Alice Shalvi, literature professor, pioneering educator, social activist Israel Prize laureate, has died at the age of 97. Shalvi was awarded top spot in Jewish News’ aliyah list back in 2018, celebrating Jews who moved from Britain to help shape the modern state of Israel.
Shalvi was among 70 Jews on the list, which marked the centenary of the Balfour Declaration.
Born in Germany in 1926, her family moved to London a year after Hitler’s rise to power. The precocious seven-year-old, presented to her new classmates as ‘our little refugee’, won a class prize for English just 18 months after arriving in the country and went on to study the subject at Cambridge.
Upon making Aliyah in 1949, Shalvi plunged head-first into the melting point that was the new state. She typified the ingenuity of Israel’s founding generation. Whenever Shalvi identified a societal issue which bothered her, she would not think twice before looking to redress it.
Arriving in Jerusalem, Shalvi took a position teaching English at the Hebrew University. It quickly transpired that her restless intellect would take her further than running English classes for struggling undergraduates.
She acquired a PhD in 1962 and headed the university’s English Literature department with such élan that when the fledgling Ben-Gurion University of the Negev was searching for a leading academic to found and direct its own parallel department, Shalvi was clearly the leading candidate – were it not for the supposition that a female academic couldn’t demand that her husband abandon his job to move to another city.
Shalvi’s feminist proclivities dated from Cambridge, where she successfully proposed a Jewish Society motion to enable women to lead after-dinner singing. The Ben-Gurion episode (she did, eventually, assume the role in Beer Sheva, and excelled) made her realise how starkly women were underrepresented in Israeli public life, so she founded the cross-party Israel Women’s Network (IWN) in 1984.
The IWN was the country’s leading pressure group in advancing female leadership, and the MKs Shalvi mentored sponsored and passed ground-breaking legislation granting women greater employment rights and criminalising sexual harassment.
In 1975, Pelech, the religious girls’ school in Jerusalem where two of Shalvi’s daughters were studying, seemed in dire straits. Shalvi temporarily took over its management and ended up staying for 15 years, in order to fully implement her vision for a centre of academic excellence.
Israel’s first democratic religious school emphasised both broader secular learning and more Talmud and religious study – so that young women would be equipped to participate fully in debates on the role of religion in society.
Many of Shalvi’s techniques are staples in the makeup of Israeli schools today, while the network of Pelech sister schools across the country consistently tops results tables.
Colin Shindler, Professor of Israel Studies, told Jewish News that he would always visit Shalvi with his wife whenever they were in Jerusalem.
“My wife, Jean, first met Alice when she was involved in the womens’ Rosh Chodesh groups in the UK in the 1980s. She remained throughout her 75 years in Israel a liberal Zionist, forged by her upbringing in England. An admirer of Chaim Weizmann, she was one of the stalwarts of the English department at the Hebrew University – her students were the great poets of Israel such as Yehuda Amichai and Dan Pagis,” he said.
Shindler said that Shalvi fought for womens’ rights in many quarters which ‘frightened men in authority,’ but that she also pursued “dialogue with Palestinian women when ‘the other’ was feared. ”
“Although her physical decline was noticeable on each visit, her mind remained crystal-clear. Her smile broke through ailments. She deeply bemoaned the demise of the Zionist values of 1948 and understood very clearly where she stood when it came to Netanyahu, Ben-Gvir and Smotrich,” he added.
“Above all, it was her command of the English language which impressed – every word counted. For myself, any praise from Alice Shalvi for an article that I had written was manna from a literary heaven. She was a beloved member of the innovative, traditional ‘Zion’ congregation in Jerusalem. She has bequeathed to her many disciples her Jewish values, English sense of fair play and moral courage in discerning between wrong and right. We were proud to be her friends,” Shindler said.
Rabbi Lindsey Taylor also commemorated Shalvi in a message to Jewish News, calling her a “towering and inspirational figure, loved and looked up to by thousands round the world.”
“I only met her twice but have always numbered her among my heroes. A little-known result of her efforts was the start of the women’s Rosh Hodesh movement in the UK. Before a visit in the early 1980s she sent a letter to be read out at a fundraising event, in which she suggested that women join her for a Rosh Hodesh celebration. The meeting was organised in Finchley by Jean Shindler, later headmistress of Matilda Marks School, and inspired women to set up regular Rosh Hodesh events that played an important role in the development of Jewish feminism in the UK,” Taylor added.
“Her legacy is truly worldwide, and we in the UK have a special reason to remember her with gratitude and love.”
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