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Obituary'Put a mirror in the face of Israeli society, caused change'

US-born ex-MK Marcia Freedman, a pioneer of Israeli women’s rights, dies at 83

The only openly lesbian lawmaker in Israeli history, activist helped found Israeli feminist movement, discussed domestic violence in 1970s to male colleagues’ ridicule

Marcia Freedman in 2013. (Screenshot/YouTube)
Marcia Freedman in 2013. (Screenshot/YouTube)

Marcia Freedman, an Israeli lawmaker who was a pioneer of LGBTQ and women’s rights in the 1970s and initiated the first women’s shelter in the country, died on Tuesday at the age of 83.

The United States-born left-winger was also an early champion of the two-state solution, advocating recognition of an independent Palestinian state.

She divorced her husband in her late 30s and came out as the first known gay Knesset member. To this day, she is the only openly lesbian woman to have served in the Israeli parliament.

Born in 1938 in New Jersey, Freedman was active in the American Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s. She came to Israel in 1967, helped found the Israeli feminist movement, and served as a Knesset member for the Ratz party (which merged into today’s left-wing Meretz party in the 1990s) between 1974 and 1977.

During that short period, Freedman raised a host of issues that had been sidelined at the time, including abortion rights, gay rights, rape, breast cancer and domestic violence.

In 1976, Freedman initiated the first-ever Knesset discussion of violence against women. Transcripts from the July discussion reported by the press show that many lawmakers at the time were entirely dismissive of the issue and even viewed the topic as humorous.

“What about the other issue, husbands who are battered by their wives?” quipped Mordechai Ben-Porat, while Meir Pa’il said: “If a woman beats her husband, the husband should be arrested.”

“I’m surprised you find this matter so amusing, and this proves exactly what I have to say today,” Freedman responded, but even the minister in charge of the issue, Shlomo Hillel, was dismissive.

Marcia Freedman, January 28, 1974. (Yaacov Saar/GPO)

Minister of Police Hillel said that there was nothing to discuss since police could not intervene in personal relationships, adding that it was just one manifestation of a general rise in violence.

“In all seriousness… I cannot say that there is a specific problem of violence inflicted by men against their wives,” Hillel said then.

“That’s the problem — that you don’t see it,” replied Freedman, who later went on to be the co-founder of Israel’s first shelter for battered women in Haifa in 1977.

After forming a women’s party that raised awareness for the matter but failed to make it into the Knesset, Freedman returned to the US (although she would move back and forth to Israel in later years) and continued her feminist activism through books, articles and reviews.

She was the founding president of Brit Tzedek v’Shalom, a pro-peace group that merged into the J Street lobby in 2010.

In 2015, the Aguda rights group chose Freedman to be included among the 40 people who had had the greatest influence in the history of Israel’s LGBTQ community.

“Marcia fought for our right to live our lives in freedom, with pride and without violence,” Aguda said on Wednesday. “Her coming out in the 1970s inspired thousands of gay women and men who had been afraid to be themselves. We hope that Marcia’s groundbreaking legacy will lead to [more] gay female representation in politics.”

“She was a very assertive woman and didn’t hesitate to speak her mind,” mourned Freedman’s longtime colleague Esther Elam, who founded the Israeli feminist movement with her. “She said things that weren’t nice, put a mirror in the face of Israeli society and caused change. She was a pioneer.”

“Today we lost the dear Marcia Freedman,” said Transportation Minister Merav Michaeli. “She was the MK who initiated the first plenum session on violence against women, which deeply amused the male MKs at the time who belittled and ridiculed her. An LGBTQ rights warrior who came out herself and lived as a lesbian and a feminist when it was very unpopular.”

Environment Minister Tamar Zandberg (left), and Transportation Minister Merav Michaeli. (Flash90)

Environmental Protection Minister Tamar Zandberg of Meretz, tweeted her condolences, saying that she had met Freedman in the US several years ago and “her determination to defend human rights hadn’t diminished.”

J Street eulogized Freedman as “a beloved, outspoken and visionary activist for Israeli-Palestinian peace and a wide range of progressive causes.”

“She became a major early champion of independent Palestinian statehood and the two-state solution, embracing the idea of two states for two peoples long before it was widely accepted,” the progressive lobby said.

“Her warmth, wisdom, energy and moral clarity made her an inspiring presence at J Street National Conferences and a powerful voice for the movement she did so much to help build. At this time our thoughts are with Marcia’s family and friends, and with all those who knew and loved her. May her memory be for a blessing.”

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