Ginor Schusterman Visiting Professor of Israel Studies for 2009–2010, American-Israeli Cooperative Enterprise (AICE)
Dr. Larissa Remennick is professor of Sociology, director of the Sociological Institute for Community Studies, and editor of the journal Sociological Papers at Bar-Ilan University in Israel. Born and educated in Moscow, Russia, she earned a PhD in Social Demography from the Institute of Sociology at the USSR Academy of Sciences. Dr. Remennick received a post-doctoral fellowship from the Department of Social Medicine and Community Health of Oxford University in 1989. She has lived in Tel-Aviv, Israel, since 1991.
Dr. Remennick's research interests include gender aspects of immigration and immigrant acculturation, as well as immigrant health and well-being. She has published extensively on the wave of immigration from the former Soviet Union to Israel in the 1990s, and on Russian Jewish immigrants in other countries.*
Dr. Remennick, can you talk about the course you're teaching at JTS this semester?
The course Gender and Family in Israel looks into complex issues that emerge at the crossroads of tradition and modernity so typical of Israeli society—particularly the clash between the religious and liberal, secular constituencies of the country—as they pertain to family structure, gender rights, and the status and roles of the women. Israel is considered to have, and prides itself on, a fairly high level of gender equality, but we know that reality is actually full of problems for the women, particularly in the domestic sphere—marriage, divorce, and so on.
Is it true that domestic violence is the number one crime in Israel?
Domestic violence certainly exists and seems to be on the rise; I'm not sure about number one. The law and the media pay more attention to these issues (previously considered private), so it's not quite clear if this is actually the phenomenon of news coverage and coming into the public spotlight, or if indeed there is an increase in the rates of violence. This has to do with the overall stressed condition of people in our society—and gender inequality of course—because women are dependent on men in many spheres of life. Women are particularly disadvantaged because the matters of private status and family law (including marriage and divorce) are decided by the rabbinical courts. In the Jewish legal tradition (halakhah) a wife is considered her husband's property, and it is up to him whether to grant her a divorce (get). Thus divorce is more complicated and also more crucial for women.
The agunot phenomenon . . .
Yes, the women who cannot receive a get from their husbands and stay trapped in virtually dead marriages for a long time. Generally, Israeli laws are fairly progressive and similar to those of other developed countries but in the domain of family law, the situation of Israel is quite unique. This is one topic that we are discussing. Another one is about the complex of issues that have to do with family politics, fertility, and the so-called demographic "contest" between the Jewish and Arab sections of the population of Palestine and Israel.
What do you mean by "contest"?
As we know, the issues of land control and borders have not been solved between Jews and Arabs, so in terms of geopolitics, it's important for the two competing population groups to establish their presence on the ground. The population that has higher rates of natural increase has demographic advantage in its claim over land, political representation, and economic resources. The fertility rate among Israeli Palestinians is at least twice as high as that of the Jews and, vis-à-vis Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza, the gap is even greater. Thus over time, the share of the Arab population is growing and the share of the Jewish population is shrinking. These are very complex and politically charged issues. We also discuss the existing demographic policies around birth control, abortion, contraception, the state's role in these areas, and how they affect women. The usage of new reproductive technologies is surging in Israel along with the ensuing new challenge for the medical community, feminists, and bioethicists because they are surrounded by multiple moral dilemmas about what is permissible and what is not. An example of this is the discussion of postmenopausal pregnancy and motherhood that is becoming medically possible but socially very problematic.
You're teaching this class here and at HUC?
Yes, I teach the course here at JTS and at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC). I'll be teaching at both schools again next semester. The spring course will discuss immigration and ethnic relations in Israel, a country that is your ultimate immigration society. Ninety-five percent of the Jewish population in Israel is made up of immigrants of the first, second, or third generation.
And you came to Israel from Russia . . .
Yes, I'm an immigrant myself. This partly explains my interest—both personal and professional—in the issues of immigration. Basically, Israel has emerged as a mosaic of different ethnic groups that immigrated in different periods of time, starting in the late nineteenth century through today; it's an ongoing process. One of the ways to define Israel is kibbutz galuyot, which means the assembly of diasporas (much like the "melting pot" in the US). But every group of immigrants faces its own challenges. On the ideological level, Israel welcomes aliyah and the increase of the Jewish population. The Law of Return, which is one of the basic laws of Israel enacted as early as 1950, encourages aliyah and grants citizenship (and all the entitlements that come with citizenship) to everyone who can prove their Jewish origins. This is on the one hand. But on the other hand, the actual experience of adjustment in the country is very difficult because of the shocks of cultural difference and economic integration, and because the established Israeli population is not necessarily very happy about all the changes brought about by aliyah. The new immigrants mean more competition in the labor and housing markets, and it's a very small country with limited resources. So there's always the tension between the ideological drive for aliyah and the actual, on-the-ground experiences of helping new citizens integrate. This is pretty much the substance of the second course.
In addition to teaching, what else you are doing in New York City?
Well, this experience will be expressed in my writing in some way. AICE is encouraging its grantees to do public education work in addition to academic teaching, because our mission here is to spread knowledge about Israel. They expect us to participate in local Jewish life, e.g., give lectures at community centers and synagogues and at all kinds of Jewish groups. So I am speaking at venues like Limmud and a Jewish learning festival to be held in Philadelphia in a couple of months. I will also run a workshop at the Israeli consulate for New York-area high school teachers who teach classes about Israel. So there are engagements of that kind that are on the public relations and community outreach levels. AICE will have a concluding conference in May that will summarize our experiences; about twenty-five AICE professors for the academic year 2009–2010 will bring their feedback from teaching and community involvement.
How do you respond to people who wonder if there is going to be a solution in the Middle East?
Ah, you are talking about the conflict. When I give any public talk, the first thing I say is that I'm not going to speak about the conflict. My mission here is to spread knowledge about Israel as a living society. Life in Israel has much to offer beyond the conflict; and that is virtually unknown in the world because all the coverage on the news networks is about the conflict and violence and the political impasse.
Perhaps people think there's no time for a normal life in Israel . . .
Of course there's time for a normal life. This is a thriving twenty-first century society with a rich cultural life, energetic economy, active civil society, and booming political scene. Israelis work, study, fall in love, and raise their children like people in other countries. They actually travel abroad much more often than do Americans and even Europeans. Cities like Tel Aviv and Haifa resemble San Francisco or Los Angeles in both climate and spirit—with lots of alternative lifestyles and a rich variety of cuisine and art on display. Despite all the pressures, the most recent polls among Israeli citizens show that more than 80 percent say that they are completely or reasonably happy.
Theater is very popular in Israel, particularly in Tel Aviv. That's not something you hear about all that often in popular culture here.
Well, of course. Life is fairly pleasant for people who have some education and reasonable income, and this is the majority in cities. You know, we don't have eight months of gray winter to suffer from. I think it's a great asset. And there's the warm Mediterranean Sea with its free beaches available all year round. Food is great, fruits and vegetables are available every day of the year, nice dairy products, and basically whatever you want. I mean, the quality of everyday life for the Israeli middle class is good and rising, although we love to complain of course. The standards of secular school education are very decent, although there are wide quality gaps between the central cities and remote towns. The system of higher education is also quite good and fairly accessible; Israel has seven research universities of high international standing. Health care is reasonably state-of-the-art and all citizens are covered. The Israeli population enjoys developed technology and is completely computerized; everybody walks around with cell phones, etc. So it's a fascinating place for social study—much beyond the ethno-political conflict and the related military campaigns. I wish there was more exchange on the personal level between people at Israeli universities and those at American campuses, because people do not know enough about Israel and do not visit enough.
So how do we go about getting more of that personal interaction?
Programs such as Birthright are doing a great job of sending young people to Israel. Once you've been there, there is a chance that you will "get hooked," because it's a fascinating place in many ways and people usually return. I don't think that all Jews should make aliyah; Israel is not for everyone, that's for sure. Some immigrants from the West find it difficult to adapt to the Levantine flavors of its everyday culture. I believe that Jews should live everywhere they feel comfortable, secure, and personally accomplished. But it's important to get to know more about the Jewish State and feel connected to it.
What are your future plans, particularly in terms of research?
Actually, I'm doing some follow up on my earlier series of studies on Russian Jews in America, particularly in New York. There are some interesting new initiatives emerging among Russian Jewish leadership that can eventually facilitate integration of this group into mainstream American Jewish life. I am involved in the evaluation of the US component of the Genesis Project, a transnational educational and cultural initiative targeting the younger segment of Russian Jewry in different countries. My other line of work that I did not mention so much is in medical sociology and women's health; I plan to do comparative research on the use of reproductive technologies in Israel and the US.
*Publications by Dr. Remennick include: