Israeli women’s rights pioneer Marilyn Safir to speak in Tenafly

Israeli women’s rights pioneer Marilyn Safir to speak in Tenafly

When Marilyn Safir arrived in Israel in 1968, she expected to find a society where women and men were “equally prominent.”

Instead, said the University of Haifa professor emerita, she quickly discovered that what she had read about Israel, and the situation she encountered, “did not seem to be the same.”

Safir, an early leader of Israel’s feminist movement and the founder of that nation’s first women’s studies program, will speak at Temple Sinai in Tenafly on Oct. 14.

The Brooklyn College graduate and former Syracuse University educator will discuss “Women in Israel – Is Equality a Myth?”

Safir, whose training is in experimental and clinical psychology, said she realized soon after coming to Israel that the idea of equality in kibbutzim was a “myth.”

Marilyn Safir has been called the mother of the Israeli women’s movement.

“The way work was divided was more stereotyped than in the city,” she said. “They had broken the typical family structure, but in the end made it more conservative. Women were primarily responsible for taking care of kids, while men took care of the productive end of the kibbutz.”

“People told me that 50 years earlier, men and women worked shoulder to shoulder, but women found it too hard and went back into the kitchen,” she said. Questioning that theory, she began doing research into the diaries of women who came to Israel at the turn of the century.

“It was quite clear that their concept of equality was different from that of women today,” she said. In the writers’ eyes, equality “allowed women to become more ‘male-like,'” with short hair and loose-fitting clothes. But men still controlled what was being done.

Still, she said, Israel is ahead of many countries in some areas, for example in paid maternity leave and the awarding of tenure in a way that recognizes women’s role in bearing and raising children.

She noted also that women hold primarily non-military roles in the Israel Defense Forces, which occasioned a split in the women’s movement.

“Some demanded that women get the kind of training that would allow them to become high officers,” she said. “Another group started protesting against war in general.”

Safir is the director of KIDMA: The Project for the Advancement of Women in Israel, established in 1984 and based at the University of Haifa. Initiated and led by women academics, KIDMA “aims to advance the status of women in Israel through creating programs to help women increase their positive involvement in Israeli society,” according to the group’s website.

The feminist pioneer noted that religion plays a “negative role” in the area of women’s rights in Israel, contending that there is no constitution because of a refusal to agree that women and men are equal before the law.

“Every now and then, someone says, ‘Let’s approve a constitution but leave that part out. We’ll work on that later.'” But once a constitution is drafted, “no one will work on it,” she said.

Safir said that while Israeli society is “caring, [with] much more interaction between families and helping one another,” there are still areas that need improvement.

For example, women still do not receive equal pay for equal work. In addition, while the Knesset now has more women than ever before, “women ministers are few and far between. Tzipi Livni is not getting the support she should because she is a woman,” Safir added.

She also suggested that in Israel, “if a woman can’t have a baby, she is made to feel useless,” pointing out that there are more fertility clinics in Israel per capita than in any other country.

The Haifa professor said it is important for liberal Jews, including Conservative and Reform Jews, to become more actively involved in Israel, “to follow what’s happening, come over, and have some input. They should become citizens and vote,” she said.

The Oct. 14 event is co-sponsored by the American Society of the University of Haifa, Temple Sinai of Bergen County’s Sisterhood and Renaissance Group, and the Jewish Women’s Connection of the Kaplen JCC on the Palisades. Pre-registration is required. Visit or call (212) 685-7880, ext. 22.

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