Grapevine March 8, 2023: Women’s place in Israel’s history

Movers and shakers in Israeli society.

 LINOY ASHRAM (photo credit: FLASH90)
(photo credit: FLASH90)

Today, Wednesday, March 8 is International Women’s Day. Although women have played a seminal role in the development and building of the state, men get much more credit.

In this, the 75th anniversary year of the renewed State of Israel, instead of focusing on events or people currently in the news, Grapevine is paying tribute to women in different fields who have contributed to the creation and development of the country.

In line with the old adage that the longest journey starts with the first step, there was always someone to be the first to put a crack in different sections of the glass ceiling to enable Israeli women to progress to where they are today.

Admittedly, the current administration has taken a step backward by appointing few females to positions of political influence and power, but women are increasingly showing their mettle in hi-tech, and may soon outnumber men in executive positions.

They are also achieving prominence in journalism, law, medicine and science.


Inevitably, numerous important and deserving figures have been omitted, but some who have either been forgotten or whose names were previously unknown to large swathes of the population, will have a temporary resurrection. 

This listing is alphabetical, to make it easier for readers to either pinpoint their favorites, or to get angry because their favorites are not included. None of the women whose names are absent were deliberately ignored.

Although she is not part of the return to Zion, it would be a sin of omission to ignore Queen Esther, who for centuries has been a source of inspiration to Jewish women – especially at a time when International Women’s Day coincides with Purim.

Moving fast-forward from ancient Persia, leads readers to more contemporary women, each of whom made a contribution of some kind to the development of the state.

  • Sarah Aaronson was a pre-state spy who sought to liberate what was then Palestine from Ottoman rule. A member of the Nili movement, she passed valuable information to the British. She was arrested and tortured by the Turkish authorities. 
  • Judoka Yael Arad was the first Israeli to win an Olympic medal, securing a silver medal at the 1992 Olympics. Following her retirement from competitive sport, Arad became a judo coach, and occupied various positions in the International Olympic Committee. In 2021, she was appointed president of Israel’s Olympic Committee, the first woman and the first Olympic medalist to hold the position.
  • Ruth Arnon is best known for heading the team that developed Copaxone, a synthetic antigen approved for treating multiple sclerosis. She also invented a synthetic nasally administered flu vaccine, and has made significant contributions to cancer research and the study of parasitic diseases. 

She has published literally hundreds of essays and books on immunology and biochemistry. In 2010, she was the first woman to serve as president of the Israel Academy of Sciences and Humanities. She is also a past president of the European Federation of Immunological Societies and of the Association of Academies of Sciences in Asia, as well as a former vice-president of the Weizmann Institute of Science.

  • Linoy Ashram, a rhythmic gymnast, was the 2020 Olympic All-round Champion. She has won silver and gold medals in Olympic and European competitions.
  • Gali Atari was the second Israeli to win the Eurovision Song Contest in 1979, and the first Israeli woman to do so, with the song “Hallelujah,” which became an international hit.
  • In 1995, Dorit Beinish became the first of three female presidents of the Supreme Court. The other two were Miriam Naor and present incumbent, Esther Hayut.
  • Malka Braverman, who was the de facto deputy head of the Mossad for 15 years, can be credited with shaping its early operations. She had previously served in the intelligence division of the Hagana.
  • Rivka Carmi, a pediatrician and geneticist, was the first woman to be appointed president of a university in Israel and also was the first woman to chair the Israeli Association of University Heads. She served as president of Ben-Gurion University of the Negev from May 2006 to December 2018.
  • Geula Cohen, who died in December 2019, just a few days before her 94th birthday, was an Israeli politician, journalist, cultural icon and freedom fighter. She joined the Irgun in 1942, and later moved to Lehi, where she served as a broadcaster on its underground radio. 

In June 1945, she was sentenced to a long prison term for being in possession of a radio transmitter, guns and ammunition. Accompanied by 30 members of her family, she sang “Hatikvah” while being sentenced. Imprisoned in Bethlehem, she escaped in 1947.

Following the establishment of the state, she wrote for several newspapers, and in 1972, joined Menachem Begin’s Herut Party. After Begin became prime minister, Cohen, a staunch opponent of the Camp David Accords and the return of Sinai to Egypt, left Likud in 1979 to found Tehiya, which fervently supported Gush Emunim and Israeli settlements in the West Bank and Gaza. 

Tehiya joined Begin’s coalition in 1981. Cohen remained a member of Knesset for another decade, losing her seat in the 1992 elections.

A great admirer of poet and Revisionist politician Uri Zvi Greenberg, Cohen established a cultural center in his name in Jerusalem, where she conducted readings of his writings.

  • Shoshana Damari was the queen of Israeli song. In recent weeks, her voice has been heard with increasing frequency on Israel’s airwaves, because the 100th anniversary of her birth will be marked on March 31, in addition to which the 17th anniversary of her death was commemorated in February. 

Damari did a lot to change Israel’s image abroad, particularly in the US, where she appeared for long periods. Wearing dramatically exotic outfits and jewelry, and singing with a powerful voice, she represented something far removed from reports about Israel that appeared in the US media.

On the home front, she was well known for entertaining the troops, especially during war.

  • Hemdah Feigenbaum Zinder was Israel’s first official Hebrew language broadcaster when the British Mandate authorities established the Palestine Broadcasting Service with the radio station Jerusalem Calling; it evolved into Kol Israel, the Voice of Israel, with Reshet Bet as its key station. The station initially broadcast in Hebrew, English and Arabic. 

Many years later, Feigenbaum Zinder’s daughter-in-law, Leah Zinder, was the longtime chief broadcaster of the IBA English News. She retired before the program was permanently retired with the abrupt May 2017 closure of the Israel Broadcasting Authority, which has been replaced by the Israel Public Broadcasting Corporation. 

  • Karnit Flug, an economist, the first and only woman governor of the Bank of Israel, served with the International Monetary Fund before joining the BoI’s Research Department in 1994, She later took leave for two years to work at the Inter-American Development Bank in Washington, DC, and returned to the Bank of Israel in 1997. She was appointed governor in October 2013.


FOUR MOTHERS was a protest movement founded in 1997 by Rachel Ben Dor, Miri Sela, Ronit Nahmias and Zahara Antebi, with the aim of securing unilateral Israeli withdrawal from Lebanon. All four had sons serving there. Their call resonated with the general public and grew into a vast movement, which included many men who had served in Lebanon. Public pressure enabled the women to achieve their goal.

Four other mothers who lost sons in the army or to terrorism, have turned their grief into a source of inspiration, each in her own way, and not as a group.

  • Robi Damelin’s son David was an army reservist, who in March 2002 was killed by a Palestinian sniper. Damelin became a spokesperson and the international director of The Parents Circle Families Forum of bereaved Israeli and Palestinian families working together for reconciliation and peace.
  • Miriam Peretz, an educator and passionate public speaker, lost two sons who were on active duty in the IDF. Uriel was killed in Lebanon in 1998 and Eliraz in Gaza in 2010. Peretz became “the mother of the IDF,” speaking on its behalf at home and abroad, and frequently visiting army units.
  • Devorah Palley and Esti Yaniv each lost two sons to terrorists in recent weeks. Hundreds of people, many of them total strangers, attended the funerals and later went to the homes of the deceased to offer their condolences. Among them were President Isaac Herzog and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. 

In both cases, the mothers were sources of inspiration. Though mourning her two little boys Ya’acov Yisrael and Asher Menachem, Devorah, who is pregnant with her tenth child, continued to radiate faith and outreach to others. 

Esti, whose two sons Hallel and Yagel were killed in a terrorist attack near Huwara, is calling for national unity and the closing of the rift between Left and Right.

  • Lea Gottlieb, a Hungarian Holocaust survivor and fashion designer, together with her husband Armin, founded Gottex, the glamorous swim and beachwear company whose creations attracted buyers from all over the world, including the wives of monarchs and statesmen. Women whose countries did not have diplomatic relations with Israel, paid secret visits to the Gottex Tel Aviv showroom to watch private fashion shows and to buy.
  • Herzog women have distinguished themselves in different fields. Rabbanit Sarah Herzog was actively engaged in medical services for the elderly and the mentally ill. She was also the founder of World Emunah. Her daughter-in-law Aura was the founder of the Council for a Beautiful Israel, and her other daughter-in-law Pnina succeeded her as president of World Emunah and was also Israel’s long-term representative at the World Health Organization.
  • Dalia Itzik, who was born in Jerusalem, was the first female speaker of the Knesset. Although there have been women among deputy speakers, none other than Itzik served as speaker. Before that, she had held various ministerial roles. 

Prior to her involvement in national politics, she was deputy mayor of Jerusalem. Following her retirement from politics, she became involved with Hadassah, and served as chair of its international board. She currently serves as chair of the Hadassah board of directors.

  • Helena Kagan, a pioneer in pediatrics in Jerusalem, was also involved in founding Tipat Halav, an infant welfare clinic that operates throughout the country. She was the first woman to be honored with the title of Yakir Yerushalayim, and was also among the first women to receive the Israel Prize, which was awarded to her in 1975.
  • Nurit Hirsh, another Israel Prize laureate, composer and arranger, has written the music for more than a thousand Hebrew songs, including several that are everlasting. She was the first woman in Israel to conduct an orchestra, and the second female conductor in the Eurovision Song Contest.
  • Raya Jaglom, a philanthropist, social activist and dedicated Zionist, was the longest-serving president of World WIZO, which she represented at various world forums. As a young bride, before the state’s independence, she joined WIZO in Tel Aviv and quickly rose through the ranks to the top position in the international movement. 

She was also active with the Friends of the Israel Philharmonic, was among the founders of the Tel Aviv Museum, campaigned globally for the release of Soviet Jewry, was a member of the Board of Governors of the Jewish Agency, was vice-chair of the Board of Governors of Tel Aviv University, to which she gave generously to numerous projects, and was also president of the Israeli friends Association of TAU. She also gave scholarships to the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and donations to the Eretz Israel Museum, among other causes.

  • Golda Meir chalked up several firsts in her career. She was Israel’s first female diplomatic envoy, traveling to Moscow in 1948, where multitudes of Jews crowded to see and hear her. She was a member of the first Knesset, the first woman to head a government ministry, the first woman foreign minister, and first and only woman prime minister. She encouraged relations with Africa, which more or less severed at one stage, but later flourished and continues to do so.
  • Carmela Menashe is a radio reporter on Reshet Bet. Though not the first woman in Israel to serve as a military reporter, she was the first broadcaster to do so. (In the print media, it was Tali Lipkin Shahak who worked for the long-defunct Davar). 

Menashe, now well past retirement age, continues to broadcast not only because of her excellent contacts within the IDF, but also because over the years she has become an unofficial IDF ombudswoman. Whenever soldiers are mistreated, or can’t get into the unit in which they want to serve, they or their parents contact Menashe. If the complaint is valid, Menashe uses all the influence at her disposal to bring about change.

Miriam Porat was the first woman to serve on Israel’s Supreme Court, where she was deputy president. She was also the first, and so far only, woman to serve as state comptroller.

  • Orna Porat, a German convert to Judaism and an Israel Prize laureate, was a stage actress who became thoroughly Israeli. In 1970 she created a Children’s Theater with a rich repertoire designed to give children and adolescents an appreciation of the artistic value of drama as well as of national and universal humane values. Porat died in in 2015 at age 91, but the theater that bears her name continues her mission.
  • Esther Roth Shahamorov was for many years Israel’s most famous track and field athlete, specializing in 100 m. hurdles and the 100 m. sprint. She represented Israel in the Asian Games, the Olympic Games and the Maccabiah Games.

At one point she simultaneously held five Israeli national records, three of which were held for well over 20 years. She was a member of the Israeli team in the fateful 1972 Summer Olympics in Munich, but withdrew from the Olympic Games, following the terrorist attack in which 11 members of the Israeli team were murdered. 

  • Naomi Shemer was a leading musician and songwriter whose compositions resonate long after she succumbed to cancer in 2004. Her song “Jerusalem of Gold” (“Yerushalayim Shel Zahav”) is among the most popular in the Jewish world, and is widely regarded as a second national anthem. It received this status following Israel’s victory in the 1967 Six Day War. 

The song was written for the Israel Song Festival in the same year – but before the war. Among her other most beloved songs are “The Eucalyptus Grove” (“Hurshat Haeucalyptus”), a Hebrew take on the Beatle’s song “Let it Be” (“Lu Yehi”) and “On the Honey and the Sting” (“Al Hadvash v’al Haoketz”) among many others. Several of her songs were specifically written for song festivals in Israel and abroad.

  • Naama Riba is one of the forgotten female architects, whose designs include Dizengoff Center, a Tel Aviv landmark.
  • Baroness Ariane de Rothschild is the current hands-on benefactress from the Rothschild family, which for more than 140 years has provided for Israel’s various needs, contributing land for agriculture; creating industry; supporting various cultural endeavors; providing money for the construction of the Knesset; creating a dance company; initiating and funding many social welfare, cultural, scientific and medical projects; helping to create educational television; exploring antiquities; funding a large portion of the cost of the new National Library; providing medical equipment during COVID, and too many other things to mention. 
  • Hannah Rovina, a founder of the original Habima Theatre in Moscow, was among those who transplanted it to Tel Aviv. In her day, she was known as the first lady of the Hebrew theater. The daughter of a Chabad hassid, Rovina originally planned to be a teacher and went to Warsaw to study education. 

While in Warsaw, she met Nachum Zemach, who was organizing a small group of actors to study Jewish culture and perform on stage in Hebrew. In 1914, when she was ready to leave Warsaw to take up her profession, Zemach persuaded her to go to Moscow to join in an effort to start a Hebrew Theater Group there. 

The debut performance was in October 1918. Rovina’s reputation as an actress grew by leaps and bounds. She first came to Tel Aviv in 1925, and returned permanently in 1928. 

An Israel Prize laureate, who died in February 1980 at age 91, she continued to appear on the Habima stage almost until her dying day. In 1958, Habima Theatre was named the National Theater of Israel.

  • Zahara Shatz, the daughter of Boris Shatz, who founded the Bezalel Academy of Art, was a gifted, internationally-known artist in her own right. She is best known in Israel for her sculpture of the six-branched candelabrum that has been adapted as the Yad Vashem logo, which combines the legacy from the destruction of the Second Temple with the murder of six million Jews. Unlike a hanukkiah, the branches are not positioned in a row – a reminder that Jews of every ilk were among the victims.
  • Miriam Yalan Stekelis, a writer and poet, was famous for her children’s stories. Born in Russia, she migrated to Mandatory Palestine in 1920, and in 1929 joined the staff of the Jewish National Library (now the National Library of Israel) at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, where she headed the Slavic department for 30 years.

Although she had no children of her own, she had a unique rapport with children and her stories and poems made her one of the most popular writers for children – even those of the present generation.

  • Henrietta Szold was the founder of Hadassah, the Women’s Zionist Organization of America, which gave rise to the Hadassah-University Medical Center in Jerusalem and other Hadassah facilities.
  • Anna Ticho, 1980 Israel Prize laureate for art, worked both as an artist and as an assistant to her husband, the eminent ophthalmologist Dr. Avraham Albert Ticho. The Tichos purchased what is known as Ticho House in Jerusalem, where they entertained British government officials, local dignitaries, artists, writers and intellectuals. 

Anna willed Ticho House, her extensive art collection, which included both her own works and those of other artists, and her husband’s extensive Judaica collection to the Israel Museum, which maintains it as a cultural center and an exhibition facility.

  • Ada Yonath, a crystallographer, best known for her study of the structure and function of ribosomes, was the first and so far the only Israeli woman in Israel to be awarded a Nobel Prize. In 2009, she was awarded the Nobel Prize for chemistry, the first woman to receive it in 45 years. 

She received numerous other prizes for her work, including the Harvey Prize, the Wolf Prize in chemistry, The EMET Prize for Art, Science and Culture; the L’Oreal UNESCO Award for Women in Science, the Albert Einstein Award for science; and the Rothschild Prize – and that’s just a short list. 

Considering her background, her achievements are all the more remarkable. She was born on 1939 in Jerusalem’s religious neighborhood of Geula. Her parents were so poor that they rented a single room in a shared apartment with two other families. Notwithstanding their own lack of formal education, nor the absence of financial resources, they understood that their daughter, who from a very early age was curious about almost everything, should be encouraged. 

With the help of a kindergarten teacher who recognized her abilities, they sent her to a prestigious school. Her father died when she was 11, and her mother was not particularly healthy either. To ease her mother’s financial burden, Yonath cleaned people’s houses, babysat and tutored while continuing to do well at school.

  • Roni Zuckerman served as the first female jet fighter pilot in the Israel Air Force. This is not exactly surprising, considering where she was born and raised and whose granddaughter she is. Her grandparents, Zivia Lubetkin and Yitzhak Zuckerman, were among the 34 fighters who survived the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising during World War II.

They were founding members of Kibbutz Lochamei Hagetaot, which was home to Zuckerman from the time of her birth. She grew up listening to the saga of ghetto fighters, and of their continued heroism during Israel’s wars. 

Although there had been women pilots in the War of Independence and for a few years afterward – most notably Yael Rom, who in 1951 became the first woman graduate of the IAF pilot’s course – the IDF subsequently refused to accept women pilot trainees in the IAF.

In 1994, Alice Miller, who had a civilian pilot’s license and wanted to train as an IAF pilot, went to court on the matter, and won her case, though in the final analysis, she did not qualify. However, since 1995, the barrier against female trainees has been broken, although few have actually qualified. 

Zuckerman was only the fourth woman to qualify for the pilot’s course and the first to become a fighter pilot. She received her wings in 2001 and was assigned to an F-16 squadron. She later became a commander in an IAF flight academy.