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God and Mother: Motherhood in Zionist Society in Eretz Yisrael

“Just as the big world is in God’s Hands to be built or destroyed…so is the small world of the child in the hands of his mother.”

(Dr. Y. Rivkai, “Mother and Child,’ the Mother and Child Calendar, 1934, pp. 1-2) 

Motherhood is a central element in the process of nation building. [1] The growth of nations, which entailed among other things new gender roles in society, transformed the notion of motherhood to a foundation stone. Thus, the mother as builder of the family assumes a national meaning as well. [2]Modern motherhood is two pronged. It establishes the woman’s place in society, but also enables her to use her biological function to re-define the public sphere. [3]Nonetheless, motherhood has not promised equality for women. [4] In Zionism, mothers and their offspring were necessary to create the New Jew, who was essential to the Zionist revolution. [5] The Zionsit establishment assumed that all women want to have a child.[6] Childbearing was perceived as a heroic act, part of the pioneering effort. The women’s labor leadership, for example, became accustomed to this formulation and added a layer – they drew a parallel between motherhood and men who defended the homeland, since both were willing to give their bodies to the cause. Therefore, certain trends came to light in the discourse on motherhood: ‘progressive’ women leveraged the idea of motherhood to promote public causes. They used it to improve the lot of needy populations, particularly that of mothers and children in traditional families. The ‘revolutionaries’ – especial;ly those from the Labor camp – emphasized the hardships of motherhood and the price it demanded; they called for a public debate on the woman’s right to govern her body and determine her own familial status as she wished. This debate included standards for ideal parenting, in accordance with Zionist parameters.

The central role of the mother in the child’s education was a focal point for profound criticism on the part of various social innovators. The child born in the ‘faulty,’ i.e., pre-Zionist past, suffered from egotistical parental love, the mother being the main guilty party.[7] The mother was often depicted as possessing a weak character, soft-hearted, who bribes her child with treats but neglects to exercise her authority. Such a mother ‘has no educational ability,’ and is therefore not useful to the Zionist cause. [8]What was at the root of this distrust of “uneducated” motherhood? These women came from many different countries, with different ideas on parenting, often with no national identity, and all this rendered them suspect as mothers. The Zionist establishment expected parents to educate their children in the home to the national interest. A stamp of approval was given to the mother who embodied and implemented Zionist terminology in her home. The rationalist, Zionist mother educated her children in accordance with modern pedagogic principles. The difference between a good and bad Zionist mother was based on ethnicity. [9]Oriental mothers were seen as belonging to the lower cultural levels in Jewish society. They were perceived as uneducated, slaves to superstitious beliefs, unworldly, and caught in the net of religion. Children of these families were ‘wild’ in their behavior and difficult to reach. Moreoever, their mothers tyrannized them unnecessarily and burdened them with  unreasonable tasks, such as raising younger siblings and earning a living to contribute to the family.  These tasks distracted the children from what was important, that is, getting an education. [10]

The Labor-Zionist establishment did not berate only these mothers. Any Diaspora mother, whether from Germany or Africa and the Orient, was castigated. However, the causes of their failings were defined differently. If the Oriental mother was weak and ignorant, the European mother lacked national solidarity due to her bourgeouis background. The egotistical mother of the Diaspora encouraged her child to pursue a profession that was unsuitable to the Zionist venture, such as engineering, architecture or clerical work. She neglected the importance – for both genders – of working the Land. [11] As opposed to this, the women of the Zionist establishment, among them leaders of the Labor movement, were more complicated. They espoused the national Zionist, rationalist principles of motherhood, but broadened the definition of the ‘good mother’ to include the Yemenite women. Despite those being traditional, they were devoted to their children, careful to preserve cleanliness in the home in times of scarcity, and prepared to adhere to the movement despite the hardships of life. Thus, they were not only praised but were admitted to the Zionist model of ideal motherhood.[12]

Motherhood in Jewish society throughout the world, east and west, in the Land of Israel and in the State of Israel, from the dawn of the modern period until today, is the subject of the tenth annual conference of the Gender Studies department at the Schechter Institute. The conference will be held at the Ben Zvi Institute on March 16, 2017. The conference will explore, among other topics, the perception of motherhood by women and men of the Zionist establishment, and by women of the rank and file. Are their positions influenced by gender, status or ehnic background? Do they envision similar or different models of motherhood? What inspired their perceptions? We will also look at symbolic and concrete expressions of national motherhood in art and literature, including its most severe expression: bereavement.

Dr. Batsheva Margalit Stern is senior lecturer in Gender and Jewish Studies and in Jewish History at the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies.

[1]  Lake Marilyn, `Feminist History as National History: Writing the Political History of Women`, Australian Historical Studies, 27, 106 (1996), pp.154-169.

[2] Sheila H. Katz, Women and Genderin Early Jewish and Palestinian Nationalism, Florida 2003, p. 7; וגם Nira Yuval Davis, Gender and Nation, London Thousand Oaks New Delhi 1997, p. 45; Rachel Elboim Dror, ‘The Ideal Zionsit Woman,’ Y. Atzmon, ed., Can You Hear My Voice? Representations of Women in Israeli Culture, Jerusalem 2001, pp.95-115 (Hebrew).

[3]  Karen Offen, European Feminisms 1700-1950: a Political History, Stanford California 2000, pp. 188-200.

[4]  ibid.,; also, Beth Baron, Egypt as a Woman: Nationalism, Gender and Politics, Berkeley Los Angeles London 2005, p. 1

[5] See in the Third Conference of Working Mothers Organization, Word of the Woman Laborer , 5, 4 (June 30, 1938), p. 83; Margalit Shilo, ‘Private As Public: Ita Yellin and Yehudit Hararit Write their Autobiographies,’ Cathedra, 118 (2007), pp.41-66 (Hebrew).

[6] [Anonymous], ‘Woman’s Development and Sex Life,’ Mother and Child Calendar 1935-36, pp. 11-12 (Hebrew).

[7] Quoted in Rachel Elboim-Dror, The Tomorrow of Yesterday, I, Jerusalem 1997, p.181 (Hebrew).

[8] [Anonymous], “Inside the Schoolhouse Walls (Observations), Mother and Child Calendar, 1935-36, pp. 67-68, 104 (Hebrew).

[9]  Hays Sharon, The cultural Contradictions of Motherhood, New Haven 1996.

[10] [Anonymous], ‘Education of Orientals Among US,’ Mother and Child Calendar, 1935-36, pp. 85-86 (Hebrew); [Anonymous], ‘The Teacher’s Challenge in Hard Conditions,’ ibid., pp.87-88 (Hebrew). For the Zionist approach to Oriental motherhood and children, see Tami Razi, Neglected Children: The Backyard of Mandate Tel Aviv, Am Oved and Sapir College, Tel Aviv 2009, pp. 131-143 (Hebrew).

[11] [Anonymous], ‘Where are our Children Headed?’, Mother and Child Calendar, 1935-36, pp. 99-100 (Hebrew)

[12] Batsheva Margalit Stern, ‘Exemplary Friends: Yemenite Women and Gender, Status and Ethnicity in the Labor Movement (1920-48),’ Cathedra 118 (2006), pp. 115-144 (Hebrew).

Bat-Sheva Margalit Stern is an Associate Professor of History, emeritus. Her fields of research include Women’s Studies, Modern Jewish History and Land of Israel Studies. Professor Margalit Stern got her PhD at the University of Haifa and her post-doctoral training at Stanford University. After several years of exploring life in the United States, she came back to Israel and became a member of the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies.

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