Join Our Mailing List

Bookmark and Share

  Home > News > Additional Stories

Wrapped in the Flag of Isarel in Journal of Middle Eastern Women’s Studies

by Adi Kuntsman
Journal of Middle Eastern Women’s Studies
July 2016

Smadar Lavie’s Wrapped in the Flag of Israel brings together several foundational prin- ciples that are detrimental to the lives of many poor, disenfranchised, marginalized women in the Middle East and beyond and yet are not explored systematically: gender and race are intertwined deeply and powerfully and cannot be understood separately; poverty destroys bodies, minds, and spirits, its effects long-lasting and often deadly; the state can be ruthless in its mundane management of its most vulnerable citizens while still enjoying their wholehearted loyalty. First and foremost, it is a book about understanding the grip of state violence on its defenseless subjects—poor women of color—through the notion of bureaucracy as a form of torture: from everyday humiliation and powerlessness to the paralyzing impact of all-encompassing webs of procedures to debilitating and long-term scarring of women’s bodies, minds, and souls.

At the center of the book is the 2003 protest of a group of disenfranchised Mizrahi single mothers, whose lives depended on welfare that had been severely cut by the eco- nomic reforms of the early 2000s. At the moment of utter desperation, one of the mothers, Vicky Knafo, decided to march from the periphery where she lived to Jerusalem, setting up a protest camp over the summer. Her protest was sporadically and conditionally sup- ported, judged, ignored, co-opted, and eventually abandoned in a moment of a perceived national crisis when violence erupted once again between Israel and the Palestinians.

Following the protest and its many actors, Lavie, as a Mizrahi feminist activist, a scholar, and a welfare-dependent single mother herself, uses the protest as a case study through which matters of poverty and ruthless neoliberal economy, Israeli intra-Jewish racism, Jewish Ashkenazi domination, nationalism, and the occupation of Palestinian territories intertwine. It is the first ethnography of the day-to-day experiences of Mizrahi women living at the mercy of the Israeli welfare state. It is also a highly innovative theo- rization of state power as divine—a theorization that opens new directions in thinking about women and religion and in explaining the state’s grip and the failure of antistate social protest by faithful disenfranchised citizens. Last, Wrapped is among the very few works that tie Israeli colonization and military occupation of Palestine with internal col- onization of non-European Jews, intra-Jewish racism, and Ashkenazi rule.

Wrapped challenges two key assumptions that still dominate both the academic knowledge and the political discourse with regard to Israel/Palestine. The first assumption deals with the presumably monolithic category of gender and “women” and the related expectation of joint women’s experiences and (potential for) solidarity. Instead, Wrapped demonstrates both the persistent Ashkenazi domination of most Israeli women’s non- governmental organizations and the ways Ashkenazi Zionism and its deadly racial and national logic divide between groups of marginalized women (the Mizrahi, the Bedouin, the Russian immigrants), preventing solidarity and alliances among disenfranchised minorities.

The second assumption concerns the simplified distinction between Jews and Palestinians, which also leads to a simplified understanding of the Israeli occupation and military rule as concerning solely the relations between Israel and Palestine. Instead, Lavie draws the complex interrelations between the occupation of Palestine and the inter- nal colonization of the Mizrahi Jews, or Arab Jews, whose “border zone” position makes them hostages to Israeli colonial nationalism twice, both times through the divine logic of Jewish unity, “one state, one people.”

First, the myth of such unity is used to sustain Mizrahi women’s (and men’s) love for the “Jewish state,” no matter how harsh the dispossession, how poisonous the racism, and how debilitating the economic precariousness. Lavie shows us the impossibility of resisting the violence of the state due to both the state’s divine nature and the survival mechanisms inflicted institutionally and psychically by the bureau- cratic torture. Second, the state uses the myth of “one people” repeatedly and effectively to shut down the social Mizrahi protest, turning each time to yet another political crisis that demands national unity and that is usually followed by a military intervention.

In cutting across lines of nation, gender, class, race, and religion—something many cultural studies and feminist theory scholars overlook—Lavie builds on and continues her long-standing intervention into the anthropology of border zones and decolonial anthro- pology as “homework.” Homework here is about questioning both the power relations that shape the “field” and the analytic tools used to capture it. Lavie writes as both an observer and a survivor, and her book is neither a raw testimony nor a detached, objective theorizing enforced by the Anglo-American academic canon. Informed but not constrained by the discipline’s rich tradition of doing fieldwork, Wrapped is based on scrupulous research and participant observations. Yet it is simultaneously an account of Lavie’s own journey enduring the gendered and racist violence of both the Israeli academy and the Israeli welfare state: a world-renowned anthropologist and California-based professor fleeing domestic violence and finding herself in Israel as an hourly paid adjunct and a “welfare mama,” neither her pioneering scholarship on border zones nor her partly Ashkenazi and partly middle-class parentage saving her from the bureaucratic torture of the Israeli welfare machine whose logic, as Lavie poignantly notes, has no border zones (100).

Wrapped is incredibly insightful conceptually but also powerful politically. It does not merely challenge conceptual frameworks and academic canons but actively undoes them through shifting and diverse modes of writing, moving from theory to feelings, mem- ories, diaries, academic writing, field notes, thick descriptions with comments, fragments of conversations, and silences—all to “overcome the elusiveness of bureaucratic torture” and “attempt to attain mimetic redemption from non-discursive suffering” (87).

The book is a must for anyone wishing to understand what Lavie calls the “Gender- Race” fabric (80) of Israeli intra-Jewish racism but also, more crucially, of the deepest connections between Ashkenazi internal colonization, racialized social deprivation, and the murderous war machine of the Israeli military rule in the West Bank and Gaza. Beyond that, Wrapped is a key reading for all of us doing feminist, decolonial, antiracist, and intersectional work, especially in contexts where the torture of oppression is not obvious or is constantly explained away, for all of us needing and wanting to learn how to be an academic survivor and how to write a scholarship of the disenfranchised without making the pain of others (or one’s own) into a consumable fetish, devoid of political work.

ADI KUNTSMAN is lecturer in the Department of Languages, Information, and Communications at Manchester Metropolitan University. Contact:

Buy book now | Download e-book now | Back to Smadar Lavie's Author Page

Wrapped in the Flag of Isarel in Cultural Studies Online Book Reviews

by Shoshana Madmoni-Gerber
Cultural Studies Online Book Reviews
April 17th, 2016

Smadar Lavie’s Wrapped in the Flag of Israel analyses Mizrahi (Jews from the Arab world) protest at the intersection of race, religion, nationality, and gender. Lavie’s meticulous ethnographic work and pointed theoretical analysis explain the hope- lessness of social protest and problematize the concept of agency in the context of intra-Jewish conflict in Israel; in this Lavie also addresses the ramifications of Mizrahi marginalization on the wider Israeli–Palestinian conflict.

While providing an exhaustive analysis of the plight of single mothers in Israel known in Hebrew as had horit (Chapter 1), and referring to other social protest movements such as 2011’s ‘Egypt is Here’ (Chapter 6), Lavie focuses primarily on the case study of the July 2003 protest march on Jerusalem by Mizrahi single mother Vicki Knafo, starting from her home in Mitzpe Ramon (a small Mizrahi depressed town in southern Israel). Like many other single mothers in Israel and elsewhere, Knafo, a welfare recipient, was demonstrating about her economic marginalization by a state that had slashed her monthly support by more than half, making her unable to cover even the minimum daily essentials for her and her children. Lavie examines this case study (Chapters 3–5) as repre- sentative of the dynamic of what she calls ‘bureaucratic torture’ inflicted by the state on its non-European citizens. Knafo’s protest not only embodied one mother’s experience but also served as an inspiration for others. What started as a one-woman march ended with dozens of single mothers from all over the country joining her journey, and staying at her encampment, on the Jerusalem hillside during July and August 2003.

Especially illuminating is Lavie’s attempt to decode Knafo’s struggle as part of the larger system of oppression shared by many Mizrahim, who, despite constitut- ing the majority of the Jewish citizens in Israel, still occupy the margins of Israeli society. Lavie’s comparative study untangles the often neglected threads linking national, religious, gender, and racial identities, pointing to the impossibility of social uprising in the face of growing militarization and nationalism in modern Israel. Similar to other protest movements before, such as the Black Panther in the 1970s (ending with the Yom Kippur war), the Knafo protest died down with yet another terrorist attack on a bus in Jerusalem, this one killing 23 people and injuring over 130. Lavie claims that this event demonstrated the ultimate price of security paid by Mizrahim in Israel, as it displaced the plight of single mothers from the media and the public’s agenda and shifted the focus back to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Lavie offers a unique Mizrahi perspective, providing much-needed historical background for understanding the role of Zionism in creating and maintaining the social and economic divisions that placed Mizrahim in the margins of Israeli society; she also does so by weaving in her own story of being a single mother and welfare recipient in Israel. Lavie writes that she had to leave her tenure track position at the University of California, Davis in 1999, in order to protect herself and her son from domestic violence. As a result, she lost her job security and could no longer provide for her family. ‘I was a Mizrahi, anti-Zionist women professor ... No jobs for me.

Perhaps it was easier for the state of Israel to keep me as a welfare mother’ (p. 15).

Drawing on this experience, in addition to fieldwork and archival sources, Lavie defines ‘bureaucracy’ as a system of torture that inflicts constant pain on Mizrahi single mothers. In this she appeals to Don Handelman’s view positing bureaucracy as ritual, as opposed to the rational/secular model proposed in the early twentieth century by Max Weber. Israeli bureaucracy, Lavie argues, is a ‘divine’ and ‘ritualis- tic’ force, and this divinity is complicated and intertwined with the divinity of the homeland. Both mothers and bureaucrats, she says, ‘conceive themselves as inte- gral parts of the miraculous ingathering of the Jewish diaspora in the promised land’ (p. 19). This state of mind guarantees loyalty to the state above all other claims, functioning as an ideologically unified front, if you will, that weakens the mothers’ attempts to resist.

Lavie also engages the intersectional work of feminists of colour and critical race theorists, focusing on the prominence of gender, race, and especially religion in this context. The result is a fresh examination of what she terms ‘the conundrum of protesting against a state one is strongly obliged to deeply love’ (p. 19). Lavie argues that this emotional connection, shared by many Mizrahim, invalidates acts of agency; even in a protest as dramatic as a 125-mile march, the main players are still wrapped in the State’s flag – a strong symbol of national identity. Through the Knafo case, Lavie demonstrates that the desire to belong must be strongly expressed, even through the act of protest. Thus, despite eliciting wide public support, the protest yielded no substantial gains in the form of policy change. In the end, writes Lavie, Mizrahi protest ‘failed because Mizrahi protesters cannot break the bond connecting their love for the Jewish State with the somatic pain inflicted upon them by the state’s bureaucracy’ (p. 80). Lavie closes with a question that at once validates this grim analysis but also leave some room for a more hopeful future: ‘How long can the regime depend on Mizrahi docile loyalty to the Jewish state?’ (p. 152).

Lavie’s critical approach to the analysis of the Knafo protest extends beyond this case study, and well beyond the context of Israeli society. Moreover, her per- spective cannot be separated from her courageous examination of the boundaries of what constitutes an accepted methodology, as well as what constitutes the subject position of the researcher. Arguing for a more flexible methodology, she pushes the bounds of the oft-presumed separation between personal biography and ethnographic data and analysis, indicating her study nearly com- pletely ‘overlapped’ with her personal experience. ‘I didn’t join the Mizrahi single mothers as a participant observer’, she says. ‘I was a welfare mama for real – my own informant’ (p. 84). Her approach allows her to break with conven- tion often favoured by cultural studies and feminist studies, both of which have tended to eschew what Lavie calls ‘the victim narrative’. In the final analysis, Lavie is not afraid to say, ‘I was a victim, and have no qualms about narrating my own victimhood and that of other mothers’ (p. 84). With this statement she opens up the possibility of theorizing a subaltern condition in which agency is all but impossible to enact.

Whether one agrees with Lavie’s interpretation of the data, or her critical approach to ethnography and critical theory, one thing is clear: her extensive field work, as well as the wide scope of interdisciplinary theories on which she draws, makes for a thought-provoking argument; it also raises important theoreti- cal and practical questions. Especially noteworthy are those regarding the role of bureaucracy in maintaining the State’s power, the limitations of agency, and the link between internal Jewish oppression and the question of Palestine. This book will be of interest to scholars in cultural studies, Middle Eastern studies, anthropology, women’s studies, Jewish and Israel studies, and critical race theory; scholars grappling with narratives of oppression and victimhood, identity politics, and the limitations of agency are also apt to find this work worthwhile in scholarship and teaching. The book’s engaging language and vivid descriptions make it accessible to readers beyond academia; it offers a real and raw account that is often missing from traditional academic manuscripts. As Lavie puts it, ‘This book refuses the contours of academic sentimentality ... No happy endings. Only jagged edges’ (p. 23).

Notes on contributor

Shoshana Madmoni-Gerber is Associate Professor in the Department of Communi- cation and Journalism, Suffolk University, Boston, Massachusetts.

Buy book now | Download e-book now | Back to Smadar Lavie's Author Page

Wrapped in the Flag of Isarel in American Anthropologist

by Anne de Jong
American Anthropologist
Vol 188 No. 2 (pp. 436-437).
June 2016

This rigorously researched book is incredibly uncomfortable to read and exactly, therefore, it deserves a wide audience. The book begins with an ethnographic description of the 205-kilometer-long protest march to Jerusalem of 43-year-old Israeli single mother Vicky Knafo. Literally wrapped in the Israeli flag, this Mizrahi—a Jew with origins in the Arab and Muslim world—mother made a strong nationalistic claim against deteriorating provisions for single mothers in Israel. Joined by many other impoverished Israeli single mothers, her march resulted in a makeshift protest camp dubbed Knafoland.

While her book is interesting in its own right, Smadar Lavie soon makes clear that what follows is not a straightforward ethnography about the hardship of single mothers and that she did not attend these protests as a mere researcher. Instead, Lavie herself was a welfare mom legally stuck in Israel engaged in a vicious custody battle. In order “to stay sane, [Lavie] joined the effort to build the Mizrahi feminist movement, . . . gamely ethnographed everything [and thus] became [her] own informant” (p. 15). Skillfully weaving personal experience with fresh empirics and robust analysis, she contends that the everyday experience of Mizrahi single mothers on welfare consists of a continuous process of bureaucratic torture in which “bureaucracy devoid of agency amalgamates [the] intersectional, constructionist concepts of gender and race, and then calcifies them into a primordial truism that prohibits identity politics” (p. 82).

Lavie first meticulously explains the historic context and development of gendered race relations—Mizrahi as Jews from the Orient versus Ashkenazi as Jews of European decent—in the Zionist movement and later in Israel. Through the concept of GendeRace, she analyzes why the majority of deprived Mizrahi women vote for the right and how “Mizrahim deny the history of discrimination that they and their parents experienced in order to fit into the Ashkenazi middle class mainstream, i.e., to embody ‘Israeliness’” (p. 78). She sequentially shows how this “divinity of the Jewish State” combined with Israel’s state bureaucracy “denies Mizrahi single mothers their agency” (p . 80). That is, the “mirage of Mizrah. i and Ashkenazi Jewish unity to narrate how all Jews should fight a single front so Israel—the little David—can survive surrounded by Arab Goyim Goliaths” (p. 80) leaves the women without a claim to discourse while the repetitive, regulatory policy of welfare survival strips them of any time, energy, or space with which to change their predicament (p. 108). In doing so, Lavie boldly departs from the anthropological emphasis on agency and cynically yet realistically concludes that “there are situations where agency is impossible” (p. 80).

This argument is deepened in the next three chapters. However, this is done not through a “U.S–U.K. anthropological formula” (p. 84) but rather through three innovative modes of “ethnographic writing [that aim] to overcome the elusiveness of bureaucratic torture” (p. 84). Each chapter is presented as a “take” with its own writing style and characteristics. Take 1 in chapter 3 provides the “general model of the interrelationship between democracy and torture” (p. 88), and take 2 in chapter 4 employs the “scientific objective gaze” through the entry of the article “Ideology , W elfare, and the H. ad Horit” that Lavie co-authored with Oxford law scholar Amir Paz-Fuchs (pp. 115–119). These takes consciously exclude “voices from the field” into the theory as nodal “I have been there” points of proof so as not to “appropriate these women’s lives and words to glorify [Lavie’s] theoretical model” (p. 89).

In stark contrast, take 3 consists of diary entries so personal and vivid that they take you by the throat: “Every summer, I take my son to bear these lines. A dark child with no trust fund and no one to pull strings for him to get ahead, he must understand the Mizrah. i struggle first-hand to survive” (p . 124). “So you a void me. Y ou are afraid to look, scared that your enlightened racism will talk back at you” (p. 130). “ W e glanced at each other , fear in our eyes. W e shut up” (p. 135). “I hold up the mirror so the White woman can see the reality she creates for me” (p. 139). “When in war, act like it’s war” (p. 151).

Chapter 5 is equally relentless. It forces the lived experience of bureaucratic torture upon you, and you cannot help but feel personally addressed. Because you are. Hard as it is to read, this essential chapter makes the theory of bureaucratic torture of Mizrahi women in Israel come alive. You may hope to reach the safety zone of chapter 6 but, unsurprisingly by now, the conclusion will give you no solace. Lavie refuses the “pretense of coherence” (p. 23) and instead leaves you with troubling observations about the end of the Knafo protest and its relation to suicide bombing: “And this is exactly what we did” (p. 148).

While some will be disturbed by Lavie’s unapologetic “victim narrative” (pp. 23, 84) and others may object to her uncompromising accusations and controversial conclusion, I find these to be great albeit uncomfortable strengths. If I can voice one critique, it is only that the title and the cover do not transmit the relevance of this book to scholars beyond Israeli and Jewish studies. Innovative, uncomfortable, rigorous, thick, accusative, and critical, Wrapped in the Flag of Israel is indeed a must-read for all.

Buy book now | Download e-book now | Back to Smadar Lavie's Author Page

Wrapped in the Flag of Isarel in the Feminist Review

by Frances S Hasso
Feminist Review, 111, e12-e15.
November 2015        

In Wrapped in the Flag of Israel, Smadar Lavie begins her ethnographic account with the Mizrahi Jewish single mothers’ movement and camp in Jerusalem in 2003, led by a part-time cook at an army base, Vicky Knafo. The term Mizrahi refers to Jews of Arab, North African, Kurdish or Persian origin. These women challenged a legal change in Israel that reduced the welfare benefits of single mothers. In Israel, Mizrahi comprise the majority of, respectively, citizens, the Jewish poor, and soldiers and settlers in the Occupied West Bank and Jerusalem. European Jews (Ashkenazi) dominate economic, state and educational institutions, and cultural and non-governmental organisations in Israel. In contrast to Ashkenazi divorced women, Mizrahi divorced women cannot as a rule rely on their families for material support (p. 7). Lavie traces the dynamics of privatisation from the mid-1980s in Israel and offers an incisive indictment of Zionism, including how racism remains fundamental to the project.

The most intimate enactments of racist violence target Mizrahi Jews, argues Lavie. They have been needed from the beginning as labourers and bodies in a Jewish settler-colonial demographic project and yet considered culturally inferior to European Jewishness. Mizrahi are the first subordinated ‘other’ of Ashkenazi Zionists of Socialist, liberal and later ‘peace’ and Labour orientations. Jewish nationalism of the collectivist variety is responsible for Palestinian expulsion (p. 55) and the subordination of Mizrahi (p. 57). Nevertheless, Palestinian non-Jews are the primary ‘other’ for the Mizrahi (p. 9). Indeed, Mizrahi single mothers hate the ‘Aravim, or Arabs (p. 53), which seems partly a hatred of the non-European Jewish self (pp. 106–107).

Mizrahi as a group are strongly Zionist and desperately want to belong to the Israeli mainstream, argues Lavie, including by dropping markers of their ethnic difference, and thus her title, ‘Wrapped in the Flag of Israel’. The Mizrahi feminist group in which she was active did not call for a just peace with Palestinians or make connections between Mizrahi and Palestinian subordination because activists believe the Mizrahi women they target for mobilisation would refuse to participate, since the binary of non-Jew versus Jew holds sway among them.

Mizrahi single mothers have low regard for Israeli feminist and peace groups, which are dominated by Ashkenazi, given Ashkenazi refusal to address Jewish racial-class inequality and Ashkenazi support for neo-liberal policies. In response to racialised and class subordination, Mizrahis largely vote right-wing. Lavie found that the Israeli welfare bureaucracy is the main mechanism for the ‘torture’ of Mizrahi single mothers. It encapsulates ‘two types of divine cosmology’ for the women: Israel is the homeland for the ‘chosen’ Jewish people, which Mizrahis accept, and the ‘Divinity of Chance’ wherein ‘faithful’ Mizrahis persistently appeal to this homeland for needed resources, all the while ‘praying for a miracle’. This deeply gendered and racialised contract forecloses a rise in ‘resistive identity politics’ (pp. 79–80, 96, 100). The Israeli-Palestinian conflict allows the state to evade its ‘intra-Jewish racial feuds’ (pp. 21, 80), and may even be encouraged by the state to maintain its racial-class power. Indeed, a Palestinian suicide bombing that killed twenty-three people and injured 130 ended the ‘Knafoland’ sit-in without a discernable victory. Even the secular–ultra orthodox rift obscures the much more significant Ashkenazi–Mizrahi division (p. 76).

Wrapped in the Flag of Israel is an idiosyncratic work grounded in sound scholarship as well as entertaining gossip and acidic commentary. Lavie is an anti-Zionist who supports a secular state ‘between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea’ (p. 14) and refuses the model of ‘dispassionate scholarship’ (p. 86). Indeed, Lavie’s personal story is woven throughout. She was born of an Ashkenazi father and Yemeni mother in Israel, where she grew up, but was a tenured anthropology professor at UC Davis in the 1990s [...]. Like most Palestinians and Mizrahis, she is deemed unemployable in the Ashkenazi-dominated academy. She joined the Mizrahi feminist movement and struggled to feed herself and her son and buy the necessary ‘milk bags’ (p. 124). She was considered overqualified for service jobs. Thus, she was a welfare mother researching welfare mothers.

Lavie challenges the insistent focus on agency in feminist scholarship and explicitly works within the ‘victim narrative’ (p. 23). She problematically argues that Mizrahi single mothers have no agency, not even the submissive kind. These women, however, certainly have racist agency in relation to the ‘Arabs’ and ‘Goyim’ they deem lower than themselves. This agency simply differs from the racist bureaucratic agency of the Zionist state. I completed the book not fully understanding why the women hate ‘Goyim’, why they offer no recognition of themselves as racial-class subjects, and why there was so little evidence of a ‘double consciousness’. W.E.B. Dubois argued that whiteness pays valuable ‘wages’ even to poor whites in the United States. It seems that Jewishness in Israel pays wages to Jews, even when they are subordinated
on the basis of ethnicity and class. Thus, the question asked by poor Mizrahi mothers can only be ‘How can Jews do this to other Jews?’ (p. 84).

In Agency and Gender in Gaza, Aitemad Muhanna is also concerned with agency, but especially among poor ‘housewives’ in Gaza since 2000. The study is based on her interviews with sixty women aged between 18 and 65 years, and life histories with a subsample, evenly divided between El-Shujae`ya, a non-refugee Gaza town, and the Beach Refugee Camp. Muhanna conducted additional focus groups with men and women from throughout Gaza. The subjects of this study are the ‘extremely poor and vulnerable’ (p. 20). Since the 2000 Second Intifada and especially the 2006 Israeli blockade and closure of Gaza, life in Gaza has been characterised by ‘insecurity’ and ‘economic collapse’. These transformations have produced ‘crises’ in masculinity and femininity, she argues, grounded in the stress of feeding and sustaining families. The contours and consequences of this crisis produce ‘coping mechanisms’ that remain committed to male dominance and having many children, especially boys (p. 4).

Muhanna argues that women enact public presentations of a subordinate ‘moral feminine selfhood’ (p. 174) and male dominance because this system is important for achieving ‘their objective and subjective interests and desires’ (pp. 31–33), which are historically and contextually produced and cannot be reduced to lack of ‘capacity’ (p. 37) or ‘consciousness’ (p. 38). The women largely see themselves as ‘victims of the victimization of their men by ... Israeli military occupation’ (p. 178). Gaza women ‘continually present themselves as inferior [to men] and label this presentation “feminine” ’ (p. 42), even if they have largely been in charge of money and the survival of extended households since 2006. ‘Male dominance’ (p. 29) is sustained ideologically and symbolically by women. Poor women and men use the symbolic system of male dominance in the family to cope with ‘chronic personal and familial insecurity’ (p. 12), since it offers the basis of ‘self-respect and dignity’ (p. 15). Materially disempowered masculinity means women cannot rely on men for economic support and are reduced to begging for food coupons and other resources from relatives, ‘community-based’ organisations and international charities. Muhanna argues that Islamicised ‘women’s agency’ in Gaza is ‘an instrument used by poor women for the material survival of their families in situations of dire necessity’ and ‘an ethical and moral framework enhancing poor and vulnerable women’s capacity to endure pain, suffering and hardship, while maintaining meaning for their social existence’ (p. 47).

Buy book now | Download e-book now | Back to Smadar Lavie's Author Page

Wrapped in the Flag of Isarel in Allegra Lab Online Book Reviews

by Anja Ryding
Allegra Lab Online Book Reviews
January 21st 2016

How can we conceive of the contemporary relationship between race, poverty, and bureaucracy? Smadar Lavie’s latest publication, an account of her experience as a Mizrahi single mother dependent on Israeli state welfare, provides a valuable contribution to all those concerned with bureaucracy, neoliberalism, and the on-going occupation of Palestine by Israel. By shedding light on the little-known but demographically dominant Mizrahi population of Israel, Lavie answers questions that the audience may have perhaps not anticipated. She also provides a vital contemporary overview of Israel’s racial hierarchy and its impact on regional politics.

Lavie sets the ethnically complex scene by differentiating between Ashkenazi (those of European origin) and Mizrahi (those who emigrated from Arab and Islamic areas) Jews. She then distinguishes between those Palestinians in the Occupied Territories and within what is known as “’48”, or present-day Israeli borders. . . . As a civilising ideology, Zionism aimed to reform Israel’s growing population to an Ashkenazic paradigm, using the notion of ‘chosen people, chosen land’ to establish a binary construction of ethnicity that opposes Jews to Arabs. Therefore, upon their arrival to Israel, the Mizrahim were encouraged to shed their Oriental habits and languages and ‘Ashkenazify’, or ‘Europeanise’, themselves according to the Zionist standard.

 “The Arab Mizrahim were largely settled in the border areas of the new Israeli state and were financially and socially neglected in favour of the Ashkenazim. With less hereditary wealth, larger families, and lower incomes, the Mizrahim are now a demographic majority but a cultural minority, underperforming and underrepresentedinmostareas. ”

With a higher number of single-parent families combined with a higher rate of unemployment and a lower rate of professionalisation and education, Lavie explains how the Mizrahim are rendered dependent on a state that is reluctant to support them. Following the Oslo Accords of the early 1990s and the waves of global neoliberalism that preceded it, the Israeli state began to retract its welfare programmes, allowing NGOs to fill its previous functions while outsourcing labour to cheaper foreign markets. Neoliberalisation also impacted the legal protections afforded to single parent families, with no legal function enabled to extract child support payments from absent fathers. These cuts impacted the large population of Mizrahi single mothers hardest, rendering them dependent on ever decreasing welfare payments. The impoverishment of the Mizrahim and their shared Arab heritage with the native Palestinian population might give cause for collaboration between the two groups, but in fact the Mizrahim remain predominantly Zionistic and anti-Arab in outlook.

A relatively new subject in anthropology, existing work on the Mizrahim tends to focus on their marginalisation (Khazzoom 2003, Chetrit 2000) and their transition as immigrants to Israel (Shohat 1999, 2003). Lavie’s alternative focus on single mothers is particularly interesting, as a more religiously traditional community but with a high number of single parent households, the Mizrahi single parent is dependent on the state for financial support and kept as such by being made increasingly marginal to the workforce. Particularly interesting is Lavie’s account of her own positionality in relation to her subject: due to a series of unpredictable circumstances, Lavie finds herself trapped in Israel, unable to secure employment . . . due to her Mizrahi status, and thus suddenly forced into the position of auto-ethnographer. Acknowledging that auto-ethnography is often rejected by the British and North American academies as somehow more unreliable than the narratives of informants, Lavie utilises the particular circumstances of her position to provide a unique insight into the pain of the experiences shared by her and her fellow welfare mothers. This is emphasised by her use of a more unconventional ethnographic style, which includes letters, diary entries, the use of anger in ethnographic writing, encounters with other Mizrahim both in her personal and professional life, and her own struggle against the state’s reclassification of her identity in its own terms.

What is crucial to understanding the plight of Mizrahi Jews, and what Lavie skilfully makes clear, is how the Israeli state denies its Jewish citizens the right to an identity politics outside the boundary of ‘Jewish’. 

As the Zionist state operates on an ethnic binary of ‘Jew’ opposed to ‘Arab,’ the Mizrahim are in an especially complex position as former Arabs, encouraged to shed their ‘uncivilised Arab ways’ but also unable to completely deny themselves their past, and perhaps unable to identify how the Ashkenazi-led state uses this as a tool against them. Lavie describes her informants as trapped in such a position without any agency, unable to speak out against a state that oppresses and denies them their ever shrinking welfare allowances while fashioning itself as their protector. It is here that lies my chief criticism of both the book and the practice of auto­ethnography itself: while the depth of Lavie’s own experience as a Mizrahi welfare mother is fascinating, it leaves the breadth of knowledge of others lacking. 

Where we understand intimately the emotional and financial aspects of Lavie’s own demotion to the role of welfare-dependent single mother and what this entails, the use of auto-ethnography as means of representing all Mizrahi single mothers silences their voices by omission. While some testimony of her contemporaries appears, it is used primarily to show their politics in relation to the Palestinians and the Ashkenazim, not as voices of their interactions with the state. Though Lavie’s privilege as a half-Mizrahi academic émigré to the United States is clearly acknowledged, in her use of auto-ethnography we are denied the experiences of those Lavie claims to speak for. Consequently her privilege in her ability and status to voice the pain she seeks to document and share also serves as a means by which to silence her fellow Mizrahi single mothers.

However, this is not to the detriment of the analysis of the pain inflicted on her by the bureaucratic encounter. Describing with a Geertzian thickness the myriad ways in which welfare dependency exhausts and humiliates its beneficiaries, Lavie expands upon the work of Handelman (2004) to expose the concept of bureaucracy as a modern instrument of torture. Adapting Scarry’s (1985) plus-minus model of torture to show how the bureaucrat unwittingly abuses the mother in a plus-plus (mutually repellent) relationship whereby the bureaucrat is unable to simply and efficiently solve the single mother’s needs, and the mother is unable to avoid this encounter, and indeed is forced to undertake it with increasing regularity in order to survive. As a result the bureaucratic encounter becomes self-perpetuating and ritual-like in form, requiring the Mizrahi welfare mother to repeatedly submit to its punishment in order to eke out the meagre provisions of the state.

Lavie then theorises the essence of this bureaucracy: GendeRace, a neologism for the dual means by which the Ashkenazi-Mizrahi distinction is formed and thus Mizrahi single mothers are prevented from achieving the social mobility attained by their Ashkenazi contemporaries.

Consequently, Lavie shows that the unilateral front against the Arab enemy that the regional ethnic privilege of Jewish identity demands overpowers the call for an internal identity politics for those damaged by the gendered and racialised aspects of the Israeli bureaucratic engine.

Lavie’s ethnography fills a chasm in the anthropology of Israel that documents the inter-ethnic hierarchies and how these are impacted and enforced by the state. In doing so she situates the Mizrahim not only in relation to their own subordination within Israel, but also in relation to the on-going inability of the Israeli government to forge peace with Palestine. What is fascinating is the detail given to the ways in which the Mizrahim are played off against the Palestinians in Israel’s media as a means of deflecting attention towards and away from the conflict depending on the needs of the government in the eyes of the national and international media.

As a relatively new topic in anthropology, an auto-ethnographic account of the Mizrahim provides a unique insight, and Lavie is particularly well qualified in detailing a peculiarly unusual removal of status and privilege and how this might impact upon one’s identity in relation to neoliberalism and the ethnic binary of Jew versus Arab formulated by the Israeli state.

Beginning and ending the book with scenes from Mizrahi protest against their treatment by the Israeli state, Lavie shows how the single mothers are manipulated and bought off to be silenced, ominously indicating at one point that a Palestinian suicide bomber is capitalised upon, even given a security exception, by the government as a distraction technique. Ultimately, as an institutional ethnography of bureaucracy, Lavie paints an intimate and personal picture of the pains of poverty and state-dependency, using her privilege to speak for those with less. }

However, as an ethnography of an under-privileged population, especially a majoritarian one, I wonder if Smadar Lavie might be able to share with us in the future more testimony from the broad umbrella of experience that is to be a Mizrahi Israeli.


Chetrit, S. (2000) Mizrahi politics in Israel: Between integration and alternative. Journal of Palestine Studies 29(4): 51-65.
Handelman, D. (2004) Nationalism and the Israeli State: Bureaucratic Logic in Public Events. Oxford: Berg.
Khazzoom, A. (2003) The great chain of Orientalism: Jewish identity, stigma management, and ethnic exclusion in Israel. American Sociological Review 68(4): 481-510.
Scarry, E. (1985) The Body in Pain The Making and Unmaking of the World. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Shohat, E. (1999) The invention of the Mizrahim. Journal of Palestine Studies 29(1): 5-20.
Shohat, E. (2003) Rupture and return: Zionist discourse and the study of Arab Jews. Social Text 21(2): 49-74.
Lavie, Smadar. 2014. Wrapped in the Flag of Israel: Mizrahi Single Mothers and Bureaucratic Torture. Oxford: Berghahn Books. 214 pp. Hb: $39.95. ISBN: 9781782382225.

Author’s Response

Writing book reviews is integral to the circulation of ideas and dialogue between scholars. This daunting job often goes unappreciated. I am grateful to Anja Ryding for the time and care she put into this important public service and for her cogent summary and analysis of Wrapped in the Flag of Israel.

There seems to be two errata, however, that I would like to address for potential readers of my book.

First, although I am currently a scholar-in-residence at U. C. Berkeley and completed my Ph.D. at this ne institution in 1989, I was not a professor at Berkeley before my forced stay in Israel from 1999 to late 2007 — The book states clearly that I was an associate professor at U. C. Davis. Since, as the reviewer aptly points out, my background and personal experience are the basis for the autoethnographical component of Wrapped, it seems important to be clear on this matter.

Second, Wrapped in the Flag of Israel dedicates a whole chapter to discussing the socio-economic effects of Mizrahi labor migration to Palestine from 1882 onwards. 1882 marks the beginning of Ashkenazi Zionist settlement of Palestine as well. The book does not discuss Mizrahi immigration to the state of Israel in the 1960s, as the reviewer claims in her opening paragraph. Indeed, Chapter One emphasizes the importance of understanding the role of pre-Nakba Mizrahi migration to Palestine, rather than the large waves of 1950s migrants.
Prof. Smadar Lavie

Featured image(https://www. by couturiere7(https://www. ( ickr, CC BY 2.0(

Buy book now | Download e-book now | Back to Smadar Lavie's Author Page

Wrapped in the Flag of Isarel in Mondoweiss

by Sylvia Schwarz
July 7th, 2014

How long can Israel depend on Mizrahi docile loyalty? Smadar Lavie asks in new book - See more at:

Smadar Lavie’s most recent book, Wrapped in the Flag of Israel: Mizrahi Single Mothers and Bureaucratic Torture, is an anthropological study of a group of marginalized women, written by a member of this marginalized group, and written for Westerners who, for the most part, know nothing about intra-Jewish racism in Israel.

In the short but packed volume, Lavie describes the demographics of Israel, the power structure, classism and sexism. She tells some of the history of political movements involving the ethnic majority in Israel (Mizrahi Jews), showing how the minority elite (Ashkenazi Jews) suppress political demands. She includes anthropological descriptions and statistics, describes reasons that the majority ethnic group leans politically to the right, and quotes from her diary, giving compelling testimony to the truly bureaucratic torture that impoverished single mothers must suffer in Israel.

Mizrahi Jews, or Mizrahim (pl. Hebrew), are 50% of the population of Israeli citizens. Ashkenazim make up 30% and Palestinians are the remaining 20%. Most Mizrahim have roots in Arab countries, such as Iraq, Yemen, Egypt and Morocco. Many Jews from those countries were generally forced to leave during the 1950s after Israel became a state. In some cases this may have been a response by those countries to the new Zionist state, or the emigration may have been precipitated by the Israeli government, or they chose to leave, but the creation of about 600,000 Jewish refugee immigrants served Israel’s purposes. Israel needed to bring in Jews to replace the 750,000 Palestinians it had forcibly removed from their homes, both to justify the removal of the Palestinians and to replace the labor that had been forced out.

Mizrahi means Eastern, but it has come to mean a Jew from a country in which the Jewish population did not speak Yiddish. The term therefore includes Ethiopian Jews, Indian and East Asian Jews, and Jews from Spain and some Slavic countries. Ashkenazim originate in Eastern and Central Europe or the Yiddish speaking parts of Europe. They are privileged in terms of education, employment, positions in the armed forces, housing opportunities and they have many other societal advantages.

Prior to reading this book, I was aware of statements like David Ben-Gurion’s “poor human material” , in referring to Jews from Arab countries [see for example War Without End, by Anton La Guardia]. It was evident that if Israel’s founders based their new country on the premise that one ethnicity is superior to others, then it is no stretch to assume that racism will spread to encompass other ethnicities. If Jews are considered superior to non-Jews, it would not be out of character for the privileged class to believe that certain Jews are superior to other kinds of Jews. In fact, it would be a surprise if there was no evidence of the expansion of racism. Racism is hard to contain, always spilling out over the edges and spreading.

Still, the views expressed by some Ashkenazim quoted by Lavie in her book are stunning: the president of Israel in 1951 said that Mizrahim were unfit for education [p. 56], Mizrahi children are openly called “kushi sambo” (sambo nigger) [p. 14]. And, like Palestinians, Mizrahi single mothers are described as “du-ragli” in Hebrew slang. The literal meaning is bipedal but the word implies a sub-human that walks on two legs.

In fact, Europeans were considered so superior to Mizrahi that during the Soviet immigration period Soviet citizens could easily bypass the requirement of having five maternal Jewish generations in order to immigrate to Israel. Many who were not Jewish falsified their documents, as was known to the authorities who let them in anyway. Lavie states, “Perhaps the absorption authorities were less concerned with Jewishness than with increasing Israel’s Whiteness, or ‘eugenic capability’” [p.37].

Mizrahim, who usually arrived in Israel with next to nothing after their former governments confiscated their possessions in the 1950s, were given housing in the homes that Palestinians had been forced out of a few years earlier, or they lived in tent cities on the front lines between Jordan and Israel. Little or no education was given to children as they were considered too primitive to benefit from formal education. Importantly, education of many Mizrahi children did not include foreign languages. Child labor was common, with children being exploited in the homes of Ashkenazim. Children were exposed to medical experimentation [The Ringworm Affair, p. 79], which killed and injured many.

Mizrahi families were often broken apart: many Mizrahi children were forcibly removed from their parents between the 1930s and 1970s, and the babies given to childless Ashkenazi parents. The practice of taking children from parents deemed unsuitable for parenthood continues today for Mizrahi families, especially those led by single women, who have difficulties providing for their children due to the torturous and exploitative bureaucratic system.

Israeli authorities began a policy of dividing and conquering from the moment Mizrahi Jews arrived in Israel. They already had a lot of practice in this strategy: modeling the European colonial powers, Israel divided Palestinians remaining in Israel into Druze, Christians, Bedouins, Muslims, etc., and set one group against each other [see Citizen Strangers: Palestinians and the Birth of Israel’s Settler State, by Shira Robinson]. This same strategy was used on Jews of Arab and North African countries, which drove a wedge between the Mizrahim and the Palestinians, who shared language and culture and should have been natural allies. In the Ashkenazi Zionist mind, an alliance between Mizrahim and Palestinians was a dangerous prospect for the continuation of the Ashkenazi political and economic domination in Israel. A Mizrahi-Palestinian coalition in government would spell the end of Ashkenazi control.

The welfare system, which was to provide a safety net, instead gives bureaucrats, opportunities to sexually exploit the women who are forced to show up in person at multiple agencies for help (Lavie offers documentation for this phenomenon, for instance Esther Hertzog’s research, “Who benefits from the Welfare State?” [in Hebrew.]). Rules prevent welfare recipients from owning cars, putting money into a bank, and earning even a substandard wage, making normal commerce difficult and obtaining a job nearly impossible. In 2003, the already insufficient safety net was further eroded by laws in the Knesset.

After the welfare safety net was nearly eliminated, Vicky Knafo, a Mizrahi single mother, began a protest march. At the time, the author was also a Mizrahi single mother in Israel, and experienced first-hand the state system of bureaucracy and exploitation meant to disenfranchise an already marginalized group. Although Vicky Knafo’s protest was prominent news in Israel, few foreign news media covered it – it was not deemed important enough. Since few Mizrahi spoke English or other foreign languages, it was impossible to get international coverage of this grassroots movement for social change. At the same time, the Israeli regime was able to play sectors against one another to cause infighting and divisions.

After weeks of Knafo’s camping out and protesting, a Palestinian suicide bomber struck in Jerusalem, and the news media immediately abandoned the Knafo protest to cover the suicide bombing. Mizrahi single mothers had gained nothing.

The swing to the right in Israeli politics has been largely due to the Mizrahi voting bloc, who overwhelmingly supported right-wing parties such as Likud and more recently Avigdor Lieberman’s racist Yisrael Beiteinu. This is a puzzle: how is it possible that a marginalized, oppressed group supports a party which clearly marginalizes and oppresses another group of people? Lavie says that it is a reaction to years of abuse and disenfranchisement by the Israeli left. It was the left that forced the Mizrahim into downward mobility, expressed vile racism against them and carried out some of the worst practices against their families. The right-wing parties have been those that actually give something tangible to the Mizrahim, such as community renewal projects in the Mizrahi ghettos within Israel.

The Israeli left are the parties who abuse the Mizrahi Jews, yet speak about peace with the Palestinians. Mizrahim understand this hypocrisy. The Israeli left want a two-state solution, in which Israel would give up some of the land in the West Bank to a Palestinian state. Yet most of the settlers living in the West Bank, according to Lavie, are Mizrahim. A peace on those terms would result in large-scale Mizrahi homelessness and is therefore unacceptable to Mizrahim.
Also obviously hypocritical to Lavie and other Mizrahi women are the Ashkenazi feminists who are so patronizing to women of color. Lavie says, in addressing these women belonging to NGOs and philanthropic organizations, “Your feminism is not liberation. It is containment.” [p.136] These NGOs and organizations, like Women in Black, who record human rights abuses against Palestinians at West Bank checkpoints, are part of the Israeli left who talk about peace and the two-state solution but tend to ignore the racism in front of them. These Ashkenazi women who talk about peace are seen as heroes among Jews in the West – showing the vitality of Israeli freedom of expression. Yet, Lavie asks, “How would progressive diaspora Jews – important contributors to civil rights and anti-apartheid movements – react to the revelation of Israeli intra-Jewish racism?” [p.138]

What does this all mean for those of us in the Palestinian solidarity community? The majority ethnic group, the Mizrahi, are marginalized and oppressed by the minority Ashkenazi, but are fiercely chauvinistic. They seem willing to accept their own oppression to protect the state from those who are culturally and even ethnically similar to them. This leaves very little room for optimism. If the majority of the Jewish population are those who could play a pivotal role in bringing about justice in that country, yet are satisfied to be racist, how could their opinions be changed? An effective Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement targets those with economic and political power, heads of corporations, governmental policy makers, academics – the Ashkenazim. Those in the lower echelons of society – laborers, unemployed people, welfare recipients – the majority who are Mizrahim and Palestinians, might lose a job due to an effective BDS campaign, but the economy does not rise or fall because of them. Few in the West understand the dynamics and demographics of Israeli society, and so do not challenge the Mizrahim to shift their way of thinking. Without this challenge, there is little incentive to change. This is concerning especially in light of such dramatic recent successes of the BDS movement. Is it possible to create change in that society without the Mizrahim?

However, the book’s last sentence, “How long can the regime depend on Mizrahi docile loyalty to the Jewish state?” implies some optimism. A major threat to Ashkenazi domination and perhaps the key to ending Israeli apartheid could be in forging relationships between Mizrahim and Palestinians on the basis of their shared ethnicity, culture, history and oppression. Lavie does not instruct us on how these relationships could be forged, nor does she help us understand our role in this relationship building. But it is essential that we understand the pervasive racism within Israeli culture.

- See more at:

Buy book now | Download e-book now | Back to Smadar Lavie's Author Page

The thwarted desire to belong in The Jordan Times

by Sally Bland
The Jordan Times
February 22nd, 2015

While the title of this book suggests that it covers a single topic, nothing could be farther from the truth. In the process of explaining why it is virtually impossible for Mizrahi single mothers to provide a decent life for their children, Smadar Lavie analyses multiple aspects of the Israeli state, economy and society, and also shows the interplay between Israel’s domestic politics and its conflict with the Palestinians. She masterfully connects the dots between a wealth of detailed facts to point to strategic issues that are often overlooked in the daily barrage of reporting on Palestine/Israel.

“Wrapped in the Flag of Israel” is unique in a number of ways. It is the first English-language ethnography on single motherhood outside North America. Also unique is Lavie’s interweaving of personal experience and research into an engaging narrative that jumps from social science terminology to slangy, diary style. Herself both an Israeli Mizrahi single mother and activist, who has stood in the welfare lines, and a US-trained anthropologist, she brings these seemingly divergent perspectives to her analysis. Her unflinching exposure of intra-Jewish racism and its political consequences is unmatched.

The book’s title is both very concrete and highly symbolic. It refers to Vicky Knafo, “a 43-year-old single mother of three”, who on July 2, 2003, began a 205-kilometre march from Mitzpe Ramon, an isolated Mizrahi town in the Negev Desert, to Jerusalem, literally “wrapping herself in the Israeli flag”. (p. 1)

Knafo was protesting the state’s decision to slash the already meager welfare allowance of single mothers. Many others got involved, including the author, setting up a tent city in a Jerusalem park which lasted for over a month, until a suicide bombing refocused attention on the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. This is one of many examples cited by Lavie to show how the Israeli establishment can and does use — and sometimes creates — security concerns to override the Mizrahi struggle for equality, and preclude a potential Mizrahi-Palestinian alliance.

There are many ironies involved in the Mizrahi situation. Unlike 1948 Palestinians or, say, American Blacks, who have organised for minority rights, Mizrahi (Eastern) Jews constitute the majority of Israeli citizens. They are also the majority of the poor and disenfranchised, though official discourse disguises these facts.

Due to a particular combination of gender and racial discrimination, the vast majority of welfare moms in Israel are Mizrahi. Lavie gives a vivid, but troubling account of the status of Mizrahi women from the early days of Zionist settlement through the 1960s. By virtue of their Arab origins, they were regarded as backward, and trapped on the lower rungs of society by the Ashkenazi elite, who headed the colonisation of Palestine.

Yet, ironically, in their desire to fit into the Israeli/Jewish mainstream, Mizrahi deny their Arab roots and the history of discrimination against them. In turn, “the regime uses this false unity to mask how it uses bureaucracy to crush, marginalise, contain and buy out individuals or groups within social protest movements.” (p. 80)

This point is the political crux of the book which “explores the conundrum of protesting against a state one is strongly obliged to deeply love”. (p. 19)

In Lavie’s view, the state’s manipulation of Mizrahi loyalty rules out any real agency on their part.

Lavie underpins her contention of bureaucratic torture by analysing a range of legal, economic and social factors that hinder single mothers getting a job with a living wage or public assistance. Especially the privatisation drive in the 1990s, which brought rampant inflation, skyrocketing rents, reduced social benefits and imported labour, exacerbated the labyrinth of hurdles to be overcome. The single mother suffers endless waiting in line, shuttling between government agencies, often with her children in tow, in order to fulfil changing criteria and demands for various documents.

In the end, she is often refused aid, but she has no choice but to keep try trying. If she can’t provide for her children, they will be forcibly enrolled in a boarding school, even though this costs the state seven times more than granting the mother assistance — only one example of bureaucracy’s illogic. This vicious circle is not merely irritating but inflicts serious pain and often leaves the single mother with real psychological and physical ailments. Her ability to cope may “disintegrate because she uses herself as a human shield to shelter her children from forced boarding, homelessness, lack of medical treatment, etc”. (p. 109)

Provocative at every turn, Lavie ends with a question whose answer could have a major impact on future developments: “How long can the regime depend on Mizrahi docile loyalty to the Jewish state?” (p. 152)

Buy book now | Download e-book now | Back to Smadar Lavie's Author Page

Wrapped in the Flag of Isarel in BRICUP

by Malcolm Levitt
BRICUP (British Committee for the Universities of Palestine) Newsletter No. 82 p. 12-13
December 2014

This is a remarkable book by a remarkable woman. Lavie is a professor of anthropology and social activist. Through a set of personal circumstances explained in the book, she also has extensive first-hand experience of life as a single mother attempting to survive on shockingly inadequate social benefits in Israel. In these circumstances, she used her ethnographic training to observe and document her own life and women sharing her experiences. As she says in the book, "I was a welfare mother with no welfare. I was an ethnographer and autoethnographer".

Lavie's book is notable on many different levels. On one page, she can write technical and opaque sentences such as this (p81): "I argued that one learns to culturally construct race and gender differences as one simultaneously naturalizes them into essences". On another page the writing is personal, moving and poetic, such as this (p62): "The crisp and cool desert breeze came from the north and caressed our southbound backs". She moves quick as lightning from anthropological analysis, to sharp dissections of the political landscape, to highly personal and moving anecdotes, to cutting absurdist humour.

Accompanying the writer on this journey is like sharing on a long, bumpy, bus ride with a person of great intellect, tough life experience, a cheeky sense of humour, and personal warmth. It is a worthwhile journey. As she says (p90): "I want you, my reader, not only to comprehend the text. I want you to survive it."

In the context of the Israel/Palestine conflict, her most valuable contribution is her deep and personal understanding of the predicament of the majority Mizrahi community in Israel (the Mizrahim are Jews originating from formerly muslim countries, as opposed to the largely European-origin Ashkenazim). For my part, I confess to being largely ignorant of the Mizrahim and their significance in the politics of the Israel/Palestine conflict. I knew that much support for the right wing in Israel comes from the Mizrahim but did not really know why that is. I could also imagine that the predicament of poor Mizrahim, especially single mothers, would be very severe in Israel, but could not see that as anything but a sideshow to far bigger political issues. Lavie argues convincingly otherwise. Her presentation places the domination of the Ashkenazim over the Mizrahim as the central fact of internal Israeli politics. The settlement policies, and the periodic conflagrations in Israeli/Palestine relations, cannot be understood without taking into account Ashkenazi-Mizrahi dynamics. She describes how the dominant Ashkenazi ruling class keep Mizrahi social protest in check by provocation of the Palestinians. She describes the astonishing series of bureaucratic hurdles facing poor Mizrahi women as "torture"-a term that initially grated with me, since it appears to place excessive paperwork on the same level as the infliction of physical pain. However, after reading her personal experiences and anecdotes the term no longer seemed so inappropriate.

Above all, her book provides a vivid sense of what life is like for the majority of Israeli Jews, how they think, what really concerns them, and what constrains them. That is essential knowledge for anyone interested in the Israel-Palestine conflict. Smadar Lavie has written a very insightful and original book.

Buy book now | Download e-book now | Back to Smadar Lavie's Author Page

Wrapped in the Flag of Isarel in the Journal of Palestine Studies

by Simona Sharoni.
Journal of Palestine Studies, Vol. 44, No. 3
Spring ‘15

The experiences of Israeli Jews whose families originated from the Arab and Muslim world, including the Middle East, North Africa, and the margins of Ottoman Europe, have been written out of dominant accounts of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Commonly referred to as Sephardim, Mizrahim, or Arab Jews, this population has suffered systemic discrimination and disenfranchisement. Sexism and gender inequalities have added a layer of oppression to the social and economic hardship experienced by Mizrahi women. In her book, Smadar Lavie, Mizrahi activist and author, details the daily struggles of Mizrahi single mothers with multiple bureaucratic institutions in Israel, filling an important void in the literature.

Defying conventional academic styles, Wrapped in the Flag of Israel comprises fragments of memoir and auto-ethnography fused with political analysis and cultural critique. Informed by critical race feminist theorizing, Lavie skillfully weaves her moving personal story as a single mother fighting to regain legal custody of her son with a thought-provoking analysis of social protest movements in Israel. Covering mobilizations focused primarily on gender and race inequalities within Israel, the book begins with an insider’s perspective on the 2003 Single Mothers’ March and ends with the Israeli mass protests in Tel Aviv in summer 2011, often referred to in the media as “Tahrir is Here.”

In analyzing the Single Mothers’ March as the culmination of the multiple struggles of poor Mizrahi women in Israel, Lavie uses the term GendeRace to call attention to “bureaucratic logic’s main classificatory criterion . . . a calcified amalgamation of gender and race.” She concludes that Israel’s bureaucracy is an “inflictor of pain” on welfare mothers (p. 80). Lavie examines the social protest of 2003 and its aftermath by detailing how, following media coverage of the march, which was led by forty-three-year-old mother of three Vicky Knafo, “dozens of poverty-stricken single mothers from Israel’s Mizrahi ghettos and barrios started their own marches on Jerusalem” (p. 5).

One of the more provocative arguments in the book is about agency. Lavie’s analysis of “how Israel’s bureaucracy denies Mizrahi single mothers their agency,” serves as the basis for her conclusion that “there are situations where agency is impossible” (p. 80). The book documents how the Israeli state’s failure to address the plight of Mizrahi single mothers gave rise to several nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), like Ahoti (Hebrew for “my sister”), that work to support, represent, and advocate for this underserved community. Far from romanticizing the grassroots campaigns led by NGOs, the book examines critically the politics of funding as well as conflicts of power and privilege between academics and activists, and within the feminist movement in Israel. Throughout the book, Lavie also provides original discussions of such questions as why Mizrahim support the right wing in Israel. Most insightful is Lavie’s analysis of the dilemmas facing Mizrahi feminists, who are discriminated against both as women and as a racial minority but often feel alienated in the Israeli feminist movement and academy where racism is overlooked.

Wrapped in the Flag of Israel underscores the dynamic interplay between Israel’s socioeconomic divisions and the politics of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Both examples of social protests described in the book end abruptly as the political conflict escalates and the Israeli-Palestinian divide returns to dominate the news. In the aftermath of a suicide bombing in Jerusalem in August 2003, “the plight of the single mothers was completely off the public agenda in favor of the Palestine-Israel conflict. Most mothers left the encampment within a few days of the bombing” (p. 146). An almost identical phenomenon ensued in the summer of 2011. Inspired by the Tahrir Square demonstrations in Cairo, Egypt, “tens of thousands of young Israelis, priced out of their rental leases or foreclosed upon, protested the state’s slashing of public services, echoing the Single Mothers’ Protest of 2003, but on a larger scale” (p. 148). A suicide attack on an Israeli bus near Eilat, which provided an excuse for a “retaliatory” Israeli military operation, once again shifted the media and public attention in Israel away from socioeconomic disparities.

Lavie’s book ends with a rhetorical question: “How long can the regime depend on Mizrahi docile loyalty to the Jewish state?” (p. 153). Like the other poignant questions raised in the book, this question has no easy answer. However, Lavie illustrates how asking difficult, troubling questions that disturb taken-for-granted silences can be an important strategy of resistance. In doing so, Wrapped in the Flag of Israel offers theoretical and political insights that extend beyond Israel’s undeclared borders.

Simona Sharoni is professor of gender and women’s studies at the State University of New York in Plattsburgh. She is the author of Gender and the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict: The Politics of Women’s Resistance (Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 1995). Her new book, Gender and Resistance in Israel and Palestine, will be published by Syracuse University Press.

Buy book now | Download e-book now | Back to Smadar Lavie's Author Page

PM Press Feature in Sapling Newsletter

Originally published in the Sapling Newsletter
May 30th, 2016
This week Sapling talks with the editors at PM Press.

Sapling: What should people know who may not be familiar with PM Press?
PM Press: In less than 10 years, PM Press has managed to release nearly 400 books that have slowly and steadily sold over a million copies (combined) without any mainstream or corporate support. Our staff has gone from fully volunteer to full-time paid employees with very few changes. Unlike traditional publishers, our sales rely heavily on grassroots events (hand to hand bookselling) from coast to coast, word of mouth and small press reviews, and the support of the DIY and global political activist communities. We’d like to think that at our best we’ve been an example for folks interested in starting their own independent publishing ventures, and as an amplifier for writers, artists, and activists working on social/political justice issues ignored by the celebrity-driven mainstream media; and at our worst, proof that the world does not really need any more fantasy novels or tenure-driven Marxist analysis of the world (regardless of how well-intentioned, of course).
Sapling: How did your name come about?
PM Press: We needed a name quickly; a list was drawn up with options ranging from large motorcycle engine sizes (1200cc) to book related terms (Crooked Spine) to initialed phrases (FTW). PM was a friendly set of initials that could be used for any purpose that the occasion required (print matters, pogue mahone, piano man etc.). It didn’t hurt that most of the productive work in the early days was taking place late at night, in the PM!
Sapling: What do you pay close attention to when reading submissions? Any deal breakers?
PM Press: Am I excited to read the topic or story? Is the writer able to communicate an idea or am I left puzzled? Sometimes I'm excited to read a manuscript based on the synopsis and the writer hasn't been able to follow through beyond that initial spark.
The deal breakers are sort of boring. Nothing racist, sexist, homophobic, etc. Otherwise we're open to publishing an eclectic range of nonfiction, fiction, and comics as long as it's something a few of us find interesting.
 Where do you imagine PM Press to be headed over the next couple years? What’s on the horizon?
PM Press: We'll keep trucking along releasing lots more books by authors old and new while covering a diverse range of ideas both in fiction and nonfiction. Hopefully some graphic novels and comic collections. Occasionally a book that left me puzzled but through a lot of hard work has come together at last.
Sapling: As an editor, what is the hardest part of your job? The best part?
PM Press: The hardest thing for me as an editor is to give everything the care and vigilance it deserves, moving it all the way from the submitted manuscript to its polished final form, the main reason being a burdensome workload. It’s a lot of ground to cover. There’s so much worthy stuff that we want to publish yet we’re only a tiny crew.
The best part is any time a reader finds one of our books inspiring or engaging. If something we publish sheds light on a neglected issue, voice, or history, or serves as a tool to think about how to make the world better, then whatever it took to get it out there was worth it.
Sapling:  If you were stranded on a desert island for a week with only three books, what books would you want to have with you?
PM Press: Walden and Resistance to Civil Government (Norton Critical Edition), Henry David Thoreau: A favorite book for most of my life. I could spend months (years?) on an island reading this without exhausting its store of valuable things.
Kindred, Octavia Butler: The most recent novel I bought, last week. While stuck on a desert island I’d want something that could transport me to another place and time, and Kindred relates to the protagonist’s struggle to survive in a frightening and unfamiliar world, that of American slavery.
Garner’s Modern English Usage, Bryan A. Garner: Assuming I’d have brought my laptop, I’d probably want to get caught up on some editing as long as my battery held out, and Garner’s book is an indispensable reference book I wouldn’t want to be without.
Sapling: Just for fun (because we like fun and the number three), if PM Press was a person, what three things would it be thinking about obsessively?
PM Press: If PM Press was a person (and what a strange person that would be), the three things we would be thinking about obsessively would be:
1) How to make Google previews work more easily for our titles,
2) Finding new ways to get books into people's hands that focus on social/cultural and political justice and inspire change,
3) Smashing Capital and the State.
PM Press was founded at the end of 2007 by a small collection of folks with decades of publishing, media, and organizing experience. PM Press co-conspirators have published and distributed hundreds of books, pamphlets, CDs, and DVDs. Members of PM have founded enduring book fairs, spearheaded victorious tenant organizing campaigns, and worked closely with bookstores, academic conferences, and even rock bands to deliver political and challenging ideas to all walks of life. We’re old enough to know what we’re doing and young enough to know what’s at stake. We seek to create radical and stimulating fiction and nonfiction books, pamphlets, T-shirts, visual and audio materials to entertain, educate, and inspire you.
 For more info: 


Quick Access to:



New Releases

Featured Releases

The Traffic Power Structure

The First Socialist Schism: Bakunin vs. Marx in the International Working Men's Association