Forum Deborah

In the footsteps of our mothers.

At the FD symposium at Beit Hatfutsot – The Museum of the Jewish People (photo credit: TAMAR ALMOR)
At the FD symposium at Beit Hatfutsot – The Museum of the Jewish People
(photo credit: TAMAR ALMOR)
Once upon an ancient time, under a date palm tree between Ramah and Bethel, a woman named Deborah held court. Literally. Deborah was a prophet of God; the only female judge mentioned in the Bible. Not much is known about this prototypical feminist, except that she was the wife of Lapidoth. Was she soft-spoken or harsh, did she cook chicken on Friday nights or order in? She was on the bench for 40 years, until her death in 1067 BCE. Did she have time to diaper grandchildren or was she consumed by her career? The Catholic Church, which canonized her, depicts her as buxom and curvaceous, her ample headdress flowing onto swirling robes. But, who knows what saints really looked like when they were still only mortals.
Whatever her vital statistics, one thing is sure: biblical Deborah was one powerful woman. She accompanied Hebrew fighter Barak to battle, where, under her patronage they decisively routed Sisera the Canaanite, whose country had been oppressing the Jews for 20 years. Another prototypical heroine dispatched Sisera forthwith: Jael knocked a tent-pin through his temples as he lay sleeping like a babe, possibly the first case of needing something like a hole in the head. Peace reigned in the Holy Land for the subsequent 40 years; gloriously attributed to two women.
In today’s Israel, women would hope to employ less violent means to bring stability and security to this ancient/new land. Most of us don’t have tent-pins handy, anyway, even if a milk-satiated Iranian nuclear bomber fell asleep in our backyard. Israel has wonderful female judges and politicians, international consultants and cybersecurity personnel, environmentalists and army advisers, yet the country is somewhat backward when it comes to including women in crucial decisions. That’s a pity for us all: Lord knows we could do with some sane judgment calls today.
Forum Deborah, named after the biblical heroine, aims to fill this gap. Established in 2009, the organization is an active non-partisan network of some 100 professional Israeli women from a spectrum of fields, who lobby for “equal participation and full involvement” of women “in all efforts for the maintenance and promotion of peace and security,” as mandated by UN Security Council Resolution 1325 in 2000.
On a recent rare blustery Tel Aviv day, scores of brave women (and a few men) maneuvered through torrential rain to reach an FD symposium held in the safe space of Beit Hatfutsot – The Museum of the Jewish People. And what a people we are: exhibits showcase the music of our very own Leonard Cohen, Bob Dylan and Amy Winehouse. A model of a modern Philadelphian Frank Lloyd Wright synagogue is juxtaposed with a shul from Fez. Stories of our exodus from Ethiopia and tales of ancient treasure buried in Jerusalem all attest to our special connection to this special part of the world.
But now that we are back, transported in miraculous fashion from all over the surface of the earth and plonked in the middle of a chaotic vortex in a challenging neighborhood, how are we going to preserve the Jewish values of peace and culture, innovation and open-mindedness, educational excellence and good governance?
Bring in the women.
The FD symposium hosted women with such impressive CVs that listing them would fill two columns. Ex-MK and lawyer Eti Livni, chairman of FD, summarized last year’s achievements and shared her vision for the upcoming year: enhancing the network of professional women, encouraging more women to work in the media and promoting gender equality in the army.
Attorney Dina Zilberg, deputy to the attorney- general of Israel, won the Charney Award for her extensive activity against the exclusion of women in the public sphere, including the army. Zilber recounted how her mother was sent out of Siberia, where her parents were jailed for Zionist activities, and finally made it to Israel with the help of Holocaust survivor relatives. Zilberg juxtaposed female fortitude with the current insidious attempt by ultra-Orthodox extremists to erase women from the public space. Dr. Dganit Paikovsky, space scientist and cyber security expert, highlighted Israel’s remarkable status in the exclusive space club and wondered aloud what dramatic developments could occur in the future. From the depths of space to the depths of despair: Galia Sabar, president of Ruppin College, discussed south Tel Aviv’s refugees in the context of security.
Balancing Jewish, democratic values of justice and equal rights with legitimate security concerns is such a huge subject that it can hardly be resolved in a 15-minute Ted Talk; lawyer Col. (ret.) Pnina Sharvit Baruch outlined the balancing act, and security and media maven Col. (ret.) Miri Eisen, taking a break from promoting Israel’s image, examined the relationship, and the possible crisis, between the Jews of Israel and America.
These topics are standard fare around most Israeli dinner tables; why is it necessary to leave the kitchen on a Friday morning to hear a woman’s take?
The answer blares out from the strange headlines that hit us week after week as we follow the news. Rabbis ordering soldiers not to serve in units where women are accepted. Officers walking out when choirs that include women perform in public ceremonies. Women’s faces erased from billboards and buses.
What would Deborah have said? Just think: if some of Israel’s modern-day rabbis had been around in her time, we might still be living under Canaanite rule.
Shabbat shalom to us all.
The writer lectures at Beit Berl and the IDC.