Engendering Studies

Axing Beit Berl’s feminism studies program would not be an issue if the Ivory Tower actually devoted time to the contribution of women.

Here is a question to which I will never know the answer: If there had already been gender studies in Israeli academia at the end of the 1980s, when I went to study at university after I got out of the army − would my life have changed? Would I have made different decisions?

At that time gender studies were not offered here but a decade later they were. And in 2004 I enrolled in the feminist and gender studies program established by Vicky Shiran at Beit Berl College. That was where I wanted to study, not at the bureaucratic, labyrinthine Tel Aviv University where I had previously majored in world history.

Orna Itamar

I was in the department’s second graduating class. The class before us began its studies with Dr. Shiran but she died of cancer at the age of 56 in the winter of that year. Shiran, a poet and a leader of the Mizrahi feminist movement in Israel, which represented women whose origins were in Muslim countries, was replaced by Dr. Erella Shadmi, Shiran’s colleague both in their shared field of academic research − anthropology − and in the feminist movement. In recent years the program has been headed by Dr. Ketzia Alon.

That program was a unique experience. We learned about Carol Gilligan and Kate Millet, French writer Simone de Beauvoir, Indian woman Chandra Mohanty, Egyptian Nawal Saadawi and Palestinian poet Fadwa Touqan.
If until those studies, “feminism” was mainly something belonging to the American-European women’s movement, here the perspective was widened considerably.

Equally important was the cadre of students. My classmates were for the most part charming and intelligent women. Two of them were activists in the Mizrahi feminist movement Ahoti. Others, who had no previous feminist background and knowledge, came from a variety of professions.

Some of them had grown up in families of eight, 10 or even 12 children. Few of them were young students. Instead, most of them were in their 30s, or 40s and even 50s, like me.

Many of them, including the most brilliant student in the class, had never pursued academic studies before and in their day had not passed matriculation exams. The gender studies program, combined with Open University courses, enabled them to earn a bachelor’s degree. In what other Israeli academic framework could this have happened?

Now the program’s future is uncertain. As Or Kashti wrote in Haaretz at the beginning of April, Beit Berl College has decided to discontinue the program. The reason: It doesn’t make economic sense. It is much more remunerative, apparently, to expand fields of study like the Society and Security program.

This step brought about impressive feminist protest by the women’s organizations and also by gender studies programs at other institutions of higher learning.

In the wake of the protest a rather convoluted, vague and not at all promising decision was taken whereby the courses on gender would be integrated into the students’ core studies and their existence as a separate program will be dependent on the number of people who register for them.

This story casts a grim light on Israeli academia: It looks to be a tool of a uniform militaristic ethos, an institution that serves the country’s needs as seen from an incredibly narrow perspective rather than serving the person who wishes to expand their knowledge.

But in fact, what is the outcry about? There is, after all, the argument that gender studies are superfluous in any case. The truth is that in a perfect world, or at least one that is properly run, there would be something in that argument. History studies would also address the history of women, half the human race, including their struggle with the fact that their history was accorded hardly any documentation during thousands of years of patriarchy.

Feminist theory and writings would be an integral part of the study of psychology and sociology, and so on. Outside the walls of the university in this desirable world women would earn the same pay as men for the same work and they would not be under constant threat of sexual harassment or rape.

Until this perfect world comes into existence, there is definitely a need for gender studies. The program at Beit Berl adds to those studies the Mizrahi perspective, in a country where the feminism was founded by immigrants from the United States and for years addressed only Ashkenazi ‏(European‏) Jewish women.

It should also be mentioned that gender studies are not just for women: In recent years, at least abroad, men’s studies have also been flourishing. Men too suffer from patriarchy. One need only recall the parents of yore ‏(and there are still such parents today‏) who tell their sons not to cry, to “be a man.”