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Vorkämpferinnen und Mütter des Zionismus: Die deutsch-zionistischen Frauenorganisationen (1897–1938), by Tamara Or.  Frankfurt am Main: Peter Lang Verlag, 2009. 276 pp. $76.95.

The aim of this book, which is based on a dissertation from 2008 submitted to Humboldt University, is to reconstruct the history of the Zionist Women’s organizations in Germany from 1900 to 1938. In contrast to previous studies, Or argues that women played an important role in the German Zionist Movement and that their voice was heard in public. In analyzing the context in which these organizations came into being and their activities and self-image, Or’s main thesis is that nationalism was used as a strategy in the process of emancipation for these women.

In nine chapters covering a period of 40 years Or reconstructs the history of various women’s organizations. Although formally women had already received voting rights at the first Zionist congress, in practice the vote did not pave their way to equal political participation within the World Zionist Organization and the German Zionist Organization. Their marginalization had already led to the establishment of a separate women’s organization in 1900, the Association of Jewish National women (JNF–Jüdisch-Nationalen Frauenvereinigungen), which aimed to turn women into Zionists. Created in Berlin and soon after becoming a national organization in many other cities, it offered public lectures, Hebrew and Jewish history courses, and Sunday schools and summer camps for children, as it understood the role of Zionist women as the educators of the nation. The power of the JNF derived from its success in creating a network by working closely with Zionist and non Zionist women’s bodies.

Nationalism served as an emancipation strategy, to break through bourgeois role models and to demand the “rights of men.” Or illustrates throughout the book how many of the women’s associations were often a response to their rejection by the general (male) Zionist bodies. The establishment of a separate organization created in return a pressure to integrate women into the general organizations. Such was the case with the Jewish Female Association for Gymnastic and Sport (Jüdischen Frauenbund für Turnen und Sport–Ifftus). The rejection of women by the males of Bar Kochba Zionist sport club led to the creation of Ifftus, which functioned as a pressure for women’s integration in the general sport club. However, Or argues correctly, this move was not aimed to subvert and redefine the concept of the masculine body, but rather manifested its adoption by the women. The rejection of women by the German Zionist bodies as equal participants and the  refusal of their members to allocate ten percent of their incomes for the creation of a Women’s association in every local branch, as decided in a resolution of the WZO in 1911, led also to the establishment of a Zionist women’s umbrella organization in Germany. 

An important chapter deals with the activity of the Association of Jewish Women for Cultural Work in Palestine (Verband Jüdischer Frauen für Kulturarbeit in Palästina). Established in 1907 on the occasion of the eighth Zionist Congress in The Hague by German Zionists, it crystallized the image of the members as a cultural role model for Jewish women in Palestine, immigrants from Eastern Europe. It became one of the most powerful women’s organizations in Germany thanks to the fact that it did not define itself as Zionist (it did not adopt the Basel resolution) and half of its members (4,000 after WWI) were non-Zionist women. This created tensions, especially with the establishment of the Women’s International Zionist Organization (WIZO) in England and its local branch in Germany, the Bund Zionistische Frauen (1921), about voting rights and budget allocations in regard to the Verband. Nevertheless, Or shows that the organizations of Zionist women in Germany served as a model for WIZO.

Whereas from the beginning, the Verband was more Palestine oriented while the Zionist women’s organization concentrated mainly on the Zionist education of women and children in Germany, the political changes in the 1930s shifted the focus of all the Jewish Associations to Palestine and migration. From 1933 membership in the Zionist bodies grew, and professional training was offered as well as moral support. The inequality of women in the Zionist organization was expressed and highlighted in the rescue initiatives, which discriminated against women and led to the murder of the majority of the main activists during the Holocaust.  

Verkämpferinnen und Mütter des Zionismus: Die deutsch-zionistischen Frauenorganisationen (1897–1938) is a detailed first study which tells the almost neglected story of Zionist women’s organizations in Germany.

Rakefet Zalashik

Mirowski Fellow for Israel Studies

Temple University