Tikva Levi: The Loss of a Lioness

By: Dr. Tilde Rosmer, University of Oslo.

In July this year Tikva Levi, the director of HILA, an Israeli organisation which supports equality in education, passed away at the age of 52. Her tragic death means that Israel has lost one of its finest grassroots activists.

Tikva spent more than twenty years of work devoted to campaigning for all of Israel’s citizens to gain equal rights to education, regardless of their faith, ethnicity or other identity. She has been described as a ‘Mizrahi feminist’ and also as a ‘radical leftist’ for her views on the Israeli-Palestinian question. Tikva was a rare lioness who combined local activism in the national field of education; a critical perspective based on her Mizrahi (Middle Eastern and North African, MENA) ethnic belonging; opposition to the Israeli occupation of various territories; and support for a state for all its citizens in Israel.

Social and political activism in Israel is commonly divided into so-called ‘inside’ and ‘outside’ categories. These categories refer to socio-economic concerns ‘inside Israel’ and those that relate to issues ‘outside’ i.e. in the occupied Palestinian territory. This division creates the illusion that social and political issues inside Israeli society are insulated from and unrelated to ‘the conflict’. Furthermore, it is common for activists to subdivide activism inside Israel between issues that concern Jewish citizens on one hand and those that concern Palestinian citizens of Israel on the other. Yet another categorical subdivision of Israeli activism seeks to divide Jewish groups along ethnic lines, such as Mizrahi/MENA, Ashkenazi, Ethiopian and Russian Jewish Israelis. Tikva was one the few Israeli activists who refuted this false segregation. She understood that the socio-political concerns that relate to Israeli society cannot be appreciated in isolation from those that relate to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Tikva firmly believed that such compartmentalised thinking allows some activists to ignore the occupation and the unequal treatment of Palestinian citizens of Israel, despite proclaiming their support for the building of a just and equal society in Israel.

This winter I spoke with Tikva about the ‘social’ demonstrations that had occurred across Israel in the summer and autumn of 2011. Tikva remarked that she did not connect with the demonstrators or their language. She was critical of the union that the demonstrations’ organisers had forged across political lines, from rightwing settlers to leftwing socialists. She noted that the calls for social justice avoided any reference to the occupation and she was critical of the movement’s failure to include Palestinian perspectives. To Tikva, it appeared that the large majority of the demonstrators viewed their community as being exclusively Jewish Israeli. Tikva did acknowledge that the demonstrators had managed to raise the social awareness of large segments of the Israeli population which had not been reached by the organisations and demonstrations in which she had taken part during her many years as an activist. However, she questioned the utility of this critical awakening since it did not appear to extend to provoking larger questions about the occupation and /or the rights of Palestinian citizens of Israel.

Tikva’s political and social consciousness developed early on. She grew up in the development town of Ashkelon. Her parents were Iraqi Communists and as a teenager she joined the Communist youth club. In school Tikva was found to be a ‘gifted student’ and was sent to boarding school in Jerusalem on a state-funded scholarship. She described how, in Jerusalem she was taught to look down on her parents’ Arab Iraqi background and became alienated from it. The Arabic language, food and customs with which she was raised were replaced by Hebrew and European equivalents. She and the other ‘gifted’ MENA Jewish pupils were taught that Hebrew and European culture was better and more sophisticated. Like many other MENA Jewish Israelis, Tikva described how the Israeli veneration for European culture created a complicated relationship for children of MENA descent with their own background and also with their parents. As if to counter this, Tikva studied Palestinian Arabic poetry at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem and always stayed close to her Arab Jewish roots, language and culture.

At university Tikva met other like-minded MENA Jews and in their political activities they drew connections between their Arab/Middle Eastern background, their interest in peace with the Palestinians and political ideology. The highlight of her many years as a ‘Mizrahi peace activist’ was the controversial meeting in Toledo in 1989 between representatives of the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) and a group of MENA activists. It is important to remember that is was then forbidden for Israelis to meet with PLO representatives as stipulated in the Israeli Counter Terrorism Act of 1986. Tikva described the meeting as fascinating, yet she was also disappointed when it became apparent to her that many of the PLO representatives did not place a significant political value on meeting a group which they considered to be among the non-elite of Israeli society.

I met Tikva when I was invited to do fieldwork for my PhD in HILA, the organisation she worked in for more than twenty years. As HILA’s director, Tikva guided me through the difficulties in education faced by underprivileged citizens of Israel, predominantly those of Palestinian, MENA and Ethiopian Jewish ethnicity in the Israeli education system. From her and the rest of the dedicated staff in HILA, I learnt the true meaning of the methodology of empowerment. HILA practices this methodology by teaching parents about their rights and their children’s rights and also assists individuals and groups of parents in undertaking action to secure and maintain these rights. In addition to working across the country with individual parents and groups of parents, HILA conducts weekend seminars where representatives from all parent groups participate. It was at one such seminar held in the Palestinian-Jewish village Neve Shalom/Wahat al-Salam that I had the pleasure of witnessing a rare example of joint activism between Israeli citizens of Palestinian, Ethiopian and MENA Jewish background. It is a testament to the hard work of Tikva and HILA that such groups were able to work together as equals in an environment marked by intense conflict, suspicion and de facto segregation.

To me, losing Tikva means losing a true heroine, a dear friend and a rare light in the often dark Israeli-Palestinian landscape. My heart goes out to her family, friends, colleagues and fellow activists in HILA and beyond who have lost a central force in their lives and in their ongoing struggle to seek equality in Israel.