A Sefer by the Forward

Where are all the Others in Jewish Studies

In 2018, the Forward published and article by Susannah Heschel and Sarah Imhoff headlined “Where Are All the Women in Jewish Studies?” They highlighted the book, Hasidism: A New History, whose eight authors are all men.

As one of those eight, I was tempted to respond. After a few exchanges with colleagues, however, I realized that any response would be inevitably categorized as “mansplaining” (a term Heschel and Imhoff used to describe the entire 850 pages of the book on Hasidism) and would be counterproductive.

So, no response. But their main argument about marginalization of women in Jewish studies still requires reflection. Is marginalization of women in Jewish Studies the only area of exclusion in our shared field? Does it constitute the biggest problem in Jewish Studies today? As I hope to show, this might be not so. Ethnicity, class and geographic diversity might be more lacking.

In their article, Heschel and Imhoff cited gender imbalance on the editorial boards of academic journals, citing six on which men dominate (along with two predominantly female boards that demonstrate, in their words,“that plenty of serious women scholars are available for inclusion”).

Six out of dozens of Jewish Studies journals is not statistically significant, and I believe it is more telling to examine journal editors, who are directly responsible for what gets published, rather than boards, which are sometimes very large and consist of mostly inactive members. I found 43 journals whose titles mention things Jewish on the Scopus list, one of the two most authoritative lists of academic journals. Of those journals’ 172 editors, I found that 82, or 48 percent, were women and 90 were men.

While the editors were nearly evenly divided by gender, their distribution by field was extremely imbalanced, with many more female scholars in literature, languages, anthropology, and education, and more men in history, political science, or sociology. The same tendencies are apparent in faculty rosters at many universities worldwide. This uneven distribution suggests, contrary to what Heschel and Imhoff argued, that gender exclusion happens long before the designing of specific projects like our book on the history of Hasidism. Instead, it reflects a broader trend among and within scholarly disciplines.

To be fair, Heschel and Imhoff spoke not only about numerical underrepresentation, but about access to power. So I decided to look more closely at some power centers in the field of Jewish studies. Of 84 institutional members of the Association for Jewish Studies, including rabbinical seminaries, university departments and programs, just over half, 43, are currently chaired by women, including some of the largest and most important, like Stanford and Columbia.

Fellowships are another key indicator, especially for the future of our field. I looked at three excellent, prestigious, well-known programs: the Frankel Center for Judaic Studies at the University of Michigan, the Katz Center for Advanced Judaic Studies at the University of Pennsylvania, and the Harry Starr Fellowship in Judaica at Harvard. Among their 242 fellows for the last five years, 114, or 47 percent, were female.

So, looking at three key groups — editors of journals, heads of institutions and fellows — we find no numerical discrimination of women. But Heschel and Imhoff seem to want obligatory gender representation on each and every research project. Are they really aiming at combating exclusion of women or maybe at some other goals?

Looking at the fellows, I did find other, more significant disparities. Two thirds of them were affiliated at North American universities, the overwhelming majority in the United States; Israelis make up a strong minority of 21 percent, while Germans (4%), Britons (2%), and French (1%) form pathetically insignificant constituencies. If you are tempted to say that American scholars are simply the best or that they form the largest group of applicants, think twice: such arguments were part of what kept women largely outside the academy for decades. And if a fellowship program for years lacked applications from countries as strong in Jewish Studies as the U.K. (four fellows) or the Netherlands (not one fellow), then maybe the problem lies in the program.

Worse still, Eastern Europe, even though an increasingly important player in global Jewish Studies, especially in such areas as the Holocaust or modern Yiddish literature, is nearly totally absent from the list of fellows. No scholar from Russia, Ukraine, Lithuania, or Hungary, one scholar from Poland, one from the Czech Republic. Why?

These imbalances are not restricted to Jewish Studies, but seen throughout the American academic world. Scholars whose native language is English have better chances of getting published in the most prestigious English-language journals and publishing houses, and to be invited to conferences. Rejections of articles not for their content, but for their language, are an everyday experience at many journals, including many titles in Jewish Studies. In fact, journals that take responsibility for making the non-native submission sound idiomatic are the exception rather than the rule.

Next, let us turn to ethnicity, including the question of whether “Jewish Studies is too Jewish,” as Aaron W. Hughes claimed in an article five years ago.

According to an 2018 survey conducted by the Association for Jewish Studies, 87 percent of its members were Jewish, up 2 percent from a survey four years before. Of those who identified as Jewish, 94 percent were Ashkenazi, which indicates that religious exclusion coincides with intra-Jewish ethnic discrimination, another exclusion Heschel and Imhoff did not comment on in their article.

But Jewish Studies does not have to be this way. The perpetuation of the mono-ethnic structure of Jewish Studies programs results from the active support and silent approval of such a state of affairs by many faculty, administrators, and sponsors. In outcomes, this results in the continuing dominance of some anachronistic research practices, which distance Jewish Studies from mainstream developments in the humanities, and make it parochial or sometimes the preserve of semi-academic practices.

The main factor dividing the humanities today between the mainstream and the marginal is how far does a field manage to integrate the interests and research perspectives of people for whom the world is not, principally, a self-identity quest. How much does it raise universal questions and respond to universal interests? Arabic or German Studies are universal exactly because they attract non-Arab and non-German students. In part this results from geopolitical factors or the sheer economic power of the societies and their cultures.

But equally important is a concerted, long-run effort of state institutions, universities, and the community of scholars to systematically promote Arabic or German or Japanese or Chinese Studies as central endeavors of the global humanities. By contrast, despite all their potential, Jewish, Polish, or Hungarian Studies are largely non-relevant for wider academia because they don’t make adequate effort to reach beyond “our crowd.”

I think it would be a gross misrepresentation to call this discrimination. But if we talk about exclusions, it certainly is the most significant and largest group of potential exclusions in the field of Jewish Studies.

Exclusion of women in Jewish Studies is certainly a well-established and painful discriminatory phenomenon, which, whenever it appears, should be flagged and vigorously combated. When Heschel and Imhoff protest against the phenomenon of such exclusion, I cannot agree more.

However, it is not the only, or maybe even not the gravest sin of Jewish Studies, so when they advocate that institutions “insist on gender parity as a condition of funding” and that publishers “question all-male submissions,” I want to ask Heschel and Imhoff whether they are ready to extend the same rule to those other underprivileged constituencies. If they do, I’ll be happy to join them in their call for more equality in Jewish Studies.

Marcin Wodziński is profesor of Jewish history and literature and head of the Taube Department of Jewish Studies at the University of Wrocław, Poland.

Where are all the Others in Jewish Studies

Where are all the Others in Jewish Studies

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