Searching for the Banner of the Hebrew Woman

The activity of women in the early pre-state period has been erased from the political history of Israel, argues the author of a new book on the struggle for suffrage and its repercussions today.

In the summer of 1919, an older, white-haired woman stood beside a young woman on the deck of the ship that was bringing them to the Land of Israel. In the blinding sun, the pair excitedly watched the approaching shoreline. “I cannot believe we will be docking on the Jaffa beach ... It sounds like a sentence in a novella or a dream,” the young woman wrote to her friend Henrietta Szold, before the ship reached shore.

The older woman, the letter-writer’s mother, an eye doctor who was over 60 − an age that was positively elderly in terms of those days − decided in the twilight of her life to settle in Palestine. But instead of retiring and spending the rest of her days in peace and quiet alongside her daughter and grandchildren, upon arriving in the country, Rosa Welt-Straus was appointed head of the nationwide women’s union. Indeed, for close to a decade she spearheaded one of the fiercest ideological campaigns in the life of the Yishuv, the Jewish community in pre-state Israel − the struggle for women’s suffrage. Ultimately, that struggle also caused the bitter rift between the zealots of the Old Yishuv ‏(dating from the Ottoman period‏) and the New Yishuv ‏(the waves of immigration up to the end of World War I‏), the results of which we are living with to this day.

Welt-Straus, a native of Bukovina who was brought up without any particular Jewish awareness, was first introduced to the ideas of Zionism shortly before she immigrated to Palestine. That she was not deterred from coming to the heat and chaos of the early 20th-century Levant is probably related to the pioneering figure she had always cut. Welt-Straus was the first girl in all of Austria to graduate from high school. And later on she attended the only medical school open to women in Geneva, and was even the first woman eye doctor in all of Europe. Nothing was going to prevent this person, a member of the International Women’s Suffrage Alliance, from realizing her national and feminist vision.

The charisma of the newly arrived activist did not go unnoticed by local women’s rights supporters, nor did her ties to suffragists in Europe. And when the first nationwide women’s party was founded in the New Yishuv in 1919, Welt-Straus was appointed its president.

The story of the Hebrew suffragist party, called the Union of Hebrew Women for Equal Rights in Eretz Israel − and primarily the history of the battle for women’s right to vote − is told in a forthcoming book from the Yad Ben-Zvi institute, “Hama’avak al Ha’kol: Leidato shel Feminism Ivri” ‏(“Battle for the Vote: The Birth of Hebrew Feminism”‏), by Prof. Margalit Shilo, of the Land of Israel studies and archaeology department at Bar-Ilan University. The book is an attempt to illuminate the activity of women who, “aside from in a handful of studies, have been literally erased from the pages of the political history of the State of Israel,” as the author puts it.

The women’s activism began in the early 20th century and focused simultaneously on obtaining suffrage in the country and in the Assembly of Representatives. The role of the assembly, the voluntary parliamentary body that was the forerunner of the Knesset, was to represent all the Jews in Mandatory Palestine in dealings with the British authorities. “Whereas in the Zionist movement, women had the right to vote as early as the Second Zionist Congress [1898], but never took an active part in it, in the assembly, women actively sought to attain full equal rights,” Shilo says.

First they fought for suffrage, which was granted formally only in 1926, she explains: “There was a very complex situation here, because no body had been established yet with the authority to determine who would vote and who would not. The trick was that women voted for an independent political list, an international precedent, and at the same time the issue of suffrage for women was still on the table.”

In hindsight, this complexity makes clear just how problematic the issue of women’s status is in contemporary civil structure, so long as there is no separation of religion and state in Israel. In effect, women’s rights signifies the unbridgeable ideological gap with the Haredim. To this day that gap keeps disrupting Israeli life, be it over women’s exclusion within that religious community or the struggle of Women of the Wall, for which a solution cannot be found.

“Granting women the right to vote in the Assembly of Representatives might have torpedoed the efforts of the Yishuv’s leaders, whose supreme goal was uniting the Old and New Yishuvim here, and representing one and all,” Shilo explains.

“There was a demographic matter here of great importance. There were two sectors: the old, zealous and conservative, and the new, secular and modern, and nobody knew − exactly like today − what the future would hold in terms of the balance of power between them. They realized that it was likely that the waves of immigration would lead to change, but still did not know who would capture the leadership here.”

One issue only

The political disagreements between the Old Yishuv and the New Yishuv did not stem, therefore, from debates over the school system, or over the faith-based judicial infrastructure of the Yishuv. They converged into a single topic: the women’s issue.

“On the one hand the leaders of the assembly did not want to forgo the Haredim, who constituted half of the Yishuv,” Shilo continues. “But on the other hand, they wanted to include equality for women in the new ‘Shulhan Arukh’ [Code of Jewish Law], as a social principle of the first order.” This is why a woman, Rachel Yanait Ben-Zvi, was invited to the first session of the Assembly of Representatives.

In the eyes of the Haredim, whose leader was the chief rabbi of the Old Yishuv, Yosef Chaim Sonnenfeld, granting women the right to vote was absolutely out of the question. “Women were the litmus test of the unification of all the sectors in the community,” says Shilo. “In the end, it was over the question of suffrage that the entire Haredi sector withdrew and organized itself separately.”

The argument over women’s suffrage arose at the beginning of the century, but it was only in 1917, at Rishon Letzion’s local assembly of representatives, that Nechama Pohatchevsky stood up and said: “It is inconceivable that we who toiled for the sake of the colony shall be pushed aside, when women all over the world are getting the right to vote.” Two years later, women in that city were granted their franchise, a development that paved the way for the big story that commenced in 1919 in Jerusalem: the founding of the women’s party.

In the period following World War I, the British designated Jerusalem, with its large Jewish concentration, as the capital of Mandatory Palestine. Zionist institutions begin relocating there from Jaffa. Pre-academic institutions, teaching colleges such as the one named for David Yellin, the National Library − all were founded in the city. The Bezalel Academy of art was there. An educated, Zionist public arrived.

“Let us organize under the banner of the Hebrew woman!” cried Sara Gliklich, a teacher from Jerusalem, one of new Yishuv’s pioneers of feminism. Initially, the women kept silent in the assembly. Rachel Yanait’s voice was not recorded in the assembly minutes. Silence likewise emerged from the direction of Sarah Tehon, whose husband, Yaakov, was the chairman of the assembly. Only in 1919, with the arrival of Welt-Straus, did they begin taking action and exercising their power.

Besides Welt-Straus and Yanait, the group of activists included Sarah Tehon, a community advocate who founded crafts workshops for hundreds of girls throughout the country, and Sara Azaryahu, a school principal, who served as secretary-general of the party and as Welt-Straus’ right-hand woman.

Welt-Straus, who did not know Hebrew, cast the vision and marked out the direction of the campaign, as well as made contact with the International Women’s Suffrage Alliance. She was not in fact a delegate to the Assembly of Representatives, so it was Azaryahu who delivered the speeches in that body. Also among the leading activists were Hasia Feinsod-Sukenik, a kindergarten teacher whose husband was the renowned archaeologist Eliezer Sukenik; Ada Fishman; Esther Yeivin; Dr. Miriam Nofach; and Hemda Ben Yehuda, wife of the person who revived the Hebrew language.

‘Inner spiritual selfhood’

In 1918, only a very small number of countries had women’s suffrage. “It is something new and the question is why we need to be first,” Shilo says. In contrast to the women pioneers, who were younger than them and were slow to realize they were being relegated to the roles of cooks and launderers, “these women are not willing to give up their status, even if at the cost of splitting the people,” she says.

Compared to other women’s associations that were active mainly as philanthropic organizations, the Union of Hebrew Women for Equal Rights in Eretz Israel had a broader perspective. “The woman deprived of rights needs to set herself free, because in this way she will also attain inner spiritual selfhood,” one union memo stated.

“They certainly saw the struggle for women as tikkun olam [social activism] by Jewish society in the Land of Israel,” Shilo says. “Feminism and Zionism would inspire each other. Their movement’s motto (from the book), ‘One justice and one constitution for man and woman,’ presented women as entitled to equality before the law. For most of the 19th century, the word ‘person’ did not include women, and the question of whether a woman is a legal personality in her own right reverberated for a long time,” Shilo writes in her book.

Rosa Welt-Straus, a wealthy woman, traveled every other summer to the international congress of the suffragists in Europe to represent the women of the Jewish Yishuv. “It was a platform for raising problems, reporting achievements. A source of empowerment for women,” Shilo says. “They realized that suffrage was a primary objective and from here you needed to go on to fight for equal pay − for the possibility that all professions be opened to women.” So, for example, the women’s union helped attorney Rosa Ginsburg obtain a work permit in 1929, making her the first woman lawyer in pre-state Israel.

Another goal was to raise the minimum age for marriage. The whole subject of marital relations was under the jurisdiction of the religious courts, and according to halakha ‏(Jewish law‏), the marriageable age for girls is 12 and for boys, 13. Thanks to the union’s efforts the age was raised to 15. The organization also set up legal aid bureaus to help women on a volunteer basis with representation in court. In keeping with their understanding that knowledge is power, they also distributed a book on women’s rights, and held lectures on women’s status, culture, history and politics.

Only in 1926 was their dream realized, at least partially, when the Haredim, who preferred not to face the possibility of a plebiscite, chose to pull out of the Assembly of Representatives, thus paving the way to the declaration of women’s suffrage. Ultimately, the union was not accorded a place of honor in the history of the state, perhaps because it failed to establish a successor generation, and when the founders’ generation matured, there was no one to carry on their activity.

Welt-Straus died in the United States at the age of 82, a decade before the state’s establishment. “The problems they saw have remained the same problems to this day,” Shilo concludes. “Just in the matter of representation in the Knesset, Shas and the other Haredi parties still have no women representatives, in the former National Religious Party women were not always given viable Knesset seats. And in general, women’s representation is lacking. Maybe the current Knesset shows signs of that changing.”

Yad Ben-Zvi