Alice behind revolution in Israel for women


ISRAEL Prize laureate Alice Shalvi, founder of the Israel Women's Network, offered her encouragement to the founder of an ultra-Orthodox political party during the country's elections.

But U'Bizchutan founder Ruth Colian "had no idea who I was or what the Women's Network was," recalled Shalvi.

Shalvi was being modest. There is a direct line from the national consciousness-raising campaign launched by the IWN in 1984, which would initiate progressive legislation regarding women's rights, and the bold stand Orthodox women are beginning to take today.

She was also a prominent professor of English literature at the Hebrew University in the 1970s and head of the Pelech School for Girls - the first Orthodox feminist high school in Israel - and the first woman rector of the Conservative movement's Schechter Institute of Judaic Studies.

Shalvi is the recipient of dozens of awards and honours in Israel and abroad for her pioneering educational and advocacy work, including the 2007 Israel Prize for Lifetime Achievement and Special Contribution to Society and the State of Israel.

The Israel Prize judges called the then 80-year-old "revolutionary and courageously trailblazing, with intellectual integrity and long-term vision".

These days, Shalvi is rereading 19th century literature and working on her memoirs.

"I shouldn't read the newspapers, but I do," she joked.

Shalvi grew up in England between 1934 and 1949 when, aged 23, she emigrated to Israel.

When Shalvi - who has lived in Jerusalem's Beit Hakerem suburb since 1962 - and her colleagues founded the IWN in 1984, the term 'feminist' was considered an import from the West.

"People thought there was equality everywhere in Israel," she said. "We all thought that, but in fact it was a myth.

"We really changed women's attitudes."

She added: "We revolutionised the whole issue of women's rights in every sphere, including politics. We placed women's health on the public agenda.

"There's not a hospital in the country today that doesn't have a women's health centre. As a result of our legal action, there are now women pilots in the Israel Air Force."

The fact that sexual harassment is illegal in Israel is the direct result of energetic lobbying for years by IWN.

In 1973, after she had established the English department at the Institute of the Negev (now Ben-Gurion University of the Negev), she was denied the post of dean because she was a woman.

(Shalvi must have felt a measure of satisfaction when, in 2009, she was awarded an honorary doctorate by Ben-Gurion University).

"I was very shocked. But that got me talking to [female] colleagues at the Hebrew University," she recalled. "Every one of them had suffered discrimination or sexual harassment. We started getting organised."

But, despite the dramatic strides toward gender equality since, Shalvi is acutely frustrated by those areas in which inequality is still deeply entrenched.

She said: "There can be no true equality between men and women in Israel as long as there is Orthodox control over so many aspects of personal status. And that's a scandal."

In the 1990s, Shalvi founded the International Coalition for Aguna Rights.

"Gett (about a woman trying to get a religious divorce) is a powerful film, but so many people who saw it said they had no idea this was the situation," Shalvi commented.

"Heaven knows, we made enough noise and got good publicity about the issue, but nothing significant has changed. The rabbinate has become more extreme, if anything."

Shalvi is proud of the Prevention of Family Violence Law, formulated by the Network and passed by the Knesset in 1991. The issue of domestic violence in Israel had long been denied.

"Raising public consciousness does ultimately have some effect," she said.

"There was one particularly terrible year in which 41 women were murdered by close relatives. That issue brought together Jewish and Arab-Israeli women. Arab women came to join us when we demonstrated. It was the first time. They'd never before wanted to be associated with the IWN."

In 1975, the Pelech School in Jerusalem, which two of her daughters attended, faced closure. It had been founded to give girls from the ultra-Orthodox population a more in-depth Jewish education.

To save the school, Shalvi volunteered to run it temporarily and ended up heading it for 15 years.

She encouraged her students to reach their full potential, turning Pelech into the first religious experimental school and a model for other experimental and democratic schools throughout the country.

One of the most important innovations at Pelech was the demand that pupils serve for at least two years either in the IDF or in the National Service framework for which religious young women may opt.

As a result, the IDF established special units that took advantage of the Pelech alumnae's gifts and enabled them to maintain a religious lifestyle throughout their service.

But Shalvi's liberal educational philosophy angered many in the ultra-Orthodox public who boycotted the school.

And then, her meetings with Palestinian women in Israel and abroad signalled her downfall at Pelech.

"The religious branch of the Education Ministry gave me an ultimatum: Either I cease my feminist and political activity, or the school would lose its official accreditation," she revealed.

"I wasn't willing to give up my political or feminist activity so I resigned in 1990. Today, I can say with satisfaction that there are a lot of my graduates in the religious feminist movements," Shalvi stated in an interview with the Haaretz newspaper.

Shalvi has always identified herself as a "halachic Jew," but she remembers from an early age "feeling a tremendous resentment against the role to which women are relegated - particularly in the synagogue where I had the feeling that I was being pushed into some obscure corner."

In the 1998 documentary Rites of Passage - the Spiritual Journey of Alice Shalvi, directed by Paula Weiman-Kelman, she spoke about her personal odyssey.

Rabbinic rulings, she stated, have failed to keep up with the progress in the last century on the status of women.

"So we find an anomalous situation in which a religious or non-religious woman can be a Nobel Prize winner, a professor of physics, a Supreme Court judge, a government minister, in theory the president of Israel, but cannot serve as a rabbi, cannot be called to the reading of the Torah, cannot sit as a judge in the religious courts," she said.

Shalvi eventually joined the Conservative/ Masorti movement.

In the documentary, she described the moment that made her change her viewpoint, when she was called up to the Torah for the first time in a Conservative synagogue in America.

"I had come to see a 'women's congregation'," she said. "Suddenly, I was asked whether I would like to be given an aliya to the Torah. I was very excited.

"This was the first time I had ever seen an open Torah scroll close up, and, alongside the joy I was privileged to have bestowed upon me when I was given the aliya, I experienced an immense sadness - over the fact that I had been forced to wait until age 53 before participating in an experience that is shared by every male Jew from age 13."

Shalvi was appointed the first woman rector and interim president of the Schechter Institute, the Seminary of Judaic Studies in Jerusalem, in 1997. It was the first time a Jewish theological institution had appointed a woman as its academic head.

While at Schechter, she strengthened the Women in Judaism programme, initiated the formation of a pioneering Centre for Women in Jewish Law, launched the journal Nashim and was the force behind the first annual Women's Study Day.

When she retired, Shalvi could devote herself to working with husband Moshe on his mammoth project, the digital Comprehensive Historical Encyclopedia of Jewish Women, which was released in 2006.

"That project had been his dream, and I treasure the five years during which I was able to work with him," recalled Shalvi. "We worked from home, with an entire staff, all women, who would come in shifts, beginning early in the morning and continuing until late in the evening.

"Moshe was a wonderfully thoughtful employer."

Moshe also oversaw the publication of the Encyclopedia Judaica.

When Moshe died two years ago, they had been married for 62 years and had six children. Today, Shalvi has 21 grandchildren and 11 great-grandchildren.

Shalvi was born in Essen, Germany, as Alice Hildegard Margulies, to an Orthodox, Zionist family that fled to Britain from Manheim shortly after the Nazi rise to power.

"We were among the first German refugees to arrive in England, so we were a rarity," recalled Shalvi. "I was always introduced as 'our little refugee girl'."

The opera Refidim Junction by composer Magret Wolf is based on letters written by Shalvi's mother Perl Margulies in 1933-1934, as she was trying to leave Germany, to German Jewish poet Marianne Rein, who did not survive.

© 2016 Jewish Telegraph