You want that degree? Sleep with the professor

Ben-Ari affair may play major role to reveal abusive practices on campus.

domestic abuse 88 (photo credit: )
domestic abuse 88
(photo credit: )
I will never forget the day I first learned that no matter how much I develop my mind, to some people I am just a woman. The year was 1996, I was a young, obviously naïve master's student in Jewish education at Hebrew University, and my adviser suggested that I meet with a certain professor - call him Y - about taking a tutorial with him. Since I was nearly done with my course work, starting my thesis and in need of some specific guidance as well as two course points, this seemed like a reasonable plan. But as I sat there with Y trying to make this arrangement, he had different ideas. "What does your husband do?" he asked after I described my work to him. Taken aback and unsure where he was heading, I replied simply that my spouse was in marketing. "But what is his degree in?" he persisted. "Psychology," I said. Hmm. He sat there and contemplated this. "But doesn't he want to go into Jewish education?" I said, no, not really, and tried to steer the conversation back to me - after all, I was the one working in Jewish education, I was the master's student and I was the one waiting for guidance, not my husband. Turns out, this professor guy was on the payroll of someone somewhere in the Jewish world searching for candidates for a turbo career track in Jewish education. So we sat there for 15 minutes as he asked me about my husband and ignored my requests for attention. Rather than see me as my own person, a potential student and educator, he saw me only as wife of someone with potential, even if my husband, whom he never met, had absolutely no connection to or interest in the subject. When Y realized that my husband was of no use to him, the conversation was over. We never even discussed the tutorial. I left feeling completely invisible, nonexistent. When all was said and done, I was nothing more than a woman. THIS IS unfortunately one of many disillusioning experience I've had at Hebrew U. and other institutes of higher education in Israel. The culture of exploitation, back-stabbing, self-serving, intellectual theft and cutthroat competition saturates universities here, frequently reaching appalling degrees. I could probably write a book about this culture based solely on my own accumulated experiences from 13 years as a graduate student and employee. But for women at the university, this ruthless culture is compounded by the inherent sexism entrenched in every corner of the institution, a sexism so cemented that only women who are savvy about navigating its pitfalls ever really get ahead. This shocking reality is finally starting to come to light, through not without some painful casualties. Over the past few weeks, women have started to speak up about the most horrific forms of aggression and manipulation around, including their "sleep with me to get your degree" situations. Last week, Ma'ariv published interviews with 10 women filing formal complaints against Eyal Ben-Ari from the Sociology and Anthropology Department, who was recently arrested for sexual misconduct, and since then additional stories about other male professors are finally coming to light. These stories have prompted other women, those who have seemingly fought the system and won, to speak out as well. Prof. Orit Kamir wrote a sharp essay about the dynamics involved in manipulations of female students by male professors, and explained the complexities of how women get trapped. Dr. Na'ama Carmi offers a brilliant textual analysis of the reply of senior administration, revealing how the powers that be come to support abusive practices. The Ben-Ari affair may potentially become a watershed event, with the dam protecting men finally breaking down. BUT NOT all is good news. This weekend, Haaretz reported that following the university's ongoing ineptitude in dealing with issues of sexual harassment and the status of women, the Committee on Gender Issues is breaking up. Prof. Rachel Elior, one of the senior women at Hebrew U., resigned because, she said, "we feel there is no way to change the university's discriminatory policy." Patriarchy is so deeply embedded that the struggle is getting nowhere. After four years, the committee has given up hope. Indeed, the statistics about women at universities paint a pretty gloomy picture. According to Nina Toren, author of Women in Israeli Academy: Images, Numbers, Discrimination (2005), there is an inverse pyramid in the progress of women in academia. That is, while there are more women bachelor's degree students than men, at each level of advancement, men progressively outnumber women. That is 36.8% of lecturers are women, 26.2% of senior lecturers are women, 21% of professors are women and a mere 16% of senior professors are women. In other words, women are consistently passed over for advancement at each stage of their career development. Elior, the head of the Department of Jewish Thought at Hebrew University, is both a role model for women on getting ahead, and an example of the struggle of women to get noticed. She is a brilliant scholar with an unparalleled amount of knowledge at her fingertips, a woman who can give a riveting two-hour lecture without a single note, wrote 10 books on different periods of Jewish mystical creativity, edited five books, authored some 100 scholarly articles and won some of the most prestigious international prizes for her work, including the Friedenberg Award of Excellence of the Israel National Academy of Sciences and Humanities, Bracha-Yigal Allon Prize for Academic Excellence, AVI Fellowship - Geneva, Warburg Prize, Federman Foundation, State University of New York Research Foundation, The Littauer Fund, Oxford Jerusalem Trust Visiting Fellowship, Wolfson Foundation and Memorial Foundation for Jewish Studies Fellowship, and The Israel Academy of Sciences and Humanities Gershom Scholem Prize for Research in Kabbala. Impressive, indeed - but trying to get men to notice is a problem. I cannot count how many times an all-male faculty or all-male presenters were justified on the grounds of "there are no women of high enough caliber." It's not that women are not good enough - it's that good women are not valued enough. IN A recent encounter of this type, I sat in the office of a director of a center for Jewish education who runs seminars for principals. I pointed out to him the dominance of men as lecturers for the principals in his program - even men who were barely out of school themselves or had questionable experience. None of the lecturers in his roster comes anywhere close to Elior's knowledge, eloquence and scholarly achievements. But they are, for the most part, men. In fact, in a book they published to compile lectures from these seminars, not one woman writer is included. The director's response to my comment was classic: "There are not enough women qualified to teach the principals." I told him that I could easily provide a list of very well-qualified women. "Like who?" he asked. I actually mentioned Elior, whom I had recently had the privilege of hearing. "Who is she?" he asked, and clearly had never heard of her. Later that day, I e-mailed him a list with the names and titles of more than 30 senior female scholars who have knowledge and experience in areas of Jewish thought and education, women whom Jewish educators should find fascinating. "Thanks," was the e-mail I received in reply and, as far as I know, that was the end of the conversation. Women academics have serious reason for concern. If after all these years, Elior has given up hope, what will be for the rest of us? Women, it seems, have to keep fighting to be respected for our work. Maybe if women continue to speak up, we will eventually be seen and heard for who we really are. Oh, and anyone who wants that list of top women, I'm happy to share. The writer is an educator, writer, researcher and activist.