The column | Two women working for change in Israel

I wish that everyone who cares about improving the lives of women in Israel could meet Safa Younes and Rotem Ilan. I first saw them on stage Monday night at the New Israel Fund’s annual Guardian of Democracy dinner in San Francisco, where they each received a new award for emerging Israeli social justice leaders called the Gallanter Prize.

I met up with them again the next morning at a local cafe. They weren’t hard to spot — Younes wears a full hijab, and the two were chatting away happily in Hebrew.

These women work in different worlds. Younes, 38, runs a center for Arab women in her native city of Yafo, while 28-year-old Ilan of Tel Aviv fights for the rights of migrant workers facing deportation from Israel. But they share a common belief in the power of individual action to bring about social change.

At 16, Younes told her parents that she wanted to study at a Jewish high school in Tel Aviv. Her parents were worried, she says. “Tel Aviv is very far from Yafo — not physically, but in other ways.”

At that school, she was the only Arab student until some friends from her previous school in Yafo followed her across the invisible line dividing the two cities. “There are lots of boundaries for girls in Yafo,” she told me.

At 18 she married, and a year later she had a husband, a baby, and was studying social work at Tel Aviv University. She got her master’s and spent six years as a probation officer. One day in 2007, an older woman showed up at the center for at-risk girls where she was working. The woman had just arrived from the West Bank and had no place to stay. Younes felt helpless, and then started to think creatively. “I called my mother and told her I wanted to start a women’s center.”

Six years later, Arous Elbahar (Bride of the Sea) is that center. It helps more than 200 Arab Israeli women of all ages in Yafo network, learn job skills and build community. One group started a cooperative small business, while another organized women over 50 into a doll-making venture. According to the New Israel Fund, which has supported it from the outset, it is the first organization established within a major Israeli city by and for Arab women.

Younes tells the story of one woman who used her first paycheck to buy her husband a gift. Asked why she didn’t spend it on herself, the woman told Younes that her husband paid for everything in their home; now, for the first time, she could give him something she paid for herself.

Ilan, a Tel Aviv native, also heard the call to help others — in her case, migrant workers. She was working in a special needs pre-K program six years ago when she heard there were kindergartens in South Tel Aviv specifically for the children of migrant workers.

“Only when I arrived did I realize that calling it a kindergarten was a compliment,” she says. One woman was trying to take care of 30 to 40 children all crammed into a one-room apartment, while babies lay silently in cribs. “They knew no one would pick them up,” Ilan says.

About half of Israel’s 300,000 foreign workers are illegal, and subject to deportation at any time. Their children born in Israel, who often know no language other than Hebrew, are not Israeli citizens and can also be deported. In 2008, Ilan organized a women’s leadership circle composed mainly of Filipino women, to help them learn how to support their children (up until then, it was often just the men ordered to leave Israel).

In 2009, the Interior Ministry announced that migrant women and their Israeli-born children would also be deported. Ilan sprang into action, creating the Israeli Children Project. “We were so naive,” she told me. “Our lobbying strategy was to go to the Knesset, wait in the cafeteria, and jump on the MKs when we saw them. Somehow it worked — we got the word out.” Two days before the deportation directive was to go into effect, it was canceled.

Since then, a partial amnesty was granted, and Ilan’s organization, which has merged with another NIF grantee, the Association for Civil Rights in Israel, continues to fight for these migrants’ rights, especially those of the children born in Israel.

“When I started this work, I was told I was a lunatic, that young people can’t change government decisions,” she says. “Has Israel forgotten it is a country of immigrants?”


Sue Fishkoff is the editor of j., and can be reached at [email protected] For more information on the two agencies in this column, visit and

Sue Fishkoff

Sue Fishkoff is the editor emerita of J. She can be reached at [email protected].