Israeli Women Who Made History – Now in Wikipedia Too

Historian Dr. Sharon Geva's enlisted her students to a first-of-its-kind initiative: Instead of taking a test, they wrote Wikipedia entries about Israeli women.

Tomer Appelbaum

You have probably never heard Tova Sanhedrai’s name. She was the first religious woman member of the Knesset. The name Rachel Markovski Landau, the first Israeli woman pilot, is also not commonly known.

And what about Bertha Landesman, who established the “Well Baby Clinics,” and Malka Rofe, who set up the first covert radio transmitter in Baghdad for the illegal immigration of Jews to Israel during World War II? Or maybe Lily Strassman-Lubinsky, who created the famous symbol of the Irgun.

After many years in which these names – and those of dozens of other women – were known only to their families, friends and academic specialists, something has begun to change in recent years.

Historian Dr. Sharon Geva is the moving force behind the change. She enlisted her students at the Seminar Hakibbutzim Teachers College for the project, the first of its kind. And you do not need to spend time in the library to enjoy it, all you need do is search on Google for the names of the first 65 women included in the project so far, in order to see the new entries, complete and up to date, in Wikipedia (though so far only in Hebrew).

Geva’s students, men and women, have written the articles – instead of taking a test or submitting a paper. Every semester they write entries for Wikipedia about Israeli women who made history.

“The idea for the project came up when it became clear that the women we studied about in class were not well enough known to the public, and were even absent from the teaching materials in the educational system. Even a Google search showed that these women were missing from cyberspace,” says Geva. This led her to decide to enlist her students for a declared feminist purpose: promoting the status of women who made history, but are still found only on the margins of it.

“To the shelf of history books: A feminist blog,” her blog is called, on which she formulated her goals for the course: not just to learn the history of Israeli society, but to make a change in it, to make the world around it fairer. “Returning women to history” is her agenda, based on cooperation and equality.

The opening exercise in her course is reading Israel’s Declaration of Independence. The bottom of the document represents the marginalization of women in Israel: “There are only two women among the 37 signers of the declaration,” she says. Everyone recognizes one of them, Golda Meir, who later became prime minister.

The second woman who signed the document, Rachel Cohen Kagan, is barely known. Before Geva’s project started, the Wikipedia article on her was quite sparse – even though she was a member of First Knesset on the Women’s International Zionist Organization (WIZO) slate, the chairwoman of WIZO Israel and the sponsor of the first law for equal rights for women in Israel.

The Wikipedia article (in Hebrew) was “laconic, based on the little information found on the Knesset website. Far from a life story that documented political, social and feminist activities,” said Geva. In 2012, when the project started, the article was expanded significantly. (The English Wikipedia article on Cohen Kagan is still unchanged.)

The students must conduct in depth and original historical research to write the articles. They search archives – and not just on the Internet – interview family and friends of the women, use old newspapers and books – which are all then used as sources for the articles.

The project will be expanded this coming academic year, and Geva’s students from Tel Aviv University will also participate. They will be asked to put a special emphasis on Mizrahi women, whose presence on the Web is even less than that of Ashkenazi women. “It’s addictive, since there is a real service to the public in it. After all, what is the value of academic discussions and revealing stories – as important and wonderful as they may be – if they do not reach my daughter in the end, who is starting eighth grade, and her teacher,” says Geva.