In the Western society I was raised in, a mother is usually understood as one of two ways. A mother is either a selfless and hardworking nurturer, or a protective and “helicoptering” figure that will do anything for her child. While numerous mothers, in actuality, encompass neither or both of these roles along with several others, the definition usually encompasses much more than just somebody who has given birth. The factual and textbook definition of being a mother is simply to be a female parent, however, the social definition of “Motherhood” has been stretched in several societies.
Throughout our class, I have learned different ways in which motherhood in Israel specifically has grown to encompass roles related not only to Israeli children but also to the entire household. This did not appear too far from the 1950’s American housewife image I have grown up with, but it surprised me that this role continues to be prevalent in Israeli society today – and it is not just a role, it is a duty or even a debt to society. It is assumed that a woman will become a mother, and this is comparable to the assumption that people are straight.
If a woman in Israel chooses not to partake in motherhood, it is comprehended as a strong conscious decision – as opposed to making a conscious decision to have a baby. I will analyze how this social institution came to be in Israel, particularly in relation to how the country came to be (historically). I will also address how certain legislation has continued to support this repronormativity in circumstances related directly to reproduction or living children. Addressing these topics and analyzing the structure is important because education is the first step taken when enacting change.
As far as how “Motherhood” was structured in Israel, I believe it stems first and foremost from Zionism. The aspiration to build and maintain an Israeli nation was, and still is, a prevalent value in Judaism. In order to accomplish this, there needed to be a significant growth in population, particularly a growth in the number of soldiers. This “duty” fell on women’s shoulders, as men would become the soldiers on the front line protecting the country. A women’s greatest valuable contribution to her country would be a son because women were not often seen as capable of protecting themselves.
These values are the roots of the social institution of motherhood in Israel, and as time went on the roots grew and extended throughout the foundation of society. The concept of “womanhood” appears to be stacked with “motherhood” in the Israeli social eye. In the beginning, “Women had nominally the same rights as men. Women and men pioneers were supposedly forming alliances having common goals (such as building a new nation and a modem national home), based upon equal rights and equal prospects.
Young men and women formed these alliances, such as the kibbutzim, having no apparent commitment to tradition or religion” (Shiffman 139). The intent of gender equality was not necessarily enough for equality in practice, especially when equality is granted by a patriarchal government in exchange for a women’s ability to have children. As discussed in class, culture often comes from law and the law contributed to limiting to their role as a mother before any other role. Israeli laws that set up women to be mothers cover both public and private life and value a woman as a mother above all else.
Examples of this are evident in the Defense Service Law of Israel when it exempts mothers, pregnant women, and married women from the compulsory military service. This service, which aligns with Zionism and is a highly distinct feature of Israel and its militaristic culture, is required of all Israeli citizens when they turn eighteen. Berkowitz explains that one of the main reasons that women were considered to not be drafted l was that “women’s military service will lead to a decrease in the Jewish birth rate” (189).
This claim also highlights that when discussing Israeli women, it is typically about Israeli Jewish women. There are limited opportunities for exception to this service, but you are exempt if you are a woman that is already serving her country or has the potential to serve her country, with her womb. Berkowitz also quotes Ben-Gurion’s discussion of these exceptions and his claim that “Motherhood is the unique destiny of women and there is no destiny that is more important than motherhood” (190). The first prime minister’s claim firstly describes motherhood as a “destiny”.
A destiny is an inescapable fate – not a duty, a sacrifice, or a choice. Then Ben-Gurion claims that there is “no destiny that is more important than motherhood” which then supports that this destiny is not only expected, but also vital. These sorts of statements and laws like the Defense Service Law shape the way that not only society perceives women, but also the manner that women perceive themselves. Patriarchal lawmakers are determining maternal laws, and if your utmost valuable contribution to the country is your ability to have children, then the law and government are valuing your womb, not you.
Another example of the law shaping a women’s role is through the Tender Years Presumption Law. The Tender Presumption Law states that between a divorced couple that does not come to a custody agreement, a child under the age of 6 will automatically live with their mother unless in an extreme circumstance (Hacker, 29). A law like this furthers the cultural stigma that a woman in Israel not only should be a mother but is better suited as a parent than a father. The laws do not necessarily even acknowledge a fatherly role, but more of a husband role in the private sphere.
Reproductive law, of course, is pro-natalist and David Sperling argues that “Israel’s state policy regarding reproductive rights has been linked to its strong Jewish religious tradition, Jewish quest for survival, the dreadful memory of the Holocaust, the permanent loss of life in terrorist attacks and military battles, the demographic concern caused by competition with surrounding Arab nations, and the strong cultural perception of raising a family as a patriotic endeavor” (363).
Jacqueline Portugese agrees with this and calls it, conclusively, Zionism (20). These beliefs and rights have led to state policy fully or partially subsidizing in vitro fertilization and assisted reproductive technology and have made it possible for various more women to have children. According to Dr. Moria Paz, there is even sponsoring for a family to have three children. The government’s willingness to even pay for this effort, once again, shows how the law has shaped women as mothers before anything else.
There are laws limiting abortion as well, but as discussed in class it is not particularly impossible to have a lawful abortion in Israel. Even if it is not particularly difficult to have an abortion, the laws that outline abortions further reveal Israeli attitudes towards motherhood. Under “Grounds for Approval of Abortions” section of Penal Law, 5737-1977, a woman may have an abortion if she is “under seventeen or over forty years old” which means that the government does not necessarily support, or push, an Israeli woman to be a mother if she is significantly young or older than middle aged.
Abortions are also permitted if they resulted from a relationship that is “prohibited under the penal law, is incestuous, or out of wedlock” and this shows that it is alright not to be a mother if the pregnancy was immoral, or even if you are not married. The wedlock ground is reminiscent of religious values in the Israeli government. The final two grounds for abortion are related to health risks for either the baby or the mother.
If the “fetus may have a physical or mental disability” it is permissible to terminate the pregnancy, perhaps because a disabled child will not be as much of a contribution to society as a completely healthy baby and therefore the mother does not need to contribute it. In addition, Penal Law 5737-1977 states that there is a five-year imprisonment for “[a]ny person who knowingly interrupts a woman’s pregnancy, either by medical treatment or in any other manner,” but the woman herself does not face this penalty.
This furthers the expectation of society to respect a woman’s role as a mother and to not interfere with it. This expectation restrains women’s potential, and makes it increasingly difficult for them to attain, and flourish in advanced careers. Therefore, it may just be easier to be a mother and follow along with the societal pressure. Clearly, the law unabashedly supports Israeli women being mothers, but what exactly does being a mother entail? What does it mean to be a successful mother?
Stoler-Liss quotes a 1920’s Israeli doctor saying, “[T]he Hebrew mother treats her children with greater concern and devotion then do her counterparts in France or Belgium. Even if the children’s height is attributed only to heredity and the mother cannot improve it, their weight is greatly dependent on the care and daily concern of the mother” (104). This reflected the roots of social expectation for mothers. A successful mother was a mother fully dedicated to her children, and the better the children the superior of a contribution it was.
Other factors also determine who would best fit a mother in Israel. Berkovitch explains that “Motherhood of non-Jewish women, though not promoted, also has a national meaning, but that of a threat to the ideological foundation of the Zionist state” (198) and this further narrows down what it means to be a proper Israeli mother. Berkovitch argues this point in the scope of Palestinian women and the threat that their children present specifically. Fertility of Palestinian women leads to added Palestinian children, and a larger population of Palestinians can challenge and threaten an Israeli population.
Dr. Moria Paz discussed in class that while IVF is subsidized in Israel, it is much more difficult for Palestinian women. A Palestinian population threatens the Zionist value of Israel as a whole. However, there are other groups of women that are also not necessarily encouraged to have children in Israel. Palestinian women are not encouraged by Israeli society to have children, and this gives them a choice that Israeli women do not necessarily have – a choice to have children and to not be perceived negatively for it.
Dr. Paz also discussed that in America, women of color have the choice, along with lesbian women and impoverished women. Just as Palestinian women’s children do not contribute to the Zionist ideals, these American women do not align with the United State’s ideals. American and Israel are both largely religious countries, respectively Jewish and Christian. Religious background and foundations such as these often have texts or beliefs that discuss motherhood and reproduction. This is where lesbian women come into play; they do not portray what many interpret the Bible or Torah to describe as a moral and just woman.
This is arguably a flaw of society, not the religious texts. However, since they do not fit the mold of a typical Christian or Jewish woman, then they are not encouraged or pressured to have children because they may raise a child to also deviate from the society’s ideals. Women of color, whether they be one of the several groups that have immigrated to America or to Israel (Mehrazi women) they also do not fit the country’s original framework of power. Immigrants are understood as people of their country or origin initially, and occasionally exclusively as opposed to people of America or Israel.
Even the name African-American or Ethiopian-Jew puts the previous identity before the new, regardless of how long they or their ancestors have lived in their new country. This is what largely brands immigrant offspring, and therefore the mothers of that offspring, as a potential threat to either nationalist identity. Impoverished women also have the choice to become mothers, and the foremost reason is that they are likely to not be able to support the child as well as possible.
The child of an impoverished woman may be weak, or need to steal, or be additionally likely to have undesirable traits that do not reflect projected Israeli or American ideals. Values like these, as well as the ones reflected in the grounds for abortion, are reminiscent of Eugenics and that desire to strengthen a race. Fortunately, though, these values present themselves through social pressures and lack of pressure rather than through direct laws limiting certain peoples from populating a country. If women of color, lesbian women, and impoverished women are not necessarily suitable mothers, then what mothers are left?
In Israel, it is likely limited to Middle/Upper-class Ashkenazi Jewish women since they most accurately reflect the origins of Israel and the Zionist history. In America, it is likely to be limited to Middle/Upper-class white women. What if a mother that has all of these attributes is not a good mother after all? A recent study conducted by professors Zvi Eisikovits and Rachel Lev-Wiesel at the University of Haifa found that “53% of children in Israel had suffered some form of abuse and victimization. ” In situations like this, it may be beneficial to factor in the child’s voice into Israeli motherhood.
While there are, of course, laws in Israel that protect children, they are not entwined with the laws regarding motherhood. Perhaps the law and society by default should be more concerned with quality of mother and fathers as opposed to the quantity of mothers alone. Especially when in Israeli society, a mother is active in her child’s life from their birth until her death. Overall, nationalism appears to motivate lawmakers and leaders to encourage the reproduction of women, and this is particularly evident through Zionism in Israel.
Since the first laws enacted in Israel, women have been molded to fulfill a motherly duty and service to their country above all else. This duty has infiltrated the public sphere as well as the private one, and the policies that frame that generate the societal pressures and expectations of women range from family law to military law. Reproductive law values the child over the mother while also creating equality for women via the value of their wombs. However, not all women have this pressure in Israel or even in America.
Women of varying races, socioeconomic backgrounds, religious values, and sexualities that do not mirror and strengthen the country’s original demographics or principles have the choice to reproduce. Regardless of choice, however, Israel was ranked #56 on the Global Gender Gap 2012 list, which ranked countries based on how fair or satisfactory they were for women. Perhaps if legislation was more supportive of quality mothers, or quality lives for women, it would be even more beneficial to the outcome of a country.