A Glimmer of Hope for Religious Women in Israel

Elana Maryles Sztokman, Sourcebooks 2014

Most Americans are familiar with what the media has dubbed the “War on Women,” or Congress’ relentless attacks against many basic women’s rights. Fewer know that Israel is also suffering from a resurgence of conservative ideologies and consequent rollback of feminist gains. In her book The War on Women in Israel: How Religious Radicalism is Smothering the Voice of a Nation, Elana Maryles Sztokman exposes many gendered issues within Israel, delivers a spot-on analysis of the underlying reasons for the inequalities, and proposes creative solutions to build a more inclusive society.

I feel that the book is enhanced by Sztokman’s overall love of Israel. As a dedicated Zionist, I often struggle when I feel the need to critique my homeland, since I fear that those in the anti-Israel camp will twist my words and use them for their own nefarious purposes. However, it is important that we who support Israel without fail do not try to cover up its rough edges; otherwise, we cannot hope to perfect the Zionist dream. In The War on Women in Israel, Sztokman shows that one can be a committed Zionist, even one who lives in Israel and has children serving in the Israel Defense Forces, and still agitate for change within Israeli society.

All nine chapters in which Sztokman isolates the biggest gender issues within Israel are impeccably researched, well-written, and interesting to read. Personally, I found the chapter on Women of the Wall’s 25-year struggle to democratize access to the Kotel particularly captivating. Perhaps my attention was piqued because I was planning to pray with Women of the Wall, but I think it was more because of the detailed and in-depth summary that Sztokman gives of Women of the Wall’s history and her analysis of their treatment by the Israeli government and society. I thought I had learned everything there is to know about Women of the Wall from various Orthodox feminist events I have attended, but I gained a lot of new information.

At the end of every chapter, Sztokman includes examples of how feminist activists, such as the Center for Women’s Justice, which helps women being treated unfairly by their husbands or Jewish courts in the divorce process, are working to fix each issue she discusses. I very much appreciate these additions. Without such information, this book could easily read as a dreary, depressing view on the inequalities in Israeli society. Instead, it comes across as a chronicle of all of the inspiring, bottom-up activism that brave women and men are engaging in to create a better Israel.

Although this book is certainly more of an exposé on the status of women in Israel than a source of inspiration, I certainly walked away from it with renewed conviction that Israeli women will not just take oppression sitting down. Having been a part of the American feminist activist scene for the past several years, I see the same passion and conviction in Israeli feminists’ work against institutional and casual sexism as I do in Americans’. There may indeed be a war on women, in both Israel and America, in 2014. Based on Sztokman’s research, I have no doubt that this war will be short-lived.

 

Talia Weisberg is a student at Harvard University.

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