Hello and welcome to Albion Calling; this week I have Shai Feraro, a doctoral student at Israel’s Tel Aviv University with me (check out his academia.edu profile). Feraro is a historian who is currently exploring the role of women in the British esoteric and Pagan subcultures from the late nineteenth to the late twentieth-century, and has also edited a recent issue of the Alternative Spirituality and Religion Review devoted to the alternative spiritualities of his home country. We discuss such issues as the place of Paganism in Israel, the impact of the academic boycott, and developments in the study of modern Paganism.
EDW: Your main area of research has been in the field of Pagan studies, an interdisciplinary approach to the academic study of contemporary Paganism. What was it that led you into studying this particular subject? Do you have a personal background in the Israeli Pagan movement or are you, like myself, an interested outsider?
SF: My interest in Paganism, both in general and in Israel in particular, is that of a sympathetic outsider. How did I come across it? Well, it is a long-but-interesting story (I think), with several twists and turns: in the latter half of 2008 I was finishing my Bachelor's Degree in History and Asian Studies at the University of Haifa, and had made up my mind to start my Graduate studies there. I needed an idea for an exciting MA thesis. During this period I was playing a computer game called Return to Castle Wolfenstein, in which you play an American operative who tries to stop the Nazis from raising demons to their cause etc. It then suddenly hit me that this game, coupled with movies such as Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark, were merely echoes in popular culture of the very real fascination that some important Nazi figures had for occult matters. I therefore decided to write a thesis on this subject, which, as I soon learned, was covered very well in books such as Nicholas Goodrick-Clarke’s The Occult Roots of Nazism. Soon afterwards, however, I deserted the idea, because the prospect of devoting at least two years to the study of the German language before even starting my research into the relevant primary sources was too daunting for me. I then decided to switch my fascination with the occult to an English-speaking country - a move which allowed me to begin my research right away.
With that vague concept in mind, I went to England in order to clear my head before the start of my MA studies. While trekking in the Lake District, as part of the 192-mile Coast to Coast Walk, I underwent a deep and moving experience as I was travelling past the Helm Crag ridge and down to Grasmere village. A week and a half later, while in London, I visited the British Museum. After leaving the Museum, I decided to look for a nearby tube station, and walked via Museum Street, where (surprise, surprise) I came across the famous Atlantis Bookshop, of which I had no prior knowledge. I stepped inside, and browsed through the various books on display. Before long I was exploring the shelves on ‘Wicca, Witchcraft & Paganism’ and on ‘Women’s Spirituality’, excited as if I’ve found some long-lost treasure. I bought a few books, and started writing my MA thesis on the development of the American Feminist Spirituality Movement during the 1970s-1980s.
Half way through writing my thesis I met the woman who would become my wife - Tom. We met through an online dating site called JDate (that’s Jewish Date) after studying together in the same University department (Asian Studies) for 3 years and not knowing each other at all (I was in Chinese studies, she was in Japanese, two circles that hardly intermixed in that department for some reason). And so it happened that on our first date, while I was rambling on about my research into feminist Witchcraft, I mentioned Starhawk. Tom immediately stopped me and asked “How do you know Starhawk?” Shockingly I asked “wait... You know of Starhawk??? How?”. “I have her books. I dabbled in Witchcraft when I was a teenager.” Later on, when I decided to start researching - independently from my PhD - the Israeli Pagan community, it was Tom who first introduced me to some of her friends from the Witchcraft bookshop in which she worked as a teenager. I’m ever grateful to Israeli Pagans for accepting me so wholeheartedly into their gatherings and rituals, for opening up their hearts to me during interviews and unofficial conversations, and for the deep and profound friendships I developed with some of them. While my MA and PhD research deal with contemporary Paganism from an historical angle, researching Israeli Paganism gave me the opportunity to experience Paganism as a lived religion and social movement. This is something I could never have experienced strictly as an historian.
EDW: You are currently engaged in a PhD at Tel Aviv University. Could you tell us more about this current doctoral research project and its findings?
SF: My PhD dissertation deals with women’s involvement in British Magical and Pagan groups, c. 1888 - c. 1988. I start by touching upon Helena Blavatsky, who - unlike the Victorian Spiritualists - was considered a spiritual leader in her own right instead of a mere vessel for the channeling of spirits. Then I move on to Anna Kingsford and her Hermetic Society, followed by a discussion of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn and the women who played important roles within it. I then move on to Aleister Crowley’s writings during the Edwardian and Inter-war periods, coupled with Dion Fortune’s 1930s novels, followed by Gerald Gardner and the early Wiccans of the 1950s-1960s. As mentioned above, I wrote my MA thesis on the effects of radical and cultural feminisms on the formation and ideology of the American Feminist Spirituality movement during the 1970s-1980s. I started my PhD in the hope of understanding how these developments influenced British Wiccans and other Pagans during the same period. Scholars of contemporary Paganism agree that Wiccan practices and ideology were influenced by Second Wave feminism as a result of Wicca’s “emigration” to the United States. The influence of radical and spiritual feminist ideas on 1970s–1980s British Paganism, however, is an under-researched area. A commonly held view (to which Ronald Hutton’s chapter on “Uncle Sam and the Goddess” in his The Triumph of the Moon  is a notable exception) is that British Wicca was not affected by feminist developments in the United States, and that radical (and spiritual) feminism’s influence on the British Pagan scene during this period was negligible. My dissertation will be the first to examine this subject and focus on it from an historical perspective. The research shows that contrary to prevailing views, contact and cross-fertilization between British Wiccans and Goddess Feminists did exist in said period and contributed to the shaping of contemporary British Paganism. I hope I managed to give a taste of this recently when I presented a case study focusing on Goddess Feminist Monica Sjöö in which I analyzed her role as a bridge between Radical and Spiritual Feminism and British Wiccans during the 1970s-1980s.
EDW: Your research has examined contemporary Paganism not only in Israel but also in the United States and United Kingdom. What is it about the Israeli Pagan scene which differentiates it from that elsewhere in the (Western) world?
SF: I have found that while there are many similarities between Israeli and overseas Pagans, Israeli Pagans cannot help but be shaped by the country's unique politics of identity as the nation state of the Jewish people. While Israeli Pagans long for the opportunity to come out of the so-called ‘broom closet’, they constantly fear the perceived negative consequences of such an exposure and see the bond between (Jewish) religion and the state in Israel as a main factor in the intolerance and even persecution that they expect to encounter from the government and from Ultra-Orthodox Jews. In Israel, one can be recognized as either religious, secular or spiritual (meaning generic New-Age with Judaic overtones, which can be termed Jew-Age), but there is no room for Israeli Pagans to describe themselves as religious and at the same time not Jewish. Ergo, an Israeli Pagan of Jewish descent that takes his/her religion seriously and asserts her now non-Jewish religious identity simply has no place in Israeli society’s religious discourse. Indeed, Marianna Ruah-Midbar and Adam Klin Oron have noted recently that “Upon its arrival in Israel, the New Age encounters a local characteristic substantially different from those prevalent in other European societies, which are Christian in origin.” In Israeli society, Jewish identity is considered to be a privileged one. In my articles I try to understand what happens when Israelis of Jewish descent choose to shed this privilege-laden identity in favor of one which is seen as inferior (if not illegitimate) in the eyes of mainstream Israeli society.
One might expect that Israel’s different climate to that of Northern and Western Europe (while in Britain winter connotes with death, in the Middle East it is a time of rejuvenation) and the availability of a local Canaanite pantheon to work with, will push the majority of Israeli Pagans towards Canaanite Reconstructionism. In reality, while some in the community are interested in Canaanite deities and sometimes try to adapt the Wiccanate template to local climate and mythologies, very few choose to commit to Canaanite Reconstructionism as their main spiritual path. While some modern and contemporary Western European nations, such as Britain, Ireland or Iceland have embraced their ‘Celtic’ or Nordic past and utilized figures such as the Druids as focal points for the kindling of patriotic sentiments, the situation in modern Israeli society is a mirrored image. Israeli Jews – whether secular or religious – are not brought up to feel any sort of kinship with the tribes and nations which inhabited historical Canaan. On the contrary, the extinction of the Canaanites by the Israelites is celebrated in Bible lessons administered in the country’s formal education system as a triumph of Jewish monotheism over idolatry, witchcraft and paganism. This is further illustrated in the fact that while a cultural and ideological movement dubbed “Canaanism” by its detractors did climax during the 1940s in British Mandate Palestine, it was considered incompatible with mainstream Zionism and declined after the founding of the state of Israel. Following a recent visit to Israel, Ronald Hutton noted that “Israeli Pagans are clearly at present in a double bind, whereby if they follow non-Israeli traditions such as Wicca and Druidry, they are accused of importing alien beliefs, while if they revive aspects of the ancient native religion, they are accused of bringing back the ancient evil against which true religion originally defined itself.”
EDW: Something that I think is notable is that you are a male who is studying forms of feminist spirituality; as far as I am aware, you are the first to do so within the field of Pagan studies. That, no doubt, has both advantages and disadvantages. Do you feel that this has impacted your research in any way?
SF: Well, my research into the experiences of Israeli Pagan women in Israeli Women’s Spirituality festivals and workshops was obviously shaped by my inability to venture into festival and workshop ground as participant-observer. This is something that I, of course, totally understand, and I support the need for ‘women-only’ spaces (this is not to suggest that my support is in any way needed or relevant to the women active in these spaces). The real problem was that participant-observer research into these venues by Israeli female academics simply does not exist either. I therefore decided to write an exploratory article, which will focus almost entirely on the interviews I carried out with Israeli Pagan women, and which will serve at the same time as a call for female Israeli scholars to carry out the studies needed in order to establish the field in Israeli academia. However, I think that my position as a male might have been a silver lining too, as some of my interviewees might have found it easier to share their criticisms of the Israeli Women’s Spirituality scene with a male than with a female researcher. Although normally people voice their criticism only inside the group, a talk with an outsider (who - being a male - could never take part in the movement himself) can sometimes allow a member to talk about things she would never dare to share with her fellows.
Now, as an historian in training I have found that being a male studying feminist spiritualities - which is what I’ve been doing in my MA thesis (and to some degree in my PhD dissertation) – isn’t necessarily problematic. Meaning, that as long as you try to provide an historical analysis of feminist spirituality and its sources of inspiration instead of presuming to write how one should ‘do’ feminist spirituality, I don’t see a complication. Difficulties could still arise even when conducting research into books and archives, though: in my research into the Women’s Liberation Movement (WLM) in Britain (as part of my PhD work) there was a specific archive that maintained a policy that some WLM magazines which were published as ‘women only’ during the 1970s-1980s will remain sealed from me. I of course respected their decision, but came to the conclusion that a minimum historical distance already exists, and thereafter read these magazines in a different archive which had no such restrictions policy.
There is at least one other male researcher who dedicated his scholarly attention to Goddess Spirituality. This is Paul Reid-Bowen, who wrote a PhD dissertation on Goddess thealogy (supervised by Melissa Raphael and later published as Goddess as Nature: Towards a Philosophical Thealogy by Ashgate). Writing about thealogy can be a tricky business for a male scholar, and is loaded with controversy. Reid-Bowen is of course aware of this. See his chapter “Reflexive Transformations: Research Comments on Me(n), Feminist Philosophy and the Thealogical Imagination” in Ursula King and Tina Beattie’s Gender, Religion and Diversity: Cross-Cultural Perspectives (London: Continuum, 2005). Writing from intellectual history and discourse analysis angles, I have been spared facing the dilemmas Paul faces as a male thealogian.
EDW: Recently, you have taken on the mantle of Special Editor for volume 5, issue 1 of the Alternative Spirituality and Religion Review (ASRR), a peer-reviewed academic journal devoted to new religious movements. This particular issue is devoted to alternative spiritual movements in Israel, and contains both an introduction and a research paper by yourself. How did this opportunity arise and what do you hope will be the impact of this special issue?
SF: I met James R. Lewis - editor of the ASRR - twice when he participated in the yearly Israeli Conferences for the Study of Contemporary Religion and Spirituality. My role as conference coordinator gave us the opportunity to chat and I told Jim about my research on Israeli Pagans. This led me to submit an article to the ASRR on the experiences of Israeli Pagan women at local women’s spirituality festivals and workshops. Jim then said I should try and put together a special issue on contemporary Israeli spirituality. I’m glad to have been given this opportunity, learning the challenges and gains of the editing process so early in the academic game. This issue is only the second of its kind to have been published so far. Israel is home to a bustling scene of New Age and alternative spiritualities, with only a fraction of these represented in this special issue. Global New Age discourse is thus adapted in many cases into an Israeli ‘Jew Age’ through the use of Jewish symbols and practices. This ‘Jew Age’ spirituality is a direct outcome of Israel’s unique and complicated politics of identity as the nation state of the Jewish people. The articles in this issue can therefore supply researchers with a glimpse into the ways in which New Age and alternative spiritualities – produced in Western countries with a predominantly Protestant or secular culture – transform and adapt themselves in Israel.
EDW: Have you got any other projects on the horizon that we should be keeping an eye out for?
SF: I still have several more articles I wish to publish on the Israeli Pagan community before trying to write a book on Israeli Pagans. These articles will focus on the Mabon community festival (now held for the 4th year in a row), on the emergence of Canaanite Reconstructionism among Israeli Pagans, on Israeli Pagan pilgrims-tourists to Glastonbury and other Pagan sites in the UK, and on findings from the Israeli Pagan Survey I initiated. This survey was modeled almost in its entirety on Helen Berger’s Pagan Census Revisited, and Helen and I are also working together on comparing the information from both of these surveys. I also hope to research the Northern Traditions, and particularly the adherents’ views on feminism and gender issues during the 1970s-1980s.
In my Post-doctoral research, however, I’m going to focus on a totally different subject. For a while now I felt torn between my wish to continue writing about Paganism in my Post-Doc as well, and between my hopes for securing an academic post after finishing the Postdoctoral project. I have thought long and hard about this, and came to the conclusion that while I love this field of study and plan to continue working on it for many years to come, my Post-Doc project itself must involve a subject completely unrelated to Paganism or contemporary spirituality in general. This will hopefully improve my relevancy when I apply for academic posts in the future. I hope to focus on the influence of American feminist writings and American expatriates living in Britain on the development of the Women’s Liberation Movement in Britain during the late 1960s - late 1980s. This will be done through archival research and oral history, while emphasizing the plurality of the movement, its various strands and divisions. With any luck I’ll be starting my post-doc in the UK during autumn 2015, and we’ll be able to find the time to sit and talk shop over a pint (or several).
EDW: When notifying other scholars of your recent ASRR issue over at the Academic Study of Magic list serve, you faced calls from one anonymous figure who suggested that your publications should be ignored as part of the wider academic boycott of Israel that various activists have called for. I’d be interested in hearing your personal take on it; as an Israeli academic have you felt that this boycott has caused problems in interacting with the international academic community?
SF: The incident you are referring to was the first time I experienced the implications of the boycott movement on a very personal level. I had heard about it before, of course, but never encountered any problem during the many conferences in which I presented my papers during the last two years in places such as Britain, the United States, Ireland and Sweden. Very few of the academics I met during these conferences brought up the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in our conversations, and for those who did - it was probably the first opportunity for them to hear about it from the point of view of an Israeli who is not Anti/Post-Zionist. I thought that posting information about ASRR’s Israel Issue during the latest Gaza conflict might incur a negative reaction by someone, and was therefore not surprised - only a little disappointed. Well, a little is an understatement. I spent long months working on this special issue, and actually felt hurt and outraged at the prospect of it being banned by my colleagues around the world.
As I wrote in reaction to the boycott call by that anonymous subscriber, I think the academic boycott of Israel is truly misguided, assuming that its goal is to help bring peace to the Middle East and aid in the foundation of a Palestinian state next to Israel. You see, in Israel, us academics usually come from the left side of the political map, and are one of the forces calling for peace and a two-state solution, with an independent Palestine next to Israel. This is not to suggest that there are no right-wing scholars in Israeli universities, because this is obviously not the case, but still, the "academic=leftist" paradigm is so fixated in the public mind here, that a certain right-wing group has published a report which stated that (in their view) there is a significant gap between the Israeli public’s views on nationality and Zionism and the intellectual discourse promoted by Political Science departments in Israeli universities. This group, which is active in university campuses here, also maintains lists of Israeli academics that they deem to be ‘too leftist.’. It is so sad that while many in Israel’s extreme right view us as ‘traitors,’ some of our brothers and sisters in the academic profession abroad try to boycott us, thereby actually silencing a major voice for change within Israel.
Furthermore, it seems that these calls for academic boycott are highly selective. I don’t hear of anyone calling for an academic boycott of Israel as a so-called “Apartheid State” (a claim which is simply false) while at the same time calling for an academic boycott against actual dictatorships such as Syria (its dictator, President Assad, has massacred close to 200,000 of his own citizens during the last two years), or countries like Saudi Arabia (where women are stoned to death if it is suspected that they committed adultery) and Iran. A few days ago I googled “academic boycott” and added Israel and China to the search. It turns out that there are more than twice the web pages (572,000 to 228,000) mentioning an academic boycott of Israel then those mentioning an academic boycott of China. Something just doesn’t add up here. Well, it actually does: obviously it is much easier signaling out a small country like Israel than rich and/or huge countries such as Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and China, who control so many assets in the UK and contribute large sums of money to academic institutions there.
EDW: Where do you see the future of research into Israeli Paganism heading in the coming decades? Connected to this, what do you see as the future for the field of Pagan studies more widely, both in Israel and across the world?
SF: It is hard to say. My studies into Israeli Paganism were by no means the first. An interesting and pioneering MA thesis was written by Rinat Korvet as early as 2008 on “Internet Usage Patterns among Israeli Neo-Pagan Believers.” She presented her findings during the 1st Israeli Conference for the Study of Contemporary Spirituality back in 2009, but later chose not to follow an academic career as a researcher. My colleague, Orly Salinas Mizrahi, published an MA thesis on “Processes of Identity Formation and Belief Alteration in Israeli Pagans” in 2010, but subsequently felt that its contents were too sensitive and might be used to ‘out’ - or even physically or financially hurt - Israeli Pagans by local fundamentalists, and ordered her university library to restrict all access to it. She is now in the final stages of working on a PhD dissertation on seasonal and life-cycle ritual amongst Israeli Pagans, which will be accessed freely by those interested in reading it. Orly however has no interest in an academic career as well, and has written these works after already retiring from a career in design.
This leaves me as the only researcher of Israeli Pagans who is hell bent on making it up the academic ladder (my colleague Hili Ratzon, a graduate student, is also writing on Paganism, but mostly on overseas Pagans). I’ve been trying to work towards the development and legitimization of the field in Israel to the best of my abilities as a humble PhD student with no funds or academic political power at my disposal. In addition to publishing articles on the subject, for the past four years I’ve made sure to organize sessions on Contemporary Paganism as part of the Israeli Conference for the Study of Contemporary Religion and Spirituality. I hope these will help establish Pagan Studies as a legitimate field among Israeli scholars and students of contemporary spirituality. So far there are no established scholars here who take up the subject, but there has been some activity on the grassroots level. In recent years I have been approached by several students who wanted to write seminary papers on the subject, and I hope some of them might decide one day to proceed to writing theses and dissertations on Paganism in Israel and overseas. I’m focusing all my energy in maximizing my (slim) chances of securing an academic post in a local university. This will greatly enhance my ability to make Pagan studies visible in Israeli academia.
Zooming out to a more global view, I think that Pagan Studies is still in a very young and fragile state. We need more young researchers with permanent academic posts, in order to make up for the retirement of those who pioneered the field, which will become more noticeable in the next decade. Keeping The Pomegranate active, publishing books and anthologies and holding conferences and sessions is important, as well as making the best of critiques of our fledgling academic field. However there are some important areas in which we still fall behind - such as the founding of academic departments and/or research centers, as well as the forming of a learned society. When attending conferences and workshops set up by the Association for the Study of Esotericism (ASE) in the United States, and especially the European Society for the Study of Western Esotericism (ESSWE) and its related networks in Israel and in other parts of the world, I sometimes can’t help but wonder - what are we [as Pagan studies scholars] missing? Perhaps we should have more chats with our Western Esotericist ‘cousins’ and try to work out how to emulate their success in recent years and ensure the growth and proliferation of Pagan Studies for the years to come.
EDW: Thank you so much Shai for what has been a fascinating insight into your work and the place of Paganism in Israel. Best of luck with the future, and I look forward to the prospect of you moving here to London!