By Gwynne Robins
It is 19 August 1901 and Moses Zuckerman has called a general meeting for Jewish women in the Masonic Hall. “By 1901,” writes Marcia Gitlin, “Zionism had taken firm root in Cape.”
It is not surprising that women also wanted to be involved. They too wanted to hear the inspiring speakers at the Dorshei Zion Society’s (DZS’s) public meetings. Rabbi Hertz, a brilliant orator, was particularly popular, but the DZS had voted against a proposal to allow women to attend their public meetings —one on prostitution was particularly unsuitable for their delicate ears— and a suggestion that the women run their own society was also ignored. Gitlin said that, initially, “the committee as a whole was sceptical in regard to the need for or the possible accomplishments of a women’s society.” Jacob Gitlin was a stumbling block to the Bnoth Zion Association’s independence for many years.
“Women’s place was in the home” was a slogan that referred to the upper and middle classes, poor women might have liked to stay at home but needed to work, although there were not many openings for the wives of the new immigrants. Women’s suffrage was not an issue — Queen Victoria believed that women who wanted the vote deserved to be whipped.
Women were allowed to dabble in welfare activities. The Ladies Association of the Cape Town Hebrew Congregation helped women and children but were patronised by the brother organisation, the Cape Town Jewish Philanthropic Society. In August 1897, they rebelled and refused to make tea or allow the men to dictate to them how their funds should be spent. They won — the men decided unanimously to apologise and consult them in future.
Fortunately, Moses Zuckerman was more enlightened and believed that “if you want to make a success of an organisation, you should get the women in.” He and friends went around campaigning in spite of opposition from some women as well as from the strongly anti-Zionist Rev Bender, who had a lot of influence on the women of his shul.
After two months, Zuckerman had collected names of 160 prospective members and called that memorable Masonic Hall meeting. Sixty women turned up, listened to a stirring speech from Mr Turbowitz, and pledged themselves to work towards the goal of a Jewish National Homeland on the soil of Palestine. They formed a committee and established the Bnoth Zion Society.
Zuckerman, as the person responsible for its formation, was invited to all their meetings. but his guiding hand was not really required, although they did need help with punctuality. The SA Jewish Chronicle carried a report of their third Annual General meeting in 1904:
“On Tuesday afternoon the Bnoth Zion Association held their annual meeting in the Zionist Hall, Hope Street for the purpose of electing a new committee and adopting the Balance Sheet. The meeting was timed to start at 3 ‘o clock and in my ignorance of the punctuality or unpunctuality of the starting of such meetings, I arrived in time only to find that I had come about an hour and a half too early, that is allowing for the usual grace as I was told for such meetings. The President, Mrs Zuckerman occupied the chair and in declaring the meeting open, thanked those present for attending as the meeting was of considerable importance. The secretary then read the report and balance sheet in English while another young lady read the one printed in Yiddish so as to give all the opportunity for understanding it. One lady got up and said that a reduction in the expenditure could be made by dispensing with a paid collector so that the wages for same could be forwarded to the National Fund. The president immediately offered her services, providing any of the ladies present would be willing to assist, but as no one appeared willing to help, not even the one that suggested it, it was agreed that the collector is retained. As no other objections were forthcoming, the report and balance sheet were unanimously adopted and the business of electing committee and officers proceeded with … After this two of the gentlemen present addressed the meeting at some length, one in English and one in Yiddish, but said practically the same thing. In the course of their remarks, they commented strongly upon the apathy that existed amongst local Jewish girls in matters pertaining to Zionism and Judaism generally and concluded by urging their hearers to work hard for the good of the cause, through which they hoped to find a home for our persecuted brothers and sisters in Russia. A vote of thanks being proposed … the singing of the ‘Dort wo die Zeder’ and ‘God save the King’ concluded the meeting.”
Since then, the BZA has continued to work for Israel as well as to empower generations of women through education, social opportunities and group activity to work for their beneficiaries in Israel that assist Jewish and Muslim Israeli women and children. WIZO, which was only formed in 1920, has now been incorporated in its name.