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The smoldering homefires of 1973

The Yom Kippur War transformed gender dynamics in Israel to empower men, favor masculinity and push women into the shadows

This year, perhaps more than ever before, the anniversary of the 1973 Yom Kippur war has produced a particularly large number of critical reviews and painful reassessments. This is due not only to the fact that forty years have elapsed since the outbreak of the war, but also to the availability of new archival materials both in Israel and the United States. Yet in all the soul-searching attendant on these reexaminations, very little attention has been paid to the social ramifications of that most brutal of Israeli wars – and nary a word has been devoted to the genderized impact of the war on Israel society.

The 1973 war, without a doubt, put an end to Israeli innocence and called into question the over-confidence of its decision-makers and the previously uncritical trust in its leadership. It also set the tone for the prolonged militarization of Israeli society and the consequent perpetuation of traditional gender roles. For the entire generation of women who came of age at that time, the 1973 war marked a giant step backward – one which, while sowing the very first seeds of social unrest in general and a new Israeli feminism in particular, kept them in the shadow for several decades until they began to break out of the masculine mist that spread around them in the aftermath of that fateful war.

Yom Kippur is, by definition, the most domestic day in the Jewish calendar. In 1973 this privacy was shattered just before two o’clock; by the end of the day the difference between the home and the battlefield could not have been more pronounced. Indeed, the 1973 war was the last confrontation in which there was a clear spatial distinction between the civilian and the military domains. The length of the war, coupled with the distances involved and the patchiness of communications, meant that while the men fought, women were charged with maintaining essential services and keeping the home fires burning. Anyone whose memory stretches back to October of 1973 cannot but recall both the stark gender division of labor during the tense weeks of the war itself, and also its extension throughout the subsequent winter months when men continued to patrol the ceasefire lines and women struggled to retain a semblance of normality.

As Israelis began to recover from the unspeakable losses of the war and put their lives together again, they also (perhaps unconsciously) further deepened the gender stereotypes magnified during the war. Special efforts were made to encourage soldiers to return to the workplace; their very real – emotional as well as material – needs were attended to; and their continued centrality in defending the country was constantly heralded. These processes inevitably took place at the expense of women. In this highly male-oriented climate, the subsequent readjustments in gender relations, when noted, were viewed as necessary byproducts of the times. The 1973 war and its aftershocks thus reinforced gender stereotypes and had a deep – and to date only partly documented – impact on Israel’s social order.

The most obvious manifestation of this trend was recorded in the political sphere. Then Prime Minister Golda Meir – more than her defense minister Moshe Dayan and other figures in the political hierarchy of the time – was held personally responsible for the outbreak of the war and for its human consequences. From that time on, and to this very day, women have been almost systematically excluded from the uppermost echelons of decision-making in the country and precluded from direct involvement in major security matters. With very few exceptions (the emergence of Shulamit Aloni and the Ratz party in the post-war elections of December, 1973, for one), the demise of Golda Meir also marked the beginning of a regression in female representation in the Knesset, a pattern only rectified at the beginning of this millennium – a full thirty years after the 1973 war. For all intents and purposes, 1973 was the harbinger of a lost political generation of women whose potential contribution to the trajectory of public affairs cannot, at this stage, be gauged.

The years following the 1973 war also witnessed a setback for women in the workforce. While women have continued to record substantial gains in education, outdistancing men in recent years, Israel remains a unique case in the industrialized world of the inability of its female citizens to translate educational achievements into gainful employment (or, for that matter, political power). The preference accorded to men in access to jobs, compensation and promotion continues to derive, to a large extent, from the tradition of male coddling established with the creation of the state and significantly enhanced during the dreary months of the end of 1973.

Quite tellingly, sensitivity to issues of violence against women coincides with the turbulent years following the Yom Kippur war. When the topic was first raised in the Knesset by Marcia Friedman in 1974 it was branded as a radical import into the Israeli scene with little hold in social reality. It has taken almost four decades and countless acts of progressively more detailed legislation to come to terms with a phenomenon that researchers have repeatedly shown to peak during times of violent conflict.

The most profound effect of the increasingly gendered nature of Israeli society following the 1973 war, however, is also the most difficult to document: the subtle but deep entrenchment of gendered roles within the family. The supportive part played by women (and the home front) during the war was institutionalized in its wake by the expectation that women take a back seat to their men when they came back. This – frequently unspoken – normative dictum helps to explain the propensity of Israeli women to continue to bear the brunt of domestic tasks even when totally immersed in their own careers. It also assists in understanding the baby boom that followed the ceasefire (the mythical “children of the winter of ‘73” who are now turning forty). And, above all, it is the most important factor in accounting for the otherwise inexplicable persistence of patterns of gender inequality in Israel as a whole over the years, despite the constant efforts – and, yes, significant achievements – of women who have struggled to improve their status during the lost decades following the war.

Israeli women have, indeed, come a long way since 1973. But Israeli society, deeply divided between women and men at the time, remains extremely (and anachronistically) gendered. The close correlation between ongoing security threats and the downplaying of the contribution of women to Israeli society and its character cemented during the dark days of October 1973 still casts a pall on the prospects for equitable societal development and growth.

The 1973 war was a particularly bad war for Israelis; its traumatic effects still have a significant hold on the collective memory of the country. Perhaps now, forty years later and with the price of the lost generation of women in mind, it may be possible to untie the Gordian knot that condemned women to a secondary position in Israeli society. By actively mainstreaming women into all aspects of Israeli life and heeding their well-documented desire for peace, one of the most lasting consequences of the 1973 war may finally be put to rest.

About the Author
Professor Naomi Chazan, former Deputy Speaker of the Knesset and professor (emerita) of political science at the Hebrew University, is co-director of WIPS, the Center for the Advancement of Women in the Public Sphere at the Van Leer Jerusalem Institute.