Indefatigable feminist

Alice Shalvi has been a role model and inspiration for countless Israeli women.

Alice Shalvi (photo credit: DEBBI COOPER / COURTESY ALICE SHALVI)
Alice Shalvi
AN EXTRAORDINARY new political party made its appearance in the national elections last year. Though it received little media attention and won no Knesset seats, “U’Bizchutan: Haredi Women Making Change,” the first-ever party dedicated to ultra-Orthodox women, was a true feminist revolution since ultra-Orthodox parties bar women from running on their slates.
U’Bizchutan’s founder Ruth Colian, who was repeatedly threatened by Haredi rabbis for her decision, declared the party a “historic” step in a mission to “guarantee representation in the Knesset for ultra- Orthodox women.”
During that election campaign, Israel Prize laureate Alice Shalvi, founder of the pioneering feminist organization Israel Women’s Network (IWN), telephoned the then 33-year-old Colian to offer her encouragement.
“She had no idea who I was or what the Women’s Network was. Well, why should she know, after all,” recalls Shalvi in a recent interview with The Jerusalem Report.
Shalvi was being very modest. There is a direct line from the national consciousnessraising 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.
The Network was founded long before the establishment of the Knesset Committee for the Advancement of Women or the Center for the Advancement of the Status of Women and the Center for Women’s Justice.
Shalvi, one of the country’s key woman thinkers, a peace activist, role model and inspiration for countless Israeli women, was also a prominent professor of English literature at the Hebrew University in the 1970s (“Shakespeare with Shalvi” was a must for English Lit. students). She was 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 honors 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 prize was a stunning honor for someone whose feminist activism and political views were often viewed as controversial, not only as an outspoken Jewish feminist, but also as a prominent activist in Palestinian-Israeli women’s peace groups. Nevertheless, in their decision, the Israel Prize judges called the then 80-year-old Shalvi “revolutionary and courageously trailblazing, with intellectual integrity and long-term vision.”
These days, Shalvi is rereading 19th century literature and working on her memoir.
“I shouldn’t read the newspapers, but I do,” she jokes. Interviewed in her home in Jerusalem’s Beit Hakerem neighborhood, where she has lived since 1962, Shalvi’s down-toearth warmth in conversations, her calm and her mischievous sense of humor are still much in evidence.
When Shalvi and her colleagues founded the IWN in 1984, the term “feminist” was considered an import from the West and suspect in the eyes of most Israelis.
“People thought there was equality everywhere in Israel. We all thought that, but in fact it was a myth.” The Network was quite different from other Israeli women’s organizations, which focused on social services. “We were going to work through consciousnes-raising, legislation and litigation.
We really changed women’s attitudes,” Shalvi asserts.
The Network brought together feminists of different religious and political outlooks.
In a relatively short time, it brought about a remarkable improvement in the status of Israeli women.
“We accomplished so much at the Network. We revolutionized the whole issue of women’s rights in every sphere, including politics,” says Shalvi. “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 center. As a result of our legal action, there are now women pilots in the Israel Air Force,” she declares.
Recently, there has been a wave of sexual harassment allegations against Israeli politicians, rabbis, senior cops and army officers and these high-profile cases often end up in resignations, if not in court. The fact that sexual harassment is illegal in Israel is taken for granted by many, but the law, passed in 1998 (one of the most advanced in the world outlawing sexual harassment), was the direct result of energetic lobbying for years by IWN.
In recounting her personal motivation for founding IWN, Shalvi uses a term originally coined by Ms. Magazine – “a click.” “Until you have personally experienced something, you don’t realize the enormity of the event that changes your attitude,” she recalls.
THAT “CLICK” happened in 1973 after she had established the English Department at the Institute of the Negev (now Ben-Gurion University of the Negev). Despite years of recognition for her groundbreaking work in developing the department, she was ultimately denied the post of dean because she was a woman. (Shalvi surely must have felt a measure of ironic 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,” recalls Shalvi. “Every one of them had suffered discrimination or sexual harassment. We started getting organized.” Thus was born the Network.
But, despite the dramatic strides toward gender equality since, Shalvi is acutely frustrated by those areas in which inequality is still deeply entrenched. “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.”
As the recent award-winning Israeli film “Gett: The trial of Viviane Amsalem” portrays, all divorces and marriages in Israel, even secular ones, are under the power of rabbinic courts and, therefore, of Orthodox Jewish law. A wife who doesn’t receive a get, or bill of divorce, from her husband becomes an “aguna” ‒ a chained or anchored woman. In the 1990s, Shalvi founded the International Coalition for Aguna Rights.
“‘Gett’ is a powerful movie, but so many people who saw it said they had no idea this was the situation,” Shalvi comments. “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 says.
“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 for Haredi Girls 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 and a broader general education than they would otherwise receive.
To save the school, Shalvi volunteered to run it temporarily and ended up heading it for 15 years, guided by the philosophy that no area of knowledge should be closed to women solely on grounds of gender. 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 her 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 spelled 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.
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.
“I think that the modern Orthodox women’s movement has been the most revolutionary thing that’s happened in women’s equality.
Many Pelech alumnae have headed it. I feel good, because we accomplished something at the school,” Shalvi tells The Report.
Born and raised in Orthodoxy, Shalvi has always identified herself as a “halakhic 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 a 1998 documentary film “Rites of Passage – the Spiritual Journey of Alice Shalvi,” directed by Paula Weiman-Kelman, she talks about her personal odyssey.
Orthodox halakha and rabbinic rulings, she states, have simply 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 says.
Shalvi eventually joined the Conservative/ Masorti movement. In the documentary, which was televised as an ABC television special, Shalvi describes the moment that made her change her viewpoint, when, for the first time, she was given an aliya to the Torah in a Conservative synagogue in the United States.
“I had come to see a ‘women’s congregation.’ 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 the 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 program, initiated the formation of a pioneering Center for Women in Jewish Law, launched the journal Nashim and was the force behind the first annual Women’s Study Day.
When she finally retired, Shalvi could devote herself to working with her late husband Moshe Shalvi on his mammoth project, the digital Comprehensive Historical Encyclopedia of Jewish Women, which was released in 2006. An expert in computerized graphics and printing, Moshe had overseen the publication of the Encyclopedia Judaica for Keter Press.
The Encyclopedia of Jewish Women – which is available online – has nearly 1,600 entries. It includes biographical essays on individual women (beginning with Eve), as well as entries dealing with Jewish theory and practice in women-related areas, such as family purity and birth control.
“That project had been his dream, and I treasure the five years during which I was able to work with him,” recalls 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.”
Theirs was an extraordinary marriage.
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 (at last count).
“Behind every successful woman is a supportive man,” she says. “I wouldn’t have been able to do any of the things I’ve done in my life without him. Moshe was very devoted and encouraging throughout my career. I had some really painful crises [as a result of] my political and religious views, and he was always supportive.
“There was always a total partnership, mutual support, a sharing of whatever needed to be done ‒ whether it was earning the income or, since I worked right through our married life, sharing the homemaking.”
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,” recalls Shalvi. “I was always introduced as ‘our little refugee girl.’” THAT FRAUGHT period in Germany, in which anti-Jewish laws had already been introduced, forms the background to a recent opera “Refidim Junction” by German composer Magret Wolf. The powerful libretto is based on letters written by Shalvi’s mother Perl Margulies in 1933-1934, as she was trying to leave Germany, and the German Jewish poet Marianne Rein, who did not survive. Her mother’s letters, and those of the poet, are intertwined in the opera, which was first performed in Wurzburg in 2012, in Berlin in 2015, and in Jerusalem in the same year at the Israel Festival.
“My brother found the pile of over 100 letters that my mother had written to my father before we managed to get out of Germany. Some of the letters were heartrending; she was obviously panicked,” she relates.
Shalvi grew up in England between 1934 and November 1949 when, aged 23, she immigrated to Israel. Despite the considerable achievements for women in the 1980s and 90s, Shalvi says there are still many discriminatory practices.
“It’s true that you see more and more women in executive positions, but these are still the exceptions, on the whole,” she comments. “For the average woman in Israel, conditions have not improved; there is still the sense that a married woman will put the home first, if the children are ill she’ll stay home from work. This is all nonsense; women have a better record of work discipline than men. I often think we’ve taken a step forward, then a step back.”
Also, she points out that in a country that has no civil marriage or divorce, one in three women in the process of getting a divorce in Israel is subject to financial or other extortion by her husband.
Although the current Knesset has more female parliamentarians than ever before – 28 of 120, (still less than 25 percent), Shalvi is unimpressed.
“Look who they are. Most of them are not feminists. On the right, I don’t know anyone who would define herself, or could legitimately define herself, as a feminist, if you define feminism as openness and liberalism and concern for others, a readiness to hear other opinions and to believe in equality and justice for all. I don’t think they would even find the issue of interest.”
However, with the years of work and struggle behind her, Shalvi remains an optimist.
“I’m not the despairing kind,” she says.
“What gives me a lot of hope is that, in contrast to what things were like in 1984, women themselves are more aware of the discrimination. You don’t have to do much consciousness-raising anymore; the task now is to get them organized and active.”