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Ruth Rasnic – A Female Tour de Force

rasnic1 Credit: Rosy Homburg on Pixabay

Some forty years ago, shortly after Ruth Rasnic opened Israel's first shelter for women, I interviewed her for ESRA. From behind her desk in the tiny, two-roomed haven in Herzliya, she declared: "There isn't a woman alive who hasn't been abused in some way. Physically, mentally, sexually, financially or emotionally."

I was very young at the time, and very privileged. "I haven't," I announced.

"Don't worry," she countered. "You will be."

Whether or not every single woman suffers at some time at the hands of men, there is no doubt that far too many live in fear and pain; Rasnic has dedicated her life to helping thousands of them. Her own life is a snapshot of both the history of Israel and of feminism here: her British father made aliyah from London in 1930 and became a well-known translator; her mother left Germany for the USA and then came to Israel in 1926. Born in Jerusalem, Rasnic grew up in Tel Aviv until heavy Italian bombing during World War II drove the family back to the capital. In a line crafted for Eretz Nehederet her aunt declared: "No one will ever bomb Jerusalem."

The young Rasnic grew up to resent the British ruling Palestine; shortly before the War of Independence she joined the Etsel underground. When war broke out she left school to work full-time to support her ill father who needed antibiotics; only soldiers were receiving penicillin for free those days. She never returned to school.

At 16 she joined Kibbutz Ruchama in the south, and became part of a group of young Holocaust survivors who had reached Israel; youngsters who had lost their whole families. "There were orphans from all over Europe," she recalls, "yet they were determined to live. We would sing, and dance; their spirit of resilience had a huge and lasting influence on me."

Rasnic served in the nascent Air Force where most of the officers were English speaking – Scottish, South African, British, Australian, American and more. Pilots were flying the huge Yemenite Aliyah "home", to Israel; they told tales of families lighting gas fires on board passenger planes to brew coffee for the trip. Rasnic would watch through the huge glass windows as immigrants poured down the stairways to kiss the tarmac. "It was all just incredibly exciting," she recalls.

Ruth Rasnic with her husband, Danny

A stint working in the Israeli Embassy in London led her to her British-born husband who had also lived in Israel for a time; she and Danny Rasnic were happily married for almost sixty years. When her brother was tragically killed in an Israeli Air Force accident the couple returned immediately to Israel, where she soon gave birth to her first child.

Rasnic had been enthralled by stories of suffragettes since she was a youngster and always sorry she hadn't been a part of the movement. Then in the mid-1960s she was offered a good job but without a car; management announced that only male employees qualified for that perk. "This was my first real feminist moment," says Rasnic, who told the boss what he could do with his car, and opened her own translation and typing business from home.

As Rasnic grew her own family (she has three children, ten grandchildren and seven great-grandchildren today), she also became a trailblazer in all matters pertaining to women. After the Six Day War she met with other leading activists like Esther Eilam, who started the Tel Aviv branch of the feminist movement, and Shulamit Aloni and Nava Arad, who were working for women's rights. They read Betty Friedan and Germaine Greer, and began to hold weekly meetings to raise awareness of issues that most Israeli women were not thinking about. A serious traffic accident stopped her from standing for political office, but she soon became a force for helping women cope with all manner of pain.

Rape, for example, was not mentioned in those days; Rasnic was instrumental in starting the first Rape Crisis Shelter in Tel Aviv. She started asking public questions: should women get paid for staying at home and raising children; should there be gender equality in the army; how should women face their own sexuality; and what help should be available for women dealing with violence. A small in-house publishing company translated seminal feminist texts like Our Bodies, Our Selves, and The Feminine Mystique, and the problem with no name began resonating in Hebrew.

"I didn't know a thing about abused wives or any type of violence against women at that time," says Rasnic. But she had recently read Scream Quietly or the Neighbors Will Hear by Erin Pizzey, who had started the first women's shelter in London. (Pizzey went on to renounce feminism in a loaded career … but that's another article.) "In 1978 I decided to open a shelter for women in Herzliya; there was already one in Haifa but we obviously needed more."

With the support of then mayor Josef Nevo, the cramped but cozy shelter opened for a handful of women; social workers and kindergarten staff swung around each other in the tiny space and the residents shared one toilet, one kitchen and one bathroom. "I realized that one shelter wasn't enough," declares Rasnic, "so I gave up my job, approached the Ministry of Welfare, did fundraising here and abroad and began to expand."

The murder of one resident inside the Herzliya shelter changed Rasnic forever. "I realized that battered women could also be murdered women," she recounts. "And I decided to do everything I could to help as many as I could."

Today there are 16 shelters for abused women in Israel; 3 in Rasnic's organization. Still, she believes there is a need for 40 more; they would always be full. Canada, in comparison, has 500.

Rasnic, who has won too many awards to mention, is the recipient of the Israel Prize and lit a torch in 2000 at the Independence Day ceremony. She was a founder of the New Israel Fund, helped raise funding for breast cancer research, and was a founder and executive director of L.O. to Combat Violence Against Women. She was also instrumental in setting up a hotline for women in many languages including Hebrew, Arabic, English, French and Russian. She has assisted Russian women who were lured here to be sex slaves to escape back home, and was on a committee with Zehava Galon to stop human trafficking in Israel. In the middle of all that she served as a City Councilor in Herzliya for 20 years, was a member of Na'amat and one of the founders of Alice Shalvi's Women's Network. And in her spare time she writes books for teenagers and also poetry!

Kol hakavod to you, Ruth Rasnic! Your long life has made Israel a happier and safer place. Ad 120.

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Thursday, 29 February 2024

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