Lihi Ben Shitrit, an assistant professor in the School of Public and International Affairs, studies gender politics and religion in the Middle East while helping students better understand broader trends and political developments in the region and beyond.
Where did you earn degrees and what are your current responsibilities at UGA?
I came to the United States for my undergraduate studies and received a bachelor’s degree in Near Eastern studies at Princeton University. I then continued on for an M.A., M.Phil. and a Ph.D. in political science at Yale. In my last year of my Ph.D. program, I worked for the State Department at the U.S Embassy in Tel Aviv and returned to academia after graduating. My research focuses on the intersections of gender, religion and politics in the Middle East.
At UGA, I get to teach undergraduate and graduate classes that pertain to my passion. I teach classes on Middle East politics, religion and politics, women and politics, as well as qualitative research methods. What I find so wonderful about UGA is this incredible fit between what interests me, what students are interested in, and what my department needs me to teach. I am cognizant every day of how lucky I am that every aspect of my job — research and publishing, teaching, working with my colleagues — is so relevant to my intellectual passion and allows me to grow and develop constantly, while contributing to the growth and development of others.
When did you come to UGA and what brought you here?
I was offered a position at UGA in 2012, for the academic year of 2013-2014. The international affairs department at UGA not only had leading scholars in the field, it also reflected a unique openness and pluralism — in terms of both substantive areas of focus as well as methods — that was hard to find in many other departments. However, because I had an opportunity to complete a postdoc fellowship at the women’s studies in religion program at Harvard, the department here agreed to defer my start date to 2014-2015. This was great because it allowed me to complete my book, which came out in 2016 (“Righteous Transgressions: Women’s Activism on the Israeli and Palestinian Religious Right”). It also demonstrated another important aspect of the department — its investment in the success of junior faculty and in making sure they can take advantage of as many opportunities that present themselves.
What are your favorite courses and why?
It’s hard to choose, since I really enjoy all of my classes. My “Middle Eastern Political Systems” course, which I teach every year, is perhaps the course I feel most strongly about because it is one of the very few courses at UGA that cover modern politics in the Middle East and North Africa. This is a region that we hear about constantly in the news, and yet there are still so many misconceptions and so much lack of understanding about its modern history and contemporary dynamics in the U.S. When I started teaching the course I was surprised and impressed thoroughly by UGA students’ keen interest and curiosity about the region. They follow current affairs and developments in the region alongside all the reading they have to do for class, and they are always open to different perspectives and points of view while also being able to critically evaluate them. Many of the students who take the class have supplemented it with studying Middle Eastern languages such as Arabic, Hebrew and Farsi and have traveled or studied abroad in the region. I think this is wonderful, and I hope in the future to lead a study abroad program for UGA students in the region, complementing the already existing excellent program in Morocco led by the university’s religion department.
What are some highlights of your career at UGA?
Teaching has been the greatest aspect of being at UGA. Undergrads here have so much talent and ambition that it’s a pleasure to be in class with them. But I also enjoyed how supportive my department and the university have been of my research. In the summer of 2015 I was awarded UGA’s Sarah Moss Fellowship, and that allowed me to do some crucial work in Jerusalem in preparation for a new book on the politics of sacred spaces in the city that I am currently working on. When other excellent research opportunities came about, I always had full support from my department.
How do you describe the scope and impact of your research or scholarship to people outside of your field?
The subjects that I study — gender politics and religion in the Middle East — is one that I think is relevant not only to people who are interested in the region. In particular, I focus on right-wing religious nationalist politics and women’s involvement and contribution to this politics. This is an important and understudied phenomenon that we see happening not just in Israel/Palestine, which is where most of my fieldwork is based, or the Middle East and North Africa, but also in other places — from India to Europe and the U.S. Looking at the role that women and gender politics play in this global trend is something that I think is central and crucial to understanding why we see certain political developments and why they take the shape that they do.
How does your research or scholarship inspire your teaching, and vice versa?
In my classes I always share my own research with the students, as well as the wider academic literature my work converses with. This gives students a firsthand view of how qualitative research in the social sciences is done and also allows me to learn how to communicate my work with a wider and more diverse audience than just experts in my field.
What do you hope students gain from their classroom experience with you?
The research that I do aims to listen to and understand political actors and trends that are sometimes at odds with my own politics. This is the main thing I hope students can learn from my classes: How can you genuinely and meaningfully listen to and try to understand people who think differently from you who are often your very real political adversaries, whose vision for the future of your society or country so vastly contradicts and even threatens your own. This is very hard work, and I can’t say that I am always successful, but I hope students are learning useful methods to try to work toward such a practice.
Describe your ideal student.
Curious, open-minded and independent.
Favorite place to be/thing to do on campus is …
… the main library. I always find myself there when I need a place to hide so I can work quietly without any distractions.
Beyond the UGA campus, I like to…
… travel, practice yoga (when I am not too busy or too lazy), read in a café …
Community/civic involvement includes….
I volunteer with the Public Committee Against Torture in Israel. It is an organization that provides legal assistance to victims of torture by various security services, trains doctors and other professionals who come in contact with detainees to identify signs and evidence of torture, and advocates against illegal practices that amount to torture using various channels including government, civil society, the courts and the media. In addition, I also work with Amerat of the Desert, a Palestinian Bedouin women’s organization in the Negev Desert of Israel that focuses on Bedouin women’s human, social and political rights.
Favorite book/movie (and why)?
I can’t choose a favorite movie because there are so many I like. If you want a movie recommendation, I would go with the documentary “Five Broken Cameras.” It’s one of the best films I’ve seen about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and about the courage as well as the often-heartbreaking futility of non-violent resistance.
(Originally published on March 4, 2018.)