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Israelis in Non-Israeli Universities
[Beit Berl, U of Virginia] Ethnic Wars among Feminist Academics: Smadar Lavie's “Mizrahi Feminism and the Question of Palestine”

Smadar Lavie' articles appears here



Smadar Lavie: sinaia5@netvision.net.il. Women and Gender program, University of Virginia; Women's, Gender, and Sexuality Studies Department at Macalester College; Anthropology and Women's Studies departments of Beit Berl College

Ethnic Wars among Feminist Academics

Smadar Lavie, “Mizrahi Feminism and the Question of Palestine,”  Journal of Middle East Women's Studies - Volume 7, Number 2, Spring 2011, pp. 56-88

In the early 1990s Hanna Herzog, a professor of sociology at Tel Aviv University and the “founding mother” of gender studies in Israel, heralded the emergence of a feminist movement concerned with what she described as the militarization of the Israeli society and the failure to achieve peace with the Palestinians.    Herzog used the neo-Marxist paradigm known as critical studies to postulate that solving the conflict would undermine the military ethos and allow Israeli men to get in touch with the feminist sensibilities of the society. 

But feminists have not been immune from the incessant ideological debates that have fragmented other neo-Marxist endeavors.  Predictably, the feminists splintered along lines of class, ethnicity and sexual orientation.   The tensions became so intense that the organizers of the annual feminist conference were forced to give equal representation to Ashkenazi and Mizrahi and lesbian feminists.   However, as the majority of the lesbians were of Ashkenazi descent, the arrangement triggered a new round of complaints necessitating a highly complex representation system.   The Mizrahi feminists accused their counterparts of rank hypocrisy for championing the rights of the Palestinians while ignoring their own racism; the Ashkenazi feminist retailed  by calling the former “whiners,” a reference to their countless complains. 

Lavie’s misgivings can be best understood in the context of theories of political behavior that draw upon the existence of a complex societal cleavage system.    As a rule, societies are divided along class, race, ethnic and religious lines.  In multicentric entities, national cleavages are superimposed on other societal divisions, creating the “us” versus the “other” structure.  Political science literature indicates that the existence of the “other” ameliorates tensions within the dominant national group.   The Israeli case seems to confirm this theory as the conflict with the Arabs and the Palestinians has worked to dissipate the socio-ethnic rift between the Ashkenazim and Mizrahim. 

But in Lavie’s take, Ashkenazi feminists used the “Palestinian project” to avoid the difficult issue of racism to which the Mizrahim were subject.  Charges of racist attitudes by the “hegemonic Ashkenazi Zionists” are nothing new; in fact, many post-Zionist scholars such as Yehouda Shenhav have made a career of cataloguing the alleged grievances of “Arab Jews,” his term for Mizrahim, against the Zionist- Ashkenazi establishment.   However, Lavie's accusations against fellow post-Zionist feminists broke new theoretical ground.  A close reading of her arguments reveals that class cleavages trump ethnic affiliation in the sense that the Ashkenazi feminists prefer middle- class Palestinian than the lower class Mizrahi feminists.  Lavie provides an interesting anthropological insight into this complex relations; she claims that many of the Mizrahi feminists are lower class women with little command of English, the entrance ticket to largely Ashkenazi feminist “peace and co-existence club.”  She also suggests that the Ashkenazi feminists prefer to interact with the “national Palestinian elite” whose liberal-secular education from Western universities is more in tune with their own cultural sensibilities.

Culture aside, Lavie also charges that Western donors have contributed to the situation as they wanted to reserve the term racism and apartheid to describe Israeli attitudes toward the Palestinians.  Acknowledging the messy issue of intra-Jewish racism would compromise the binary view of Jewish-Palestinian relations.     Since the New Israel Fund (NIF) and its Israeli beneficiaries Women to Women and Shatil have provided funds and employment to numerous feminists, women studies and virtually all feminist projects have towed the line.  Lavie provides an unflattering portrayal of the feminist conferences to further co-existence between Jews and Palestinian organized by professional co-existence seekers (in Hebrew dukers from the word du-kium ).   Upper middle class dukers meet in expensive venues that provide the “calm atmosphere” deemed needed for conflict resolution; when conferences are held abroad, the language barrier prevents Mizrahi feminists from attending.

 Lavie’s class- driven resentment of the Ashkenazi feminist elite is most evident in her concluding comments on the possible solutions to the conflict.  She asserts that a two-state solution would enable Jews to retain their majority, assuring a continuous Ashkenazi hegemony.  On the other hand, in a one-state scenario, Jews would become a minority and the better educated Ashkenazi elite would immigrate.  Lavie does not state her preference, but it is quite clear that she would welcome a hegemonic alliance of Arab Jews and Arab Palestinians - the natives of the region- against the Ashkenazi “other.”



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