Sivan Shtang (Ph.D.) presented a lecture on the use of cleaning and cleanliness as a symbol of oppression in Mizrahi contemporary art on Tuesday as part of the University’s Hebrew Language and Arts Week. 

The presentation, called “Gender and Ethnicity in Mizrahi Feminist Contemporary Photography,” was conducted in Hebrew and English and analyzed artwork by Leor Grady and photography and film by Vered Nissim.

“The history of cleanliness is the history of racism in Israel,” Shtang said. Mizrahi, or Middle Eastern Jewish, women frequently worked as maids for Ashkenazi, or Eastern European Jewish, households in Israel, where ethnicity and class were often conflated, according to Shtang. In the 1950s, many Ashkenazi Israelis saw Mizrahi Israelis as socially inferior, and propaganda films depicted Mizrahi communities as dirty, uncivilized and in need of Ashkenazi “education.” 

Grady is an Israeli artist whose collection, “Natural Worker,” focuses on the plight of Mizrahi Jews in the early 20th century Kinneret settlement in Israel and how “their story was overshadowed and obscured in the Zionist narrative,” according to Grady’s website. One particularly symbolic piece from this collection features rags that resemble Israeli flags stained with gold paint, accompanied by the embroidered Hebrew phrase, “maybe these things never happened.” The gold, according to Shtang, represents the “fantasy of the east,” the perception of Mizrahi people’s Middle Eastern heritage, and the rags are symbolic of their stereotypical labor role. Shtang said that this quote, from Israeli poet Rachel Bluwstein, takes on a new meaning in Grady’s work, representing the history of the marginalized that is often ignored. “The poetics of Rachel was accepted and celebrated, and the poetics of the Mizrahi people is ignored,” Shtang said. 

Nissim is an Israeli multimedia artist based in Tel Aviv whose work uses humor to address oppression, according to Shtang. A short film shown at the event, entitled “If I Tell You the Story of My Life Tears Are Coming Out of My Eyes,” shows Nissim’s mother dressed in a wedding-style gown made from rags, scrubbing the sidewalk and kneeling on a dais of yellow rubber gloves while Nissim pours water on her from above. Another piece, a photograph entitled “Venus Gaze self portrait,” depicts Nissim lounging in a fancy dress made of towels, wearing yellow rubber gloves. Nissim’s focus on objects associated with cleaning serves to emphasize the intersections between gender and ethnic stereotypes in Israel, Shtang said.

Shtang noted that gendered and ethnic aspects of the housekeeper role have been ignored even among feminists. In the past, Israeli feminists discussed the fact that women were not paid for the work they did in the home, but once more women began working outside the home, housework usually fell to lower-class Mizrahi women and the issue became less widely discussed. Shtang shared a poem that described the Mizrahi poet’s mother cleaning the toilet of a feminist gender scholar, highlighting the economic and ethnic differences in the progress of gender equity. 

Discrimination against Mizrahi people has a long history in Israel, Shtang said. In Moshava Kinneret, an Israeli settlement near the Sea of Galilee, for example, Mizrahi settlers were segregated from their Ashkenazi counterparts and were expelled from the settlement in 1930. Propaganda from the 1950s warned of the danger posed by Mizrahi immigrants, showing them fighting and eating with their hands in contrast with Ashkenazi Israelis shown playing sports and wearing clean, Western-style clothes. In order to mitigate this perceived threat, the propaganda encouraged the “salvation” of the Mizrahi immigrants by benevolent Ashkenazi teachers through assimilation. Today, Mizrahi people “still experience racism in Israel very strongly,” Shtang said. Mizrahi history is often ignored, but according to Shtang, young artists and activists such as Grady and Nissim work to centralize Mizrahi narratives through art. 

Shtang is a research associate with the Hadassah-Brandeis Institute. She holds a B.F.A. from Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design, and an M.A. and a Ph.D. in Hermeneutics and Culture from Bar Ilan University. Her work focuses on racial and gendered aspects of visual culture and art, taking particular interest in feminism, queer theory and multiculturalism, and she has pioneered research on Mizrahi feminist fine art and queer feminist fine art in Israel, according to the Hadassah-Brandeis Institute website