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Yossi Yonah, Haggai Ram
Ben Gurion University, Israel
Cultural Dynamics 22(3) 1–27 © The Author(s) 2010 Reprints and permissions: sagepub.co.uk/journalsPermissions.nav DOI: 10.1177/0921374010383853 http://cdy.sagepub.com
Beitberl College, Israel
This article offers a critical study of the iteration and reiteration of Israel’s national identity. Thus this study falls within a well charted research terrain. And like many studies falling within its purview, it is also intended to do more than just describe attempts to impose uniform collective identity on obdurate social and cultural diversity. It is intended to examine the national project as ‘a form of cultural elaboration’ entrapped within an insoluble predicament.While aiming at molding a homogeneous national collective out of social and cultural diversity, this project generates intricate dialectics involving practices of social inclusion and exclusion.These dialectics take on board often racial myths. We examine these dialectics and the racial myths associated with them vis-à-vis the iteration and reiteration of Israel’s national identity. Aside from inculcating the belief among Israeli Jews that their identity is reflective of a common cultural heritage that reaches back to times immemorial, these myths also register a yearning to reconnect Israel with its lost European, ‘Judeo-Christian’ heritage. Conveying these aspirations, either covertly or overtly, these myths support and reconfirm existing social and racial hierarchies in Israeli society.
Israel, nationalism, race, racism, social hierarchies
This critical study is about the iteration and reiteration of Israel’s national identity, or more precisely, about incessant attempts to cultivate a coherent collective identity whose ingredients and boundaries are, in fact, inherently ambiguous and faltering. Thus this study falls within a well-charted research terrain. And like many studies falling within its purview, it is also intended to do more than just describe attempts to impose uniform
Corresponding author: Yossi Yonah, Dept of Education, Ben Gurion University of the Negev, POB 653, Beer Sheva 84105, Israel. Email: email@example.com
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collective identity on obdurate social and cultural diversity. It is intended to examine the national project as ‘a form of cultural elaboration’ which is entrapped within an insoluble predicament (Bhabha, 1994). While aiming at molding a homogeneous national collective out of social and cultural diversity—thus enforcing ‘a contradictory unity, a democratic despotism, in a single space’ (Mamdani, 2004: 247)—this project generates intricate dialectics involving practices of social inclusion and exclusion. Yet, in analyzing these dialectics, special attention will be given in this article to the place of racial signifiers in the Israeli case. Acting as ‘a form of cultural elaboration’, the national project is far from being carried out exclusively by state agencies; it enlists the voluntary assistance of civil society and its varied actors such as the press, the movie industry, the academia, artists and novelists. These influential actors do not merely reflect social realities as a naïve or apologetic observer might argue, but participate, either deliberately or inadvertently, in the very production of national identities and in the construction of these identities’ outer and inner boundaries. Operating within the margins of civil society, newspapers tend to fulfill this role most effectively. They constitute one of the most influential sites in which the iteration of national identities is carried out (Anderson, 1983: 24–5). Newspapers enable us to glean typical discursive practices that make use of the symbolic repertoire figuring in the cultural elaboration of the nation, including the myths that place it within the cosmological order of things. Although this study focuses on the role of Israeli newspapers in this regard, we do not intend to offer an exhaustive analysis of this role. Rather, we aim at examining a selected assortment of reportages, following Jaspers’s heuristic that
. . . the comprehension in depth of a single instance will often enables us, phenomenologically, to apply this understanding in general to innumerable cases. . . . often what one has once grasped [in a single instance] is soon met again [in other instances]. What is important in phenomenology is less the study of a large number of instances than the intuitive and deep understanding of a few cases. (Jaspers, 1963, cited by Fanon, 1967: 168)
Attiring this insight with contemporary garb, the anthropologist Sally Falk Moore suggested treating such instances as ‘diagnostic event[s]’—a historical moments of ‘ongoing contests and conflicts and competitions’ that ‘display multiple meanings in combination’ (Moore, 1987: 730, 735). To put it another way, from the multiple readings of these reports, we can meaningfully identify and explain the main myths that underpin Israel’s national identity and their political conditions and implications. We will begin with a report that appeared in the most widely circulated Israeli daily newspaper, Yedioth Ahronoth, in the summer of 2007. Published in that paper’s Weekly Supplement edition, the report covers a story about a brother and a sister who graduated together from the highly prestigious Israeli Air Force aviation course (Maron and Shalom, 2007). We view this report as a particular site—or ‘diagnostic event’—that uniquely encapsulates the basic elements of Israeli Jews’ imagined community, including its racial myths. Aside from inculcating the belief among Israeli Jews that their identity is reflective of a common cultural heritage that reaches back to times immemorial, these myths also register a yearning to reconnect Israel with its lost European, ‘Judeo-Christian’
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heritage. Conveying these aspirations, either covertly or overtly, these myths support and reconfirm existing social and racial hierarchies in Israeli society. Although the reporting about the young pilots attracts special attention in this study, we will also discuss other press editorials that touch on the intricate relationship between racial myths and the production of national identity. Written by major Israeli columnists, these editorials reinforce the lessons to be gleaned from the pilots’ story, in the sense that they reconfirm what is already ‘grasped’ in the diagnostic event. But they do not only reconfirm an insight we already possess; promoting racial myths rather openly and abrasively, these editorials enable us to appreciate the special power of discursive practices in which the promotion of racial myths is carried out unintentionally and covertly. They enable us to see how the racial myths promoted in the report about the young pilots render Israel’s racial hierarchies as an integral part of the natural order of things,. Indeed, it is our view that it is the perfunctory promotion of racial myths which renders this promotion peculiarly oppressive and poignantly injurious. Unsurprisingly, the presence of racial myths in the iteration of Israel’s national identity has unmistaken resonances for understanding the self-defeating nature of the attempts to cultivate a unified and cohesive national community. Although celebrating six decades since the establishment of the Jewish state, these attempts so far cannot easily overcome the inner and deep tensions and contradictions besetting Israeli society. The failure of these attempts is inevitable, not only because Israeli society is characterized by recalcitrant and entrenched social and cultural diversity, but because the racial myths by which Israel’s Jewish community strives to unify and harmonize that which stubbornly resists unification and harmonization, encourage inner social divisions and racial hierarchies rather than an all-inclusive unity. These divisions and hierarchies in turn display the anxieties and the deeply seated racial paranoia besetting Israel’s Jewish community. These anxieties and paranoia are awakened following the encounter with social groups perceived as either threatening this community’s very existence or undermining its desperate drive to secure unity and cohesiveness. These groups prompt anxieties and paranoia because they unravel the voice of the unheimlich (the uncanny), namely the class of strange and frightening but yet nauseatingly familiar things that dwell within the community’s collective unconsciousness. The unsettling encounter with these groups leads to anxious attempts to overcome the fractured and volatile national community by envisioning it as modern and above all as inherently western. By incorporating familiar psychoanalytical insights, this article sets out to decipher the inner, inchoate code of Israel’s imagined community. They allow us to understand better the subtle (and the not-so-subtle) boundaries of this community, which determine who belongs and who doesn’t, and also who fully belongs and who only partially belongs to it. By employing these insights, we will attempt to grasp the role that racial myths and ideals play in the iteration and reiteration of Israel’s Jewish community. Following Roland Barthes, we consider the study of myths—the interpretative schemes by which societies attempt to articulate their identity and render themselves coherent and unified communities—most valuable to our inquiry: the production of Israel’s national identity and the attending practices of social exclusion that make use of racial signifiers. As Barthes ingeniously argued: ‘however paradoxical it may seem, myth hides nothing: its
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function is to distort, not to make disappear’ (Barthes, 1989: 121). Drawing on this insight, we suggest that important facets of reality, which myths so efficiently distort and yet surreptitiously acknowledge, are displayed by the wide array of practices of social exclusion and marginalization characterizing practically all societies. Thus, we intend to use the reporting about the young pilots to demonstrate the power of myths in Israeli society not merely as constituent ingredients of the symbolic repertoire, the symbolic stuff of which Israel’s imagined community is built. Rather, we intend to use it also as an entry into some aspects of the psyche of Israel’s Jewish society, into some of its deepest racial anxieties, paranoia, and fears that are displayed most often in racism and other forms of oppression. However, the analysis of myth production in the Israeli context significantly departs from Barthes’s analysis of myth production. While in Barthes’ analysis the main function of myths is to create a false façade of color-blind inclusion in bourgeoisie society—e.g. ‘opportunities are open to all’—our analysis emphasizes the function of myths in the promotion of Israeli society as a virtuous white European society. Hence, while in the cases Barthes refers to myths serve the purpose of distorting and glossing over exclusionary and racist practices, the case discussed here fulfills a significantly different function, one in which myth production serves to nurture and reinforce existing, intractable social hierarchies by endorsing, albeit stealthily, unmistaken racist ideologies and worldviews. Yet a word of caution is in order here. Myth production rarely falls into neat analytical paradigms. Even the most seemingly stable myth can include within itself moments when its assumptions come up against alternative views that throw its authority into relief. To paraphrase Dennis Porter (1994: 160), myths, ‘in their play’, may establish distance from the ideologies they seem to be reproducing. Following this observation, we will demonstrate that the very myth extolling the whiteness of Israeli society at the same time promotes a façade of equality à la Barthes, in this instance of gender equality. The very same myth that upholds the vision of the Jewish state as western and white takes on board a conceptual luggage that undermines this vision.
Seek and Hide: Race, Racialization, and Racism in the Israeli Context
Israel’s national identity and its attending dialectics of social inclusion and exclusion have given rise over the last three decades to a vast corpus of critical studies which spans disciplinary and interdisciplinary areas of research. This corpus includes literature and cultural studies (see e.g. Alcalay, 1987; Boyarin 1997; Gluzman, 2007; Hever, 2002; Laor, 1995; Mishani, 2006; Shoat, 1988; Soker-Schwager, 2007); sociology and political science (see e.g. Bernstein and Swirski, 1982; Dahan-Kalev, 1999; Davis, 1987; Grinberg, 2007; Khazzoom, 2003; Kimmerling 2004; Lustick, 1980, 1999; Mizrachi, 2004; Ram, 1993; Samooha, 1978; Selzer, 1967; Shafir and Peled, 2002; Shenhav, 2006; Sternhell, 1995); Middle East studies (see e.g. Morris, 1988; Pappé, 1995; Piterberg, 1996; Ram, 2006; Raz-Krakotzkin, 1998, 1999); political geography (see e.g. Law-Yone and Kalus, 1994; Yiftachel, 2006); and law studies (see Barzilai, 2003; Kretzmer, 1990; Ziv, 2006). All authors to whom references are made, as well as many others, embrace revisionist and critical perspectives, some radical and some less radical, on the Zionist project. Again, common
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to them all is the emphasis on practices of harsh exclusion and marginalization involved in this project and which are directed against Palestinians, Mizrahi and ultra-orthodox (haredi) Jews, women and others. However, aside perhaps from the studies of Selzer (1967), Davis (1987), Shoat (1988), Shenhav (2006), and Ram (2009), nearly all other studies mentioned here display a strident silence with respect to categories of race, racialization, and racism in Israeli society. They avoid these categories not only in their analyses of Israel’s nation formation vis-à-vis the different groups comprising Israel’s Jewish society but also in their analyses of Israel’s nation formation vis-à-vis Palestinians. National, ethnic and cultural signifiers are the main categories that figure in the various explanations they offer for the practices of social exclusion and marginalization in Israeli society. What makes this silence particularly interesting is the fact that many of them borrow their essentials from the very theoretical traditions that reserve a special place for categories of race.1 This silence becomes even more puzzling considering the fact that racism is formidably present and routinely debated in Israeli society itself. Thus, for instance, the Israeli public sphere is inundated with reports about racist attitudes and practices directed against various social groups and perpetrated by individuals, groups, or public agencies. Moreover, racism is extensively dealt with in various art forms (literatures, movies, theatre, etc.). Finally, over the years the Israeli parliament has passed several laws in efforts to curb racist conduct of either individuals or institutions, indicating a public awareness about the widespread existence of these phenomena (Shenhav and Yonah, 2008). However, a disclaimer is in order. Although categories of race, racialization, and racism appear regularly in critical academic discourses, they do so in disguise insofar as they are replaced by the category of anti-Semitism. Academic discourses draw attention to common practices whereby internalization of anti-Semitic prejudices by Zionist ideologues and Zionist discourses has led to the projection of these prejudices onto other social groups, be they Jewish or non-Jewish (Boyarin, 1997; Gluzman, 2007; Khazzoom, 2003; Piterberg, 1996; Ram and Yadgar, 2008; Raz-Krakotzkin, 1999; Soker-Schwager, 2007). Be that as it may, the categories of race, racialization, and racism—simpliciter— are largely missing in academic discourses, even when they tend to be strongly critical of the Zionist project. Furthermore, using anti-Semitism as a surrogate category for racism, these studies fail to historicize contemporary Israel’s exclusionary logic. What then could be the explanation of the silence with respect to the categories of race, racialization, and racism in Israeli society? It is possible to hypothesize two complementary main motives for this oversight. The first relates to the horrendous legacy of Nazi Germany. The trauma of the Holocaust has put an end to a protracted and even obsessive occupation of Zionism, from the second half of the 19th century to the beginning of the 1950s, with racial categorizations and hierarchies (Hirsch, 2008; Weiss, 2002). But not only that, zealously commemorating the Holocaust, Jews in Israel (and perhaps elsewhere in the world) tend to gauge all ill-treatments inflicted on others social groups, including ill-treatments perpetrated by themselves, by Nazi standards. According to this stringent standard, racism equals the Holocaust, and hence all ill-treatments of social groups that fall short of the Jewish Holocaust are not viewed as really racist but as reflective of ethnic or cultural prejudices and hostilities. This restrictive understanding of racism has inevitably led to untoward consequences: it obstructs the ability to acknowledge the existence of various, even if less traumatic, racist attitudes and practices, let
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alone the ability to combat them. Hence it is not at all surprising that the Even Shushan’s canonical Hebrew–Hebrew dictionary offers the following definition to racism:
A worldview that the population of the world is divided into privileged races—the master races—and other races which are inferior; racism was one of the principles of Nazi Germany and it serves savage anti-Semitism and the annihilation of the Jews.2
The second motive that may explain the paucity of race, racialization, and racism in critical studies of the Israeli polity is the fear of what we call the spill-over effect. We speak here of the concern that the admission of these categories in studies examining Israeli discrimination against Arabs would ineluctably lead to the admission of these very same categories into analyses of discrimination against Mizrahi Jews. After all, the symbolic repertoire employed in the first case is routinely employed in the latter case, for both groups share similar physiognomy and are descendants of the same cultural heritage. It might be, then, that even those scholars who embrace critical perspectives on Israeli society find it excruciatingly strenuous to implicate the Zionist project with racism against ‘its own people’. Yet critical political and demographic developments since the mid-1970s have increasingly challenged the entrenched habit of ignoring these categories. Let us briefly survey these developments. The second half of the 1970s witnessed the practical annexation of large territories of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, thereby presenting the Jewish state with a demographic predicament: how to annex these territories without being ‘engulfed’ (or ‘polluted’) by their Palestinian inhabitants (Grinberg, 2005). This annexation, then, led to the re-emergence of a traditional perception of Arabs as a demographic threat to the Jewish character of the state of Israel (see Yonah and Saporta, 2002; Zureik, 2008). This perception was to usher, in 1984, the creation of the racist Kach movement of Meir Kahaneh. Second, in the year of 1977 the Labor party’s political hegemony ended abruptly, following the general elections that propelled the Likud party to power. This victory was largely facilitated by the massive support of Mizrahi Jews, shattering common impressions that the melting pot ideology had succeeded in curbing ethnic divisions and in creating a unified cultural community which is ethnically pure and homogeneous in its ‘whiteness’. The emergence of the Mizrahim as a force to be reckoned with nourished dormant fears and anxieties widespread among hegemonic groups that Israeli society was becoming irredeemably Levantine, that is, primitive and backward (Alcalay, 1987). These fears and anxieties grew ever deeper following the establishment of Shas, an ultraorthodox Mizrahi religious party, in the early 1980s, and its success in attracting a growing number of Mizrahi followers (Peled, 2001). Adding power to already existing ultraorthodox Ashkenazi parties, Shas has been portrayed as the arch menace to the ‘Western’ and ‘modern’ character of the state (Helman and Levy, 2001; Ram, 2009: Ram and Yadgar, 2008). In addition, the arrival of immigrants from Ethiopia (in 1984 and 1990) and from the Former Soviet Union (FSU) from the end of the 1980s added to Israel’s demographic mélange the unmistaken signifiers of racial differences: black vs white, first world vs third world (Ben Eliezer, 2004; Bram, 2003). These signifiers have been augmented by migrant workers arriving in Israel following the first Intifada of 1987, which put an end
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to the flow of cheap labor into the Israeli job market from the occupied territories. Thus, Israel witnessed the entry of migrant workers from Thailand, the Philippines, China, South America and Africa that increased fears and anxieties about a third world influx that undermined the polity’s western character (Joppke and Rosenhek, 2002; Kemp, 2004). Rebecca L. Stein has shown the ways in which Palestinian violence in 2002 against Israeli cafés—which she renders as a ‘defining feature of Tel Aviv’s urban, Ashkenazi centers’—militated against the construction of Israel as a western society, ‘a nation-state that, given both its Palestinian and Mizrahi histories, had never been’ (Stein, 2005: 326–7). We suggest that the developments just examined have equally shown the fallacy of such constructions.
The Myth of the Fall: Implicit and Explicit Racist Discourses
Newspapers do not always partake in the conscious and deliberate iteration of national identities and the promotion of national narratives. In fact, when newspapers do so surreptitiously and perfunctorily they become most effective, evoking taken-for-granted interpretive schemes through which social reality is observed and becomes intelligible (Yadgar, 2004: 13). Participating in this scheme, newspapers should be viewed as an integral part of a larger hegemonic discursive system. Indeed, if we view newspapers as a state organ in disguise, integrated deeply, however, within civil society, they assume a privileged role in promoting hegemonic worldviews and hegemonic interests. As Murdoch explains, ‘being relatively autonomous . . . journalists mediate the relationship between ruling class ideology and news content. Moreover, it is their quasi-autonomous status that enables them to facilitate domination through consent’ (cited in Franklin et al., 2006). Thus, they support the hegemonic order by ‘naturalizing’ or taking for granted the inequalities of contemporary capitalism (Gitlin, 1979; Tuchman, 1983). This ‘naturalization’, we may add, includes efforts aimed at mitigating and even denying the maladies and social ills attending these inequalities, such as xenophobia, racism, and sexism. This task is often undertaken, as Barthes argues, by the media’s active participation in the production of myths that distort social and political reality, intending to mitigate its inconsistency and its structural inequalities. But myth production sometimes takes place in a rather circuitous way; while aiming to gloss over, to ‘naturalize’, or even to idealize incongruent political and social reality, it also promotes and reconfirms—albeit indirectly— the racist structure of society. The report about Asaf And Hila, the brother and sister who graduated the Air Force’s aviation course, is a glaring example of this. Published in the daily Yedioth Ahronoth (2007), it appeared under three sequential headlines, each printed in a different letter size. The first title, and the one with the largest letters, read: ‘A Family Structure’. Following it, there was the title ‘The Plate and the Money’, and then came the third title, printed in the smallest letter size, which read: ‘A Rare Species’. Complemented with two flattering pictures of the two siblings, the story aims to depict them as the ‘quintessential Israelis’ who are in real danger of extinction. After all, they represent ‘a rare species’. Thus, the story about Hila and Asaf is also a story about Israeli society, about what it aspires to be, and about the ensuing severe consequences, should it fail to meet its challenges.
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In what follows we analyze this reporting in extenso, situating it within the wider social and historical context. The article opens with a gloomy and distressing description of the political and social circumstances—domestic and geo-political—in which the story gradually unfolds:
Out there, the crazy country is boiling: Palestinians are shut at the southern gate of Israel, African refugees are left to their faith on the Israeli–Egyptian borders, scandals involving corrupt politicians pop up every now and then like mushrooms after the rain, the stock exchange is sky rocketing despite everything, the Iranian nuclear threat looms large and there are talks about war in the offing . . .
Having set the political and social backdrop, the reporters proceed to describe the aviation school, which is perceived by them as displaying a sharp break with the distressing and menacing external world. ‘To a certain degree,’ they write, ‘the Israeliness stops here, at the [exit] checkpoint of the military aviation school.’ This Israeliness, they say, is a vestige of an old and good Israel, which continues to exist in a miniaturist form in the aviation military school. ‘Operating as a meritocratic institute,’ they write, ‘the school is almost the last sign of the things we left behind on the way of becoming a state which continues to move forwards as if pushed by a force of inexplicable inertia.’ Drawing a sharp line dividing the external world and the military aviation school, the authors usher the readers into a heterotopic space of sorts, the role of which is described by Foucault as to create ‘a real space, as perfect, as meticulous, as well arranged as ours is messy, ill constructed, and jumbled’ (Foucault, 1987: 27). And this space, as the authors wish to stress, unwittingly further echoing Foucault, is not ‘illusionary, but compensatory’; it compensates for all things that apparently went astray outside the Air Force military compound. It ought to be emphasized that the aviation school as understood in the article represents a heterotopia which combines both spatial and temporal dimensions. It does not only constitute a parallel, albeit diminutive, perfect world, it also claims to mirror a larger community that allegedly existed in the past. After all, the aviation school provides testimony to a glorious past, ‘a sign of the things we left behind’. Thus, the description of the school is at once a description of an Israel which allegedly existed in the past and an expression of a deep yearning for that imagined Israel. As such, it bemoans, rather profusely, a lost paradise. Otherwise, it may be read as a rendition of a familiar cultural theme: the myth of the fall. Viewed in this light, the reportage emerges as a marvelous exercise in re-presenting a past denuded of all ‘foreign elements’. That is, it re-presents the past as a European haven which mournfully transformed, through the entry of other, unbefitting social and at times foreign forces, into Israeli society. Having juxtaposed a sharp contrast between heterotopia and the menacing reality, the reporters move on to create a dramatic pause, delaying the readers’ encounter with its cherished inhabitants: Asaf and Hila. The authors do not allow us to make an immediate acquaintance with them and hence they do not reveal forthrightly their personal characteristics. And so we do not know who Asaf and Hila are, where they come from and what they look like; they are introduced as if by a master of ceremony who bestows accolades on the guests of honor before calling upon them to address the audience. And the master of ceremony performs this function most copiously. The reporters introduce Asaf and
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Hila through a rich array of superlatives, symbols, metaphors, and myths, befitting the heterotopia in which they dwell and to which they lend its essential ingredients.
In a short while we are going to meet Asaf and Hila. We arrived here to meet them, trying to catch a spark of light in the Israeli darkness. They are the fable, the example, which we are looking for: a brother and a sister, children of a combat pilot. They survived the protracted and arduous aviation course and are going to become, shortly, members of air crews. They are the quintessential Israeliness, allowing us to cling to what we used to be and to what [we] will never be again. They constitute a rare species of people who are devoid of any trace of cynicism. They are the fable and the phantom, since the real Israeliness, which has been already transformed, is the true reality. Thus, meeting them is like entering a bubble, a time warped reality . . . Asaf and his younger sister are the insurance policy: the first to strike, the first to defend. Our deterrence depends on them . . .
As mentioned, this adulatory introductory depiction is devoid of personal attributes; it consists of a rather long and hyperbolic list of superlatives. The siblings are fables, examples, ‘the quintessential Israeliness’. So, too, they are rare species, sincere, they are a phantom as they are an insurance policy. Drawing on Barthes’s analysis of myths, we may say that Asaf and Hila are introduced as signifiers of myth, containing simultaneously and ambiguously both meaning and form, ‘full on one side and empty on the other’ (Barthes, 1989: 117). Although introduced through a thick description containing physical attributes and individual biographies, Asaf and Hila, being signifiers of myths, readily become ‘empty and impoverished forms, leaving their contingent attributes and history behind’ (Barthes, 1989: 117). This mythical depiction of Asaf and Hila is designed to equip the readers with a yardstick by means of which to grasp the moral and cultural deterioration of Israeli society, the distance separating it from what ‘we all aspired it to be’, which is displayed by the heterotopic military aviation school. Thus the authors create a compelling mélange of myths and heterotopic spaces. The myths, borrowing their ‘formal’ attributes’ from Asaf and Hila, do not merely ‘harmonize with the world (not as it is, but as they want to re-present it’ (Barthes, 1989: 156); they refer to a heterotopia, a bubble, a time-warped reality, which is something real, albeit existing in a minuscule form. Following the mythical depiction of the two siblings, the authors finally turn to furnish the readers with a thicker and more personal description of them. Yet the description they provide is not merely semiological, a simple ‘first order’ relationship between a signifier and a signified. It is saturated with an intractable combination of formal attributes, racial signifiers and moral virtues that figure in the reporters’ production of their mythical heroes: ‘Both of them’, they write, ‘are skinny, short, fair-skinned and blueeyed. They are serious people aware of their future. Their father was a pilot who fought the 1982 Lebanon war. Completing his service in the army, he joined the Israeli air ways, El Al . . .’ The literal description of Asaf and Hila’s bodily features is enhanced, however, by two photographs. The first, spread over almost a full page, introduces them sitting on the ground, back to back, while a fighter jet appears in the close background. The siblings glance away from the camera as not to reveal their faces, thus ingeniously exploiting the army’s ban on the publication of names and faces of air force pilots. That is, the deliberate concealing of the faces, dictated by army regulations, creates an intriguing
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ambiguity as to what the viewers really see. Does the picture convey contingent meanings, to be furnished through a thick visual description of Asaf and Hila, or mainly empty visual forms required by myth production? Asaf and Hila, so it seems, are depicted flash and blood; they are embedded individuals displaying obvious physical qualities and concrete biographies. But their identity remains evasive and faceless—only their formal attributes such as their skin complexion and the color of hair are conspicuous. This impression does not lessen when one looks at the siblings’ second picture, which reveals the faces of Asaf and Hila as infants. For here again one does not really see them; one sees two light-skinned, blond-haired, and blue-eyed children, gazing jovially and wholeheartedly at the camera. The caption reads: ‘Hila and Asaf in infancy: An open house with education for tolerance’. Here we are reminded of the following observation by Fanon: ‘magnificent blond children, how much peace there is in that picture, how much joy, and above all how much hope! There is no comparison with magnificent black children’ (Fanon, 1967: 189). This observation emerges in the writings of Ziffer, relating to a press coverage about a 2-year-old, blond girl, who was apparently deserted by her parents in the middle of the street in the city of Varanasi, India, a case that attracted world attention. ‘The moral panic caused by this case’, writes Ziffer, who is the editor of The Literature and Culture Supplementary, Haaretz, one of Israel’s leading newspapers, ‘is irrational; it was out of all proportion.’ A panic of this kind, he continues, does not erupt, for instance, following the fact that ‘many families in Israel send their sons to potential death for the nation sake’. To this we may add, that a panic of this kind does not arise following the fact that hundred thousands of children – most of them non-blond – are deserted, murdered, disappear and die out of hunger every day in the world. So what is the source of the panic in the case of a child deserted by her parents in India? What is the logic of this panic, that is, its distorted logic? Reverberating Fanon’s insight, decades after it was first appeared in his Black Faces, White Masks, Ziffer (2007) writes that the moral panic is nothing but
. . . a ticking conservative bomb waiting for the opportune moment to spread its poison, and for this action to be effective, it must play on several strings at once. And the case of the girl from India is ideal in this respect. In the public fantasy, the blond, first of all, total naivety, the perfect child figuring in commercial adds. And against the naïve blond there is India and its total filth.
Ziffer underscores the Israeli twist of this story, saying that the drama unfolding in this case would not have been complete were it not for the image of that Israeli kindergarten teacher, a tourist in India, who extended her protective wings over the girl for a while, until her parents were allowed to regain custody over her following psychiatric examination. It does not really matter who exactly the girl is; what matters is what the girl represents in this collective fantasy. She represents the sane Israeliness, the proper order, since there is nothing more contemptible, given this moral panic, than lack of order and lack of balance. Assuming then the vantage point of the ‘myth reader’, the meaning of the pictures, embodying the first-order semiological relationship between signifier and signified, become obsolete. Used as a signifier of myth, the picture of the two blond children, Asaf and Hila, as well as that of the deserted blond girl, are freed from the constraints of
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concrete and contingent reality. Extricated from these constraints and depicted as pure forms, the individuals in the pictures are prepared, as Barthes would put it, to receive ‘the signified’. In the case of Asaf and Hila, their picture is prepared to host the image of Israel as essentially European and white society. Thus while providing a quasi-personal profile of Asaf and Hila, this profile is woven into a larger social context. Asaf and Hila, as noted, are children of a father who himself was a combat pilot. Furthermore, Asaf, Hila, and their father are constructed as constitutive elements of a community that can be easily identified through distinct cultural and physical signifiers. These signifiers, as stated, feed upon and reinforce the imagery of an old, white, orderly, and virtuous Israeli society. This European fantasy, combining allegedly cultural and racial signifiers, is transmitted to the readers through the heroes’ bodily features. But if the significance of these bodily—if not racial—signifiers escapes the readers’ attention, the reporters press the point further: they continue to elaborate on Asaf and Hila’s distinct socio-ethnic affiliation, making further efforts to distinguish them from the rest of society:
Asaf and Hila grew up in a bourgeoisie town in central Israel. They led a life of economic comfort, but it was combined with education for values. They are beautiful and successful children who live in a homogenous community . . .
In the aviation course, as the writers note, Asaf and Hila meet mostly people who come from similar backgrounds and similar communities. ‘The people here’, says Asaf, ‘do not represent the entire society, since the school is looking for certain character traits, certain skills.’ However, perhaps aware of the adulatory gaze of the reporters and hence making an attempt—albeit not all that convincing—to resist it, Asaf goes on to say: ‘To ask if the people here represent the entire society is to ask whether bus drivers represent the entire citizens of Israel, and the answer is “no”. We are not better than anybody else, only more suitable for this profession.’ The reporters, it appears, were convinced by the sincerity of Asaf’s words, citing his answer as a sign to his modesty and impeccable moral rectitude. As for the social groups whose representatives are conspicuously absent from the aviation course, they are to be reached out to. And Asaf, as the reporters claim, traveled to Sderot to meet them. Sderot, it should be emphasized, is one of many development towns in Israel’s peripheries perceived as Mizrahi strongholds. In recent years Sderot has also borne the brunt of Kasam missile attacks launched from the Gaza Strip. The reporters do not say much about what they think about Sderot and other towns of its kind. But apparently, these towns don’t belong to the fable they unfold. Nor do they figure in the ideal society they cherish. The towns’ features are delicately insinuated, allowing the readers to salvage them from their own deeply seated and widely circulated images and stereotypes. Thus the readers can readily reinforce their perception that these towns are economically emasculated and culturally deprived and hence in need for special succor and assistance. And again, these towns and their inhabitants do not assume an independent place in the story. After all, the story is not about them; it is about Asaf and Hila. Hence, the description of other communities only serves as yet another instance to celebrate the virtues of Asaf, Hila, and their ilk. They are compassionate and responsible, led by a firm
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commitment to assist the meek of society. The aviation school provides them with the possibility to do just that: ‘Contribution to the community’, as it is called.
The contact to other people, to communities different from the one to which they belong, is done as an integral part of the course, a part labeled ‘a contribution to the community.’ Asaf traveled to Sderot and Hila to Jerusalem, where she visited a soup kitchen. She saw there a women picking in the garbage, while Asaf spent some time with a family in Sderot. He brought back with him some important insights: ‘First, what a lucky guy I am—I really got a good life. Second, it is possible to influence things, it is possible to give.’
As we learn from the reportage, Asaf and Hila’s encounters with the various ‘unfortunate’ communities in Israel took an interesting twist. While they went there with to widen their horizons and to sharpen their social sensitivities, they emerged from their visits with a stronger sense of personal worth. ‘What a lucky guy I am’, says Asaf when asked about the lessons he learned from his visit to Sderot. Asaf and Hila’s unique personal worth is intimately related to their perceived value for the community: they are willing to sacrifice their lives for it. This potential sacrifice allows the writers to push the myth they create to its logical conclusion. Indeed, this resolute exercise in myth production reaches its apex when the two siblings are placed under the category of ‘the tray and the money’ (Ha-magash ve-ha-kesef). That is, Asaf and Hila are depicted as cherished heroes, carrying the torch originally held by the mythological fighters who sacrificed their life for the creation of the Jewish state. Hence, Asaf and Hila become the potential ‘Silver Plate’ (magash ha-qesef), the metaphor used by the late Israeli poet, Natan Alterman, to describe these fighters. They emerge as the Plate upon which the state of Israel is delivered to the Jews of Israel. Like the martyred soldiers, Asaf and Hila are the indispensable potential sacrifice assuring the continuing existence of Israel. They are those to whom Israeli Jews owe their sovereign state. Thus, on their way to becoming mythical figures, they must first be martyred, at least metaphorically. Their death is not merely facilitated by stripping them of their personal features, as demanded by myth production. Rather, they are placed on the death–life divide, to be instantly required, if needed, to pass the corridor leading mortals to immortality. Thus, if a typical myth production requires the death of a hero, Asaf and Hila are to be transformed into mythological figures by satisfying this condition symbolically, not physically. The lesson to be gleaned from the expression the ‘Plate and the Money’ is also about the place of economic considerations in Asaf and Hila’s decision to pursue military careers. It is allegedly about their willingness to forgo pecuniary advantages, which would have possibly accrued to them if they were not to pursue such careers and followed instead lucrative positions in, say, the high-tech industry or other highly paid professions. The pecuniary loss notwithstanding, their patriotic decision to pursue a military career will most likely afford them lucrative career opportunities upon completing their service, thus following in their father’s footsteps. Furthermore, living in a society which still looks upon the Israeli air force as ‘a spark of light in the darkness’, they stand sure to have their personal self-esteem reinforced by others. In this way the authors unwittingly provide justification for Israel’s socioeconomic inequalities, grounding them in a republican ethos which decrees that socioeconomic advantages are to be allocated according to an individual’s
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contribution to the res-publica, the public interest of the nation (Yonah, 2007). As we will see later on, the celebration of Asaf and Hila’s heroic virtues and tying them up with Israel’s republican ethos stand in sharp contrast to the manner in which other Israeli social groups are portrayed. This opposite portrayal sits well with familiar racist practices directed against oppressed groups which intend to depict them as inert, lazy, and dependent, thereby legitimizing their low socioeconomic standing. As mentioned earlier, rarely does myth fall into rigid analytical paradigms. As Barthes recognizes, following Levy-Straus, myth does not neatly settle society’s conflicts and contradictions and it often incorporates and sustains them rather than mitigating them altogether. In the case of the sibling pilots, it is the category of gender that undermines the consistency of the myth. It is plausible to assume that if the myth had concerned only male pilots, the vision of Israel’s whiteness would have unfolded consistently, or at least more consistently. But the fact that one of the sibling pilots is a woman requires the myth to reckon with ‘contamination’. It not only extolls whiteness but also gender equality, suggesting, no matter how compellingly, that the mythological, white Israel upholds gender equality. In this way it echoes, albeit partially, Barthes’s analysis of myth production. So much for myth production in the service of covert racism, for we now turn to the interaction of myth production and overt racism. The production (either conscious or unconscious) of myths promoting and reinforcing the racial structure of Israeli society has grown considerably ever since this society’s demographic composition has undergone changes that threatened its overall perception as ‘a villa in the jungle’, to use Ehud Barak’s revealing formulation (cited in Morris, 2002). As mentioned previously, many perceived the immigration from the former Soviet Union (FSU) in the late 1980s as the ‘great white hope’, foiling the demographic threat posed to Israeli society by Arabs, the Mizrahim, and ultraorthodox Jews. This hope received a most eloquent expression in a column penned by Amnon Dankner, an Israeli columnist turned novelist, and until recently the chief-editor of the daily Ma`ariv. Published in mid-1989, a few months before the influx of Soviet immigrants into Israel, Dankner openly played the racial card, citing the many advantages that Israel would gain from the arrival of Soviet immigrants to Israel, compared to disadvantages accrued to the state following the admission of Mizrahi immigrants into the country in the 1950s. Like the article about the two pilots, Dankner registers a yearning for a lost paradise, for en epoch when Israel was, to his view, a European enclave:
We have to admit that our state, the one that began its career as an Ashkenazi state, has tilted or, if you will, turned in the past two decades in the Mizrahi-Levantine direction. There are those who are happy with this, but not me. There were those who felt the state has slipped through their hands and it is not what they knew, not what they wanted. Whoever wants to accuse me of racism and bring over and over again the warn-out theories about the Noble Savage and about the collapse of the material-Western value-system, [I do not care] . . . I still believe that the more the distance there is between Baghdad and us the better off we are. The bitter fact is that in the last years the distance between the Arab World—not the political distance unfortunately but the distance of civilization—shrunk alarmingly. The academic level of schools and universities has been deteriorating and the Israeli public sphere has become more Levantine, in the bad sense of the word. Due to the obsequiousness of politicians, superstitious beliefs and ugly festivities gain official legitimacy, and there is a distinct frechi3 odor in the air. (Dankner, 1989)
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Following this diatribe—preceding the reporting on the young pilots and providing a radically contemptuous portrayal of Arab and Mizrahi cultures—Dankner goes on to ponder the corrective potential that lies in the influx of Russian immigrants to Israel. The question is, as Dankner sees it, whether that immigration will have a positive impact on Israel’s ‘dilapidated social fabric’. He was resoundingly sanguine:
You can confidently bet it will. Think of it: half a million Jews or more who like to study and read, to go to theatre and concerts, people of high education in the fields of engineering and medicine, computers and music, laboratory assistants, chemists, physicists, pharmacists, doctors and nurses and violin players. And their children—disciplined, polite, serious and love to study. The heart rejoices at the thought about the injection of encouragement that all those will provide to our dilapidated social fabric. These are the people we want here.
Dankner ends his column with a desperate plea urging Russian Jews—his claimed brethren—to hasten their arrival to rescue the Jewish state from the serious demographic threats it confronts. ‘Hurry up brothers,’ he wrote, ‘hurry up. We are terribly in need for you.’ This racist depiction of Mizrahi Jews received even more blunt expressions in the musings of Haaretz columnist, Gedaon Samet, who employed unambiguous biological signifiers. Like Dankner before, Samet’s writing is ineluctably subordinated to a binary depiction of East and West, Mizrahim and Ashkenazim, backward and progressive. And again, following Dankner, he intimated to the readers racist views with respect to the looming immigration from the FSU. The following are his impressions from a visit to a couple of immigrants from the FSU.
Only when visiting Marina and Mark Wolfson in their rented apartment . . . my fear that the government will destroy this wonderful wave of immigration was dissipated. Suddenly I understood that even an unsuccessful and so idle a government like the one we have will not be able to disturb the life of those people . . . They are my Russians. I asked to be in contact with an immigrant family. I wanted to invest my compulsive predilection to arrange matters in helping Mark and Marina to settle down in the country. In the first time [we visited them] we brought a flowerpot, we sat there for two hours . . . First of all, you see that there is no bitterness. There is not an onset of some D.D.T myth or [a myth] of being dropped in the middle of the night in some remote pit without asking them . . . (Samet, 1990:. b1)
Arguably, Israelis can readily decipher the inner code of Samet’s discursive practice. They know that he rejects the Mizrahim’s account of their travails upon arrival in Israel and of the harsh discrimination to which they were exposed, attributing their misgivings not to any concrete historical experience, but to the very nature of ‘their’ pathological culture. But this pathology, he seems to say, is not the main fault plaguing Mizrahi Jews. He draws another fault from a familiar racist colonial arsenal against postcolonial populations, and especially against blacks: a dependency complex.4 The Russian immigrants, he claims, display ‘no terrible and paralyzing dependency’ ostensibly still characterizing ‘old generations of immigrants in “development” towns’. This ‘complex’ is obviously lacking among the immigrants from FSU. In fact, they not only lack this complex but
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also enjoy, to the contrary, a God-given gift: they are the collective embodiment of the ‘Jewish Genius’.
Here it is, in front of you, stands the Jewish Genius. I have to admit the deep attraction that I have towards Mark and Marina, being the new symbols of the historic chain of events of which I am also a descendant . . . They did us a favor by coming here and not the opposite. After I went to Marina and Mark—with the big desire to help them settle down—what I really wanted to tell this couple from Tashkent is—how to say it—Thanks.
This depiction of Marina and Mark, mediated by biological signifiers such as the putative ‘Jewish Genius’, echoes Samet’s demeaning and racist perspective on Mizrahi Jews. The binary depiction of both groups follows a familiar colonial gesture known for its notoriety. Russian immigrants acquire all the propitious assets that Mizrahi immigrants allegedly lack. Russian immigrants are active, industrious, and independent while the Mizrahim are passive, lazy, and dependent. Samet further constructs and calibrates a gap between ‘ours’ and ‘theirs’ in his commentary ‘The Days of Tzeklag and the days of Baba Baruch’ (1989: b1). In this commentary Samet contrasts two different events that took place in the year 1989. The first event celebrated the publication of a second edition of the book The Days of Tzeklag. Written by one of Israel’s most revered novelists, S. Yizhar, in 1970, The Days of Tzeklag contributed immensely to the increasing tide of popular nostalgia for a mythological past, and more particularly for the spirit and comradeship of 1948. The second event was the annual religious mass celebration dedicated to the memory of Baba Sally, a Moroccanborn rabbi and spiritual leader. Samet’s report on the first event is rendered as both a laudatory speech and a eulogy about the good old Israel that ceased to exist, about an extinct culture—whose primary representatives are, in addition to Yizhar himself, poet Haim Guri, novelists Amos Oz and A. B. Yehoshoa, and Shimon Peres—and about the ‘beautiful war’ of 1948. The Days of Tzeklag, writes Samet, is ‘a novel that comprises a total vision of almost everything that was beautiful, valorous, heroic, aspiring and yet modest’. The event for the book, he grieved,
. . . was a requiem to this time, to its people, as they are seen through the eyes of a generation that becomes gradually extinct. There will not be another evening like this one, an event that cannot be reproduced, as if it were a final erection in the midst of a reality for which the book and its meaning are a blurring echo from the past. If a tear was wiped there, it shed, seemingly, also because of the sharp feeling that that ‘Genius’ is in danger and maybe already dead.
Like the authors of the article about the young pilots, Samet went on to identify the very forces threatening to make that Israel even more an extinct phenomenon. ‘The social and political past of Israel, the past depicted in The Days of Tzeklag, faces the threats from the future, from the [coming] Days of Baba Baruch.’ According to Samet:
There are powerful forces that replacing [the spirit of] The Days of Tzeklag, and the celebration in Netivot [a development town in Israel’s southern periphery, where the Baba Sally
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celebrations take place] is only one among their many manifestations . . . It appears more and more that [these forces] reflect the future face of Israeli politics. They do not merely display style and folklore but a strong feature, something like a portrait of the regime that might determine our lives in the future . . . The festivity of the saint—along with its sacrificial blood and holy water—is the present and also a glimpse into the future; the rite of Tzeklag is the past . . .
As noted, Samet wrote this essay in early 1989, 11 months before the big wave of immigration from the FSU began and before Samet visited Mark and Marina at their rented apartment. Thus, if Samet’s article of 1989 can be read as a lamentation for the seeming demise of ‘the Jewish Genius’ due to the growing influence of ‘the days of Bhabha Salli’, his 1990 article, like that of Dankner, can be read as an expression of hope. For, according to Samet, the arrival of Russian immigrants to Israel provides a renewed impetus to this Genius. Similar to Dankner, Samet heralds the message of an eminent salvation of Israeli society from the pillories of the culture that exudes a ‘frechi scent’. The new immigrants from the FSU, the descendants of the same ‘historic chain’ to which he belongs, provided him with the hope that Israeli society may after all overcome ‘the Bhabha Baruch forces’. To be sure, the talk about ‘descendants of the same historic chain’ plays a similar role that the expression ‘frechi’ culture plays. It is entangled in ambivalence and equivocation. While ‘descent’ connotes a clear biological lineage, historical chain apparently dispenses with such lineage. The same goes for the expression ‘Jewish Genius’. Since Mizrahi Jews are—what to do—all Jews, they apparently have a claim to that Genius. But at the same time the Mizrahim seem to lack it. So, it is not clear from what Samet writes whether the Jewish Genius is an acquired or an inborn trait. It might have been that Samet was conscious of the racist implications of his writing and thought that he could avoid them if he equivocated between biology and culture. But even if we assume that he managed to expunge any biological attributes from his account of the differences between European and Middle Eastern Jews, the racist overtone of his account nonetheless remains evident, for it confines Mizrahi Jews to inferior human status. Here of course one is reminded of Balibar’s observation that racism may prevail even if it shuns biological signifiers (Balibar, 1991) To end this section, we would like to further pursue the issue of the unspoken centrality of race (and racism) in Israeli society. Let us consider an intriguing example showing that, despite the growing public awareness towards racism besetting Israeli society, there is no awareness as to the very role that Zionism’s cultural repertoire plays in promoting this racism. On the contrary (and paradoxically) this very repertoire, including its racial myths, is regularly invoked to fight racism! On 30 August 2007, Yedioth Ahronoth, Israel’s most widely circulated daily newspaper, announced ‘a racist country’, referring to Israeli society. Palestinian Arabs, and Ethiopian, Russian, ultra-Orthodox, and Mizrahi Jews, the main headline reported, were all said to be the targets of blatant racist discrimination in terms of education, employment, and other opportunities. (Ashkenazi Jews were the only group exempted from this despicable attitude.5) Three public figures were invited to reflect on these findings, including Ghaleb Majadleh, the Israeli government’s only Arab minister, Sever Pluzker, Yedioth Ahrnonoth’s influential economic affairs analyst, and Yair Lapid, a well-known
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television anchorman and columnist (Lapid, 2007; Majadleh, 2007; Pluzker, 2007). Significantly, although all four commentators acknowledged that racism is a formidable and widespread phenomenon in Israeli society, none was willing to acknowledge that this racism draws much of its force from the national ethos and its essential ingredients: myths, metaphors, and narratives. On the contrary, whenever the national ethos was summoned it was done with the intention of pointing out its potential to alleviate the problem! Again, security, the army, western culture, the Bible, and the Holocaust—these were the values to which the four commentators resorted in their unyielding and tenacious war on racism. In other words, they displayed a general failure to notice how these very values are imperceptibly interwoven in racial myths that figure formidably in the elaboration of Israel’s national identity. In the final analysis, they display lack of awareness as to how the integration of these myths into the national culture supports and legitimizes the racial hierarchy in Israeli society.
Myth Production and Israeli’s Collective Unconsciousness
The myth that Israel once was ‘a small and pleasant European colony’ that turned in recent decades ‘into a bustling Middle Eastern metropolis full of strange and scheming faces’, as one Israeli commentator put it (Nathan, 1999), echoes the Jewish state’s unfinished business with its own collective identity. This myth and the attendant nostalgic yearning for bygone days, the aching desire (algos) to return home (nostos), which is nothing but an illusionary domicile, provides a glimpse into some of Israel’s deepest anxieties. These anxieties, in turn, are projected onto the Jewish state’s ‘non-European others’. As we have seen, these projections may assume different manifestations. Sometimes they find overt racist expressions, as was the case with the columns written by Dankner and Samet; and at other times they find covert expressions, as was the case with the reportage on the young sibling pilots. Furthermore, the anxieties that are related to the myth of Israel as a European haven crosses mental borders. Sometimes these anxieties flood the collective consciousness of Israel’s Jewish community and at other times it surfaces in disguise, echoing their concealed existence in the collective unconsciousness of the community. It is possible to argue, however, that these anxieties do not move from one mental field to another diachronically but dwell concurrently in both mental fields: the collective consciousness and the collective unconsciousness of Israel’s contemporary Jewish community. To shed some light on the elusive movement of these fears and anxieties, on their mental ubiquity, we turn to Fanon’s critical remarks on the interrelation of collective unconsciousness and racism. Curiously, while offering a critical reading of racism, in his Black Skin, White Masks, Fanon made a reference to Israel—the only one in the book. Wishing to stress the point that collective unconsciousness is not simply the sum of repressed desires and instincts, as Freud would have it, but ‘purely and simply the sum of prejudices, myths and collective attitudes of a given group’, Fanon cited the example of the Jews who settled in Israel. ‘It is taken for granted,’ he wrote, ‘that the Jews who have settled in Israel will produce in less than a hundred years a collective unconsciousness different from the one that they had had before 1945 in the countries which they were forced to leave’ (1967: 188). Fanon’s point is that the mental life of those who were victims of harsh racial prejudices
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and oppression is historically constituted. That is to say, one should not conflate the pre-1945 racist gaze on European Jews and its horrendous consequences on the one hand, and the (indirect) European gaze by, and on, Jews currently living in Israel, on the other. However, elaborating this point, Fanon displays some equivocation. On the one hand, he argued that this psychodynamic led European Jews (and European blacks) to engage in practices of mimicry that are basically conscious, not unconscious. Analyzing the reaction of blacks to brutal racist prejudices in Europe, Fanon stated, ‘[s]ince the racial drama is played out in the open, the black man has no time to make it unconscious’ (1967: 150). Attempting then to deflect the destructive blows of racism the ‘black man’, says Fanon, ‘despises and hates himself openly and is consciously inundated by a strong wish to become white’. Fanon identified the same untoward pathological reaction among pre1945 European Jews who ‘admitted the validity of the Aryan system’, and hence expressed unequivocal self-loathing and self-contempt (1967: 182). On the other hand, Fanon elaborated on how the encounter with European culture crucially influenced and shaped the unconsciousness of blacks and Jews in Europe. After all, this is what accounts for ‘unreflected imposition of culture’ (1967: 191). By this Fanon means the power of culture to bequeath individuals with beliefs, values, myths and prejudices that unconsciously determine their attractions and aversions, their tastes and distastes, for a wide range of things. As Fanon suggests, Blacks and Jews ‘who live in Europe and breath and eat the myths of racist Europe, and assimilated the collective unconscious of Europe, will be able, if they stand outside themselves, to express only hatred of themselves’ (1967: 188). Again, the unconsciousness, as Fanon stressed, plays a crucial role in this psychodynamic.6 It is not our intention to resolve these inconsistencies in Fanon’s reflections on racism. Nonetheless, his observation that the collective unconsciousness of Israel’s contemporary Jewish community is bound to be different from the collective unconsciousness of Jews who lived in Europe before 1945 is compelling. Compared to pre-1945 European Jews, whose psyche was deeply scorched by anti-Semitism, Israel’s contemporary Jewish community, and especially those belonging to its ethnocratic order, are exempt from the malefic consequences of direct anti-Semitism. Unlike Jews living in Europe before 1945, Israeli Jews have been spared the ‘pressing need’ to internalize brute antiSemitic prejudices and to express a desperate and open desire to become European. Put differently, unlike exilic Jews, Israeli Jews have not operated under the domineering gaze of the European Orientalizer. As a result, they have not been thoroughly engulfed by selfhatred owing to their alleged intractable and non-eradicable Jewish ‘essence.’ In this regard, Fanon seems to be heeding Freud’s understanding of Zionism as a national movement aiming to provide Jews with ‘a country of their own in which they can educate their children so that can move freely across frontiers’ (cited in Boyarin, 1997: 223). If one finds this argument compelling, then the thesis about ‘the great chain of orientalism’ as promoted among others by Khazzoom (2003), should be reassessed.7 The main lacuna of this thesis is that it implicitly and erroneously assumes that the racial drama is ‘played out in the open’. This assumption, which draws on Goffman’s ‘map of stigma-management strategies’ (Khazzoom, 2003), assumes that ‘strategies of selfpresentation’ occur in the context of ‘face-to-face interactions’ that take place within the same social arena, such as blacks/whites in the US, and Jews/Gentiles or Muslims/
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non-Muslims in Europe. It is there, as Goffman suggests, that social life may become similar to ‘theatrical performance’ by which individuals ‘present carefully crafted selves to each other’ (Khazzoom, 2003). But when viewed in the context of Israeli society, where some of the main actors in this theatre—particularly the anti-Semitescum-Orientalizers—have long receded into the backstage, Goffman’s analytical framework seems to raise serious doubts. With all fairness, Khazzoom is aware of this problem. She states, albeit haphazardly and in a footnote, that ‘Goffman’s empirical focus was face-to-face interactions, while the Jewish case entails more attention to the “backstage” and to indirect interaction (such as written media)’ (2003: 484n). But the ‘backstage’ of and ‘indirect interaction’ among Israeli Jews do not manifest themselves merely as remote actors; they should also (perhaps mainly) take into account the fact that hegemonic groups in Israeli society have freed themselves, for a quite long time now, from the direct and domineering gaze of the anti-Semite Orientalizer. What we suggest, then, is that Orientalism requires more nuanced historicization than the one offered by Khazzoom, adjusting it to the realities of contemporary Israeli realities. Such an undertaking requires that we turn attention to the vestigial traces of the missing actors in the collective unconsciousness of Israel’s contemporary Jewish community. Such an exploration may be particularly useful when it takes on board Freud’s notion of the ‘uncanny’ and the role it plays in the iteration and reiteration of Israel’s national identity. It allows us to better understand the role that racial myths play in this undertaking. Our main argument is that the promotion of racial myths in the iteration of Israel’s national identity emanates from the encounter with social groups that evokes the uncanny, the unheimlich, which hides in the collective unconsciousness of Israeli society. Referring to ‘everything that ought to have remained, secret and hidden, but has come to light’, the uncanny, to borrow from Freud, gives rise to dread and horror when confronted by ‘certain symbols or events’ (cited in Clarke, 2003: 75). But what is exactly the substance of the uncanny, that which ‘ought to have remained secret and hidden’ in the Israel context? Whence does it come from and what are exactly the ‘symbols and events’ that prompt its outer manifestations? As noted previously, belonging to a long and significant tradition that challenges Freud’s notion of the repressed as referring simply to basic desires and instincts (see for instance Fromm, 1942; Horkheimer and Adorno, 1994; Klein, 1957; Lacan, 1977), Fanon argued that the repressed is ‘purely and simply the sum of prejudices, myths and collective attitudes of a given group’ (Fanon, 1967: 188). In the Israeli case, this sum relates, we suggest, to the symbolic repertoire of the ongoing melting pot project, which is the ideological imperative par excellence of modern Zionism. Central to this repertoire are the metaphors and myths that inform the attempts of Israel’s hegemonic groups to imagine an Israel that is essentially European. Overall, this project has been successful for these groups. Yet at the same time these groups are haunted by fears and anxieties, emanating from the realization that their Jewish-Israeli modernity is in state of crisis, and ‘not a finished ideal state seen as the culmination of a majestically plotted history’ (Said, 2000: 473). They see this project being fraught with disparate, even discordant, circumstances, origins, and valences owing to the very challenges posed to them by the ‘deviant’ groups, or ‘outsiders within’, they seek to rule. But these anxieties, it must be
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emphasized, echo vibrations emanating from an energetic, unconscious realm. They echo anxieties originating from a constant and disquieting doubt that Israel might fail the ordeals of modernity due to ‘foreign’ elements from within. After all, the Zionist vision of the melting pot requires all Jews—whether of European or of Middle East descent—to overcome their putative exilic-cum-Oriental attributes. Submitting to familiar repression–projection schema, Israel’s hegemonic groups thus project their doubts onto ‘other’ social groups, depicting them as either pre- or nonmodern, as products of what Dipesh Chakrabarty described as a ‘grievously incomplete’ modernist project (Chakrabarty, 2000: 3–46). This depiction tends to employ racial signifiers as a demarcation line between the modern and the non-modern, the secular and the religious, the progressive and the backward. Echoing Horkheimer’s and Adorno’s psychoanalytical insight (Horkheimer and Adorno, 1994), Clarke states that ‘certain individuals and groups remind us of our repressed prehistory and it matters little if these groups actually have these mimetic features, these urges are unpalatable we project them’ (Clarke, 2003: 82). However, we need not assume that the repressed prehistory as prompted by certain groups relate simply to basic desires and instincts. Rather, they relate to repressed concepts, images, symbols, and metaphors. These elements are perceived as an integral part of the collective self, but since they are also perceived as essentially unpalatable, the bearers of this identity attempt to exorcize them from within the collective self. That is, the uncanny does not merely dwell within the self, albeit against his/her will and volition, but, to follow Klein (1957), it is rather a constitutive of the self and its identity, of its repressed identity. In the Israeli case, the uncanny is represented mainly by Oriental signifiers, images, and metaphors, which assume, in turn, racial signifiers. Mizrahi Jews constitute the very groups that remind Israel’s Jewish community of its ‘repressed prehistory’, the uncanny, the strangers or outsiders within which are yet familiar. They represent ‘others’ that apparently resist the imperative of the melting pot and refuse to shed their exilic Oriental culture thus coming to terms with the logic of secular modernity. It ought to be noted that over the years the religious attribute of Oriental culture ceased to be conceived as inherently problematic. There are several reasons for this change. First, the self-proclaimed secular elite, identified with the labor movement, began to lose its political and cultural hegemony during the 1970s. Second, religion has resurfaced with vengeance within contemporary Jewish Israeli society at large, Mizrahi and Ashkenazi Jews alike. Thus the purported failure of Mizrahi Jews to come to terms with the logic of secular modernity is often depicted not necessarily as a failure to become secular but as failure to become religious in a modern way (Goodman and Yonah, 2004). After all, Mizrahi Jews, as the columnist of Haaretz depicted them, are enthralled by festivities of the saints along with sacrificial blood and holy water. Hence, one way or another, Mizrahi Jews seem to provide a resounding and unsettling testimony that the modern project is far from over, that it is faltering, if not about to crumble altogether. Again, the fear that the growing power of these strangers might bring this project down resonates with something which is very familiar to Israel’s hegemonic groups, with themselves. These others echo the existence of the Semite, the religious, and the Arab who dwell within them and stubbornly refuse outright expulsion.
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Final Words: Racism, Racism without Race, and Myth Production
One of the constitutive principles of Israel’s self-portrayal concerns the country of origin. This principle can be traced back to the initial impetus behind the emergence of the Zionism as a movement intending to provide a solution to the ‘Jewish problem’, commonly understood as ‘the problem of the European Jews’. This problem was to be solved by the creation of an independent state where European Jews could find safe haven from anti-Semitic persecution. The conceptualization of the problem in this light lies in the perception of Zionism as an idea initiated by European Jews, designed to serve European Jews, and to be carried out by European Jews. This idea was succinctly expressed by Shlomo Avinery, the Israeli world-renowned expert on Marx’s thought. ‘With the return of East Europe to itself, following the disappearance of the Soviet world,’ he wrote, ‘Israel has also returned to itself, to a central part of its identity, that is, to Eastern Europe’ (Avinery, 1990). These Eurocentric overtones go back to the original articulation of Zionism as essentially European in nature and as a solution to the troubled existence of European Jews following the surge of ethno-nationalisms in Central and Eastern Europe during the second half of the 19th century (Shoat, 1988). Put simply, Zionism intended to establish a European state for European Jews to be run by European Jews and yet, somewhat paradoxically, to be established in the Orient (Raz-Krakotzkin, 1999). This aspiration was accompanied by a self-ascribed mission that may be described as the Zionist version of the ‘White man’s burden’. This mission received a clear iteration, for example, in a speech delivered by Max Nordau, Herzl’s chief lieutenant in the Eighth Jewish Congress in 1907. ‘We shall seek,’ said Nordau, ‘to do in Western Asia what the English did in India—I mean the cultural work, not rulership and domination. We aim to come to Eretz Israel as messengers of culture and we aim to extend the moral boundaries of Europe all the way to the Euphrates’ (cited in Shafir and Peled, 2002: 75).8 Soon enough, however, this ambitious aim encountered challenges not only from the non-Jewish populations of Palestine but also from the makeup of the budding Jewish society itself. Following the establishment of the Jewish state in 1948, Israel needed to consolidate its grip over territories falling within its internationally recognized borders. To achieve this goal, it embarked upon large-scale projects aiming to populate mainly frontier areas with Jewish inhabitants, which in turn required massive and unselective immigration of Jews to Israel, from European and non-European countries alike. Thus, on top of legislating the Law of Return in 1950, which granted Jews everywhere the right to immigrate to Israel and receive immediate Israeli citizenship upon arrival, it devised active policies aimed at promoting high fertility among Jews (Yonah, 2005). These steps, allowing the admission of massive number of Middle Eastern Jews within the nascent society, have embroiled Zionism in intractable anxieties lest this open-door immigration policy undermined attempts to fashion Israel after European models. If these fears subsided towards the first half of 1970s, receding into Israel’s collective unconsciousness, they have resurfaced with great intensity since then. Perceived as a threat to the alleged Westernism of the Jewish state, these developments have given rise to discursive practices that register an anxious and deep desire to envision it as a modern and western state.
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But this exercise of iteration and reiteration of Israel’s national identity, we argue, employs racial myths that promote and legitimize Israel’s racial structure. As previously shown, the analysis of these myths requires a significant departure from the pattern extensively discussed by Barthes. Although employing the theoretical edifice articulated by Barthes, our analysis charts a new and important direction in the study of the intricate interplay between racism and myth production. Indeed, as Barthes compellingly shows, there are myths that distort reality, endeavoring to contain social inconsistencies and hierarchies by promoting a false façade of full and equal social inclusion irrespective of race, ethnicity gender, etc. But there is another type of myths which is substantially different in nature from the type to which Barthes drew attention. The type of myths we wanted to unravel is the one underpinning the very racial structure of society by promoting, albeit surreptitiously, racial ideologies and worldviews. To be sure, these myths often exist side by side with myths to which Barthes drew attention. As we have illustrated, the very case we analyzed includes a myth of gender equality that echoes the type of myth production captured by Barthes. Yet, while the myths Barthes unraveled distort the racial structure of society by containing racism, the myths on which we wanted to shed light reinforce this structure by promoting racism. The two different types of myth display an invidious and cunning interplay. While the first type tends to deflect attention from the racial structure of society, the other takes on board racial ideologies and worldviews that sustain this structure. These two types of myths bolster each other so as to keep society firmly entangled in the tentacles of racist ideologies and worldviews. Notes
1. We have in mind neo-Marxist theoretical traditions (Balibar 1991; Miles, 1989, 1994, Miles and Torres, 1994; Wallerstein, 1987); post-modernist theoretical traditions (Rattansi, 1994; Said, 1978), post-structuralist theoretical traditions (Bonnett, 1997); and anti- or post-colonial theoretical traditions (Bhabha, 1994; Fanon, 1967; Stoler, 1997, 2002). 2. It is interesting to note that German society displays a similar attitude towards the issue of race and racism. Post-1945 German discrimination against migrant minorities is generally interpreted as stemming from prejudices and xenophobia—not racism. In other words, racism in Germany is associated exclusively with the Nazi genocide (Wilpert, 1993: 67). 3. The adjective ‘Frechi’ is derivative from an Arab female name—Frecha--that was popular among Jewish women born in Arab countries and especially among those born in Morocco. The meaning of the term in Arabic is ‘joy.’ Acquiring, however, derogatory connotations, it means a vulgar and low-cultured woman. Over the years, though, the term has also been established and used to describe men. Thus, we have Dankner’s use of the expression ‘frechi culture’ that unmistakably assumes an affinity with Mizrahi and Middle Eastern norms, customs and values. 4. On the ascription of the dependency complex to blacks, see Fanon 1967: 83–108. 5. Three weeks later, the Israel business journal, Globes, published a report by Liat Ini on the same subject, entitled ‘The Israeli Job Market is Racist’, 20 Sept. 2007. http://www.globes. co.il/ Hebrew/ 6. Boyarin, for instance, offers an intriguing psychoanalysis of Freud—seeing him as the Jew writ large living in Western Europe during the fin de siècle—aiming to show that he was actually subject to unconscious desire to become a Christian and even Aryan (1997: 223–5). 7. For other articulations of this thesis, see for instance, Boyarin, 1997; Gluzman, 2007; Piterberg, 1996; Ram, 2009; Raz-Krakotzkin, 1999; Soker-Schwager, 2007; Selzer, 1967; Shoat, 1988. 8. For other iterations of this mission in the founding fathers of modern Zionism, see also Herzl 1897; Hess, 1960; Weizmann, 1982.
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Yossi Yonah teaches political philosophy and philosophy of education at Ben Gurion University of the Negev and he is a Senior Research Fellow at the Van Leer Institute of Jerusalem. His recent publications include In Virtue of Difference: Israel as a Multicultural Society (2005, in Hebrew); Citizenship Gaps: Immigration, Population Management and Fertility, (2008, co-ed. with Adriana Kemp, in Hebrew); Racism in Israel (2008, coedited with Yehouda Shenhav, in Hebrew); Citizenship, Education and Social Conflict (London: Routledge, 2010, co-edited with Hanan Alexander, Halleli Pinson). Address: Dept of Education, Ben Gurion University of the Negev, POB 653, Beer Sheva 84105, Israel. [Email: firstname.lastname@example.org] Haggai Ram teaches the history of the Middle East in Ben Gurion University of the Negev. His recent publications include Reading Iran in Israel: The Self and the Other, Religion in Modernity (2006, in Hebrew) and Iranophobia: The Logic of an Israeli Obsession (2009). Address: Dept of Middle East Studies, Ben Gurion University, Beer Sheva, 84105, Israel; [Email: email@example.com] Dalya Markovich teaches sociology of Israeli society and Israeli education system in Beitberl College. She was the editor of a literary journal, The Orientation East: Jewish-Arabic Culture in Israel. Address: Beitberl College, Kfar Saba, Israel. [Email: firstname.lastname@example.org]