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Celebrating Israel’s Founding Mothers

Golda Meir Library of Congress

Today, on International Women’s Day, we celebrate eight inspiring women who helped shape Israel into the thriving country it is today. 

The Prime Minister: Golda Meir (1898-1978)

After immigrating to Israel from the U.S. with her husband Morris in 1921, Meir served Israel in many key positions, including Israel’s envoy to Moscow, Minister of Labor, and Minister of Foreign Affairs.

After World War II, she traveled around the world to rally support for the establishment of the Jewish state. When she was elected Prime Minister of Israel in 1969, Meir became Israel’s first and the world’s third woman to hold such an office.

“I am also grateful that I live in a country whose people have learned how to go on living in a sea of hatred without hating those who want to destroy them and without abandoning their own vision of peace,” she wrote in her 1975 book, My Life. “To have learned this is a great art, the prescription for which is not written down anywhere. It is part of our way of life in Israel.”

The Poet Laureate: Zelda (1914-1984)

Though her full name is Zelda Schneurson Mishkovsky, this teacher and prolific poet was widely known simply as Zelda. After moving to Jerusalem from Ukraine with her family when she was 12, Zelda began writing poetry in college, eventually publishing six books of poems.

Though her poems often contained biblical, Talmudic, and liturgical themes, they appealed to a wide readership, who made all of her poetry books bestsellers. One of Zelda’s poems, L’khol Ish Yesh Shem (“Each Person Has a Name”), is now recited in Israel on every Holocaust Remembrance Day. And in 1984, she passed away on Holocaust Remembrance Day.

The Supreme Court Justice: Miriam Ben-Porat (1918-2012)

Born Miriam Shinezon in Russia, the youngest of three sisters and four brothers, Miriam lost most of her family to the Holocaust. She moved to what is now Israel by herself after she completed high school, and there she changed her name to Ben-Porat.

Miriam was one of the first women to study law at Hebrew University in Jerusalem, and she was admitted to the bar in 1945. Soon after the establishment of the state of Israel in 1948, Ben-Porat started working at Israel’s Ministry of Justice. She served as a judge and president of the district court, and was appointed a permanent justice of the Israeli Supreme Court in 1977, the first woman in Israel appointed to this governing body.

Known for fighting government corruption, Ben-Porat was described by Prime Minister Netanyahu as a “trailblazer” who “sanctified the values of integrity and transparency.”

The First Lady of the IDF: Sara Braverman (1918-2013)

Born to a Jewish family in Romania, Sara made aliyah (immigrated to Israel) at a young age and joined the Zionist youth movement. She served in the Palmach, which was the elite branch of the Haganah, the precursor to today's IDF.

During World War II, she was one of only three women in a group of volunteers who parachuted into Nazi-controlled Europe to aid European Jews. The other two women were captured and murdered by the Nazis, but Sara escaped.

Back in the Holy Land, Sara fought in combat during Israel's War of Independence. Once the Jewish state won said independence in 1948, Sara established the IDF's Women's Corps. She is still known as the "First Lady of the IDF."

The Hero: Hannah Szenes (1921-1944)

Born to a Jewish family in Hungary, Hannah was exposed to anti-Semitism in school, which prompted her to join the Zionist youth movement. In 1939, she immigrated to what was then British Mandate Palestine (now Israel).

After the outbreak of World War II, Hannah joined the British Army and parachuted into Yugoslavia with several other Jewish volunteers. They helped the anti-Nazi forces there and planned to enter Hungary and rescue Jews from being sent to Auschwitz. Tragically, Hannah was arrested at the Hungarian border and was eventually tried as a spy and executed.

Her remains were brought to Israel in 1950 and buried in the cemetery on Mount Herzl in Jerusalem. Hannah’s poetry is widely known throughout Israel today, and akibbutz and several streets are named after her.

The Pioneer of Women’s Education: Alice Shalvi (1926-present)

Born in Germany, Alice immigrated to Israel in 1949 after completing a degree in social work at the London School of Economics. She became a faculty member in the English department at Hebrew University of Jerusalem and earned her Ph.D. from the university in 1962.

In 1975, Pelech School for Haredi Girls, the school that two of her daughters attended, faced closure. In order to keep the school from closing, Alice volunteered to run the school on a temporary basis until a replacement could be found. She ended up running the school for 15 years and increasing the student body from 60 to 240 students.

Alice was also the founding director of the Israel Women’s Network, a nonprofit organization dedicated to improving the status of women in Israel. She has also been lauded for her work regarding women in the Israel Defense Forces, and her contribution to the general acceptance of women in all levels and sections of the army.

The First Lady of Israeli Song: Naomi Shemer (1930-2004)

Born and raised in Israel, Naomi became interested in music at an early age. After studying music in Jerusalem, she went on to teach music, write a musical, and craft a large collection of songs that paid tribute to Israel’s beautiful landscapes.

Naomi’s song “Yerushalayim shel Zahav” (“Jerusalem of Gold”), which she wrote in conjunction with the Israel Song Festival just before the 1967 Six-Day War, took on national significance and became a sort of second national anthem as it captured the country’s longing for the reunification of Jerusalem.

With her extensive collection of original songs, Naomi was arguably one of the most-sung Israeli artists from the 1960s to the 1980s. She was awarded the Israel prize in 1983 for her important contribution to Israeli music.

The Major General: Orna Barbivai (1962-present)

A native Israeli, Orna has been in the IDF since 1981. In those years she has held the positions of Chief Adjutant Officer of a Command, Chief Adjutant Officer, head of the Ground Forces’ manpower section, and head of the Individuals Sector in the Manpower Directorate.

Orna’s nomination as the IDF’s first female major general in 2011 was a historic moment for Israel – while women had sat on the General Staff before, it was only in the position of IDF spokesperson. Since being nominated to major general, Barbivai has continued to stress the importance of female roles in the IDF.

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