Pioneer Women

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Mărculeşti is a small village in Bessarabia in Moldavia. It is home to 2,000 people at the most. In 1812, after yet another turf war between Russia and Turkey in southeastern Europe, Bessarabia came under Russian control. In 1837, the Russians established Mărculeşti on the property of a landowner named Simeon Starov. It was meant to be an agricultural village for Jews. Those who agreed to settle there received an exemption from service in the Russian army for 25 years as well as a 10-year tax exemption. More than a few Jews responded to this offer. In 1861, Mărculeşti had 70 households, 713 residents, and two synagogues. In 1902, a Jewish elementary school opened there. In 1918, all of Bessarabia, including Mărculeşti, fell under the control of the Kingdom of Romania, but this did not hinder the village’s growth. By 1923, it had grown to 284 homes and over 2,000 families. Mărculeşti boasted a bank, cooperative workshop, flour mill, oil factory, elementary school, and high school, at which girls and boys sat side by side in the classrooms.

In 1940, the Soviet Union annexed Bessarabia. When Romania joined World War II, as an ally of Nazi Germany, the Romanian army invaded and conquered Bessarabia. On July 8, 1941, in accordance with the policies of Ion Antonescu’s military-fascist regime, the Romanian army assembled all of Mărculeşti’s residents – some 1,000 Jewish men, women, and children – at the edge of the village and shot them to death.

Today visitors to Mărculeşti see no sign of this as they make their way through flocks of geese wandering about the bare asphalt in the center of the village. The residents are aware that these are the homes of Jews who lived in the village in its glorious Jewish past.

Ada Fishman (Maimon) was born in Mărculeşti to a religious, Jewish family. Her father was a scribe who supported the family by writing Torah scrolls. Her mother stretched the little money this brought in to care for their many children. Fishman was not the oldest child. Her brothers Yehuda Leib and Gabriel and sisters Hana and Maisa preceded her, though it is not clear in exactly what order they were born. Her father invested greatly in providing his sons with a Jewish education, creating a lively, warm home that instilled its residents with knowledge, sensitivity, and love of learning.

When Fishman protested that it was unfair that only the boys received an education, her father agreed and changed his ways. Though religious, her father had a very tolerant outlook. He also wanted his daughters to be educated, not ignorant.

By the time she was a teenager, Fishman was studying in the nearby city of Ongen. She developed a sense of opposition to the hierarchical religious system whose distribution of power subordinates women to men. As she grew up, this understanding developed and turned into a desire to take concrete actions, which brought her to Zionism.

In late 1912, when she was almost 20 years old, she left Bessarabia for the Land of Israel. Her father and brother actively supported the Hovevei Zion movement and after she saved a little money, Fishman, escorted by a few relatives, boarded a ship bound for Israel. She aspired to be a teacher in the new society that would be built in the holy land. She rented a house in Tel Aviv along with other immigrants and began to forge a path for herself.

During her first years in Palestine, Fishman developed a nationalist-feminist outlook and an awareness of the distinctive injustice that was the portion of women in both Jewish and Zionist society. Despite her affinity for Deganyah, she did not join a one of the groups of pioneers preparing to establish an agricultural settlement. The only role that these progressive, Zionist groups offered women was the traditional one: working in the kitchen and the home and later raising children. She rebelled against this. If women are destined for the kitchen, she argued, there is no reason for them to make aliyah.

Fishman’s encounter with Zionist activity led her to the realization that women as women have distinctive difficulties and therefore need distinctive solutions tailored to women. Furthermore, no one is going to solve their problems unless women step forward to do so themselves. Fishman did not form these ideas in a vacuum. On one hand, she had the heritage her family had given her of religious tolerance, love of humanity, and strong moral values. On the other hand, she had chosen to build her life in a place tackling the challenge of creating a new and revolutionary society. She was on a bridge between these two worlds.

The Balfour declaration and the British conquest of Palestine appeared to be the beginning of the realization of the dream to build a Jewish state. The renewal of the third aliyah after World War I brought a wave of immigrants with a socialist worldview but no affiliation with a political party, strengthening the nonpartisan camp. In November 1919, Joseph Trumpeldor publicly called for all these workers to unite. For many, his death only four months later in the devastating battle at Tel Hai transformed this call into his final wishes that they felt an obligation to fulfill. Fishman was aware that the workers were moving slowly toward forming a united camp. She thought this camp’s role would be to build a new society in the Land of Israel.

On December 4, 1920, a rainy day during the holiday of Hanukka, Fishman was among the 4,433 laborers who gathered from all over the land at the Technion’s campus in Haifa to establish the Histadrut, the general federation of workers in the Land of Israel. They elected an executive committee that was supposed to represent everyone. Its members included David Ben-Gurion, Berl Katzenelson, Yizhak Tabenkin, David Remez, Shemuel Yavne’eli, Eliyahu Golomb, Dov Hoz, David Zakay, Joseph Sprinzak, Yosef Aharonovitch, Chaim Arlosoroff, Eliezer Kaplan, and many other distinguished figures from the various workers associations.

Just as the historic meeting was about to conclude, a young woman raised her hand and asked, “What about us?

“Pardon me,” the 27-year-old pioneer spoke up. “We are establishing committees, electing a steering committee, appointing people to positions, and we, the women, have no role or representation.”

Then came a threat.

“If you do not give women representatives, we will go to war during the next elections. There are representatives for farmers, Yemenites, and many other groups. We want women to be represented as well. It cannot be that the new framework that symbolizes the unity of the workers does not include representation for women,” she declared.

The young pioneer was Fishman, who announced the establishment of a parallel organization for women, an organization especially for women workers that would operate within the framework of the general laborers organization and focus on resolving issues facing women laborers. However, this separate women’s organization still would be part of the Histadrut and dedicated to solidarity between all workers.

Realizing they had no other choice, the men of the new organization clenched their teeth and recognized the representatives that the women elected as part of the Histadrut. The institution was called the Council of Working Women and became one of the departments of the Histadrut’s executive committee. However, its members were elected periodically directly by the women workers instead of by the executive committee. This independent organization that was affiliated with the Histadrut had more than a few ups and downs. The establishment of the Histadrut did not end the conflicts and rivalry between the different groups of workers. These differences found their way into the new women workers movement as well.

It was not only the male laborers and clerks who needed convincing of the need for the Council of Working Women. The women pioneers of the third aliyah, who had emigrated from Russia after the revolution, were not enthusiastic about a separate movement for women. The women who immigrated during the third aliyah were young mothers with children. They formed a society of immigrants. They had come to the land alone, without a support network or family. Fishman, who was a member of the movement’s secretariat along with Hayyuta Busel and Rachel Yanait Ben-Zvi, among others, set out to meet with the various settlement groups to convince the women in them that there was a need to address the problems that only women face.

“A change of hearts is needed,” she explained.

Fishman ran around the entire country, working day and night, through heat waves and cold snaps. She slowly brought together women laborers who were willing to be active in the new movement. The large turnout at its first meeting was proof of her success and in the following years, the number of members grew without pause.

Encouraging women to be independent was far from the standard in those days. Seeing the woman as a separate individual on her own and not as simply an appendage to assist the man was not accepted in early twentieth century Palestine. So Fishman organized gatherings, spoke out, and changed hearts. She invited women to come to the committee to vote and be elected.

Fishman did not receive a budget for her activities nor funds to recruit women to the Council of Working Women. The Histadrut’s activities were paid for by membership dues. However, even though both the men and women paid dues to the Histadrut, the new women’s movement did not receive a proportionate share. The Histadrut’s budget was relatively small and the request for it to provide a budget for the women’s movement was seen as diverting funds that were intended for all the members to helping a specific group.

Despite the lack of means, Fishman was busy trying to find jobs for the members. Vocational training generally was provided only to men. However, women too needed training to work.

Women workers faced a wide variety of problems such in what fields to work, how to support themselves financially, where to live, and who would care for their children. These questions, which plagued single and married women alike, became part of the public debate of the women workers movement during the 1920 and 1930s.

In the mid-1920s, Fishman realized that massive change was needed to train women so they could enter the job market. The solution was a large training center for women – a women’s farm that would not train a few dozen women, like the ones that already had been established, but one that could train hundreds.

This ultimately led to the creation of a new settlement: an agricultural training school for women, which in the 1930s was named Ayanot. Fishman was the juggler who brought all of the disparate pieces together into a single community that was established by women to advance women.

The funds to acquire the land for Ayanot came from a Jewish philanthropist from the United States who wanted to contribute toward establishing an agricultural settlement. Keren Kayemeth LeIsrael-Jewish National Fund (KKL-JNF) was supposed to allocate the land bought with his donation to a settlement group. Fishman and the other members swung into action, waging a successful battle to convince KKL-JNF to allocate the land to a large farm for women. They argued that this was not a case of charity, but their due as women. Fishman did not hide or apologize.

Fishman then traveled to Europe to convince wealthy women there to support the establishment of a large training farm that would be based on what already was being done on a small scale. Hannah Maisel and Rachel Yanait Ben-Zvi also turned to donors in Europe with the unambiguous message that a training program was needed for women that was separate from those from men. Such a program would be an integral part of the national revival underway in Palestine.

Ayanot trained dozens of laborers. They were prepared not just to work in the kitchen, but in the field and in other productive branches of the developing economy of the incipient state. Later, when the situation of the Jews in Europe worsened, Ayanot became an agricultural high school and boys began studying there as well.

Like many of the strong women during that period, Fishman chose not to marry and start a family herself. She said that she understood how hard it was to care for a family and be an active public figure. To avoid conflict, she consciously chose to remain single.

Fishman did not only help women laborers; she fought for the rights of all women. The British Mandate authority’s responsibilities included holding elections for the various institutions of the Jewish Agency, which represented the Jewish community to the mandate. In order to conduct elections, the mandate needed to compile an official list of voters that included not only the Zionist movements but also non-Zionist organizations. Some of these organizations, which now officially joined the electorate that would decide upon the agencies of the Jewish community in the mandate, included very conservative elements such as ultra-Orthodox Jews, representatives of the Sephardic community, Yemenite Jews, and others who opposed giving women the right to vote.

Fishman led the opposition in the workers movements to the exclusion of women from the democratic process, working alongside determined women from other groups. The struggle continued from 1917 until 1927, when the British ratified the decision regarding the Jewish community’s institutions. Legislation was instituted that the elections would be secret and egalitarian, with no differentiation between men and women in the voting. Even today, this point is not something to take for granted – women still do not hold positions in the ultra-Orthodox parties elected to the Knesset.

After the State of Israel’s establishment, Fishman’s enthusiasm and energy did not waiver. She remained an enthusiastic advocate for advancing the status of women in Israel, all women, no matter what their religion or ethnicity. In 1949, she was elected to represent the Mapai party in the Knesset, where she continued her struggle for women’s rights.
Fishman was without a doubt the leading proponent of feminism among those who shaped Israeli society. She was a bold trailblazer who made her mark on the state she helped build.

In 1976, three years after her death, the different women’s labor movements united to form the Na’amat movement.

Read more about the early aliyot in ERETZ Magazine

 

 

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