Diana Lipton
A Bible scholar on the streets of Jerusalem

Dear Catherine Hall: Woman to Woman on Israel Boycotts

Dear Catherine Hall,

You’ve cost me a lot of money this week. Not nearly as much (unfortunately) as the $300,000 you gave up when, citing the Israel-Palestine conflict, you rejected your share of the Dan David prize administered by Tel Aviv University. But more than a drop in that bucket.

I hold no hope that academic boycotts, like the one to which you’ve just added your name, will help to bring peace and justice to our tiny corner of the fractured Middle East. In fact, at this point I find BDS pretty terrifying in all sorts of ways. But setting all that aside, I want to tell you how much I wish you’d had your cake and eaten it, as Hebrew University Professor David Shulman did when he donated his $20,000 Israel Prize money to Ta’ayush, an Israeli organization that works with Palestinians in the West Bank.

Reflecting  on what you could have achieved here with $300,000, my eyes burned with tears of sheer frustration. But then a verse of a psalm popped into my head, complete with the beautiful tune to which it’s often sung in Hebrew: Turn from evil and do good. Seek peace and pursue it (Ps 34:15).

There’s plenty that’s wrong in Israel but, if my experience is anything to go by, we have the world’s highest per capita ratio of social and political activists, and of ordinary citizens from all sectors of society who take moral responsibility for their country and work to make it a better place. When I left my job — just down the road from you! — at King’s College London, and moved to Jerusalem, I decided to throw in my lot with them — not by trying to break down what’s bad, crucial as that is, here and everywhere, but by trying to build up what’s good.

My choice to be constructive emerged in part from my experience as a teacher. In my own higher education, I regretted the disproportionate emphasis on what was wrong as compared to what was right. We academics are so good at pulling things apart. When I was fortunate enough to encounter teachers who went against the grain and issued praise, I flourished. When I met only criticism, it took all the energy I had to pick myself up and go back to the library. I have self-criticism enough to go around.

So when I became a teacher myself, first at Newnham College, Cambridge, an all-women’s college, and then at King’s College London in a department (Theology and Religious Studies) where the majority of students were female, I tried to teach as I love to be taught. I didn’t ignore the weaknesses in my students’ work, of course, but I focused on their strengths. We all need criticism; for some it’s even a spur. But for those already gasping for breath, it’s like a hard punch in the stomach.

That brings me back to you and the Dan David prize. Inspired by the psalmist, I forced myself to turn away from what seemed to me bad — your last-minute rejection of the prize you had accepted, your wasted opportunity to make a positive contribution, and more I won’t go into — and do something constructive myself. I made three equal donations to organizations working in that sector of the population to which you — as a historian of gender and a feminist activist — could have contributed so much: women. If anyone else reading this wants to join me, you’ll find information at the links below.

1. MiniActive

MiniActive is an initiative by Palestinian women in East Jerusalem. For a host of complex reasons emerging from both sides, East Jerusalem lags far behind West Jerusalem in terms of social infrastructure. A group of women took it upon themselves to take small, practical steps to improve their neighborhoods. They created a Facebook page to gather and document information about problems they wanted the municipality to fix, and then they contacted the municipality and demanded action. They got it, and went on to establish local community projects to beautify their neighborhoods.

MiniActiveI heard about MiniActive from Michal Shilor, a social activist who, alongside her degree in Social Work at Hebrew University, works tirelessly to build a more tolerant city; and from Jerusalem City Councilor Fleur Hassan Nahoum, a representative of Yerushalmim, a party founded by Rachel Azaria to help make Jerusalem a more diverse and tolerant city. Rachel was formerly a City Councilor herself and is now a Member of Knesset.

2. Umm el-Fahem Art Gallery

The Umm el-Fahem Art Gallery is located in the Israeli Arab town of Umm el-Fahem. It was founded in 1996 by Said Abu Shakra in response to local interest in bringing contemporary art to the city. Above the exhibition space is a ceramics workshop run by Rina Peleg for Arab women from the community. The workshop provides its artists with financial, social and psychological support. I was there when a birthday cake was brought in for one of the ceramicists, a young woman from the neighborhood. We all began to sing. She looked around, confused; it was the first time anyone had ever celebrated her birthday.

UmmI learned about Umm el-Fahem from an inspiring article in Forward by my friend Toby Perl Freilich. My first visit was with Toby, a documentary maker, and our friends Naomi Schacter and Susie Sawicki, both dedicated social activists. Between us, we were able to help Ruthi Oppenheim, the gallery’s Director for External Relations, make connections (with curator Deborah Frizzell and artist Samira Abbassy, for instance) for a forthcoming fundraising trip to New York.

My next visit to Umm el-Fahem, also with Toby, was on the occasion of the gift to the gallery of two beautiful paintings by Ruth Kestenbaum Ben Dov, an artist represented in Jerusalem by ArtSpace, a gallery run by Linda Zisquit in her own home. These are the paintings, portraits of Ruth’s neighbors in Karmiel.  (For the next two weeks, you can see more of her work in a show that’s just opened in Jerusalem.)  

Ben-Dov_Welcoming-Guests_Hasna1-651x1024 (2)


Welcoming Guests: Hasna (above) and Sigal (below) 

3. Bat Melech Shelter for Victims of Domestic Abuse

Bat Melech is a Jerusalem-based refuge for Haredi (Ultra-Orthodox) women who are the victims of domestic abuse. Admitting to marital problems, let alone violence and abuse, in the Haredi world is extremely difficult. The premium on marriage and childbirth is enormous, and failed marriages can affect the marital prospects of siblings and children. Abuse victims who speak out risk isolation and alienation from their families and communities. With its intensive counseling services, legal advice, childcare, and other kinds of guidance and support, Bat Melech is performing a vital and pioneering role in the city’s large Haredi community.

I heard about Bat Melech from Batya, who goes to our gym with her mother Shira. Batya’s degree is in dance, but at the shelter she works with children, and helps to organize ‘rejuvenation’ days for women who’ve left the refuge and are striving to build new lives with extremely limited resources and support.

Given your academic interests, you must have factored women into the equation when you  rejected the Dan David prize. You must have considered the implications for your field when it comes to future prizes (I fear it may be some time before gender studies gets serious consideration again). You must have thought about the exceptional educational opportunities for Arab women in Israel, and their freedom of choice here, with respect to the government and wider population, about issues of religious observance such as head covering. You must have tried to find out what Arab women living in Israel think about all this. As a historian of gender and colonialism, you know all too well how rarely that happens. When did we hear from or about Iraqi women before the allied invasion of Iraq? Who asked women — half the population! — what they could expect to face post-Saddam Hussein, how they felt about it, and what they wanted?

I don’t imagine you’ll reply to my letter — you must be inundated. But I hope you’ll at least have time to watch a very short documentary filmed in a Haifa hair salon that appeared this week in the New York Times (I’m grateful to Gene for sending me the link). You may not love it is as much as I do, but I hope you’ll appreciate this serious attempt by a young female director to give the world a chance to hear the distinctive, beautiful voices of Arab and Jewish women in Israel.

Yours sincerely,

Diana Lipton

About the Author
Before I moved to Israel in 2011, I was a Fellow of Newnham College, Cambridge (1997-2006), and a Reader in Hebrew Bible and Jewish Studies at King's College London (2007-2011). In Israel, I've taught Bible at Hebrew University's International School and, currently, in the Department of Biblical Studies at Tel Aviv University, where I am a Teaching Fellow and chair the Academic Steering Committee of the Orit Guardians MA program for Ethiopian Jews. I give a weekly parsha shiur at Beit Moses home for the elderly in Jerusalem. I serve on the Boards of Jerusalem Culture Unlimited (JCU) and Hassadna Jerusalem Music Conservatory, and I'm a judge for the Sami Rohr Prize. I'm the very proud mother of Jacob and Jonah, and I live in Jerusalem with my husband Chaim Milikowsky. My last book was 'From Forbidden Fruit to Milk and Honey: A Commentary on Food in the Torah'; proceeds go to Leket, Israel's national food bank. The working title of my next book, co-authored with Micha Price, is 'A Biblical Guide to the Climate Crisis'.