Introducing the 2018‑19 Spatz Visiting Chair in Jewish Studies

- October 29, 2018

Smadar Lavie (right) and her book, "Wrapped in the Flag of Israel." (Provided photos)
Smadar Lavie (right) and her book, "Wrapped in the Flag of Israel." (Provided photos)

Feminist anthropologist Smadar Lavie is the Simon and Riva Spatz Visiting Chair in Jewish Studies for the 2018-19 year and is being hosted by the Department of Sociology and Social Anthropology for the duration of her time at Dalhousie.

The chair is intended to bring distinguished scholars from around the globe to share their expertise and perspectives with students and faculty at Dalhousie University and members of the broader Halifax community. The role maintains a focus on contemporary topics but is otherwise broadly inclusive of scholars from a wide variety of arts, humanities, and social science backgrounds.

Before coming to Dal, Dr. Lavie had spent the past six years as a scholar in residence at the Beatrice Bain Research Group, University of California Berkeley’s feminist of color think tank, and at the university’s Ethnic Studies department. She was a tenured professor at the University of California, Davis, and held positions at the University of Minnesota and University College Cork, Ireland.

Known as one of the most important Jewish anthropologists working at the intersection of gender, race, religion and political relations in Israel, Dr. Lavie’s scope of research works across disciplinary boundaries —including Social Anthropology, Middle Eastern Studies, Cultural Studies, and Feminist of Color Theories.

Dr. Lavie will deliver her first public lecture to the Dalhousie and Halifax community on Tuesday, October 30 at 7:00 pm in room 1016 of the Kenneth C. Rowe Management Building. The title of her lecture will be “Single Mothers of Color, Bureaucratic Torture, and the Divinity of the Nation-State” and will discuss her new book, Wrapped in the Flag of Israel: Mizrahi Single Mothers and Bureaucratic Torture 2nd edition (July 2018). In anticipation of Dr. Lavie’s first public introduction to the community, we connected with her for a Q&A to learn more about her and her research.

What does being named the Spatz Chair in Jewish Studies at Dalhousie mean to you?

I am greatly honored to be appointed the Simon and Riva Spatz visiting chair at Dalhousie this year. The Spatz family history highlights the generosity of spirit that managed to survive the catastrophic events of the Holocaust by empowering the ongoing commitment to Tikkun Olam -- the continued pursuit of moral, spiritual, and material welfare not only for Jews, but for all of society. This is in complete alignment with my career as an anthropologist and feminist leader.

The story the Spatz family also strikes home — in 1941 my own father was expelled from Vilnius University, Lithuania, three weeks before graduation. From the ghetto, he was shipped to Stutthoff labor and death camp, near Gdansk, and from there, he was sent first to Dachau and Mauthausen concentration camps. I was fortunate to accept my father’s degree posthumously this past spring and deliver one of the commencement speeches. He kept quiet about his traumatic past, and instead transposed his lessons from the Shoah into dedication for social justice for Palestinians and Mizrahi Jews. Mizrahim are the demographic majority of Israel, originating in the Arab and Muslim Worlds and the margins of Ottoman Europe.

My mother was Yemeni, thus Mizrahi. She and my father created an unprejudiced home and provided me with alternative modes of discourse on culture and politics. I’m forever grateful to my father for insisting that I grow up with a woman of color consciousness, deeply rooted in the Middle East. I inhabit both these positions to Dal’s Spatz Chair and hope to rise to the occasion.

What do you hope to accomplish in this role? What are you looking forward to?

My duty as Spatz chair is both to my students and to the research focus of the position. Throughout my career, I have been committed to advancing diversity and inclusion as tools of student empowerment. Because of my interdisciplinary expertise in Anthropology, Feminism of Color and Middle Eastern Studies, many of my students have come from groups historically underrepresented in higher education. My goal for my students is to help them become involved in projects crossing class, racial, gendered, sexual, national and religious boundaries. My hope is that I can present scholarship to them that develops critical thinking about their individual lived experiences and group histories.

I also hope to continue working on my book, Crossing Borders, Staying Put: Mizrahi Feminism, Palestine, and the Racial Formations of the Israeli State. It is a book of essays focusing on the relationships that exist in the Arab-Israeli borderlands among left-leaning Mizrahi feminists, left-leaning Ashkenazi feminists (with roots in Yiddish-speaking Europe), Israel’s right-wing Mizrahi majority, and the state’s Ashkenazi-dominated regime vis a vis Palestine and the Middle East Peace Process.

On the non-academic front, I look forward to hiking through the sublime beauty of Nova Scotia.

What interested you to apply for this visiting chair position?

I have great respect for the scholarship and community engagement of Dal’s anthropologists who work for the collective land, water, economic, and cultural rights of indigenous peoples and disenfranchised populations. I hold the work of Professor Brian Noble in high esteem, especially his scholarship on the theory and method of World Anthropologies — the decentralized, critical global studies of cultures that seeks to realign scholarship and break down the North-South barriers to the exchange of knowledge.

What inspired you to study in your specialized field?

I originally specialized in the study of the Egypt’s Bedouin and the ways in which they transformed their experience of life under Israeli occupation into theatrical performances. My first book, The Poetics of Military Occupation, made me into a star academic. On the eve of becoming a full professor at the University of California, I fled with my son to escape domestic violence. The California courts had proven unable to help us, so we ran to the only other place I thought was safe--with my family and friends in Israel.

Immediately following our arrival, my son and I became entangled in court proceedings. While I was cleared of any wrongdoing by the Hague International Court that deals with child abductions, the US Federal Court and the Israeli court, the Israeli state nevertheless kept me stranded there by confiscating my passport for eight and a half years. I became a welfare mother trapped within the state and barred from gainful employment by my politics and skin color. Even nowadays, there is about 1% tenured Mizrahi women on the Israeli academic faculty, most of whom are concentrated in the applied hard sciences.

To stay sane, I became a leader in Ahoti (=Sistah), Israel’s Feminist of Color movement. I was my own informant. My entanglements with Israeli welfare bureaucracy, as well as those of other Mizrahi single mothers of color, are chronicled in my latest book, Wrapped in the Flag of Israel.

What drives you as a researcher and an academic?

Many grassroot leaders in communities of color pay a heavy personal and professional price — often their own lives — as they fight for justice, dignity, and freedom for communities robbed of their languages, histories, homes and gainful employment. These activists do not leave obvious traces after they depart from the tangible world.

I have the educational privileges to affect student lives, leaving traces for them on the arduous journey toward human rights and social justice. My hope is that my students are able to use my research and writing to achieve long-lasting gender, racial, and religious and spiritual freedom in their communities and beyond.