When Israel Saw Women as the Bearers of the Next Generation of Fighters

Discrimination against women was rampant in Israel’s early years, but it was largely accepted by women themselves. Female MKs supported it, and research reveals that some of today’s chauvinist attitudes go back half a century and more

Ofer Aderet
Ofer Aderet
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Rina Levinson.
Rina Levinson.Credit: Hans Pinn

Of all places, it was in the archives of the Israel Defense Forces that Dr. Sharon Geva found the answer she had long been searching for. Geva, a historian who is interested in the role of women in Israel, wanted to find out why, for so much of the country’s history, there were no women in the air force.

“We were told all along that the reason was concern about what our enemies would do to female pilots who might be captured if their plane was shot down,” says Geva, a former reporter for the Israel Air Force Magazine.

However, she was startled at the official explanation, which she found in an air force document from 1957. “The air force commander does not think it would be moral [for women] to commit to not marrying or bearing children for five years,” wrote IAF commander Maj. Gen. Dan Tolkowsky, justifying the dismissal of a woman who had been enrolled in the flight academy school (and referring to the minimum duration of service for pilots at the time).

In other words, it wasn’t fear about a female pilot’s capture by the enemy that barred women from that position, but concern that their service would adversely affect another role, perceived as more important: bearing and raising children.

The archival document appears in Geva’s new book, “Women in the State of Israel: The Early Years” (Magnes Press, in Hebrew). During its first decade, Israeli society was taking shape and fateful political and administrative decisions were being made on foreign policy, security, the economy and the country’s social fabric. From the private kitchen to the corridors of power, from the laundry room to the Knesset, from diapering to flying fighter planes – Geva examines what women thought, wanted, felt and said.

The book’s Hebrew title (“What Does the Woman Say?”) and its chapter headings derive from women’s columns that appeared in the Israeli press in those years. These included Shulamit Levari’s popular Haaretz column, “For Woman and for Home.” Indeed, Geva’s historical research is based largely on newspaper items like these.

“There is no better historical source – certainly given the abundance of newspapers in Hebrew at the time – for becoming acquainted with the prevailing and implicit moods and viewpoints among the Israeli public in the country’s first years,” Geva told Haaretz.

In addition to her very comprehensive survey of the valuable nuggets waiting to be mined in the newspapers of the period, Geva conducted research at the Israel State Archives, the Israel Defense Forces Archives and the Central Zionist Archives. She also perused women’s memoirs and interviewed memoirists, including some who were key figures in the unfolding history of women in Israel after 1948.

One of them was Ester Spinat (née Ribak), who was a cadet in the IAF flight school in the 1950s. Cut from the roster, she wanted to find out why. As an adolescent, Spinat, who was born in Tel Aviv in 1935, had joined Air Force Youth, the branch of the prestigious corps that prepared pre-draft teenagers for flight tasks. Her parents objected, arguing that flying was not a proper profession for a woman. But she was determined.

“I am ready to give up everything in order to fly, it’s a wonderful feeling, incomparable,” she told the women’s magazine La’isha in a 1954 article headlined “Even a teen girl can be a pilot!” She added, “When you’re up there in the blue yonder, everything looks so beautiful. No flight is like any another, and you start to feel that you’re about to sprout wings.”

Closed cockpit

Two months after the interview, Spinat entered flight school, the only woman among 120 cadets – and was cut half a year later. “I wrote to everyone I could think of,” she told Haaretz last month, but failed to persuade the air force to reverse its decision. The list included Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion, Chief of Staff Moshe Dayan and President Itzhak Ben-Zvi.

However, anyone who thought that Spinat would turn herself into a symbol and harness her personal cause to a campaign to fight discrimination and further women’s rights and prevent, would have been disappointed. In the IDF Archives Geva found a letter Spinat wrote to a variety of political and military leaders. “I do not intend to fight for women’s rights and prove their place [in society],” Spinat wrote. She was, Geva notes, “loath to identify her struggle as being for the rights of women as such.”

In her letter to the luminaries, Spinat noted the “injustice” that had been done to her – and to the air force. “I was no less skilled than any of the others, maybe I was even one of the best,” she asserted. “This is not opinion. There were qualified people who said that if I had remained in the course I would have met all its demands.” She pointed out that she had successfully met all the physical criteria, which, as Geva notes, “were set for men, by men,” and she “placed the army at the top of her order of priorities, even though that was not expected of a woman.”

Spinat added in her letter that a few days before she was cut, another cadet told her, “Look, Esther, for us, we don’t even think about the fact that you’re a girl.” Geva takes this to be proof – in Spinat’s eyes – that she, as a woman, had excelled among the men and had even surpassed them. “She met criteria that others set,” Geva says.

Throughout the letter, Spinat emphasized that her behavior was not driven by sentiment. “I am not saying this in a fit of emotion… I am not trying to condemn the injustice of this step from a sentimental perspective,” she wrote.

On the contrary: Her reasons for sending the letter, she said, were “first of all the air force’s considerations, especially the material ones, and its considerations are also mine, because I see my future in it.” Geva explains that Spinat “was careful, lest her words be taken as a display of sentimentality – a saliently feminine trait that bespeaks ‘weakness.’”

Subsequently, however, the letter became, even if not planned, “a protest in the name of women as such,” in Geva’s words, albeit still in the spirit of the period and its limitations. “I am ready to forgo childbearing or at least to put it off to a later time,” Spinat wrote. “I am not rejecting love and I am not forgetting for a moment that I am a girl, but just because I was endowed with the ability to bear children, will you deprive me of flying?”

Spinat’s point of departure was extremely naive in 1950s Israel, Geva observes; she had tried to explain that “the womb should not be an obstacle on the way to the cockpit. But the role of women at that time was to stay home and raise children, not to fly planes.”

The office of the defense minister transmitted Spinat’s letter to the IDF chief of staff’s bureau, and it was sent to the commander of the air force for a response. That is the historical background to the document Geva found in the IDF Archives, setting forth the army’s view that it would not be moral to ask a woman to promise not to get married or have children for five years.

Geva: “She was cut because of air force policy that a woman’s path to the cockpit was should be blocked – not because she was a poor pilot or unsuited for combat; not for fear that she would be taken captive; and not because of the policy of the senior commander that held that combat posts were off-limits to women. The air force’s reasons were political, social and gender-based.”

Underlying this approach, Geva maintains, was the perception of “a traditional division of roles between women and men in the society and in the world of work,” in which a woman’s biology and gender identity are seen as inferior. “For them, to be a woman was a defect, like color blindness or shortsightedness. The ability to bear children was a defect,” Spinat told Geva.

“I could have been a professional pilot today,” Spinat, who turns 85 this year, said with a smile in her interview with Haaretz. With her civil aviation pilot’s license, which she acquired through the Israel Aviation Club before she was drafted, she continued to fly as an amateur even after she became a mother. “So I proved that a woman could fly even after giving birth,” she said.

Maternal destiny

Geva met Dan Tolkowsky, now 99, who was commander of the air force in the years 1953 to 1958, in the course of researching the book. When she asked him why he objected to women serving as pilots, he replied, “I liked order, and there must be order. A woman wouldn’t have been able to keep it up for five years, it would have deprived her of a woman’s regular rights.”

By “rights,” Tolkowsky meant marriage, childbearing and raising children – the leading tasks the nascent state earmarked for women, so as to create the essential labor force needed to consolidate its existence. “Ribak’s [Spinat’s] role was to be a human resource, a bearer of sons who would enlist in flight school – not to be a pilot in the organized military,” Geva writes in the book.

Yet, it wasn’t only men who felt this way. Geva relates the story of Rina Levinson, who is today 92. She obtained a pilot’s license in the United States and served as a pilot in the IAF in the 1956 Sinai War. In 1958 she worked as a pilot for Arkia Airlines, but was laid off after a short while. Levinson said she was cold-shouldered at the time by Senetta Yoseftal, a female MK for Mapai, forerunner of Labor. Levinson recalled that Yoseftal told her: “I would not feel safe in a plane if I knew there was a woman at the wheel.”

Rina Levinson, during her air force service as a pilot in 1955. Later, a female Knesset member told her, “I would not feel safe in a plane if I knew there was a woman at the wheel.”
Rina Levinson, during her air force service as a pilot in 1955. Later, a female Knesset member told her, “I would not feel safe in a plane if I knew there was a woman at the wheel.” Credit: Ilan Bruner / GPO

At the time, Geva writes, many women mobilized totally to fulfill what was perceived, in a patriarchal society, as a woman’s vocation, and saw motherhood as the realization of their destiny.

“Women’s role in society was seen as raising, caring for and educating the coming recruitment of IDF soldiers, with the aspiration that their daughters would behave exactly like them,” Geva writes. Back then, no woman openly challenged that destiny. “It was clear to them: Every woman of sound body and mind wants children,” she notes in the book.

To back up her argument, Geva collected statements by the leading women of the generation covered in her research. In this context, she quotes a 1955 speech by MK Beba Idelson (Mapai), a leading women’s rights activist, on the subject of women’s roles in Israel. She spoke about “pioneer mothers,” “farming mothers,” “working mothers” and “heroine mothers.” The bottom line was that for Idelson they were first of all mothers. It’s not for nothing, she emphasized, that (in Hebrew) “the words ‘mother’ and ‘nation’ derive from the same root.”

“We are fulfilling our obligation to the state, we are furthering its achievements,” Idelson maintained, explaining that women bore and raised not only their own children, but also the next generation of fighters. And thus, Geva says, “she endowed nursing and feeding, diapering and cradling with national significance.”

In this context, Geva points out that then, as now, bereaved mothers were the object of extraordinary esteem, bordering on adoration. First and foremost among them was Rivka Gruber, who lost two sons in the War of Independence. Known as “the mother of the sons,” she preceded by decades Miriam Peretz, an educator who lost two sons during their army service and has also become an iconic figure. (By the way, both Gruber and Peretz are Israel Prize laureates.)

Shunning feminism

Spinat’s mid-1950s protest did not become part of the public dialogue – it resonated only in the corridors of the air force – but in historical perspective, she was 40 years ahead of Alice Miller. In 1995, Miller persuaded the High Court of Justice to oblige the air force to accept women into the pilots’ course. She herself didn’t make the cut, but she paved the way for 50 female IAF pilots since then.

As noted, Spinat did not consider herself a feminist. This also applied to other historic heroines in Geva’s book. On the contrary: In the 1950s, which Geva terms the low point in the history of Israeli feminism, even women who tried to achieve breakthroughs in women’s rights did not want to be tagged “feminists.” “Maybe in this way they wanted to tone down resistance in advance and prevent people from closing their ears whenever they heard the word ‘feminist’ or its variations,” Geva says.

To back up her argument, Geva quotes MK Rachel Cohen-Kagan (who served first as a representative of the WIZO women’s Zionist organization, and later represented the Liberal Party), one of the two women who signed the Declaration of Independence (the other was Golda Meir), and the first and only person to date to head a women’s party in the Knesset. “The approach we, the women, take is not that of the suffragettes,” Cohen-Kagan said in 1949 when explaining her position on the recruitment of women to the IDF.

Similarly, there was Tehila Matmon, publisher of Ha’isha Bamedina (The Woman in the State) – “the first feminist journal in the country,” according to Geva, who rediscovered Matmon in her research. Matmon noted at the time that the call to enshrine women’s rights in law was not “some equal rights caprice according to the current fashion in the world.” She added that “the rise of women should not be seen as feminism or as sheer rule by women.”

In retrospect, some readers of the book may wonder why these woman stopped halfway and did not label themselves feminists. Geva, again referring to the spirit of the time, recalls that in the 1950s the approach of most women – those who didn’t make it into the Knesset, get into flight school or voice their views in a newspaper – was even more conservative.

In an era of decisions on a national scale, Geva points out, Israel’s women internalized the idea that “women’s causes were subordinated to state interests.” She adds, “It was determined for women – and they accepted – that their place was in the home, their task to raise a family and manage the household. From their place behind the scenes they mobilized to establish the state.”

Her conclusion may sound overstated. “The women were an element of the very mechanism that held them down. They were suppressed and were also suppressors,” Geva says. She is even more acerbic in the book.

“Women were a significant factor in weakening Israel’s female population, irrespective of party, origin or length of time in the country,” she writes. “Women replicated and perpetuated their weakness, and thereby weakened other women as well. They reaffirmed the accepted norms and cooperated with the forms of their own suppression, and thus were complicit in entrenching gender boundaries.”

At the same time, she insists that women should not be blamed for their fate. “I have a bone to pick with everyone, irrespective of gender. Feminism is good for women and men alike,” she says.

Journalist Shulamit Levari.
Journalist Shulamit Levari.Credit: Courtesy of the family

‘Fertility prize’

Against this background, it’s the exceptions to the rule who stand out in the book – those who voiced clear-cut calls of defiance. One was a reader of the journal Ha’isha Bamedina, who in the early 1950s wrote a letter to the editor in which she wondered why MK Cohen-Kagan, from the women’s party, did not take part in the Knesset session about the status of Jerusalem. “Do we women have nothing to say on the question of Jerusalem?” she asked.

Cohen-Kagan’s reply is the best evidence that she, too, had “internalized the gender boundaries,” Geva says. “All my many years of public work have not been in the military sphere or in the realm of foreign policy, and as such I was convinced that I would not be able to add anything to these questions,” she wrote.

A bold approach, rare for the time, was presented by Haaretz columnist Shulamit Levari. In 1961, she tackled a sensitive issue: a woman’s right to autonomy over her body. “She explained directly and clearly why it was the state’s obligation to allow every woman to terminate a pregnancy if she wants to, and why the popular notion that linked an increased birth rate to the country’s resilience was unfounded,” Geva says.

“We can assume that Mr. Ben-Gurion, too, knows that quantity is not always a blessing, even though he continues to advocate and encourage reproduction totally, and continues to mechanically distribute the fertility prize to every mother who bears 10 children,” Levari wrote.

“Every such mother receives the prize, even those who gave birth against their will, because they didn’t know how to prevent the pregnancy or the birth,” she added. In the years after Israel’s establishment, against the background of the pressure on women to bear as many children as possible and the law prohibiting abortions, Levari’s view was quite exceptional.

Other unorthodox voices that spring from the pages of the book are those of women who felt imprisoned in the kitchen, which they likened to a prison cell, and who sounded their outcry after buckling under the burden of housework, and of raising children and serving their husband. They were women who refused to accept the idea of “endowing the exhausting drudgery of household chores with national significance,” Geva avers, women who did not accept the notion that washing the floor, cleaning the toilet, setting the table and folding the laundry were “essential to consolidating the existence of Israeli society.”

A case in point is Rachel Galk, a Jaffa resident of 40 and the mother of two children, who was a preschool teacher. In 1952, she won first prize for an article she submitted to a competition sponsored by the newspaper Maariv. Her goal, as she put it, was to express the voice of the “nondescript, everyday woman, the one that people see everywhere, without stirring any special attention… like a sidewalk that’s trod on or like the air we breathe.”

The woman described by Galk was very remote from the “glamorous” image of the winners of contests such as the “Israeli Mistress of the House,” the “Israeli Housewife,” and, of course, the recipients of the fertility awards.

No girls need apply

Geva, 47, married and a mother, lives in Ra’anana and teaches at the Tel Aviv-based Seminar Hakibbutzim Teachers College and at Tel Aviv University. Her first book, “To the Unknown Sister: Holocaust Heroines in Israeli Society” (Hebrew), was published in 2010. Based on her doctoral thesis in history, it is a study of how Israel coped with the Holocaust through the prism of women’s narratives.

Geva also writes a self-styled “feminist” blog, about women who made history but were left out of the history books. She initiated and managed a project in which her students wrote entries for the Hebrew-language Wikipedia about 110 women who had not been accorded sufficient presence on the web. In each episode of a weekly radio program on Kan Bet, part of the public broadcasting system, she talks about a different historical female personage who is not well known to the public.

Asked what a contemporary woman would be likely to feel if she were to leaf through the women’s magazines of earlier generations, Geva offers a one-word reply: “Gloom.” However, she adds, the question is what to do with that gloom. “It’s banal, but it needs to be said: Knowledge is power. It’s essential to know the history of women in Israel, as women told it.”

Geva hopes that her new book will serve not only as a reference point in history lessons but will also enter the ongoing dialogue on the status of women in Israel. Readers of the book will definitely find echoes of the situation she describes in Israel today, such as the current debate about whether women should serve in IDF tank crews.

A historical lesson with contemporary resonance can also be derived from the story she tells of Dina Deutsch, who from an early age grasped the depth of the discrimination between men and women in Israel. Deutsch (née Pik) served in the IDF as a radio operator in 1948; after her discharge she tried to enter the same profession in civilian life, but she discovered that the doors were closed to her. Wherever she applied, she received the same reply – “Regrettably, we do not employ girls” – as she wrote in a letter to the newspaper Davar in 1953.

In her book, Geva quotes the straightforward reply of rejection Deutsch received from El Al. “Even though there is no explicit law among the international airlines concerning the non-hiring of women for the flight crews, other than stewardesses, in practice that custom exists as an unwritten law,” the Israeli national carrier wrote. “In the international community, including countries that have been flying far longer than Israel, we have not yet reached a situation in which the average passenger will place their trust in air crews if they include women who wield any sort of influence on the execution of the flight technically.”

It would be decades – not until 2016 – before the online news site Ynet ran an article headlined: “History made in El Al: All-female cockpit.” It was the first flight in the company’s history in which everyone in the pilot’s cabin was a woman.

Geva was curious to get Deutsch’s take on the progress that’s been made since the 1950s. With the perspective of one who has seen it all, she said, “Not much has changed.”

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