The study of gender in Israel is closely linked to an examination of its founding ideology, Zionism. Zionism, the movement for collective settlement in a Jewish homeland, did not only seek a political solution for the plight of the Diaspora Jews, but also called for a gendered transformation, strongly influencing contemporary Israeliness. Proponents of Muscle Judaism sought to physically, mentally, and spiritually transform the old exilic Jew into the New Jew, a transformation almost always projected onto the male body. The old Jew was pale, weak, and overly intellectual; the New Jew was strong, muscular, healthy, and embraced physical labor. While the focus was on radical male transformation, Zionist leaders also argued that its ideology would liberate women as well.
Therefore, the first waves of research on women in Mandate Palestine and Israel focused on the women of the Zionist elite (secular Ashkenazi Labor Zionists), questioning if their lived realities proved the claims of Zionist egalitarianism. By examining their role in vaulted institutions such as the kibbutz and labor unions, scholars argued that the division of labor in early Zionist settlements often followed traditional gender roles, despite claims of liberation. More recent work has focused on the gendered experiences from minority communities such as religious Zionists, Ultra-Orthodox Jews, Mizrahim, Palestinians, LGBTQ Israelis, and foreign workers. Scholars now recognize that gender in Israel is multifaceted and intersectional—that is, the lived experiences of men and women in Israel are inherently shaped by their ethnic and religious identities. Increasing amounts of diversity in the Israeli arts world, from literature and music to television, has inspired a scholarly literature on representation of women and gender in Israeli culture. Due to the heavily gendered nature of the Old Jew/New Jew dichotomy, Zionist masculinity was also an early topic of research, somewhat unusually in the field of gender studies.
Other scholars examine how Israel’s self-definition as a Jewish and democratic state affects gender relations. Due to the status quo agreement, issues of personal status (marriage, divorce, and conversion) are not governed by secular law, but by officially recognized religious communities. Orthodoxy is the only officially recognized expression of Judaism, and therefore all marriages and divorces for Jewish Israelis must follow Orthodox Jewish law, despite personal level of observances. Jewish marriage and divorce laws are inherently patriarchal, and many secular Israelis resent the intrusion of Jewish law into their private lives. In addition to the state sponsored Jewish courts, there are official Muslim and Christian courts as well. The lack of civil marriage means that there is no path for marriage between Jews and non-Jews, or same sex marriages, both forbidden under Jewish law. Nor is a secular alternative available for those wishing to avoid religious ceremonies altogether. Couples seeking non-Orthodox routes to marriage are forced to marry abroad and seek recognition for their partnership upon returning to Israel. While there are attempts to make these Jewish courts more amenable to women, the Orthodox monopoly on personal status issues remains one of the most contested features of Israeli life today.
Margalit, Ruth. “Israel’s Invisible Filipino Workforce” New York Times Magazine. May 3, 2017.
Rosman-Stollman E. 2018. “(Not) Becoming the Norm: Military Service by Religious Israeli Women as a Process of Social Legitimation.” Israel Studies Review 33 (1): 42–60.
Birth story (Radiolab/Israel story podcast)
Recommended Reading and Resources
- Jewish Women’s Encyclopedia
Each entry contains summaries and suggested readings, many of which are related to Israel and Zionism. Entries cover topics (e.g Mizrahi feminism) or individuals, usually significant women in Israeli and Zionist history. (e.g Shulamit Aloni.)
- Israel Story Podcast
Original creator of Birth story. Many of the episodes have a gender angle.
Fuchs, Esther. (Ed.) Israeli Women’s Studies: A Reader (Piscataway, NJ:Rutgers University Press, 2005).
Abdo, Nahla, Women in Israel: Race, Gender and Citizenship (New York: Zed Books, 2011).
Harris, Rachel S. 2017. Warriors, Witches, Whores : Women in Israeli Cinema. Contemporary Approaches to Film and Media Series. Detroit, Michigan: Wayne State University Press.
Halperin-Kaddari, Ruth. Women in Israel: A State of their Own (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2003).
Sered, Susan. What Makes Women Sick? Maternity, Modesty, and Militarism in Israeli Society (Hanover, NH: Brandeis Series in Jewish Women, 2000).
Kanaaneh, Rhoda Ann. Birthing the Nation Strategies of Palestinian Women in Israel. (Berkeley, Calif. Univ. of California Press, 2010.)
Kahn, Susan. Reproducing Jews: A Cultural Account of Assisted Reproduction in Israel (Durham: Duke University Press, 2000).
Chazan, M. 2012. “The Struggle of Kibbutz Women to Participate in Guard Duties During the Arab Revolt, 1936-1939″. Journal of Israeli History. 31, no. 1: 83-108.
Daoud, S. 2012. “Palestinian Working Women in Israel: National Oppression and Social Restraints”. Journal of Middle East Women’s Studies. 8, no. 2: 78-101.
Dahan-Kalev, H, and Rachel Jones. 2001. “You’re So Pretty–You Don’t Look Moroccan.” Israel Studies. 6, no. 1: 1-14.
Presner, T. S. 2003. “”Clear Heads, Solid Stomachs, and Hard Muscles”: Max Nordau and the Aesthetics of Jewish Regeneration”. Modernism and Modernity 10: 269-296.
Biale, David. “Zionism as an Erotic Revolution”, Eros and the Jews. From Biblical Israel to Contemporary America, ch. 8, pp. 176-203.
Feige, Michael. 2002. “Do Not Weep Rachel: Fundamentalism, Commemoration and Gender in a West Bank Settlement”. Journal of Israeli History. 21, no. 1-2: 119-138.
Rosenberg-Friedman, Lilach. 2003. “Religious Women Fighters in Israel’s War of Independence: A New Gender Perception, or a Passing Episode?” Nashim: A Journal of Jewish Women’s Studies & Gender Issues. no. 6: 119-147.
Shakdiel, Leah. “Women of the Wall: Radical Feminism as an Opportunity for a New Discourse in Israel”, Journal of Israeli History, 21 (1-2), (2002); 126-163.
Kamczycki, Artur. 2013. “Orientalism: Herzl and His Beard”. Journal of Modern Jewish Studies. 12, no. 1: 90-116.
Remennick, Larissa I. 2004. “Providers, Caregivers, and Sluts: Women with a Russian Accent in Israel”. Nashim: A Journal of Jewish Women’s Studies & Gender Issues. 8, no. 1: 87-114.
Dekel, Tal. 2015. “Welcome Home?: Israeli-Ethiopian Women Artists and Questions of Citizenship and Belonging”. Third Text: Critical Perspectives on Contemporary Art and Criticism. 29: 4-5.
Hirsch, Dafna, Dana Grosswirth Kachtan. 2017. “Is “Hegemonic Masculinity” Hegemonic as Masculinity? Two Israeli Case Studies.” Men and Masculinities. 1-22.
Karazi-Presler, T., Sasson-Levy, O. & Lomsky-Feder, E. “Gender, Emotions Management, and Power in Organizations: The Case of Israeli Women Junior Military Officers.” Sex Roles. August 2017: 1-14.
Kanaaneh, Rhoda. 2005. “Boys or Men? Duped or “made”? Palestinian Soldiers in the Israeli Military”. American Ethnologist. 32, no. 2: 260-275.
Sasson-Levy, Orna, Yagil Levy and Edna Lomsky-Feder. 2011. “Women Breaking the Silence: Military Service, Gender, and Antiwar Protest.” Gender and Society. 25, no. 6: 740-763.
Weiss, Shayna, 2016. “Frum with Benefits: Israeli Television, Globalization, and Srugim’s American Appeal”. Jewish Film & New Media. 4, no. 1: 68.
Many of these are available on Netflix, Amazon Prime, iTunes, Hulu, etc. Another source is the Israel Film Center’s streaming website, where one can screen films online for a fairly nominal fee.
Powerful about a woman denied a divorce in the rabbinical courts. Last in a trilogy about the same family. (Previous films were To Take a Wife and Shiva.) Last film of Ronit Elkabetz, one of Israel’s most important filmmakers and actresses, before she died.
A Touch Away
Television Series that focuses on a forbidden relationship between a Haredi teenage girl and a Russian immigrant in Bnei Brak. One Season. One my favorites.
Beauty and the Baker
Romantic comedy between a rich Ashkenazi model and a poor Mizrahi pita baker from Bat Yam. Great social commentary about love, gender,and ethnicity in today’s Israel. Two seasons.
Television series about dating lives of Religious Zionists in Jerusalem. Think Friends/Sex in the City, Orthodox Jewish Style. 3 seasons.
Television series about an Ultra-Orthodox family after their mother dies. 2 seasons. An American adaptation, set in Brooklyn, is currently in production.
Female soldiers battle boredom on an isolated army base. Dark Humor. Rights were acquired by Amy Poehler for an American adaption.
Fill the Void
Austen-esque drama about an Ultra-Orthodox family in Tel Aviv. Strong female Haredi characters and powerfully acted. The filmmaker, Ramah Burstein, is a Haredi woman who became religious later in life after attending Israel’s most prestigious film school.
Documentary about 3 Gay Israeli Palestinians living in Jaffa and the cultural clashes they face.
Georgian immigrants try to marry off their son but he’s secretly dating an older divorcee. Hijinks ensue. A lovely drama about immigrants, love, and finding your own path. Shot partially in Judeo Georgian.
A Bedouin mother and daughter battle their traditional society. One of the first Israeli feature films largely in Arabic
My Father My Lord
Drama that examines an Ultra-Orthodox couple reacting to the sudden death of their only child.
Documentary about Haredi women filmmakers.
Drama about a Persian Jewish immigrant family. Shot almost entirely in Farsi.
The Syrian Bride
Drama about a Druze family in the Golan Heights
Sequel to Yossi and Jagger, 2002. Rare case of sequel better than the original. While the original is about two male soldiers falling in love, the sequel is about the afterlife of the relationship and contemporary gay identity in Israel. You do not need to see original to enjoy the sequel but it doesn’t hurt.
Documentary film about the Palestinian women who found the first all women race car driving team in the Middle East.