The following is the introduction to a paper I wrote for the Argov Center comparing the Orthodox feminist movements in Israel and the US:
The women’s movement arrived at the American Orthodox community long before it arrived among religious women in Israel. Already in the 1970s, American women were gathering for all‐female prayer groups and holding protests outside the homes of agunot (“chained women” – women denied divorce by their recalcitrant husbands), while these issues did not reach Israel until the 1990s. Yet, when feminist consciousness finally reached religious Israeli women, the issues were no less burning, although often in a different order of priorities – or different altogether – than those in the Diaspora. Issues of women’s study and scholarship were more central in Israel than women’s prayer groups, which never fully took off in Israel. Women in Israel also contended with new issues, such as whether religious girls should aspire go to the army or national service, or whether the school system should teach girls gemara or the more watered down “toshba” (“oral law”). Even issues of clear overlap between American and Israeli activists, such as the agunah issue, have found expression in different ways, highlighting the fascinating differences between struggle against Jewish communal authority in the Diaspora versus the struggle against Jewish state authority in Israel. Meanwhile, although agunot in Israel are trapped in some frightening ways due to the state‐rabbinic monopoly on personal status issues in Israel, they also have more tools in their arsenal, such as lobbying, legislation, and the prison system.
Today, there is more overlap between the two groups than ever before, with very similar overall agendas. There are also some indications that Israeli religious feminists are headed towards more radical positions on some issues than their American counterparts. The issue of women and the rabbinate actually started in Israel, and developed without much incident, as opposed to the “rabba” drama that ensued later in New York. Also interesting are the recent calls for civil marriage in Israel coming from agunah activists, in alliance with non‐Orthodox groups, which have set the groundwork for a struggle that has broad impact on all of Israel. Similarly, the recent struggle against the exclusion of women in public spaces in Israel has drawn many Orthodox women into a fight that (perhaps unbeknownst to some of them) is headed towards calling for separation of religion and state, a struggle that can have far‐reaching consequences for Israeli society and the Jewish people at large.
An examination of these two movements provides a fascinating glimpse into the dynamics of change within a traditional society, and the struggles faced by women raising feminist consciousness in a patriarchal culture that they call their own. It is also an important story about the Israeli‐Diaspora relationship, about the synergy, overlap and tensions between two vital centers of the Jewish people, in which the issues are similar and in dialogue with one another, but challenges and solutions sometimes find expressions in distinct ways.