Hebrew version of this article

Some Challenges I Face as an Israeli Woman

I finally feel able to share some of my life as a fifty-years-of-age Jewish white Israeli female who is married and a mother of four.

I have been working for many years in a rape crisis center, mostly facilitating groups for young women and men and for parents, social workers, teachers, police officers, and other (potential) allies to young people. The more I get into it, the more I see the huge economic forces that benefit from sexism, how deeply sexism and internalized sexism are installed, and how scared and hopeless people are about changing them.

I built a program for high school students to challenge the use of pornography. (The ministry of education openly says that by the age of thirteen, sixty-eight percent of boys and forty-three percent of girls use pornography.) It was almost impossible to find a school that would try out the eight-meeting program. The excuses they gave were outrageous and ridiculous. I have finally found two brave school principals who will cooperate with me and are excited about it. They are both women.

Working with women who are struggling to get out of prostitution makes me face some of the harshest outcomes of women’s oppression. Women are directed from an early age to think that sex is not meant to serve their needs and give them pleasure but is something they have that men want, and will try to get, and that they have to get the best deal in exchange for it: that the man will marry them, say that he loves them, change his status on Facebook, or merely not hit them. There are so many stories like this.

The society I live in (and have always lived in) is militaristic. Army service is compulsory for men and women. Men are often rated by how much of a combat soldier they are, how dangerous and “manly” their job in the army is. Young women are often rated by what their boyfriends do in the army. Almost all women are trained to act as supporters of, listeners to, admirers of, and providers of service and comfort to the military heroes. In RC when people are discharging on the hurts of war, it is usually men who are asked to come up for a demonstration, as if women’s hurts from war are marginal and not so significant.

My eldest son entered the military a year ago. In my sessions I was horrified to notice that I’ve had in my mind, since early childhood, a whole “library” of ways to act as a daughter, girlfriend, sister, mother, widow, bereaved mother, of a soldier—a manual of “how I should behave if and when”—whether it is something benign, like his coming home for the weekend (in which case I should rush to take the dirty laundry out of his kitbag, make sure to have his favorite food ready, and so on), or, God forbid,* his getting wounded or dying. This was all installed in my young mind from watching other women, hearing heroism stories, watching movies, and so on. It was and still is a struggle to find my own way to do things.

The Hebrew language is my beloved, beautiful, ancient language. At the same time, it is oppressive. The literal translation of male (zachar) and female (nekeva) is “one with a penis” and “one with a hole.” I simply cannot use the word for female in Hebrew. Nor do I use the word for husband (ba’al), which means “owner of.”

Hebrew has feminine and masculine forms. All manuals, ads, and so on, use the masculine form (sometimes with a footnote saying it is addressing both genders). When speaking in plural, people always use the masculine form, even when they’re addressing a big crowd of women with a single man in it. Many people don’t even notice this is oppressive. A male teacher of my daughter uses only the feminine form—to challenge male domination and be an ally to the young women in his classroom. Many regard him as “a sweet, harmless fool.”

I often feel that my life was easier before I understood and could identify the sexism and male domination around me. That is, of course, not true. If I hadn’t understood and identified them, life just wouldn’t have been as clear as it is, and, worst of all, I wouldn’t have had the opportunity to discharge the old and new hurts, reclaim my thinking, and move forward.

Orna Shuman

Beit Shearim, Israel

Translated by Orna Shuman

(Present Time 184, July 2016)

* “God forbid” means may God prevent it from happening.

Last modified: 2019-05-02 14:41:35+00