Israeli women grapple with careers, kids — and sexism

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REHOVOT, Israel — Professor Ruth Arnon has two major achievements to her credit: helping develop a drug to combat the dread disease of multiple sclerosis and raising two talented children.

"I am equally proud of both," she says.

In that respect, Arnon is typical of most Israeli women who refuse to forgo either motherhood or a career, women such as Chen Feiglin, who balanced an army career with parenthood, and Ruth Mifei, now a mother of 14.

The duality, however, is particularly evident among Arnon's colleagues at the Weizmann Institute, where every single senior woman scientist is married with children.

It's not easy for them, as Arnon will be the first to admit.

"I had to constantly juggle my various responsibilities during the 30 years it took" for the research to result in a new medication, Copaxone, now manufactured by Teva in Israel. "It permits many MS sufferers to live a near-normal life."

In addition, she held a series of administrative positions, serving twice as vice president of the Weizmann Institute, as well as president of the European Federation of Immunological Societies and secretary-general of the International Union of Immunological Societies.

"How did I manage? By working extra hard. When my daughter and son were young," she recalled, "we lived right next to the institute and I'd always go home to give them lunch and hear what had happened in school. Then I'd go back to the lab and put in all the necessary extra hours.

"There were also other problems linked to my status as a married woman," she added. "Like other scientists, I spent sabbaticals at overseas research centers, but it was my husband who suggested where we would be."

While there were many laboratories where Arnon could work, her husband, an engineer in the aircraft industry, was in a more specialized industry. Their sabbaticals brought them to New York and Seattle.

As befits the offspring of an immunologist and an engineer, both the Arnon children are scientifically oriented; indeed, both are experts in computer science. But Arnon's daughter has not followed her mother's lead in one respect. She decided some years ago to stop working in order to be home with her three children.

Asked for her opinion of this decision, Arnon replied: "Each of us has but one life to live — so we have to decide on priorities. And while not the same as mine, I certainly respect her decision."

Meanwhile, as a devoted member of Israel's Chassidic community, the priorities of Ruth Mifei have always been clear: Her husband and children come first. So even though Mifei is a talented teacher, she gave up her full-time teaching career after the birth of her fifth child.

Today she limits her outside-the-home activities to alternative medicine, teaching homemaking skills to religious women and charitable work.

When approaching the Mifei home in Sharayim, the Yemenite quarter of Rehovot, you see an enormous sign proclaiming: "Prepare for the Coming of the Messiah." That makes it clear that the members of the Mifei family are followers of the Chabad group, which expects the early arrival of the Messiah. Some even believe he may be the deceased leader of the group, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson.

But while most Chabadniks are Yiddish-speaking Jews of European origin, the group has also attracted some Yemenites, among them the Mifeis (who, while Hebrew-speaking, are fluent in Yiddish as well). Mifei's family didn't speak Yiddish, of course, when her grandfather and grandmother walked all the way from Yemen to Rehovot, where they built the home in which she still lives.

Her mother "not only found the time and energy to raise 16 of her own children, , Mifei notes, but also took in boys and girls who had survived the Holocaust and other refugee children.

Though Mifei has the same basic values as her mother, she has also had a more extensive formal education and sees to it that her daughters have one as well — though only in single-sex schools.

"Maybe, following their marriage, they might pursue advanced studies at a regular university if," she quickly adds, "their husbands agree."

Mifei adds: "I want to make sure that my daughters don't get confused in regard to their priorities. I don't want them to be like those Israeli women who have a child every five years, and only if it doesn't interfere with their career."

While Chen Feiglin is also observant, her lifestyle certainly wouldn't be acceptable to Mifei.

Like her own mother, Chen combines parenthood — just past 30, she has two young daughters — with the practice of law. Also, unlike most observant women –even modern Orthodox ones — she served as an officer in the army.

Even today, within her own circle of religious friends, Chen takes on responsibilities they avoid. For example, while she accepted a position with a prestigious private law firm, "most of them took jobs in banks and public companies where they work fewer hours and are under less pressure than I am," she says.

"I admit that I have a difficult time balancing my various tasks. This is because all the talk about equality notwithstanding, we women, religious or otherwise, bear primary responsibility for running the home and bringing up the children. So I really look forward to the Sabbath, when my family and I enjoy a true day of rest."

There are also Muslim women in Israel who combine motherhood and a career, but they face greater difficulties than their Jewish sisters, for Arab life is still completely dominated by men.

Even a gifted educator like Entisar Haj Yehia — who served on a committee that advised former Deputy Prime Minister Moshe Katzav on Arab issues and was part of an Israeli delegation to a U.N. conference on the status of women — must adjust to the mores of her society.

Entisar's clothing symbolizes the compromises she makes. Rather than being draped in black from head to foot, in the manner of a married, religious Muslim, she just covers her head.

Her teenage daughters are less circumspect. Their jeans and tight-fitting T-shirts are no different from those of their Jewish counterparts in Tel Aviv, but outside the home, they face restraints that don't exist in Tel Aviv. Going on a date with a boy is quite out of the question. It would lead to nasty talk or even nastier actions.

Each year more than a dozen Arab girls whose conduct "dishonored" the family or the community are murdered, a practice Entisar and many other Arab women are fighting against.

"So much else has changed in Arab society," she says, "perhaps that too will change. Just look at my own family. My mother, who gave birth to 10 girls and three boys, had no schooling at all. In fact, she was already in her 50s when I taught her to read and write. But all her children got a good education, and among my siblings there is a dentist, a computer engineer, two teachers and three nurses."

While many Arab men want to marry educated women, she says, "Arab men still expect their educated wives to keep the house clean, prepare meals, wash the dishes and be responsible for the children. At most," she adds, "they'll do the shopping."

Also bothering Entisar is the fact that "Arab men listen to their wives but then do what they want."