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The Women of Israel Advocacy: Challenges and Benefits of Female Leadership

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Less than 10% of the speakers at the Israel Presidential Conference last month were female. At a forum that purported to represent “Tomorrow,” the under-representation of women drew criticism. Today however, this is the reality of female leadership in Jewish organizations.

Women have played important roles throughout Jewish and Israel’s history, but a recent study found that very few women currently lead Jewish and Israel advocacy or education related organizations across North America. On college campuses, there is a greater balance of female and male leadership, leading some observers to believe that this generation of college Israel activists may be a force for change in the broader community.

The Jewish Daily Forward’s recent survey found that only 9 of the country’s top 76 Jewish organizations were led by women in 2011, reflecting on a general national trend. There is also a wage gap in the Jewish world: Female CEOs earn 62.5 cents for every dollar earned by their male counterparts. This figure worsened from 2010, when the number was 67 cents.

In the field of Israel advocacy, the heads of the David Project, Hasbara Fellowships, AIPAC, Israel on Campus Coalition and JStreet are all headed by men. The top figures at many of the media outlets, as well as leading commentators followed by Israel activists, also are men.

Women in Pro-Israel Campus Organizations

So where are the prominent women? Jane Eisner, the editor in chief of the Forward, has written that men who occupy the top positions have been there for an extensive period of time, preventing women from having the opportunity even to compete for senior posts. At the same time, she points out, the majority of new organizations are often started and run by males.

Though still a minority, many women are changing the landscape and breaking new ground for future female leaders. Pro-Israel organizations StandWithUs and The Israel Project both were established by females.

Many females have taken top leadership roles in pro-Israel groups on campus; Hasbara Fellowships, StandWithUs and Israel on Campus Coalition all report having balanced numbers of female and male fellows/interns. Yet many note that there still is work to be done. At this year’s AIPAC Campus Awards dinner, the three “advocates of the year” and three “ally of the year” awards went to males. The event’s top honor, the Duke Rudman Leadership Award, went to the students at Brigham Young University (BYU) whose cadre comprised five males and one female.

The Impact of Female Students

Junior Aliza Ben-Arie is the president of New York University’s pro-Israel group, Gesher, and has found that, contrary to national trends, leadership in campus Israel advocacy groups has a greater balance. Junior Beth Drucker, the president of Harvard University’s, Harvard Students for Israel, echoes this assessment. Drucker said that rising to the presidency was a natural process based on her passion and active role in the group. She believes that, regardless of gender, the key to success is “seeing what people are doing right and then copying their technique,” perfecting past strategies.

Senior Avital Chizhik is the outgoing president of Yeshiva University’s Israel Club. YU has separate male and female pro-Israel groups that sometimes coordinate events together. This ensures continuous female leadership and allows for an interesting comparison of leadership style.

Chizhik is not just a leader at Stern College, YU’s campus for women; she takes a front seat role at Yeshiva University in general.

“In the beginning,” she said, “I had to establish myself and secure the respect of others. I believe in being open, approachable. Everyone thinks they’re the next Bibi Netanyahu but it is important to show humility while still taking yourself seriously.”

Disturbed by the inequality that exists both within the United States and in Israel, Chizhik said that women ought to be more confident and pro-active in getting to the top positions.

“Women have exactly what men have to offer. Women are just as charged with the Zionist cause. There are so many role models who have cleared the path for the next generation of female leaders. For the sake of the future of Israel advocacy, I hope the numbers will change.”

Natalie Menaged, the director of education for Hasbara Fellowships, has also found a balance between female and male leadership on college campuses. While noting that making a true assessment of leadership would require a more careful study she said, “In my experience, there are many young women seriously involved in Israel advocacy. Probably at least 60% of Hasbara Fellows, participants on our elite training program, are female. I see a lot of serious and talented young women taking campus leadership roles.”

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Successful women

Though still a minority, many women are changing the landscape and breaking new ground for future female leaders. Pro-Israel organizations StandWithUs and The Israel Project both were established by females.

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