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"Ha'isha" (The Woman) and Civil Society in Eretz Yisrael During the 1920s / "האשה" והחברה האזרחית בשנות ה—20

מיכאל קרן and Michael Keren
Kesher / קשר
No. 28, גיליון מיוחד: ייצוג ופעילות של נשים בתקשורת היהודית‎ (נובמבר 2000), pp. 28-35
Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/23916354
Page Count: 8
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Abstract

Israel is unique in that neither the left nor the right ever fostered the concept of civil society, i.e., voluntary public-interest groups that function independently of the state. In this, curiously, they both follow the Bolshevik pattern, which dictates and controls the entire gamut of economic, political and cultural life of the state. Both the left, which sought to entrench its class-based vision, and the right, which promoted a national vision, ignored the lacunae in day-to-day life in Israel — the inefficiencies of the health system, prolonged reserve duty, a high accident rate on the roads, environmental destruction, and the fear of terror — in favor of their ambition to achieve the larger objectives: security, immigrant absorption, settling the territories, building national infrastructures, and the peace process. The major parties built up strong, centralized party networks controlled by political appointees, shelving the notion of voluntarism, including in the political arena itself. Their efforts were devoted essentially to ideological education rather than to the education of an independent-minded citizen activist. This does not mean, however, that civil society did not exist in Israel. Even though they did not attract very much political or historiographic attention, individuals and groups with particularist concerns made efforts to express themselves and to operate in independent political and conceptual venues. One such venue was the monthly Ha'isha, published during 1926-29, a period in which the labor movement in the Jewish yishuv (community) was at the height of its influence in terms of the settlement of Eretz Yisrael. A study of the magazine illuminates one of the most interesting civic struggles in the history of Eretz Yisrael and stimulates thought about the conceptual basis of similar struggles in the present. Ha'isha was published by the Federation of Hebrew Women in Eretz Yisrael, which was associated with the Hadassah Zionist Women's Organization in the U.S. and later with WIZO. The federation hoped to become an umbrella body for women's groups in Eretz Yisrael that would blend philanthropic civic activity with the advancement of the status of women. It tried — unsuccessfully — to function in cooperation with the women's labor organizations, but they perceived philanthropic activity in particular, and "civic elements" generally, disparagingly. Historically, civic bodies stemmed from the middle class, which acted as the catalyst for democracy. The emergence of a middle class in Eretz Yisrael in the 1920s, with the advent of the Fourth Aliyah (the immigration of 1924-1928, mainly from Eastern Europe), was reflected in the thrust of Ha'isha, i.e., a message of progress and social freedom. The dominant Socialist theory, however, true to Bolshevik thinking, categorized the middle class as exploiters and parasites. The editor of the monthly, and its most distinctive figure, was Hannah Thon. Outlining the conceptual basis of the publication in the opening issue, she pointed to two opposing views in the yishuv on the status of women: one traditional, espoused by the Orthodox, which held that "the woman is naught but for her children," and the other radical, espoused by the labor movement, which viewed the achievement of women's rights in terms of employment in men's manual work, for example stone-cutting. While acknowledging the ground-breaking accomplishments of the women labor activists, Thon criticized their disregard of the fact of women's physical limitations in comparison with men, to the detriment of the overall well-being of society. The contribution of these activists, she wrote, limited as it was to the labor sector, ignored the need to contribute to society as a whole. Between the two extremes, Thon positioned women with a broad liberal national outlook, recognizing the family as the natural nucleus of the state and viewing the elementary role of women as caring for home and children as a positive attribute. Ha'isha's position, while not negating women's integration in agriculture, road-building and factories, emphasized the reality that only a small minority of women undertook this work, and of these many eventually left it and assumed the traditional role of family caregiver. Moreover, typically, chronic unemployment in the yishuv affected women first. The magazine aimed to move past theoretical conceptions of women's liberation promoted by the Socialists and test the status of women in the context of their personal lives. Its basic, and no less revolutionary, premise was a refusal to view participation in public life as necessitating relinquishing the private domain. The women's struggle for equal opportunity, Ha'isha held, must be waged in the typical women's context then as wife, mother and responsible for the family. However, not only is she not isolated from social and political developments in national life, she makes a significant contribution to them by keeping up the struggle for equal rights. This line was not always understood by the magazine's readership. Some readers demanded more mundane subject matter dealing with home management. In fact, Ha'isha dealt with such matters extensively, but always in the context of women's activity, whether at home or at the workplace, and as an integral part of their civic contribution. The goal was to get the woman actively involved in society, to stimulate her social conscience, and to help her acquire better tools — namely, education, and especially vocational or professional education — in her struggle with her environment. This view of homemaking, child-rearing and the acquisition of a broader education as constituting an important part of the overall state-building effort constituted the essence of the civil ideology that guided the magazine. The opposite side of the coin was editorial criticism of the Mo'etzet Hapo'alot — the Histadrut's Working Women's Council — for confining itself to issues of class and party, thereby hindering the productivity of society as a whole. Zionism, argued Thon, must link the various populations gathered in the country and create a true social whole. Instead, she pointed out, extremist factions are in a perpetual struggle with each other. The labor movement, in its ideological rigidity, she charged, ignores an entire sub-stratum that lies below the worker class, and which constitutes the true proletariat — the Sephardi Jews who live in poverty, ignorance and helplessness. To integrate this population, Thon proposed organizing social service institutions, a task viewed by women's civil groups as their special province. Ha'isha focused on the harsh lives of women in this sector, in the Arab population and in the ultra-Orthodox community, who bore the brunt of ignorance and discrimination in their societies. An examination of the magazine reveals a deeply felt awareness that social concerns must not be limited to selected classes only, and that civil activity must be stimulated in all sectors. Above all, the magazine put forward a model of an educated, trained and intellectually forward-looking woman relevant to every sector of the population. It accomplished this first and foremost by the image it itself projected through well-researched, in-depth articles exposing traditional injustices against women and illustrating constructive alternatives, many based on developments in other parts of the world. The achievements of women in legislature, politics, the professions, literature and the arts were highlighted, as were published works by contemporary women writers such as Elisheva, Rahel and Else Lasker-Schueler. Consciousness-raising, however, was carried out with moderation. Not coincidentally, it was the humanist Ahad Ha'am, of all the Zionist leaders, who was viewed as a national model.

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