An organic intellectual and social justice pioneer: A profile of Shlomo Swirski

A profile of one of the most influential people in the struggle for social justice in Israel. Although he was kept out of academia, perhaps it was for the better. Who knows how much we would have lost had he wasted his days trying to sneak an article into the American Journal of Sociology.

By Yossi Dahan (Translated from Hebrew by Aviel Lewis, edited by: Ami Asher)

My first encounter with the name Shlomo Swirski was in the early 1980s as a student reading his book, Not Backward but Made Backward (1981). The rumor about the underground, green-covered book travelled by mouth among Mizrahi student activists. For many of us, reading the book was a formative event, a shaking intellectual, emotional and political experience which led to a political and perceptual turning point. After reading the book, Israeli society looked totally different. Shlomo’s class-oriented accounts of the Mizrahim’s socioeconomic status, the oppressive and exploitative relations that characterised their assimilation by the Ashkenazi establishment, and the idea they were not backward but made backward, coincided with our own and our families’ experiences of exclusion, marginalization and injustice. The clear and sharp picture Shlomo depicted matched raw, dim, and powerful intuitions we did not have the ability or tools to express at the time. Life experiences and feelings which were in striking contrast to the sociological explanations we heard in lectures, the academic texts we read, and the conventional established wisdom that explained and justified the Mizrahi Jews’ inferior status in Israeli society – by the cultural gaps between the traditional societies our families had originated from and the modern Israeli society they joined. The traditional society with its anti-modern culture, which was responsible for the Mizrahim’s corrupt values and limited rationality.

Not Backward but Made Backward gave our objection to the unequal reality, and the problematic and insulting explanations justifying it, a clear and sharp map for deciphering Israeli society, as well as an action plan for combatting injustice. It instilled confidence that the claims regarding ethnic inequality which were viewed with such contempt were not due to the speaker’s troubled personality, nor to the Mizrahim’s natural tendency to grumble, that it is not the case of an inferiority complex disguised as political demands, but rather legitimate demands rooted in values of universal justice. For the students and activists of the time, the book became a weapon loaded with arguments for instant use, a compilation of instructions on how to rebut your opponent’s case, a truly powerful catalyst for the organizing of second-generation Mizrahi activists who began emerging at the time.

An organic intellectual and social justice pioneer: A profile of Shlomo Swirski
Shlomo Swirski. ‘Unlike the traditional intellectual who identifies with the institutions of the hegemonic order and justifies them, the organic intellectual attempts to promote an anti-hegemonic agenda.’

Shlomo is a typical example of what neo-Marxist Italian thinker Antonio Gramsci called an “organic intellectual.” It is worth noting here that in my opinion Shlomo is less a neo-Marxist than Gramsci. In the familiar youth-movement debate on the causal contest between material reality and consciousness, for Shlomo, material reality has a causal privileged status in its relation to consciousness. According to Gramsci, the organic intellectual is recruited in support of one specific class, the have-nots and the powerless, the working class. Unlike the traditional intellectual who identifies with the institutions of the hegemonic order and justifies them, the organic intellectual attempts to promote an anti-hegemonic agenda. But Shlomo took his “organicness” even further. His organic activity was expressed not only in poignant critical writing against the existing order, but also in many years of hard work within the civil society organizations, in realizing the moral and intellectual values he holds in Israeli society and for those living on its margins.

Educational and class segregation

I will mention but two enterprises Shlomo initiated and became identified with. The first was the Hilla for Equality in Education (in Hebrew), an NGO of parents for improved education in inner-city neighborhoods and development towns, one of whose founders and dauntless directors for many years, Tikva Levi, passed away a few months ago. Another key activist in Hila is Noga Dagan-Bouzaglo, who is also a researcher in Adva Center. Hilla has been operating for more than 25 years now. Its activists wander far and wide to places like Ar’ara and Sderot to organize groups of hard-working parents so they can fight the bureaucratic systems so accustomed to ignoring them – parents who fight for a decent and equal educational system for their children, who insist, despite opinions to the contrary by so-called “education experts,” that their children are no less talented and worthy than children living in affluent neighborhoods in central Israel. Contrary to the policymakers’ and experts’ views, they declare that a high-school diploma is not an achievement their children ought to be excluded from.

An organic intellectual and social justice pioneer: A profile of Shlomo Swirski
The late Tikva Levy, one of the founders of the Hila organization.

Over the past two decades, educational and class segregation has become the Israeli education system’s organizing principle: segregation of classes, tracks and unique schools. An entire network has been created recently by the upper middle class in order to bail their children out of the state system and create their own state-sponsored private educational autonomies. Shlomo, Meir Amor, Tikva and others, together with Hilla staff and volunteers, have been active in the opposite direction: counter-segregation. They are preoccupied with realizing the moral concept of integrating groups of children from different classes, nationalities and ethnicities. They have led a revolution in the education system’s approach to children with special needs through a battle waged against a years-long arbitrary policy of principals and placement committees who are involved in the wholesale exclusion, without due process, of perfectly normal students – overwhelmingly Mizrahi, Ethiopian and Palestinian children – to the special education system, in order to achieve industrial peace in the classrooms.

By the way, Meir Amor is an Israeli sociologist living and teaching in Canada, because he could not make a living as an academic in Israel. Here is a proposition for an interesting research topic and for a session at the next conference of the Sociology Society: why are so many Mizrahi academic researchers leaving Israel for academic institutions abroad? This is an invitation for a profound review of the idea of meritocracy, and the operation of social networks in Israeli academia.

In his research and activities, Shlomo is a democrat in the deepest sense of the word, unlike many intellectuals who document inequalities and attribute their origins to socioeconomic and political structures, whilst basically remaining suspicious of ordinary citizens’ intelligence and doubtful of their ability to transform reality. Shlomo is an avid supporter of democratic participation and empowerment, especially of those whose voice is not heard and who lack access to the corridors of power.  Shlomo’s political action is free of the paternalistic approach typical of centrist do-gooders who assume they know exactly what is best for those living in socioeconomic peripheries, who would rather the people living there not complicate things with their own opinions. Shlomo’s community empowerment activity expresses itself in daily, often frustrating hard work of organizing parent groups to enable them to take part and be effective players in the design of their collective lives.

This social and democratic approach is expressed also in another project cofounded and actively promoted by Shlomo. Together with Sami Shalom Chetrit, Shira Ohayon, the late Dudi Mahleb and many others, they tried to set up a network of alternative schools called Kedma (“eastward”). This was an initiative to open schools in inner-city neighborhoods and development towns as an alternative to the failing schools of the formal education system, schools based on the obvious principle of equality of opportunities, a principle recited by every politics freshman, only to be violated in a variety of creative ways in the reality of Israeli education. Opening a school that seriously believes in equal opportunities means not selecting students who want to join it, avoiding dropping them and profoundly believing in their ability to succeed throughout the course of their studies – a multicultural school whose curriculum and educational ethos treat all who enter its gates with dignity and respect, and instils in them a sense of self-worth and pride in their backgrounds.

But the Kedma network was never to happen. A determined and persistent coalition stretching from former Education Minister Limor Livnat to former principal and current Tel Aviv Mayor Ron Huldai, including some liberal ethnic ghost-busters, succeeded in its efforts to bring about the failure of the first school opened in downtown Tel Aviv and prevent the opening of another one in Kiryat Malachi. But they could not prevent from thriving and flourishing a special school in Jerusalem, headed by Klara Yona Meshumar, Ilana Yona and a wonderful team of teachers.

Education is central to Shlomo’s research. His Education in Israel: Schooling for Inequality was published in 1990 by Breirot, the independent publishing house cofounded with his partner Barbara. It is difficult to imagine an established reputable publisher who would agree to publish such blasphemies at that time. Given the dependency of education research on funding and data provided by the education ministry, it is also hard to imagine an established researcher who would dare write in such a spirit.

Education in Israel is a comprehensive and radical book based on thorough research which offers an alternative historical narrative of Israel’s education system, documenting accurately and in detail the enormous gap between its self-image as a universal, modern system championing equal opportunities and gap reduction, and a reality in which it “acts as a huge selection system that methodically and meticulously differentiates and separates groups and subgroups”, Jews and Arabs, Ashkenazim and Mizrahim, men and women, lower and higher classes. As documented by Shlomo, it is a system whose designers and chief researchers have presented racist views and prejudices as scientific truths which in turn served as a basis for policies promoting educational injustice. This book too was vital in its influence on numerous activists, mostly Mizrahi, acting as a source of inspiration and a roadmap for action in the field of education.

Talking Swirskish          

I got to know Shlomo upon returning from my studies abroad. In 1991 we met in the little office on Tel Aviv’s Sheinkin Street where Barbara and he made their living with their small publishing house, publishing radical texts which never stood a chance of even being looked at by established publishers. Barbara directs Adva Center and is one of the founding members of the Israeli feminist movement. It would have been fitting to dedicate a special session to her work and activity in areas such as the right for health and reducing healthcare inequalities, social safety nets and her studies on gender inequality and gender-based analysis of the state budget. There, in the small office together with other friends including the late Vicky Shiran, we founded Adva Center, which undertook to describe and analyze Israeli society from a social justice point of view.

The aim was to create a research and advocacy center that would analyze the various manifestations of inequality in Israeli society and promote policies for reducing it. The model that inspired us was the similar Washington DC-based Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, which examines the impact of the federal budget and policies on people at the bottom of the socioeconomic ladder. Our idea was to found a research institute with an explicit ideological stance that will insist on presenting the bare facts in short and clear documents free of vague jargon and baffling theoretical discourse. For us, accuracy proved critical, because immediately upon being issued by Adva, our documents were ambushed in the media by ethnic ghost-busters from the Israeli academia and like-minded reporters, always eagerly awaiting the slightest stumble to discredit the center and refute its data and argumentation.

Thus, Adva’s main products are clear and accurate documents analyzing socioeconomic and political issues on Israel’s agenda. Some have become annual publications, such as the state budget analysis – an alternative analysis focused on inequality and the budget’s impact on marginalized populations; our Annual Social Report, which traces Israel’s socioeconomic landscape and forces it to face the mirror; an annual document analyzing high-school final exam success rates in geographic and class terms; and additional documents, some of which are concerned with a specific socioeconomic policies on the Israeli agenda. Issuing clear documents for the educated reader, for the busy Knesset member, and for the lazy editor accustomed to receiving short and pre-edited texts from PR firms.

Since the budget is written in a nearly indecipherable code with much hidden between its enigmatic lines, Adva Center’s documents bring to light Shlomo’s rare ability to separate the wheat from the chaff. He has the ability to decipher which twisted money transfers hide behind the rows of numbers and obscure code words, to delve into the Central Bureau of Statistics’s data to discover exactly where the inequality lies, to pinpoint the datum concealing benefits to privileged individuals and sectors, to compare benefits and burdens and contrast poor, marginalized municipalities in the periphery with strong ones in central Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories, and present all those clearly and persuasively every few years in documents such as “The Price of Occupation,” and then present the conclusions to Knesset members, municipality officials or community activists.

Shlomo has been Adva’s academic director since its foundation, but also its most effective worker. The extent of his analyses, reports, and policy papers is staggering in any context, as is the range of subject he is dealing with. In this sense, Shlomo is a true socioeconomic Renaissance figure without parallel.

It seems that Adva Center’s research approach and ideological stance is gaining increasing appreciation and influence. The status of the fundamentalist neoliberal discourse dominating Israel and the world in recent years has been eroding slightly, particularly following the 2008 financial crisis. The basic assumptions of the neoclassical orthodoxy’s economical paradigm are also being badly shaken so that the economic discipline is once again exposed for the “dismal science” it is, to quote Thomas Carlyle. Following the 2011 social protest, Adva’s policy papers and reports were in great demand amongst activists. In the course of the protests, Shlomo managed to produce 13 reader-friendly articles on this website, collectively titled “Towards a New Salary Pyramid,” and bound into a booklet that was distributed in the protestors’ encampments. A significant shift is also noticeable in the media and universities: it seems more and more people are undergoing a process of conversion, starting to talk Swirskish without even being aware of it.

Shlomo began his path in academia, but he could not find his place in it. In retrospect, paradoxically, his exclusion by academic gatekeepers proved a blessing in disguise. It is hard to imagine the loss to public discourse and the struggle for social justice in Israel had these gatekeepers had the intellectual openness and integrity to accept him. How great the damage would have been had Shlomo wasted his days trying to sneak an article into the American Journal of Sociology or similar journals.

The text is adapted from a speech given at the plenary meeting of the 44th Annual Conference of the Israeli Sociological Society, dedicated to Shlomo Swirski’s research. This post was first published in Hebrew on Haokets.