Alejandro I Paz, Latinos in Israel: Language and Unexpected Citizenship (Indiana University Press, 2018)
Jadaliyya (J): What made you write this book?
Alejandro I Paz (AP): The ultimate reason for this book came to me unexpectedly; I was interested in the changes to the Israeli state that occurred in the 1990s, including two connected phenomena that were part of the Oslo process: first, the militarization of boundaries around non-citizen Palestinians and the simultaneous arrival of thousands of non-citizen labor migrants from many different world regions. Back in 1998, I was an international MA student at Tel Aviv University, and I began working as a research assistant on a project that dealt with non-Jewish labor migrants from Latin America, or “Latinos” as they call themselves. Immediately, I was interested in how Latino (and other) labor migrants were reacting to Israeli public culture. I was struck by how often they adopted and adapted pro-state positions as they sought some recognition of their contribution to the Israeli state and economy.
After finishing my dissertation (in Chicago, 2010), I came to realize that these unexpected expressions of loyalty were public claims for recognition of their substantive (if not formal) citizenship. I wanted to explain how subaltern “foreigners” were able to make such claims, especially as no one expected them to, and I wanted to put these claims into a longer history of how Israeli citizenship regimes operate to maintain colonial distinctions between Jews and Arabs.
Let me explain briefly why I say that Latino claims to citizenship were unexpected. First, from the point of view of labor migrants who said that it had been their intention to leave their countries of origin to work in Israel for only a few years, and yet ended up finding themselves staying longer and longer. And from the point of view of the Israeli state, which only authorizes Jewish return from exile, as it is known, as the legitimate form of migration (called “aliya” or ascent). For most Israelis, these labor migrants were simply “foreign workers” (ovdim zarim). Yet despite the supposed transitory status of labor migrants, during my ethnographic fieldwork (mostly 2004-6), an unexpected campaign took off to grant citizenship to the children of labor migrants, which appealed to an Israeli public to recognize these kids as essentially Israeli. When these kids appeared through the news media, they spoke Hebrew and described their lives in ways that made them seem uncannily Israeli. The campaign was eventually successful, and three governments passed resolutions enabling hundreds of families to qualify for legal status.
How was this campaign possible? As a linguistic anthropologist, I also wanted to show the significance—and unexpected effects—of Latinos adopting and adapting Hebrew and Israeli practices of speaking. In that sense, I wanted to write a book that put together the Latino perspective on language, migration, and nation, with the Israeli context of citizenship and shifting colonial categories.
J: What particular topics, issues, and literatures does the book address?
AP: This book considers the relation of language and citizenship as part of a wider set of questions about the relation of state and society, and investigates them ethnographically across a wide set of contexts, including Latino domestic settings, schools and educational programs, policing and police informers, news media coverage, and NGOs. In addition, it addresses literatures on the politics of language and bilingualism, public culture, media, youth, and the history of Israel/Palestine.
J: How does this book connect to and/or depart from your previous work?
AP: I had previously worked on religious Zionist settlers, part of an organization called El-Ad, in the occupied eastern Jerusalem neighborhood of Silwan. This research was done as an MA student, though I have returned to it off and on in the last five years, to publish as articles. In that work, I am interested in how El-Ad presents material remains—uncovered and identified through archaeology—on tours to Israeli and North Atlantic audiences, as part of its settlement enterprise. These are subjects that are classically addressed in Nadia Abu El-Haj’s Facts on the Ground (2001). I looked closely at the settlers’ narrative practices as part of presenting a biblical story, as well as the ways that the settlers present themselves as the keepers of state secrets as a means to extend Israeli rule.
On the other hand, Latinos in Israel looks at a subaltern group in Israel. Still, in my book, I want to consider citizenship in the colonial context of the formation of the Israeli state. To achieve that goal, I consider Latino public life very broadly. I also added a chapter on the use of police informers (Latinos call them “sapos”) to find and deport unauthorized immigrants, which enabled me to connect citizenship to a longer history—in fact going back to the Mandate period—of using collaborators to impose colonial authority.
J: Who do you hope will read this book, and what sort of impact would you like it to have?
AP: I think this book will appeal to anyone who is interested broadly in citizenship and state, especially in Israel/Palestine. In particular, it will appeal to those interested in a nuanced description of how precarious and unauthorized immigrant populations end up supporters of the state—a process which I believe illuminates citizenship generally. In addition, the book will interest scholars of language, media and public culture. Finally, the book will interest scholars of the MENA region generally as an example of how the citizenship regime of the Israeli state responds to people who are not Jewish, yet who (unexpectedly) claim a cultural similarity to Jewish-Israelis.
In terms of impact, my goals can be broadly grouped into two. First, I hope the book helps bring the question of language and public life back into debates about immigration, citizenship and politics. And here a related goal is connected to changing scholarly assumptions about precarious and marginalized populations: many scholars end up assuming that such populations do not have a public life—as if they could not possibly act or speak like citizens. Through the lens of language, publicness, and media, my book attempts to show how complex and fraught is Latinos’ participation in public life.
A second goal involves suggesting how colonial categories continue to play out in the public debates about Israel/Palestine. Or rather, it is not only how colonial categories impact institutions and the public debates about them, but also how certain forms of speaking become entangled with more intimate and domestic spaces as well. Latinos—the overwhelming majority of whom worked as caregivers, cleaners, and other domestic service-providers—were confronting Israeli ways of speaking in their own homes, and reflected on this confrontation in unexpectedly transformative ways.
J: What other projects are you working on now?
AP: I am currently working on research regarding the growth and influence of online Israeli English journalism. As a bit of background, in the late 1990s and early 2000s, when Israeli newspapers started to publish online, they also started to experiment with English versions. This double transformation interests me, especially in the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis—a crisis that also saw the shedding of thousands of journalist jobs in much of the North Atlantic. There is of course a large literature on the public sphere, and how news journalism plays an important role in studies of national imaginaries. However, the assumption usually is that we can study news in the national language for the national public. One big question then is what happens when a news industry begins to address a potentially “global” set of publics in a supposedly global language? I put scare quotes around “global,” because I think that most of the impact of Israeli journalism is felt in the North Atlantic, and that it is part of the tradition of debating North Atlantic imperialism in the MENA region. And that brings me to a second question: how does the digital dissemination of Israeli journalism, especially in English, influence the on-going coverage of the region? In other words, I am interested in how Israeli journalism today is cultivating influential publics in North Atlantic countries.
There are two research methods that I am employing to answer these questions. First, I am working with journalists themselves to get a sense of how they understand their international readers, and how they develop a story for that audience. Second, I have been working with other scholars to develop a digital tool (called MediaCAT) that can be used to find references to Israeli news sites on other news sites or twitter accounts. The resulting archive will help me analyze how Israeli journalism is cited and quoted—that is, how it impacts—English-language journalism throughout the North Atlantic.
J: Your book is in a series from Indiana UP called Public Cultures of the Middle East and North Africa, yet you are writing about Latin American “foreign workers”—what is the relation?
AP: I strongly believe that my book is really well served by being in this series. It really is a book about Israeli public culture, and the reflexivity generated in public about who and what is an Israeli, and how unauthorized immigrants from another place respond to that form of address—or interpellation—and are transformed by their response. Reading about such cases, I think, helps us move beyond nationalist categories that are still alive in defining what is the Middle East and North Africa, and how Israel is supposedly very different. However, if we start from the point of view that the Israeli state emerged out of North Atlantic imperialism, and that its citizenship regime bears the marks of that colonial history, then, I would like to suggest, we are better equipped to think about the complex on-going relations between the North Atlantic and the MENA region.
Excerpt from the Book:
This is the opening of the book:
In November 2005, several dozen teenagers filled a courtroom at the Israeli Supreme Court in Jerusalem, along with supportive school administrators and nongovernmental organization (NGO) advocates, to participate in a hearing on a petition that challenged a government Resolution from the previous June. At stake was the right of most of those teenagers, children of unauthorized immigrants—non-Jewish “foreign workers” (ovdim zarim) as most Israelis call them—to stave off deportation. At stake also was the opportunity to become citizens. The state attorney, Yochi Genessin, was there to argue against the challenge. She put on a dramatic performance, intimating, as she had many times before, that giving citizenship to teenagers like those in the audience would pose a demographic threat. This demographic argument, made by Zionist leaders continuously since the British rule of Mandate Palestine (roughly 1918–1948), has come to index Israeli anxieties about the number of Palestinians that live under Israeli rule, and especially about the number of Palestinian citizens. In this demographic reasoning, the claim that the Israeli state is both Jewish and democratic means the population must be overwhelmingly Jewish.
While Genessin spoke, a sixteen-year-old from Ecuador, Noga, visibly upset, asked me when she would have a chance to explain how she felt. In that Supreme Court setting—one of the paradigmatic places to act as a citizen, to be addressed and to address others as citizens—Noga was moved to respond. I told her that I did not know that she would get that opportunity. I was also a little surprised because I knew that Noga was loathe to appear publicly. She had arrived from Ecuador six years earlier and lived in a suburb, far from the concentration of unauthorized immigrants in south Tel Aviv. None of her school friends knew that she and her family lived without legal residence. Noga guarded this secret carefully, even using an Israeli name that had been bestowed upon her in school shortly after her arrival. But I also knew that she could be a compelling speaker, displaying Israeli national personhood with ease. NGO advocates were always looking for teenagers who could make the case for citizenship in media interviews.
Noga did find her chance to respond. During a break in the proceedings, people clustered outside the courtroom in small groups. I suddenly heard an impassioned voice rise above the others. Turning, I saw Noga had cornered one of Genessin’s assistants, and she was giving him a piece of her mind—in fluent Hebrew, of course. She told the assistant attorney that she was finishing grade 11 and had just returned from a two-week preparatory Israeli military camp (called the Youth Battalions, gadna), where she had received a prize for excellence. She continued: at the camp, Noga was told she would be able to enter one of the prestigious combat units, if she wanted, upon formal conscription. In Israel, nothing is considered a greater sign of loyalty to the state than the desire to serve in its military forces. Later, Noga repeated most of this speech in an interview with a newspaper (see chap. 6). Even as she said all this, Noga knew that as a noncitizen—as una ilegal, as Latinos in Israel often put it—she would not be able to join her friends going to the military after high school. Her secret would be discovered. Genessin’s assistant, clearly taken aback, answered simply, “congratulations.” How else could he answer?
Noga had only been in Israel six years, arriving at the age of ten. Like most Latinos, she lived in precarious circumstances. Deportation always hung over her head and that of her family. A state-sponsored publicity campaign criminalized “illegal” foreign workers as damaging the Israeli economy (see chap. 5). Yet is it not uncanny how quickly she had become fully committed to the Israeli state project? Her declaration to the assistant attorney, measured off in flawless Hebrew, displayed Noga’s loyalty to the state.
Genessin herself heard the whole exchange, but, while everyone else within earshot had turned to look, she stiffened and gazed indignantly away. A prominent state attorney, Genessin had not expected such an outburst from a noncitizen sixteen-year-old. Especially not from only a few feet away, and in the language of the state Genessin seeks to keep Jewish. Israelis might, with a bit of embarrassed pride, recognize the chutzpah of Noga’s behavior. Genessin’s indignant, stiffened posture signaled her refusal to recognize Noga’s response, and also gave away that she could not help but hear it. Genessin and her team were unexpectedly confronted by a kind of person who challenged their nationalist assumptions about who should be excluded from citizenship, and who could be included in public deliberations.
This book examines the unexpected ways that noncitizen immigrants respond to their exclusion, and how their responses across a variety of contexts must be taken into account to understand their claims to citizenship. More than that: this book charts how the very words and circuits of communication that me- diate and shape those responses—the multiple kinds of semiotic form, including the language they speak—suggest to noncitizens that they have claims to citizenship. I discuss how the ability to respond forms in relation to countless engagements with Israelis, in ordinary and everyday occasions just as much as in the most highly ritualized and public moments, like at the Israeli Supreme Court. As bureaucrats and politicians like Yochi Genessin sought to exclude, criminalize, and racialize them as ilegales (shabaximin Hebrew), Latinos and other unauthorized immigrants did not simply remain “in the shadows.”
Unauthorized immigrants, marginalized as they are, do not need to directly confront the Yochi Genessins of the world, as Noga did, in order to hear them, and in order to formulate a response. In multiple ways, through multiple settings, they engage Israelis—both those who condemn them as well as those who support them—and they generate responses about cultural similarities and differences, and how they can belong: ultimately, this process needs to be taken into account in order to understand the emergence of claims to citizenship. Most often, Latinos’ responses adopted something from Israeli voices, something strange that became familiar, and produced various degrees of uncanny similarity to the ways Israelis communicate—uncanny as much to Israelis as to Latinos themselves.
In this book, I show how the voices of Israelis and Latinos reflect and refract throughout the lives of these noncitizens, producing in them the sense that they could make claims to belonging in Israel. In doing so, I am arguing that the politics of immigration, citizenship, and deportation cannot be understood without accounting for the contradictory and conflicted ways that noncitizens come to adopt and adapt interactional practices. To understand their responses, moreover, it is necessary to do away with the assumption that unauthorized immigrants live “in the shadows,” or come “out of the shadows” only when they are finally given a chance to address the political public sphere. Such descriptions suggest that marginalized noncitizens are not aware of the public debates over national culture and language engendered by migration.
As I show, from the moment of their arrival, Latinos cannot help but find themselves overwhelmed by the cultural politics of nation and immigration. Even in their own homes, Latinos find the cultural politics of Israel playing out discursively. There are no shadows for them to hide. Rather, there are powerful shapers of public opinion and law, like Genessin, who will not turn to face them and recognize their claims. Latinos find themselves transformed by responding to Israelis: their partial and conflicted adoption of Israeli interactional practices, like speaking Hebrew or speaking with directness (or even with chutzpah), is part and parcel of this response. They start to sound like Israelis as they respond to them and as they acquire de facto substantive rights, and these discursive and interdiscursive practices condition their eventual formal public claims to citizenship.
That is why the book examines interactional practices—linguistically and discursively produced voices—across a variety of settings, from the most intimate and domestic to the most public and mediatized. It is in the discursive and interdiscursive tangles of intimacy and publicness that noncitizen claims to belonging are forged. Marginalized and racialized noncitizens like Noga do have effective responses to the powerful regimes that would exclude and deport them. Sometimes these responses, and the way they are delivered, prove too compelling to ignore. We can learn a great deal by considering how those responses are produced and conditioned by interactions across a variety of obvious and not so obvious settings. We can learn a great deal about citizenship anywhere by looking at the multiple social voices that wend their way through the social worlds of noncitizens and cause them to reflect on their relation to citizens and the state. That is the task of this book.