The chasm between the accolades for the Israel Defense Forces, the parade of former generals through the television studios and the silence of the politicians, and the pain of the grandmother from Dir al-Balah who lost three of her grandchildren when the IDF bombed the Sawarka family’s house, once again leads one to wonder what things would be like if women held key positions. It’s wishful thinking, usually accompanied by the assumption that everything, or almost everything, would be different.
The foundation for this question is those characteristics that are traditionally associated with women: Compassion and concern and the way they see the world – not as a hierarchy, but a network. There is also the assumption that because of motherhood, women are capable of expressing solidarity, even if they’re on opposite sides of the border. After all, we are the ones who give life and raise children who are destined to be drafted into defending the homeland. This view was common during the first years of the State of Israel, when women were a small minority (around 10 percent) of the Knesset, the cabinet had one female minister, and the possibility of women running the country was inconceivable. Nevertheless, there was an understanding that women had the power to influence decision making.
As the mothers of soldiers, women expressed their opinions on Israel’s security policies and called on women to express their positions at the ballot box. In the summer of 1955, MK Esther Raziel-Naor of the Herut party urged women to get involved in public life, since “as a citizen of the state, a woman must offer her opinion on the general problems that cut through our area,” first and foremost defense issues. “The government of Israel has done nothing to eliminate the war of the [Arab] infiltrators,” she wrote, and explained that because women are the ones who give birth to the next generation and educate it to serve in the IDF, they must make their voices heard “to halt the bloodshed on the borders.”
When a woman held a high position, other women reminded her that she was also a representative of Israeli women and mothers. “Women and mothers are the ones whom you know love peace and life, but you also know their readiness to sacrifice,” it was written in Dvar Hapo’elet, a women’s periodical, when Golda Meir was appointed foreign minister in 1956. “Have them in mind when you speak in the name of peace.”
Women on the radical left who attacked government policies called on women on both sides of the border to show solidarity, on the assumption that motherhood is universal. From their perspective, motherhood blurred differences of nationality and religion; the border they drew was gender-based. Since the women of both nations can give life, they said, they had a joint interest in preserving it. As Ruth Lubitch, then a prominent activist in Israel’s Communist party (and later active in Hadash), said in a 1960 speech, “Let not the son of one mother kill the son of another mother.”
A clear expression of this approach can be found in the women’s column of the Communist party journal Kol Ha’am. In November 1956, 63 years ago, right after the Sinai campaign, the columns dealt with the price of the war. Alongside the picture of a woman lying on a coffin about to be lowered into a grave, the caption reads, “Who is this bereaved mother?” And the answer was: every woman, because “the grief and agony don’t know the borders of race, nationality or religion.”
This universal call by women for peace was heard then at the margins, outside official channels. It was considered provocative and not Zionist enough (if at all). As a result, it remained unheard. It could be that then it was also wishful thinking, much like the calls of the women from the political center, and certainly from the Zionist left; that in those days the cry of women for peace came from the sober realization that it wouldn’t happen in their lifetimes. Since then 60 years have passed, and it’s clear that the time has come for an outcry.
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Dr. Sharon Geva is a lecturer in history and gender studies at the Kibbutzim College of Education, Technology and the Arts, and at Tel Aviv University.