Abigail Klein Leichman
January 4, 2011, Updated September 12, 2012

Award-winning professor Marilyn Safir, is a path breaker who has researched and led the struggle for women’s equality in Israel for nearly four decades.

Dr. Marilyn Safir

Dr. Marilyn Safir accepting the 2010 Alumna of the Year Award from Brooklyn College in October.

Viewing Israel from a distance in 1968 as a brand-new clinical psychologist, Marilyn Safir assumed that equality for women had long since been achieved. When she arrived in Haifa, her up-close perspective revealed a different picture.

“People would say I came 50 years too late, that women had been out there working with men and then they chose to go back in the house,” the University of Haifa professor emeritus tells ISRAEL21c. “As a social scientist, I couldn’t believe there could have been such a regression and I began researching the status of women in the pre-state period.

“In reality, it was a myth that men and women had worked side by side to build the country. The status of women was different from the earliest years. When Israel was created, the labor laws were very far reaching – protecting women but cementing them in part-time work as they were viewed as the natural caretakers of children and family.”

Safir has just returned from a United States speaking tour for the American Society for the University of Haifa. She enlightened audiences about women’s historical and modern contributions to the Israel Defense Forces, their progress in the upper echelons of Israeli academia, and their status in the context of the global feminist movement.

Safir is director of KIDMA, Israel’s first feminist education and advocacy organization. She has helped found and/or lead the Israel Association for Feminist and Gender Studies; the University of Haifa Women’s Studies Program; Nisan – Young Women’s Leadership Program; Israel’s emergency psychological telephone service; a rape crisis hotline; the first International Interdisciplinary Congress on Women; and the Israel Women’s Network.

National advisor, revolutionary therapist

Shimon Peres appointed her to head a national commission on the status of women, and she has served on governmental committees to improve the economic status of women and to investigate the discrepancy between boys’ and girls’ scores on intelligence tests.

But this grandmother of three wasn’t named Haifa’s 2008 Distinguished Citizen or Brooklyn College’s 2010 Alumna of the Year solely for her impact on women’s issues. She also pioneered other areas of psychology in Israel including sex therapy and cognitive behavior therapy. And retirement hasn’t slowed her down.

With colleague Amir Rosenman, Safir is investigating the psychological profile of men who have sexual encounters with other men but do not consider themselves bisexual or homosexual. “They have a tendency to have unprotected sex, and this presents a public health concern as they’re more likely to become infected with HIV and infect their partners, most of them are women,” she says.

With colleague Helene Wallach, she is researching virtual reality as a cognitive behavioral therapy tool to help patients conquer anxiety in circumstances such as flying, claustrophobia or speaking in public. Gradual, managed exposure to the anxiety-causing situation can vanquish the fear, but it’s difficult to arrange an ideal setting. “Virtual reality enables you to put the person into the situation using advanced technology in a controlled fashion,” she explains.

A civil rights activist at Syracuse University, Safir became interested in Israel during the Six-Day War and arrived the next year on a Jewish Agency program for academics. She intended to continue her graduate research for a short period in the emerging field of biofeedback. But the equipment she needed was not yet available, so she focused on women, gender and sexuality. And when she met and married an Israeli man, Ephraim Mizrahi, a year’s stay turned into forever.

Change is possible

The couple’s daughter, Liana (34), works with her father in his automotive spare parts import and export company. “My husband’s family had one of the major Israeli service stations for General Motors cars, and one of my hobbies was cars,” Safir relates. She helps in the business as well.

The couple’s son, Noam (40), is CEO of a biomedical research company. He and his family live near Netanya, not far from his parents’ Haifa homestead. Safir was very ill after Noam’s birth, but there was a silver lining: “I was in and out of the hospital for three months, and that’s when I more or less learned to speak Hebrew,” she recounts.

An enthusiastic traveler, Safir visits her sister in California often and was a visiting professor at Stanford University, the University of Washington and Arizona State. She has combined business and pleasure trips to countries such as China, Japan, Mexico, Costa Rica and Czechoslovakia, and is going to Morocco in February.

Since coming to Israel, she has witnessed feminist strides and setbacks. “There are many more women completing academic degrees and working full time with a stronger career commitment. On the other hand, women are still earning less for the same jobs and are still missing in the top echelons of government and industry…”

Change is possible, she concludes, if both women and men join hands to make it happen.

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