WIZO turns 90

From the vision and determination of its five founding mothers, WIZO has evolved into the largest women’s organization in the world.

WIZO President Helena Glaser 521 (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
WIZO President Helena Glaser 521
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
In the beginning, there were a few English Zionist women, wives of prominent Zionists, who directed their efforts toward reducing infant mortality in Jerusalem by buying a cow to distribute milk. Decades later, the same organization provided a home and training for European Jewish youth, among them Hanna Szenes, as they studied agriculture, and tactics that would later serve them in the Hagana at a training farm in Nahalal.
Today, 90 years after its founding, the Women’s International Zionist Organization (WIZO) runs programs no less diverse than those that marked its early years, training women to become successful parliamentarians, educating at-risk youth, running a massive chain of subsidized day-care centers and providing a warm refuge for abused women and their children. WIZO is still – and perhaps more than ever – a cornerstone of this country’s civil society.
WIZO will hold a five-day congress next week marking the anniversary. On Monday, the Knesset will host a salute to the organization, including a special session on “legislation as a channel for advancing women in Israeli society,” led by Kadima chairwoman Tzipi Livni, and a recognition of the organization in the plenum.
Such an event, recognizing women in politics in the Jewish state, would have seemed like a distant dream for WIZO’s founders, Rebecca Sieff, Dr. Vera Weizmann, Edith Eder, Romana Goodman and Henrietta Irwell. As the wives of prominent British Zionists, Sieff, Eder and Weizmann visited Palestine immediately following World War I and were horrified by the conditions that they observed among women pioneers and among the women living in the crowded confines of Jerusalem’s old neighborhoods.
The three women returned to England, convinced more than ever that the time had come to found a women’s Zionist organization to address the special needs of women in the Land of Israel.
Two years later, the initial dream became reality, when the founding conference of WIZO was held on July 11, 1920, in London. At the meeting, delegates sketched out initial plans to confront the most urgent problems facing women in Palestine.
Among the early projects that would irrevocably shape Israeli social culture was the opening of well-baby clinics in Jerusalem, in a drive to reduce the high rate of infant mortality in the city. Batsheva Kesselman is credited with coming up with the idea of providing neighborhood-based medical care to expectant mothers and newborns, cooperating with Hadassah to convince reluctant mothers to consult with doctors and even give birth in hospitals. In 1921, the first clinic to care for newborns was opened in the Old City. But despite the free medical advice, attendance remained low when the mothers realized that they were not receiving any charitable handouts.
Attendance increased, however, after the clinics began to distribute cow’s milk to supplement breast milk, as many mothers suffered from malnutrition. Soon, the name “a drop of milk” (tipat halav) became synonymous with the well-baby clinics – a moniker that has lasted until this day, when the Health Ministry’s national network of neighborhood well-baby clinics bears the name.
“WIZO has changed and it hasn’t changed,” says WIZO President Helena Glaser. “I am a different leader of WIZO – I am not the wife of a political or economic figure. Our first leader was Rebecca Sieff, and she was a ‘wife of’ but was also a leader in her own right. In 1918 she was a suffragette for the rights of women to vote in England. That was the spirit of the woman who was our first leader. WIZO involved from the beginning a combination of feminism – although they didn’t say that – and social work.”
WIZO’s focus on social work led to the establishment of a series of agricultural schools, first to train only women but later integrated. Today, many of those schools serve as semi- and full boarding schools for at-risk children. At WIZO’s Nahalat Yehuda Agricultural School, students are still expected to be productive, work with the animals and provide labor on campus, while receiving a top-quality education, completing matriculation exams, and even participating in a traveling Israeli dance ensemble.
Notable alumni of WIZO’s schools include Szenes and Kadima MK Shaul Mofaz.
“Szenes came to Israel on WIZO papers,” boasts Glaser. “What I’m trying to say is that we are so much a part of the Israeli society because we were always drafted to deal with the immediate needs at the time. When there were immigrant camps, WIZO worked in the camps; when they needed Hebrew teachers, WIZO taught; when there were orphans, WIZO ran orphanages. That is the strength of the organization – that it changes according to what Israel needs.”
In recent years, the needs answered by WIZO have developed in new directions. While Glaser served as head of WIZO Israel, the organization established centers for family violence, meant to serve the needs of what was then estimated at 150,000 women who faced spousal abuse. WIZO runs shelters to host and rehabilitate women and their children, as well as programs that counsel women, men and children in an out-patient environment to help reduce physical and psychological violence in families.
With the increase of rocket fire in the South, WIZO responded by building what Glaser describes as “the world’s first Kassamproof day-care center.”
“It is unfortunate that we need it,” she says. “Everyone wanted to help with the children, and I called the Education Ministry, and then we began to develop the project for educators. They were in a difficult situation – they had to teach, to take responsibility for their students’ well-being under rocket fire, and they were also concerned about their own families while they were teaching.”
BUT WIZO’s recent projects are not limited to helping those who are easily seen as unfortunate or underprivileged. On the opposite end of the spectrum, WIZO works within the highest political circles and has sponsored a course to prepare qualified women to run successful campaigns for the Knesset.
“What characterizes WIZO is that we will bring food to the single mother, but we will also go to the Knesset for the legislation. It is very important to us to aid women to get to the top roles and to help women who are at the bottom to begin to climb,” says Glaser. “There are women who join WIZO because they want to help at-risk children, and there are young women who are professionals, lawyers who help with legislation or work in the Knesset. I can spread out another world of opportunities for them.”
WIZO has always had a hand deep within Israel’s political system. It was the first organization to establish a women’s movement to elect a woman to Knesset, and it successfully ran Rachel Cohen-Kagan as a candidate for the first Knesset. Cohen-Kagan served one term as WIZO’s only representative and was later elected to the Fifth Knesset as a member of the Liberal Party.
In the ensuing years, says Glaser, “We saw what was happening, that women were underrepresented. I was concerned with the implied statement that women must be taught, while men were ‘born with it.’ But the second thought was that we had to look at the optimum, the Knesset, and then the second choice, the local government and, if not, to be active in the community. The final project is always a community project.”
One such student of WIZO’s top-level empowerment class was a resident of the Druse community of Usfiya who worked in education. She approached WIZO and asked for the organization’s assistance to initiate change in her largely male-dominated community. Ultimately, she enlisted an additional 200 women from Usfiya to become members of WIZO and worked to form a network to organize the local women.
“She now had the reinforcement from WIZO to cause a change in the society in which she lived. From my perspective, that is an achievement,” says Glaser.
Another “client” of WIZO’s empowerment program is Adina Bar-Shalom, the daughter of Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, who took the class before establishing her groundbreaking college for haredi women.
WIZO’s reach as an international organization extends well beyond the country’s borders, as it is the largest women’s organization in the world. Glaser is active in the International Alliance of Women, where she meets with leading women from countries including Egypt, Kuwait and Pakistan. “When I am there as a representative of WIZO Israel, I insist that discussions be about women’s issues,” she says. “Sharing, talking, learning. When I am not there – for instance, during Operation Cast Lead I couldn’t be there – they [members of the Alliance] wanted to send a letter of protest [over Cast Lead],” she recounts.
“We have representation on the United Nations Human Rights Commission in Geneva – we work amazingly. Our representative there had a connection with a Lebanese representative, and he told her that a UN representative planned to visit Beit Hanun in Gaza. We asked her to please meet Israeli civil society,” recalls Glaser. “She agreed to come, but she didn’t allow any Israeli government officials to join the trip. My luck was that two Kassams fell when she was in the day-care center, and she sat with us in the shelter. She asked why the children weren’t in the bomb shelters, and we explained that there simply wasn’t time to get them in. Then I asked her if she wanted to see the children. When she did, a little girl said to her, ‘What, you don’t know what the Color Red warning is?’ Then she saw the infants’ room and saw each caregiver lying on top of three babies to protect them,” Glaser continues.
“Canadian television was there, and they asked her what she felt. She said that human rights are being violated on both sides, and she thought that civil society had a big role to play on both sides. From us, she went straight to [Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud] Abbas. I followed her written report and it was moderated – and that was because of WIZO. We have the ability, in civil society, to present things differently. We have representatives in Chile, Geneva, New York, Vienna. Maybe we are not changing the whole world, but they know women a bit differently.”
In July, Glaser was elected to chair the Zionist Council as the representative of WIZO, marking the first time that a woman and first time that an organization rather than a political party held the position. In a way, it has brought WIZO full circle. Ninety years after its establishment in an attempt to provide women an outlet for their Zionist activism, the organization is at the head of the Zionist movement. And Glaser – like her notable predecessors – wouldn’t have it any other way.