Zionism: A Pariarchal-Colonial Nexus

— Tikva Honig-Parnass

EVERY WESTERN NATION-state, Israel included, is a capitalist patriarchy that oppresses and exploits its female citizens and uses male domination and female subordination for the fulfillment of its objectives and the carrying out of its policies. But Israelis not just another capitalist nation-state whose male-dominated society is the root cause of women's oppression and domination. The State of Israel also embodies the objectives of Zionism, which were incorporated into the ideology of the Jewish state, the offspring of the Zionist movement.

Two characteristics of capitalist patriarchal states in general are as follows:

a) It is women's task to maintain the boundaries of the national collective, both through biological reproduction and in their role as "culture-bearers" who pass on its culture and symbols from one generation to the next.(1) Therefore, men's control over the procreative (or “private”) sphere, which consists of child-bearing, child-rearing, women's sexuality and institutions such as normative heterosexuality, marriage and the patriarchal family in general, is among the most important foundations of women's subordination in the nation-state as well as in the economy.

For this reason, even in secular nation-states where religion and state are separate, we find varying degrees of readiness to cooperate with political religion, which on its part is striving for a monopoly on the definition of the national/religious collectivity and on its reproduction.(2) The readiness of the state to retain religious symbols and institutions, and to give in to religion's efforts to broaden its influence, is always greater when it comes to issues related to defining women's roles and to the domination of women and their sexuality—especially with relation to the “personal” sphere of procreation.

b) The ideology of patriarchy—the complex of images, symbols, values, and accepted patterns of social behavior which contribute to or affect the social and political construction of masculinity/femininity and of "manhood'—provides the justification for the supremacy of maleness in the social order. The institutions and agents of the state, especially the military, play a central role in the construction of masculine and sexual identity and the oppression and exploitation of women. The frameworks of formal socialization, popular culture and the media, ensure the acquisition and internalization of these images and symbols.

The resulting close interconnectedness of militarism and sexism, a general characteristic of modern nation-states, takes on distinctive features in the Israeli context The State of Israel is a continuation of the Zionist movement, which was an essentially colonialist movement, in its dispossession of the Palestinian people and the expulsion of most of them from their homeland in 1948, and their continued oppression both in Israel and in the territories occupied by Israel in 1967. The State of Israelis also the continuation of Zionism in the sense of fulfilling an important role as an agent of Western imperialism—by destroying every attempt to establish an independent national movement striving to return control of the region's resources to the Arab peoples.

The 1967 war was indeed a turning point in the history of the Zionist movement and the State of Israel. In the years since, we have been witnessing a coming together of the Jewish fundamentalist movements and the secular radical nationalistic movements (the Gush Emunim movement and some of the right-wing parties, and the National Religious Party).

During the same period we have witnessed the growing militarization of Israeli society and its increasing sexism, and the strengthening of the trend towards making "state security" a top priority while subordinating the concepts of human rights, individual liberty and autonomy. Thus the war and occupation of 1967 resulted in the reimposition of state control over most areas of social life, and the retreat of civil society in Israel from the independent position that it had attained in the struggles of the 1960s.

The potential for these trends, however, was created long ago, from the beginning of the Zionist movement and the State of Israel. I am referring here to the wide consensus around Zionism and the Jewish-Zionist nature of the state.

This consensus did not allow the development of a labor movement with any degree of organizational, political or intellectual independence, either from Zionism or from the State—not even in the European social democratic sense. A society thus "enlisted" for the implementation of the goals and policies of the state could never give rise to grass-roots movements or voluntary organizations without their immediately being institutionalized or coopted by governmental or quasi-governmental institutions.

After 1967 the Zionist Left continued its wholehearted support for the maintenance of the Jewish character of the state, for imperialist control of the region and of the Third World as a whole. From its declared Etatism (statist ideology), it has moved on to support for the laws of a market economy, wanting to impose them on the relationship between capital and labor in Israel, while reducing government involvement in the economy.

All this has direct implications for the exploitation and oppression of Jewish women (and of course also of non-Jewish women, especially Palestinians), as well as of other sectors of Jewish society—particularly the Miztrahim (Jews of North African/Middle Eastern descent). In other words, the oppression of these groups cannot be attributed only to the fact that Israel is a male-dominated society, but is due also to its essential nature as a colonizing power, which strives to maintain Jewish control over Israel as well as over occupied Palestinian and Arab lands.

The Jewish-Zionist nature of the State of Israel means that the collectivity that this state is supposed to serve, and whose interests it is supposed to advance, is not all its citizens but rather the Jewish nation—as defined religiously—and its members all over the world.

The Orthodox religious answer to the question "Who is a Jew?" provides the definition of who is entitled under the Law of Return to automatically receive Israeli citizenship, along with many rights and privileges that are denied to non-Jews, notably the state's Palestinian citizens. Among other things, the first-class citizenship that is granted to Jews alone in Israel entitles them to lease land, and determines who can buy land in Israel, where people can buy homes, where workers may live, who can live in areas generally off limits to others, and entitles their non-Jewish spouses to citizenship.(3)

Not only has the definition of the national collectivity failed to be secularized. In the Jewish state a more inclusive process took place, which was the reverse of the prevalent trend in modern society: 'All of the civic symbols and essentially the entire collective identity became subservient and Zionism itself turned into a sort of variant of the Jewish religion, incorporating civic elements as well.’(4)

Zionism had need of Jewish tradition in order to justify its claim to Palestine as the homeland of the Jewish people, rather than of its indigenous Palestinian population. The Zionist movement also had a need for recognition and support from at least major segments of the various Orthodox Jewish communities, since it claimed to represent all Jews all over the world. In addition, after the large wave of immigration to Israel from the Arab world in the 1950s, religion provided the only common denominator for immigrants from different cultures.

The occupation of 1967, which brought the greater part of the Palestinian people under Israeli domination, only added to the problematic nature of Israel's collective identity and of a Zionist state in the region. This resulted in the necessity of renewed, and even more unequivocal, legitimization of Zionism through religion. The heretofore small and marginal groups of religious Zionists thus acquired central importance and became the militant vanguard of the Zionist colonization movement. As Hebrew University sociologist Prof Baruch Kimmerling states: "The settler with the kipa (skullcap) on his head and submachine gun in his hands is the most authentic representative of the hard core of their collective identity, whether Israelis want it to be or not. It cannot even be said that this is a distortion of Zionism. Rather it is its logical expression carried to the point of absurdity.”(5)

The need for religious legitimation of the Zionist enterprise and for a religious definition of the national collective is the principal reason that domination over various domains of social life, especially in the "private" realm of procreation, was handed over to the religious establishment Thus Jewish women, in their role as those who are legally and symbolically the markers of the national boundaries, the biological reproducers, and the ones responsible for socialization into the national collective to suit the dominant Ashkenazi (white European Jewish) male image, are forced to actively take part in the Zionist endeavor—a part which dooms them to inferiority, oppression, and exploitation.

The employment of the religious establishment as a means of dominating women in Israel for Zionist and state objectives is carried out primarily by incorporating religious legislation into the state law, and by giving the rabbinical courts (as well as the Christian and Muslim religious institutions) a monopoly over matters in the "private" domain—marriage, divorce, birth and burial.

In accordance with Jewish law, a Jewish woman cannot obtain a divorce without the consent of her husband, even if he beats her or is in prison or insane—or if he is missing but not known to be dead. Likewise, a Jewish man cannot be forced to give his wife a divorce against his will. The religious courts discriminate against women in other ways as well. For example, a married woman is strictly forbidden to have sexual relations with any man but her husband, and can expect to suffer severe sanctions for violating this rule. She is likewise forbidden to marry her lover, and any child born of such a union is considered a bastard.

A bastard cannot marry any Jew except another bastard; likewise he cannot marry a non-Jew in this country, since there is no provision for civil or mixed marriages in Israel. By contrast, a man may, while still married, carry on a relationship with any unmarried woman and father her children, who are not considered bastards.(6)

The inclusion of these religious laws in the state's body of legislation has much broader implications for the domination of women than do the strict laws themselves. It actually grants the oppression of women the status of a supreme social value, superseding even universal human rights, including the right to equality between the sexes.

Although Israel's Declaration of Independence calls for the equality of all persons, regardless of race, religion and sex, to this day there is no constitution to back up these principles. Nor are they guaranteed by the Basic Laws—which have constitutional status, and which include the laws that discriminate against Arab-Palestinian citizens of Israel, such as the Law of Return.

The Women's Equal Rights Law, passed in 1951, was an ordinary statute, and like the Declaration of Independence, was not interpreted by the Supreme Court as having constitutional authority, remaining in effect only an unenforceable declaration of intent Only in 1987 was it recognized as a "fundamental principle" by the Supreme Court; even once recognized, the law retained its limited character, and did not extend its endorsement of women's rights to equality where these would impinge upon the Jewish religious character of the state.

Thus, for example, the law grants women the right to equality before the law and an equal right to take part in legal transactions and so on; but the right to equality expressly excludes all issues regarding the permission and prohibition of marriage and divorce. Recently Meretz, the Zionist Left party which is part of the present governing coalition, and which ever since its founding has given civil rights top priority among the objectives of its activism, is supporting a proposal for a constitution which would actually worsen the existing situation of women rather than improve it.

In the Basic Law/Basic Human Rights, the Bill of Rights of the proposed constitution, Meretz is ready to include Article 21, which excludes laws regarding the prohibition or allowing of marriages and divorces from the purview of the constitution, thereby abandoning the rights of women to equality in the central institution of society—the family. This is in clear contradiction to the guarantee of equality in Article 3 of the same basic law, and to a whole series of international covenants which set forth the principles of equality, freedom of conscience, and the right to establish a family.

The official rationalization given by Meretz for this position is that it is the price that must be paid for acquiring, at long last, a constitution for Israel, because of "the political constraints presented by the religious parties." But it is no coincidence that it is only in the realm of procreation that the “progressive” Zionist males who drafted the proposed constitution are ready to make concessions, thereby imposing the cost on women in particular by subjecting them to Jewish, Muslim or Christian systems of patriarchal religious law.

The rhetorical power of the bill of rights makes it an extremely authoritative factor for defining social norms. This constitution, which proclaims a willingness to continue to tolerate discrimination based on gender, embodies a sort of rejection of the essence of the concept of the constitution, understood in the democratic world, as a body of laws intended to increase the autonomy and freedom of the individual within his/her society.

The Zionist Left is motivated by more than just patriarchal interests in accepting the dictates of the religious establishment. It was also the dominant Zionist ideology, which even before 1948 unconditionally subordinated the concept of autonomy and freedom of the individual to the interests of the state, that prepared them for this.

Militarism and the place of "state security" at the top of the list of objectives and social values in Israel, and the centrality of the military to all areas of life, has offered Israeli men a privileged status and has strengthened and granted legitimacy to inequalities based on gender, class, ethnicity and nationality.

With regards to Jewish women, these military institutions and the images they project have excluded them from political discourse, including the debate surrounding the 1967 occupation. The training women receive during army service does not equip them with the "military expertise" which is still considered the sine qua non for participation in political debate, even by the Zionist Left.

These institutions and images also affect the women's access to positions of political and economic power. The roles of givers of moral and practical support to the male fighters, which women are given in the army, simply aid in institutionalizing their inferior status and granting moral validity to their exclusion from the centers of political and economic power after their military service: "Because someone who is prepared to die for his country is worth more than the one who folds his parachute for him" (Orit Shohad, Ha'aretz, 30 November 1993).

Zionist ideology, the militarization and the mystique of state security which serves its objectives, have played an important role in the social and political construction of gender relations as well as those of race and class. Central to Israeli identity is the image of the Ashkenazi Hebrew sabra male, fighting the alien and hostile Palestinian Arab.

The sexual identity of Israeli men is inseparable from their Zionist identity. From the early days of Zionist colonization in Palestine, both men and women were told over and over again that the goal of Zionism and of the future Jewish state was the creation of a generation whose masculine characteristics would be physical prowess, emotional toughness, assertiveness—in contrast to the "feminine" image of the diaspora Jewish man.

Widespread acceptance of state involvement, including representatives from the rabbinate, in the grant-mg of abortion permits (by way of the committees dealing with the issue in each particular instance) reflects an additional aspect concerning the role of women, in this instance the preservation of the state's Jewish majority.

The new Jewish women's movement in Israel, which arose after 1967, did not have its origins in the civil rights movement or the "new left" student movement as it did in the United States and Western Europe—because no such movements existed in Israel.(7) It was also not nurtured by the Zionist labor movement (the "old Left" of the Zionist context), in which framework women had worked and struggled during the pre-1948 period of Zionist colonization and during the state's first two decades of existence. And of course there was nothing which could have had the impact of broadening its discourse and sphere of activism beyond its narrow focus on what its members perceived as women's issues, to issues such as inequalities between classes, ethnic groupings and nationalities.

The establishment of the women's movement here was a consequence of the direct influence of women immigrants from the United States (especially Marsha E Friedman) and other English-speaking countries, who were joined by academically trained women from the middle and upper classes, with, as in the case of the — Zionist Left, an orientation towards American culture in the broad sense of the word.

During its first years the Israeli women's movement concentrated on specific, local feminist projects, without attempting to develop a mass, nationwide movement They set up battered women's shelters, rape crisis centers, and also held demonstrations for the liberalization of the abortion law. But even this last issue failed to mobilize large numbers of women.

The political establishment very quickly took up the cause of women's issues, and since the eighties, what has developed here is a kind of "feminism from above."(8) Its focus is on "the status of women," being dealt with by various government ministries as well as the two largest establishment women's organizations, WIZO (the Women's International Zionist Organization) and Na 'amat (the women's auxiliary of the quasi-state union federation Histadrut).

Thus, for example, as the centers for battered women have become more established, the focus of their interest has shrunk to obtaining benefits for their clients, from the government bureaucracy. They did not succeed in becoming centers for a variety of militant feminist activities, as their founders had intended.

During the eighties the agenda of the main feminist organizations also became increasingly middle class. Most of the issues they raised, such as equal opportunity, income tax reforms, replacement of mothers' benefits by parents' benefits, etc., had the objective of making "repairs" to the existing political and economic system, so as to equalize the status of middle-class women to that of their privileged male colleagues.

The women's movement's becoming "establishment during the 1980s paralleled the dormancy which overtook the Israeli protest movement with the withdrawal from Lebanon—after its awakening during the 1982 war. Likewise the rebirth of the women's movement, like that of the general protest movement, came in the wake of the outbreak of the Intifada at the end of 1987. The strengthening of the women's movement took place in the establishment women's groups and those at the grassroots, both in those that defined themselves as feminist, and were concerned mainly with "women's issues," and in those women's organizations most of whose activism consisted of protesting the occupation and carrying out actions of solidarity with the Palestinian women and the victims of the Intifada.

The Intifada constituted a crucial turning point in the political awareness and activism of women in Israel. Israeli women had not previously organized themselves on a large scale around issues relating to the occupation or peace. The Intifada brought about, for the first time, a weakening of the broad national consensus around the occupation of 1967, which had thus far been accepted as an "enlightened" one, with the state of no-peace-no-war being perceived as "eternal." The weakening of the national consensus—which affected men as well—provided Israeli women with an opening which they entered with much more energy and enthusiasm.

For as we have seen above, the Zionist consensus and the prevailing masculine and militaristic images also granted legitimacy to women's inferiority in various spheres of life and to their exploitation in the service of the objectives of the Zionist state. Up to then, this inferiority and exploitation had been rather widely accepted by women themselves, in the name of the Zionist myth of the heroic male soldier who defended women and children in "just wars" that were supposed to save the Jewish people, whose existence was threatened.

This acceptance of women's inferiority by women themselves was shaken up to a certain degree by the sight of soldiers pursuing and shooting at the women and children who were rising up against the occupation. These factors brought Jewish Israeli women, for the first time in the history of the state, to the point of organizing and taking clear stands against the occupation and oppression in the Occupied Territories.

Furthermore, from then on, even women's problems in the narrow sense of the term—such as violence against women and women's rights in the context of healthcare and giving birth—went through a process of demarginalization, received greater legitimacy, and found expression in the formation of various feminist projects.

The distinct organization of women —particularly Jewish women—which sprang up in the wake of the outbreak of the Intifada was represented by Women in Black, which at its peak held its weekly vigils in some thirty locations throughout the country united by the common slogan "End the Occupation." The Women and Peace movement, which began as a coalition of women's groups active against the occupation in different spheres and self-declared feminists, unequivocally called for recognition of the PLO as the representative of the Palestinian people and for an independent Palestinian state alongside Israel.

The "Women's Peace Net," founded only later in 1990, was headed by women Knesset members from the left wing of the Labor Alignment and from the parties which now make up Meretz. Their high level of commitment to their parties dictated positions which were less supportive of the Intifada, and less unequivocal regarding the way in which the conflict should be resolved, than those of Women and Peace.

Yet despite these differences among the women's peace and protest groups regarding support for the Intifada and recognition of the full national rights of the Palestinian people, every one of these organizations was far more radical and unequivocal in the stand it took than the mixed groups from the equivalent political and social milieu. In particular, the women's groups were more persistent and persevering in their struggle. But most of all, their cooperation with representatives of the Palestinian women in the Occupied Territories (as well as in Israel) was more regular, spontaneous, open and egalitarian than those of male-dominated groups.

The women's greater skepticism regarding the Israeli male political establishment, and their lesser willingness to view themselves as representing the establishment in their contacts with Palestinian women, created the necessary conditions for encounters and cooperation qualitatively different from the typical "dialogue" carried on between men from the Zionist Left and "moderate" Palestinians.

During the first years of the Intifada there was an organizational split in the women's movement between the groups dealing with the issues related to the oppression in the Occupied Territories and those which dealt with "strictly" feminist issues: Whereas the Women and Peace coalition focused exclusively on the occupation — and peace, the various feminist groups did not deal with these issues directly, but through their members, who were also part of the hard core of Women and Black and Women and Peace.

The women's peace organizations did not define themselves as feminist organizations, and during those years they were searching for a rationale connecting — their struggle against the occupation and for peace with the fact of their being women—all in vain. However in the past two years the hard core members of these groups have become declaredly feminist, while the fem mist groups and their projects have increasingly begun to include peace issues—if not on their everyday agendas, at least in their feminist thought and analysis.

Thus a new discourse has developed, addressing the interconnectedness of militarism and sexism which links the oppression of Palestinians in the Occupied Territories with the increased violence against women and children inside Israel. There is also an increasing understanding of the manipulation of the notions and ideologies of "state security' and "threats to Israel's existence" by the establishment, not only in order to oppress and exploit the Palestinians, and not only in order to institutionalize anti-democratic practices in Israeli society—but also in order to legitimize gender inequality, homophobia, and the exploitation of women.

Yet the connection which women have begun to make between the militarism and sexism that characterize Israeli society does not extend to a more inclusive, critical way of looking at Israel, mainly in two important areas:

a) No connection has been made between these two characteristics of Israeli society and other forms of oppression—racism, exploitation of the Palestinian residents of Israel, class, and the oppression of Mizrahi Jews in Israel.

b) Nothing has been done to disclose the root causes of militarism and sexism in the very nature of the Jewish state and in the history of the Zionist movement. Likewise as regards the oppression of women in the procreative sphere. The Israeli women's movement has not mobilized to struggle for complete separation of religion and state, nor has it declared war on the Jewish-religious definition of the national collectivity.

As remarked above, Israel lacks both a labor movement with even the least bit of independence, and a Left critical of the government's privatization policy (which is currently destroying the past achievements of the working class), anti-imperialist, and possessed of a vision of society with a modicum of protection for the exploited. As a consequence, the groups which make up the Israeli women's movement are not active in anti-racist work, in workers' struggles in general, or in any anti-imperialist struggles.

There certainly is not even a whisper of a socialist feminist liberation movement attempting to understand the connections between the subordination of women and capitalism, not to mention attempts to create a movement for all women, including members of other oppressed groups in the society. Nor does feminism in this country carry the banner of basic transformation of society—not even in the sense that non-socialist radical feminism does.

This is not by chance. Adoption of the critical approach of radical feminism would require its application to Zionism and the Jewish state—which most feminists hesitate to challenge. On the contrary, partial convictions, beliefs, concepts, theories, and even slogans which have long since become part of the popular culture of the feminist movement in the United States, are used by women here to actually help them avoid attributing their oppression, as well as that of the Palestinians, to the nature of the state.

Thus the perception that this is a "patriarchal society" is used to support the pretense that Israel is indeed really just like any other country. Here, as in the case of Jewish feminists abroad,(9) we see the reduction of the Jewish Zionist state to a simplistic expression of male dominance; the fact that this is amale-dominated society is viewed as the root cause of the oppression of women.

There is a similar attitude towards the oppression and exploitation of Mizrahi Jews in Israel. Although feminist discourse in this country does involve an understanding that the delegitintization of the Mizrahi culture of the Jewish immigrants from the Arab countries served the purpose of nurturing the image of the powerful Ashkenazi male, the connection has not been made between this delegitimization and exploitation of Mizrahi Jews in the service of the objectives of Zionism and the state. More especially, there has not been an emphasis on the exploitation of the Mizrahi Jewish labor force in the building, industrialization and modernization of Israel, or on the forcing upon Mizrahi Jews of an "Oriental" identity as a part of the society's racism towards the Arab East, which served the ends of Zionism and imperialism as well as setting them apart from Israel's Palestinian Arab citizens who were denied even more rights than were the Mizrahi Jews.

Even the Israeli women's struggle against the occupation of 1967, although more persistent and bold than that of the mixed-gender groups, was handicapped as a result of its acceptance of the Jewish state and of Zionist logic. Here too there was an effort to reduce the causes of the brutal oppression in the territories to the Israeli "patriarchy." This was made possible by directing criticism only at the occupation of 1967 and Israeli policies relating to wars in general, which are—of course—determined by men.

In other words, they place the main weight of their criticism, as does most of the Zionist Left, on policies followed by the State of Israel since 1967 instead of on what the State of Israel is—a colonial power serving imperialist interests, whose principal institutions are set up so as to benefit its Jewish citizens, at the expense of its Palestinian citizens and the Palestinian residents of the Occupied Territories.

This influence was also felt regarding the Agreement between Arafat and Rabin. The blessed skepticism of members of the Israeli women's movement regarding the male-dominated Israeli political establishment, which fueled their struggle against the occupation, failed to cause most of them to challenge the Agreement between these two representatives of the Israeli and Palestinian male-dominated establishments!

Virtually none of them voiced sensitivity to the uneven power relationship that caused the Palestinians to accept an Agreement which did not provide for their most fundamental rights. Like most members of the Zionist Left, they were tired and glad for an excuse to retire from the struggle, satisfied by the formal Agreement obtained by the same Israeli patriarchy which they continue to be so good at criticizing when it is a matter of "women's issues."

Thus the spontaneous, enraged struggle against the oppression of the Palestinians, which was kindled by the Intifada, did indeed raise Israeli women's consciousness regarding the socio-political context of their own oppression. But their unwillingness to break with the broad national consensus surrounding Zionism and the Jewish state has been like a millstone around their necks, holding them back from recognizing the roots of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and from thereby arriving at the true sisterhood with their Palestinian sisters that they constantly preach.

Moreover, their remaining a part of the Zionist consensus has held them back from identifying the root causes of their own oppression so that they might develop suitable strategies for liberating themselves.

Notes

  • Gita Sahgal and Nira Yuval-Davis, eds., Refusing Hoy Orders (London: Virago Press, 1992). Introduction.
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  • Azmi Bishara, Thoughts on the Tension between Religion and Politics in the Middle East Theory, Context, and Criticism (Jerusalem, Van Leer Publishing House, 1991).
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  • The Right to Family Unity, Alternative Information Center, June 1992.
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  • Baruch Kimmerling, "The Suffocating Connection of Zionism," Ha'aretz, 29 April 1990.
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  • Ibid.
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  • Even well-informed outsiders find this unbelievable, but civil marriage is unavailable in Israel. Mixed couples (Jewish-Arab) can only get married outside the country. Indeed this is also the case for a Jewish couple when the man is a Cohen and the woman is divorced.
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  • Although there were non-Zionist activists from the left-wing groups SIAH and Matzpen who were active in the 1970s in the women's movement, primarily in Jerusalem, their activism started only after the beginning of the movement in Haifa by the American Marsha Friedman. The continuity of the Israeli women's movement was based on the first "American import" and primarily the new enlistment of women who were not represented by the left-wing groups. In any case the impact of SIAH and Matzpen (which weren't really "new left in the western sense) on the Israeli left—if any—was primarily in relation to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
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  • Barbara Swirski, "Israeli Feminism New and Old," in Barbara Swirski and Marilyn P. Safir, eds. Calling the Equality Bluff(1991).
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  • Jenny Bourne, "Homelands of the Mind; Jewish Feminism and Identity Politics," Race and Class XXIX, 1(1987).
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  • March/April 1994, ATC 49

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