As the calendar turns from February to March in the United States, we pivot from celebrating black history to commemorating the many contributions of women to American history.
While the history of women’s achievements in the United States is important, Women’s History Month also provides an opportunity to recognize and honor the contributions women have made to the building and development of Israel.
Many American Jews are aware that Golda Meir was only the third woman to serve as a head of a government when she became Israel’s prime minister in February 1969, but many other women have played prominent roles in Israel’s history.
While this article will highlight four, more are covered in depth under “Women in Israel” on the Center for Israel Education website (www.israeled.org). Space keeps us from describing many more women who have contributed to the life and well-being of Israel.
Rachel Cohen Kagan was born in Odessa, moved to Palestine in 1919, and became active in the Hebrew Women’s Organization, which would become WIZO, the Women’s International Zionist Organization.
She focused on improving the conditions for women in the Yishuv. In 1925, with her sister-in-law, Dr. Helena Kagan, she established a network of baby clinics called Tipat Halav (“Drop of Milk”). She served on both the Haifa City Council and the National Council, where she oversaw social welfare work, opening a boarding school for needy immigrant children.
On May 14, 1948, Kagan was one of two women (Meir was the other) who signed Israel’s Declaration of Independence. She was elected to the first Knesset in 1949, and in 1951 she oversaw the passage of the Law of Family and the Equality of Women.
Rivka Guber was born in Ukraine in 1902 and became a teacher before making aliyah with her husband in 1925. When her husband was disqualified from serving in World War II because of his health, Rivka volunteered in the Auxiliary Territorial Services of the British army. Both of her sons, Ephraim and Zvi, served in the fledgling Israel Defense Forces and were killed in battle in the 1948 war.
Having lost both her sons, Guber devoted her life to fulfilling their ideals, especially becoming active in the absorption of immigrants, setting up schools and other education programs for new arrivals and those living in the ma’abarot tent camps. She received the prestigious Israel Prize in 1976 for that work.
In 1979, she was part of the official Israeli delegation accompanying Prime Minister Menachem Begin to the United States to sign the peace treaty with Egypt.
Forty years ago this month, on March 2, 1977, Miriam Ben-Porat was appointed to Israel’s Supreme Court by President Efraim Katzir. She became the first woman to serve as a judge on Israel’s highest court and the first woman to sit on the highest judicial authority of any country with a common law system.
Born in 1918 in Vitebsk, Russia (today Belarus), she made aliyah in 1936 after completing high school in Lithuania. She studied law in Jerusalem and received her lawyer’s certificate in 1945. In 1948, she began working in the Ministry of Justice and served as deputy state attorney from 1949 to 1958.
In 1958 she was appointed a judge on the Jerusalem District Court, becoming the court’s president in December 1975. After her mandatory retirement from the Supreme Court in 1988, Ben-Porat was elected as state comptroller, becoming the first woman to hold that post as well.
Born in Tel Aviv in 1976 to a family of mixed Sephardi and Ashkenazi background, Ayelet Shaked became the second woman (after Tzipi Livni) to serve as Israel’s minister of justice when she was appointed by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in May 2015.
After her army service, Shaked received degrees in electrical engineering and computer science from Tel Aviv University and enjoyed a successful career in high tech before working as an assistant to Netanyahu while he was the leader of the opposition.
She eventually broke from Likud over policy disagreements and joined Naftali Bennett’s Jewish Home party, one of the only secular members of the religious party. She was elected to the Knesset in 2012, and she was placed second on the party’s list for the 2015 elections.
Shaked has taken strong positions against African asylum seekers in Israel, for harsher punishments for terrorists and against the current makeup of the Supreme Court.