Researching Assisted Reproduction in Israel/Palestine: A Fertile Ground for Mayhem – by Dr Sigrid Vertommen

Blog-post by Dr Sigrid Vertommen

On 17 January I was invited to Warwick University for a lecture on reproductive politics and resistance in Israel/Palestine. The talk addressed the variegated ways in which Palestinians and Israelis are protesting Israel’s (assisted) reproductive politics. I discussed two case studies that emerged from my fieldwork in Israel/Palestine: Palestinian political prisoners who are smuggling their sperm out of prison to make babies, and an Israeli gay collective opposing commercial surrogacy. The talk was very well received by the audience, consisting of 20-odd students and staff members from Warwick University, and was followed by an engaging and insightful discussion.

After the lecture I was informed by the organisers that three people were not allowed to attend the talk, which was for Warwick students and staff only. One of these individuals wrote a blogpost about the event, accusing me and the organisers of anti-Semitism. While everybody who heard my talk (including the members from JISOC, Warwick University’s Jewish Israeli Society) agreed that there was absolutely nothing anti-Semitic about the event, the story was picked up by Israeli and other newspapers who repeated the same ill-founded allegations. Only one (the Jewish Chronicle) sought to contact me and added my comments before the story went live. This negative campaign against me resulted in people sending me (and the organisers) hateful and threatening emails, politically motivated individuals contacting my employers and funders to attempt to defame me and internet trolls repeating the same unsubstantiated comments on blogs and social media.

The strategy of delegitimising critical inquiries of Israeli policies by falsely labelling them as anti-Semitic is not new. Yet, since the recent proposal by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance to adopt a new working definition of anti-Semitism, which includes targeting the State of Israel for its racist policies, this strategy has become even more rampant. Beyond the current politicised struggles over its definition, anti-Semitism is a grave crime. The mere idea of being suspected of condoning or supporting hatred and violence against Jews, individually or collectively, is therefore shocking to me. All my work is motivated by a commitment to promote social and political justice, and anti-Semitism (like all forms of racism) is utterly repugnant to me. I want to take this episode as an opportunity to write a self-reflective piece on the theoretical, empirical and political validity of my (and other people’s) research on reproductive politics in Israel/Palestine.

I have been conducting qualitative research on Israel’s reproductive policies since 2010, with a particular interest in assisted reproductive technologies including IVF, egg donation and surrogacy, first as part of my doctoral research on the political economy of assisted reproduction in Israel/Palestine at Ghent University, and now as part of a Marie Curie Fellowship on global fertility chains at King’s College London – which looks at a wider range of countries but also includes Israel/Palestine.

Why would anyone be interested in doing research on reproductive politics in Israel/Palestine?

Israel’s assisted reproductive policies are known to be pronatalist (i.e. promoting child-bearing and reproduction). This has been thoroughly described in sociological and feminist scholarship, including in the work of many well-respected and internationally recognised social scientists (Yuval-Davis, 1995, 1997; Portuguese, 1998; Kahn, 2000; Weiss, 2002; Kanaaneh, 2002; Birenbaum-Carmeli, 2004, 2010; Prainsack, 2006; Hashiloni-Dolev, 2006; Gooldin, 2013; Nahman, 2006, 2008a, 2008b, 2013; Remennick, 2006; Hashash, 2010; Shalev, 2010, 2011). Israel has more fertility clinics per capita than any other country in the world, i.e. 25 public units for a population of eight and a half million people. Assisted reproductive technologies (ART) such as in vitro fertilisation (IVF), intracytoplasmic sperm injection (ICSI), surrogacy, egg donation, egg freezing and prenatal genetic diagnosis (PGD) are widely accepted and popular in Israel. Measured by the number of IVF treatment cycles per capita, Israelis are by far the biggest consumers of IVF in the world. For example, in 2005 there were 3.575 IVF cycles per million in Israel, i.e. eight times the international average and three times the EU average (ICMART, 2013; Shalev and Felmayer, 2012; Gooldin, 2013). Like in other pronatalist countries, many of these reproductive technologies are sponsored by the state. The Israeli government subsidises every citizen in the country – regardless of religious or marital status –for an unlimited number of IVF cycles until the live births of two children within the current relationship (Shalev & Felmayer, 2012).

When analysing Israel’s remarkable reproductive policies, I use a broad variety of theoretical perspectives and conceptual tools, including cultural-religious, settler colonial, feminist techno-scientific and biocapitalist perspectives that other scholars have fruitfully used to analyse this issue in the United States (Roberts, 1998; Weinbaum, 2004; Berend, 2017), India (Pande, 2014; Rudrappa, 2015), Spain (Pavone and Arias, 2012), the United Kingdom (Franklin, 2013) or Puerto Rico (Briggs, 2003). Applied to the Israeli case specifically, this means that I take into account 1) the centrality of reproduction and fertility in Jewish culture and tradition; 2) the history of violence against Jews in tsarist Russia and Europe, culminating in the Shoah, which increasingly transformed individual procreation into a matter of collective survival; 3) Zionist settler colonial ambitions of creating and consolidating a Jewish demographic majority in a Jewish state in Israel/Palestine; 4) Israel’s position in global health and research markets with fertility treatments being a highly profitable industry; and 5) the special role of women in this fertility regime, both as reproducers of the nation and producers of bio-value (Waldby, 2002).

From all these paradigms, it is the settler colonial approach that has triggered worries, concern and even outrage among certain people and organisations who feel they must defend Israeli policies against critical analysis, including scholarly ones.

Settler colonialism is an old scholarly paradigm that has recently been picked up again by researchers from all over the world who want to understand the political, economic, social and cultural past and present of settler societies, including the United States, Canada, Australia, Zimbabwe, South Africa, Algeria. Nira Yuval Davis and Daiva Stasiulis (1995:3) have defined settler colonialism as “a specific type of European expansion that resulted not in overseas empires but in societies in which Europeans have settled, where their descendants have become and remained politically dominant over indigenous peoples and where a heterogeneous society has developed in class, ethnic, racial and gendered terms”. According to Patrick Wolfe’s structuralist approach (2006, 2007), settler polities have two defining features, 1) territorial expansion and the maximum accumulation of indigenous land and 2) the transfer of the settler population to the newly acquired lands. He argued that this double movement of territorial accumulation and demographic settlement is undergirded by a societal logic of replacement of the native population and their claims to their land, culture and history.

Since the mid-2000s scholars have analysed (again) whether the settler colonial academic paradigm is also applicable to Israel/Palestine. My own research follows this growing trend by studying the particular ways in which (assisted) reproductive policies, practices, markets and forms of resistance take shape in settler colonial societies, with Israel/Palestine as a case study.  This approach does not, as my accusers claim, single out or problematise the State of Israel as a “collective of Jews”. On the contrary, the settler colonial approach ‘de-exceptionalises’ reproductive policies and practices in Israel/Palestine, by drawing historical connections and global comparisons with other countries with a similar population economy. In my previous work, for instance, I conducted some comparative research between controversial practices of child removals in Israel (“Stolen Mizrahi Jewish children”) and Australia (“Stolen Generations”). In my current research I am looking into the political economy of transnational surrogacy between Israel and Georgia.

Also contrary to what I have been accused of, I have not called Israeli’s reproductive policies “eugenic”. Although many scholars who conduct research on global practices and policies of assisted reproduction, do use the term “eugenics” or “neo-eugenics” (Pande, 2014; Schurr, 2017; Daar, 2017), I always preferred Shellee Colen’s (1995) concept of stratified reproduction to analyse how the capacity to reproduce or to be reproduced is unequally distributed in society and is subjected to regimes of class, race, gender, ability, age and sexual preferences. While eugenics refers to 19th and early 20th century policies to improve the genetic and racial quality of human population, I argue that the term stratified reproduction better addresses the intersected power dynamics (race, class and gender) that are at play in reproductive politics.

Throughout my work, I have always emphasised that the State of Israel never developed antinatalist policies against Palestinians (unlike other settler societies). What I do argue is that Israel’s pronatalist stance on reproductive technologies is primarily benefiting its Jewish Israeli citizens. Although legally speaking Palestinian citizens of Israel are entitled to the same fertility treatments as their Jewish compatriots, cultural and religious restrictions and colonial realities often restrain them from exercising their reproductive rights equally. In 2010 for example, the Israeli Knesset voted in favour of a controversial law to allow egg cell donations. One of the amendments in the Law on Egg Donation stipulated that the donor and the recipient of the egg cell are required to share the same religion which makes it impossible for a Jewish woman to donate an egg cell to a Muslim, Christian or Druze couple and vice versa without the approval of an Exception Committee. Since in practice, Palestinian women rarely donate egg cells in Israel, this amendment ensured that they will also be unlikely to benefit from an egg cell donation (Nahman 2006, 2008, 2013; Vertommen, 2016). The same logic is applied in Israel’s surrogacy law. The intending mother and the surrogate mother are required to have the same religion, meaning that a Jewish Israeli woman cannot gestate the baby for a Muslim or Christian Palestinian woman.

Not only have I never termed Israeli policies eugenic, but neither have I called for eugenic resistance against Israel. I use Marxist feminist perspectives to analyse how biological and social reproduction can materialise as powerful spheres of resistance against oppressive policies, including (settler)colonial ones (Roberts, 1997; Mies, 1998; Federici, 2012; Weinbaum, 2013, TallBear, 2013). During my talk at Warwick University, I described two examples of such forms of reproductive resistance or “sabotage”: Palestinian political prisoners who are smuggling their sperm out of Israeli prisons to impregnate their wives through donor insemination or in vitro fertilisation, and a queer collective of Israeli Gays Against Surrogacy who are opposing transnational commercial surrogacy. This is not calling for “eugenic resistance” against the State of Israel. It is conceptualising how Palestinians and Israelis are “seizing their means of reproduction” to oppose hegemonic reproductive policies, in similar fashion as women worldwide have been resisting forced sterilisation, criminalisation of abortion, limited access to contraceptives, expensive childcare, welfare cuts or obstetric violence.

Analysing a country’s policies from a settler colonial perspective is not an ideological crusade to undermine its legitimacy, as Ilan Pappé (2017) rightly stated. It is an academic endeavour to better understand socio-political power dynamics, and to offer conceptual tools that could help shape political processes of justice and reconciliation. It would create a dangerous precedent if scholars are being vilified or silenced for teaching and conducting research on Israel/Palestine from a settler colonial perspective. Extremist groups should not be allowed to delegitimise critical academic inquiry of Israeli-Palestinian politics by falsely labelling it as anti-Semitic.

Fortunately, I have been supported by numerous colleagues, my supervisor, academic networks, friends and family members who helped me counter these false allegations. I do hope that universities, unions, research funding agencies and policy makers take a strong stance to protect the freedom of speech and political opinion of their students and staff.

 

Sigrid Vertommen, 09/03/2018

Department of Global Health and Social Medicine – King’s College London

 

Key References

  • Birenbaum-Carmeli, Daphna and Yoram Carmeli (eds.). 2010. Kin Gene, Community: reproductive technologies among Jewish Israelis. New York: Berghahn Book.
  • Colen, Shellee. 1995. “Like a Mother to Them: Stratified Reproduction and West Indian Childcare Workers and Employers in New York”. In: Faye Ginsburg and Rayna Rapp (eds.), Conceiving the New World Order: The Global Politics of Reproduction, 78-102. Berkeley: University of California Press.
  • Federici, Silvia. 2012. Revolution at Point Zero: Housework, Reproduction, and Feminist Struggle. Oakland: PM Press.
  • Kanaaneh Rhoda. 2002. Birthing the nation: strategies of Palestinian women in Israel. Berkeley: University of California Press.
  • Nahman, Michal. 2006.“Materializing Israeliness: difference and mixture in transnational ova donation.” Science as Culture. 15(3): pp. 199-213.
  • Portuguese, Jacqueline. 1998. Fertility policy in Israel: the politics of religion,
  • Shalev, Carmel. 2010. “From woe to woe: Egg donation in Israel.” International Women’s and Gender Studies in Lower Saxony 6: pp. 71-90.
  • Wolfe, Patrick. 2007. “Palestine, Project Europe and the (un-)making of the new Jew. In memory of Edward Said”. In: Curthoys, Ned and Debjani Ganguly (eds.). Edward Said: the legacy of a public intellectual. Carlton: Melbourne University Press pp. 313-337
  • Yuval-Davis, Nira and Daiva Stasiulis. 1995. Unsettling Settler Societies: Articulations of Gender, Race, Ethnicity and Class. London: Sage Publication.

 

Statement by the Head of Department, Global Health and Social Medicine

The Department of Global Health & Social Medicine is strongly committed to equality, diversity and inclusion with a recognition and respect for other cultures.  As Head of Department, I was deeply concerned to learn of the level of harassment and intimidation Dr. Vertommen was subjected to.  We investigated the allegations brought against Dr. Vertommen and found no evidence of anti-Semitism and we continue to be very supportive of her work.  As a Department, we speak out against this sort of defamation and bullying, as it is a threat to the freedom of academic research and cannot be tolerated. I do hope that Dr. Vertommen’s strength and courage in standing up to her accusers will provide a valuable lesson to other early career researchers working on sensitive or controversial topics.

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