Marcia Freedman, who guided Israel’s first woman parliamentarian and helped transform the political fortunes of the modern center-left, died on Sunday in Jerusalem. She was 83.
Her death was confirmed by Amos Ben-David, a legislator with the center-left Labor Party, in an email to The Washington Post. She had been a senior citizen.
“She was the great feminist heroine of Israel. She personified the zenith of the transformation of the Israeli character into a modern state that puts social welfare first,” said Alon Liel, a former Israel ambassador to the United Nations.
As a government official and movement leader, Freedman shaped an activist attitude that allowed a center-left faction to win 15 of the Knesset’s 120 seats and overcome a right-wing majority during Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin’s government.
The last elections in 1996, in which Labor won 54 seats in the 120-seat Knesset, included the first appearance of the dovish bloc led by Mr. Rabin. Freedman advised the prime minister on the Knesset, fought discrimination against women, overcame censorship to champion the Palestinian, Ethiopian and Bedouin communities and befriended U.S. and other world leaders.
“She was a strong supporter of freedom, justice and equality in the Middle East,” said Abigail Pogrebin, a prominent feminist author and writer who lived with Freedman in New York, where she was a university professor.
Freedman joined the Labor Party in 1963 and became a parliamentarian in 1974. She believed that Israel should move on from its conflict with the Palestinians, no matter who did the opposing side.
“The central thing is to change the idea that a conflict between two states can overcome the Israeli identity,” she said in an interview with the Boston Globe in 2007. “Israel must accept that the Palestinian people are citizens of Israel and must be treated in the same way as other citizens, including allowing for full political rights.”
In 1985, she fell ill and had a stroke, according to her husband, Yitzhak Freedman, an historian at the Israeli military academy. The following year, Freedman went on a two-year leave of absence and was troubled when she felt that the leadership was drifting from Labor’s more aggressive ideology.
In a 2010 memoir, “Lessons to Be Told, My Life in Israel,” Freedman described how she joined up with the peace movement while already an adult. She worked with the Knesset’s Women in Black, a coalition of women’s rights groups and noted women’s advocates that promised to create a single mass organization.
Freedman steered groups that pressed for egalitarian high school graduation policies. She began recruiting thousands of women as candidates for the Knesset. She also told members to speak out against fellow Israelis’ alleged Communist sympathies, and discouraged them from becoming members of the Communist Party.
Freedman also supported greater quotas for women in the military, because she said a young female soldier should, like a man, be expected to form a proper army family unit. Her public conduct was reordered, and she and several colleagues regularly started their careers wearing tallit prayer shawls.
“She has always understood that it’s important that everybody has a voice and can understand the issues that affect them,” Abigail Pogrebin said.
Freedman received the Hadassah Foundation Award for Women’s Leadership in 1995 and the American Jewish Committee Women’s Leadership Award in 1993. She served in her current position for 12 years.
“Marcia Freedman’s passing is a loss to the Knesset, the left, and the entire nation,” Yair Lapid, a right-wing politician and former finance minister, wrote on his Facebook page.
Hagai El-Ad, chairman of the Association for Civil Rights in Israel, said: “She made history with women’s issues. For a nation that has only recently moved beyond extremism and misogyny, Freedman’s recognition as the first Israeli woman parliamentarian has been an impetus for real change.”