Nations, as Ben Anderson points out,1 are imagined communities. In the case of Israel, the imagined community has been a direct product of the dreams, as well as the actions, of the Zionist movement which established the state. This does not make it any less historically real than other nations, but it might make it more historically precarious.
This article explores the ways in which the boundaries of the Israeli Jewish collectivity have been defined and reproduced, in relation to the Jewish people on the one hand and to the Israeli society on the other. Specifically, it looks at the ways in which Jewish women and childbearing have been ideologically constructed to play certain roles in the above process, and the consequent effects of this on the social and legal position of women in Israel.
The issue of national reproduction in Israel, both in terms of its ideological boundaries and in terms of the reproduction of its membership, has always been at the centre of Zionist discourse. Lately, it has gradually come to overshadow even the issue of security as a precondition for Israel’s survival. An extreme expression of this position can be read in the introduction to Rabbi Kahane’s book Thorns in Your Eyes (Kahane is the leader of the fastest growing political power in Israel, the Kakh party – a neo-Nazi party, although many, especially his supporters, see it as the most consistent of the Zionist parties). According to Kahane (my emphasis):
‘Each Jew should ask himself the following question: I am the son of a people that wandered around without a homeland of its own for nearly 2,000 years. I am the son of a people who suffered persecutions and immeasurable holocausts, big and small. I am the son of a people that, unlike other peoples, was not allowed to develop in its body and spirit in its own country. Today, following the death of six millions and with God’s help, we do have a state which embodies our sovereignty, defends itself with our army, and follows our culture. Am I prepared – in peaceful conditions and with THE ARAB RATE OF POPULATION GROWTH which is transforming a minority into a majority – to allow, even in a democratic manner, the change of the name of the state to Palestine; to cancel the Law of Return which entitles each Jew an automatic right of entry and citizenship (the cornerstone of the Zionist thinking on maintaining the Jewish majority), and peacefully and democratically to end the Jewish state?’2
It is Kahane asking the question, but he is not alone. Already Golda Meir, then prime minister of Israel, had confided in the early 1970s that she was afraid of a situation in which she ‘would have to wake up every morning wondering how many Arab babies have been born during the night’!3 A ‘demographic race’ between the Jews and the Arabs in Israel is seen as crucial, then, for the survival of Israel; Israel, not as a state apparatus for the population living in it, but as the state of the Jews all around the world.
Revealingly, the official aim of the Israeli demographic centre which was established as a unit attached to the Israeli prime minister’s office in April 1967, was ‘to act systematically to realize a demographic policy directed at creating an atmosphere and the conditions for encouraging a birth rate, which is so vital to the future of the JEWISH PEOPLE’4(my emphasis). More than 75 per cent of world Jewry, according to the statistics produced by that same demographic centre, live outside Israel. On the other hand, 17 per cent of Israeli citizens, and about a third of the people under the direct control of the Israeli government (including those living in the territories occupied by Israel since 1967), are not Jews. How is it, then, that the Israeli government, portrayed for so many years as ‘the only democracy in the Middle East’, is worried explicitly, not about the demographic future of its own civil society, but about the Jewish people?
As Kahane says, Israel was established for a specific purpose, and as an achievement of a specific political movement – Zionism. While the definition of boundaries of national collectivities and their relationship to the state is very often problematic, in Israel it is especially so, because of the specific historical construction of the Jewish people, as well as the settler colonial character of Israeli Jewish society. Exploring these issues will be the purpose of the first part of this article.
Symbolic reproduction of the Israeli Jewish national collectivity depends on the availability of people ‘of the right kind’ to ‘man’ it. One of the basic concerns of the Zionist movement, especially the Labour Zionist movement, since the beginning of the Zionist settlement in Palestine, has been the creation of a Jewish majority in the country as a precondition for the establishment of the Jewish state there. In the early period of Zionist settlement and up until the early 1960s, the major form of the supply of ‘human power’ to the yishuv, the Zionist settler society, has been by aliyah, the immigration of Jews to the country. Gradually, however, the objective and subjective conditions for aliyah have dwindled, and Israeli Jewish national reproduction has come to rely more and more on Israeli-born babies.
Demographic policies often seem to be determined by worries about the existence of sufficient labour power for the national economy, and indeed the literature on reproduction often assumes it to be the complementary facet of economic production or rather a precondition of it.5 A closer examination of national demographic policies (as well as state welfare policies), however, will often reveal that national political rather than economic interests lie behind the desire to have more children, or rather more children of a specific origin.6
In Israel, where economistic calculations have never seriously determined major political decisions (even today, in the heart of an extreme economic crisis7), this has been especially true. The second part of the article will therefore concentrate on examining the nationalist angle in the ideological debates and policies which have surrounded the question of birthrate of Israeli children.
The last part of the article will focus on the ways in which the political and ideological pressures on defining and reproducing the national collectivity in Israel have constructed and affected Israeli Jewish women as its national reproducers.
The Israeli ‘Nation’ and its boundaries
In the Israeli Declaration of Independence in 1948, Israel is defined as the Jewish state established by and for the Jewish people:
‘The Land of Israel was the birthplace of the Jewish people… the [Jewish] people kept faith with it throughout their dispersion… and never ceased to pray and hope for their return… In the year 1897, at the summons of the spiritual father of the Jewish State, Theodore Herzl, the First Zionist Congress convened and proclaimed the right of the Jewish people to national rebirth in its own country… The Jewish state would open the gates of the homeland wide to every Jew and confer upon the Jewish people the status of a fully privileged member of the community of nations… On 29 November 1947, the United Nations General Assembly passed a resolution calling for the establishment of a Jewish State in Eretz-Israel [the Land of Israel]… this recognition of the United Nations of the right of the Jewish people to establish their State is irrevocable… We hereby declare the establishment of a Jewish state in Eretz-Israel…’8
The declaration has no legal authority in Israel. (Indeed, many Israeli laws, and even more so practices, would have been declared illegal were it to be recognized as a constitutional document; among other things, the declaration also promises that the state of Israel ‘will ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex…’. Nevertheless it has had a symbolic importance, as representing the widest consensus of the Zionist movement which established the state of Israel. Among those who signed it are even representatives of parties like the extreme religious Agudat Israel and the Communist Party, who did not define themselves as Zionist but still provided legitimation for the establishment of Israel as a Zionist state.
There is no space here to recount in detail the history of the Zionist movement and its internal divisions.9 Suffice it to say that the basis of its widest consensus is reflected in the Declaration of Independence, in which Israel is seen as the state of all Jews. Israel was never meant to be a political expression of its civil society, of the people who reside in its territory or even of its citizens. It was meant to be the State of the Jews, wherever they are. And in that respect it was immaterial (albeit highly inconvenient) that only 55 per cent of the population in the Jewish state proposed by the 1947 UN resolution were Jews, and they owned only about five per cent of the land there, or that even today the Jews in Israel constitute less than a quarter of world Jewry.
Last October, the Knesset, by passing what is ironically known as the ‘anti-racist’ law,10 gave a more specific interpretation to the consensus expressed in the Declaration of Independence. It defined Israel as ‘the state of the Jewish people’, and not just as ‘the Jewish state’ – which Zionist liberals would have liked to believe represented the same relationship between state and nation in Israel as in any other Western country. It does not – as the rest of this section will attempt to show.
The legal expression of the relationship between Israel and the Jewish people has been the Israeli Law of Return (mentioned by Rabbi Kahane) according to which all Jews, wherever they come from, are entitled automatically to Israeli citizenship, while according to the Israeli Nationality Law, non-Jews, even if born in Israel, unless born to Israeli citizens (residency and settlement are not sufficient for that purpose), are not. This special relationship between the Israeli state and the Jewish people expresses itself in many other ways as well – symbolic, legal and administrative. (Not least among them is the functioning of the Jewish Agency, the executive arm of the Zionist movement, as a parallel state distributive apparatus, operating exclusively for Jews).11
This relationship makes the criterion according to which people are included or excluded from the category of Jew to be of central and vital importance. Subjective and cultural identification are by no means sufficient.
Who is a Jew?
The modern ideological and legal debate on the definition of ‘the Jew’ had already started by the time of the French Revolution, when the question of the legal emancipation of the Jews came to the fore. It focused on the question of whether or not the Jews constituted a nation, or merely shared a religion. In a way, this debate has not been fully ‘decided’ until today – at least two Israeli governments fell as a result of disagreements on the question of ‘who is a Jew’ and last year the debate even shook the present Israeli government.12
Historically, in the Estate society of feudal Europe where ‘classical Judaism’ crystallized,13 the Jewish communities, the kehilot, were often organized around the more or less specific economic role the Jews had as a middle caste between the landed nobility and the peasantry or the urban poor. As such, they usually had a certain degree of autonomy and self government and their religion expressed itself more as a total way of life, than as a belief in certain religious dogmas. Part of their religious culture was the tradition of a common origin and history, which included political independence before the destruction of the second Jewish Temple in Jerusalem in 70 AD. Like many other ethnic collectivities therefore, in Europe and even more so in the Third World, the dichotomy of nation\religion has not suited the historical construction of the Jewish people.
Zionism, it is important to remember, has only been one response, and for a very long time a minority one, of the Jews in the ‘modern’ world to this history, and to their displacement and persecution with the rise of capitalism and nationalism in Europe, in which their traditional mode of existence could no longer survive. Hassidism and Jewish Orthodoxy on the one hand and Reform Judaism on the other hand have been the major religious movements which emerged as a reaction. Secularization and assimilation, both liberal and socialist, have been two other popular reactions by Jews to the ‘Jewish problem’ in the modern world.
The two large Jewish political movements in the 20th century which attempted to resolve the ‘who’ or, rather, ‘what is a Jew’ dilemma by constructing Jewishness into a nationality, have been the Jewish Bund and the Zionist movement. The Bund, which was the dominant Jewish national movement in Eastern Europe before World War II, saw the Jews there as constituting an autonomous national collectivity, with its own language and cultural tradition. They aspired for a multinational state structure in Eastern Europe in which the Jews, like all the other national minorities, would have a national and cultural autonomy.14
The Zionist movement aspired to the ‘normalization’ of the Jewish people, by establishing a Jewish state in an independent territory in which, ideally, all Jews would eventually settle. After long debates and the proposal of various alternative locations, it was decided that Palestine, which in the Jewish tradition had been the ‘Land of the Fathers’ and the ‘Promised Land’, would be the territorial basis for this state. Colonialism and exclusionary practices against the native population of Palestine have been, therefore, an integral part of the Zionist endeavour. It became historically successful due to the specific historical configuration in Europe and the Middle East post-World War I, and especially in the aftermath of World War II and the Nazi Holocaust.
The physical extermination of such large numbers of European Jews, combined with the survival of the Zionist settlers in Palestine (which the Nazis never reached), created a myth that Zionism presented a successful strategy against anti-Semitism and Israel a secure refuge for persecuted Jews. The superpowers supported this presumption of the Zionist movement, and the establishment of the Israeli state, because it was more convenient for the USA to send the postwar Jewish refugees to Palestine than to have to absorb them en masse in their own postwar societies. It was also a way for the Americans and the Soviets to penetrate the Middle East, an area which up until then had been controlled by the British and French.
As a result, the Zionist movement came to be the hegemonic movement in World Jewry. To the majority of Jews, Israel has become, at least to an extent, their post facto homeland. Sending money to Israel has become an easy way of being Jewish, especially for the non-religious Jews who still felt the need, especially after the Holocaust experience, to express their Jewishness. Israel has also become an emotional ‘insurance’ policy, as a potential refuge from persecution. (In reality, of course, Israel’s very existence is dependent to a very large extent on the political and financial support of the Jewish Diaspora). Concurrently, the Establishment of the various institutions of the organized Jewish communities has become very dependent on its relations with Israel, in terms of channels of power and prestige.
One of the results of this process, especially in the last ten to fifteen years, has been the dissociation of Jews, especially young Jews, who do not want to be identified as supporters of Zionism and Israel, from any association whatever with the structured Jewish community. This phenomenon, plus the high rate of mixed marriages (up to a third) among young Jews has raised a debate among demographers not only about how many Jews exist in the world, but also about who should be defined as such. In Israel itself, religious legislation has been chosen as the criterion for membership in the Jewish collectivity.
This requires explanation, as the Zionist movement has generally presented itself as a ‘modern alternative’ way of being Jewish, as opposed to the traditional religious one. However, in spite of the fact that the majority of Zionists were, at least originally, vehement secularists, the Zionist movement never completely broke away from Jewish Orthodoxy. The Zionist movement needed the religious tradition in order to justify its claim that Palestine was its homeland, rather than the land of its indigenous population; it also needed the recognition of at least major sections of the Orthodox Jewish communities, as the Zionist movement claimed to represent all Jews all over the world.
This is why (in addition to more ad hoc government coalition calculations), there has always been a partial incorporation of Jewish religious legislation into Israel’s state legislation. A central aspect of this incorporation relates to the kind of criteria whereby one can be considered a member of the Jewish national collectivity. A Jew – as defined by the law, following the traditional religious construction – is ‘anybody who is born to a Jewish mother or has been converted to Judaism’ (the question of which forms of religious conversion will be recognized by the state is still being debated).15 The Israeli Law of Return, the Nationality Law and various administrative regulations use Jewishness as a criterion for entitlement to various privileges in Israel (in spite of its supposed parliamentary democratic welfare state structure), such as automatic right for citizenship, loans, housing etc.
The incorporation of the criterion of religious conversion in state legislation has created a situation in which religious conversion is used in instances which in other states would have been dealt with by simple acts of naturalization. An extreme example of this is that of the Black American Olsi Perry, a professional basketball player. He had to undergo circumcision as part of his supposed religious conversion in order to be able to play in the Israeli national team…
On the other hand, Jewish national ideology is explicit in placing a greater emphasis on the right ‘genetic’ origin than other national collectivities. A couple of years ago, there was an outcry in Israel when it was discovered that childless couples who despaired of getting babies for adoption were using the services of private American agencies to import Brazilian and Columbian babies. The outcry was that, as it was done illegally and secretly, these babies will grow up as Jews, without ‘really’ being so (since they were not born to a Jewish mother and had not been converted to Judaism); this will create havoc in the reproduction of the Jewish collectivity when they marry and produce children as if they are Jewish, when they are ‘really’ not.16
To be born Jewish, however, is more than purely a genetic matter. To be a Jew, one has to be born to a Jewish mother in the ‘proper’ way, otherwise one is considered a mamzer (bastard), cannot be considered a Jew, is not able even to become a Jew by conversion, and one’s descendants cannot marry other Jews ‘for ten generations to come’. Bastardy in Judaism is not a question of being born outside wedlock, since according to Jewish religious law sexual intercourse is one of the ways in which marriage can be contracted (as long as it is with another Jew – rapes during pogrom did not receive such a ‘sanctification’, but on the other hand, they are the historical reason why Jewishness has come to be defined via the mother rather than the father in classical Judaism). Bastardy is rather a question of being born to a woman who is having a forbidden relationship of adultery or incest – and that includes even women who have been divorced by civil (rather than religious) courts, which, unlike civil marriages, are not recognized by the religious court. Their children by their second husbands would be defined as bastards.
The major ideological justification which has been given for the incorporation of Orthodox religious personal law into Israeli legislation, and for accepting its definition as to ‘who is a Jew’, has been that doing otherwise will ‘split the people’. It was claimed that accepting the authority of other Jewish religious denominations, such as Conservative or Reform Judaism, let alone secular legislation, would make it impossible for Orthodox Jews to marry anyone but other Orthodox Jews, for fear of incorporating unintentionally the forbidden mamzers into their family.
The paradox is, of course, that in reality no Orthodox Jew would marry a non-Orthodox Jew (or even newly ‘born again’ Orthodox Jews who come from secular families) – exactly because of this fear. Moreover, outside Israel the majority of Jews do marry and divorce in a non-Orthodox fashion, even if they are married by a rabbi, and in Israel itself private contracts in lawyers’ offices have become more and more popular as an established alternative to official marriages.17 The attempt to control the boundaries of the Israeli collectivity and its patterns of reproduction in a homogeneous way by incorporating severe Orthodox religious law into Israel’s state legislation has, therefore, not really succeeded.
All this means that the boundaries of the Jewish national collectivity which Israel claims to represent are not clear at all. On the one hand, they are definitely wider than the boundaries of the Israeli Jewish national collectivity, but on the other, there clearly exist many organized (mainly Orthodox and some Socialist) and especially unorganized segments of the world Jewish population who less and less recognize Israel’s claim to represent them. Moreover, the historical past of the Jews as a religious civilization and with separate histories in different parts of the world, has presented contradictory and cross pressures on the Zionist movement when it attempts to construct the national boundaries of its collectivity without at the same time breaking radically with its ideology of religious\ethnic construction.
But contradictions in and challenges to the determination of the boundaries and nature of the Israeli national collectivity have emerged not only in relation to world Jewry outside Israel, but also in relation to divisions and struggles within it.
Internal Israeli Divisions
The problems concerning the nature and boundaries of the Israeli national collectivity get yet another twist when we look at the internal ethnic divisions within its Jewish collectivity, especially the major division into Occidental and Oriental Jews. Jewish communities, if only small ones, exist in most countries today, and in Israel itself there are Jews who have come to settle from over seventy countries. Historically and culturally they can be divided mainly into three major groups, Ashkenazi, Sephardi and Oriental.
The Ashkenazi Jews resided in Central and Eastern Europe. Their language (in addition to the languages of their countries of residence) was Yiddish. The Sephardi Jews originated from the Jewish community in Spain (expelled in 1492) and resided mainly in Western Europe and the Mediterranean countries. Their specific language was Ladino. In the Arab world too, there existed Jewish communities; their language was Arabic. In Palestine, Ashkenazi Jews started to settle in significant numbers only towards the end of the eighteenth century, and Zionist settlement started only towards the end of the nineteenth century. Prior to that, most Jews in Palestine had been Sephardic.
The ideology, the leadership and the overwhelming majority of the Zionist settlers and supporters of the Zionist movement until the post-World War II period came from Europe, especially Eastern Europe, and originated from among the Ashkenazim.
The Jews from Arab countries mostly arrived in Israel after the establishment of the state in 1948. Unlike the Zionist settlers from Europe, they usually came not as single individuals but as whole families and communities. To the extent that their migration was ideological at all, it had more to do with religious beliefs than any aspiration for the social transformation of the Jewish people. Unlike most of the European Jewish communities, they were not exterminated during World War II, but their situation began to worsen dramatically with the growing conflict between the Zionist movement and the Arab world as a whole. When they arrived, the Oriental Jewish communities, as they became known collectively in Israel, came into an already well crystallized political structure, with its pre-established supporting economic underpinnings.
The task of absorbing the new immigrants was given to the various Zionist parties according to their relative size in the Jewish Agency.18 As a result of this system of patronage, the political map of Israel hardly changed in terms of its balance of power for almost the first thirty years of its existence, in spite of the very different political and economic interests held by these new immigrants, whose families came to make up the majority of the Israeli Jewish population.
Autonomous Oriental Jewish parties, unlike Palestinian ones, were not forbidden by law, but (at least until the 1970s), they were just not allowed sufficient access to independent economic and political levers. Within the old party system, the national political leadership, with very few exceptions, continued to be composed of Ashkenazi Jews (especially East Europeans) and their children.
As in the case of the Palestinians in Israel, the process of change had started gradually, but would probably not have transformed itself as it did without the major shift in the Israeli society as a result of the 1967 war. The entrance en masse of Palestinian labour power into the Israeli labour market not only involved a relative upward shift for the Israeli working class, which after the 1950s was overwhelmingly Oriental; it also supplied markets and cheap labour for those among the Oriental Jews who started their own enterprises and\or engaged Palestinians as workers in their fields in the moshavim.
In spite of occasional complaints that the settlements in the Occupied Territories were diverting money from the rehabilitation of urban slums and underprivileged development towns where the majority of Oriental Jews lived, the mass of Oriental Jews came to support the Likkud party and parties even further to the Right. They saw these parties as serving their class interests, as well as satisfying their growing expressed hostility to the former dominant Labour Zionists who had acted as their controlling patrons since their arrival in Israel.19 Even after a major economic crisis and the establishment of the national unity government, there have been no signs of significant political changes among the majority of Oriental Jews.
Their challenge, however, was not only political but also cultural. They were revolting against the under-rating and suppression of Oriental Jewish culture which had been part of their ‘absorption’ process whereby modernization was equated with westernization, and Jewish nostalgia was focused on the East European Shtetl of ‘Fiddler on the Roof’ rather than on ‘Our village in the Atlas mountains’.20 The quotable Golda Meir not only lived in fear of Arab babies being born, but, it is said, also cried in relief when Russian Jews began arriving in Israel in the early 1970s: ‘At last real Jews are coming to Israel again’…
In the last few years, however, the power struggle which has been taking place in Israel to challenge western exclusivity and supremacy concerning culture, education and power political structures, has to a certain extent got enmeshed with the power struggle of the religious sector to reinstate religious tradition as the legitimate basis for social and political action in Israel.
Soon after the 1967 war, major changes began to materialize in the centrality, saliency and intensity of various ideological trends within Israel, including within the dominant Ashkenazi establishment. These changes have had to do with changing perspectives on the relationship between being an Israeli and being a Jew – in social and political, as well as religious, terms.
The sabras,21 the ‘New Jews’, grew up feeling themselves to be a positive alternative, and completely different, to the Diaspora Jews. After the establishment of the state, the term ‘Zionism’ itself became in Israeli slang a euphemism for meaningless waffle. There was a feeling (contradictory political and financial reality notwithstanding) that the Zionist movement had finished its task with the establishment of the state of Israel and the mass immigration in the first few years of its existence.
There even developed ideological movements which attempted to classify the Israeli Jews as part of the ancient Semitic region in which Israel’s long term future lay (without usually discarding assumptions of Israeli superiority…).22 Diaspora Jews were looked at a bit contemptuously, and as an ongoing source for contributions of money given in order to salve their conscience for not having come to settle in Israel; religious Jews were looked on, to a great extent, by the dominant majority, as an anachronism left over from the ‘Diaspora period’.
The 1967 war changed all that. It suddenly became clear (and even more so in the 1973 war) that Israel is actually dependent for its existence on Jewish financial and political support from outside Israel. A growing active concern for the Jewish communities abroad was the other face of the growing Israeli hegemony in the international Jewish communities.
Moreover, the debate on the Occupied Territories (between those who wanted a Greater Israel which had subordinated Palestinians within it, and those who wanted an Israel which was perhaps smaller, but as far as possible ‘purely’ Jewish) raised again the whole discussion about the nature of the Zionist endeavour, as live an issue as is the relationship between the Jewish people and Israel.
However, the changes went deeper than that. The 1967 war, in which the Wailing Wall and the other Jewish holy places were captured, was also endowed with a religious interpretation – it was a ‘miracle’, the ‘hand of God’ (The defeat in Lebanon was also to be seen as the hand of God, this time as a punishment for not keeping to the religious code…). The ideological trend which has seen the establishment of the Jewish state as a religious mission was strengthened. And this was by no means confined to religious circles. It is not incidental that after 1967 new Israeli soldiers began to swear allegiance to the army no longer on Masada,23 a symbol of national liberation warfare, but in front of the Wailing Wall, the last remnant of the Jewish Temple; nor that by now so many kibbutzim, traditionally strongholds of secularism in Israel, have synagogues.
But the most far-reaching changes have taken place in the politics and the position of the Zionist religious sector itself. The Zionist religious parties have always been the traditional coalition partners in Israeli governments. Until 1967, they willingly accepted the Labour parties’ military and international policies in exchange for economic benefits for their institutions and keeping the status quo on religious legislation more or less intact. After 1967, however, and especially among the younger generation, the product of religious state education, they started to develop their own political line. This focused on the issue of annexation and settlement of the West Bank and the other territories of the ‘Promised Land’ as a religious duty. From occupying a secondary and inferior role – both in the eyes of the dominant Labour Zionists and in the eyes of non-Zionist Orthodox Jews – they saw themselves (and were seen by others) as occupying a pioneering front-line role in Zionism and religious affairs as a whole. The rise, in 1977, of the rightwing Likkud party government was partly prompted by this process; it also accelerated it.
The religious parties, Zionist and non-Zionist alike, switched their allegiance as government coalition partners from the Labour Party to those who were closer to them politically and who also gave them much larger economic resources for their specific institutions. As a result, it is claimed, Israel now has more ‘Yeshiva Bokhers‘ (religious scholars who are kept by the community) than existed in nineteenth-century Poland.
The process of settlement in the Occupied Territories, as well as the militancy of religious circles in all spheres of Israeli life, are growing all the time. The reconstitution of the Labour Party as the head of a national coalition government has not seriously affected this process.24 It is important to note, however, that not all the growth of the religious sector has taken place in the nationalist camp.
The ideological crisis, combined with the economic crisis in Israel since the 1970s, has led many to turn to religious fundamentalism, not as a messianic, nationalistic, if not fascistic movement (parallel to fundamentalist movements in the Muslim world), but as an escape from all the moral and political dilemmas that Zionism (which most of them see as having failed) has presented to contemporary Israeli and non-Israeli Jews (a phenomenon common to disappointed youth all over the West). Studying the Torah and keeping the Halakha seem to many, mostly Ashkenazi but also Sephardi sabras, as the only valid way for Judaism to continue to exist, and for them to live as Jews and to find emotional security and certainty.
The intermeshing of the power struggles of Oriental Jews and the religious Jews has meant that in Israel there is a growing body which sees western culture and values as a threat (if not as a contemptible anachronism – I did hear a student on a bus one day being teased for being so dumb as to still believe in Darwinism). Correlated to these developments is a considerable growth of an Israeli neo-fascist movement, in which the class grievances of poor Oriental Jews are combined with nationalistic religious myths, and in which democracy is seen as a trap invented by the ruling Establishment, from which only they and the Palestinians, the national enemy, can benefit.
What is challenged here, in different ways, is not so much the boundaries of the Israeli national collectivity, but the nature of the collectivity itself. Whereas at the beginning of the Zionist endeavour the dominant trend had been to create in Israel a nation state in the western mode, as ‘normal’ as possible within the constraints of the Zionist mode, there are now more and more voices calling for European-dominated values to be driven out of Israel, and for the country to be turned into an ethnic collectivity united by religious traditions and practices, with modern state powers to enforce and exclude others. In turn, these challenges to the nature of the Israeli Jewish collectivity affect approaches to the question of reproduction of the national collectivity itself, its relationship with world Jewry, and its attitudes towards those in Israel who are not Jews.
The Israeli National Collectivity and the Palestinians
Up to now I have discussed the relationship between Israel and the Jews, both in and out of Israel. However, as I said previously, about 17 per cent of Israel’s citizens are not Jewish, and the figure reaches about a third of the population when we include the people who have lived for the past eighteen years under the control of the Israeli state in the Occupied Territories. The latest statistical scare has been that last year more non-Jewish than Jewish babies were born in areas under the control of the Israeli government.25 The overwhelming majority of those non-Jews are Palestinian Arabs.
The Palestinian Arabs ‘threaten’ the Zionist endeavour in more ways than one. Their presence is a continual reminder that Palestine has not been an empty country ‘waiting for two thousand years for its sons to return’ , as the Zionist myth puts it; it is also a continual obstacle as regards reconciling the ideological constructs of a western-type welfare state (the model which Israel has attempted to follow, but in which by definition all citizens are supposed to be treated on a universal basis) with Zionism, which demands exclusive rights, or at least a privileged position, for Jews.
This contradiction remained in ‘manageable’ proportions until 1967, with the Palestinians constituting no more than 13 per cent of the Israeli population. Furthermore, for many years the Palestinians in Israel were made to live in relative geographical isolation. They were concentrated in two major areas – the Galilee and the ‘Triangle’ – and they almost always lived in separate settlements. Military government operated in Israel until 1965 (two years before Israel came to occupy the West Bank and Gaza strip) and this meant that Palestinians had to obtain special permission in order to travel outside their home zones. Up until the 1967 war, the Israeli Palestinians were sufficiently segregated from the Jewish collectivity, to enable the feasible operation of the Israeli state in most of its facets in a supposed universal fashion. However, even within these containments, the long-term contradictions started to emerge.
The continuous pressure for expropriating Palestinian lands, both for positive reasons – to expand Jewish settlement – and negative – to prevent the emergence of excessive concentrations of Palestinian enclaves within Israel – have had the paradoxical result of integrating the dispossessed Palestinians into the Israeli labour market. The Palestinians have undergone a process of proletarianization and were incorporated as a class fraction at the bottom of the Israeli class structure, especially in unskilled and manual work in the private sector.26
Consequently, not only were they brought into closer social and economic interaction with Jewish society, but this change also brought more education and more money to the Palestinian villages. One result of this process, and of the numerical growth of the Israeli Palestinian population, has been a relative strengthening of their political power as Israeli citizens, especially as a voting bloc, no longer fully controllable by traditional mediators sponsored by the authorities. This has somewhat improved their collective bargaining power.
Unsurprisingly, however, there is only a very small improvement in the representation of Palestinians in real political power positions, and all attempts at independent Palestinian political organization continue to be blocked.27 Moreover, the basic apartheid-type discriminations and exclusions in the supply of amenities, state resources and supplementary benefits continue to operate, in an atmosphere in which interpersonal racism towards the Palestinians is growing all the time.28
Such an assimilation, of course, negates not only the subjective feelings of most of the Palestinians in Israel, but also the fundamental existence of Israel as a Zionist state. It absolutely depends, as most of those who hold this position from within the Zionist camp admit, on the continued existence of the Palestinians in Israel as a small minority. Hence a growing preoccupation with ‘the demographic race’ (as we shall see below).
However, the differentiation between Palestinians who are and those who are not Israeli citizens pales in significance next to the growing majority of Israelis who are claiming the Occupied Territories, especially the West Bank which includes the Jewish religious sites, as an exclusionary Jewish territory. From this position, the boundaries of Israeli civil society include not only Israel’s citizens but also the inhabitants of the Occupied Territories, who constitute a third of the overall number of the Israeli population, and all of them are thus perceived as a threat. Containment, exploitation, oppression and ultimately expulsion are the various means suggested and used against the Palestinians, especially in the Occupied Territories. The aim is to include the territory but exclude its people from inclusion in the Israeli national boundaries.
The relationship between the Israeli national collectivity and the Jewish people has made its overall boundaries blurred and indefinite, and the criteria for ‘membership’ for ‘Jews’ in the collectivity open to both ideological and legal debate. The relationship with the Palestinians, both those who are Israeli citizens and those under its occupation, has opened a debate on the basic premises according to which the Israeli national collectivity will, in the long term, reproduce and defend its boundaries as a Jewish collectivity. Demographic policies stand at the heart of these debates and struggles.
Demographic policies and the ‘need’ for Jewish majority
In part I of this article, I looked at the ways in which the boundaries of the Israeli Zionist national collectivity have been constructed. I examined the ambiguity of the Israeli Jews constituting themselves as a ‘new’ and separate collectivity from the Diaspora Jews but at the same time representing them in their state. I looked at internal ethnic and ideological divisions within Israel which have gradually and increasingly been challenging hegemonic conceptualizations about the nature of the Israeli society, especially during the last decade. And I raised questions deriving from a situation where non-Jews who are Israeli citizens and\or are living under Israeli control in territories claimed to be part of Israel, are at the same time being excluded from the Israeli national collectivity.
In this part of the article, I look at the implications that all these factors have had for demographic policies in Israel.
Basically these policies, although reflecting all the ambiguities, contradictions and tensions described above, have had two hegemonic goals:
- the first goal has been to maintain and if possible increase Jewish domination in Israel, both via the establishment of a numerical majority and via the pursuit of military and technological superiority over the Arabs;
- the second goal, which is increasingly occupying the minds of Israeli policy makers, has been to reproduce and enlarge the ‘Jewish people’ all over the world and to ensure that Israeli Jewish mothers produce enough children to ‘compensate’ for the children lost in the Nazi Holocaust and in what is called in Israel the ‘Demographic Holocaust’.
Traditionally, as a settler society, immigration (‘aliyah) was considered to be the quickest, as well as the cheapest and most efficient, method of increasing the Jewish Zionist presence in Palestine. Not that the specific composition of the Jewish immigrants was without its own internal contradictions. As the character of immigration changed from being predominantly young, single, ideologically motivated East Europeans, into bringing whole migrant communities with age compositions, ideologies and skills which were very different, so too the overall character of Israeli society changed. This demographic change took place many years before it began to challenge the Israeli power structure, as the later immigrants, mostly Oriental Jews, were tightly controlled by the Zionist institutions which were responsible for their absorption.
When we look at the demographic policies in Israel aimed at encouraging higher birth rates, we have to examine not only WHEN they were mostly introduced (which corresponded with the periods, overall, when outside sources of Jewish immigration were blocked), but also at the debates which developed in Israel concerning WHO should be encouraged to reproduce and HOW. To an extent there has also been the debate as to whether this question is at all in the domain of public debate, or whether it is an individual decision of the families involved, or even only of the women involved, as the small Israeli feminist movement has been claiming.
The lack of clear policies concerning abortion, for example, up until the 1970s, has been just one symptom of the conflict between a liberal democratic ideology which saw decisions concerning child bearing as basically part of the private domain and an ideology which saw it as a patriotic duty. The change in the relative hegemony of each of these ideologies is but one symptom of the more general shift in dominant value systems in Israel. It is not a coincidence that when Efrat, The Committee for the Encouragement of a Jewish Birth Rate in Israel was first established in the 1960s, it was a bit of a public joke. Uri Avneri, for example, the editor of the weekly Ha’olam Hazeh which consistently supports civil rights in Israel, accused those who advocated this line of thought of having ‘the psychology of rabbits’. But it is also not a coincidence that these days Uri Avneri himself writes editorials which explain the unavoidable need for a Jewish majority in Israel.29
The ‘need’ for a Jewish majority has always been a cornerstone of Zionist thinking, of which Avneri represents the most liberal wing. Ben-Gurion, debating in the Knesset in 1949 – during the war which expanded Israel’s territory way beyond the territory allocated to it by the UN – explained: ‘A Jewish state… even if only in the West of Palestine is impossible, if it is to be a democratic state, because the number of Arabs in the western part of Palestine is higher than that of the Jews… we want a Jewish state, even if not all over the country’.30
The Zionist strategic priority of a Jewish majority in Israel has been one of the issues debated all along between the Left and Right of the Zionist movement, especially before the state was actually established, and after 1967. In the time of the yishuv, the crucial thing for the Zionist Right, led by Zabotinsky, was Jewish sovereignty over the whole of Palestine. Once this could be established, it was assumed that the Jewish masses from all over the world would come and fill the country.
The Labour Zionism that dominated the yishuv, on the other hand, saw Jewish settlement and a consolidation of a Jewish majority in a gradually expanding territory as a precondition for the establishment of the Zionist state. However, even they were prepared to accept a majority of only 55 per cent in the first instance, as was the situation in the planned Jewish state in the 1947 UN partition plan (which never actually materialized, due to the 1948 war), and planned various ways how to expand that majority.31
Plans for a transfer of the Palestinians outside the Zionist state have existed in more or less muted form throughout the history of Zionism, as one way of resolving the political contradiction of a Jewish state with too many non-Jews in it. During the 1948 war, Israel enlarged by more than 50 per cent its allocated territory, having divided the planned Palestinian state with Jordan. This could have meant a Jewish state with an overwhelming Palestinian majority.
However, most of the Palestinians under Israeli rule either escaped during the battles and were never allowed to return, or were expelled by force. This, þlus the major Jewish immigration to Israel in the first few years of its existence from postwar Europe and from the Arab countries, had reduced the Palestinian minority in Israel in the early 1950s to no more than 11 per cent. Still, in the hope of reinforcing this ratio, Ben-Gurion initiated in the early 1950s rewards (of IL 100 – even then with more symbolic than substantial value) for ‘heroine mothers’ – i.e. those who have had ten children or more; he was continually calling on Israeli Jewish mothers to have more children.
The birthrates of the Jewish and the Palestinian populations within Israel were not, however, evenly balanced. In the early 1960s, there was, on the one hand, a halt in the mass Jewish immigration to Israel, and on the other hand the birthrate of the more traditionally oriented Israeli Jews began to fall. At the same time, the Palestinian birthrate in Israel did not decrease significantly, while their life expectancy increased (by 1967, the Arab minority in Israel constituted 15 per cent, in comparison with the 11 per cent of the early 1950s). A government committee was set up to review the demographic situation, as a result of which the Centre for Demography was established in 1967, and was attached to the prime minister’s office (until 1978, when it became part of the government Work and Welfare Ministry) in order to develop suitable long-term policies to deal with the issue.
The ‘ultimate threat’ of the gradual growth of the Palestinian community in Israel and the erosion of the Jewish majority kept on growing as a political issue, especially after the 1967 war and the public debate about annexation of the Occupied Territories with their massive Palestinian population. But concern has also been growing in relation to the Palestinians who live within the 1949 borders, who are Israeli citizens, and who, for the first time in the last elections began to count, in sheer terms of numbers, as an important electoral lobby.32
This issue is central to the politics of Rabbi Kahane and others of his kind today – but not just to them. By 1976 it had already become a focus for widespread public paranoia in Israel, when a secret document written by Koenig, the civil officer responsible for the Israeli Northern District, was leaked to the press. The Galilee, with its concentration of Arab population, has always been a cause for concern to Israeli policy makers. In the mid-1960s (before the 1967 war and around the time of the establishment of the demographic centre), major confiscations of Arab lands were carried out in the Galilee, in order to establish in the heart of that dense Arab population, a new Jewish city, Karmiel.
The official aim of this policy, initiated by Levy Eshkol, then prime minister, was to ‘Judaize the Galilee’ . Koenig expressed in the 1976 document his alarm that these policies had failed and that in the foreseeable future, the Arabs would constitute a majority in the Galilee. Koenig suggested various ways of combating this tendency, including settling Jews in areas densely populated by Arabs; encouraging Arabs to emigrate from the country by limiting their prospects of employment and studies, and cutting their child national insurance benefits and more. Since then, the ‘demographic race’ and the annual Jewish and Arab birthrate continue to be discussed prominently in the Israeli national press, accompanied with gloomy demographic predictions and\or attempts to refute them.
Israeli Palestinians have not necessarily been reluctant participants in the ‘demographic race’. The fact of having large numbers of children, especially boys, has always been important in Arab rural society, which is organized around the extended family. It made possible a dignified existence for the old parents; it brought social honour to the mothers of sons; it also made possible a pooling of resources in times of economic hardship. The gradual proletarianization of the Israeli Palestinians was somewhat eased by the fact that while the men commuted to town to work, the women and other men of the family, stayed together in the village; in times of unemployment they constituted a buffer against its hardest effects.
Nevertheless, gradually, especially with the rise of a new intelligentsia and the politicization of the younger generation, the authority of the hamulas (family clans), which the Israeli authorities have also cultivated as efficient means of control, has begun to diminish. In terms of population growth, however, modernization has had an immediate and contradictory effect – life expectancy has gone up; the mortality rate has come down; and together they have reversed the beginnings of a trend towards a falling birthrate.33
In addition, since the 1970s, family size has become a conscious political weapon among Palestinian nationalists. This has been true for the whole of the Palestinian movement. The training of children in refugee camps to be the next generation of fighters has been very central to it.
War orphans, for example, have not been allowed to be adopted by outsiders (unlike Vietnamese orphans in similar circumstances), but are reared collectively for their national role. In Israel, the ‘war on the baby front’ became especially bitter in the ‘post-Koenig’ period. Slogans like ‘The Israelis beat us on the borders but we beat them in the bedrooms…’ started to be heard, and poems, a traditional mobilizing means in Arab societies, were written in this spirit.34
The Israeli authorities more or less admitted that none of the active population control policies which are used in other Third World countries have any chance of meeting cooperation among either the ‘traditional’ or the ‘modern’ elements in the Arab sector. Nevertheless, social welfare clinics were set up, and Palestinian women are the only women in Israel who can obtain free contraceptives… I was told by a social worker that as long as these clinics were headed by Palestinian women, they tended to cooperate with the Israeli authorities on family planning policies (although from a very different motive to theirs –care for individual women rather than control of overall numbers). In the last few years Palestinian men have become heads of some of these clinics and it is rumoured that attitudes towards family planning have changed considerably.
Since the Israeli government is unable to control effectively the number of Palestinian children being born, quite a lot of its policies have concentrated on bringing in more Jews from abroad, and, when fewer and fewer actually came, at the same time gradually promoting and encouraging a growth of the Jewish birthrate in Israel itself.
After its establishment in 1967, the Demographic Centre commissioned coordinated studies on demographic trends in Israel and in the Jewish Diaspora, and promoted various pro-natal policies. This was done both by propaganda work and by material incentives, such as ‘The Fund for Encouraging Birth’ which was set up in 1968 by the Housing Ministry to subsidise housing loans for families with more than 3 children. These benefits, such as increased child allowances, were given basically only to Jews, under the euphemism of ‘families who have relatives who have served in the Israeli army’.
Clearly the value of all these policies has been more symbolic than practical, when we take into consideration what is actually involved in bringing up a child. But even at this symbolic and auxiliary-practical level, these policies were not universally approved of in Israel.
One line of objection was raised by militant liberals and leftists. They joined the Israeli Palestinians in pointing out the racist character of using the state apparatus to discriminate against Palestinians and to block their access to a whole line of state benefits. Right-wing nationalists, however, also objected to using the state apparatus for that purpose – they would have preferred the Jewish Agency to take on this function.
As things stand, Palestinians who are Israeli citizens have been receiving some child benefit allowances, and the Druze and Bedouins who do military service have been even receiving the enlarged allowances that Jews receive. On the other hand, some Jewish families, especially among the extreme Orthodoxes, have no members of their family who have done national service; thus, under the euphemistic regulation, they have been entitled only to the reduced allowance. The Jewish Agency has in fact supplemented the allowances in such cases, first secretly and then openly; then, in the early 1980s, the Ministry of Religion began to take over this role.
Another line of argument against these policies was that, while promoting national goals, these policies do not take into account the class (and therefore also intra-Jewish ethnic) divisions in the Israeli society – inasmuch as it is the number of children rather than size of family income which is used as the qualifying criterion for child and housing benefits.
This line of opposition in the 1970s reflected a growing concern with issues of poverty and ethnic antagonism within the Jewish collectivity.
Studies were published which showed that class differentiations between Ashkenazi and Oriental Jews in Israel had grown rather than shrunk in the course of the 1960s.35 This situation changed somewhat in the 1970s, due in large part to changes in the Israeli labour market after the influx of a large number of Palestinians from the Occupied Territories, and the consequent economic upward mobility of sections of the Oriental Jews. Nevertheless, the Jewish poor in Israel today are still overwhelmingly of Oriental origin.36 Growing popular protest movements within what is often called ‘The Second Israel’ (the best known but by no means the only one being the Israeli Black Panthers) have brought this reality into the political arena as well, especially since the Oriental Jews have become a majority of the Israeli electorate.
The Government committee which was set up to examine these issues discovered an important and relevant fact. They found that in Israel, 75 per cent of children who grew up in Israel in economic deprivation come from large families of 4+ children, mostly from Oriental Jewish families, and that they constitute about 40 per cent of all Israeli children.37 It pointed out the continuous and possibly growing class and ethnic divisions within the next generation of Israeli Jews, and also the shift in ratio between those belonging to the various different classes, as a result of the much larger number of children among people at the bottom end of the income bracket.
It is important to note in this context that although maintaining a Jewish majority in Israel has been a prime concern of the Zionist movement, Zionists are also always aware that in the Arab East it will always be a very small minority. The petty-bourgeois socio-economic background of most of the Zionist settlers before the establishment of the state; technological and organizational superiority over the underdeveloped Arab world; imperialist support of Israel as the most consistent local ally; and a nationalist myth of ‘there is no alternative’ – these are what has enabled the continuous success of Israel in its wars against the Arabs (at least until the Lebanon war).
Quality, then, rather than quantity has been the crucial factor. Over the last few years the situation has been changing, and Israeli newspapers report with anxiety that there is a much higher number of university graduates in the Arab world than in Israel; and, on the other hand, that there is a growing deterioration in the quality of the human material available to the Israeli army.38
It was therefore, again, primarily national concern, as well as an attempt to appease the growing protests of the ‘Second Israel’, which brought about a significant development in the direction of welfare policies in Israel in the 1970s – measures such as the introduction of social security, ‘slum rehabilitation’ programmes etc. For a while the (Jewish) family’s economic situation, rather than the number of its children, became the official criterion for housing support.
This political trend, resulting from the fear of too many children growing up in poverty-stricken households in Israel, can also be said to be one of the major factors which, combined with ideological pressures, have brought about abortion legislation in Israel. For years there have been no official policies on the matter, because of politicians’ fears of running into political trouble whatever decisions were taken.39
In fact, this legislation has become one of the major mobilization factors of the growing right-wing nationalist and religious camp. They see not only abortions, but also family planning in general and anything which results in families smaller than four children, as objectionable.
Indeed, the secretary of the Efrat committee explained to me when I interviewed him that, since so many Israeli Jewish women get married and start bearing children only after completing their military service (at the age of twenty), any family planning aimed at limiting child-bearing to once every few years would necessarily severely limit the number of children such women could have before menopause.
For large sections of the pro-natal lobby in Israel, having many children is not just an inevitable outcome of keeping religious codes concerning procreation, or an expression of Jewish traditional values, or even a means of making Israel stronger by enlarging the number of potential soldiers. It is not even a question of keeping a Jewish majority in Israel.
Having large families is seen as also a way of reproducing and enlarging the Jewish people which has dwindled, first as a result of the Nazi Holocaust (caused by anti-Semitism) and then by the ‘Demographic Holocaust’ (caused by assimilation and intermarriage).40
If, at the beginning of the Zionist endeavour, it was Jewish mothers in the Diaspora who produced human power for the yishuv settlement in Palestine, it was now the ‘duty’ of Israeli Jewish mothers to produce even more children for the sake of the Jewish people as a whole… In 1983, the Law on Families Blessed with Children was passed, giving a whole range of subsidies to families with more than 3 children.
The lobby which organized the pro-natal politics of the early 1980s revived the ‘Efrat Committee for the Encouragement of Higher Jewish Birth rate’ which had been dormant for most of the 1970s. In the 1980s, it became powerful enough to establish centres and branches all over the country and to incorporate in its ranks major elite figures from all professional fields, both religious and secular, and to gain official status as a governmental consultative body on natal and demographic policy committees (together with the official women’s organizations).
A typical example of their advertisements which appeared in Israeli newspapers in Spring 1984 calls for Jewish families in Israel to have more children, because:
‘As everybody knows, we are in a worrying demographic process. Doubly so – as there is more emigration and less immigration to Israel. The birthrate among the Jewish population in Israel is low. We are the sons of the Jewish people – we have to secure our future. For the sake of our first children, we have to bring into the world additional children. We have to enlarge our family frameworks in a significant and revolutionary way! It is a blessing and happiness in itself and will also bring about the saving of the Yishuv in the foreseeable future…’41
Among the many signatories to this advertisement are not only rabbis and religious intellectuals but also major figures from the Israeli medical and academic world, such as Professor Morris Levy, who won international fame as the first surgeon to carry out a heart transplant in Israel; Professor Engelman of the Israeli Atomic Reactor at Soreq; and Professor Shavid, the head of the Department of Jewish Philosophy at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem.
Efrat gained a lot of its public power by linking the debate on encouragement of the Jewish birthrate to the public campaign around the abortion issue.
As part of its coalition agreement with the religious parties, the Begin government, when it came to power in the late 1970s, abolished the one category in the abortion law which enabled legal abortions to be carried out on the grounds of ‘social hardship’ (the other categories are: the woman’s age; the pregnancy being a result of ‘forbidden relations’; the health of the fetus and the health of the woman). This angered the feminist lobby but was not enough to appease the anti-abortion lobby, especially as liberal social workers on the abortion committees have tended to apply the woman’s health category instead.42
In addition to the usual reasoning of the anti-abortion lobby, who treat abortions as murder, came an emotive call to Jewish mothers to do their national duty and replace the Jewish children killed by the Nazis. An extreme (and narrowly defeated) example of this ideology was a suggestion by the then Advisor to the Minister of Health, Haim Sadan, to force every woman considering abortion to watch a slide show which would include, in addition to other horrors such as dead fetuses in rubbish bins, pictures of dead children in Nazi concentration camps… After a large public campaign this specific proposal was defeated and Sadan eventually resigned. Nevertheless, ‘the war on the demographic front’ continues.
It is worth remarking, however, that at the time of writing this article (winter 1985-6), the effects of the overall economic, political and ideological crisis in Israel are making their mark on the various policies which have been used in the ‘demographic race’. Within an overall context of drastic cuts in real wages and the threat of a rising unemployment, the effectively reduced state incentives have to a great extent lost any practical effects that they might have had a few years ago. This, plus a growing negative net migration to and from the country, have gradually and increasingly turned attention to the option of transferring Palestinians out of Israel, as the only possible valid long-term solution if Israel is to keep its Zionist character.
Still, on 6 January 1986, MP Avidov-Hacohen, of the Likkud party, suggested that 1987 be made an official year for ‘the encouragement of Jewish birth rate in Israel’. Hooting and laughter greeted his speech in the Knesset, from the liberal and leftist benches, and wonderful satires followed in the press. But his suggestion received sufficient support for it not to be entirely defeated; it has been transferred for further discussion to one of the Knesset committees.
Jewish women and ‘the nation’
We have seen how Israeli Jewish women have been ‘recruited’ in the ‘demographic war’ to bear more children, this being seen as their national duty to the Jewish people in general and to Israeli Jewish people in particular. It is debatable to what extent the ideological pressures, or the formal and material collective measures such as child benefits are the deciding influences in whether to have a child or, when an unplanned pregnancy occurs, to keep it. The emotional needs of people in a permanent war society, when husbands and sons might get killed at any moment, and cultural familial traditions, probably play a more central role than anything else.
Whatever the deciding factor, however, the fact is that Israeli Jewish women, especially professional middle class women, do tend to bear more children than their counterparts in other advanced capitalist societies.43 And their role as suppliers of children to ‘the nation’ has a direct effect on the availability of contraceptives and abortion. As I said, there are no free contraceptives in Israel except for Palestinians, and abortion legislation is a focus of major public political debates – not unique to Israel, but with a very explicit nationalistic emphasis, in comparison with campaigns in other countries where the ‘Moral Right’ has been fighting against abortion legislation.
Historically – until the 1960s, and since the beginning of the Zionist movement – it was mainly Jewish mothers in the Diaspora who ‘supplied’ the human power for the Zionist settlement to go forward. The Zionist endeavour can be described as an organization with clear international division of labour – in the Diaspora, the members and supporters of the movement supplied financial and political support and human power, and in Palestine, at the ‘front’, these resources were used to promote the Zionist project of imposing an exclusively Jewish society on Palestine.44
This division of labour continues to date, and without the financial and political support of the Jewish Diaspora, Israel could not have continued to exist. In the supply of human material, however, the balance has gradually shifted and the discussions today focus, as we have seen, on the role of Israeli Jewish mothers in replacing the membership of the overall shrinking Jewish national collectivity all over the world rather than, or in addition to, the other way around.
Within the Zionist yishuv itself, the pressures on Israeli Jewish women to bear more children date from the beginning of the limitation on Jewish immigration to Palestine under the British mandate (I myself am a ‘historical product’ of Ben-Gurion’s call for ‘internal ‘aliyah‘ (immigration) in the early 1940s when the news of the Nazi Holocaust started to arrive…).
However, initially, as I suggested earlier, the main emphasis of Jewish motherhood in Israel was more to do with its qualitative aspect (of producing the ‘New Jew’ – ‘the sabra’ – the antithesis of the ‘Diaspora Jew’ whose negative image the Zionist movement shared with European anti-Semitism), rather than necessarily with quantity of children. The latter was seen as being fulfilled primarily via Jewish ‘aliyah from abroad. The role of Israeli woman was to participate in the national struggle, mainly in supportive roles,45 and, in addition, to produce proud, rooted and ‘normal’ children (whose characteristics would be ‘earthiness’, military strength, and, of course, the ‘Jewish genius’…).
The development of the specific ideological construction of women as national reproducers in Israel has had a lot to do with the specificity of the historical development of the Israeli society as a permanent war society. The ideological placement of women in this respect was best summed up by MP Geula Cohen, a member of the neo-fascist Tehiyah party and an ex-member of the Stern gang in the pre-state period:
‘The Israeli woman is an organic part of the family of the Jewish people and the female constitutes a practical symbol of that. But she is a wife and a mother in Israel, and therefore it is of her nature to be a soldier, a wife of a soldier, a sister of a soldier, a grandmother of a soldier. This is her reserve service. She is continually in military service’.46
There have been many myths concerning the role of Israeli women as soldiers (and I have expanded on it in another place47). Basically, however, and to a great extent as in the civil labour market, women in the army serve in subordinate and supportive roles to that of men, unless they are in welfare and educational roles which directly correspond to the ideological tradition of women as mothers (rather than as wives and mistresses). The few women who are engaged in combative occupations are doing so in order to release men for front duties, from which women soldiers are officially banned. Also, as Geula Cohen says, women, unlike men, are released mostly from reserve service, which is the mass popular base of the Israeli army. Men serve at least one month a year in the reserves until they are fifty years old, and this is their most important national role.
The women’s national role then becomes to produce babies who would become soldiers in future wars. War widows (and parents) are perceived not only as people who have suffered the loss of their nearest and dearest, but as people who have made an active national contribution in their own right. It is on this basis that the value of war widows’ compensations is set: they receive an income from the state, along with other privileges, all of which bears no relation to the income of the late husband before his death, and is comparable to a senior government office48 (although, since the Lebanon war and the economic crisis, the real level of widows’ income has been seriously eroded, as have most other Israeli state benefits).
This ideological construction can explain why groups like ‘Women against the War’ and ‘Parents against Silence’ have been so effective in their protest against the Lebanon war (together with Yesh Gvul, the first serious draft resistance movement in the history of Israel). They touched the heart of the ideological assumption that Israeli Jewish society is fighting only because ‘there is no other alternative’ if continuous collective survival is to be assured, and therefore the individual’s sacrifices (constructed specifically according to gender and age and to a certain extent class and ethnic origin) are willingly made. When we look at the effects of the national reproductive role of Israeli Jewish women, however, it is important to remember that we are dealing here not only, and even not mainly, with effects which relate to the actual number of children they produce and for what. We are also concerned with the ideological and legal constraints within which this role of theirs is being constructed.
Jewish women in Israel, and for that matter in the Diaspora as well, are being incorporated actively in the Zionist endeavour, not only in supplying human-power to the national collectivity, but also legally and symbolically, as markers of its boundaries. As I said in part I of this article, a Jew, according to the Law of Return, is somebody who was born to a Jewish mother (or is a religious convert). It is motherhood, therefore, rather than fatherhood that determines membership in the collectivity.
However, this matrilineal tradition does not mean, by any means, that Jewish society is a matriarchal one. It is not even fully matrilineal – since children take the family name of their father, not their mother. The adoption of collective matrilinearity as a means of determining who is a Jew was suitable in the context of the Jewish community as a persecuted minority, in which pogroms and rapes were historically a recurring phenomenon. In such a context, motherhood was a safer way of determining inclusive boundaries, and tight measures were taken in the religious code to secure the legitimate reproduction of the boundaries of the Jewish collectivity marked by its women.
Jewish women in the Diaspora can, in principle, choose whether or not to remain subjugated to the religious code. Not so Israeli women. The Israeli state apparatus has added its coercive power to the traditional voluntary Jewish communal power in several crucial instances, such as marriage and divorce, and gave it monopolistic rights.
Several attempts have been made since the establishment of the state of Israel to guarantee equal rights for women in terms of employment and payment, as well as protecting their rights as workers when they become mothers. This legislation suffers from limitations similar to other legislations found in this area in Western states, in which women are constituted in law primarily as wives and mothers. Another similarity with other countries is that this legislation fails to alter the basic segregation and inequality between women and men in the labour market.49
What is more specific to Israel, however, is the fact that all attempts to guarantee women’s overall equal constitutional rights in principle have failed. This has happened not so much as a result of direct intervention by the religious parties, but more by the preventive actions of the other Zionist parties, who feared that the religious parties would withdraw support from their coalition governments, and who also feared that any ‘split of the people’ would damage the Zionist claim to be ‘the representatives of the Jewish people’. So, we have Rabin, the Labour prime minister in 1975 declaring that a Fundamental (= quasi constitutional) Law of Women’s Equality would never be passed in Israel; moreover, already in the 1930s, at the height of the ideological zeal of the self-styled secular Labour Zionist movement, people were ready to give up women’s right to vote, in order to prevent withdrawal of the extreme religious communities from the yishuv institutions (the Zionist settler community). What ‘saved’ the women then was the fact that the extremist religious parties withdrew anyway…50
Women do have the right to vote in Israel, although in recent years they have been prevented from doing so in local elections in some extreme religious settlements, especially among the settlers in the Occupied Territories (such as Immanuel). But in the 1950s, Golda Meir was prevented from becoming a candidate for the Mayorship of Tel Aviv, because it was claimed that, according to the Halakha, women are not allowed to govern men’. This position never changed; Golda was subsequently ‘allowed’ to become prime minister because, it was argued, her role there is formally that of ‘first among equals’…
The most serious effects of the incorporation of religious laws into state legislation on women’s status, relate to women’s position in family law, where control of their constitution as bearers of the national collectivity is most carefully guarded. They are not allowed to become judges in the Orthodox Rabbinical state courts which have the decision-making monopoly in issues of marriage and divorce; furthermore, women’s evidence, as a rule, is not accepted, especially if there are male witnesses. Questions of guardianship of children and maintenance are dealt with by two parallel court authorities – secular and religious; in the latter, most particularly, constructions of what should be the proper duties of a wife are exclusively decided by a small reactionary patriarchal group of Rabbinical judges (if she is proved not to have fulfilled them she is likely to be declared a ‘rebel’ and thus lose maintenance rights).
The inequality between the sexes also affects the women whose husbands disappear – in peacetime and even more so in Israel’s continuous wars. Unlike men, women are not allowed to remarry until some proof can be brought that their husbands are in fact dead, and if they decide to live with another man and have children by him, the latter are declared as mamzerim, outcasts from the Jewish national collectivity forever.
A Concluding Remark
Women’s position and women’s roles, then, are thoroughly affected by Zionism’s central concern for the reproduction of the Israeli national collectivity as Jewish. This article has examined some of the factors determining this relationship, and the series of debates which have accompanied various demographic policies that have attempted to reinforce it.
I began by quoting Rabbi Kahane when he stated that the issue of the Jewish character of Israel is the most central issue in Israeli politics, more important even than security. It is no coincidence, therefore, that the first proposal for a private member’s bill that Kahane has raised in the Knesset related directly to the control of women’s national reproductive role. He proposed to pass a law forbidding sexual relations between Jewish women and Arab men (there have been reports in the press on the abuse that women who were married to Arabs suffer in the ‘home’ that his organization has opened for them to move to.51
The Israeli parliament did not even have to reject Kahane’s proposed bill, as legal means were found to prevent it from being formally introduced in the Knesset. (However, given the result for MP Avidov-Hacohen’s proposal, one does wonder what would have happened if the proposal had actually been voted on…). Kahane, at least for the moment, in spite of (or perhaps because of) his meteoric rise in public popularity in Israel, is treated as an outcast in the Israeli Establishment, and there are even signs that his rising popularity has halted, with previous supporters shifting towards other right-wing parties like Tehiyah.
I shall conclude my article, therefore, not with another quotation from Kahane (although he is very quotable) but from Uri Avneri, one of the most liberal of Israel’s Zionists, an initiator of the Israeli-Palestinian Co-operation Committee and the Progressive List for Peace – the same Uri Avneri who mocked the ‘rabbit psychology’ of the demographic committees in the 1960s. In his editorial in Ha’olam Hazeh (24 April 1985) Avneri stated:
The new Jewish community in this country, from the beginning of the Zionist aliyah until today, simply cannot absorb anybody who is not Jewish. One can argue “who is a Jew?”. There are tensions between Ashkenazi and Oriental Jews, secular and religious, nationalists and humanists – but they all want to live in a state in which the Jews will live on their own, or almost on their own… If there is one people in the world who cannot absorb foreigners and keep an open bi-national, multi-religious society, it is the Jewish people… This is the real background for the historical debate on “territories for peace”… the only real choice is between a return to the  borders of the state, within a framework of peace and co-existence, or a final deterioration into a Mediterranean South African state…
I strongly reject the racist construction of the Jews by Avneri – after all, 75 per cent of contemporary world Jewry (who live outside Israel) do manage to live, and relatively happily at that, in ethnically diverse societies such as the USA and the Soviet Union. Indeed, some of them were among the strongest advocates for such societies. Nor do I accept this verdict as regards all the Israeli Jews who are engaged in anti-occupation struggles in Israel. However, it seems to me that this statement does signify the essence of the Jewish national collectivity that the Zionist movement is engaged in constructing and reproducing.
Is it the case that the dream of the Zionist-imagined community is in fact becoming a nightmare…?
I would like to thank the members of the Khamsin editorial group, as well as Fouzi Al-Asmar, Debbie Bernstein, Uri Davis, Avishai Ehrlich, Ilana Ehrlich, Amira Gelblum, Miriam Kaini and Aliza Masarik for their helpful suggestions. Needless to say, the responsibility for what is actually written in this article rests solely with me. (Nira Yuval-Davis)
- Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities, Verso, 1983. ↩
- Rabbi Meir Kahane, Thorns in Your Eyes (Hebrew), The Institute of Jewish Ideas, 1983, p 9. ↩
- Quoted by Kahane, Ibid. p 52. ↩
- Demographic Centre, Goals and Means of Demographic Policy (Hebrew), Labour and Welfare Ministry, 1979. ↩
- See, for example, F. Edholm, O. Harris and K. Young, ‘Conceptualizing Women’, Critique of Anthropology, 3;9; O. Haris and M. Stivens, ‘Women & Social Reproduction’, unpublished paper; and M. McIntosh, ‘Gender & Economics’, in Young, Wolkowitz & McCullugh (eds.), Of Marriage and the Market, CSE Books, 1981. ↩
- See, for example, Sir William Beveridge, Report on Social Insurance and Allied Services, HMSO, 1942, p 154: ‘With its present rate of reproduction, the British race cannot continue; means of reversing the recent course of birth rate must be found’. And in the Soviet Union, like in Israel they rewarded ‘Heroine Mothers’ for those with ten children and more (Guardian, March 1979). ↩
- For further details on the initial reasons of the crisis see my paper, ‘The current crisis in Israel’, Capital & Class, no. 22, Spring 1984. ↩
- The Scroll of Independence, 14 May 1948. ↩
- For a summary of the main differences between the two tendencies, see Theodor Shanin, ‘The price of suspension’ in U. Davis, A. Mack & N. Yuval-Davis, Israel and the Palestinians, Ithaca Press, 1975. ↩
- A correction of the Knesset Fundamental (= quasi constitutional) Law no. 12, 1985. ↩
- See U. Davis, Israel: Apartheid State, Zed Books Ltd., 1987. ↩
- At this stage, the debate is not about using the religious definition itself, but whether or not conversions carried out by non-orthodox rabbis abroad should also be recognized. ↩
- See A. Leon, The Jewish Question, a Marxist Interpretation, Pathfinder Press, 1970; and I. Shahak, ‘The Jewish religion and its attitude to non-Jews‘, Khamsin nos 8 & 9. ↩
- See my paper on ‘Marxism and the Jewish Question’, History Workshop Journal, October 1987 (forthcoming). ↩
- On the debate around this law see A. Orr, The Un-jewish State, Ithaca Press 1983. ↩
- Reported in Ma’ariv (Israeli daily), 29 March 1984. ↩
- See Davar (Israeli daily), 6 May 1985. ↩
- S. Svirsky & D. Bernstein, ‘Who worked in what, for whom and for what’ (Hebrew), Booklets for Research and Critique, no. 4, 1980. ↩
- See the articles of Emmanuel Farjoun and Avishai Ehrlich in Khamsin no. 10. ↩
- ‘Fiddler on the Roof’ is a famous musical based on the life of the East European Shtetl; ‘Our village in the Atlas mountains’ is a famous song by the Moroccan singer of the Natural Selection group. ↩
- ‘Sabra’ is the nickname given to the Jews who were born in the Yishuv and in Israel. It is the name of a cactus which was widespread in Palestine. The Sabras are supposed to be like the fruit of the cactus – thorny on the outside and sweet inside… ↩
- There is still no good summary of this political trend in Israel although Maxim Ghilan tried to do it in his book How Israel lost its Soul, Penguin, 1974. ↩
- Masada is the name of the fortress mountain in the Judea desert in which the last rebels against the Romans resisted foreign rule to the end and committed collective suicide rather than give themselves up to the enemy. It became a strong nationalist symbol of the Zionist revival; it is not incidental that Masada is also the nickname given to Israel’s atom bomb… ↩
- An extreme example of the development of this political trend, focused around Gush Emunim and the settlers in the West Bank, is the way that the religious underground has been conspiring to bomb the Al Aqsa Mosque in order to be able to rebuild the Jewish Temple and bring about the advent of the Messiah. ↩
- Israel Statistical Abstracts, 1985. ↩
- See H. Rosenfeld, They were Peasants (Hebrew), Hotza’at Hakibutz Hame’uhad, 1964, and his later article in Booklets for Research and Critique, no. 3, 1978; see also S. Jiryis, The Arabs in Israel, Institute of Palestine Studies, 1968. ↩
- In the last elections there was an attempt to block The Progressive List for Peace, although it was an alliance between Palestinian nationalists and Israeli Jewish liberals and leftists; its Palestinian MP, M. Mi’ari had his parliamentary immunity taken away and there are all the signs that they will not be permitted to enter the next elections even in this format. ↩
- The press is every day full of new facets of anti Arab racism. To give just a couple of examples from the same week: the Chief Rabbi forbade Jews to sell their apartments to non Jews (Ha’aretz, 17 January 1986) and survey results revealed that 42 per cent of Israeli Jews want the mass emigration of Palestinians from Israel (Ha’aretz, 14 January 1986).
One consideration in the growing racism is the fact that the differentiation between Palestinians who are Israeli citizens and those who live in the Occupied Territories is very problematic and is the subject of debate within Israel. The Palestinians in the Occupied Territories have never received even formal civil rights, having been under straight occupation for the past nineteen years. Unlike the Palestinians who remained in Israel after 1948, they have several urban centres and a much more heterogeneous class structure.
The occupation has affected social and economic relations within the West Bank, especially in terms of a growing dependency on Israel, as a supplier and consumer as well as an employer. But the most important effects of the occupation have been the emergence of a segregated Jewish settler society on lands confiscated from the Palestinians; a continuous military presence; deprivation of civil and legal rights; a continuously active resistance movement and a growing cycle of terrorization. The overwhelming majority of the Palestinians on the West Bank see their future in terms of an autonomous Palestinian state headed by the PLO – a political movement which has also gradually become more and more popular among Palestinians who are Israeli citizens, and who find themselves excluded from a future Palestinian state which would be in any way acceptable even to the most ‘dovish’ Zionists.
The Zionist ‘doves’, the Left of the Labour party, want Israel’s withdrawal from most of the Occupied Territories and the establishment of a Palestinian state alongside Israel in these areas, thus keeping the Jewish character of the Israeli state without having to deviate too extremely from normal practices of western type democratic states. They would like to see the Israeli Palestinians as a small minority within Israel, with civil but no collective rights, and the bravest among them even talk about the eventual full assimilation of Israeli Palestinians into Israeli society.[29. See, for example, the articles by Gershom Schoken, ‘Ezra’s Curse’, Ha’aretz, 29 August 1985 and Yehoshua Porat, ‘The state of the Jewish people or the Jewish state’, Ha’aretz, 6 October 1985 (Hebrew). ↩
- Editorial in Ha’olam Hazeh (Hebrew), 24 April 1985. ↩
- Protocols of the Knesset, 4 April 1949. ↩
- See Y. Bailin, The Price of Unification: the Israeli Labour Party until the Yom Kippur War, (Hebrew), Revivim, 1985. ↩
- During the last election campaign, for the first time the election campaign by the major Zionist parties in the Arab sector in Israel did not take place mainly via traditional hamula heads. This was especially true for the party headed by General Ezer Weizman. ↩
- Haim Ronen, ‘Israeli Arabs multiply faster than the Chinese’, Bamakhane, army weekly (Hebrew), 17 November 1982. ↩
- In May 1976, the poet Owani Sawit was arrested after reading some of his poems on the ‘Day of the Land’ memorial, including a poem in which he promised – ‘Hey, murderers\ Do you really believe that you can murder my people?\ This is an impossible mission\ If you murder six, we shall bring to the world sixty on that same day’ (Arabic). ↩
- S. Smooha, Israel-Pluralism and Conflict, RKP, 1978; see also the articles by S. Svirsky and D. Bernstein (Hebrew) in Booklets for Research and Critique, nos. 1 & 4. ↩
- See the articles by E. Farjoun and A. Ehrlich in Khamsin 10. ↩
- Report of the Prime Minister’s Committee on Children and Youth in Distress, 1974 (Hebrew). ↩
- See, for example, Ari Shavit’s article ‘Is Israel withdrawing from the army?’ (Hebrew) Koteret Rashit, 15 May 1985. Other similar articles appeared around that time also in Ha’aretz and Ha’olam Hazeh. ↩
- Y. Yishai, ‘Abortion in Israel – social demand & political responses’, Policy Studies Journal, vol. 7, no. 2 Winter 1978. ↩
- Professors Baki and Dela Pergula of the Hebrew University are continually quoted in the press, predicting the shrinking of world Jewry from the present 11.5 million to 8 million by the year 2000 and to 5 by the year 2200, and pointing out that by now 43 per cent of world Jewry births are taking place in Israel (although less than 25 per cent of world Jewry actually live there). ↩
- Published in the Israeli press as an advertisement in June 1984. ↩
- The table in the Efrat bulletin (no. 15-16) shows that in 1979 there were 15,925 legal abortions in Israel, of which 1,665 were granted under the category of the age of the woman; 4,465 –forbidden relations; 2,165 – danger to the embryo; 1,299 – danger to the woman and 6,331 – the social situation of the woman; the last category was abolished in 1980 and in 1980 the number of abortions came down to 14,703. However, in 1982, the number of legal abortions was 16,829, 1,775 for age; 6,632 for forbidden relations; 2,626 – danger to the embryo; and 5,796 – danger to the woman. Clearly the last category has been used by the abortion committees as a substitute for the category which was abolished. ↩
- The average number of children to Jewish women in Israel in 1984 was 2.7, while it was less than 2, if not 1, in most western countries. For systematic comparison of the situation of women and the family in Israel and in other countries see Y. Peres and R. Katz, ‘Family and Familiality in Israel’ (Hebrew), Megamot, 26.1. pp 30-43. ↩
- See D. Hecht & N. Yuval-Davis ‘Ideology without revolution: Jewish women in Israel‘ Khamsin 6 and A. Ehrlich, ‘Zionism, demography and women’s work‘ , Khamsin 7. ↩
- See my booklet, Israeli Women and Men: Divisions Behind the Unity, Change publications 1982, and my article ‘Front and Rear: The sexual division of labour in the Israeli army’, Feminist Studies, vol. 11, no. 3, Fall 1985. ↩
- Geula Cohen, quoted in L. Hazelton, Israeli Women – the Reality Behind the Myth (Hebrew), Idanim, 1978. ↩
- See my article ‘Front and Rear’, op. cit. ↩
- L. Shamgar, War Widows in Israeli Society, (Hebrew), Ph.D. thesis, Hebrew University, 1979. ↩
- See, for example, Hilary Land, ‘Sex role stereotyping in the social security and income tax system’ in J. Chetwynd & O. Hartnett (eds.), Sex Role Systems, RKP, 1978 & Elizabeth Wilson, Women and the Welfare State, Tavistock publications, 1977. ↩
- Sarah Azaryahu, The Organization of Hebrew Women for Equal Rights in the Land of Israel (Hebrew), Keren le’ezrat ha’isha, 1977. ↩
- Reported in Al-Hamishmar daily, 27 February 1986.) ↩