhelmingly by Ashkenazi women,
that is women of European origin. While there always were women whose
origins are in Arab and Muslim countries, that is Mizrahi women, who were active in the Israeli feminist
movement from its inception, they were few in number and their voice was rarely
During the tenth Annual Feminist Conference in 1994 at Givat
Haviva a group of Mizrahi
feminists made an attempt to have their distinct voice heard. They disrupted
the proceedings and claimed that the Ashkenazi women did not represent their
special concerns. In the following year Mizrahi
feminists held their own conference and this is now recognized as the
significant milestone in the development of feminist consciousness amongst Mizrahi women in
would argue that Mizrahi women who are feminists come
to feminism with different premises and so bring to feminism different concerns
than do Ashkenazi women. My principal aim in this article is to chart the
development of Mizrahi feminism in
ideology and vision, as portrayed in the novel Altneuland,
written (in 1900) by Theodore Herzl, is European
through and through (Herzl, 1941). Zionists talked a
lot about the creation of a new Jew. This new Jew would be a super modern
European who would transpose himself or herself to the
After the establishment of the state of
arriving in Israel Mizrahi Jews were received by
officials who were largely Ashkenazis, and who
understood neither them, their cultures, nor their values.
The officials, following the instructions of the Israeli policy makers, wanted
to turn the new arrivals into the new type of Jew mentioned earlier. The Mizrahi Jews were studied, but misunderstood, by experts
who saw them as backward, lazy, primitive and really not so different from the
way these experts saw the Arabs amongst whom the Mizrahis
had lived for so long. Although geographically
This was partly because the Mizrahis were considered Arab; that their culture, and they
themselves, were misunderstood and not appreciated. This led to their being
discriminated against, and treated like second-class
citizens – while Arabs citizens of
This was the major difference Mizrahi feminists and Ashkenazi feminists. The culture of Ashkenazi feminists is respected. They are largely middle class. To succeed they did not have to hide their origin. I must point out again that I am not criticizing Ashkenazi feminists. My aim here is to explain the rift between what Mizrahi and Ashkenazi Israeli feminists believe should be the main priorities of the Israeli feminist movement.
In feminist literature oppressive relationships are described as working through hidden systems that do not need explicitly discriminatory laws in order to function efficiently (Jaggar, 1988; Young ,1990). Even in a democracy, where a commitment to equality and pluralism prevails, such hidden systems exist. The exclusion, marginalization and invisibility of weaker populations are simply understood and do not need to be maintained by tyrannical means. As Young explains:
Oppression designates the disadvantage and injustice some people suffer
not because tyrannical power coerces them, but because of the everyday practice
of a well-intentioned liberal society . . . The tyranny of a ruling group over
another, as in
Young’s point is that oppression occurs even in a political regime whose population has an explicit public commitment to equality and human rights, but where some citizens find themselves exposed to racism and humiliation because they belong to a particular ‘race’, religion, ethnic group, class, or gender. One of the most difficult problems in analyzing this phenomenon is its invisibility. The attempt to expose the exclusion, marginalization and denial mechanisms of oppression is almost an attempt to prove the existence of nothingness; the theoretical difficulty is to unveil the hidden contradiction of tacit oppression in a presumed reality of non-oppression. In Israel there is a public commitment to human rights as can be seen by the adoption of the basic (constitutional) law that outlaws the treatment of any human being in an undignified way (see ‘Basic Law: The Human Being’s Dignity and Liberty’, Law Book 1992:150.) This legal commitment to human rights coexists with of discrimination and racism that is made possible by the social practice of denial. This practice is constructed within various inter-group relationships.
The feminist movement
came onto the scene in
These feminists understood women’s situation as common to all women living under patriarchy, and they believed that the commonality of women’s experience was their most powerful resource for organizing to achieve their own liberation (Bergman, 1980; Plans For The Future Of The Women’s Lobby, 1994). The ethos of sisterhood among all women, they believed, would bring Israeli women into the feminist movement and they would all struggle with an enthusiasm and solidarity that would eventually sweep oppression away.
This approach universalized feminism by focusing on the issue of women’s liberation from patriarchy; the promise of sisterhood created great expectations for the early feminists who rushed to join the new movement in the making. Very early on in the history of Israeli feminism some Mizrahi women who were there from the beginning began to drop out. As Ofra, one of the leading activists of the late 1970s in the prominent feminist organization Kol HaIsha (Women’s Voice) put it:
I hoped that we would attract women of all strata and Mizrahi women in particular. Mizrahi women have come to Kol Ha'Isha, but [then] stopped coming, maybe because we did not respond to what they were looking for . . . . (Kol Ha'Isha, 1983: 5, 9)
Why did Mizrahi women come and then stop coming? These were women who came bearing the burdens of past experiences of oppression. In a very short time they began to see that the social stratification prevailing outside the feminist arena was reflected in the feminist arena as well.[v] By the 1980s, Mizrahi women began to speak out about their feelings of alienation:
... My immediate feeling is bitterness. . . . You see I am a heterosexual woman, a single parent, an observant Jew…I want us at least to talk! …I spend hours there [in feminist meetings]; but in spite of that, I always felt like an unwanted guest who accidentally entered a private club (Hanita Raz, Kol Ha'Isha. 1983:5)
This quotation illustrates the tension between the leading figures, who were mainly of European or white American origin, and many of the Mizrahi women, who believed in and responded to the original feminist call to action to change women’s lives. The tension was implicit, contrary to the explicit rhetoric about solidarity — a rhetoric that effectively masked the fact that Mizrahi women's issues were not part of the feminist agenda.
At first it was very rare for Mizrahi women to express their feelings of discrimination; instead, they tended to attribute their discontent to their own personalities. As one of the Mizrahi women put it: "Of course maybe [my being rejected] resulted from the fact that no one liked me” (Kol Ha'Isha; 1983: p.5). But other women immediately recognized the signs of the ethnic divide when they were excluded from the inner circle. As the veteran Mizrahi feminist, Bracha Seri, put it as early as 1983:
What do they [the Ashkenazi women] know about what it means to be a Mizrahi woman? A woman with many children, religious? They close their ears to us. They are patronizing. What can one say! How can you even talk with them about our regular harassment — an unrequited love . . . They gave you all the reasons in the world to make you feel a stranger.. . .No opportunity to open your mouth. There is nobody to talk to anyway. A club . . . of feminist Neturei Carta ]an exclusive sect of Ultra-Orthodox Jews] — most of the time even the language is different. A club for immigrants where the domain and language is English (Seri, 1983: 4).
The exclusivity of Ashkenazi
women was not even recognized during the first stage of second-wave feminism in
While feminist literature offers several theoretical
explanations applicable to the situation in
commodities, for him, women exist only as genderless members’ of the work force. And because women’s work in the home and in childrearing does not, in Marxist thought, have any standing as contributing to the production of commodities, it is ignored. Women who work at home are assumed, by mainstream Marxist theorists, to be of the same class as their husbands or fathers. Thus, as Jagger puts it, “While women in the market are invisible to Marxist political economy, women in the home are virtually ignored.” (Jaggar, 1988, p.77)
Gender blindness does not simply leave women out of the equation, it also perpetuates the oppression of women because it “works systematically to obscure women’s oppression” and is “a rationale for its perpetuation” (Jaggar, 1988, p.78). Within the Marxist context, questions about whether or not women are dominated and /or oppressed by men simply cannot be asked.[vi] This gender blindness results from an insistence on coherence. Marxism, therefore, relates to reality in a highly simplified and selective way, thereby promoting a struggle against only one sort of oppression while perpetuating other forms of oppression. In much the same way that Marxism is gender-blind, I shall argue that Israeli feminism is blind to ethnicity.
Until very recently, and even today for many Ashkenazi Israeli feminists, Mizrahi feminists are perceived only as comrades in the struggle against a universal patriarchal order. The ethnic divide is invisible within the feminist struggle, and ethnic distinctions are seen as irrelevant. Thus the Israeli feminist analysis is based on a theory that is far too inflexible and simplistic to apply to Mizrahi women living at the heart of ethnic tension. In the eyes of Ashkenazi women, Mizrahi women were seen only as potential comrades who ought to give their allegiance, first of all, to the common feminist struggle against patriarchy.
The irony is that Ashkenazi women, as women who had experienced gender oppression, might be expected to have been able to sympathize with Mizrahi women's charges about exclusion and invisibility. Instead, they opened the doors only to those Mizrahi women who “were ready to support and to help" (minutes of Third Annual Feminist Conference, 1980), expecting them to leave the Mizrahi part of their lives behind when they took part in feminist activities.
One of the main expressions of ethnic inequality in
Though there are many issues on the Israeli feminist agenda that cross socio-economic lines (and therefore, to some extent, the ethnic divide), such as equal opportunity and equal wage, few recent issues have galvanized the attention and resources of the majority of Israeli feminists as that of women’s right to become Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) combat pilots. It took a Supreme Court decision of April 1994 to open air force pilot training programs to women. The case became a feminist cause celebre (Supreme Court Decision Number 4541/94). It is not surprising that this particular issue attracted much attention and support—this was, after all, a demand the patriarchy could understand. It also resonates with the Zionist primacy of the military. Winning the case was an important symbol. Yet, very few women will ever directly benefit from the outcome. The decision to utilise so many Israeli feminist resources to support this case was preferred to putting the same resources behind a case that would affect large numbers of low-income women, most of them Mizrahi. This is a good example of how ethnic blindness discussed earlier functions to filter out ‘irrelevant’ issues which are of concern to the majority of Mizrahi women.
Officially, Israeli feminism does not differentiate between the concerns of Ashkenazi and Mizrahi women. Women’s issues are considered as if all of them affect all women equally. The personal, political, and cultural experiences of Mizrahi women — the differentiating socio-economic characteristics that have placed them in an inferior relationship to Ashkenazi women —are most often ignored, if not denied. The struggle to open up new career paths for women, such as fighter pilot, the issue of domestic violence and equal representation on the boards of public corporations have been assumed to be of equal concern to all Israeli women, regardless of their ethnic origin.
Not only does this kind of universalization of feminist issues overlook the specific concerns of Mizrahi women, it also avoids the more serious results of ethnic conflict, namely that a majority of Ashkenazi women have subordinated the majority of Mizrahi women. Often women who commit themselves to struggle for women’s rights and for sisterhood can themselves function as oppressors of other women.
The asymmetric relations between Ashkenazi and Mizrahi women are illustrated by two issues in which the
ethnic divide is obvious: career and self-fulfillment versus low wages and
labor-intensive jobs, and dependence on welfare and public services versus
middle-class autonomy. These areas have a high ethnic correlation in
Thus far the struggle to break through professional barriers based on gender has focused mainly on securing representation for women on boards of directors, nominating of women to embassy positions, and accepting women into the IDF combat pilots training program. All the legal resources available to the Israeli feminist movement, which are few in number, were recruited to work full time to support these feminist initiatives, which have an impact on only a small minority of Israeli women. For example, during the struggle for women combat pilot in court, the only two lawyers working full time for women’s organizations, Neta Ziv, the lawyer of Naamat – the Histadrut women’s section, and Rachel Benziman, the Israeli Women’s Lobby legal consultant, were not available for anything else. While these struggles have brought about important legal breakthroughs for some fortunate women, they have extended the right to career, self-fulfillment, and professional advancement for the vast majority of Israeli women only theoretically. Rather, they have yielded results for women who already have a career and who are well off and want to progress further — a very small sector, even among Ashkenazi women. After the Supreme Court decision allowing women to participate in the pilot course, only one woman, Alice Miller, was admitted to the first stage of the Air Force pilot training program. In the following round there were less than ten women out of the few hundreds trainees admitted to the first stage, and it was not until the third round that any women passed this first stage of the program successfully. The question is whether it was worthwhile investing such a considerable proportion of the limited legal resources to benefit so few women. The revolutionary impact of the court’s decision obscures the discrimination against the majority of lower class women such as poor education, rights of single parents as well as violence and harassment.
While symbolic, precedent-setting breakthroughs are important, these are not the issues that directly affect Mizrahi women’s lives.
The above reflects only half of the closed circle constituted by these relations. The second half is the dependence of Mizrahi women on welfare and human services provided by social workers, psychologists, and counselors, professionally trained women most of whom are of Ashkenazi origin. These services are used by women who are exposed to domestic violence, by single mothers, and by women who are victims of drug abuse and abuse within families. The clients of the public welfare system are primarily lower class people who cannot afford private service. The Mizrahi population, together with the Israeli Palestinian population form a majority of this socio-economic strata, and they are the main consumers of these public services. [ix] As the division of labor within the family is gendered, it remains women’s responsibility to oversee the education of children and so it is they who talk to teachers on their children behalf. As a result a majority of poor and working-class Mizrahi women need and depend on public welfare and educational systems in which most of the professionals are Ashkenazi women. Thus Mizrahi women very often find themselves facing Ashkenazi women who make decisions that affect their own and their children’s lives. Here again, Mizrahi women are on the weaker side of the ethnic divide. It is difficult to substantiate this claim, because it is not in the state’s interest to reveal such politically problematic data. On the contrary, such data is part of the invisible mechanism intended to preserve the apparently non-existent ethnic-gender correlation.[x]
The accumulated experience of systematic subordination of Mizrahi women to Ashkenazi women leaves its fingerprints on women's lives and can easily reappear in interactions between Ashkenazi and Mizrahi women working jointly on feminist activities. As Mira Eliezer, a Mizrahi woman who provides support for women trapped in the welfare system, has put it:
. . . They [Ashkenazi women] studied at the university; they have the knowledge and the power. They are capable of very easily tearing a child away from a Mizrahi single mother and sending him to a state-supported institutions, despite the fact that they know that the child will never get to a good college or university, or get a good job. These women can easily become directors of factories in which Mizrahi and Palestinian women work under conditions and for wages that are below the legal requirements. They want sisterhood on weekends or once a year (during the annual feminist conference), while on the other days of the year they ignore the daily oppression of non-Ashkenazi women (Eliezer, 1996: 25).
Ashkenazi and Mizrahi women are not homogenized groups and one can find well educated and well off Mizrahi women as well as poor and uneducated Ashkenazi women, but the discrimination results from Mizrahis constituting the majority of the uneducated and the poor in Israel, whereas Ashkenazi women form the majority of the well off and well educated. Hence, in Israeli feminist groups a majority of Ashkenazi women expect sisterhood from the same Mizrahi and Palestinian women to whom some of them happen to provide welfare and educational services.
Mira Eliezer’s words express the bitterness, most often concealed, of Mizrahi women who have experienced being patronized and exploited by Ashkenazi women who, in turn, expect Mizrahi women to join them in feminist activities without understanding their own responsibility for the alienation they have created between themselves and the Mizrahi women they call their "sisters." The relationships created outside the feminist arena are too complex, with too long a history, and close to home to be simply left behind when women join together in the feminist struggle for greater power (c.f. Lipietz, 1994: 23-43). In this tense reality, a great deal of irony is required in order to imagine a Mizrahi domestic worker joining in the struggle for professional advancement, or a Mizrahi childcare provider fighting for her right to self-fulfillment.
During the 1970s and 1980s, the Israeli feminist agenda often did not include the Mizrahi issue in spite of the fact that ethnic conflict was already on the public agenda. It was raised within the feminist context for the first time at the 1984 4th Annual Feminist Conference which included a workshop on "The World of Mizrahi Women." There were few Mizrahi women among the presenters at this conference, and most of them were women with university degrees, who were pursuing careers and who had moved into the middle class. In this sense, they can be seen to belong to both groups. It was another decade before Mizrahi feminist activists were again present at the annual conference, and this proved to be explosive. The deeply problematic relationships between Ashkenazi and Mizrahi feminists that had been boiling under the surface for some time eventually came to the surface during 1994 and 1995.
After many failed attempts to raise Mizrahi issues at feminist gatherings as part of the conference agenda, a few Mizrahi activists decided to disrupt the 1994 annual conference by raising the issue (Hila News, June 1994: 4). They chose the most well attended plenary session of the conference to do so. Speaking from the floor, surrounded by Ashkenazi women, they spoke of the racism they had experienced throughout their lives — from their childhood through adolescence to the present, even after becoming feminist activists.
When members of the audience attempted to bring the session to order, a few Mizrahi women took to the stage, expressing themselves with rage and hostility. They spoke from the heart since their emotions had been bottled up for so long. The catalyst of their outburst was the seeming indifference to their existence their so called feminist sisters. They used harsh language to describe the humiliation they had suffered because of racism. Women described their childhood experiences, how, for instance their Moroccan or Iraqi names had been replaced upon arrival with Israeli names.[xi] They recounted their first meetings with Israelis and the way they and their mothers were treated. As one woman put it, "The social norms according to which class relationships are organized made us believe that we should demand of our mothers that they stop speaking Arabic, Iranian, Turkish, Indian; we begged them to try to lose their Moroccan, Yemenite, Iraqi accents. We wanted them to start behaving like Israelis, for God's sake — that is, to be like an Ashkenazi!" (Hila Bulletines, July 1994: 4).
For the Mizrahi women, the atmosphere was charged with humiliation and rage. Speaking at the 1994 conference, this is how one Mizrahi feminist remembered her years of activism during the 1980s:
... I remember that once I asked the chair of the [feminist] movement why they [the activists] do not go to lower-class neighborhoods. “What do you want me to talk with them about?” she asked me in wonder. I was hurt (Eliezer, 1997: 25).
From the margins of the organizations, such as The Women’s Lobby and Bat Shalom, to which they had been relegated, Mizrahi activists like Mira Eliezar and Neta Amar had tried to raise the ethnic issue, but every time they made an attempt, they discovered anew the emptiness of the feminist commitment to “sisterhood and solidarity". The 1994 conference was just one more example of silencing. Though some of the Ashkenazi women present at the conference supported the Mizrahi demand that their issues be discussed, most did not and the participants were unable to reach an agreement. Outraged, the Mizrahi women walked out. As a result, some Mizrahi activists left the movement very disappointed, and those who stayed, increased their pressure on the Ashkenazi leadership to recognize their issues and begin to work on them.
Ethnic conflict within the feminist movement was the catalyst for Mizrahi women to define themselves as a separate group and has heightened their awareness of Mizrahi identity. As Mira Elieze experienced it: " . . They [Ashkenazi women] made me understand that Ashkenazi feminism, namely Western feminism, is not like ours. They are Ashkenazi — well-established economically and living in prestigious neighborhoods. Our feminism remained implicit” (Eliezer, 1996: 25). Eliezer adds that each time she wanted to raise Mizrahi issues, she felt she had to apologize. [xii]
Eliezer spoke of being deeply hurt, and ultimately she left the conference along with many of her friends and supporters, but not before expressing what they felt as a group. The accumulated rage and insult they had felt over the years had burst out in rebellion, destroying what was left of the thin layer of feminist solidarity and exposing the deep ethnic divide. No one present at the 1994 conference, Ashkenazi or Mizrahi, could any longer avoid confronng the ethnic issue.
Having challenged the ideological framework and values that underlay the planned content of the conference, the discussion degenerated into a divisive struggle. The Ashkenazi voices reflected disagreement and confusion. Some argued that the fact that their origin was in the hegemonic sector of society did not automatically make them racist oppressors. They also argued that the ethnic divide is not at all relevant to Israeli feminism. In addition, they argued, the social gap between Ashkenazi and Mizrahi, though it might have existed in the past, no longer existed, so why open old wounds? Some Ashkenazi feminists argued that they did not see themselves as Ashkenazi but as Israelis and that they saw this division as an anti-feminist act. Others claimed that they were not responsible for their founding parents’ faults and they should not pay the price or compensate anybody. Yet another voice was of those who accepted their being defined as Ashkenazi women, but who did not really understand what it meant to be Ashkenazi. Later on they formed an Ashkenazi discussion group in Kol HaIsha in which prominent activists such as Erella Shadmi and Yvonne Deutsch participated. [xiii]
During the conference a Mizrahi woman asked rhetorically, "Is there a Mizrahi woman in the audience who can imagine living in a society in which our dark skin, our curly hair, and our Arab names are respected and valued?" (Hila Bulletines, July 1994: 4). Other Mizrahi women took to the floor to point out the hypocritical use of concepts like solidarity and universality as used by mainstream –i.e. Ashkenazi - feminists, which amounted to systematic silencing whenever the ethnic problem was raised. As one participant put it,
. . . every attempt to tell us that there is only one feminism is an attempt to silence us. This is an attempt to dictate to us what is important in our lives and what shape our struggles should take. This is your attempt to shape us according to the Ashkenazi feminist model. Because, while our Mizrahi identity is attacked, the Ashkenazi identity is presented as the norm (Hila News, July 1994: 4 compare with Mohanty 1991).
I believe there are at least four aspects of the Mizrahi feminist challenge which the Ashkenazi feminist elite found threatening. First, to respond to the Mizrahi women's accusations would mean that they themselves would have to consider their own responsibility for the ethnic divide. Second, accepting responsibility would entail them acknowledging their own hegemonic control of the Israeli feminist movement. Third, any more equitable redistribution of resources and influence would mean that those who were presently enjoying these would enjoy them less in the future. Fourth, accepting responsibility would make the members of the Israeli feminist elite recognize that they had used certain Mizrahi women as tokens and that the movement represented only one segment of Israeli women. These four aspects of the Mizrahi – Ashkenazi divide were rejected, whether consciously or unconsciously, by most of the Ashkenazi women present at the 10th Annual Feminist Conference, as is clear from their responses at the conference and afterwards.
Ashkenazi women are not only subordinated to the patriarchal order as passive objects, they are also, as far as Mizrahi and Arab women are concerned, active subjects who, partake, benefit, and perpetuate that order. It is, therefore, not surprising that, when asked to accept responsibility and seek new directions in resolving the ethnic issue, the great majority of Ashkenazi feminists failed to do so.
Following the 1994
conference, several militant Mizrahi feminists felt
that there was no
return to the fold and that their only recourse was to leave the
movement. In order to explore their
experience of oppression as Mizrahi women, they
decided to organize a Mizrahi feminist conference.
This decision was a landmark in the development of Mizrahi
Although the declared intent of the nine organizers[xiv]
was to hold a conference in order to develop a Mizrahi
feminist agenda, as the planning for the conference progressed it
became clear that the ethnic issue itself needed to be discussed. The program
focused on the ethnic divide and what the organizers perceived to be the
history of Mizrahi oppression in
The workshop topics of the Mizrahi
Feminist Conference reflect these two concerns: "The children of
The examination of Mizrahi history that was so prominent at the 1995 Mizrahi Feminist Conference was neither simply nostalgic nor a "return to roots." It was rather a painful process of exposing humiliating experiences of oppression in the daily lives of Mizrahi women. The empowering and liberating qualities of this process has often been described in feminist literature (see, for example, MacKinnon, 1989: 84-105). Thus, while traditional feminist issues such as employment equality, wages, or violence against women were not on the agenda of this first Mizrahi feminist conference, more important feminist issues, in the organizers’ view, such as self- and social introspection and analysis were included.
As some workshop participants compared the textbooks
from which they had been taught Zionist history with the contents of their own
socialization and experience, they participated in subverting "objective
history" and deconstructing the hegemonic perceptions of the prevailing
Zionist ethos. As a result, the women present became aware of the full
complexity of their cultural and political lives. Inevitably, as the women
revealed more and more instances of their personal exclusion from Israeli
society, the process turned from one of learning into one of protest. The
discovery of a common experience of oppression was felt by those who took part
as empowering. Workshops participants, individually and communally, underwent a
process that can only be described as a feminist cognitive deconstruction and
reconstruction of their own experience as Mizrahi
women, that is outlined in feminist literature (see
So What Is the Mizrahi Feminist Agenda?
The Mizrahi feminist agenda has evolved at the intersection of two strategic crossroads: The first focuses on the struggle against the general subordination of Mizrahis in Israeli society as a result of the ethnic divide and the second focuses more specially on the struggle against their individual subordination as women, and only partially, the oppression by other women (see Dahan-Kalev 1997). The Mizrahi feminist agenda is fueled by the history of the common yet diverse (Iraqi, Yemenite, Moroccan, and so on) Mizrahi experience within the general population of Israel and by the history of the specific experiences of Mizrahi women within the female population of Israel.
These issues are extremely significant for the liberation of Mizrahi women as Mizrahi women. Hill Collins (1990) stresses the importance of a similar complexity in her elaboration of the experiences of black women. She notes, for example, the different contexts within which the same crime can be differently perceived: a black woman being raped by a white man or a black man, or a white woman being raped by a white or a black man. These are the kinds of analyses that academic Mizrahi feminists still need to supply in order to illuminate and elaborate the causes of the marginalization of Mizrahi women. Mizrahi and Ashkenazi women both face economic discrimination, but of a very different sort. Whereas middle-class Ashkenazi women are held back by the sexist "glass ceiling," Mizrahi and Palestinian women, largely in low-wage unskilled jobs, are held back by racism, in the form of poverty and insufficient education which prevent them from qualifying for skilled and professional jobs. Thus the Mizrahi feminist agenda often played out in a separate feminist arena: Mizrahi women have be enabled to escape from poverty and the conditions of life in city slums and outlying economically depressed “development” towns that most Ashkenazi feminists never even see.
The Mizrahi feminist agenda not only has a different content, it also has different priorities. So long as the majority of Mizrahi children are dependent on public services for welfare and education, Mizrahi feminists feel that it is more urgent to address educational and social policy than, for example, the issue of peace with the Palestinians, which is of central concern for the largely Ashkenazi feminist movement.[xvii] So long as most Mizrahi women are fighting for survival, these more immediate issues will define the boundaries of Mizrahi feminism.
The perpetuation of Mizrahi women’s subordination to Ashkenazi women is the first and most immediate problem Mizrahi women confront on a daily basis. Finding a solution requires Mizrahi feminists to cooperate with mainstream feminists who are networked in the centers of power like the Knesset (Israeli parliament), academia and business.[xviii] It also requires cooperation between Mizrahi feminists themselves in order to develop common policies and strategies to deal with the problems of Mizrahi child-minders, housekeepers and other low-paid domestic service workers. However, The Mizrahi Feminist Agenda is based on an ideological perspective which views Mizrahi women as a separate social category whose subordination is caused by different factors from the subordination of Ashkenazi or Palestinian women, and whose target population is found mainly in the lower class. Nevertheless, their poor socio-economic situation must not be seen as the reason for their socio-political disadvantage, but rather, as a result of their being discriminated against as part of Eurocentric-Orientalist tension. Mizrahi women are a different social category in the sense that the solutions to problems such as domestic or sexual violence and rape must take into consideration the ethnic relations context in which it occurs (Hill Collins, 1990:236-238).
Since the 10th Feminist Conference it has been possible to discern two different strategies that have been adopted by Mizrahi feminists. Some have split off from mainstream feminist organizations and founded their own organizations, while others believe it unwise to reject mainstream feminist activities altogether and have stayed within the mainstream organizations.[xix]
Each strategy has advantages and disadvantages. The first, Mizrahi separatism, requires an elaboration of the specific issues of concern to Mizrahi women, as well as the development of an aware feminist leadership at grassroots level. Its aim is first and foremost to focus on individual empowerment through consciousness-raising networks and the sociopolitical flow of information. It is based on the proposition that only at the stage of feminist development in which the personal turns into the political, will women be sufficiently motivated to take more responsibility for their own lives. One advantage of this strategy is that it frees Mizrahi activists from the competition and pressure they face from the usuallly more educated, more successful Ashkenazi women who dominate mainstream feminist organizations. Without the intimidation they had experienced in mixed Mizrahi-Ashkenazi organizations, they are free to share their experience with one another and learn from it collectively.
Those who chose the second strategy of either joining mainstream feminism or remaining within mixed feminist organizations, have thus far found themselves isolated as a group, though no longer as individuals, nor do they have any real political power within their organizations as yet. These Mizrahi feminists must struggle for their share of the pie, which, as Israeli feminist experience has shown, is never just handed to them. For this strategy to work, Mizrahi women must be involved in both formal and informal mainstream feminist organizations with an agenda that is similar to that of mainstream feminism: equality in the distribution of resources and representation in the decision-making process. Though there are practical disadvantages to this strategy, in the long term it is indispensable for the eventual equal empowerment of Mizrahi women in Israeli society.
Some of the issues faced by Mizrahi feminists working in mixed settings are:
Tokenism. In the name of pluralism, many progressive organizations often invite a Mizrahi woman to participate in their meetings and other activities. Implicit in the invitation is a public commitment to Mizrahi feminism that the organizations often do not practically intend to honor. The Mizrahi woman who is invited to represent Mizrahi women's interests often realizes that she has no power and faces a grave dilemma: to continue playing the role without any real power, and thus collude with the tokenist approach, or to resign and thus render the Mizrahi women's issue invisible once again. This situation is changing very slowly as a result of the very few Mizrahi women “tokens” who opt for a third option of neither putting up with the token role nor resigning. These are the real Mizrahi women leaders who are prepared to carry on struggling and engage in dialogue with the Ashkenazi women who have influence in the centers of power and politics. One example is Vicki Shiran – a prominent Mizrahi feminist activist -who uncompromisingly insists on the “quarters principle”, a version of affirmative action that is adapted to take account of the specific Israeli situation (see below).
Affirmative action. With the aim of ensuring that Palestinian, lesbian, Mizrahi, and Ashkenazi women have equal representation, some organizations within the Israeli feminist movement have adopted a ‘quarters’ policy whereby they insist that every public feminist forum should have at least one representative from each of these four groups. The quarters principle however, does not always work in favor of Mizrahi women. As there are relatively few Mizrahi feminist activists, this requirement sometimes creates ludicrous situations in which, for example, a Mizrahi feminist who did not serve in the armed forces is invited to talk on sexual harassment in the military. The very few Mizrahi activists become the informal delegates which feminist organizations invite to every public event and that leads to the problem of the so-called “professional Mizrahi women”. The dilemma faced by Mizrahi feminists is whether it is worth rendering poor service to Mizrahi women's interests as opposed to rendering them invisible.
The professional Mizrahi feminist activist. Because there are so few Mizrahi feminist activists and because many organizations have begun inviting Mizrahi women to participate in their activities in the late 1990’s, those who are active and therefore well known, are invited to participate in almost every activity.
The recruiter. Another issue Mizrahi feminists activists have encountered is being asked or expected to play the role of “recruiter” when mainstream feminist leaders appeal to Mizrahi feminist activists, because of their contacts in poor neighborhoods, to help recruit support from grassroots women for specific mainstream activities. A prominent recent example was the attempt of a women’s peace organization to enlist neighborhood women to join their demonstrations. Mizrahi women who have joined peace organizations are frequently looked upon as the only ones responsible for recruiting Mizrahi women, since they know the “native” language of the neighborhoods.
Kitchen cabinets. In many organizations, decisions are made informally, and Mizrahi activists often find out about them only after the cake has been divided. Thus, for example, an Israeli woman’s peace organization used Mizrahi women activists and slogans of social justice to raise funds for an ineffective project in a low-income neighborhood. Once the money was raised, less money was allocated to the neighborhood project than had been budgeted for it and the rest of the money was spent on events for which it was not raised (see Shadmi, 2000 on centralistic decision making in the Women in Black Movement).
The issues described above are not unique to the feminist movement. They are typical of Israeli social-change politics, which, throughout its history, has developed these mechanisms of tokenism, recruiting, co-optation, and decisions taken informally by ruling organizational elites.
The articulation of the ethnic divide in the feminist movement in 1994 and 1995 was the beginning of a conflictual and often personally painful period for Israeli feminists, but the 14th annual conference held in 1999 may well mark the end of one stage and the beginning of another for Ashkenazi-Mizrahi feminist relations, at least in the grassroots women’s movement.
It was evident in the planning leading to the conference that the Mizrahi women were well organized as a group and had an identified leadership to represent it. For several years, the conference planners had adopted ‘the four quarters affirmative action policy’. Though it was effective in bringing new voices, the dominant voice in annual conferences is still Ashkenazi. In the planning for the 14th annual feminist conference, Mizrahi women demanded that the “quarters” be actually equal. Failing to find a common format that would meet that demand, the organizers decided to divide the two days of the conference into four quarters, with each group doing its own programming. Free to plan together without interference, the Mizrahi leadership planned a half day workshop on Mizrahi issues and identity and, instead of a panel, they staged a performance in which ten women stood up and related one incident from their own personal experience which epitomized what it meant to be a Mizrahi woman in the state of Israel. What emerged was a powerful and moving verbal picture of the plight of Mizrahi women which moved everyone in the audience, Mizrahi and non-Mizrahi alike. The Mizrahi women were also able to pressure the Ashkenazi “quarter” to relate to the meaning and consequences of being Ashkenazi. Some refused, but others took up the challenge of occupying only one quarter of the space.
The 14th annual conference marked a significant step forward for Mizrahi women. It is now accepted, at least within the context of the grassroots radical Israeli feminism, that Mizrahi issues must receive a hearing in all future feminist conferences. Now that that issue has been settled at the grassroots level, it allows Israeli feminists to deal with a problem endemic to the movement as a whole. The problem is that while grassroots feminist activists are strong women, they often lack the political power to influence policies and make significant changes in the lives of the vast majority of Israeli women.[xx] Most of those who do have this kind of power do not tend to come to feminist conferences, unless are they personally invited to participate. As the Mizrahi women grew stronger within the feminist community, and therefore within the annual feminist conference, there were fewer and fewer places for prominent Ashkenazi women on the platform, and without a place on the platform, many simply ceased to come.
The Mizrahi feminist
victory, marked by the 1999 conference, is important, but it is but one victory
in one battle, there are more battles to be fought before the war is won. Mizrahi feminism still remains a marginal concern to the
Ashkenazi, largely Anglo-Saxon leadership of mainstream feminism in
Like all Israeli institutions, the institutional setup of the Israeli feminist movement is infected by racism, elitism, and Eurocentrism. Consequently, its agenda gives priority to issues which are of concern to the dominant group of Ashkenazi feminists. In this article I have shown that Mizrahi feminism is rooted in the tension between the feminist rhetoric of equality and the reality of oppression within the movement. While the leaders of mainstream Israeli feminism speak of sisterhood and solidarity, many Mizrahi feminists feel marginalized and excluded. Some Mizrahi feminists attempted to raise the issue at the 10th annual conference and their rejection by the Ashkenazi majority in the movement served to distinguish them both to themselves and to others as a separate group. This in turn led to their defining the rest of the women as "Ashkenazi."
As a result of their failure to achieve recognition for themselves and for their agenda, some Mizrahi activists split off from the mainstream groups and organized a conference of their own in which they attempted deal with the multidimensional experience of oppression. But the most significant achievement of this gathering was the sense of liberation that accompanied the participants’ reconstructions of their own experiences of ethnic discrimination. Since then, not only the Mizrahi separatists, but also many non-separatist activists found it ideologically, personally, and strategically difficult to collaborate with mainstream feminist organizations. Yet, their experience has strengthened them in significant ways. What remains to be done is to develop a clear formulation of Mizrahi feminist consciousness that makes sense to grassroots women and to continue the struggle for an equitable share of the resources that are available to all Israeli feminists [xxi].
[xxii] Although mizrahi women were a minority in
the Israeli Feminist movement they were not a minority in Israeli society.
Since 1960 they numbered at least half of the population of women and at times
they were the majority. I have discussed the problem of data accumulation and
its implications on the Israeli society extensively in my Ph.D. dissertation: Self
Organizing Systems: Wadi Salib
and The Black panthers – Implications on the Israeli Society, The Hebrew
[xxiii] Shtetls were villages in which most of the Jews of Eastern Europe lived. They were largely self-governing and within them there developed a distinctive Jewish-Yiddish culture which was based partly on Jewish religion and partly on a rejection of the external society and its values which also rejected them.
[xxiv] See any standard history of Zionism, e.g. Walter Zeev Laqueur, A History of Zionism (1976).
[xxv] Yishuv is the word used in Hebrew to refer
to the Jewish community that lived in
[xxvi] In American feminist literature, this problem is discussed exhaustively in the context of multiculturalism and in Black and Hispanic feminist thought (hooks, 1984; see also Anzaldua, 1990) The similarity is not accidental, for the roots both of Afro-American and Hispanic American feminism and Mizrahi feminism are in discrimination and exclusion. See also Dahan-Kalev forthcoming.
[xxvii]Traditional Marxist feminists such as Heidi Hartmann (1981) and Susan Griffin (1981) believed that women would get equality with men once class exploitation was ended, since in Marxism class is the single source of all systems of exploitation and oppression.
[xxviii] All these organizations shared more or less a single agenda and were made up of women from the same socio-economic strata. Their agenda was basically a version of liberal feminism they were concerned with the legal status of women, breaking the glass ceiling. On the Israeli Arab issue they align themselves with the Israeli Left (that is those who are willing to give up land for peace). Their members were almost all of Ashkenazi origin, wealthy and non-observant Jews. None of their members, in other words, were poor Mizrahi women, Palestinian women, Ultra-Orthodox women, new immigrants or women who lived in the occupied territories (see Shadmi, 2000).
[xxix] In the interview with Linda Efroni she
stated that there is no official statistical information which links country of
origin to either income and/or occupation. However, by piecing together the
information to be found in The Adva Center
Publications, especially the article by Shlomo Swirski (April 2000) entitled “Place Of Residence and Level
of Income; and the article by Shlomo Swirski and Eti Connor (December
2000) entitled “A Picture of the Social Situation in
 The consumers of these public services are
people who are found in the lower rungs of the income ladder. From the Statistical
Abstract of Israel it is possible to see that Mizrahim
and Arabs earn less than, and are proportionately more represented in the lower
income earning groups in Israeli society than they are in the higher income
earning groups. The Statistical Abstract does not talk in terms of Mizrahim or Arabs but instead talks of people of African
and Asian origin and of non-Jewish members of Israeli society. The first group
can largely be assumed to be Mizrahim while the
second group can largely be presumed to be Arabs. Table 11.4, (The
Statistical Abstract of Israel for 1990, p. 300) shows that in 1988 the
average monthly income of a household whose head is of American or European
origin was 3,217 NIS, while those households whose head is of African or Asian
origin had an average monthly income of 2,631 NIS, while household whose head
is non-Jewish had a monthly income of 2,012 NIS. Table 11.5 (The
Statistical Abstract of Israel for 1990, p. 301) shows that in the top ten
percent of the income earners in
[xxx] Despite the
lack of official data, Hila News Bulletines report trends in the educational systems
pointing to the privatization of education, where enrichment programs are being
carried out by well off Ashkenazi parents who live mainly in the centers of the
larger cities of Tel Aviv,
[xxxi] Jews from European countries also had this experience of having their names changed by the Israeli immigration and education authorities. But the Eurocentric context in which the names were changed had different impact on the Mizrahis than it had on the Ashkenazim, since it stemmed from the abolition of Jewish Arab history and their rich culture and therefore had an oppressive impact rather than an absorbing act as the same action of changing the name made on the Ashkenazim (Giladi, 1990, especially chapter 8).
[xxxii] There are additional testimonies on this topic in the reports from the 3rd and 7th Annual Feminist Conferences in 1984 and 1988, respectively.
[xxxiii] My knowledge of these positions and arguments is based on my own observation of the event of the 1994 annual conference in Givat Haviva and on conversations with many of the women who participated as well as on the publications of the minutes of the conference proceedings.
[xxxiv] Neta Amar, Avital Mozes Haim, Dafna Baram, Mira Eliezer, Tikva Levi, Henriette Dahan Kalev, Rachel Malesa, Vera Krako and Nogah Dagan. Although I am one of these activists, I have decided to write in the third person plural rather than in first person plural.
[xxxv] Many members of the Yemenite community charge that
during the 1950s the Israeli government, via social workers and nurses, took
their babies from hospitals and put them up for adoption in Ashkenazi families,
telling the parents that the babies had died. Three government commissions were
established to investigate the charges: the Bahalul-Minkovski
Committee of the Inquiry of the Yemenite Children (Petah
Tiqva 1968), the Shalgi
Committee of the Missing Yemenite Children (
[xxxvi] A derogatory name for a lower-class young woman; originally a female Moroccan name that means “joy”.
[xxxvii] It is very rare to find a women’s organization in
[xxxviii] The women who are found at the top are most often
also the “princesses” who I mentioned above and who show much more concern, if
at all, for Palestinian women than they do for Mizrahi
women. The issue of Palestinian Feminism in
[xxxix] Another group of women that does not fall into either of these categories is a group of Mizrahi women that were put off by the infighting between Mizrahi and Ashkenazi women and stopped being active feminists.
[xl] The Israeli experience mirrors the experience of grassroots feminists in other parts of the world. (Mackinnon, 1989; hooks, 1984.)
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Dahan Kalev teaches Israeli
politics, political theory and feminist and cultural studies at the