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Where Are All the Female Mizrahi Professors?

A new study presents the first numerical data showing a near-total absence of Mizrahi women on university faculties.

A new study has found that only about one-half of 1 percent of the approximately 4,600 professors at Israeli universities are women of Mizrahi (Jewish with origins in the Muslim countries) origin.

The findings also indicate that women professors of Mizrahi origin make up a minority of 5.9 percent of all female professors in Israel. The study, which was completed in November, 2004, presents for the first time empirical data about one of the most denied problems in Israeli academia - the severe under-representation of Mizrahi women on academic faculties.

Even though various bodies such as the Council for Higher Education's Committee for Planning and Budget publish data about academic staff, there has never been a numerical breakdown of the number of Mizrahim and Ashkenazim (Jews of European origin). According to several Mizrahi academics, the absence of data contributes to the perpetuation of Mizrahi women and men as a minority in academia and delays discussion of the reasons for this.

The study was carried out by Iris Zarini as a seminar paper she wrote for the Open University's department of sociology. Zarini still continues to update her data. As the academic institutions refused to provide her with official figures (on the grounds that this would infringe upon the faculty's privacy), Zarini combed the lists of faculty members that appear on the institutions' Internet sites and in various publications.

She started with surnames, and sent e-mail messages to about 500 women professors to clarify whether they are of Mizrahi origin or whether they know of other female Mizrahi professors. At the end of the survey, which took about a year, Zarini found only 23 Mizrahi women among the 675 women professors (including those who are retired or in public service); she did not find any Arab women professors.

Many previous studies found discrimination against women in academia. Mizrahi women, however, constitute a minority within a minority - their proportion among women with the rank of associate professor is 5.9 percent and they account for 5 percent of the women with the highest rank of full professor.

The Mizrahi women who have attained the rank of professor work mainly on the periphery, teaching and conducting research at institutions that are considered less prestigious. At the four most prestigious institutions - Hebrew University, the Weizmann Institute, Tel Aviv University and the Technion - there are only two Mizrahi women who hold the highest professorial rank (at Tel Aviv and the Technion) and four more who hold lower professorial rank (at Hebrew University, the Weizmann Institute and the Technion).

When Zarini interviewed some of the Mizrahi women professors, she discovered that most of them came from impoverished economic backgrounds and turned to applied fields like the natural sciences and medicine or to applied fields in the humanities and social sciences. According to Professor Smadar Lavie, who in 1995 in the book "Women Writing Culture" raised the issue of Mizrahi women professors for the first time, "The reason for this is that the Mizrahi woman, who is not connected to the elite and does not have economic backing from home, chooses an applied profession for which there is a market demand so that if she does not advance in academia she will still be able to find employment in industry and the private market."

It appears that marriage to a well-established Ashkenazi man helps in breaking into the academic elite in Israel - and is common among Mizrahi women academics. The study indicates that most of the women professors are married to Ashkenazi men. Their husbands are in the free professions, and some of them are professors at the same institution at which the woman teaches.

"This is a marriage strategy that is perhaps put into operation unconsciously, which provides the economic backing that is needed and the ability to network with the Ashkenazi academic elite," says Lavie.

"It is hardest to advance at the universities," says Professor Haviva Pedaya, a poet and researcher of literature and Judaism at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, "for women who from the outset of their academic path deal with the study of Mizrahiness, reflexively about themselves.

"This is something that is very hard for the universities to accept because it subverts the hegemony, and the entire system is built in a way that does not deal sufficiently with the history and culture of Jewry in the Islamic countries unless this is done in obsolete ways that have been established for the study of the Mizrahim. A fundamental reform is needed - in the mechanism and in the disciplines."

Israeli universities have evinced no recognition of the problem of the near-total absence of Mizrahi women at the highest ranks of the academic faculty. The usual argument at the universities is that there is no reason to be concerned about ethnic origin because academic promotion is determined solely by the researchers' academic excellence. However, unlike in the West, in Israel there are no explicit criteria for what constitutes excellence.

"Since 1968, in Western academia, particularly in the United States and Canada, tremendous efforts have been made by means of affirmative action," says Lavie. Since the mid-1990s, affirmative action is practiced on the basis of weighing together race, gender, sexual preference and economic situation. In the United States they also try to tempt faculty members who have left to return.

"In Israel," according to Lavie, "no attempt has been made to identify the Mizrahi women and men who have not found a place in Israel's Ashkenazi academic elite and are teaching at prestigious universities abroad."

Ashkenazi feminist academics have not come forward to stand by the Mizrahi women. For almost two decades now, they have been conducting a concerted struggle against discrimination against women in academia, which until recently was also denied by most senior figures in the higher education system. However, they too have never noticed that there is a separate, different and greater problem for Mizrahi women academics.

The Council for Higher Education has told Haaretz that "the CHE is acting to expand the accessibility to higher education to various populations, and during the past decade there has been an increase in the number of women holding all positions. The processes of advancement and promotion among the senior faculty are under the full jurisdiction of the universities."