Dafna Izraeli, 1937-2003

A leading feminist scholar, she demonstrated how women are kept inferior in the labor market

Prof. Dafna Izraeli, who died of cancer on Friday, was different from many academics in one respect - she consistently practiced what she preached.

Perhaps it came with the English-speaking culture in which she was raised, perhaps it was the liberal Canadian outlook she had absorbed, or perhaps it was simply her personality. Whatever it was, Prof. Izraeli, who was 65 when she died, devoted her work as a sociologist to theoretical feminist studies.

She focused in particular on the basic feminist issue that it seemed many women in the field had long ago tired of studying - women in the labor market. Izraeli, who followed a traditional-religious life, examined the structure of employment and the way it perpetuates the inferiority of women and the tension between work and family.

She was also among the first researchers in Israel to have pointed out the close connection between the gender power structure in the army - the way the army reinforces the differences between the sexes and awards symbolic capita to males - and the gender power structure in Israeli civilian society.

But Izraeli also did a great deal to advance women at the university - no trivial matter. She subverted the rules of the traditional academic hierarchy, counseled women students on how to advance, got scholarships for them and established a generation of feminist lecturers.

She was active in establishing the Israel Women's Network and was on the executive of the New Israel Fund, which gives economic support to field organizations.

She also donated her own money to activities of feminist organizations and opened her home to women students, colleagues and feminist activists. She spread the message of feminist criticism outside the campuses as well - through lectures, meetings and interviews.

"Dafna gave me, and others, a great deal more than she received," says Dr. Tamar El-Or, an anthropologist at Hebrew University, who was the first doctoral student Prof. Izraeli supervised. Her doctoral thesis, on ultra-Orthodox women, was published in English as "Educated and Ignorant: Ultra-orthodox Jewish Women and their World," (Boulder, 1994).

El-Or believes this stems, in part, from Izraeli's Anglo-Saxon upbringing, which affords great importance to the concept of community. "She knew the community is a source of strength and potential for change, both in general social contexts and in feminist contexts," says El-Or.

In her opinion this is what was the basis of Izraeli's extensive activity on campus for the advancement of women and off campus in field organizations. Prof. Alice Shalvi, formerly founding chairwoman of the Israel Women's Network, says that Izraeli, like other leading Anglos-Saxon feminists - among them Shalvi herself, Frances Radai and Galia Golan - was both unique and outstanding in her activities in Israel because in the country of her birth, Canada, she absorbed the values of democratic culture. Izraeli immigrated to Israel in 1958, aged 20.

Possibly this is the source of the motivation of Anglo-Saxon feminism in Israel, this gap between the values learned at home and the reality in the new society.

Dr. Hannah Safran of Haifa University wrote a doctoral thesis on the influence of American feminism on the feminist movement in Israel. She notes that Izraeli and others like her "came to Israel not only with democratic and feminist ideas, but also with the myth that equality between the genders already existed in the Zionist movement. The shattering of this illusion was what motivated them to action."

According to Dr. Ruth Halperin-Kadari, the head of the center for the advancement of the status of women at Bar-Ilan University, in her personal and academic life, Izraeli embodied the feminist principle that "the personal is political" - the perception that our patterns of behavior and the ways we conduct our personal lives have a direct influence on public life and the distribution of power in society.

"The way she embraced me, like other young women lecturers, and advanced me to positions in the university that in the academic hierarchy were intended for people more senior than me, was a direct and natural result of this perception of hers," says Halperin-Kadari.

Prof. Ariella Friedman of the psychology department at Tel Aviv University says Izraeli was also unique on the academic scene in the way she related to research. "She would really get excited by the results of studies. She was full of vitality and she wanted to do research in order to influence."

Izraeli was known to her colleagues as a demanding woman, often direct to the point of harshness, sarcastic and sure of her opinions.

However, she also knew how to listen to criticism of herself in the Israeli feminist movement that suggested her feminism was too liberal and focused on the problems of the well-off Ashkenazi elite to which she belonged.

At the first conference of the Feminist Studies Association, held about three years ago at Beit Berl, she related to this criticism in a jocular way: "I'm the wealthy, Ashkenazi elite that you're so much against," she said, "but that's just fine. And this reminds me of a joke. Three Jewish women are bragging about their sons. The first says, `my son visits me once a day and brings me presents all the time.' The second says, `my son takes me for trips abroad and phones all the time.' But the third woman is the winner: `My son sees a psychologist twice a week and only talks about me.'"