A lesson in cultural differences: Israeli women vs. American women

A lesson in cultural differences: Israeli women vs. American women

Hi, my name is Israel Girl and I am a feminist. While this may not be a shocking confession, the mere mention of the “f-word” sparks apprehension and even resentment in many people. Yet, in the six weeks that I’ve been in Israel, I have been inspired by Israel’s special brand of feminism.

“Feminism” is often thought of as a “dirty word,” as it is largely portrayed by mainstream culture as an extreme ideology associated with angry, militant women, bra burning and man hating. At its core, however, it’s exactly the opposite, especially in Israel.

When I was 21, an American male peer “complimented” me for being “so impressive for such a young girl” (although at that point, I was clearly considered a woman by all standards). I thanked him, remembering my grandma who taught me that “you catch more flies with honey than with vinegar.” In response, he pulled a “Mean Girls”-style reply: “So you agree? You think you’re really impressive?” I replied, now slightly taken aback, “Well, yeah, I’m proud of myself, and I don’t think there’s anything wrong with owning it!” He replied sarcastically, “Wow! You’re impressive and modest!”

That moment has stuck with me for years. I still wonder what he expected or wanted, me to say: “Who, me? No! I’m really not as impressive as you think! (Insert girly giggle).”

This happened again just last week, when another American (this time a female) told me, “I heard you’re good at ping pong!” Proud of my ping pong skills, I replied, “Yeah! Do you want to play?” And she laughed at me as if I was kidding, until she realized I was completely serious.

These moments stand in stark contrast to the week I’ve had in Israel. I visited the Knesset (Israel’s parliament) and had the opportunity to speak with a passionate and relatable Member of the Knesset, Michal Biran. I attended the Women Innovation Technology Conference at the Tel Aviv Stock Exchange, where a group of female tech bloggers and entrepreneurs from around the world came to Israel to explore the “startup nation.” The conference was organized by a group of 25 StandWithUs Israeli student fellows and was led by Ruth Pines, another incredibly impressive woman who’s just 25 years old. And over Shabbat, I stayed with a woman who has her own consulting firm, is a published writer, and works for a non-profit that is actively helping thousands of Bnei Menashe (northeastern Indians who claim descent from one of the Ten Lost Tribes of Israel) to return to their homeland. And she somehow has the time to raise six amazing children, four of whom I met.

If you met any of these women, wouldn’t you expect them to be proud of themselves? I certainly am, and I think it wouldn’t make them a braggart to admit it. I also think it’s curious why men are not usually shamed when they talk about themselves. (I’ve seen this happen hundreds of times, and people just think they’re confident, not cocky!) This isn’t just my speculation, it’s been proven in many studies that say that men brag three times as much as women, and are judged less harshly for doing so.

I think that for women, it’s a catch-22, because when we are modest without being confident (out of fear of being judged as immodest) we often seem weak or our strengths aren’t translated and shared in the public sphere. But when women are confident, we are deemed full of ourselves.

But in Israel, I have found that it is different; the women here are different. Average Israeli women are unapologetically strong and it seems that nobody tries to hold them back. My American guy friend said the other day that he won’t date Israeli women because they’re too “difficult,” but I’ve never heard that from an Israeli man.

Mechanisms that encourage women into the public sphere seem more effective in Israel than in the U.S., and I truly think this is what fosters so many female leaders in Israel. Feminism is inextricably tied to Israel’s history and culture. Here, women are encouraged to be good at what they do, and then own it. They aren’t squeezed of their confidence, and I think that’s a great thing. Like Israeli women, I was told from a very young age to be confident. It’s important for girls to be strong and hold their heads up high. Why then, when American women grow up, do people take confidence for immodesty?

It has something to do with maintaining patriarchy. I believe that in America, women are dismissed either as cocky or as weak, making it difficult to excel in the workforce. It’s a way to maintain the status quo and to keep women’s strengths and talents out of the workforce and out of power. Whether this is subconscious or an existing power structure from many years ago, it still exists, and the gender gap in so many arenas illustrates it.

But in Israel, women are seen as just as important to the workforce and to keeping Israel safe as men. Because confidence is necessary for a leader, and women are encouraged to be leaders, Israeli women are taught to be confident. They are raised as leaders, rather than objects at which to gawk.  

Rosa Lisnyansky, a group leader from the Women Innovation Technology Conference, told me about the responses of the conference participants to Israeli culture and Israeli women. She cheerfully stated that one of her participants said that the most important thing that she will take back home is the “Israeli temperament” that she saw in the women whom she met during the conference; she was impressed with how Israeli women are not afraid of failure and said that she hopes to come back for a second degree in Israel.

So what, exactly, is Israeli feminism?

Israeli feminism is when a woman’s choice to work is just as legitimate as the choice to raise a family. The personification of Israeli feminism is Golda Meir, the third female prime minister in the world, and this was back in the 1960s. Israeli feminism is women serving some of the most important roles in the army, even in combat. Israeli feminism is Inbal Arieli, who started Israel’s first startup accelerator. Israeli feminism is the many Orthodox women who are the breadwinners for their family. Israeli feminism is a diverse feminism of both secular and religious women, Ashkenazi and Sephardi women, Arab and Mizrahi women, LGBTQ women, women on the left, right and many others working together to find the most inclusive form of feminism for Israel. Israeli feminism isn’t perfect, there’s a lot of work to be done, but it’s my type of feminism.  

Eliana Rudee is a fellow with the Salomon Center for American Jewish Thought and the author of the new “Aliyah Annotated” column for JNS.org. She is a graduate of Scripps College, where she studied International Relations and Jewish Studies.