Rabban Shimon ben Gamaliel said: if a man vows that his wife may not work, he must divorce her and pay her ketubah, for idleness leads to boredom.
-Mishnah Ketubot 5:5
I have written on several occasions about events sponsored by Dugrinet, the Hebrew-Arabic web magazine that our education center is trying to develop. Recently I attended another in this series, a morning devoted to the issue of women's empowerment in the Arab community.
We cosponsored the program with Sindyanna of Galilee, an NGO based in the village of Kfar Manda (known locally as a relatively old-fashioned, agrarian village), that supports women's empowerment by job training, and especially by encouraging women's involvement in agriculture and business. Sindyanna has opened a bright, spacious shop/visitors center in a storefront in the village, where they hold training sessions and public events like this one, and sell various local products such as olives, olive oil, olive oil soap, and handmade baskets. Their flagship project is the basket weaving group. Although this is seen as a traditional village craft, it has been lost in the local population, and a Jewish basket artist from outside the area was brought in to teach the village women how to make traditional baskets. Which they learned very well, and the products of their work that are sold in the shop are beautiful and useful - and not cheap. A few years ago when we visited Ethiopia, we encountered various basket markets where beautiful hand-made baskets were on sale for pennies. This of course makes the sale of baskets made by people (almost always women) who are earning a reasonable wage for their work very challenging: if I can buy an Ethiopian basket for a small fraction of the cost of a Sindyanna basket, how can the Galilean women compete? And if I insist on buying fair trade items, only those whose makers earn a fair wage, it helps the Galileans but hurts the Ethiopians (in the short run...). Globalization.
In any case, the morning was very interesting. The pioneers from Eastern Europe a century ago came here with the vision of being "reborn" as New Jews, who would farm the land with their own hands (as opposed to hiring the local Arabs to farm it for them). Over time, they rediscovered the attractions of the middle class, and agricultural labor became the livelihood of later waves of unskilled immigrants. Then, after 1967, Palestinian labor from the West Bank and Gaza became cheaper; but Intifadas and terrorism interfered with that arrangement; today, 60% of Israel's agricultural labor is provided by temporary workers from Thailand and elsewhere. Meanwhile, in Arab villages there are almost no opportunities for women to work outside the home. The sewing factories that once served this function have mostly moved to Jordan or farther east. Sindyanna and other organizations like it are seeking to reclaim agricultural labor and related opportunities such as food preservation and traditional crafts as a source of personal dignity for women - and income for Arab families.
Meanwhile, I have observed through the years that when we work with high schools in Arab villages to create encounter programs with visiting Jewish teens, the participants tend to be predominantly female; and school principals verify this trend: the boys know they can make a good living in construction; the girls know that their best hope for a life different from that of their mothers is higher education; they are driven academically, and I am no longer surprised by the Bedouin girls who astound their American interlocutors by describing their plan to become surgeons. I have no doubt that some of them will - and that it is our responsibility - and in our interest - to make sure that they do.