Episode 93: Alice Shalvi: Israeli Feminist Pioneer

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Jen: Hi, it’s Jen Richler. Welcome back to Can We Talk?, the podcast of the Jewish Women’s Archive, where gender, history, and Jewish culture meet.

Jen: Alice Shalvi is 96 years old and has been a feminist pioneer in Israel for decades. So it’s not surprising that she’s become a role model to generations of women. But the recognition still catches her off guard.

Alice: Young women keep asking to meet me in order to get my advice on things. And the number of them who say, “You are my role model” just overwhelms me. I still can't quite accept that I'm anybody's role model. But I think that if you live your life well, then, however undeliberately, you become a model. When things need done, you have to be prepared to step up and do them.

Jen: Over the course of her life, Alice has stepped up over and over again…as a feminist leader, innovative thinker, and passionate educator.

Alice Shalvi was born in Germany in 1926, the youngest of three children. Her family moved to England in the 30s to escape the Nazis. Alice moved to Israel in 1949, a young woman excited to build a new state.  She’s spent her life there, working for gender equality and a more just society.

In this episode of Can We Talk?, Judith Rosenbaum joins us to tell Alice’s story, and to talk about the ways she’s fought to make Israel a better country.

Judith first met Alice as a friend and colleague of her late mother, the feminist historian Paula Hyman. After her mother died, Judith wanted to connect with the people who’d been important in her mother’s life. So whenever she went to Israel, she called Alice and they got together. Over the years, they’ve had many conversations—about feminism, Israeli society, and how to live a life of purpose.

Throughout this episode, you’ll hear excerpts from two of those conversations: one over Zoom in 2021, and one over tea in Alice’s Jerusalem garden in 2022.

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Judith: Whenever I've asked Alice to talk about how she became a Zionist and when she decided to make aliyah, she's always said that she was a Zionist from birth.

Alice:  I remember the age of about five dancing a lonely hora around the kitchen table and singing, Anu banu artza livnot ulehibanot ba, We are going up to the land to build and be built. So there was that desire to… I would say it was more than desire, it was an intention—it was a kavanah to go to Eretz Yisrael…la’alot artza.

Judith: Alice grew up in a strongly Zionist household. She had family members who had made aliyah. She also had a very exciting experience of participating in the first, um, post-war Zionist Congress, which was held in December of 1946. She traveled there for the first time in December of 1947 with her parents, and although she was tempted to just stay at that point, she came back to the UK to finish the graduate program she had started at the London School of Economics in social work. And that training came about because she encountered, um, what were then called displaced persons—what we would now call survivors—from the Holocaust. And she was really very moved by their plight and really wanted to work with them. And she thought that that would be a useful skill set and degree to have when she made aliyah. So, her vision was that she would move to Israel and that she would work with the population of refugees and survivors who were there.

During her time at the London School of Economics, she also became friends with several Jews who had moved to Palestine after the war and then come to England, so that further influenced her sense of connection to Israel and her determination to move there. And finally, in the fall of 1949, she traveled by boat to Israel from Italy, and she has been in Israel ever since.  

Alice: I came by boat and I'll never forget, uh, in Athens we took on a group of Greek Jews who'd been in concentration camp, and on the last night, before we reached Haifa, they were on the deck, dancing a hora and singing Anu banu artza livnot ulehibanot ba. And I joined in and I remember hearing one of the two students from German speaking families, one say to the other, sort of very cynically, in German, “This is how you imagined it for yourselves.” And it was like having a bucket of cold water thrown over me, you know, the cynicism about the enthusiasm of new olim, it really brought home to me how differently those who had been privileged to be born here felt about the country from the way those of us for whom it meant coming to our goal, you know, fulfilling our desires.

Judith: When she arrived in Israel, she discovered, actually, that the work that was needed for social workers was not working with, um, refugees from Eastern Europe, but rather working with the arriving Mizrahi population, and so her many European languages were of little use and she didn't have the right language skills, um, to work in social work and that led her to discover her passion for teaching. She became an English teacher at Hebrew University. They were looking for people to teach English for their new BA program. And she discovered that she was an incredibly gifted teacher who loved education, and that kind of took her on a new path.

Alice: I really found my, shall I say my shlichut, uh, my purpose in life, quite by chance. And in fact, if I may just philosophize for a moment, I have found that most of the things that I have done, and even achieved, if I may say so, have been pure chance—pure chance, nothing planned. The question is how you rise and respond to a challenge. It was thrust upon me, and I feel a bit like Malvolio: “Some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon them.” And I think that's more or less what applies in my case, partly because I'm always willing to take up a challenge.

Judith: During the course of, uh, her work there, she also earned a PhD while she was working. She wrote her dissertation about Shakespeare, and she became a professor. And she actually was recruited to establish the English department at what is now Ben Gurion [University] and helped build that department. She was a leading figure, she was beloved, and she also, while she was there, encountered sexism and discrimination.

Alice: I had my awakening, as far as equal opportunities were concerned, in 1973 when, um, my ambition to be appointed as Dean of the Faculty of Humanities was turned down, with every one of the men to whom I had to present my candidacy, my interest in the job, uh, having as his first response, “But you are a woman.”

Judith: And that led her to realize that this was not something that she alone was experiencing, but rather was, uh, a systemic problem within the university. And she organized with other women to present their complaints and demands to the institution.

At the same time as Alice had this very robust and meaningful career, she also was a mother to six kids, um, which wasn't easy. And she, you know, looking back over her life, she has different reflections on the choices that she made.

Alice: I think I make fairly clear in my memoir, I am not sure I did the right thing in devoting so much time to my public life. Something has to give, and I think what gave was family life.And, at some point, I also refer to a conversation I had at the Shabbat dinner table with my children when I first became very active outside the house, and I asked them how they felt about my being away so much, being absent, and my second son said, “You are not always here when we need—when one needs you,” to which my, the oldest of my daughters, said, “But, when you’re here you’re much more interesting than the mothers who are always cleaning the windows.” And I should’ve listened more to him.

Judith: But, one of the things that she's very clear about is that she couldn't have done it without the help of her extraordinary husband, Moshe Shalvi, who, um, was very much a feminist, both in his work, but also in the way that he lived his life and his willingness to really be an equal partner in raising their kids and in making her very public career possible.

In addition to her own work as an educator and her work within the university system in Israel, one of the places where Alice has had an enormous impact was in her work with the Pelech School, which is an Orthodox girls’ school. She was the head of the school for fifteen years, starting in 1975.

Her daughter was a student there, and so she had gotten involved, and then the people who were leading that school resigned and she was doing some volunteer work to kind of help them and somehow ended up in charge.

And it's a wonderful thing that she did, because she transformed it to an incredible experimental education institution that has trained generations of Israeli women who are now leaders in all sectors of society. She created policies that encouraged girls from Pelech to serve in the army or to serve in national service, which religious girls didn't always do.And so, you know, there are Orthodox women rabbis in Israel now who went to Pelech, there are members of Knesset, so many of the women in Israel who came out of a religious background, you see Pelech’s stamp on them and their ability to to lead today.

Alice: This was just, it wasn't on the cards. An Orthodox woman was a rabbi? You know, and I feel so privileged to have witnessed this change. I mean, the change in my time in, not only in the Jewish society, but in general, the advances made by women, the achievements of women, the acknowledgement of women. Still not enough, still not enough, but at least, uh, it's happening.

Judith: One of Alice's other feminist accomplishments was being a founder of the Israel Women's Network, um, which is an institution that fought for equal rights for women through legislation, through policy, making sure that women were, uh, leaders in government,really looking at sort of more of the legal and political side to feminism.

One of the things that I find most inspiring about Alice and all of the work she's done and the life that she's lived is that, um, she is not afraid to acknowledge when there are problems and to name them. She doesn't want to cover up the things that are imperfect. And, particularly on the issue of feminism, you know, one of the kind of myths about Israel for so many years was that, well, Israel doesn't have a women's problem. Israel is, you know, founded on this vision of equality, including gender equality. But that wasn't the reality, and it still isn’t the reality.

Alice: The women's fight for equality isn't over yet. I mean, there's still clear discrimination. And in Israel, I think in particular, very largely, because in Israel, there is such a difference, particularly in the military service, you know. And clearly, the, uh, men who have the ability to fight have a certain edge over women. As long as the individual experiences of men and women are so different, we won't have equality. We can't.

Judith: Alice is someone who loves Israel so deeply and who is very much a Zionist, and is also willing to admit where Israel falls short and to work to improve it. And that's been true for her for her whole life. It is true in her 90s, and it is inspiring to see someone with that level of both ideological commitment and willingness to put in the work and be honest about what needs to change. And she's done that, you know, through education, she's done that through her feminist activism, working for, uh, an end to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In fact, she left Pelech because she had started to meet with Palestinians in, uh, in dialogue and that was not politically acceptable to the parents at the Pelech school at the time, and that brought an end to that phase of her career. But she went on to work in the Israel Women's Network and to, you know, extend her impact in that way.

I think it's hard for people who have devoted their whole lives to Israel to take stock of where Israel is now. And I know that Alice, when I saw her in August, was not feeling super upbeat about the political situation, um, both in terms of the election and the occupation.

Alice: I’m very disappointed. I'm disappointed by what I see as a very steep moral decline, a lack of good citizenship. People are much more selfish, self-centered, um, materialistic.You know, the fact that many youngsters are leaving the country, not only youngsters, and, um, many of them are very cynical. You know, I think back to those two students on the boat, you know, who couldn't understand the enthusiasm of new immigrants, and, of course, the new immigrants are not as…they don't have that chalutzik…that pioneering, uh, sense about coming as we had—

Judith: They’re more pragmatic.

Alice: They’re coming to a country that exists, there's a lot of corruption, which depresses me very much, a lot of materialism, which depresses me. But, uh, does that mean we are more normal? I suppose it does, but I don't want to be normal, you know. I want to be a light unto the nations. That's what I want Israel to be. And it isn't at the moment.

Judith:  What's amazing is that I know that she's also been out in the streets as part of the protests over the last couple of months, and she's 96. And, um, if that doesn't give you a sense of her indomitable spirit, I don't know what would.

Alice: Don't give up. At first you may feel that you won't succeed, but if you can inspire the next generation to continue the fight along the same path, it's also an achievement. Be clear about your goals,and if you feel that those goals are worthwhile, that it's justified to fight for them, then do it. Don't give up.

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Jen: In 2007, Alice Shalvi was awarded the Israel Prize for her contributions to the country. It’s considered Israel’s highest honor.

In 2018, she published her memoir, Never A Native.

In 2021, the Jewish Women’s Archive published the Shalvi/Hyman Encyclopedia of Jewish Women, a revised and expanded version of the encyclopedia originally published by Moshe Shalvi, Alice’s husband. It was named in honor of Alice and in memory of Moshe Shalvi and Paula Hyman, one the encyclopedia’s original editors and Judith Rosenbaum’s mother. You can browse over 2,200 entries at jwa.org/encyclopedia.

Thank you for joining us for Can We Talk?, the podcast of the Jewish Women’s Archive. Our team also includes Nahanni Rous and Judith Rosenbaum.  Our theme music is by Girls In Trouble.

You can listen to Can We Talk? online at jwa.org/canwetalk, or wherever you get your podcasts. Please help us spread the word by sharing this and your other favorite episodes with your friends, and share your feedback about Can We Talk? with us at jwa.org/podcastsurvey.

I’m Jen Richler. Until next time.

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Jewish Women's Archive. "Episode 93: Alice Shalvi: Israeli Feminist Pioneer." (Viewed on February 29, 2024) <http://jwa.org/episode-93-alice-shalvi-israeli-feminist-pioneer>.