One on One: Conference call

Helena Glaser, president of World Wizo, gives a preview of her organization's mass gathering in Tel Aviv next week.

helena glazer 224 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
helena glazer 224
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
Helena Glaser zips down the hall of the Women's International Zionist Organization (WIZO) headquarters in Tel Aviv toward her office, greeting staff and other passersby cheerfully. "I'm under such pressure, you have no idea," she says, slightly out of breath, as she shakes my hand, smiling. But it is not stress that the president of World WIZO is projecting. It's a vibe more like vigor than angst. And though her words are those of a woman worried about every detail of a major event she has been planning (the 24th WIZO World Enlarged General Meeting, scheduled to take place January 13-17 at the Tel Aviv Hilton), her tone has an upbeat, rather than beaten-down, ring to it. Indeed, the self-described feminist - originally from Romania and educated in the United States, who made aliya in 1951 - can hardly keep the thoughts she wants to convey from racing ahead of her verbal articulation of them. In an hour-long interview in Hebrew last week, Glaser - a married mother and grandmother who lives in Ramat Gan and spends much of her time globe-trotting on behalf of WIZO - talks lovingly about her organization's mission and work, while giving a preview of the upcoming gathering. "You can't top the program we have in store," she announces proudly, pointing to the impressive list of figures who will be addressing the more than 1,000 women in attendance - among them the prime minister, the president, Knesset members and other VIPs. "But after all, this is an important year: 60 years of statehood, 40 years of a united Jerusalem and 88 years since the establishment of WIZO." What is special about next week's conference? Why here and why now? As a Zionist movement, we hold a conference in Israel every four years. That's not out of the ordinary. What is unusual about this particular event is the unprecedented interest it has generated from members all over the world. I can't recall such an enormous turnout: more than 1,000 women - about 800 from 35 countries abroad and 200 from Israel. In fact, at some point, I had to close registration, because it was getting too large. And dealing with so many women is no small feat. Our members are paying for their trips and registration fees. It's costing them a lot of money. So it is imperative for each and every one to get the most out of it. Particularly since all their hard work is voluntary. But we also have a program for the men, since the women are coming with their spouses. We have planned a separate itinerary for them, so that they can keep occupied while we are getting down to our business. Among the activities planned just for the men is "Tel Aviv by night." Even my own husband, Ami, is going to join them for a change. What is the goal of the conference? Aside from its being part and parcel of what a serious organization does - convene to discuss our work and projects - it's not every day that our members get to come to Israel. We even have a few for whom, astonishingly, this is a first visit here. For those who have been to Israel many times, this is an opportunity to reconnect with familiar faces. So, there's the social aspect of it, which is very important. It's our bonding as a women's movement in which all members are working toward the same goal, connected to the same subject and have a similar ideology. They're all volunteering their time on behalf of Israel. This is an opportunity for all of us involved in WIZO to recharge our batteries. When you spend so much time and energy working really hard toward a common goal, you become attached to it. Then, coming here and seeing what it is you're attached to gives you extra energy, which has a rejuvenating effect when you return home to your countries. Take Mexico, for example - from where 100 people are coming to attend the conference. It is our largest contingent, in fact. Well, in Mexico, there are thousands of members in the federations for whom it is invigorating to have the message and the electricity brought back home to them. What keeps your own electricity going? Many things excite me, but what has brought me to where I am today is working on behalf of women. Within the organization itself, we all moved up in the ranks together. And then there's the beauty of personally getting to know those we help, such as battered women. Indeed, the status of women is very close to my heart. I'm a feminist - though not an extremist - in everything I do, how I work, how I raised my family. Are you also concerned with the status of Arab-Israeli women? Yes. WIZO provides services to anyone who holds a blue ID card. I'm often asked, when abroad, whether WIZO deals with the plight of Palestinian women. The answer is no. We are an apolitical movement. We are only political in the sense that we are Zionist, and today that has political connotations. We are always in the consensus. We have members from the Right, the Left and the center. We never express ourselves politically. Nobody knows which party I vote for. I never talk about that, though I have very clear opinions. Still, what we do at WIZO is educate women to take an interest in party politics by inviting representatives of each party to speak to us. Is this because you think it's important for women to take an active interest in politics? It is not merely important; it is of utmost importance. Women are not involved enough in party politics and not represented enough in central committees. In other words, if one is talking about how women can get ahead, and if I were to analyze why we're not there yet, it's because women don't have enough party-political awareness. And we're not in the positions where votes are taken on the issues. Maybe that's a good thing. Don't party politics tend to get dirty? No, it's not a good thing. Let's start from the end. Is it good for women to be in the center of decision-making? If so, we have to play the game. What difference does it make whether it's women doing the decision-making or men? Issues are issues, aren't they? Domestic violence, for example, is a societal problem, not specifically a concern for women. Many years ago, before the issue was as publicized as it is today, a woman was murdered in Kiryat Shmona. At that moment, I decided enough is enough and that we would have to get all the women's organizations together to hold a demonstration. At first, everybody told me that the best place to hold the rally would be Kikar Rabin. And I said, "Hold on a minute." I may be optimistic, but I'm also a realist. I said it would be humiliating if the square didn't fill up with people. Everybody told me I was being silly, and that tons of people - including men - would show up. After all, it was agreed that domestic violence was a social problem affecting men just as much as women. Still, I insisted on holding the demonstration outside of the Cinematheque instead, which is a much smaller area. And it was a lucky thing I did, because the turnout was just about reasonable for that particular space. But men? You could have counted the number on the fingers of one hand. To his credit, the former chief rabbi Yisrael [Meir] Lau called me and told me he wanted to attend. To this day, I remember his gesture fondly. He spoke at the rally, and with his phenomenal memory, he named all of the women [victims of abuse], which was important coming from a rabbi. Unfortunately, however, other men didn't make it. You know, everybody says, "Tsk, tsk, tsk" when hearing about some awful crime against a woman, but immediately forgets about it afterward. So, though I wouldn't say that this is an issue that doesn't interest any men - I wouldn't make such a broad generalization - I still say that women are more apt to fight for women's rights and issues that affect them directly, and that's why they have to be in positions of power to get things done. One could argue that once women become politicians, they focus more on national issues, and actually would do more for women's causes if they weren't in the Knesset. Former radio host MK Shelly Yacimovich, for example. Then there's Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, who has been focusing on Palestinian statehood, not women's rights. What you're really asking, then, is whether a woman who gets into the Knesset continues working on behalf of women, and if not, whether it's worth it. And whether, if a woman becomes defense minister, would I expect her to handle mainly women's issues? No, of course not. I want women politicians dealing with issues relevant to their jobs, while providing the added value of understanding the problems of women first-hand, and knowing how to promote their agenda. Furthermore, surveys have shown that women Knesset members are more active than their male counterparts: that they initiate bills, work long hours, etc. And it's my gut feeling - though I have nothing concrete on which to base it - that they are less involved in party politics than the men in their positions, which is why they don't get as far ahead in their careers as their male counterparts. Isn't it better to be actively working hard to further bills than to push one's personal career through wheeling and dealing? But if there were more women in crucial positions within the parties, they would have more of a say. Here I'd like to tell all the men that they need not fear having women take a greater interest in politics, because - fortunately or unfortunately - women tend to vote for candidates they feel are right for a job, and not necessarily other women or those who automatically support women. This is positive and negative, as far as I'm concerned, because I want to further women's interests. So, you support affirmative action, then? Absolutely. I always have. Why are Western feminists not doing more to help women in the East who are genuinely being victimized? Does multiculturalism trump "sisterhood"? That is indeed unfortunate. Women should be helping other women, whoever they are and wherever they are. But, look, recently I attended a conference in India of the International Alliance of Women. There were women from Arab countries there - I am purposely not naming which ones. And you know what? They themselves feel endangered by connections with the West. Aside from that, there are other kinds of considerations we in the West have to take into account. For instance, in her address to the conference, the wife of the prime minister gave an interesting talk on how progress in some cases comes full circle to harm women. One example she gave was the use of the ultrasound. Now, this is a wonderful tool, but look what's happening in places like India and China: Couples who know in advance that they are carrying a daughter automatically abort. So, it's not enough to espouse an issue and fight for it. You also have to foresee consequences and proceed wisely. Speaking of proceeding wisely, why does the Jewish world need so many different Zionist organizations vying for the same money and competing, rather than cooperating with one another? First of all, we are celebrating 88 years since our establishment - WIZO England is celebrating its 90th year. In other words, WIZO was founded way before many of the other organizations. They came along and developed their work long after we were up and running. So, just because others came along doesn't mean we should have closed up shop. Our strength lies in our ability to adjust to changing times, while leaving our original goals and core vision intact. How is WIZO different from Hadassah, which is also a Zionist women's movement? The major difference between us and Hadassah is that Hadassah focuses more on health issues and medical needs. WIZO is more on social-welfare issues. I have great respect for any women's organization that succeeds in its goals. I believe there's room for all of us. Is there also room for expanding your international operations? I will answer that through an anecdote. While I was in India for the conference, I met a Jewish woman from Mumbai with whom I had been in touch for over a year, because of her interest in WIZO. So, I made a special trip to Mumbai. The result is that there is now a new branch of WIZO there, and this woman, Yael Jirad, is its president. Many people aren't aware of the fact that there are 5,000-6,000 Jews in India, which is a lot more than there are in Finland or Norway, yet we have WIZO branches there. Yael is coming to this conference, by the way. And there's an interesting story behind her name. It turns out that her father was an ardent Zionist who greatly admired Moshe Dayan. And when Moshe Dayan's daughter was born and he named her Yael, her father decided that he would call his own daughter Yael. But the larger point is that, through WIZO, communities of Jewish women who are quite isolated can have a connection with the international Jewish community of women, which they wouldn't otherwise have access to. This brings me to the issue of networking. It is my feeling that women don't know how to network properly. Men learn early on - from the time they're in the army, for example - how to use the "old boys club" network. We women, on the other hand, never learned how to do this. We're embarrassed by it. We're uncomfortable with it. We have to make better use of this tool in general and in our organization in particular. This is why I am launching a network of international WIZO professionals, so that they can use each other as contacts for mutual assistance in all kinds of fields, and connect with one another when they travel to different countries. As I said before, women should be helping other women.