Child rearing in a kibbutz

(This article is a result of work done with D. Hecht and N. Yuval-Davis, whose views were expressed in Khamsin 6. Although some of our ideas were developed together, I am solely responsible for the views expressed in this article.)

Some form of sexual division of labour exists in all known social formations. However, its particular forms and the degree of biological influence are socially determined. Each mode of production, indeed each society, has its own mode of sexual division of labour which can only be understood through a study of that specific society. Of the many aspects of the sexual division of labour, two are pivotal. The roles of the sexes in reproduction and the socialisation of the young; and their roles in the production process.

Although male domination exists across several modes of production, the meaning of contemporary struggles for women’s equality is inseparably linked to changes in the sexual division of labour brought about by capitalism ‒ particularly after the industrial revolution. Capitalism transformed the nature of work, taking production out of the private realm of the household and into the public realm of the factory. It separated the hitherto combined functions of production and consumption in the household. Production became, under capitalism, production for the market, production of exchange values. Labour power became a commodity which has its price in wage. Labour comes to stand in direct cash relation to capital. Concomitantly, capitalism created the separate category of domestic labour. Domestic labour power is not involved in the production of commedities, it has no price in wages and does not stand in a direct economic relation to capital. Its relation to capital is indirect, albeit indispensable, and mediated through personal relationships in the family.

Under capitalism domestic labour is predominantly concerned with the reproduction and socialisation of the next generation and with the preparation of consumption, which is necessary for the regeneration of spent labour force.1 This separation of labour into public and domestic, and the relegation of women to the domestic, is one of the revolutions brought about by capitalism and did not exist in other modes. The main demands raised by women for equality are not a-historical but specific to these changes created by capitalism: the struggle for the participation of women in all aspects of public labour; the struggle for equal remuneration for equal work; the struggle to control effectively their reproduction; the transfer of domestic labour from private to public agencies (education, family services); and the participation of both sexes in domestic labour. All these demands would make little sense before the emergence of capitalism. They stem from conditions brought about by capitalism and can be satisfied by new avenues opened by capitalism.

The position of women in Israel and the nature of the sexual division of labour which exists there cannot be discussed in isolation from the zionist characteristics of the society. The colonialisation process, its requirements, its constraints, its internal contradictions and the political conflicts to which it gave birth are reflected in every aspect of life of Israeli society ‒ including the position of women.

In the following pages an attempt is made to outline some of the links between immigration, a central feature of zionist colonisation, and the roles which women are required to play in the areas of work and in reproduction. It is hoped to show the particular forms that women’s work takes, specific to the zionist society, and the particular considerations which determine the possibilities of development of women’s situation in Israel. The article confines itself to Jewish women, although Arab women are no doubt influenced by the transformation of Palestine from an Arab society into a zionist society and their position is but the other side of the same coin. Space does not permit it to be discussed here. Secondly, this article is not intended as an historical piece: that is why, although it starts with the early zionist period, it soon turns to the present. We analyse two situations of immigration: when the rate of immigration is high and when it declines. The historical data are used here to illuminate structural problems and not in order to write a chronology of events.

Early immigration and its character

It was not the productive capability which the Jewish settlers created in Palestine which provided the economic means for the zionist expansion, but the mobilisation of funds from Jewish supporters abroad. In a similar manner it was not the reproductive fertility of the Jewish population in Palestine which was the cause of the constant increase of the proportion of Jews during the mandate period, but the recruitment of immigrants from abroad. Zionism was uniquely dependent, as it still is, on both the production and the reproduction of external Jewish communities and on its own ability to draw from these external sources.

The patterns of zionist colonisation were pioneered by the immigrants of the second and third ‘aliyot (1904‒14, 1919‒23). The economic and political organisations which they founded were the embryonic models for the future zionist project in Palestine ‒ the yishuv. It was also in that period that the new images of the pioneer man and woman emerged, images which influenced subsequent waves of immigration from Europe. It is in the particular demographic characteristics of these two early waves of immigration and in the conditions with which they were faced, that the new zionist sexual division of labour was rooted.

The demographic characteristics of the early waves of immigration were rather special.2 To start with, the ratio of men to women was more than two to one. The scarcity of women was even greater in the early kibbutzim and work brigades which spearheaded the zionist effort. In those groups the ratio of men to women was as high as four or five to one. Furthermore, most of the immigrants in those years were young, single or childless couples. The percentage of children under 15 was low and the percentage of old people above the retirement age minimal. What therefore characterised the early zionist population in Palestine is that it was virtually a ‘pure labour force’. That is, its sex and age structure minimised the ratio of dependents to economically active. The relative scarcity of married couples with young children meant that for the meanwhile this embryonic society was relatively unburdened with families. Necessary domestic labour was minimal and the reproductive function was left to those who stayed behind in the diaspora. There existed, not in any planned way, an international division of labour: The most able-bodied vanguard was in the front zone of the zionist struggle in Palestine while the auxiliary forces and supply lines were left in the rear abroad.

Competition with Arab male labour

These demographic advantages of the zionist immigrants were of special importance for the ability of the zionists to compete successfully against the indigenous Arab labour force. The pioneers could dedicate themselves to their colonisation tasks. Productivisation and work were to become the highest values in this strongly ideological society. Work was elevated to a religion and the status and worth of the individual in the group was measured by his or her work ability.

Unlike other colonial societies in which the colons became an exploiting class living off the surplus value produced by an indigenous labouring class, zionism aimed at the displacement of the indigenous population. As this could not be done by force under the mandatory government, it had to be done via the market mechanism ‒ slowly gaining control over the means of production by buying up land and replacing Arab labour with Jewish labour. This meant a cut-throat competition with the Arab. The Arab labourer had certain advantages over the European middle-class Jewish immigrant. First, he was used to the hard working conditions and to the climate. But apart from personal adaptability he had other advantages. In the conditions that existed in Palestine in the 1920s and 1930s, many of the Arab labourers were only part-time seasonal workers and part-time peasants or share-croppers. The Arab worker could fall back on the natural village economy, and thus had the advantage over the Jewish worker, who depended completely on the higher market prices. Furthermore, the extended family structure of Arab society provided the worker with a degree of social security and the advantages of a larger division of labour than could the western-type nuclear family. It is in these conditions of economic competition that the collectivist forms of Jewish settlement evolved and have their explanation.

The collective form of settlement, which was based on horticulture, reduced the dependence of the Jewish settlers on the Arab market for food products. More important however to our topic of the sexual division of labour is the socialisation of most tasks of domestic labour. This arrangement minimised the tasks which under capitalism are normally performed in the private realm of the family. Personal services, which hitherto were provided separately within each family, were now provided by centralised agencies. The creation of a domestic service sector made possible economies of scale, specialisation and mechinisation which resulted in a more rational utilisation of the labour force.

This reorganisation of domestic labour does not explain however why it was mainly women who were employed in the socialised services, while men were employed in production for the market. The usual explanation given to women’s involvement in domestic labour is their relative immobility due to childbirth and rearing. However, this could not be the main reason in the early period of zionism, when there were few children. The sexual division of labour in the early period of zionist colonisation was determined by the need to compete in the productive sector with the Arab male worker and the belief that women could not successfully compete with men in physically hard occupations such as agriculture and construction. The vital need to prove the economic practicability of employing Jewish labour to those Jewish farmers who employed Arabs, to the Mandatory authorities responsible for public works and road building, and to the zionist funding institutions who doubted the viability of collective experiments, was the main cause for the sexual division of labour. The ecomomic competition between Jewish and Arab labour was the first form of ‘war’ between the colons and the indigenous population. As we have seen with reproduction, here too a division of roles evolved between ‘front’ and ‘rear’. The ‘combat forces’ ‒ males, directly involved in competition with the Arab; the women taking over the rear duties, thereby freeing men to the ‘front’.

Of course, there were women who objected to their status as socialised domestic labour force; but, as most of them shared the zionist ideas of ‘conquest of labour’, they could only argue, and try to prove, that women were as productive as male workers in the jobs performed by males. As the main argument for relegating women to services was the fear that ‘women’s work will cause a ‘deficit’, no wonder then that women working alongside men were always obsessed with the need to prove that ‘they do not fall behind the men in productivity’.3

Recent feminist writers in Israel (eg. Hazelton) accuse these pioneer women of having tried to negate their femininity and of having identified with the males, or alternatively of relinquishing their dreams of equality.4 What they fail to see is that there really was no zionist alternative to this sexual division of labour, which was determined by the conditions under which the struggle was conducted.

This argument does not exonerate the male and female pioneers from sexist attitudes ‒ which they had. What is being argued is that the subordination of women in socialised domestic labour was not in the main due to idological reasons of sexism but had an economic-political basis. Feminists who flinch from questioning zionism and its effects on the social structure of Israeli society wish to imagine another historical possibility, a zionism which would have had ‘equality for women’. It is in order to avoid looking at the conditions under which the ‘conquest of labour’ took place that sexism is elevated to be the main reason for inequality. This idealised line of argument characterises many left zionists who refuse to confront the hard zionist reality by conjuring up hypothetical ideological alternatives: ‘if only other values prevailed in zionism’…

The sexual division of labour which evolved in the early yishuv was based on the fact that during this period reproduction by immigration largely replaced reproduction by natality. Under these conditions of low family formation there was a high rate of participation of pioneer women in the labour force. This high rate refers only to a certain section of the Jewish population in Palestine ‒ while the rest, the more traditional community, continued its traditional Jewish way of life. However, even within the pioneer community, women’s work was concentrated in a very narrow range of occupations ‒ mainly in services. The available survey on the topic from that period (1922) included 2,500 women workers of whom 1,600 were in towns and only 900 in agricultural settlements. The main work places of women were: as cooks, in laundries, in kindergarterns, in schools, as nurses, as office clerks and as domestic help. This distribution shows a remarkable similarity to the present occupational distribution among Jewish women in Israel. Only 447 women in the 1922 survey worked in the productive sector, of those, only 53 worked in construction.5

Mandatory restrictions on immigration

The struggle against the Arab labourer was the main cause for the employment of women in a narrow spectrum of occupations, mainly in services. Another major influence on women’s work were the mandatory restrictions on immigration.

The British government soon became aware of the impact of Jewish immigration on the economic and political situation in Palestine. Since 1922 (The Churchill white paper) the government decided to restrict Jewish immigration in accordance with the economic capacity of the country to absorb newcomers. Immigrants had to prove that they brought capital with them, or that they had places of employment. The restrictions were further tightened after the economic crisis in 1926, which created a major problem of Jewish unemployment. The regulations discriminated against women: immigration certificates were more easily obtainable by men, and men with certificates could bring with them their dependent wives.6 As the zionist organisations were eager to maximise the number of immigrants, pressure was applied on potential women immigrants to attach themselves by fictitious marriages to male certificate holders. As men were not seen as ‘dependents’, this regulation caused an asymmetric situation, where to give a women an independent certificate was to ‘waste’ a certificate.

The need to show that new immigrants were economically necessary and that there were places of employment for them militated against women’s employment. Women workers could be replaced by a newly arrived immigrant males who in any case brought with them dependent women. It was not just unemployment which caused the pressure for men to have priority over women in employment, but unemployment coupled with the zionist aim of bringing in as many immigrants as possible and as quickly as possible. In a situation of scarcity of available jobs, which were a condition for obtaining immigration certificates, women’s work was indeed an obstacle to maximising Jewish immigration. Pressure mounted on women to become dependents and men replaced women in all jobs where the work was acceptable to men. The report of the fourth conference of women workers (1931), the last before the second world war, complained that although there was a big expansion in the economy and in the absolute numbers of employed women, there was a negative development in the number of occupations in which they were employed. The report also criticises the fact that women were eased out of all jobs which could be done by males.7

It is therefore in the needs and constraints of zionism that the key to the sexual division of labour which evolved in Israeli society is to be found.

The consequence of a decline in immigration

What would be the repercussions on the zionist venture if its main source of population growth, immigration, declined? This question forced itself on the zionist leadership for the first time in the late 1930s due to the declining rate of reproduction of Jews in Palestine,8 the British white paper of 1939 which threatened to stop immigration, the outbreak of the second world war and later the realisation of the scale of the holocaust, which combined to bring about a sharp decline in the rate of growth of the Jewish population in Palestine. Grave doubts were raised as to whether zionism could still fulfil its aims.

Palestine as a Jewish state required a Jewish majority. In view of the size of the then Arab majority and the much higher rate of reproduction among Arabs, a halt to Jewish immigration could only mean one of the following:

  1. Postponement of the creation of a Jewish state for an indenfinite period ‒ an outcome totally unacceptable to the zionists.
  2. A Jewish minority state, which, like South Africa and Rhodesia would be based on the denial of an equal vote to Arabs (This was considered by Arlozoroff in the early 1930s).
  3. Partition ‒ a partial postponement of the zionist aim of the whole of Palestine as a Jewish state, and acceptance instead of a Jewish state in a part of the country where a Jewish majority existed already or could be created.

These alternatives were in the background of the developments in Palestine in the 1940s.

A similar problem, a declining rate of immigration, has been facing the zionist state since the mid-1960s. In the last few years the decline of immigration has been more acute and seems to have become a more permanent feature.

Some of the reprecussions of the decline in Jewish immigration are the following.

  1. Democracy. With an Arab rate of reproduction more than double the Jewish rate (and the gap is likely to persist for a considerable period in the future), the proportion of Arab citizens of Israel will grow from the recent 15 per cent to 20 or even 25 per cent towards the end of century.9 This may make a free vote and parliamentary democracy incompatible with continued Jewish supremacy.
  2. Colonisation. In view of the present distribution of the Jewish and Arab populations in territories under Israel’s control (including the areas occupied in 1967), the ‘Judaisation’ of regions where Arabs are now a majority will become less practicable. This, in turn, is likely to lead to increased pressure for the secession of these regions.
  3. Military superiority. Assuming the continuation, in one form or another, of a conflict between Israel and the Arab countries, and of the disparity in birth rates, the ratio between Israeli and Arab young people of military age will decline. If Israel is therefore to avoid an eclipse in its military superiority, it will have to compensate for the relative decrease in population by longer periods of conscription, at the expense of the civilian labour force. Alternatively, a higher rate of military modernisation and labour-saving capitalisation will be needed, which would greatly increase the proportion of military expenditure at the expense of productive utilisation of available resources.
  4. Economic growth. Immigration has always been an important catalyst of economic growth in Israel, by creating a demand for investment and consumption, thus expanding the market for products and labour. There is in Israel a secular positive correlation between the rate of immigration and the rate of economic growth. A decline in immigration presages a reduction in economic expansion.
  5. From a nation to a class. As growth of the labour force due to immigration will decline, and as existing Jewish manpower will be increasingly occupied in unproductive activities, shortage of labour is bound to continue, increasing the dependence of the Israeli economy on Arab labour. This will be a reversal of the zionist aim of building a Jewish society and will instead create a classical colonial situation of a colon class exploiting an indigenous (Arab) labouring class. This in turn will lead to a convergence of national and class conflicts.

The only alternatives open to Israel for countering some of these implications of a decline in immigration are directly related to the role of women. They are to encourage Jewish women in Israel to increase the rate of reproduction as well as their rate of participation in the labour force. It is to these prospects that we shall now turn.

A natality policy ‒ not likely

The most obvious way to substitute for declining immigration is by a compensating increase in internal natality. However, in order to really compensate for an annual loss of 20,000-40,000 immigrants, there would be needed a total transformation of the existing natality patterns in Israel which ‒ as in most developed countries ‒ show a secular downward trend.

This transformation would require a concerted and comprehensive natality policy. Although several attempts were made in the past to set up a natality encouragement policy, it was never seriously started.10 The reasons for this failure are complex. First, a comprehensive policy of incentives and support for larger families is very expensive. As was calculated by Friedlander, a programme like the French incentives scheme would cost Israel 12 per cent of its GNP (in 1969). Besides, as the French case showed, there is no certainty that despite the heavy investments the plan will prove a success. A natality policy, even if successful, is only a long-term cure whose effects can only be felt in a generation’s time. It cannot solve immediate shortages in the military and labour forces; on the contrary, by increasing the number of dependents and by tying down otherwise available labour force it tends to aggravate the shortage. A zionist natality encouragement policy cannot be applied equally to all Israel’s citizens, Jews as well as Arabs, as it may backfire and encourage Arab natality. It therefore has to be administered through non-government organisations which can more overtly discriminate against Arabs. As was already shown, encouragement of immigration is a much cheaper, quicker and certain solution to zionism’s human resources shortage.

While recognising the impracticability of a comprehensive natality policy, the government is aware that the rate of immigration is hardly under its control and whatever can be done to increase natality without incurring much costs should be attempted. The fear of a decline of the Jewish population is reflected in some piecemeal and inconsistent measures taken by the government. For example, though a comprehensive health service does exist, there are no family planning clinics or comprehensive sex education. This absence, which was related by experts to government wish to increase the Jewish population, keeps a large proportion of the Jewish working class in igorance of effective contraception, resulting in many otherwise unnecessary abortions.11

Since an easy and certain policy of increased reproduction is not practicable, the only short term answer to labour-force shortages is an increased participation of hitherto under-utilised sections of the population. Since 1965 the annual rate of growth of the Israeli Jewish labour force has been in decline.12 The causes of the decline are the falling rate of immigration and the lower participation of males, particularly in the military (18‒34) age groups. The decline in the participation of young males was quite substantial, from 80 per cent in 1960 to 63 per cent in 1974. This drop is partly explained by longer education but mainly by the higher rate and longer period of military mobilisation. The two declining tendencies (immigration and young males) were somewhat offset by a higher participation of Arabs in the labour force. The second compensating effect, more important in our context, is the steadily growing participation of women of all ages. The declining and compensating tendencies can be seen as a substitution: Women enter the labour force so as to enable men to be out of the labour force. If military service is viewed as a ‘front’ task then the model of the sexual division of labour which was shown to have evolved in the early yishuv period is still applicable in the present. Men are released to the front (army) by women taking over the ‘rear’ economic activity.

It must be made clear that this model of divisions between ‘rear’ and ‘front’ is not a ‘national plan’ or ‘government conspiracy’ with which the citizens comply. People enter the labour force for their own reasons. The ‘rear’ and ‘front’ division is the objective effect which is an outcome of many indirect and subjective determinations.

Women replace men in the army

The sector of Israeli society where this sexual division of labour is most obvious is within the Israeli army. In this sector the conception of ‘men to the front and women to the rear’ is a conscious policy and not just a side effect. The army has made it clear that women are used in order to substitute for man who can thus be released for direct combat duties. The definition of rear and front means that women are restricted to a narrow range of occupations in the army. Until last year women were to be found only in 210 out of about 700 occupations in the army.13 Jobs unsuitable for women were defined as: ‘combat roles, roles which demand particular physical strength or roles which are conducted under conditions unsuitable for women’. Another factor which militates against the diversification of women’s jobs in the army is that most women are not called up after their conscription period to do annual reserve duty until old age ‒ as men are. This results in the army’s reluctance to invest in expensive training schemes which ,because of the short period of their service, could not pay for themselves.

The rigidity of this attitude toward women’s occupations led to a situation where the army did not know what to do with many of the recruitable women and had no use for them, while at the same time it suffered from an acute shortage of men. The army has never openly admitted that it has no use for so many women, but its attitude is revealed by the statistics of exempted women. In 1976/7 almost half of the females of conscription age were exempted from service: 19 per cent were released due to insufficient education (no men are released for this reason); 18.5 per cent were exempted by declaring themselves religious (this category has also to do with coalition agreements with the religious parties but the fact that it became easier to be exempted on religious grounds shows that the army did not take a strong stand on the issue on national security grounds); 8 per cent were exempted due to marriage.14 The remainder are exempted for health reasons.

Women exempted from the army usually become part of the labour force or, more likely, soon become mothers. The substitution model can be applied here too. The better educated women serve in the army, releasing men for the front. The economy draws the exempted women who have some qualifications. Motherhood without participation in the labour force is the fate of the least qualified. There is a three tier hierarchy of women here: those good enough to complement and replace men in the army; those not good enough for the first task but good enough to replace men in the economy (see below); the third grade ‒ those who cannot replace men in any sector and are only good as breeders and domestic labourers.

The acute shortage of manpower has recently caused the army to reconsider its definitions of ‘front’ and ‘rear’ or apply them less rigidly. Some new avenues were opened for women in the navy and tank corps. Although the declared aim is still to release more men for combat activities, the somewhat greater flexibility is an indication that a growing manpower shortage may be the main reason for an increased participation of women in the army and for the widening of the range of their jobs.

Women replace men in the economy

As in the army, women in the civilian labour force are concentrated in a very small number of occupations.15 The ten most frequent jobs for women are: secretary-typist, elementary school teacher, cleaning worker, saleswomen, nursemaid, bookkeeper, domestic help, seamstress and needleworker, unregistered nurse, registered nurse. Jewish women are under-represented in the productive sector: less than a quarter of working women against about a half of working men. Most women, as in the past, work in the services sector. Arab men, on the other hand, are over-represented, as compared with Jewish men, in the productive sectors ‒ agriculture, industry and construction.

These facts provide another example of the substitution thesis which characterises the sexual division of labour in Israel. The staffing of the services sector in Israel by Jewish women releases Jewish men for the productive sector, where they can replace Arab men. As in the early yishuv, without this sexual division of labour there would be even more Arabs employed in the Israeli productive sector, with severe strategic and structural implications both in terms of security and of the class nature of the zionist state. As in the army so in the economy there is an implicit concept in Israel of ‘front’ and ‘rear’. As in the army, where women soldiers release men soldiers for combat duties, so in the economy Jewish women workers in services release Jewish men workers for production sectors.

This sexual division of labour between the services and production, however, also has its drawbacks. Some of these drawbacks became apparent during the 1973 war. The prolonged mobilisation of most of the male population brought the economy to a standstill which was further aggravated by the inability of the unmobilised women to take over temporarily many of the ‘male’ occupations due to lack of skills.16 Since 1973 there has been a growing demand that concerted effort be made by the state to diversify women’s occupations so that they can better substitute for men during emergencies. As was shown regarding the army, the growing strain on human resources may bring about a less sexually stereotyped division of labour and a redefinition of ‘rear’ and ‘front’ in the economy.

Wars have been a major factor in the growing participation of women in the labour force in the 20th century.17 In the United Kingdom 80 per cent of the total addition to the labour force between 1939 and 1943 consisted of women who had previously not been employed or had been housewives. The proportion of women over fourteen employed in Britain rose from 27 per cent in 1939 to 37 per cent in 1943. A comparative study shows that the increase in participation of women is negatively correlated with the availability of other unutilised sectors of the population: the unemployed, the young, the old, foreigners, etc. Women’s participation increased more in places where there were no other labour reserves. In the USA women accounted for only half the addition to the labour force during the war: as Milward observes, ‘compared to the UK the USA had greater available numbers of unemployed people and a far larger population at school and college which could be drawn on’.

The war effort also broadened the range of occupations into which women entered. In the USSR, where women’s participation in the labour force was high before the war ‒ 38 per cent in 1940 ‒ it continued to grow to 53 per cent in 1942. ‘Everywhere women were successfully trained to meet the sudden increase in damand for welders, but in the Soviet Union almost a third of the welders were female in 1942, as well as a third of the lathe operators and 40 per cent of the stevedores. Women tractor drivers, rare in 1940, accounted for almost half of the drivers in the communal tractor stations in 1942.’

The need to change the traditional sexual division of labour prevailing in a society during a war also depends on the nature of the war. In short ‘blitz’ wars it is possible to stock the military and civilian provisions in advance. If the war is indeed as short as planned there is no need to alter radically the existing division of labour. A long war, or a war which becomes prolonged, calls for production and distribution of provisions under radically altered labour-force conditions. Unless provisions can be procured, shipped or flown in from abroad (UK, second world war; Israel, 1973), the whole economic system requires reorganisation. The scarcity of men calls for a restructuring of the economically active population by the incorporation of women.

Israel is an interesting case to compare, on this aspect of war, with some other countries. Although officially Israel has been at war since its foundation in 1948, the actual ‘all out’ fighting periods that it was involved in were short and separated by long intervals. This enabled the Israelis to carry on most of the time with the normalcy of quasi peace. Even the 1969 attrition war and the 1973 relatively prolonged war were not total or long enough to necessitate a long-term restructuring. The problems which faced the Israeli planners were not so much the recruitment of a hitherto unutilised section of the population, but had more to do with the rigid and restricted sexual division of occupations. The war caused a redefinition of priorities in the society between front, in this case the actual war front, and rear, the economy. This required a redeployment of the available workforce according to new priorities.

The concentration of women in a few occupations and their lack of skills in alternative occupations became a bottleneck in the redeployment scheme. It was not so much that there was an absolute shortage of workers, but that the women in the workforce were immobile, not swiftly substitutable in other jobs. The suggestions put forward since then intend to rectify this immobility by training women during peacetime to do ‘war economy’ jobs. This is a beginning of the idea of women doing ‘reserve’ duty in the economy. More radical suggestions combine this security need with the demand for the equality of women by calling for the opening up of the sexually restricted occupational structure. It is argued that this could help in an emergency by having more women in what now are ‘male’ occupations, so that the mobilisation of men would not paralyse whole sectors. Both ideas have not yet been implemented. This suggests either that Israeli planners do not see a need for preparation for a long war, as they do not anticipate one; or that broader participation of women in the economy raises too many other problems.

A strong opposition to the recruitment of women into the labour-force during the war was voiced by the Conservatives in Britain. Churchill believed that this would be bad for the morale of the men in the front. He was however overruled by Minister of Labour E. Bevin.18 Nazi Germany is the best example of a state that objected to the recruitment of women to the war effort. As Hitler put it in Nuremberg in September 1934, it was nice for the men to return from the brutal struggle for survival… to the enclosed warmth of the supportive family: ‘… the big world rests upon the small world: the big world cannot survive if the small world is not secure…’. German women had the task of increasing the Aryan race; so work, especially in men’s occupations, could harm their reproductive potential. Domesticity was the role of German women.19 The result was that the participation of women in the German labour force in 1943‒4 was scarcely higher than in 1939. This had detrimental effects on the productive capacity of nazi Germany.

It is highly likely that Israeli planners have studied the case of Germany and it is therefore reasonable to believe that despite strong religious and conservative opposition Israel will not resist the mass participation of women in the labour force should the situation require it. The zionist view of women, in contrast with nazi ideology, perpetuates the double image of the pioneer woman: the girl-soldier, a woman also able to do a man’s job. It is immaterial whether or not these images are myths. It is precisely these myths which can make it easier to turn women from domestic roles to national duties.

Women replace women in the economy

From a zionist point of view, the falling rate of immigration requires a higher rate of internal reporduction and a higher rate of participation of Jewish women in the labour force. However, in most modern societies these two demands, higher birth rate and higher participation, are, ceteris paribus, contradictory. The only way in which they can be reconciled is by a comprehensive programme to ease the yokes of housework and child rearing, traditionally born by women, by a concerted effort to change the existing sexual division of labour. It requires huge investments in a national network of nurseries and childcare institutions. It calls for a radical change in domestic patterns which at present still revolve around the private household as a unit of consumption, preparation for consumption and supply of personal services, and its replacement by socialised household services on a mass national scale. Furthermore, it calls for legislation which does not discriminate in terms of a sexual division of labour and for a concerted campaign to change deep-rooted sexist attitudes towards the division of labour. Beside the willingness to undertake such a programme, it requires investment on a vast scale and over a long time. It is abundantly clear that, under Israel’s current war conditions there is no way, let alone the will, to embark on such a plan. It is for these reasons that comparisons between Israel and some affluent European countries, such as Sweden, where some attempts in this direction are being made, are misguided and misleading.20

A glance at the labour and natality statistics of Israel reveals that the main share of Jewish natality falls on one particular section of women, the ‘Orientals’, while the main share of women’s participation in the labour force falls on ‘Occidental’ women. The rate of reproduction of Jewish women of Oriental origin is double the rate of those of Occidental origin, while the rate of participation of Occidental women in the labour force is almost double that of the Oriental. What seems to have evolved in Israel is a division of labour between women which is reminiscent of the beehive: the worker women and the breeder women. The key determinant of this division of labour is the level of education. The higher the level of education, the higher too is the participation in the labour force and the lower is the rate of reproduction. Occidental women tend to have a higher level of education than Oriental ones.

All working women in Israel suffer from sex discrimination. Research shows that the median number of years of schooling of working women in Israel is higher than men’s (11.1 years compared to men’s 9.8).21 Education is the key variable in women’s employability and earnings. Surveys show that the main factor in women’s decision to work is their ability to earn. However, despite legislation and the claim that there is no discrimination, official statistics show that women’s pay is substantially lower in all sectors of the economy. Furthermore, there is a positive correlation between occupations in terms of pay and their being sex-typed as ‘male’ or ‘female’ occupations. In ‘male’ occupations the pay differential is as high as 40 to 50 per cent.22 Another factor in the decision of women to go to work is their domestic tasks, mainly those to do with child-rearing. Women’s work varies according to the number of children, the children’s age and the age of the smallest child. Education is again, via family planning a key factor in determining the total number of children as well as their age grouping. Inasmuch as education is connected to higher earnings it also enables working mothers to get their housework done by hired domestic help.

Domestic help is one of the most frequent occupations of those Oriental women in Israel who participate in the labour force. It is one of the very few occupations open to uneducated women who lack qualifications. Domestic help is also a more temporary job suitable for women whose participation in the labour force is marginal, that is fluctuating according to their marital status, their pressing short-term financial hardship, their childrens’ ages and their ability to find other jobs. In the present society domestic help is in its very nature a substitutive female occupation: one woman replaces another, for wages, in doing the latter’s domestic labour. If the employing woman participates in the labour force she then buys her freedom from some domestic duties by substituting another woman for herself.

Domestic help is also a class occupation. It depends on the availability of peasant women, immigrant labour, or natives in a colonial society. In Israel it was particularly widespread in the late 1950s and 1960s, when the large immigration of oriental Jews brought into the labour market a whole generation of unqualified, uneducated women who had no alternative employment. It was the differential between what they paid for domestic help and what they could earn that enticed many Occidental women to participate in the labour force. In the face of the zionist need for a higher birth rate and higher participation of women in the labour force, what actually evolved in Israel is a division of these tasks between two sections of the Jewish female population. The higher birth rate is supplied by the Oriental women, while Occidental women fulfil the need for participation in the labour force. However, in order to participate in the labour force the Occidental women have to be replaced in their domestic tasks, a role which falls to Oriental women.

The fact that the participation rate of Occidental women is almost double that of Oriental women has serious social implications. Research has shown that in Israel the wife’s work accounts for 35 per cent of the differences in the incomes of wage earners’ families.23 This means that where a married woman is not able to work, this is a main cause for that family’s poverty. Moreover, the poverty is much greater if the size of the family is taken into consideration, as women who do not work also have more children. The net result of this is a self-perpetuating cycle of poverty: educated women marry educated men, whose income is on the whole higher; their birth rate is lower, so their income per capita is, again, higher. They educate their offspring better, so their children have higher income, marry better educated etc…

Another obstacle, beside inadequate education, to women’s participation in the labour force is the lack of nurseries. Until 1973 there were a tiny number of nurseries. In 1977 only 25,000 children were in day nurseries.24 Kindergartens for children aged 3‒4 are available in the big urban centres but not sufficiently so in smaller development towns, where most of the population is Oriental. Moreover, the prohibitive fees which parents have to pay prevent many poor families from using available facilities. Here too the hardest hit are Oriental children. Most children between the ages 3‒4 who are not in kindergartens are of Oriental origin.25 This is yet again an example of the poverty trap, which perpetuates the division among women between those who work and those who do not work.

The problem of domestic labour is one of the major causes which prevents women from participating in the labour force. In Israel two distinct solutions evolved to this problem; both solutions are not satisfactory from the point of view of the equality of women. The kibbutz socialised many tasks of domestic labour (although the present trend in the kibbutz is to reverse this and to return to more private consumption and services); however, the socialised domestic services sector remained almost entirely women’s work. This means that, instead of individual household domestic labour, there is in the kibbutz a collectivised domestic labour sector, where some services are given to the men not by their own spouses but by other women. The majority of working women in towns have another arrangement ‒ domestic help: a woman replaces her domestic work by buying the domestic services of another woman. This is a class solution which is based on the availability of cheap, unqualified and otherwise unemployable labour force of women. In Israel this was possible after the large waves of Oriental immigration but there is at present a growing difficulty in finding domestic help. The second generation of oriental women, having some qualifications, prefer other jobs to domestic services, which are viewed as having low status. Despite the increase in wages for domestic labour there is a growing shortage; oddly enough, the higher fees have attracted into the domestic help market older Occidental women and students, whose status is determined elsewhere. Problems of security and traditional values preclude the replacement of Oriental women by Arab women on a large scale. In the absence of widely available child-care and other facilities which reduce domestic labour, the rate of reproduction and the rate of participation of women in the labour force are soon bound to conflict with one another. This illuminates from yet another perspective the dilemma that Israel faces with the decline of immigration.


Marx pointed out that the changing organic composition of capital in its accumulation tends to create a surplus population. This surplus population is the ‘industrial reserve army’ for capital’s spasmodic growth. ‘…Periods of average activity, production at high pressure, crisis and stagnation depend on the constant formation, the greater or less absorption and the re-formation of the industrial reserve army or surplus population. In their turn the varying phases of the industrial cycle recruit the surplus population and become one of the most energetic agencies for its reproduction’.26

Zionism, like capitalism, also developed in a spasmodic way, with periods of rapid expansion followed by periods of stagnation and crisis. The zionist project in Palestine has always depended on the emergence of political conjunctures favourable to it and on which it had only partial if not minimal influence. The utilisation of the favourable conjuncture depended on the zionist leadership’s ability to anticipate it correctly and on the availability of reserve resources, financial and human, which could be rapidly mobilised and thrown into battle military or conlonisatory-economic. Jewish communities outside of Palestine have provided the zionists with these reserves. However, there were periods in zionist history when immigration was not sufficient; and under such conditions of scarcity of manpower, women were used in a limited way and for short periods as alternative reserves. That they were used as reserves is shown by the fact that they were eased out of ‘men’s jobs’ when there were more men. The significance of early zionist history is in that it provides us with a case when the logic of zionism could not permit the use of Arab labour. Under these conditions and when immigration was insufficient, women were allowed more equality in job choice.

The expansion period after the foundation of the state was marked by the large immigration of Oriental Jews who provided the additional labour-power necessary for the colonisation of the newly acquired territories. During that period the participation of Arab labour in the Jewish economy was low. The participation of women in the labour force also grew very slowly. The need for reserves was supplied by the immigrant manpower. This phase lasted until the mid-1960s. The second wave of expansion which resulted from the 1967 war was not coupled with mass immigration. It is since the early 1970s that the participation of Arabs and women has grown at a much higher pace. Both Arabs and Jewish women are the labour reserve army of Israel; but there are some differences between their roles. First, the Jewishness of the latter force makes it usable in sectors not open to Arab employment. We have shown that this frees Jewish men to be out of the labour force (in the army), or alternatively to reduce the dependence on Arab labour. The second difference is that as future prospects of mass Jewish immigration are uncertain, Jewish women in Israel are the main zionist hope for any Jewish domographic increase. This puts the pressure on women for high participation in the labour force and high natality ‒ an unlikely combination without major changes in the infrastructure of child rearing and in social attitudes. Either the rate of reporduction will continue to decrease or the growth in participation will not continue. The latter will increase the proportion of the Arab labour force in the short term, while the former, ceteris paribus, will increase Arab participation in the labour force in the long term.

A major recession and contraction of Israel’s economy would change the need for reserves, thrusting parts of the Palestinian labour force to look for jobs elsewhere outside of Israel and many women back to domestic labour.

  1. On this see for example R. Hamilton, The Liberation of Women, 1978; E. Zaretsky, Capitalism, The Family and Personal Life, 1976; W. Seccombe, ‘The Housewife and Her Labour Under Capitalism‘ in New Left Review no 83, 1974; Coulson, Magas and Wainwright, ‘The Housewife and Her Labour Under Capitalism A Critique’ in New Left Review no 89,1975; W. Seccombe, ‘Domestic Labour ‒ Reply to Critics‘ in New Left Review no 94, 1975; Himmelweit and Mohun, ‘Domestic Labour and Capital’ in Cambridge Journal of Economics, 1, 1977; P. Smith ‘Domestic Labour and Marx’s theory of Value’ in A. Kuhn and A. Wolpe, (eds) Feminism and Materialism, 1978.
  2. See B. Gil, Dapei ‘aliyah ‒ thirty years of immigration into Palestine 1919‒1949, Jewish Agency Immigration Department, 1950 (Hebrew); Y Gorni, ‘Changes in the Structure of the Second Aliyah’ in Carpi and Yogev (eds), Studies in the History of the Zionist Movement and of the Jewish Community in Palestine, Massada, 1975, p 57; Z. Even-Shoshan, Toldot tnu’at hapo’alim be’eretz yisrael, Am Oved, 1963, pp 399-400 (Hebrew).
  3. Even-Shoshan, op cit, vol 1, pp 402‒403.
  4. L. Hazelton, Israeli Women; The Reality Behind the Myths, 1978, p 16.
  5. Even-Shoshan, op cit, vol 11 , pp 197‒200.
  6. Even-Shoshan, op cit, vol 11, p 197.
  7. Even-Shoshan, op cit, vol 111 , pp 165‒175.
  8. See K. P. Gabriel, ‘The fertility of Jews in Palestine’ in Population Studies, 3, 1953.
  9.  See Statistical Abstract of Israel, 1977. Also article by G. Eshet in Yedi’ot Aharonot, 25 May 1978.
  10. The best article in English on Israeli natality policy is D. Friedlander, ‘Israel’ in B. Berelson, Population Policy in Developed Countries, 1974.
  11. This view is held by D. Friedlander, ‘Family planning in Israel ‒ irrationality and ignorance’, in Journal of Marriage and The Family, February 1973.
  12. On this see R. Klinov, ‘Human resources in Israel 1965‒1974’, in Riv’on Lekalkala no 88‒89, pp 46‒57 (Hebrew).
  13. L. Hazelton, Israeli Women, p 114, quotes only 150 occupations. Our figures are quoted from the Namir Report, March 1978.
  14. Hazelton, Israeli Women, p 117 and also Namir Report.
  15. See J. Buber-Agassi, ‘The unequal occupational distribution of women in Israel’, in Signs, Joumal of Women in Culture and Society, vol 2, no 104, Zionism and women 4, 1977; also D. Padan-Eisenstark, ‘Are Israeli women really equal? Trends and patterns of Israeli women’s labour force participation: A comparative analysis’, in Journal of Marriage and the Family, August 1973.
  16. See Buber-Agassi, op cit and R. Bar Yosef, and D. Padan-Eisenstark, ‘Women and men in war: Change of the role system under pressure situations ‒ the Yom Kippur War’, in Megamot, November 1975 (Hebrew).
  17. See A. S. Milward, War, Economy and Society 1939‒1945, 1977, pp 218‒221.
  18. A discussion of this problem in T. Mason, ‘Women in Germany 1925‒1940, family, welfare and work’, Part 11, in History Workshop no 2, Autumn 1976, p 22.
  19. T. Mason, op cit, p 24.
  20. This is a comment on an article by Buber-Agassi, ‘The Swedish policy for the improvement of the status of women’, in Toda’a no 1, June 1976 (Hebrew).
  21. Afeq, (ed.) Women in Israel, Work and Welfare Research Institute, 1976, p 46 (Hebrew).
  22. Buber-Agassi, in Signs, op cit, p 892.
  23. P. Ginor, ‘The working woman and family income’, p 85, in Riv’on Lekalkala, no 77, April 1973 , (Hebrew).
  24. See H. Bar, and J. Markus, ‘A Social Service to the Mother and Her Children ‒ A Day Nursery’, The Israel Institute of Applied Social Research, August 1977, (Hebrew). See also: Monthly Buletin of Statistics (supplement), June 1979, (Hebrew and English).
  25. Hahevra beIsrael ‒ mivhar netunim statistiyim, 1976, pp 134‒5.
  26. Marx, Capital, vol 1, p 785, Penguin, 1976.