- Never a Native by Alice Shalvi
Never a Native
London: Peter Halban, 2018. 322 pp.
Alice Shalvi is the consummate activist, an inveterate doer, whose doings have blazed trails time and again and made signal differences in great swathes of life in Israel, while also establishing her as a leading figure in the Diaspora.
This book is Shalvi’s straightforward account of her long life, a memoir of almost ceaseless pioneering activity, the more remarkable because many of her endeavors seem to have taken her by surprise. She presents these as opportunities that fell into her path, which she met eagerly, convinced, well before the emergence of the postwar Jewish feminist movement, that her abilities equaled and were often superior to those of others, invariably men. To take one example, she relates how, in 1990, she came to be Rector of the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem. Asked by the head of the search committee to propose candidates for the position, she made several suggestions, with no results. “Finally,” she writes, on the third visit of the committee head, “came the totally unexpected question”: would she take the post?
At this point Shalvi was retired, and a legend, to name but a few of her accomplishments, for having headed the English department at Ben Gurion University of the Negev, when it was rare for women to get teaching appointments; headed the innovative Pelech High School for girls in Jerusalem; and founded the Israel Women’s Network—a lobby for women’s issues, like pay and pension equity, at a time when this was a totally novel proposition. Yet, to the committee head’s question, she responded with incredulous laughter.
She took the job, just as she had, years before, taken a teaching position at Ben Gurion University, her account of which goes similarly: “How would you like to set up a new English Department at Beersheba?” a colleague asked. “I was taken aback,” she writes, but, with the youngest of her six children then two years old, feeling that “there seemed no objective ground for refusal,” she agreed. Typically for Shalvi, she conditioned her acceptance on being given a free hand to “do something different” in pedagogy, which condition was met. However, her efforts to reform academic administrative orthodoxies met resolute resistance and failed (pp. 191–192). [End Page 175]
There seems to have been no leadership opportunity that Shalvi did not accept enthusiastically when offered the chance. She also fought for some opportunities—to be Dean of Ben Gurion University—which were denied her because she was a woman, while men who were far less qualified advanced. When she sought the support of a powerful academic figure whose opinion about filling the position would be pivotal, she reports, he exclaimed: “But you’re a woman!” To which Shalvi responded, incredulously, “Why would that matter?” (pp. 197–202).
This “humiliating experience,” Shalvi writes,
led to a profound change in my perception of gender equality in Israel…. Was I alone [in the experience of sex-based discrimination]? Was it a purely personal matter or had others encountered similar prejudices and preconceptions? In the course of the weeks in which I went from one male superior to another, I … reported on the unanticipated outcome to some of my women colleagues in other departments…. Each reported similar discrimination in promotion. All had been bypassed in favour of a male colleague. The criteria applied to women were more stringent. The process, if and when it was begun, took longer and more frequently ended in rejection. Post-doctoral fellowships were seldom granted to women. If they were … the sum allocated was less than that which men received.
And there was women’s experience of sexual harassment, “a phenomenon … more widespread than any of us, including the women subjected to it, had imagined. None had reported it, even to their female colleagues. The victims blamed themselves… . They were trapped between submission to the men’s unwanted advances and their own ambitions—the desire for [what] they knew they deserved.”
Shalvi had realized that women’s experience is systemic; personal, but also, as the feminist saying goes...