12 Things You Need to Know About… Beba Idelson

Beba IdelsonZionist politician and women’s rights activist

1. Beba Trachtenberg was born in October 1895 in Yekaterinoslav, in the Russian empire. Though the family was far from wealthy, the children were well educated. An older sister became a gynecologist. Beba was educated first by a private tutor, then in high school and university. When Beba was eight, her mother died in childbirth (thirteenth child). Her father died four years later. Beba helped raise her younger siblings, under the care of her grandmother.

2. In 1912, at the age of sixteen, she graduated from the Russian gymnasium and began studying economics and statistics at the University of Ukraine. At the time, she was an advocate of Russian – rather than Jewish – culture, but the Beilis blood libel trial in 1913 began bringing her to greater Jewish awareness. In 1915, as the Great War sent Jewish refugees from Austria across Ukraine’s western border, she volunteered in relief activities, joining an organization called Youth of Zion and meeting its leader, Israel Idelson.

3. The increasing unrest in Russia led her to involvement in Jewish self-defense training, as the Jewish students became more and more aligned with Zionist ideology. In 1917, she married Israel Idelson (later Bar-Yehudah), and their household became a magnet for Zionist activists. The couple moved to Kharkov in 1919. She continued her studies, he his Zionist work. In 1923 they were exiled to Siberia, but the horror of exile was replaced by deportation after timely intervention by Maxim Gorky’s wife.

4. They left the Soviet Union in 1924, spending two years in Berlin, where they were active in the World Union of Socialist Zionists. In April 1926 they reached Palestine. Israel was appointed secretary of the Workers’ Council in Petach Tikvah. At first she did agricultural work, but was then hired in 1927 as a statistician at the Jewish Agency in Jerusalem.

5. In 1928, Israel Idelson was appointed to the central comptrolling committee of the Executive Council of Histradut, the organization of trade unions. They moved to Tel Aviv.

6. It was in Tel Aviv, helping conduct a census of domestic workers, that Beba Idelson became aware of the wretched condition of women workers. She began working in the Tel Aviv Women’s Employment Bureau. She was one of the founders, and by 1930 became secretary, of the Organization of Working Women.

7. The Mo’ezet HaPoalot was the women’s section of Histradut. In the summer of 1931, she was asked to step in temporarily for its leaders in the secretariat. She became a permanent member of the secretariat and remained so until 1974, a tenure of nearly forty-five years. Lack of funds was a major obstacle to the development of the women’s movement, and she was good at handling money.

8. Here are some of her accomplishments: She organized the wives of Histradut and the Workers’ Movement to collaborate, got them membership cards and the right to participate in party elections. She was active in the Council of Women’s Organizations organized by Henrietta Szold [see my post of August 7, 2013] in the mid 1930s and, after the State of Israel was established, its chairwoman. She was a board member of Mishan, a Histradut institution supporting homes for orphans and the elderly;  a board member of the Women’s International Zionist Organization for sixteen years; a Mapai delegate to the nineteenth Zionist Congress (1935); chair of Histradut’s ninth congress and a member of its central committee (1960s); and a member of the Flag and Emblem committee of the Provisional State Council, which chose the emblem of the State of Israel.

9. She believed in women’s economic independence and opposed any pressure on married women to resign from their jobs. Working through Histradut, she achieved a ban on dismissing women for this reason. She believed, as well, in women’s obligations to the state, advocating for conscription of women and supporting a national service law. In World War II, 3200 women served in the Women’s Auxiliary services of the British Army. She was one of the leading proponents for this volunteerism. Later, when the State of Israel was established, she became a member of the Knesset, working on the Constitution, Law and Justice, House, Foreign Affairs and Defense and Labor committees during her sixteen years of service. In all these functions, she continued to promote social reforms, particularly around women’s equality.

10. Her legislative activities affected the character of the new state, especially as regards the public status of women. Successful legislation she helped formulate included marital age (1951); women’s work (1953); national insurance, including insurance of mothers and pensions for widows (1953); inheritance law (1958); criminal law amendment (1959), equality law (1962). She tried, but was unable, to pass laws establishing civil, non-religious, matrimony and family courts.

11. In 1965, the year she left the Knesset, she was named Mother of the Year. She went on to chair the World Movement of Pioneer Women from 1968-75.

12. She died in January 1975 in Tel Aviv. Would you call her a late bloomer? If so, she didn’t she make up for lost time!

In Tel Aviv, Idelson Street crosses Pinsker and is west of Bialik.

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