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The Old Boys Club Is Keeping Women Out Of Leadership Roles In The Jewish World

The most recent salary survey of the CEOs of Jewish not-for-profit organizations in the Forward exposed the paucity of women in the highest leadership roles. Because none of the organizations or individuals surveyed have offered an explanation, I offer my own: Women are not seen as experts, particularly in those subjects that much of the organized Jewish world values. This perceived lack of expertise may hurt women who aspire to leadership roles in the Jewish community.

This issue is not confined to Jewish organizations. A recent article in Slate decried the prevalence of all-male panels (“manels”), even on subjects such as gender equality. When such panels are called out, organizers often respond that they cannot find qualified women. But Tina Sayed Nestius, a project manager at Equalisters, a Swedish group that promotes the expertise of women, thinks this is dead wrong: “We believe people saying, ‘There aren’t any’ is just a lazy way of saying, ‘I don’t have them in my network.’”

The alleged lack of women experts is glaringly prominent in policy discussions on the Middle East, arguably one of the primary areas in which Jewish organizations demand the expertise of their leaders. Tamara Cofman-Wittes, a senior fellow in the Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution, related in a Washington Post article that, despite the large numbers of women who are experts on the Middle East and teach in prestigious universities, work at prominent think tanks and hold top positions in government, there is a “vast gap between the large number of senior women in our field and their notable absence from our public discourse.” For instance, Wittes says that in 2014, “six leading Washington think tanks presented more than 150 events on the Middle East that included not a single woman speaker.”

Similarly, Suzanne Maloney, deputy director of foreign policy and senior fellow at the Center for Middle East Policy and the Energy Security and Climate Initiative, at Brookings, pointed out that women helped to negotiate the recent Iran nuclear deal, reported on it for major media outlets, and promoted greater understanding of it in academia and prestigious think tanks. The controversial deal was a hot topic of discussion in Congress, which held 45 hearings solely or partially devoted to the subject in 2015. Of the 140 witnesses called to testify, only six were women. The organized Jewish community, probably the American identity group most engaged with this issue, hardly could have been unaffected by this almost total disregard for female expertise.

There is a growing awareness of the scope of the problem, which extends beyond Israel-related panels to a variety of subjects. Journalist Esther Kustanawitz has documented the issue of all-male panels at Jewish events through articles in Haaretz and JTA. The 100 Percent Schmucks Tumblr has been “calling out the Jewish patriarchy” since 2015, and Jeremy Burton, executive director of the JCRC of Greater Boston, created the #Awesome Jewesses Twitter list to combat the perception that no women with expertise in relevant fields are available. There has been no response from the highest offices in Jewish organizations.

Like women in a variety of fields, I have anecdotal evidence of the denigration of women’s expertise. I earned my doctorate at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem by writing a dissertation on how anti-Semitism on American college and university campuses affects Jewish student identity. I have worked as an academic and still teach and speak about Israeli history and culture, anti-Semitism and other issues of interest to the Jewish world.

Several times I was offered a speaking engagement by someone who heard me in a different venue and was impressed — but I was later disinvited because “somebody more well-known” (and male) became available. I have been denigrated to my face about my abilities; in one notable example, one man did everything but pat me on the head when he said: “Sweetie, you sure know a lot. But [name of my male colleague] is a real scholar.” I have also been called to appear on panels or give presentations, not because my expertise is valued but because “we really need a woman and we don’t know anybody but you.”

These incidents are painful. They indicate that I am expected to humbly defer to male experts (who became more well known, in part, by being invited to speak on panels) and that men are the real experts. But the latter set of incidents about the “need” for a woman are, in some ways, the worst. While they do not count as sexual abuse or harassment and may even be well intentioned, they essentially use my female body to provide cover for a male-dominated system.

I suspect that some of those individuals and organizations who express the need for female participation regard all-male panels as a problem only insofar as they may generate negative publicity. A woman’s presence on a panel may not be about the advantages provided by her professional achievements and intellectual capacity; indeed, it may not be seen as a benefit as much as a necessary liability that is useful for appeasing potential critics.

In 2015, I attended a high-level meeting on the problem of anti-Semitism in Europe at the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations. Most major Jewish non-profits in New York were represented. Once inside, I counted: there were at least 35 or 36 people in the room but no more than 4-5 women; most of the participants also seemed to be over the age of 50. At one point, one of the male attendees actually made a joke about the overwhelming presence of older white men. The response was general laughter, but without comprehension that this lack of representation might be a liability in solving any number of problems confronting the Jewish community.

Of course, there are caveats to these observations. Some would argue that the main problems with the salary survey generated by the Forward are that the CEOs are making a shocking amount of money; these salaries perpetuate the growing inequality gap in this country; and women should refuse to be a part of it out of principle. That may be fodder for a totally different investigation. But for me, the most glaring issue is not the money. It is the lack of women’s participation in the top echelons of the organized Jewish world.

How can we promote the expertise of women and solve the systemic problem of their lack of representation as leaders the organized Jewish community? To begin the conversation, I offer a few ideas below:

  1. Jewish organizations can build on Jeremy Burton’s lead and work together to create a database that lists women who are experts in topics important to Jewish organizations — not just Israel and anti-Semitism, but also topics such as textual exegesis, cybersecurity and more. This cannot be just a one-time offering; the database would need to be maintained and updated.

  2. In the absence of such a list, Jewish professionals and laypeople planning conferences, seminars and missions to Israel must be prepared to be creative and resourceful in finding female speakers with the requisite expertise.

  3. The larger Jewish community, as the audience and the participants in these events, also has a responsibility to be receptive to new ideas and new faces. Anyone who has ever complained that the organized Jewish community has no new ideas or strategies but only attends events with big name speakers is part of the problem. If you want to hear new ideas, look to new people.

  4. We must also be aware of how and where the Jewish community can recruit and train the leaders and experts of the future. For instance, the Jewish fraternity AEPi is a pipeline to leadership on college campuses and in the organized Jewish community. Do similar channels and opportunities exist to promote young Jewish women? And if not, how can they be created?

An analysis of the salary survey led one analyst to an inescapable conclusion: “The Jewish communal world is sorely lacking in women leaders.” And the problem appears to be getting worse. Evidence suggests that one reason might be the devaluing of women as experts. If women are not seen as credible authorities, it is no wonder that they are not acknowledged as leaders.

Linda Maizels received her doctorate from the Avraham Harman Institute of Contemporary Jewry at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem in 2010. Her dissertation was “Charter Members of the Fourth World”: Jewish Student Identity and the “New Antisemitism” on American Campuses, 1967-1994.


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