The American Jewish Woman Who Brought Feminism to Israel

Marcia Freedman was a Knesset pioneer when the women's movement in the U.S. was already underway.

Tzafi Saar
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Tzafi Saar

For months the Knesset speaker rejected Marcia Freedman's request to speak about domestic violence in the legislature. In the end, the Knesset member finally received permission to raise the issue. "I hadn't even finished saying the words 'Honorable speaker, honorable Knesset,' when the heckling began," recalls Freedman, who is now 71.

"Why the discrimination in how you're bringing up the issue?" shouted one MK from the Liberal party. "Why aren't you talking about wives who beat their husbands?" His colleagues giggled and several more similar jokes were made throughout her entire speech.

That was in 1976. A mere 34 years ago. Freedman - who was elected to the 8th Knesset on behalf of Ratz, the civil rights party headed by Shulamit Aloni (and a precursor of today's Meretz) - had immigrated to Israel from the United States nine years earlier. "When I first arrived I had very little feminist consciousness - only the then-maverick sort I'd developed on my own when deciding, in the 1950s, that I wanted a career as well as a family," she relates now from her home in Berkeley, California, in an interview conducted on the occasion of International Women's Day. "I had some company in this attitude in New York, but very little in Haifa. In the Knesset I found very little sisterhood, but there were exceptions, notably Haika Grossman."

Freedman went back to the United States in 1981; between 1997 and 2002 she returned to Israel, where she had been a pioneer. At a time when the feminist movement had already taken off in her native country and succeeded in raising a varied agenda of issues connected to women's lives and status, in Israel even her appearance in trousers in the Knesset was seen as a scandal.

"All the issues I brought up in the Knesset - from secret arms sales to South Africa to violence against women - were enveloped in a conspiracy of silence," Freedman says. "The walls of denial shot up especially high around women's issues, and above all around issues connected to a woman's body: rape, beatings, incest, teenage prostitution, breast cancer prevention, fertility management, abortions."

When she looked for data on violence against women, the Haifa police chief told her: "The Arabs beat their wives, not the Jews." He then added with a smile: "They say that even if the wife doesn't know yet why she's being beaten, she will know." When she asked if the police had statistical data on complaints of domestic violence he said no. Are these complaints investigated, she asked him. "Only if blood is shed and bones broken," he replied. "Otherwise we regard this as a personal matter between a husband and his wife."

When Freedman raised the issue in the Knesset - as noted, with great difficulty - the then minister of police (the position known today as the public security minister) said he didn't believe domestic violence in Israel was as extensive as she claimed. "The problem exists in this area just as it exists in other areas. For example, look at the people who push each other in the line for the bus," Freedman said. The minister eventually said that, in his opinion, the issue was not one of public interest.

The fact that things have changed since then, even if not sufficiently, can be credited to a great extent to Freedman's work. Today there are 13 shelters in Israel for battered women and their children. In 2008, these facilities provided care for 692 women and 1,016 children.

How do you see the present situation of women in Israel?

"I'm afraid I have been out of the country too long to accurately comment on women's situation or the status of the women's movement right now, especially since so many other things have changed so much," says Freedman. "At the time, my sense was that feminist consciousness was much more widespread in Israel, that there had been some real change - especially for educated and professional women - but that for most women not much (if anything) had changed in the material conditions of their lives.

"Israeli feminism today is much more diverse than in my time," she adds. "In the 1970s we were almost entirely a middle-class Ashkenazi movement that developed and spread from university campuses. The feminists of the 1970s and 1980s believed in a universal 'sisterhood' that united all women, and therefore conveniently wiped out differences, but there was also a grain of truth in that belief as well. Many contemporary feminists talk about the many 'feminisms' there are - meaning that no one analysis of gender, class, race, religion, nationality fits all. I agree with that. But I also think that if these many 'feminisms' were overlayed one upon the other, there would be certain clusters of issues that appear everywhere but in different forms that often disguise the similarities. One feminist analysis doesn't fit all, but I believe there is a meta-theory that encompasses it all."

What do you think about new kinds of self-styled feminism, such as women who stay home and explain that this is out of choice and that feminism means choosing what you want?

"I am a feminist who believes deeply in the value of personal autonomy. In fact, I believe that a world in which all women and men can safely and securely exercise their autonomy and interconnectedness is pretty much my idea of feminist heaven. So, yes, I respect those women (and men) who choose to raise their children as full-time moms (and dads). I would only point out that this is only possible in middle-class families who can live comfortably on one salary. I would also point out that the overwhelming number of parents who choose to remain at home with their children are women. This shouldn't go unexamined. Is it biology? Is it the design of the workplace? Is it a residue of discriminatory patriarchal attitudes? Is it all of the above?"

Why do so many women not identify themselves as feminists? "Too much bad press."

The feminist movement in Israel, Freedman says, is "heavily focused on both providing necessary services to victims/survivors of violence against women and doing educational work in the community and criminal justice system. Since this was our number 1 issue in the 1970s, it is gratifying to me personally. On the other hand, I cannot forget that in all these years there has been no reduction in the incidence of violence against women. That fact raises a lot of questions - and this is not just here, but throughout the world."

How is it possible to explain the fact that despite the changes, the awareness and the laws, the amount of violence has nevertheless not decreased?

"There are many reasons for this. Israel is still living in a violent culture. Among the public, there is not a sufficient amount of ... educational activities. And there is opposition to serious and appropriate punishment of offenders - both among the decision-makers in the government and in the court system. Instead, the matter is in the hands of therapists or support groups, whose activities have succeeded in preventing only a small proportion of the cases."

Another important topic for Freedman is the striving for peace. "There is a very direct connection, but a complex one between militarism and exaggerated forms of masculinity, and with nationalism as well," she says. "A lot of feminist energy is invested in the women's peace movement. That was certainly the case when I was in Jerusalem before and during the second intifada. It was my impression that as the more centrist peace movement imploded, the feminist peace movement expanded."

Freedman was not only one of the first to put violence against women on the public agenda, she was also among the initiators and founders of the first shelter for battered women in Israel. In the 1977 elections, the women's party she founded did not win sufficient votes to enter the Knesset and toward the end of that year, in partnership with other women she established the shelter in an apartment in Haifa.

In her 1990 book "Exile in the Promised Land" (which has been translated into Hebrew), Freedman wrote: "We wanted to keep the location of the shelter secret and so we decided to do everything ourselves, including collecting the furniture and the refrigerator and carrying it up the narrow, winding stairway to the apartment. When we decided we were ready, we invited the media to the shelter. The next day the journalists reported on the establishment of a club with the odd name of 'Women for Women' - whose aim was to serve as a shelter for women who flee from domestic violence. They noted the address of the shelter was confidential, but published our phone number in the headline. The phone started ringing non-stop and within a month the shelter was full."

Freedman can take credit for another pioneering role as well: She was the first openly lesbian Knesset member. In the past she said: "The subject then was very closed, non-existent. I had to hide this from my family and hold parties behind closed shutters. In the 1970s very few women dared to admit to being lesbians and the same was true among men."

Freedman upholds the view of American poet and essayist Adrienne Rich, who in her formative book "Of Woman Born: Motherhood as Experience and Institution" (1976) says heterosexuality is forced on women as a way of perpetuating patriarchy. As Freedman says, "It is important that women know there are options in all directions."

What do you think about the attitude toward homosexuals in Israel? Where do we stand as compared to what is happening in the Western world?

"I think the gay rights movement has been successful in achieving, through the courts if not in direct legislation, a degree of equal rights at least comparable to those of other developed countries. I also witnessed a real change in acceptance and openness about gay and lesbian identity. But, from afar, I have an ominous sense that there is a period of suppression, and even oppression, of gay rights beginning to dominate the political establishment. The religious right, now with so much political power, is no friend of gay rights - or anyone's rights, for that matter."

From 2000, when she left Israel for the second time, to 2007, Freedman served as president of Brit Tzedek v'Shalom, the American Jewish Alliance for Justice and Peace. "Recently," she says, "Brit Tzedek was integrated into the new J Street family as the basis of its new emphasis on building a grassroots base. I am a member of the National Advisory Board of the J Street Educational Fund and a contributing editor to Persimmon Tree, an online literary and arts magazine by women over 60 ( I'm also working on another book."

Do you have any advice for young feminists?

"I wish I did. But what do I know about being a young person in the 21st century?"



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