Womens studies degree program taking shape at Tel Aviv University

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WASHINGTON– Next October, more than 50 students will undertake the first women's studies classes at Tel Aviv University, thanks to an endowment from the National Council for Jewish Women.

"Up until a few years ago, there was no word in Hebrew for gender," said Shari Eshet, director of NCJW's Israel office. So, she related, university women huddled with scholars at the academy of languages and created a term: migdar.

The university's program in women's and gender studies will debut in the fall and feature courses in the arts, humanities and social sciences. It is pioneering in more ways than one.

"This is the first time in the Middle East that this is happening," said Eshet. "Security, political issues, water…everything else has been considered more of a priority. But we decided we needed to take this quantum leap."

The leap includes not only courses, but the first bachelor's degree in gender studies, along with a women's studies forum made up of 40 feminist scholars on campus.

Eshet credits university president Itamar Rabinovitch, a former Israeli ambassador to the United States, with helping to shape the program.

"When Itamar came into office, he made it clear he wanted to open up the ivory tower and make it more community-based," said Eshet.

Non-degree programs in women's studies have existed at such institutions as Bar-Ilan, Haifa and Hebrew universities, says Liora Moriel, an Israeli feminist-activist and doctoral candidate at the University of Maryland.

Organizers are hoping for an enrollment of 60 for the first year of Tel Aviv University's new program. Already 50 are registered for classes, including 10 men, said Eshet. In five years, the program aims to attract 220 students.

Eshet also noted long-range plans for distance learning through e-mail and summer courses for NCJW members and others. Classes will include topics specific to Israel, such as the role of Palestinian mothers in the peace process and Israeli women in the military.

Tel Aviv University's innovation is "significant because we think of Israel as always being egalitarian in terms of parity between the sexes, whereas, in fact, it is a myth," argued Moriel. "While there were 'poster women' — the most significant one of whom was Prime Minister Golda Meir — only now are women really approaching full equality with men and that's after 30 years of struggle."

The process, she says, began with the first women's studies offered at Haifa University by such feminist professors as American-born Marcia Freedman, who later served in the Israeli Knesset.