The necessity of Israeli women’s leadership

“We are the women we have been waiting for.” I heard these words in early January from Lee Hoffman Agiv, field operations manager for Bonot Alternativa, a feminist organization that emerged out of the protest movement in Israel last year. These words struck a chord because I have encountered them many times before in my work as a historian of women and social movements. Likely unbeknownst to Hoffman Agiv, a 36-year-old Tel Avivian and former wine industry businesswoman, she was echoing generations of women who have discovered their own power and the necessity of their leadership, changing the world along the way. 

Last month, I traveled to Israel for a mission through a gender lens that I helped plan with my friends and colleagues, Rabbi Claudia Kreiman of Temple Beth Zion in Brookline, Mass., and Idit Klein of Keshet. With support from Combined Jewish Philanthropies and help from the Fuchsberg Center in Jerusalem, we brought a group of women leaders of Boston Jewish organizations to Israel to bear witness to the atrocities and gendered dimensions of Oct. 7 and its aftermath, and to learn from the women leading the civil response and building a shared society. Over three intense days, we met with Jewish and Palestinian citizens of Israel, including Hoffman Agiv, who pointed to the urgent need for women to occupy decision-making roles and exemplified the power and efficacy of women’s leadership in times of crisis. 

In a time of trauma, grief and existential fear, the clarity and strength of Israeli women’s leadership shines through the fog of despair. It is a leadership born of necessity and pragmatism: In the absence of well-functioning state services and support, women have stepped in to fill the gap on and since Oct. 7, using their networks and well-honed organizing skills to create a strong civil infrastructure and provide relief and support of all kinds. These leaders, even while in the trenches of their own grief, are also clear about the world they are working towards – a shared future in which Israelis and Palestinians can survive and thrive together.

This leadership is by no means accidental. It results from capacities that often emerge from women’s experience — what Ayesha Ziadna of the Jewish-Arab Cultural Center in Rahat referred to as “women’s specialty for working together,” and Racheli Geffen of Have You Seen the Horizon Lately more bluntly identified as “a little less ego, a little more ‘let’s get sh-t done.’” Their unique partnership testifies too to the strengths women often bring to collaborations across difference, leaning into partnership to affirm shared humanity in the face of inhumanity.  

A Bedouin woman and Jewish woman work together in a donation-collection facility in the southern Bedouin city of Rahat after the Oct. 7, 2023, terror attacks.

Women’s leadership in this moment isn’t incidental, either. Rather, it results from a keen awareness that war exacerbates existing inequities and sparks a regression in women’s rights. Lee and many other women with whom we met, including human rights lawyer and professor Cochav Elkayam Levy, who leads the Civil Commission on October 7 Crimes by Hamas against Women and Children, and Rachel Stomel of the Center for Women’s Justice, pointed out that even before Oct. 7, women’s rights were at risk and under attack from a government they named as the worst for women in Israel’s history. Things have only gotten worse since.

It is not news that women’s participation in government and negotiations of all kinds strengthens policy and social outcomes. Despite this well-documented fact, gender equity and women’s needs are often moved to the back burner in times of crisis, deprioritized as if they are a frivolity to be addressed at some future date when there are fewer pressing needs. The leaders we met demonstrated clearly that women’s rights in wartime are not an indulgence but rather a necessity, an essential ingredient for survival. 

They also identified this issue as one for which American Jews can provide important support and amplification. In whatever ways we speak up during this war, we can include in our demands that women be part of every investigative process, in every cabinet, at every decision-making table, at the top of every ticket. We can articulate these goals as central to the pursuit of peace and security for all Israelis as well as for Jews – and all others – around the world. 

“There’s no one else and there’s no other time,” Hoffman Agiv also told us, capturing both the isolation and the urgency that reverberated throughout our trip. But she and the other women we met also radiated something else: pride. 

In the midst of their grief and fear, these leaders are emboldened by what they have accomplished together, proud to meet this crisis with fierce determination and skills, and optimistic about the invitation this moment offers to provide new vision and new models of leadership. The time to recognize and support that leadership is now. There can be no solution to the horrors and threats of this moment without women’s presence and voices at the table. These are the women we have been waiting for, and we cannot and will not wait any longer. 

Judith Rosenbaum is CEO of the Jewish Women’s Archive.