“Not just a place on the map”:
The Implications of Israel/Palestine for American Jews
an ethnography by Candace Anthony
Warren Wilson College 2008
This paper is an exploration of the role Israel plays for American Jews. I argue that Israel, in many cases, is seen as the body of Judaism and Jewish people. I also explore how Israel, as the “motherland” is gendered and the implications of a gendered body. Once Israel is a mother/body, I look at the ways people understand and construct the categories of “self” and “other,” and work to uphold and reinforce bodily purity. Finally, I note that people who do not agree with dominant-state supported narratives will often disembody the Jewish people from Israel and point to strength in the Diaspora.
Table of Contents:
1. Introduction via Airport Security………………………… 4
2. Defining Space and Claiming Identity…………… 8
3. Israel, Palestine, and Myself…………. 17
A “free” trip: Taglit-Birthright Israel……………………….17
Unpacking Privilege in the West Bank: Birthright Unplugged……………19
“Part Three”………………………………… 21
4. Blurring Lines Between Israel and Judaism…………….24
5. Israel as a Metaphor for Mother………………..32
6. Solid in a Sea of Enemies: Upholding bodily Boundaries……………. 37
7. Light Unto the Nations: Experts and Hillbillies…….……….. 45
8. Separations and Conclusions: Disembodiments and Diaspora……………………..52
9. Works Cited………57
Introduction via Airport Security
I did not know what I was getting into when I decided to go to Israel, and then later the West Bank in December 2007-Janurary 2008. As I was leaving the promised land, a woman working airport security in Ben-Gurion International Airport asked if anyone had asked me to carry anything in my bag, if I had a bomb, or if I had left my bag unattended (not to mention the laundry list of questions that followed such as “what Hebrew school did you go to?” and “Where, exactly, did you travel after Taglit?”). I almost shouted “yes, I am full of strange objects and I, really had no idea that I’d be required to carry them home with me.” But I didn’t. Instead I only felt nervous—had I let slip that I was in the West Bank, had the airport security seen the Arabic text in my bag as they ruffled through it and all other bags checking, invariably, for explosives, I could very well have been detained for further questioning. Detained, for what? For going to the West Bank? Perhaps. But not for the sheer act of going. They were interested in that load I was carrying; they one I did not ask for, the one I am still unpacking. This paper is doubtless a part of re-shelving identity. But I can also not entirely pretend like I did not know I would be required to carry home an extra bag; even before I signed up for Birthright Unplugged and met the West Bank for myself. I should have known the moment I signed up for a free international travel opportunity on the pretext that it was my “birthright.” So somebody is going to pay for me to fly to Israel, take an all-expense paid guided tour, then fly back? All because of my mother’s biologically Jewish blood? A paid-for trip is too good to pass up. I thought I could ignore the knapsack of privilege I inexorably had agreed to take the moment I signed up for a trip to a foreign land, a land I had never stepped foot on, entitled “Birthright.”
This research begins with experiences I had this past winter. I participated in two different programs that took me to Israel and then to the West Bank. What I experienced on each program was radically different from what I had experienced in the other; yet, they took place in what is by some definitions, the same country.1 The historical narratives I encountered on the first program about the birth and beauty of the modern State of Israel had virtually no mention of the catastrophe and fragmentation felt by non-Jewish Palestinians that I heard and saw in the second program. I came home with a wealth of questions that multiplied then refined themselves as I began to look closer at the issues at hand. Initially: What is Israel all about? Why were the narratives of Israelis and Palestinians so disparate? What are the implications of a “birthright”? And why don’t I ever hear American Jews, who are generally people associated with “liberal” political stances, criticize the politics and policies of the State of Israel? As my research evolved, it boiled down to three main questions: What does both the land and the state of Israel mean to American Jews? How do American Jews understand the Israel/Palestine Conflict? And how do understandings of Israel relate to understandings of the Conflict?
In this paper I will explore the relationships between American Jews and the State of Israel, and what the larger political implications of these meanings have for the Israel/Palestine Conflict and American Jewry. Through this paper I argue that many American Jewish discourses around Israel construct it as the physical expression, or “body” of the Jewish people. The connection of Israel as the Jewish body, as the bounds in which Jews exist, works to uphold specific narratives of identity and Other that are often used to reinforce simplistic and hegemonic understandings of the Israel/Palestine conflict. I will begin this paper by laying some groundwork in the ways in which people, in general and in terms of Israel/Palestine, negotiate space, narratives, history, others and themselves. In third section I will describe my personal introduction to the subject, followed by a few more word on this research specifically. From there, I will explain the ways in which dominate narratives of Israel in the United States makes it difficult to separate “the state of Israel” from “Judaism.” As the personification of Jewish identity, Israel is understood by many American Jews as a metaphorical “body” of Judaism. In the fifth section I will look at how the body of Israel feminized and explore how this gendered metaphor defines the Jewish self. After this, I will discuss practices of purity and policing that are then necessary to maintain Israel’s function as a mother/body for Jews in an environment that surrounds it with Others. I will explore through Orientalism how these other are framed as “dangerous” and “threatening.” Next, in section seven I will look at another aspect of Orientalist discourses that frame the Other by associating self with “high” and “civilized” culture and Other with “passive” and “stagnant” culture. I will conclude by looking at an alternative to the Israel-as-Jewish-body metaphor by seeing how some of my informants located Jewish strength in the Diaspora.
Throughout this paper I will be discussing the Israel/Palestine conflict. This topic is not a finished point in history. It is very alive, contested, and emotionally difficult even for people who only have a minute relationship to it. I would like to acknowledge the personal level on which the intricacies and difficulties of this conflict affect people’s lives in very real and vibrantly felt and experienced ways. Due to the personal and lived nature of this conflict, strong and often disparate interpretations are part and parcel of the spectrum of sentiments and understandings people have toward the Israel, Palestine, and the conflict. As a reader, you may find that you disagree with some of my positions and ways of viewing the various dynamics that I discuss. I do not pretend to speak for all possible positions, for I can only speak to what I have come, through my research, to perceive to be occurring. Furthermore, I would like to see this research as a beginning. I do not have all of the answers. Solutions and answers will only be found as individuals and communities of people work to open up dialogues, make inquires about their presumptions, and allow themselves the space to listen to experiences that differ from their own. Above all, I hope that my inquiry, as expressed in this paper, can be seen as a tool to encourage dialogue and to further inquiry.
Defining Space, Claiming Identity
“Well, As I see it Candace, I think the root.—Well first of all let me say it’s a very complex issue. Well, because I’m a Jew, I’m going to be somewhat biased, I imagine. But at the root of the conflict I think, is not religion. I think at the root of the conflict is geography, and uh, economic, and sociology. I mean, all these are mixed together. I spoke two weeks ago […] and sort of suggested that reading the bible and even this kind of issue, is like dealing with a challah. You know what a challah is? The braided Jewish bread, you know? Your begin with the separate strands and you braid them together, and you bake it then its no longer separable. People got a big charge out of that. But that’s basically what it is. One thing flows into the other.” -Oskar
Israel is a place that exists in the physical world. As I will explore throughout this paper, it is also a place that exists beyond its physical boundaries. David Harvey provides good working definitions for understanding different ways in which a thing is understood in space. He divides spatial understanding into three distinct but usually overlapping categories: absolute space, relative space, and relational space (Harvey 2006:119-148). Absolute space is the fixed, rigid space of a map or grid that is subject to calculations and exists independent of context and ambiguity: “socially this is the space of private property and other bounded territorial designations (such as states, administrative units, city plans, and urban grids)” (2006:121). Upon closer inspection of absolute space, however, it becomes clear that such pure distinctions are difficult to make. To abstract space as the only definition of space would be to forget that “all forms of measurement depend upon the frame of reference of the observer” (Harvey 2006:122). Relative space, then, depends on more factors than just distance. It includes things like time, ease of travel, money, and energy, and sees space as networks of interactions and flows. Finally, relational space breaks down absolute categories of space and relative categories of space/time and instead looks at the way spatial frames are constantly being created, recreated, and embedded within processes and practices. Relational space is entirely dependent on context and is formed as: “a wide variety of disparate influences [swirl] over space in the past, present and future, [and] concentrate and congeal at a certain point (e.g. within a conference room) to define the nature of that point” (Harvey 2006:124). All of these categories are necessary to consider when looking at the space and place of Israel.
Due to its complex political situation, Israel does not even have internationally recognized political borders, markers of absolute space. This ambiguity is revealed by looking at some potential definitions of borderland that are often involved in the discussion: international borders, natural borders, Green Line, armistice line, recognized borders, defendable borders, security barrier, historic border, biblical frontiers (Kumaraswamy 2006:xx). The very way an individual would choose to represent its borders can be telling of their political positionings. Perhaps Israel’s lack of clearly identifiable borders is a source of anxiety in a world where, by dominant standards, culture and “national difference is absolute yet uniform—it is in every case represented as a nation-state, a set of borders, a color, and a name” (Feinberg 2003:13). Self declared and based on the criteria above, Israel’s creation in 1948 was a Jewish realization of nationalism. In the wake of the Holocaust, European Jews, through the national State of Israel, sought to recollect their dignity as they strove to prove and reclaim their legitimacy as a “modern” and “civilized” people by the same European standards that had just rejected them. Nationalism calls for hard borders. Israel as a “Jewish homeland and State” was founded on a land that had residents who would not fit inside the national definition: they were not Jewish or European, or modern. Instead, the Arabic populations who lived there were portrayed static and backwards (Peteet 2005:37). This portrayal worked to claim, legitimize the Zionist project by re-defining space and time: framing the non-Jewish, non-European inhabitants of Palestine as “backward” and “uncivilized” erased any significance of their presence and cast the land as a “wasteland” that could only be redeemed b
Comparing 1974 UN Partition, represented by medium gray, with 1949 Armistice lines, also including dark grey.
y “Progress” as represented by European Jews (Peteet 2005:37-8). From the beginning Israel has been defining itself against an Other.
To complicate the situation, after the Six Day war in 1967 Israel began occupying the West Bank, the Gaza Strip, and the Golan Heights. It “absorbed” land with a large Muslim populations, complicating the national borders even further. In a national system that frames cultural space as existing in absolute space where “space itself becomes a kind of neutral grid on which cultural difference, historical memory, and societal organization are inscribed,” legitimacy is derived from clear and definite perimeters that are made to seem “’naturally’ discontinous” (Gupta and Ferguson 1992:7,6). Borders, in this model, represent “natural” breaks.
Breaks, however, are never truly natural. Using Benjamin’s idea of porosity, we can understand the physical and social worlds as deeply intertwined (Benjamin 1972:163-173). He explores the idea of porosity as he writes about Naples. The categories of power that control Naples are framed as mutually exclusive groups: the police, the church, and the camorra, or mob. Upon deeper inquiry, however, it becomes clear to Benjamin that such strict categorization of people and groups does not represent the reality of the ways people interact in their every day lives, but instead provides a façade of difference over a deeply intertwined social network that is at most times overlapping and encompassing of all three. For Benjamin, the nature of existence is porous. Denying this porosity serves the status quo by continuing the deliverance of power into the hands that already hold it (Benjamin 1972:163-173).
This is not to claim that categories and generalities are inherently problematic: “Opposition to general concepts is absurd. […] However, […] what many individual things have in common, or what constantly recurs in one individual thing, needs not be more stable, eternal, or deep than the particular” (Horkheimer and Adorno 2002:182). People divide up this social world to negotiate it in smaller, more graspable increments—this is a necessary process (Douglas 1979:4). Divisions become problematic, however, if general categories are talked about and understood as if they are rigid, fixed, eternal, and more important than characteristics of the particular (Horkheimer and Adorno 2002:182). Despite this, people do construct categories that are mutually exclusive: “Israelis” and “Palestinians” are not the same thing even though they live on and claim the same land.
Mary Douglas’ work can build off of Benjamin’s idea of porosity. Her work discusses the ways people attempt to control and deny porosity by categorizing themselves their own identity inside a body and categorizing anything else that falls out of that definition as “dirt.” If we look at “the body [as] a model which can stand for any bounded system” we can get a better understanding of the way a group defines its inside from outside (Douglas 1979:115). By looking at the boundaries we can better understand the process of constructing self and not-self, along with the discourses that exist to uphold, both conceptually and materially, such distinctions. As noted, such distinction is not so easy: defining the social world is not straightforward or linear like lines on a map. People move around and interchange ideas and objects constantly; life is porous. Lines create ambiguity as they are always at least somewhat arbitrary in their attempt to block porosity (Gusterson 2005:29; Benjamin 1972:163-173). Because lines represent artifice in a porous world, a structure “is vulnerable at its margins,” and “the orifices of the body [come] to symbolize its specifically vulnerable points” (Douglas 1979:121). The idea of cross-contamination is a subject that riles many, though not all, with fear and danger.
Douglas looks at the ways people uphold categorical purity and a bound sense of body by using “dirt” as a metaphor to understand Other: “Dirt offends against order. Eliminating it is not a negative movement, but a positive effort to organize the environment” (Douglas 1979:3). For Douglas, things are labeled dirt when they exist within the same space but do not align with a certain bounded and ordered definition of an identity. Dirt contradicts tidy conceptual categories. Dirt must be kept out. When people feel that their identity, or body, is threatened by impurities or contradictions, they exaggerate difference and superimpose a system of purity and dirt::
Ideas about separating, purifying, demarcating, and punishing transgressions have as their main function to impose a system on an inherently untidy experience. It is only by exaggerating the difference between within and without, above and below, male and female, with and against, that a semblance of order is created. [Douglas 1979:4]
But what happens at a border? Categories are solidified and framed as mutually exclusive because ambiguity is seen as dangerous. When lines are not clearly defined, the “disordered” parts have the potential to challenge dominant narratives; ambiguity allows room for too many interpretations in a land that whose “distinct” groups of inhabitants are not easily separated (Douglas 1979:5-6; Bruner 1984). People perceive “danger” and emphasize difference and reify categories at points or along lines where definitions of “us” and “them,” and “inside” and “outside” are blurred. The reification of bodily bounds and the strengthening of difference between self and other on the conceptual level correspond with claims to space, land, power, and control in the material world. Such strict distinctions have real life implications for the people whose difference is exaggerated and marked as Other. In a case, such as Israel, where precise breakage is especially impossible as “nationally different” groups live intermingled in one land, borders themselves come to represent vulnerability, danger and potentiality for transgression (Douglas 1979:95). There is an effort then to eliminate ambiguity and “dirt,” especially in border space.
Israel and the Occupied Territories
This sense of purity and body on the level of ideas, works in conjunction with a physical architecture in Israel that makes a desperate attempt to separate and delineate against the porous and ambiguous reality of lived life. Eyal Weizman links Douglas’ conception of dirt as “matter out of place” with prominent Israeli conceptions of Palestinians as “defiled substance” in an “’Israeli’ landscape” (Weisman 2007:20). The material reality of separation in Israel/Palestine and especially in the West Bank and Gaza relies on extremely complex systems of checking, monitoring and controlling every day life. The “Jewish State” of Israel is has been occupying Palestinian territory in the West Bank, Gaza and Eastern Jerusalem since 1967. These territories are currently home to 3.76 million non-Jewish Palestinians (AP 2008). Not only is this a military occupation, but it is a civilian occupation: by 2006 there were 268,000 Jewish Israeli settlers living in Jewish settlements in the West Bank. The military aspect of it is then justified by the need for civilian security as “two parallel, overlapping, and self-referential ethno-national regions [are] held together in startling and horrifying proximity” (Weizman 2007:117).
Fragmentation of the West Bank: grey areas are off-limits to Palestinians; the red line represents the separation barrier; and the red dots represent permanent checkpoints
he occupation relies on the denial of porosity: a bound sense of self and an Other as dirt. The separation barrier, one element of the occupation, is an obvious attempt of this denial in a physical expression of purity and bodily boundary drawing. The map above shows the most common representation of Israel and the Occupied Territories. The map below demarcates the border of the West bank along the 1949 Armistice line. As I just mentioned, the West Bank has a large and growing p opulation of Jewish Settlers. The lines on this map then, are much too tidy to account for the intricacies of separation. The map on the right shows the security wall, which, as I saw on Unplugged, dips into the West Bank by 22 kilometers to include the settlement of Ariel. In urban areas the barrier is a cement wall that can be as high as 26 feet, in rural areas it is a three layer “electronic fence” made of chain link, razor wire, and electronic sensors. The purpose of this barrier is to provide Israelis security from “terrorism.”2
Let us then, define the difference between defense and security. Defense is a response to a situation that has a clear inside and outside where outside danger is responded to by a regular army (Weizman 106-107). Security is a response to a situation where the inside and outside are ambiguous, making danger something that is internal and omnipresent and must be actively and constantly monitored and controlled by a build environment (Weizman 106-107). The physical elements of occupation in the West Bank—settlements, checkpoints, by-pass roads, security barriers, and the Israel Army—are a response of security. Security, as a continuous system of monitoring, is a measure that must be taken in a landscape that denies porosity. The separation barrier is an attempt to squelch rampant ambiguity.
This strict delineation of people and denial of porosity also necessitates a security that is in a sense all-pervading. The manifold borders of occupation whose outward purpose is to claim and demark space as either Palestinian or Israeli by establishing fixed and linear space and peoples, are very solid realities for the people who live within them. In another sense, however, the linear-seeming borders, as “security measures” actually function as “networks” not “lines” that accommodate deeply ambiguous relations between “inside” and “outside” (Weizman 2007:4-9). Weizman also distinguishes between borders (stable, static, fixed, linear) and frontiers (deep, shifting, fragmented, and pervasive). Defense can then be associated with linear borders, and security with “elastic frontiers” (Weizman 2007:5). The Occupied Territories then, as a frontier zone controlled by security measures, are supervised by a type of power that is, in a Foucauldian sense, decentralized, pervasive, and (self)-regulating (Foucault 2003).
In order to uphold a Jewish State in a land, or a body, where many non-Jews live, the State of Israel, with increasing fervor since its founding in 1948, has constructed not only a physical landscape that requires highly detailed network of checking, monitoring, patrol, and control, but has built narratives of identity that require similar checks. Perhaps its identity must be even more strictly regulated in the country that is its largest benefactor: the United States. In upholding mutual exclusivity, categories of “Israel” and “other” become tropes; solidified representations shape the frames of for understanding space and of determining acceptable actions (Peteet 2005:32). In the United States, as I have noticed, Israel’s policies are rarely questioned; not in the news, not in public conversations. In Israeli Jewish society, hegemony works to support “the consensual acceptance of Zionist ideology” (Liebes 1997:2). Because the two countries are international friends,3 Americans are anticipated to support Israel, and more than that, American Jews, who have a personal connection to Israel are, like Israeli Jews expected to accept Zionism as embodied in the modern State of Israel. “The state of Israel” and “Judaism” are bound into the same categorical body. In light of this, my particular research seeks to discover the role Israel plays in American Jewish identity and how perceptions of Israel in relation to Judaism are shaped, reinforced, and contested.
Israel, Palestine, and Myself
“The guy who founded [Taglit] Birthright actually said:
‘we see this program like dealing crack; the first time is free.
Once you experience it, you’re gonna love Israel,
you’ll be craving for more. That part will be up to you.
We only provide the first taste.’ And it’s true.”
-Ari, trip leader for Taglit
A “free” trip: Taglit-Birthright Israel
I had heard about “Birhtright” ever since I joined a Jewish youth group in high school. For the purposes of this paper, however, I shall refer to this program as “Taglit”—the Hebrew name for the program meaning “discovery.” Taglit is a free, all-expense paid, plane-ticket-included, ten day, guided tour through Israel designed for Jewish youth between the ages of 18 and 26. Its participants either have never been to Israel, or have not been on a group tour since the age of 13. Some participants have been to Israel to visit family, though for most, this trip is their “introduction.” Each individual trip has between 40 and 50 participants. The Israeli government, private donors, and international Jewish communities provide the funding for Taglit (Taglit-Birthright 2008). The program is designed to “diminish the growing division between Israel and Jewish communities around the world; to strengthen the sense of solidarity among world Jewry; and to strengthen participants' personal Jewish identity and connection to the Jewish people,” and thus provides “Birthright” trips to connect international Jews to their homeland (Taglit-Birthright 2008). Over 160,000 people have participated to-date from over 52 countries, however the United States provides the highest number of participants to these trips (Taglit-Birthright 2008).
Ten intensive days in a tour bus and large group of “peers” bring you to many places: historical sites, religious sites, Jerusalem, Tel-Aviv, museums, grave yards, hikes, camel rides, and many places of natural beauty. Each trip is accompanied by a group of four to seven “Israeli peers.” In my program they stayed with us the whole time, however in most programs they accompany the trip for only a portion of the time. Most Israelis are required to serve in the Army—two years for females and three years for males—and most complete this service directly after high school. The “peers,” then, that join the trips are currently soldiers in the Israeli Army, but participate in Taglit programs as civilians and ambassadors, and are intended to provide the internationals with an understanding of what their life would be like were they an Israeli. Apart from the Israelis on the program—whom I felt did provide very valuable and interesting perspectives—we did not really interact with other Israelis and with Israeli culture. Many of the participants on my program and also participants in other programs who I spoke to through this research expressed similar experiences. A study conducted by the Steinhardt Social Research Institute on Taglit participants in 2007 found that most respondents felt they: “learned a great deal about Israel’s landscape and natural environment, Israeli culture, modern Israeli history, and Jewish history. Participants felt they learned the least about Jewish customs and practices, the Arab-Israeli conflict, and Israeli social problems” (Saxe 2007:1). The type of connection with Israel that seems to be reinforced through this program appears to be less of a connection with actual Israelis and more a connection with specific locations, lands, histories, and narratives. This makes sense in the context of the way Israel is self-described: a homeland for Jews. Thus, through Taglit, Israel was framed as not being about Israelis specifically as much as it was portrayed as a place where any Jew may want to live. This element, the idea of being connected to land, will be explored to greater depths through the rest of this paper.
It is also interesting to note that the data from the Steinhardt study says that people felt they learned a lot about “modern Israeli history” buy very little about “the Arab-Israeli conflict” during their participation on Taglit. I had similar impressions after Taglit too. But are the two distinct categories? Is it really possible to know the modern history of Israel without knowing about a conflict who’s beginnings coincide with the creation of the modern State?
Taglit is a Zionist program. This can be seen in the name alone: “birthright.” Zionism, in short, is a doctrine that advocates for a Jewish homeland on the land of the Jews’ biblical homeland, Eretz Israel. Generally speaking, Zionism has manifested itself as the creation, migration, and sustained support of the modern State of Israel by the Diaspora, international Jewry. Zionism as “the fulfillment of the Jewish aspiration for a homeland and later statehood in Palestine became problematic because Palestine was not an empty uninhabited land” (Kumaraswamy 2006:292).
Unpacking Privilege in the West Bank: Birthright Unplugged
Separation barrier in Bethlehem from the Palestinian side
After participating in Taglit, I participated in Birthright Unplugged. I will refer to this program as “Unplugged” for the duration of this paper. This is a six-day program designed for ten participants who are usually North American Jews. This program is not free (though there are scholarships), and participants are generally asked to pay between $300 and $500 to cover the expenses of food, travel, and sleep during the week. Unplugged is small scale and is organized by two people who can run only one trip at a time. A goal of this program is to provide an alternative to the narrative Taglit provides. Participants travel to cities, villages, and refugee camps in the West Bank and meet the realities of assuming a “birthright” to a land that requires military occupation, control, and marginalization of another people. The primary focus of Unplugged is to explore “global power inequities and their role in historical and contemporary socio-political events and dynamics” by “expos[ing] Jewish people to the realities of Palestinian life and to humanize the situation through encounters with a variety of Palestinian people” (Birthright Unplugged 2008). Meeting Palestinians4 as real people was thus an essential element of learning about every day life under occupation. Being in the West Bank and meeting real people, opened a reality that fell into sharp contrast with any reading of Palestinians that I had ever encountered in the past. The occupation collectively shapes and limits (literally) the physical space Palestinians are able to move through.
In keeping with the theme of the program, I provide an example: For two nights we did home-stays in Deheshia Refugee Camp. The family I stayed with has a daughter my age who is also in college. We were talking and looking at maps of the barrier: she lives approximately six miles away Jerusalem, yet she has not been there in eight years because she does not have an ID that will allow her to go. It is possible to get a permit but the process is often long and cumbersome— many are rejected or never even considered. I can not truly comprehend the lived implications of such restriction. This restriction is collectively imposed onto and lived by Palestinian populations in the West Bank and Gaza.
Many of the people we met were non-violent activists in one way or another. It was really illuminating to see the work of these people (especially in light of the ways they had collectively been represented to me in the past through the American media and through Taglit). A person was once kicked off of her Taglit trip when her trip leader found out she had signed up to participate in an Unplugged trip after Taglit ended.