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From "The Forward"
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Feminism Israel Style

Or How Israeli Women and Jewish Women Work Together

On October 16, 2001, an extraordinary woman, Virginia Snitow, died in her home in Scarsdale. Virginia was a respected and beloved member of the Westchester community. An activist, a humanist, a civil libertarian and former teacher, she touched many with her creativity and intelligence and her concern for the rights of women.

I knew Virginia for many years as we both struggled in Westchester for women's equality, for civil rights, for an end to nuclear proliferation in a then burgeoning peace movement. These concerns took her beyond our shores to her second love, Israel. Her emphasis on women in Israel looms large especially today with conflict, violence and hatred obscuring the needs for equality, humanity and peace in that troubled region.

In 1979 Virginia received a call for help from Israeli women for funds to pay the rent on the only shelter for abused women in Israel. "Jewish men don't beat their wives" said the incredulous Snitow. She soon learned how wrong she was. So, in true feminist style, she gathered some friends around her kitchen table and set in motion an organization that could meet the needs of not only abused women, but troubled households, inadequate health care and discriminatory practices against minority women in Israel. The rent was paid and a group called US/Israel Women to Women was born.

It was clear to Virginia and the four women she corralled, that the need in Israel for support and target grants for shelters for health care clinics, and for a myriad of social services that the government could not or did not provide, was something the Jewish community in the United States could effectively endorse. They saw it as a partnership of Israeli and American women to meet those needs. The group based their giving as well as their work on feminist principles. These founders were all Hunter College graduates, descendants of immigrant parents with a strong social consciousness and adherents to progressive causes. They found their niche.

Virginia led the way. Always an ardent feminist and a believer in the ability of women to meet the needs of community and help empower other women. That was her "mantra'. What the State could not do, civil society (women's group) would do! The newly established group, WTW would not tell the Israeli women what to do, but would raise the funds and provide whatever help was appropriate so that they could be the decision makers.

Thus feminist theory Israel style emerged. The group advocated for inclusion of women's studies in the male dominated university administrations in Israel. But most importantly its services were to be inclusive. Education for the newcomers, many from Africa, were to be provided for on an equal basis with the older Sabra generation. The Arab community would not be ignored. A center for the Jewish Arab Economic Development focused on helping Israeli-Arab women acquire entrepreneurial skills for small businesses. Always these target grants stressed that the women must be empowered to act for themselves. They were encouraged to go on for higher education and to run for public office. Outreach to Arab women was a must.

What could be more timely? WTW recognized that these Arab women faced discrimination in education as well as in the workplace. They also had the burden of traditional customs and religious constraints. But with the help of US/Is WTW these Arab women have organized projects for child care teachers and shelters for abused women. Many have embarked on joint projects with Israeli women including leadership training and consciousness raising. Sound familiar? Not unlike the US movement.

There were other examples of outreach for the Bedouin women, a group that live in a strongly patriarchal sub-culture. They too have benefited from support and funds for skill training and start-up money for small businesses.

Orthodox women face a different problem in Israel. Although it is ostensibly a secular state, Israeli law is interpreted by one stream of Judaism, the Orthodox. Getting a divorce in Israel is at the discretion of the husband. If the husband denies the divorce, then that ends the discussion. These women who are called "agunat", are frequently compelled to remain in abusive situations. Some find refuge in shelters where WTW assists them through court proceedings.

And finally there is the question of the right to worship at the Western Wall. All three groups the Orthodox, the Conservatives and the Reform movements have come together to challenge the right of women to pray at the Wall. These 'Women of the Wall" have spent years pursuing their cause. After 12 years of protesting and lobbying, a judicial decision issued in the Spring of 2000 upheld their right to pray. The government was given six months to make appropriate arrangements. But even now there is another delaying tactic in the Knesset to overturn the decision. The women are still waiting!

After two decades of WTW, I felt it was time look at the organization, the changes, its successes, its strengths, its weaknesses. An interview with a board member seemed like a good way to start.

I met with Gerry Goldberg of Larchmont whose mother, Jewel Bellush, is the outgoing president of WTW. Gerry, the mother of two college students spoke glowingly of Virginia Snitow who she knew as a young woman. A community spirited young woman today, involved in women's issues, she was attracted to WTW for many reasons. Virginia was one and, of course, her mother. But more than that, Gerry wanted to make a contribution as a Jewish woman that reflected her values which included feminism, peace and justice. "A group that would strengthen the democratic principals in the Middle East.

"Our Board is concerned with strengthening women's equality in Israel" although she quickly adds, "In no way does our Board presume to tell Israeli women what they should do. We want to support their good efforts by funding grassroots activities so that women are empowered. They want to be certain that working class women get a shot at a better life as well with adequate health care and child care and so on. We want to be pro-active. Get there before the need becomes a crisis. We are non-political, so we provide for Arab women as well as Jewish women."

"How does the violence in the Middle East, the fear and turmoil affect your work?" I ask.

"There is a great deal of pressure on women during these times" says Goldberg. "One cannot deny that this puts a strain on Arab and Israeli women working together. But we try to come together and dialogue and keep lines of communication open."

"What about the US women of WTW, where do they stand on these issues?" I ask.

"Our US women are a diverse group, diverse in our political points of view. But what brings us together is that we agree on human values of peace and justice for all. We want Israel to be place where these values are strong and that there is a grassroots movement that includes all segments of the society."

She goes on to say, "Included in our outreach are Jewish, Christian, Muslim and Druze women. Also Bedouin, Russian, Ethiopian, Mizrahi and Palestinian women. The multicultural group is evidence that women have the capacity and ability to make this collaborative effort successful."

What make this group unique their leaders say, is their exclusive focus on women's issues and the creation of a lasting partnership between Israeli and American women. Again they state that although feminism if still not fully integrated into the institutions and cultures of the Middle East, US/ISWTW is a positive force in that direction.

Jewel Bellush, the outgoing chair, in her remarks about building the future, got it right when she said, "Years of strife, war and terrorism have left their mark on Israeli society and make it harder for women to take their rightful place as decision makers among the country's leadership. Yet quietly and persistently, women from all facets of Israel society are joining hands to build schools, health clinics, social programs and communities. Together they weave the social fabric that ensures the success of future generations and builds understanding with others."

Could this happen? One would hope so.

The fact that this group has withstood the test of time, is apparent. They are growing and they now have a web site. For those interested in contacting them: US/ISRAEL WOMEN TO WOMEN, 45 West 36th Street, 10th floor, New York, N.Y. 10018."