Visiting Professor Illuminates Plight of Mizrahi Women in Israel in Light of the Palestine-Israel Conflict

March 2, 2010 — Smadar Lavie loves teaching University of Virginia students.

"It feels good to go to such a classroom," she said. "The students are smart, studious and critical."

Lavie, an associate professor visiting the University of Virginia's interdisciplinary Studies in Women and Gender program this academic year, is teaching two classes this semester.

In Transnational Feminism, she discusses the way Third World feminist organizations have created international networks to remedy what she calls "the bankruptcy of their states," and the ways their feminism relates to U.S. and European feminist movements. In "Gendering Partition Cultures," she discusses the way ethno-religious conflicts such as the ones in Israel and Palestine, Ireland and Northern Ireland, and India and Pakistan divide families and affect the lives of women and children.

She is the author of "The Poetics of Military Occupation: Mzeina Allegories of Bedouin Identity Under Israeli and Egyptian Rule," a book that has become an interdisciplinary classic.

She is working on another book about "Mizrahim" — Jews who immigrated to Palestine and then Israel from the Middle East, the Muslim world and the European margins of the Ottoman Empire – as the forgotten key group in finding a just solution for the Israeli-Palestine conflict. The Mizrahim are often discriminated against by the "Ashkenazim," or Jews of European descent. Lavie makes her argument through the life experiences of women.

Lavie said her anthropological career started "by fluke." During her mandatory service in the Israeli army, she was a hiking guide. In 1975, she was sent to research and write a report on the Bedouin, a desert-dwelling, Arab tribal people. She was confused, she said, because as an Israeli, she had always been taught that the Arabs were her enemy.

It was after Israel officially occupied the Sinai Peninsula, which it had gained from Egypt in the aftermath of the 1967 War. Yet she received a warm and respectful welcome, and subsequently refused to submit her short research results to the military, she recalled.

At that point in her life she didn't even plan to go to college, though to please her parents she applied and was admitted to medical school, which in Israel starts in the freshman year. Instead, she went to live among the Bedouin in the Sinai Desert, and a Bedouin family adopted her.

It was not until she met an anthropologist from the University of Oxford whose Jeep was stuck in the middle of the desert that she discovered that what she was doing was anthropological fieldwork.

With the help of several professors, a scholarship from the Helena Rubinstein Foundation and a research grant from the Ford Foundation, Lavie attended the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. After graduating, she received a full scholarship to attend the University of California at Berkeley for her Ph.D.

She specialized in the anthropology of the Arab world and Islam. Her relationship with the Egyptian tribe she lived with and studied continues to the present day.

"The boundaries between research and long-term family relations are completely blurred by now," she said. "When I'm done with my Mizrahi book, I'm going to co-author my next book with my adoptive Bedouin sisters. We're about the same age, we're moms, and religiously observant."

After receiving her Ph.D. in 1989, Lavie established herself as one of the young leaders in her field, won prestigious grants and awards, and accelerated tenure from the University of California at Davis.

In February 1999, for family reasons, she moved to Israel, where she faced difficulties. The daughter of an Askenazi father and a Mizrahi mother, she was most often regarded as Mizrahi.

"Mizrahi women are a category severely underrepresented in Israeli universities," she said. Though they make up about half of Israeli citizens, they account for only about 1 percent of women teaching at Israeli universities. "There are zero percent Palestinian-with-Israeli-citizenship women professors," she said.

In autumn 2001, Lavie was hired to teach anthropology and women's studies at the Beit Berl Teachers' College, where 85 percent of the students are Palestinian women with Israeli citizenship. Most of the students were returning to education while mothering at least four children. The rest were Mizrahim.

Because of Israel's government policies of offering what Lavie described as inferior education to Palestinians and Mizrahim, they came to the college with almost no learning skills and inferior academic preparation.

"I have been honored to be deeply appreciated by my students not only for my teaching, but for being able to speak with them in Arabic, in addition to Hebrew, the official teaching language," she said.
Lavie's teaching salary, which she described as "paltry," forced her to augment her income with welfare. Standing in the long food and forced employment lines, she established herself as a grassroots community leader. Throughout, she continued with her Mizrahi research project.

"I started documenting Mizrahi lower-class women's daily lives in 1989, while still with the privilege of being a tenured professor at U.C. Davis," she said. "In 1999, I myself became my own informant.

"But I still had some privilege. I was able to take advantage of Israel's great archives and explore the embeddedness of Mizrahim in the history of the Arab world and their de-Arabization by the Zionist colonial project."

Using her English, she started to trans-nationalize Ahoti, Israel's Mizrahi Feminist of Color movement, and network it with similar organizations outside Israel.

"Outside Israel, hardly anyone knows about Mizrahi feminism, even though Mizrahim are 50 percent of Israel's citizens," she said.

She also co-founded the Coalition of Women for Mothers and Children, which she said sought to educate the Israeli public that Ashkenazi-controlled Israeli courts do not recognize the inalienable rights of non-European mothers to parent their children, and to raise consciousness about the high rate of forcing families, mainly Mizrahi, to send their children to vocational boarding schools in manners similar to those of Native Americans or Australian Aborigines.

"This was the broadest feminist coalition in Israel's history, from the Islamist feminists to the ultra-Orthodox Jewish feminists, and all the other groups between these two," she said.

"I'm a practical person," she said, "a problem-solver." So during her decade in Israel, she focused on the betterment of her society, becoming a fixture in Israel's mainstream media.

"When they needed 'an angry feminist,' I quietly and politely presented the empirical data about Israel's institutionalized intra-Jewish racism, the way it relates to Israel's conflict with the Arab world, and how the Israeli state thus robs non-European women – Jewish, Muslim and Christian – from their economic and cultural rights, and human dignity," she said.

Lavie moved back to the United States in 2007 to accept the Distinguished Visiting Hubert H. Humphrey Professorship at Macalester College in St. Paul, Minn. She has remained in the U.S. since, but returns to Egypt, Palestine and Israel about twice a year to combine her research and community projects with family visits.

Her infrequent visits leave her longing for more. "I miss the people, the birds, the land, the ripe blue sky, the Arabness of the place," she said. "Skype and the phone are not enough."

Students at U.Va. said Lavie's courses offer a unique perspective on the Muslim world. First-year student Melanie Snail, who is enrolled in "Gender in Muslim Lives," appreciates Lavie's experiences and ability to relate information to an American audience.

"My favorite part of the class was being able to draw parallels between my life and the lives of women around the world," Snail said. "I was surprised to discover several commonalities with women from such different cultures and backgrounds than mine."

— By Katie Andrew