Art, and women, making an impact on the landscape of Israel

EMET Prize laureates Michal Rovner and Hanna Herzog describe the powerful impact their work has on how we see the world.

By ALAN ROSENBAUM
September 12, 2018 17:57
EMET Prize laureates Hanna Herzog and Michal Rovner

EMET Prize laureates Hanna Herzog and Michal Rovner. (photo credit: EMET PRIZE)

 
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At first glance, Michal Rovner and Prof. Hanna Herzog would seem to have little in common in terms of their chosen fields of interest and accomplishments. Rovner is an internationally renowned artist known for her innovative work in photography, video and ultimedia; Herzog is a sociologist, co-founder and former head of the Women and Gender Studies Program at Tel Aviv University, and currently co-director of the Center for Women in the Public Sphere at Jerusalem’s Van Leer Institute.

Yet there are striking similarities between the pioneering work of Rovner, the artist, and Herzog, the academic. Both have utilized their unique skills and talents to create innovative and original works in their respective fields, and both were gratified that their distinctive work and accomplishments have received recognition from the EMET Awards Committee.

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The two are among the nine recipients of this year’s EMET Prize, an annual award given for excellence in academic and  professional achievements, which was presented to nine distinguished individuals in 2018. Rovner received the prize in the field of Culture and Art for photography, and Herzog was honored in the Social Sciences category.

ROVNER, WHOSE work has been exhibited in some of the world’s leading museums, including the British Museum, the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Louvre, maintains studios in both New York and Israel.

“It means a lot to me to receive recognition from Israel,” she explains. “The connections that I have to this place, to the language, to the landscape and even to the wavelengths of life here, are very present in my work. Living in Israel made a strong imprint on me
and I am sure it influenced my viewpoint about life.”

In her words, “The power of art is that it touches people in an inexplicable way in a place that is underneath the details – away from their rational view and the usual ways that they see life and reality.”

One of Rovner’s prominent projects is the series Makom (Place), in which she collected stones from destroyed Israeli and Palestinian houses from Jerusalem, Haifa, Bethlehem, Hebron and later from the Israel-Syrian border. Together with Israeli and
Palestinian stonemasons, Rovner created 60 tons of cubic structures touching on history, memory and place, she explains.

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“All of my work starts with reality, and this had to do with the conflict on the subject of place and coexistence that has been going on for a long, long time.” The idea for Makom “started during the Intifada of 2007. I was upset about what was going on and I wanted to do something about it in some way. Constructing something in collaboration with Israelis and Palestinians was doing something about it.”

Rovner, who studied at Tel Aviv University and the Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design, says that her most significant piece of work is Living Landscape, the entrance installation at Yad Vashem that pays tribute to Jewish life in Europe before the Holocaust.

“When I was asked by Yad Vashem to create the first chapter of the museum, I was overwhelmed. It took me about a year to know what to do, to decipher this huge undertaking of representing Jewish life in Europe that was lost. I decided to re-create a landscape, to weave together hundreds of fragments of footage of the last documented moments of Jewish life from all the archives we could locate. As a Jewish person and as an Israeli, this, for me, is the most significant contribution that I have made.”

HERZOG HAS dedicated her life to the advancement of women’s status in Israeli society. Her sociological research began with the study of marginalized groups in Israeli society in the pre-state period and early years of the state, focusing on ethnic groups, and eventually led to research into forgotten chapters in the Yishuv historiography – among them, the contribution of women from civic sectors who were a leading force in women’s suffrage and in creating the basis for social welfare institutions.

Part of her efforts to include women in the nation’s history was the collaborative study on Jewish women in the Ravensbrück concentration camp. For her, the study of women is not a uniform social category. Therefore, she studied women from different social
locations, including Arab women who are citizens of Israel. She eventually concentrated her efforts on gender inequality within Israeli society. She explains the importance of studying inequality and people on the fringes of society.

“You can understand society and the negotiated order within society better when you hear, listen to and study the voice of those who are pushed to the margins.”

Like Rovner, Herzog is delighted to be a recipient of the EMET Prize, because it validates her approach. “I am glad that my theoretical perspective to study Israeli society through the lenses of the marginal groups is recognized and appreciated. Awarding me the prize means that academia recognizes the importance of gender studies to understanding general society and also Israeli society.”

As an expert on gender, Herzog reflects on the fact that five of the 12 winners of this year’s EMET Prize are women, whereas last year there were no female awardees.

“This change means that there is greater understanding of the need for gender mainstreaming.

There are women within academia and politics – in every social science that you can think of. In the past, women were ignored.”

According to Herzog, gender gaps are a social problem, not a women’s problem. Gender, she says, is not a woman’s theory about women but a theory about society. It is a theory that attempts to unveil gendered regimes of knowledge and how the exclusionary mechanisms are deeply entrenched in social arrangements.

“Men should understand that women are part of the general society, and once they are accepted they will not relate to them as secondary in the labor market, in politics or marginalized in religious life.”

One of the innovations developed by Herzog’s Center for Women in the Public Sphere is the Gender Index, an innovative tool that evaluates women’s status in comparison to men in Israel in numerous areas, including work, higher education, poverty, political and economic power, culture, violence, division of time, health, center-periphery relations and Arab society – and assigns an overall score to gender inequality in Israel on the basis of the aggregate of the factors that determine the status of women in society.

According to Herzog, two factors unique to Israeli society – the lack of separation of religion and state, and the Arab-Israeli conflict – impact the status of women in Israel. The military conflict, she explains, places men in the position of warriors and women as homemakers, and thus replicates the gendered division of roles and the gendered hierarchy. It narrows the understanding of the concept of human security, often excluding issues of personal and economic security, discrimination and even violence against women.

The EMET Prize is awarded for those whose work and achievements have had far-reaching influence and made a significant contribution to society. Both Herzog and Rovner, through their separate passions –photography and sociology – have had a substantial impact on Israel and the world.

This article was written in cooperation with the EMET Prize.

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