Curator and art historian Yael Nitzan, founder of Israeli Women Museum. (photo by Adi Eder)
How many “she-roes” of Israel can you name? Maybe you’d with Golda Meir, Israel’s first and only female prime minister. Or the tragic and courageous spy Sarah Aaronsohn and paratrooper Hannah Senesh. The list would include physician Vera Weizmann, the first first lady of Israel, who helped establish Chaim Sheba Medical Centre, now the largest hospital in the Middle East; and second first lady Rachel Yanait Ben-Zvi, who taught Jerusalem women how to grow vegetables, milk cows and make cheese so their husbands could go out and build the state.
These and many other women who played – and continue to play – important roles in the history and culture of Israel will be immortalized later this year when the Israeli Women Museum opens in Haifa. The museum will showcase at least 100 noteworthy but not necessarily well-known women, from architects to lawyers to choreographers, says founder Yael Nitzan.
A curator, art historian and TV producer, Nitzan has overcome many roadblocks and setbacks in realizing her dream of opening Israel’s first museum dedicated to women.
“It was a struggle,” she admitted. “Now, with corona, the world has everyone sitting and listening, and, in three months, I accomplished what I could not accomplish in the past six or seven years.”
Nitzan gained the help of the Haifa Foundation in raising funds for the project, and she was given the rights to a former private school building in which the collections will be housed.
Brig. Gen. Gila Kalifi-Amir, former women’s affairs advisor to the Israel Defence Forces chief of staff, agreed to chair the museum. The board was joined by fellow Haifa residents Nadim Sheiban, director of the Museum of Islamic Art; and Prof. Aliza Shenhar, formerly a deputy mayor, ambassador to Russia and first female rector of an Israeli university.
“I found the right people,” Nitzan told Israel21c.
“There are currently about 45 women’s museums in the world, the most famous of which are the Women’s Rights [National Historic) Park in Seneca Falls, N.Y., and the Women’s Art Museum in Washington,” she said.
“The fundamental challenge in establishing a museum is not only in raising resources, but in creating a diverse and significant human and ideological infrastructure. The Israeli Women Museum must be a magnet of significance to the whole, or at least to large sections of, the population in Israel.”
Though Israel reportedly has the world’s highest ratio of museums per person, this will be the first one dedicated to the mostly unsung females responsible for weaving together its social, agricultural and business fabric. “Our museum will be on women in history and women in the arts,” Nitzan explained.
“The section on history commemorates the role of important women who have not been properly acknowledged.” Women like Hannah Maisel, who immigrated to Palestine in 1909 with a doctorate in agriculture and founded the region’s first agricultural training institute for women. And women like Rachel Roos Hertz (Harel), a Dutch resistance fighter who moved to Israel in 1950 after winning the U.S. Medal of Freedom and the U.K. King’s Medal for Courage in the Cause of Freedom, and became active in the Women’s International Zionist Organization (WIZO) – itself founded by Rebecca Sieff (Ziv) from the Marks family of Marks & Spencer, and whose name graces Ziv Medical Centre in Safed.
Some of the inspiration for this section comes from Prof. Margalit Shilo’s Women Building a Nation, a book published this year in Israel.
“In the art section, we will spotlight women whose work was not considered important, as well as very important female artists of today whose work is rarely shown in museums,” said Nitzan.
Artists to be included run the gamut from Ziona (Siona) Tagger, one of the most important female Israeli artists of the early 20th century, to contemporary painter Haya Graetz Ran.
“Women in Israel contributed greatly to the establishment of the state, contributed to the construction of the infrastructure of settlement, education, defence, law, government, society, culture, cinema and theatre,” Nitzan said. “But, although they left their mark, they did not receive proper recognition and respect in building society. The purpose of the museum is to raise their profile and to reshape the narrative of the critical role of women as full partners in leadership and public space design over the past century.”
Nitzan invites anyone to contribute stories or items relating to Israeli Jewish, Arab, Druze or Christian women, and even artists, poets and leaders from the Holocaust era who did not manage to get to Israel. She can be reached through the museum’s Facebook page. Donations for the project are being funneled through the Haifa Foundation.
Israel21c is a nonprofit educational foundation with a mission to focus media and public attention on the 21st-century Israel that exists beyond the conflict. For more, or to donate, visit israel21c.org.