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August 28, 2015 | 13th Elul 5775

Men and women I

Galilee Diary #321, January 21, 2007

Marc J. Rosenstein

[God] brought the animals before man, and asked him, "What are their names?" And he said, "This is an ox, this is a donkey, this is a horse, this is a camel..." "And what is your name?" He said to Him, "It is fitting to call me Adam, because I was created from the earth (adama)."

-Midrash Genesis Rabbah 17

It is interesting to watch from here the excitement and emotion in the United States over the election of Rep. Nancy Pelosi as the first woman to serve as Speaker of the House of Representatives. Israel, of course, is accustomed to women in high places - we had a woman prime minister three decades ago, and women regularly serve as ministers - as for example the current foreign minister, Tzippy Livni. However, the reality of the relationship between gender and authority in Israel is more complicated than is obvious from those historical facts.

Zionism was more than simply a movement to obtain land and statehood. It was a revolution against the Diaspora - and against the perceived nature of Jewish identity in the Diaspora. The Zionists sought to create a New Jew, who would be strong and brave, natural and free, freed of the neuroses and fears of ghetto life. This direction in Zionism can be seen as reflecting a trend in European thought of the late 19th and early 20th centuries - a feeling that European society was decadent and weak, cut off from its roots in blood and soil. Young intellectuals in Europe envisioned a New Man. So did, a little later, the Soviet Union.

In our case, the New Jew was expected to be some kind of a new hybrid, bringing together the virtues of rootedness in the soil; suntanned, muscular good health; simple morality and a sense of honor; courage and military prowess; a proclivity for wholesome, honest, physical labor; commitment to his community and his people; and some kind of Jewish cultural distinctiveness. While there was a certain amount of rhetoric, from the early 20th century, about equality between the genders, which was certainly in keeping with socialist ideals, a lot more imagination and interest was focused on the New Jew than on the New Jewess. And the memoirs of the early pioneer women are full of frustration and even bitterness at their relegation to the laundry, the kitchen, and the nursery. I think that while there was a theoretical commitment to gender equality and the liberation of women from their traditional roles and status, the image of the New Jew was definitely a masculine, “macho” one. Golda was an exception; those cute girl soldiers were mostly secretaries, teachers, and social workers in the army; and those chalutzot (pioneer women) spent an inordinate amount of time in the kitchen.

Israel, as it developed, incorporated a number of cultural influences that perpetuated traditional gender roles: perhaps first of all, the emphasis on defense, on the necessity of military thinking, skills, and prowess, on the culture of the army, generated a definition of the ideal Israeli male as “fighter” (a word transliterated into Hebrew phonetically to refer to a military “type.” Even six decades into statehood, the sense that we are under siege continues to be a part of our collective consciousness, and the combination of universal conscription and years of reserve duty (for men) to some extent convert the whole country into a barracks, dominated by buddies, comrades in arms, who enjoy an earthy, backslapping sense of esprit de corps that shows up in just about every social setting, and that is unquestionably masculine/macho in tone. Note that the opposite of a “fighter” is a “jobnik” – one who has a desk job or other noncombatant role in the army. Even though many men may be happy to get such assignments, traditionally it was not considered something of which to be proud. Another not-insignificant factor is the predominance in Israel of populations that representing pre-modern cultural backgrounds, societies that were and are extremely patriarchial – e.g., Jews and Arabs from the middle east, Ethiopian Jews, and Jews from Ultra-Orthodox communities. These cultures are very much alive and present all around us, and even those who have grown away from their roots often find it hard to break away from deeply ingrained values and habits.

American Jews cling to the image of Golda Meir as a nice Jewish grandma. But from closer up, it looks like she achieved her success in politics here by “acting like a man” among the men who built and ruled the country.

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