Smadar Lavie, Wrapped in the Flag of Israel: Mizrahi Single Mothers and Bureaucratic Torture. New York and Oxford: Berghahn Books, 2014.
Jadaliyya (J): What made you write this book?
Smadar Lavie (SL): In February 1999 I was a star academic, on the eve of becoming a full tenured professor at University of California, Davis. I had to pack two suitcases, the family dog, and my son’s cello, and flee with him from Berkeley to save our lives. We were both victims of domestic violence that I kept secret from my colleagues. The California courts had proven unable to help us. So I fled to Israel-Palestine, where my family resides. Upon arrival, our Israeli and US passports were confiscated.
In 2001, I was cleared of any wrongdoing revolving around taking my son away to Israel. My US passport was returned to me. The Israeli state took advantage of the situation, however, to gag me—an outspoken scholar and activist against the state. Israelis with dual citizenship are required to use their Israeli passports to enter and exit the country. When I was cleared, I should have received both of my passports. Instead, the authorities kept my Israeli passport and issued a stop-exit order against me. The revolving door between Israel’s regime and its academe hoped to halt my research—the first of its kind in English to empirically document Israel’s lived, everyday Ashkenazi (“European Jewish” in Hebrew) racism against the Mizrahim (“Easterners” in Hebrew), Jews with origins in the Muslim and Arab World or the European margins of the Ottoman Empire. Mizrahim constitute the majority of Israel’s citizens, at fifty percent. The other two groups of Israeli citizens are Palestinians, at twenty percent, and Ashkenazim, or Jews of Yiddish speaking origins, at thirty percent. The Ashkenazi minority holds the power and privilege in the state.
For six and a half additional years, my passport remained confiscated, trapping me within the state, and barring me from gainful employment by my politics and skin color. I became a single mother dependent on welfare. To stay sane, I joined the effort to build Ahoti (“Sistah,” Hebrew), Israel’s Mizrahi feminist movement. I led many successful initiatives to expose and try to remedy the state’s structural apartheid between Mizrahim and Ashkenazim.
My latest book, Wrapped in the Flag of Israel seeks to expose and explore the predicaments and conundrums facing Mizrahim in Israel and how intra-Jewish racism relates to the Palestine-Israel and Arab-Israeli conflicts.
Statistics officially kept by the Israeli state largely downplay the demographic disparity between Israel’s Mizrahi majority and Ashkenazi minority. Until the last couple of years, Israel’s intra-Jewish apartheid and its impact on Palestine and the Arab World have been rarely discussed in major print and electronic Hebrew media, let alone in the international media.
Diaspora Jews are Israel’s broadest support base in all areas. Most are Ashkenazim themselves, and relate to Israel’s Ashkenazi minority. Many have also been at the forefront of civil rights movements in the United States, anti-colonialist movements in Latin America, and anti-apartheid movements in South Africa. How would these progressive diaspora Jews react to the fact that European Jews in Israel design ideologies and enact practices that can be perceived as colonialist and against civil-rights for Jews inside the Homeland of the Jews?
During my years in Israel as a welfare mother and Mizrahi feminist leader, I noticed the propensity for Mizrahi social protests to fail. A breaking event such as violence in Gaza, military conflicts with Lebanon’s Hezbollah, or a soon-to-happen Israeli bombardment of Iran’s nuclear facilities would blanket news outlets just as a protest started to gain momentum. This effectively crushes the movement, as Mizrahim would abandon their causes and unite with the Ashkenazim as the last line of Jewish defense against the threatening goyim (“non-Jews,” or “enemies,” in colloquial Hebrew).
I observed that one of the most efficient tools to squelch Mizrahi protest is to get its leaders entangled in a lethal web of bureaucracy. If they dare to complain, they will be silenced by the argument that national unity has to be maintained due to an acute threat to the Jewish state’s survival. Wrapped in the Flag of Israel analyzes this bureaucratic web as it was used against the 2003 single mothers march on Jerusalem led by Vicky Knafo. Then it further illuminates the relationships that tie Mizrahi protest movements, state bureaucracy, and the Arab-Israeli conflict together.
J: What particular topics, issues, and literatures does the book address?
SL: Wrapped in the Flag of Israel focuses on a specific segment of Israel’s Mizrahi population—single mothers on welfare—as a case study. Social work practice, policy, and research focus on circumstances surrounding single mothers’ reliance on welfare, policies that keep them marginal to the workforce and actions that may break mothers away from the poverty cycle. Rarely is bureaucracy itself examined as a ritual inflictor of pain on welfare mothers. Moreover, rarely is there anthropological discussion of the relationship between an ethno-religious state and the sanctity of its military conflicts, on the one hand, and family welfare policies, on the other.
To my knowledge, there are no ethnographies on single, welfare mothers in the Middle East. Yet throughout the Global South, single mothers and their children are one of the populations at highest risk when the nation-state sacrifices human dignity to global neoliberal restructuring. My book discusses state bureaucracy through the intersectionality model employed by feminists of color and critical race theories. In so doing, it exposes some of the problems of this model when it encounters a divine, authoritarian state formation and Arab family dynamics.
In addition, most studies of bureaucracy hold that bureaucracy follows rational logic. Wrapped in the Flag of Israel follows in the footsteps of Don Handelman, who challenges Max Weber’s model of rational, secular bureaucracy and argues instead that bureaucracy is ritualistic. My book builds off Handelman by analyzing bureaucracy as a divine cosmological order whose rituals are constructed around the classifications of race, gender, and religion—the categories that form citizenship in the State of Israel. Among Israeli Jews, race and class almost completely overlap. I therefore do not discuss class as a separate category.
This book also challenges anthropology’s tendency to study subjects the ethnographer is personally comfortable or familiar with. In urban settings, the groups anthropologists prefer to study are often progressive and left leaning. As a result, there are far fewer studies that employ ethnographic compassion or have a deep, experiential understanding of right-wing ultra-nationalist groups. In Israel, this ethnographic “comfort zone” has served to trivialize the victimhood of Mizrahim.
Wrapped in the Flag of Israel attempts to engage foundational theories such as Durkheim’s concepts of organic and mechanic solidarities in order to re-analyze the concept of agency. Alongside critiquing current theories of identity politics and agency, this book hearkens back to anthropology’s theories of classification—one of the discipline’s historical pillars.
At the same time as I address these academic fields analytically, the book also means to address the heavy personal and professional price activists pay—often their own lives—as they fight for justice, dignity, and freedom for communities robbed of their languages, histories, homes, and gainful employment. These activists do not leave obvious traces after they depart from the tangible world. As a scholar-activist, I have the education and opportunity to leave some written traces of failed Mizrahi struggles for social justice in the State of Israel. Perhaps in the future, scholars, policymakers, and activists of the Global South will be able to use my research and writing to break out of the cycle I outline in the book: Mizrahi social protests leading to Israeli-Palestinian bloodletting that, in turn, contributes to the protest’s failure. Without Israel’s Mizrahi majority, there will not be any chance to achieve a just resolution of the Palestine-Israel conflict.
J: How does this book connect to and/or depart from your previous research?
SL: Between 1975 and 1990 I conducted intensive fieldwork among the Mzeina Bedouin of the South Sinai. My first book, The Poetics of Military Occupation: Mzeina Allegories Under Israeli and Egyptian Rule (1990), described and analyzed a handful of charismatic characters who performed the paradoxes and absurdities of Sinai Bedouin life under Israeli rule by means of ritualistic story-telling. It focused on transnational identity politics and agency in both anthropology and cultural studies.
In 1990, when my son was one year old, I shifted my center of research from Egypt to Israel-Palestine. I continued my relationships with the Mzeina Bedouin. These had gone beyond research. The Mzeina became family with whom I still keep close today. The change in my research focus seemed like an exciting switch at the time. My American colleagues were starting to shift their focus inward, to study their own cultures rather than those of faraway places. I, too, wanted to shift from “fieldwork” to “homework.” My research among the Mzeina had addressed the cultural conflicts and conjunctions in modernist colonial systems, and it was set in a context where postcolonial nation-states clashed with indigenous cultures in a transnational setting.
My new project, “Hebrew as Step-Mother Tongue: The Lives and Works of Arabic Speaking Jewish and Palestinian Authors and the Rupture of Israel’s Eurocentrism,” was to explore similar problems yet in a complex, urban, postmodern setting. I studied the lives and words of authors, both Mizrahi and Palestinian, who crossed borders by writing Hebrew literature and poetry even though their native tongue is Arabic. My project was to focus on their life histories, including family, kinship, and their problematic sense of belonging in the Ashkenazi intellectual milieu. These authors tried to avoid what Stuart Hall termed “the burden of representation” of their own communities of origin by avoiding writing about Ashkenazi Zionism’s negative effects. The Mizrahi-Palestinian borderlands provided a setting where articulating and living through the cultural concept of nation was itself under racialized scrutiny from experiential, political, and literary perspectives.
My shift was also practical. I was a young mother in Berkeley. I was without any communal or familial support. Many of my female colleagues had forsaken children in favor of achieving tenure. They had little sympathy for the balancing act I was struggling to maintain. They did not even know about the turmoil at home that I kept private. If I were doing research in Israel, I could at least get communal and emotional support, as well as childcare, from my family and friends.
I understood that research and publication of critical scholarship on Israel-Palestine was a career risk. In 1990, I was a US-based scholar. The pro-Israel lobby was and still is highly influential in North American universities. I knew that studying intra-Jewish racism in the Homeland of the Jews could alarm the lobby. In those days, I could not count on any allies in the burgeoning field of Palestine Studies. The field was not yet nuanced enough to consider any conflict other than the simple Israel vs. Palestine divide. Nevertheless, I thought my tenure-track position would provide safe harbor for “Hebrew as Step-Mother Tongue.” At any rate, my tenure was to be decided on my research on the Sinai Bedouin of Egypt. There was no pro-Egypt lobby meddling with academic freedom. Funded by scholarly grants, I had conducted my first segment of ethnographic research in Israel between 1990 and 1994. The theoretical framework of “Hebrew as a Step Mother Tongue” served as the basis for my collaboration with Ted Swedenburg on Displacement, Diaspora, and Geographies of Identity (1996). Other fragments of “Hebrew as a Step Mother Tongue”—both published and unpublished—also survive today as uncited parts of articles by Mizrahi Studies scholars.
Soon after I arrived in Israel in 1999, I embarked on another segment of my research, lasting until 2007. This time, I was funded mostly by Israel’s National Security Bureau’s (NSB) income augmentation checks and the pittance I received as an adjunct professor at the Beit Berl Teachers College. Between 1999-2007, I did not travel to “the field” from the comfort of a university position. I thus did not have the pleasure of returning to the university after a couple of years of fieldwork. I was stranded in Israel for eight and a half years. My new book provides statistics on the ethnic-racial-gendered distribution of tenured faculty in Israeli universities. Less than one percent of tenured women professors are Mizrahi, mostly in the applied sciences. None of them has questioned the oxymoron of a democratic ethno-religious, Jewish state in mandatory Palestine. I thus was forced to take hourly low-wage, part-time jobs and rely on welfare income augmentations to survive and support my son.
While at the University of California, I focused on the Arab-Israeli borderzone and the hybridity and tactical essentialism at the intersectional crux of Mizrahi identity politics. Ted Swedenburg and I argued that agency sparks up at the borderzones where identity and place grate up against each other and are forced into constantly shifting configurations of partial overlap.
Wrapped in the Flag of Israel diverges away from my old work by going against these two key concepts: identity politics and the agency immanent in its enactment. Likewise, it defies the feminist injunction against binary logic as it analyzes the intersection of gender-race-class with religion as a space of primordial divinity.
Integral to my discussion of Mizrahi single mothers is their distinct lack of personal and communal agency when dealing with the state bureaucracies they depend upon to survive. Much of North American and Western European social anthropology and feminist theory tend to insist that agency is intrinsic—that all oppressed people have it no matter what their situation. By delving into how Israeli citizenship is made into a transcendental essence, I argue that the sanctity of the state on its bureaucratic apparatus short circuits agency and its capacities to resist oppression.
[Single mother at an appointment with an employment bureau placement clerk. His office is stocked with wines and spirits, as well
as a parody of prayer above the clerk`s head in the same font as the Torah scroll: "All are governed by the creator of the universe.
Thus, woe to you if you waste anyone`s time." Photo by Meir Azulay, Beer Sheba, 2003. Image provided by the author.]
And why is the agency immanent in identity politics impossible to enact? Well, when I, welfare mom, stood in front of the bureaucrat, I couldn’t state that I existed at the intersection of my identities as former UC professor, single mother, repatriated citizen from hip Berkeley, Mizrahi identified with an Ashkenazi father, anti-Zionist, and semi-observant Jew. A Mizrahi welfare mama was all I was allowed to be.
J: Who do you hope will read this book and what impact would you like it to have?
SL: This book is both very accessible and narratively innovative in its write-up of ethnography, weaving multiple genres that cohere into a cohesive whole—subaltern theory and autoethnography, translations of handwritten descriptions and dialogues, printouts of official documents and emails, newspaper clippings, classic quotes from feminist of color theory, poetry, and even Kabalic-style curses. It presents secular government bureaus as sites of sacred, religious pilgrimage, because receiving aid relies not on civil rights, but on serendipity. Moreover, the psychic and somatic effects of single mothers’ bureaucratic encounters—whether standing in line or in their own homes—amounts to torture inflicted upon them by the state.
So my hope is that Wrapped in the Flag of Israel will appeal to many different audiences, including university faculty and students, welfare policy makers, NGO leadership and membership, and a general readership interested in Israel-Palestine. The number of policy-makers, diplomats, foundations, community organizations, and activists devoted to solving the Israel-Palestine conflict keeps growing steadily. Much of the research they base their activities on revolves around the same binary thinking that has dominated the Israel-Palestine conflict since the 1948 beginnings of the state: Israel vs. Palestine; Israel vs. The Arab World; and Jews vs. Arabs (mainly Muslims). Some of these practitioners and policy-makers are starting to suspect that the traditional binary thinking on the Israel/Middle East conflict cannot yield any lasting, positive results.
Longitudinal, participatory studies about Mizrahim, written from a position that is not (post)Zionist, are quite rare. Most critical Mizrahi studies come out of history, literature, or cinema studies. In addition, there are currently few, if any, English-language studies on how bureaucratic entanglements in the Global South—or anywhere, for that matter—promote the deterioration of physical and mental health over time. Thanks to the ever-widening adoption of neo-liberal economic practices, the disenfranchised populations I write about in the book—single mothers—are exploding in number. In coming years, policy makers in governments all over the world will have to take actions to deal with this expanding demographic.
J: What other projects are you working on now?
SL: Wrapped in the Flag of Israel started as a chapter in a book of essays, Crossing Borders, Staying Put: Mizrahi Feminism, Palestine, and the Racial Formations of the Israeli State. The essays all focus on the relationships that exist in the Arab-Israeli borderlands between Mizrahi and Ashkenazi feminists, and between Israel’s Mizrahi majority and the state’s Ashkenazi-dominated regime. Crossing Borders describes and analyzes the ways that the intersections of religion, gender, race, and class interplay with the logjam of the Middle East Peace Process. This interplay serves as the building blocks for the lived experience of Mizrahi women’s everyday lives.
The paradoxical fusion of anti-racist activism and communal right-wing politics on the Israel-Palestine conflict delineates the contours of Mizrahi feminism. This quandary thus transcends the constructivist, coalitional identity politics typical of US-European Feminisms of Color or Third World feminisms. To function in the political, cultural, and racial Arab-Israeli borderlands with efficacy, Mizrahi feminists often deploy foundational strategies that both improve the welfare of their disenfranchised Israeli constituencies, but also alienate them from the feminist fabric of the Arab World or the Global South.
It was in the midst of working on the essays that the timeliness of the Wrapped in the Flag of Israel chapter came to light. Now that Wrapped in the Flag has become its own independent work, I look forward to returning to Crossing Borders and finishing the project.
J: How does the book’s specific focus on Mizrahi single mothers allow you to talk about what you call “bureaucratic torture” in Israel?
SL: Wrapped in the Flag of Israel examines state welfare bureaucracy as a system of torture for its single Mizrahi mother clients. It might seem strange to equate bureaucratic entanglements with torture, but according to the Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary, the first definition of torture is “anguish of body or mind” or “something that causes agony or pain.” In Israel, bureaucracy is one of the state’s gross crimes, even though it might not fit the narrow legal definition of “torture.” Some crimes are unspeakable. Yet anthropologists appreciate the said and often overlook the unsaid. They record discourse and transform it into text. It is difficult for bureaucracy’s clients to notice and articulate the cumulative pain the bureaucrats inflict upon them. Oftentimes, even though the pain is palpable, it is non-representational, and therefore it rarely becomes a discourse readily available for ethnographic description and analysis.
People in all parts of the world, in all classes, have run-ins with bureaucracy. Those with means can either ignore or sidestep bureaucracy’s ill effects. But for disenfranchised populations, who often do not have the ability to voice their concerns to those who would listen, bureaucracy’s lethal webs cannot be easily brushed aside.
The focus on Mizrahi single mothers on welfare is a case study that demonstrates how Israeli bureaucracy operates in all arenas. At bureaus, single mothers on welfare often have to wait in long lines with no promise of a resolution to their problems. Many times, they reach a bureaucrat, only to be sent away to another bureau. Other times, they are offered precious income assurance checks only in exchange for sexual favors. This existence—bouncing from bureau to bureau and back—forces single mothers to live in a constant state of torturous anxiety that is almost impossible to escape.
Israeli bureaucracy is organic to the state’s non-negotiable religious character. I thus identify bureaucracy’s twin “divinities” that operate simultaneously as two claws in a pincer. I term the first “The Divinity of the Jewish State.” This divinity emanates from its very definition—the promised land, the homeland of the Jewish people. No longer imaginary, it is a sovereign state with an army to guard its territorial claims. Jews religiously conceive of themselves as “the chosen people,” and their religiously conceived “chosen land” is Eretz Israel, or historic Palestine. I term the second “The Divinity of Chance.” This divinity is defined by the goals that the faithful have when they go on pilgrimage. A welfare mother petitioning a bureaucrat is like a pilgrim beseeching the jawbone of a saint. Mother and pilgrim are bound by the strict script of religious ritual, on the one hand, and by the serendipity of good luck and divine intervention, on the other.
Yet both mother and bureaucrat conceive themselves as integral parts of the miraculous ingathering of the Jewish diaspora in the promised land. This is the land of divine bureaucracy governed by etsba` Elokim, or “the finger of G-d” in Hebrew. Citizenship is a guaranteed miracle, so long as one can prove five generations back of Jewish mothers. The other guaranteed miracle for Israeli Jews is an IDF draft notice to report for duty at age eighteen.
Excerpt from Wrapped in the Flag of Israel: Mizrahi Single Mothers and Bureaucratic Torture
From Chapter Six: The Price of National Security
The Knafo struggle ended the day after the conversation with Ilana about the Israeli regime’s ethnic cleansing of Mizrahi single mothers. On the evening of 19 August 2003, a Palestinian suicide bomber dressed as an Orthodox Jew carried an explosive device aboard Bus #2 from the Western Wall into Jewish Jerusalem. The device detonated just past Peace Rd. #1 at the American Colony Hotel crossroad—the old 1967 border between Palestinian Jerusalem and Mizrahi Jerusalem. Three hundred meters (around one thousand feet) away from my granny’s house. Twenty-three people died. Over 130 were injured. Most of the casualties were ultra-orthodox Jews. One Filipina domestic worker also died.
This ended the hudna between Israel and Hamas.
Before the bombing, the national and international media whiled away the uneventful days of the hudna in their own encampment near Knafoland. When their beepers, cell phones, and two-way radios buzzed with news of the bombing, they all leapt up in unison. In a press corps’ caravan, they sped across town to cover the carnage at the border. Afterwards, they went to the American Colony Hotel Bar to get drunk. So did I, with my converted food coupons to purchase a drink I would nurse for hours and my California English to gather information. Forever the anthropologist, forever collecting data.
Without media coverage, the sotzialits took advantage. They offered mothers minimal incentives to leave, and reminded them that if their children were not in school come 1 September, they’d be reported as delinquents to the Youth and Family Courts. The judges could then order the removal of the children from their homes to be forcibly placed into boarding schools (Hertzog 1996, 2004b).
The plight of the single mothers was completely off the public agenda in favor of the Palestine-Israel conflict. Most mothers left the encampment within a few days of the bombing. Only Vicky and a few die-hards stayed until 23 September 2003, when Vicky herself departed.
For Jewish New Year 2004, Vicky Knafo, strapped for cash, posed nude for an Israeli porn website. For this photo-op, she had written on her breasts: “The State Milks Single Mothers.” Later, she sued the owners of the site because they didn’t pay her what they promised.
On the eve of Jewish New Year 2005, Vicky’s son committed suicide. Right after Jewish New Year 2006, Vicky joined the Meretz Party, the predominantly Ashkenazi, left-leaning, land-for-peace party, and started giving speeches about peace. Shortly thereafter, she completely disappeared from the public sphere.
From 2006 until January 2009, Bibi Netanyahu, head of Likud, led the Knesset’s parliamentary opposition. Between 27 December 2008 and 18 January 2009, the IDF conducted Operation “Cast Lead.” Its name was borrowed from a lyric about the miracle of Hanukkah written by Haim Nachman Bialik, Israel’s national poet. “My teacher gave me a dreidel cast from solid lead,” Bialik wrote, to the tune of an Ashkenazi folk song. In Arabic, Operation “Cast Lead” is referred to as “The Gaza Carnage.” The operation involved a massive three-week bombing and invasion of the densely populated Gaza Strip. This was prime scheduling, as the United States would be deep in President George W. Bush’s lame duck period after the November 2008 elections and before the January 2009 inauguration of Barack H. Obama.
On 20 February 2009, after parliamentary elections, President Shimon Peres followed procedure and appointed Bibi prime minister to form a new government—on the Mizrahi vote, yet again.
This is Exactly What We Did
On 21 February 2005, I attended a convening of Israel’s Women’s Parliament. The day’s topic was “Minimum Wage: A Woman’s Perspective.” One of the speakers was Dr. Linda `Efroni, a brilliant Iraqi economist and labor attorney. She is a prominent consultant for Israel’s major labor unions on issues concerning income and work conditions and a member of the Israeli Council of Higher Education. At the time, she also had a weekly opinion column in Globes: Israel Business News. Yet she has only been an adjunct at Tel Aviv University. In the discussion after the speeches, she told the following story:
Around 2001, I was invited by the Israeli College of National Security, where military officers are groomed to become generals, to give a lecture at Haifa University. Haifa University regularly hosts events of the college. The audience was made up of students in the special program, but also senior members of the SHABAK—Israel’s secret police—military intelligence, the Israeli police force, and other senior officials in the national security apparatus. There were about forty people in all sitting around a large conference table.
This was around the time of the social unrest following the collapse of the Argentinian economy. They wanted to know if similar unrest was possible in Israel because of socio-economic gaps, and how these gaps could be minimized. I offered my analysis: we have problems with security and with borders. These transcend socio-economic protests. It would take nothing less than a miracle for any social protest to succeed.
If social unrest appeared in the news, I would not be surprised to hear about Hezbollah Katyusha rockets falling on Kiryat Shmona the next day. This would immediately shift public discourse back to security. I could not rule out that the Katyushas on Kiryat Shmona were a response to the IDF Air Force provocation of their fighter jets crossing the border deep into Lebanon. I told them that I didn’t have the knowledge, but my intuition as an analyst told me that.
Everyone was quiet. Everyone was quiet. No one said a thing. And then we broke for a buffet lunch.
At the buffet, a corpulent man approached me. He said, “Shalom, my name is [NAME REDACTED]. I used to be the media advisor for the Minister of Defense. And this is exactly what we did.”
On 9 October 2010, I called Dr. `Efroni from Minneapolis to verify the quote. She said:
Yes, this is exactly what I said. And this is what he said. He didn’t say that it was off the record. As for Vicky and the end of the hudna, I was in a meeting with Bibi in Jerusalem. She wanted me to join her. The man was very stressed. He sweated a lot. Very stressed. In hindsight, even in the Finance Ministry, they didn’t believe it was going to be so easy. Hok HaHesderim nullifies out the legislature. Israel is not a democracy. In the 2003 amendment, they saved five billion NIS.
They transferred the money to the upper echelons in the form of a tax refund. They could have done other things with this money. They were so surprised at how easy the transfer was. I think it is not impossible that they let the suicide bomber slip through.
[Excerpted from Wrapped in the Flag of Israel: Mizrahi Single Mothers and Bureaucratic Torture, by Smadar Lavie, by permission of the author. © 2014 Berghahn Books. For more information, or to purchase this book, click here.]