A woman whose place was in the Mizrahi feminist movement
Friends remember Tikva Levi, the educational pioneer and leader who died last month.
Tikva Levi was only 52 when she died on August 1, but during her short lifetime she wielded a great influence on Israeli society. She was an active presence on a variety of important battlefronts: feminist, Mizrahi, educational, political.
"The ability to combine these battles, the awareness of the fact that they are not separate from one another, was one of the things I admired and loved about her," says Prof. Ella Shohat, a preeminent cultural studies scholar and Levi's fellow traveler and soulmate.
Levi was born in 1960, to a family of Iraqi laborers in Ashkelon. In her youth she was identified as gifted and sent to study at Boyer Boarding School in Jerusalem. Referring to that period later in life, she spoke of "the walls of alienation that were gradually built between us and our family, our friends and our childhood landscape. We soon learned to be ashamed of our parents, their names, their clothing, their place of work, their language and their home - which was once ours too. Our ideal was the Jerusalemites who studied in school with us: rich parents, spacious homes, cars, trips abroad, 'cool' clothing, and, of course, blue eyes with blond hair. The school encouraged and nurtured that ideal."
Apparently that experience constituted the impetus for launching one of her lifelong projects: Hila - For Equality in Education, which Levi headed from 1987 until the day of her death. Hila fights determinedly for equal rights for children from all backgrounds in the education system: against having children drop out of school, against enrolling ordinary students in special education frameworks, and so on. The vast majority of the students Hila deals with are Mizrahim (Jews of North African or Middle Eastern origin ), Ethiopians and Arabs.
"Tikva is the Israeli Janusz Korczak [the Polish-Jewish educator-author]," says Rachel Yonah Michael, a former journalist and today the director of the El Ray literary agency, who was also a close friend.
"The public school system abandoned the children of development towns like orphans," she continues. "There, the road to higher education - in other words, to success - was paved with obstacles and for the most part was blocked. Tikva filled the vacuum that the school system, in its obtuseness, left behind, and paved an alternative path for them to social mobility."
Yonah Michael tells about Levi's work, opening small classes in the offices of Hila in Tel Aviv, recruiting intellectuals, as well as launching parenting groups in neighborhoods all over the country, including those populated by Ethiopians who were unaware of their rights. "Tikva was there for every socioeconomically disadvantaged population," she says.
Says Prof. Shohat: "Between the Black Panthers and the Mizrahi Democratic Rainbow Coalition, there was a wide range of Mizrahi activity, in the name of various movements and organizations, sometimes nameless. Tikva was involved in many of those struggles, which were absent from the media. This is an unknown history."
"With the loss of Tikva," she adds, "we have also lost an important aspect of her testimony about our history."
Connecting ideas and people
Levi's early stations in life included membership in the Jewish-Arab student group Campus at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, where she received a bachelor's and a master's degree in literature, as well as residence and activity in Neve Shalom (the cooperative village established by Jews and Israeli Arabs ). Shohat, who has been living in the United States for years and lectures at New York University, says the two met there. Together with other activists - and while running workshops that fought against stereotyping Mizrahim as right wingers - they hatched the idea of starting a group for Mizrahi women, who would be engaged in sociopolitical issues from their own point of view.
"It was important for us to create a space that enabled a discourse about class, ethnic origin, identity, Zionism and the Palestinian question," Shohat says. "All these questions are relevant for understanding the complexity of the Mizrahi feminist struggle. That's actually where Mizrahi feminism began" - which is today one of the important, prominent and active streams in Israeli feminism.
Shohat says that at one local feminist movement conference in the early 1990s, a one-woman play was performed that included mocking stereotypes of Mizrahi women. Shohat, Levi and other women "went onstage and protested [at the] racism, and said it was unacceptable that such a play should be performed at a feminist conference," Shohat recalls.
"Levi came to that conference with a group of women from neighborhoods connected to Hila, and they were received with condescension by mainstream feminism," she adds. "The attitude was 'Why women from those neighborhoods? Do they represent feminism?' That was a bourgeois perception of feminism. We introduced new concepts into the feminist discourse."
The formative moment came at the 10th feminist conference at Givat Haviva in 1994, when Shohat, Levi and Mira Eliezer announced their resignation from the central movement. The professor says with a smile that there were "Palestinian women who laughed and said: 'In the end we'll have to mediate between the Ashkenazim [European Jews] and the Mizrahim.'" She also recalls that there were Mizrahi activists "who were opposed to resigning, while there were Ashkenazi women who supported it." A year later, the first Mizrahi feminist conference took place, led by Levi.
In addition to her fights against tracking in education and racism, Shohat says Levi's activity in Hila was also "broad and complex, and included empowerment of Mizrahi women - precisely those whose children are sent to special education."
Levi was also involved in pro-peace activities, including meetings with Palestinians. In 1989, she participated in an encounter held in Toledo, Spain, between Mizrahi and Palestinian intellectuals, including writers, poets, artists and scholars. In her speech she said: "The Ashkenazi right and left are identical, because both are deathly afraid of the stage when the Palestinians and the Mizrahim will establish facts on the ground of a life without any artificial barriers, a situation in which the borders will look ridiculous, a situation in which there will be one state in which everyone will be equal citizens."
Shohat says that the event in Toledo, "with its symbolic significance, was an attempt to create a different map of thinking, which would connect Palestinian history and Judeo-Arab history and would promote a different type of dialogue. Until then, Mizrahim were seen as social activists, but not as partners to peace meetings. Among the conference participants ... were Mizrahim from Israel and Judeo-Arabs from Morocco, France, Canada and America."
Levi is now recognized as one of the prime movers who managed to connect issues concerning Mizrahim, feminists and Palestinians. Indeed, as far as Shohat is concerned, "Tikva is a metonymy for these battles and a metaphor for a different future space. I admired her ability to connect ideas and to connect to people, and to try to convey these ideas even to those from whom there was presumably no such expectation - those who had been rejected, whether by the left or by feminism.
"Tikva considered female empowerment as something that had to come from the grass roots," the professor continues. "She was a very special person, who knew how to bring all the different worlds into one room. She identified with the philosophy of Rosa Luxemburg and at the same time loved the poems of Ahuva Ozeri - an unusual connection. She cried bitterly at the funeral of Juliano Mer[-Khamis, the Arab-Israeli actor shot dead in April 2011], suffered over the injustice done to Mohammed Bakri [the actor-director unsuccessfully sued for his documentary "Jenin Jenin"] and also conducted a dialogue with people from the right in the neighborhoods. She went back and forth in many areas in a manner that not many are capable of."
Not just words
Shohat says Levi was a feminist not only in words but in her way of life, too. She lived modestly in every respect and also avoided exposure in the media. Yonah Michael notes Levi, who was invited to many lectures and conferences, refused to accept payment - the proceeds went only to Hila. "And that's worth mentioning, because she wasn't in great shape financially. But she always used to say: 'I live reasonably and I make do with what there is. And all the knowledge that I teach in my lectures I acquired in Hila.'"
In recent years, says Shohat, Levi was upset by the increasing violent racism in Israel, toward Ethiopians, migrant workers and Palestinians, too. And yet Shohat and Yonah Michael also emphasize Levi's great joie de vivre, her fine sense of humor, her rolling laughter, her love for literature and poetry (both Arab and Hebrew ).
During her little free time Levi wrote poetry, and articles for the Pa'amon Haskhunot and Iton Aher newspapers. In Toledo she met Palestinian national poet Mahmoud Darwish and subsequently advised Yosef Shiloah when he performed a one-man play derived from Darwish's work.
"Tikva's connection to Arab culture in general, and Iraqi culture in particular, was the basis for her definition of her Judeo-Arab identity," Shohat says.
Levi, says Yonah Michael, believed that man is naturally good. One source of this belief was the home where she grew up. Her father was a communist in Iraq, and "there the left had deep roots in the lower classes of society. He wasn't cut off in a bubble like the Israeli left ... Levi will continue to live in the hearts of many friends who loved her, of many children, some of whom are no longer children, and of parents who owe her their children's future."
Shohat adds similar sentiments, noting: "The public multicultural spaces as we know them today are, to a great extent, the product of activity in which Tikva was a major partner. Beyond the personal loss, this is a loss for people who believe in a less racist and more equal society. Tikva is one of those people who change the world. Beyond the fact that she wrote poetry, for me her great achievement is the poetry of revolution." Levi, who died of cancer, never married and left behind a daughter; she was also one of the organizers of "Mifgashim Mizavit Kehah," a series at the Tel Aviv Cinematheque. The next one, on Monday at 7 P.M., will be dedicated to her memory. They will be screening "Mehunanot" ("The Gifted" ), Yochi Dadon's documentary about three women who studied at Boyer, in which Levi is one of the protagonists.