Academic Apartheid in Israel and the LillyWhite Feminism of
the Upper Middle Class
by: Prof. Smadar Lavie
In Israel of 1999, only 8.8% of the full professor's rank were women. So exhorted the
high-brow Haaretz Weekly Magazine (26 December 2001) [footnote 1 ]. In the
manner typical of the Israeli Left's harangue flagellation rituals, the journalist who
brought this scoop to the readers' attention neglects to mention one crucial detail:
These 8.8% full-professors are all members of the Israeli Ashkenazi (U.S.-European)
wealthy elite. Most had strategically married a husband who happily financed the
crucial periods of their academic careers. When the tenure process was over, a few
even dared to divorce. Why is there such a racinated, class-based apartheid among
women who dwell in the halls of academe? Whatever has happened to the notions of
colorblind excellence or to feminist sisterhood? Why does Israeli academe bestows
the professorial privilege only to a handful of Ashkenzi ladies?
All Israeli universities are public. One ought to assume that a public institution
reflects the citizenry who finances it with its tax money. Half of Israeli citizens are
women. If one is to add up the Mizrahim (Jews of Asian and North-African origins)
with the Palestinian-Israelis, the majority of Israeli citizens these days is of Arab
origins. Brandishing the widest relative income gap between rich and poor
worldwide, most of these tax-payers dwell around what the collapsing Israeli welfare
system define as "the poverty line." Nevertheless, the rank and file of both full and
associate professors in Israel consists almost fully of upper middle-class Ashkenazi
men. The common argument deployed to explain this chummy, country-club
exclusivity is that Mizrahim and Palestinians just can't climb up to the high standards
of the Israeli academic threshold. How surprising, though, that Palestinian-Israelis
and Mizrahim who enroll in PhD programs of U.S. and Western Europe's ivy leagu!
e universities do succeed in becoming tenured professors in high-threshold sites
such as Oxford, NYU, Michigan-Ann-Arbor, or the Free University of Berlin, to name
just a few. But still, the Israeli aristocracy of academic enlightenment uses its
Byzantine secretive decision making mechanisms of hiring, merit and promotion to
reject them on the uppity grounds of "collegial incompatibility."
The ultimate examination of the lay taxpayers' reflection in academe is through their
representation in the fully non-applied departments. As my crumpled grandma
defines such preoccupations, "you don't get outta there with ‘a vocation'," -- a
monthly paycheck with benefits paid by the private or public professional sector.
Philosophy, History, Cultural Anthropology, Comparative Literature, Political Science,
Mathematics, Art History, Theoretical Elementary Particle Physics, and all that jazz of
impractical explorations into germinal knowledge cannot translate itself into free
market employment possibilities. On the BA level, some of these departments
function as an efficient matchmaker for well-bred girls. But on the level of PhD
studies and beyond, these departments are the prime think-tank of Israel's
intellectual elite -- those who can afford the serenity of refuge found in the focused
concerns of academic life devoid of practical financial considerations. From the mid
1990's on, top U.S. and Western European universities, both public and private,
implemented multi-cultural recruitment programs. These came about to
accommodate the critique that affirmative action faculty recruitment practices were
able to attract only the racialized minorities' upper middle class. Aligning itself to this
public critique, faculty of non-applied Letters and Science departments went on
forays into ghettos and barrios, seducing the brightest high-school graduates to
enroll. They offered these recruits generous packages of scholarships, grants, and
other forms of financial aid that were to lead to tenure-track positions, and later, all
the way to full professorships.
No such multicultural recruitment strategies exist in Israel. Enrollment in non-applied
PhD programs is still the privilege of the Ashkenazi upper middle-class. The Mizrahi
or Palestinian woman who is lucky enough to get admitted to graduate school usually
chooses an applied academic "vocation" that can accommodate her
maternal-domestic duties. She knows that even with a PhD scholarship, she is to
doomed to fail the exams scripted for her by the gatekeepers of the Via Dolorosa
leading to an Israeli professorship. She reaches such a conclusion when searching,
in vein, for a senior woman-of-color role model. Or when exploring her own bank
account, just to discover that it's almost empty. So even with a PhD in hand, what
would lie ahead?
Even if the Mizrahi woman scholar survives the non-applied PhD process, she is not
likely to be invited to apply for a tenure-track position. The traditional academic
senate used to be a closed club. Its members wanted to hang around with folks who
mirrored their own selves. Those nostalgic chummy bonds, you know. The good ol'
gentleman's code of colossal citation wars. Since most of them were of the liberal
variety, they could not but notice the first feminist wave of "equal rights" discourse.
So they agreed to let into their faculty club a handful of women as long as these
women resembled their wives: upper middle class Ashkenazis simulating either the
Barbies who clerked for their IDF elite units, or the manicured charity aunties who
decorate their secluded neighborhoods.
It is interesting to note that Western academic hiring practices moved on to integrate
second-wave feminist discourse, which focused on the intersection of gender and
race. Lower middle class women-of-color thus joined the faculty club. Perhaps dark
masculinities were conceived as a bigger threat to the peace of the White liberal
faculty club, males and females alike. In Israel, the hiring practice is just the
opposite. There are way more Mizrahi men than women among the junior faculty.
The senior faculty positions are almost completely Ashkenazi. Perhaps the Mizrahi
male colleague presents a lesser threat to the peace in the faculty feuds. They have
already met him during their army service. When saving their lives in combat, he was
a brother, indeed. The Palestinian PhD candidate or recipient is way beyond the
pale. Unless feeble gestures as for the need for Palestinian-Israeli junior faculty
recruitment might aid the lofty Leftie Ashkenazi professor in getting an article pu!
blished in a prestigious progressive and oft-quoted English language periodical. For
sure, this might advance his or her (post?)Zionist career.
No one initiates such politically-correct harangue flagellation rituals for the PhD
Mizrahi woman. Devoid of indigenous charm, she reminds the buddies in the faculty
club of their sassy maid (before Filippinas became the cost-effective choice). To
spice up the department they invite her to teach - a course here, a course there - yet
she can't pay with such part-time income her end-of-month utility bills. In order to get
tenure one must publish. A lot. But she invests all of her creative energy in teaching
rather than in writing up her ticket to tenure. So she falls behind the normative time.
At any rate, that gal who looks like the IDF Barbie has already been offered the
tenure-track position, simply because she and/or her old fogies and/or her hubby had
the time and money to weave themselves into the buddy support system of the
faculty club. Now she is using their network not only for self-advancement, but also
to protect herself from being red-flagged with "collegial incompatibility." But of
course, their biographies always already overlap.
Public or private institutions who care for the reflection of the citizens' body in their
faculty composition have instituted junior and senior faculty career development
funds and massive secretarial help for large-scale extra-mural grant applications.
These endowments are meant for those who didn't arrive into academe already
equipped with the time and money required for networking into the non-applied
disciplines. In Israel, the body of academe is still anachronistically defined in the
White masculine (i.e., Ashkenazi). The working assumption is that such a body does
not need special funds to help pay the mortgage in addition to paying for his
research expenses. Most top Western universities have special mortgage program
and excellent benefit packages to compensate the mavericks who chose to
specialize in low-paying Letters and Science fields that are not high-end professional
"vocations." They, too, ought to afford reasonable housing and extra-curriculars for
the kids, just like surgeons, high-tech executives, MBAs, attorneys and their ilk. In
Israel, however, the academic administrators' working assumption is that if you
choose the sublime naval gazing of Philosophy or Linear Algebra, you must have
rich parents who pay for it. If you don't, go moonlighting in the second-rate college
system (at any rate, it's your wife who hires the care for your home and kids). You
will have with what to pay the bills, but you won't have any time left to publish, so you
perish. Or hold your students hostage by organizing a longterm senior faculty strike
to milk the finance ministry for s'mores. And if a woman, just ask your husband to
The Mizrahi woman is excluded from the academic publish-or-perish game because
she is a single mom or simply single or married to a lower middle-class Mizrahi like
herself. She wasn't married into wealth or inherited real estate from her grand-daddy
or was a trust fund babe or simply used up a portion of her parents' savings. So she
has no money to pay for what is needed to purchase the babysitter time necessary to
write for scientific publications. Given that Israeli academic promotion is measured by
English publications, she doesn't have the cash necessary to buy editor and
translator's time. Moreover, she can't even contemplate buying additional babysitter
time so that she can fly to present her research at international conferences, the
prime location to hobnob with those who might publish the revised and expanded
The ones who succeed in juggling all of the above usually put into use their hubbies'
wealth. In Israel, a woman's salary, married or single, is always considered "a
second income," and thus amounts to only 60% of the one a man gets for doing
exactly the same. In the introduction to her tenure book or during the interview for the
style section, done by the suave journalist, who oh so admires her on how "she made
it," she will always carefully remember to thank the "supportive and understanding
husband." She will forget to express gratitude to the team of Mizrahi and foreign
women who relieve her of her childcare and household duties so that she will have
the time to develop her career. Most of her salary is spent on these anonymous
If she's lucky enough to win a tenure-track position, she depends on the research
moneys dispensed by the buddies from the faculty club, who love to dispense first
and foremost to themselves and then to their lookalikes. And even if they reimburse
her for research expenses, she first has to spend them out of her own pocket, and
only then get reimbursed at least after a month, at times in the form of a bigger salary
just to be taxed. Deploying such monetary shenanigans, the university actually forces
her to give it an interest-free loan. Moreover, out of it, the state is able to collect more
taxes. There are no regulations or norms in Israel obligating the recipients of
research funds to any forms of reflective public accountability.
Most of Israel's public colleges are stuck in the boondocks. Not surprisingly, more
women are on the faculty over there. The majority of students are Mizrahi, and
research budgets only arrive in Santa Clause's bag of kuddos. Yet there are hardly
any Mizrahi women even among the junior faculty of these colleges. The answer to
this absence is also embedded in the ethnic-gendered composition of the elite that
constitutes the body of the colleges' senior faculty. They always prefer to chum up
with the woman from within their familiar domestic scene rather than form egalitarian
work relations with the woman from without.
The critical years during which one ought to publish in order to strike permanent
roots in academe are those between graduation and tenure, and then those between
tenure and full professorship. Israel is an immigrant society, pressing women to
breed, particularly if they come from non-Western patriarchal structures. These
critical periods coincide with a woman's child-bearing years. These are therefore the
years that require her high capability to trade off time and money for an academic
career, unless she wins sabbatical scholarships that include childcare, and a hubby
willing to relocate for them, so that she can sit and write. These are the years when
her class affiliation (in Israel, swap "class" with "ethnicity") works against her career
aspirations. Haaretz argues that "the Israeli academy, seemingly enlightened, is
conservative," and thus blocks the advancement of women into full-professorships.
The lucky 8.8% who manage to arrive at the finishing line can testify that !
when judging the conservativism of Israeli universities, we can't separate the gender
question from that of ethnic belonging and the size of the familial bank account.
Footnote 1: Ariyeh Caspi, "Search for the Woman." Haaretz Weekly Magazine, 26
December 2001, p. 12. In Hebrew.
Smadar Lavie received her doctorate in Anthropology from the University of
California at Berkeley (1989), and her associate professorship in Anthropology and
Critical Theory from the University of California at Davis (1994). In 1999, when her
time was up for full professorship, she returned back home to Israel due to a grave
trauma of her son. Since then, due to "collegial incompatibility" (oh well, she
specializes in the gendered performance of coloniality and race in the Middle East)
she's now mainly a welfare mama. Her first book, The Poetics of Military Occupation
(University of California Press, 1990), is an academic bestseller. She is also
co-editor of Creativity/Anthropology (Cornell UP, 1993), and of another academic
bestseller, Displacement, Diaspora, and Geographies of Identity (Duke UP, 1996).
Contrary to Israeli academic "incompatibility" rumors, she hereby declares that she
has never sued the University of California. Rather, she wishes to express her
heartfelt gratitude to it for the generous financial and intellectual support she has
received from it throughout her career, without which, nothing of the above would
have been possible, since she's only half-Ashkenazi, and not from the elite. This
article was originally submitted to Haaretz Weekly Magazine as a response to
Caspi's. The editor rejected it due to "length" and "lack of readership's interest."
S. Lavie 2002 © All Rights Reserved. Printed with permission.