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Unmasking the Black Bloc: Who they are, What they do, How they work

By Devon Douglas-Bowers
December 18th, 2014

“The Black Bloc always defend the demonstrations when the police come here.” - Ariane Santos, 26-year-old Brazilian student

“The Black Bloc anarchists, who have been active on the streets in Oakland and other cities, are the cancer of the Occupy movement.” - Chris Hedges

The Black Bloc: some love it, others hate it. Many condemn Black Blockers for engaging in property destruction and lack of central organization, yet others appreciate them and see their divisive actions as a positive, arguing for a diversity of tactics. However, what many are lacking is an understanding of the Black Bloc, it's history, the types of people who are in it, and the problems within.

While this is a brief exploration of the Black Bloc, those who are interested further should read "Who's Afraid of the Black Blocs? Anarchy In Action Around the World," by Francis Dupuis-Déri (translated by Lazer Lederhendler), which not only provided the research for this article, but also explores on a deeper level what the black block is, the tactics and beliefs of black blockers, and criticism of the Black Bloc.

To begin to discuss black blocs, there must first be an understanding of what a black bloc is. Black blocs are “ad hoc assemblages of individuals or affinity groups that last for the duration of a march or rally” in which members retain their anonymity via head-to-toe black clothing. While there may be uses of force, “more often than not they are content to protest peacefully” with the main objective being to “embody within a demonstration a radical critique of the economic and political system.” A black bloc can be one person or thousands. It should be noted the black bloc isn't a group, but rather a tactic to allow for radicals to engage in direct action without fear of arrest; while many black blockers are anarchist, not all of them are.


Black blocs came out of the autonomous movement in Germany in the 1980s, specifically West Germany where “radical feminists had a profound effect on the Automen, injecting the movement with a more anarchist spirit than was the case elsewhere in Western Europe.” The Automen expressed their politics via “rent strikes and re-appropriating hundreds of buildings which were turned into squats” that doubled as spaces for political activity.

There is no definitive moment when the term black bloc came into usage, although there are different stories. The first major arrival of a black bloc was in 1986 when a massive black bloc was formed to defend the Hafenstrasse squat where 1,500 black blockers and 10,000 other demonstrators confronted the police and saved the squat.

Black bloc ideas and tactics soon spread to North America via fanzines, personal contacts and punk music groups, but there is also a more interesting reason as to how black bloc tactics spread. Sociologists Charles Tilly, Doug McAdam and Dieter Rucht, all of whom specialize in social movements, have shown that “for different periods and places there exist repertoires of collective action deemed effective and legitimate for the defense and promotion of a cause. These repertories are transformed and disseminated over time and across borders from one social movement to another, in accordance with the experiences of militants and the changes in the political sphere.”

Essentially, tactics and ideas spread over time from one social movement to another depending on their effectiveness and how the tactics will work within the context of each movement. Two modern day examples of this could be the physical encampment of spaces from the Occupy movement and the "Hands Up, Don't Shoot" gesture from the anti-police brutality movement that has recently sprung up surrounding the death of Michael Brown in Ferguson.

The first time the black bloc made a major move in North America was during a January 1991 rally against the Persian Gulf war where the World Bank building was targeted. Black bloc tactics were also used by the militant anti-racist group Anti-Racist Action, which focuses on directly confronting neo-Nazis and white supremacists.

Who They Are, How They are Organized

While the black bloc may be made up of militants, they are consistently categorized as hooligans, thugs and youths who take joy in private property destruction. Thus, there needs to be further exploration of the types of people under the masks.

It should be noted the black blocs, at least in the U.S. and Europe, are generally overwhelmingly white and male. However, there is some diversity. In a communiqué published days after the demonstrations against the 2001 G8 Summit in Genoa, Mary Black (a pseudonym for a protester who took part in the protests) noted that most of the people she knew who used black bloc tactics “have days jobs working for nonprofits. Some are schoolteachers, labor organizers, or students. Some don't have full-time jobs, but instead spend most of their time working for change in their communities.[...] These are thinking and caring folks who, if they did not have radical political and social agendas, would be compared with nuns, monks, and others who live their lives in service.”

Dupuis-Déri himself stated that in interviews he has had with black blockers, many had been involved in the social sciences and that “in a number of cases, their research projects dealt with the political significance and consequences of demonstrations and direct actions,” suggesting “that their political involvement was grounded in serious political thinking.”

Thus, those who involve themselves in black bloc tactics are not necessarily people who are at protests solely to break things, although such types of people do come in and cause problems.

Before discussing the issue of property destruction, it would be pertinent to know how black blocs are organized. Black bloc groups attempt to function in a horizontal manner, with each person having equal say in deliberating issues and where the goal is consensus rather than voting. In order to do this, black blockers form affinity groups, which are groups “generally composed of between a half-dozen and several dozen individuals whose affinity results from ties that bind them, such as belonging to the same school, workplace, or political organization.” By having previous ties to one another, members in affinity groups are able to coordinate much easier.

The Issue of Property Destruction

Not all black blockers engage in property destruction. While one may use black bloc tactics, there are different roles one can play. Groups take into account things such as a person's immigration status, health problems, previous arrest record and the like, and at-risk individuals can engage in low-risk tasks such as being “in charge of legal support in the event of arrests, or responsible for transportation, lodging, water and food supplies, media contacts, psychological support” and whatnot.

Black blocs meet to plan and organize before hand, but also during protests as well. One black blocker who took part in the protests against the G8 Summit in 2003 noted in her reflection of the events:

"I found it extraordinary that we could hold delegates' meetings right in the middle of the blocking action. There were barricades, fires had been lit, the police were slinging a lot of tear gas. And still, a meeting was called with someone yelling, 'meeting in ten minutes near the road sign.' The meeting took place barely a few hundred meters from where the police stood, and it allowed us to decide on our course of action. [...] The police officers see you as a crowd and assume you're going to act like a crowd, The affinity group model disrupts that dynamic: you don't act like a crowd anymore but like a rational being."

With regards to property damage, for black blockers, the target is the message. Targets are often chosen for their symbolic value. “On principle, Black Blocs do not strike community centers, public libraries, the offices of women's committees or even small independent businesses.” While this may be true generally, the use of property destruction by some black blockers can cause problems, such as can be seen in the recent Berkeley protests, where people were protesting the death of Eric Garner and individuals came and broke the windows of a number of banks. This is deeply problematic as it took the attention off the death of Eric Garner and the larger issues surrounding police brutality against the black community, and put the attention on banks. Actions such as these can potentially create a space for the police to justify a crackdown on all protesters.

The fetishization of property destruction is a problem with the black bloc, as in some cases “violent direct action becomes a means for a would-be militant to affirm [their] political identity in the eyes of other militants. This makes it very tempting for that person to look down on and exclude those who do not equate radicalism with violence.” Yet, not all black blockers engage in this fetishization and are aware of the dangers, such as with a participant of the Quebec city black blocs who stated: “I have no patience for dogmatic pacifism, but there is also dogmatic violence, which sees violence as the only and only means to wage the struggle.” The protester Sofiane noted that “We don't advocate violence; it's not a program... Because you can easily acquire a taste for violence, you get used to it... But when it comes to doing militant work, not many people show up.”

Diversity of Tactics

However, there are solutions to the problem of those wanting to engage in direct action and others who want to peacefully protest that should be quoted at some length. Around 2000, there were a few mobilizations in which it was proposed that certain areas of a city be identified by colors in order to allow different types of protests simultaneously:

"This was done at the Reclaim the Street rally in London on June 18, 1999; at the first Global Day of Action called by the People's Global Action, an anti-capitalist network founded in Geneva in 1998 and close to the Zapatista rebels.[...] Color coding made it possible to distinguish among three separate marches: blue for the Black Bloc, accompanied by the Infernal Noise Brigade band; yellow for the Tute Bianche [a militant Italian social movement]; pink for the Pink and Silver Bloc."

The organization Convergence of Anti-Capitalist Struggles used a similar tactic at demonstrations in which there were three zones: green, yellow, and red. "The green zone was a sanctuary where demonstrators were, theoretically, in no danger of being arrested. The yellow zone was for those undertaking nonviolent civil disobedience and involved a minor risk of being arrested. The red zone was for protesters who were ready for more aggressive tactics, including skirmishes with the police."

This allowed for the concept of a diversity of tactics to be respected, as well as for protesters to have spaces where more or less militant tactics were accepted, all while maintaining the safety of peaceful protesters.

Though the debate surrounding property violence is the largest and loudest of all, there are other problems within black blocs such as sexism and accusations of alienating the working class.

With regards to sexism, many critics of black blocs argue that militant direct action “partakes of a macho mystique and does not encourage women to join in” and that expressing one's anger through destruction “simply [confirms] and [amplifies] aggressive masculinity.” Furthermore, the sexual division of labor is often reproduced, with a woman who took part in a number of black blocs in the 2012 Quebec student strike saying that it was women who often did the shopping “when fabric was needed to make flags and banners.”

Dupuis-Déri noted that the situation hadn't changed, writing that “more than a decade earlier, during a meeting to prepare a black bloc in Montreal, the men ended up in the backyard of an apartment honing their slingshot skills while the women were in the kitchen making Molotov cocktails.” Thus, masculinity is not only reproduced in many black bloc circles, but also creates a space that rejects the participation of women and devalues their labor and thus their importance to the movement.

Some argue that black blocs alienate the working-class “with their clothing and lifestyle choices, which are associated with the anarchist counterculture.” While some may argue that there are those in the working-class who support and take part in black blocs, it should be noted that these are not fully representative of the working-class; there is a lack of people of color and women and so the black blocs are more representative of the young, white working-class.

Black blocs tactics are divisive and create a large amount of tension, even within far-left circles. Many condemn black blockers as being nothing but hooligans who want to break things. But by unmasking who they are, one can better understand them and their tactics and ideas, even if one disagrees.

NOTE: does not in any shape or form support or encourage property destruction or other violent activities associated with the Black Bloc.

Black Bloc, Automen, Hands Up Don't Shoot, Michael Brown, Ferguson protests, Anti-Racist Action, Francis Dupuis-Déri, affinity groups, property destruction, diversity of tactics, Eric Garner, anti-police brutality protests

Buy Who's Afraid of the Black Blocs? | Buy Who's Afraid of the Black Blocs e-book | Back to Francis Dupuis-Déri's Author Page

Crashing the Party: A Review in Friends Journal

by J.E. McNeil
Friends Journal
June 1st, 2016

The author, a legal worker (non-lawyer) member of the National Lawyers Guild, stated early on that he proposed “to write about the legal and political events as both a firsthand participant and an objective observer.” From what I knew from various accounts—the press, the National Lawyers Guild’s, and my nephew’s (he had been arrested during the events in the book)—few, if any, of the participants in the horrific events surrounding the 2000 Republican National Convention in Philadelphia, Pa., were “objective” about what happened.

But I was wrong. The book is a detailed, exacting retelling of the events before, during, and after—long after—the convention had left Philadelphia. It is a chilling story, well told. In it are many accounts of solidarity, betrayal, bravery, and brutality.

The basic story is about the groups who sought to protest many issues during and around the Republican gathering in Philadelphia in August 2000. Hermes notes that some of the actions had foreshadowing in the Seattle World Trade Organization protests. In those protests, the activists ably used various educational, street theater, and arrest-and-trial strategies as well as legal observers. And the government effectively used disinformation tactics, initially convincing the general public that the protests were largely led by violent, black-clad anarchists.

The alliances who sought to protest the convention spent more than a year planning and preparing—as did the police. The activists were spied upon, infiltrated, harassed, and eventually—in many cases before the events—arrested. In particular, the proposed peaceful street theater’s puppets, float, and banners were destroyed prior to the event, with everyone in the staging area arrested whether they were connected to it or not. The treatment of the activists by the police during the arrests and while in custody without bail hearings in jail was vicious. The criminal charges were outrageous violations of constitutional rights. People in authority lied and colluded. Eventually, 95 percent of those arrested were not convicted.

Many of the methods and strategies used by the activists will not be new to Friends, such as consensus decision making. Others will be things with which we are not in accord, such as “a pushback against the rigidity of ‘nonviolence.’” Hermes explains coherently the strategies of arrest solidarity, jail solidarity, and court solidarity as well. But he also includes mistakes and failures of the activists. He relates, for example, a story of activists robbed when they handed bail money to a young African American man whom they failed to vet as they normally would have. This event led to a discussion among the activists of the inherent racism in trusting people more because they are members of an oppressed class.

Hermes relates all of this in great detail, using transcripts, interviews, and media reports.
The book ends with his own analysis of the events and strategy and that of many of the other participants, by itself well worth reading. And clearly the events had several important results.

One result, and foremost for me, was the understanding at a new depth by the predominantly young, white, affluent protesters of just how horrible and racist the prison and justice system is in our country. Reading and hearing about something is very different from experiencing and witnessing it. Another result was the strengthening of direct action trends among young activists of color. As Kazembe Balagun, a SLAM (Student Liberation Action Movement) member noted: “direct action, done correctly, can foster solidarity across racial and gender lines, and that’s something we definitely learned.”

But even as some were radicalized, others such as Ryan Harvey, political activist and organizer, realized:

We have a lot of work to do, and most of it is not going to get done in the streets. It’s going to get done on the doorsteps, the libraries, the churches, the labor halls, the schools, the military bases, the parks, the prisons, the abortion clinics, the neighborhood associations, the PTAs.

Even if you do not share all of the beliefs of the activists, Crashing the Party is an important read for those who would like to understand the various anti-globalization actions before and since. Even if some of the political analysis leaves you cringing, Crashing the Party provides useful insights for peace work in our meetings. Even if you do not choose to engage in direct action or even protest, Crashing the Party is a revealing take about the dysfunction of our legal system, prison systems, and society.

We have a lot of work to do.

Buy Crashing the Party now | Buy e-Book now | Return to Kris Herme's page

Battling Convention Kris Hermes in Jacobin Magazine

 Police dogs at the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago, IL. Casa del libro

By Kris Hermes
Jacobin Magazine
July 19th, 2016

Inside the police’s playbook for repressing protests at national conventions.

Police dogs at the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago, IL. Casa del libro

In 1968, outside the Democratic National Convention (DNC) in Chicago, police violently cleared the streets of antiwar protesters, smashing heads and clubbing with abandon. Inside, even some Democratic Party officials blanched at the level of brutality. Abraham Ribicoff, a senator from Connecticut, denounced the police’s “Gestapo tactics” from the podium of the convention hall, earning the ire of Chicago mayor Richard J. Daley and the applause of many delegates.

In the decades since, domestic law enforcement has stepped up its efforts to quell political dissent. While no convention since has devolved into such chaotic brutality, policing today is arguably more planned, militarized, and indiscriminately violent.

The contemporary policing model — one of “strategic incapacitation,” as the sociologist Patrick Gillham terms it — developed as a reaction to the global justice movement of the late 1990s and early 2000s.

After the “Battle in Seattle,” during which protesters shut down the 1999 World Trade Organization summit, Philadelphia police commissioner John Timoney and other officials traveled to the Pacific Northwest to study protest tactics and the police response, and to prepare for the Republican Convention scheduled in Philadelphia just a few months later.

Lessons well learned, Timoney oversaw the crackdown at the GOP gathering in 2000 and then, as Miami police chief, presided over one of the most brutal responses to political protest in modern history: the repression of demonstrators at the 2003 Free Trade Area of the Americas summit.

The “Miami model” established the rules of engagement that the host cities of political conventions now habitually employ to quash dissent. Chances are, officials in Cleveland (site of the Republican National Convention) and Philadelphia (site of the Democratic National Convention) will crib from the same playbook.

Advance Repression

The effort to thwart convention protests begins months before any delegate sets foot in the host city. Since 2000, every political convention has been designated a National Special Security Event (NSSE), which allows officials to establish a robust, multi-agency law enforcement apparatus (with the FBI and Secret Service at the top) and to have to access to millions of federal dollars for police equipment, weaponry, and personnel.

As the intelligence community sets up shop and local police stockpile weapons, public officials engage in a calculated effort to frighten residents. They warn of “outside agitators” and “violent anarchists,” seeking to foment divisions between the public and protesters and build support for the inevitable crackdown.

Meanwhile, FBI agents visit the homes and workplaces of known activists to ratchet up the pressure. Law enforcement infiltrate and spy on activist groups, even if there’s no credible threat of terrorist or violent activity.

The information gathered is shared at local or regional fusion centers and then used to disrupt political organizing. (While fusion centers are already set up in Philadelphia and Cleveland, it might be harder for Philadelphia police to carry out this part of the plan: thanks to a historic lawsuit and “mayoral directive” in the 1980s, city police must receive permission from the city’s managing director before infiltrating political groups.)

As the conventions approach, police descend on “convergence centers” or other designated protest spaces used to distribute literature, connect protesters, and provide trainings. The raids are carried out to deliberately disorient political activists, making it harder to build momentum and organize.

In the lead-up to the 2008 RNC in St Paul, law enforcement spied on the activist group The Welcome Committee for months, preemptively raided multiple activists’ homes, and arrested several organizers on conspiracy and terrorism charges. (Some activists sued over the house raids, and the city eventually dropped the terrorism charges.)

In addition, paid FBI informants entrapped two young activists, prodding them to make Molotov cocktails. Because of the FBI’s manufactured plot, the two men spent years in prison for building — but never using — the fire bombs.

Before the 2012 RNC, the Tampa Police Department inserted itself into many protest groups, employing “widespread use of undercover operatives to gather intelligence.” Tampa Police Department major Marc Hamlin later bragged at a security conference that the “organizational structure [of protesters] was extremely weak,” allowing undercover officers to penetrate and “take over” a protest group. When the dust settled, only the dismantled political group faced any consequences.

To justify their actions, police often craft outlandish, unsubstantiated claims about protesters. For example, in 2000, Pennsylvania state troopers spent a week searching a West Philadelphia warehouse full of art and protest materials. Despite finding no legal reason to shut down the building, Timoney falsely claimed that police found explosives and acid-filled balloons.

Before his fabrications were uncovered, police arrested more than seventy people and destroyed all of the First Amendment–protected banners, puppets, and literature they found.

An additional tactic used to stop protests before they start is to deny official sanction to disfavored groups. Both in 2000 and this year, Philadelphia rejected the Poor People’s Economic Human Rights Campaign’s application for a march permit. Last time, the PPEHRC took to the street under threat of arrest, but this time the group mounted a successful legal challenge and will march with a permit.

In 2004, ahead of the RNC, New York City refused to issue a permit to antiwar groups looking to protest in Central Park. Although activists eventually won their suit, the city successfully prevented people from gathering in the park.

Just for good measure, host cities also typically impose sweeping “no-protest” or “security” zones in advance, banning everyday items and curtailing free-speech activity. In 2008, in addition to instating tight controls on rally locations and logistics, St Paul drew a parade route that, in certain sections, was completely fenced-in and lined with heavily armed police. And at the 2012 RNC, despite expectations of few protesters, Tampa’s security zone covered the entire downtown area.

On the Ground

Pre-convention repression is just a warm-up for the main event. Once the convention begins, heavily militarized police show massive displays of force, at times outnumbering protesters; use tear gas, pepper spray, rubber and wooden bullets, tasers, and sound cannons to attack protesters; and detain hundreds after unlawful arrests.

Once protesters are in jail, police and city officials often do everything they can to keep them in detention. They slap excessive charges on protesters, impose prohibitively high bail, and refuse to release arrestees or allow them access to legal counsel, preventing them from getting back on the streets until the convention ends. At the 2004 RNC, police arrested nearly two thousand people and held them in conditions so squalid that New York City eventually settled civil litigation for $18 million.

During the 2000 RNC, Philadelphia police locked up some four hundred people, charging more than forty with felonies and the rest with as many as ten misdemeanors each.

The average bail ranged between $15,000 and $20,000, but those who police accused of being “ringleaders” were held on $500,000 and $1 million bails. Most were denied access to legal counsel and detained for several days before arraignment.

It has also become common practice for cities hosting NSSEs to obtain insurance policies.

The trend started in Philadelphia, when it bought insurance for the 2000 RNC to protect the city and its police from liability for rights violations, including assault and battery, false arrest, wrongful detention and imprisonment, and malicious prosecution. The city used the policy to pay for settlements from several civil lawsuits and arguably gave police license to act even more violently.

In the years since, St Paul, Tampa, and Charlotte (the site of the 2012 DNC) have all purchased similar policies.

What to Expect

To what extent will Cleveland and Philadelphia follow the same template as other host cities?

Neither city has disclosed what weapons they’ve purchased with the roughly $50 million the federal government has given each of them. But we know that Cleveland has bought riot gear and batons, and Philadelphia considered buying an armored vehicle.

We can assume that police will act like an occupying force. Cleveland police are likely already infiltrating activist groups — in April, they held a training to build “cohesion” between undercover operatives and uniformed police during periods of “civil unrest.”

If history repeats itself, law enforcement in Philadelphia will infiltrate political groups, statutes against it notwithstanding. Advances in communication technology like stingray devices will allow police to eavesdrop on cell phone communication without a warrant.

Challenges in the courts have moderately loosened the hold officials have over protest activity. Philadelphia’s refusal to issue certain protest permits and its ban on rush-hour demonstrations was successfully challenged and resulted in a court-ordered settlement. Cleveland announced a three-and-a-half-square-mile security zone and time-and-place restrictions on marches and rallies, only to see them struck down.

However, the court-ordered settlement in Cleveland still bans marches for most of the afternoon and all of the evening, an unrealistic and arguably unconstitutional policy that will certainly invite mass arrests.

Even in the best-case scenario, protesters in Cleveland and Philadelphia will take to the streets in a decidedly inhospitable environment. Activists and organizers will have to adopt innovative and creative strategies to try to circumvent state repression. Establishing a base of support with host city residents and solidarity with workers — especially those integral to the convention infrastructure — would be a good place to start.

Activists will also have to counter the prevailing media narratives, reminding residents that their cities are throwing expensive and often publicly funded private parties at the same time they shutter public schools, lay off public workers, and slash social services.

Regardless of what happens inside the convention halls, it’s outrageous that millions of dollars are being spent to suppress political speech — especially at time when both parties tell us that addressing our education, health care, and housing needs is just too costly.

Buy Crashing the Party now | Buy e-Book now | Return to Kris Herme's page

Wrapped in the Flag of Israel in Hypercultura

By Sorina Georgescu
vol 6(15) 2014

1 At the crossroads between a coursebook[i], a piece of writing about life and a feminist manifesto, Wrapped in the Flag of Israel. Mizrahi Single Mothers and Bureaucratic Torture is, as the subtitle suggests, both an enlightening insight into Israeli intra‐racism and an orginal and valuable connection between two seemingly unrelated concepts: bureaucracy and torture.

2 The book is structured in thirteen parts: a “Note on Transliteration”, a “List of Illustrations”, an “Introduction”, six chapters – each with several subchapters, a “Glossary of Hebrew, Arabic and Yiddish Terms”, “References”, “Acknowledgements” and an “Index”. The main theoretical concepts throughout the book are “GendeRace”, “Zionism”, “Agency” and “Identity Politics”, each having its own way of using bureaucracy and perpetrating torture on the Mizrahi single mothers.

3 The author also draws from epidemiologist Nancy Krieger’s theory that links “chronic bureaucratic entanglements, hypertension, chronic pain and death”. This she further develops as “divine cosmology”, de ined as “the Divinity of the Jewish State” – Jewish people’s ’promised land’, now a real state, and the “Divinity of Chance” – “the goals the faithful have when they go on pilgrimage”. As these “divinities” suggest, we also have lots of humor in this book:

“A welfare mother petitioning a bureaucrat is like a pilgrim beseeching the jawbone of a saint. Mother and pilgrim are bound by the strict script of religious ritual on the one hand, and by serendipity on the other. A mother trying to track down her income augmentation might consult a bureaucrat at the NSB, the post of ice clerk, an appointed bank of icial, a case worker at the municipal welfare of ice, or others. All the while, she is constantly praying for a miracle. None of the avenues is guaranteed to succeed. She has no choice but to subject herself to this godly roulette. Godly it is because both mother and bureaucrat conceive themselves as integral parts of the miraculous ingathering of the Jewish diaspora in the promised land. This is the land of divine bureaucracy governed by ETSBA’ ELOKIM (the inger of God), where citizenship is one guaranteed miracle, so long as you can prove ive generations back of Jewish mothers. The other guaranteed miracle of Israeli Jews is an IDF draft notice to report of duty at age eighteen (19).”

4 The book is all the more interesting for being Smadar Lavie’s personal experience. The daughter of a Mizrahi/Arab/Yemeni[ii] mother and of an Ashkenazi father, she bene itted from a much better education than most Mizrahi women, being raised in a “largely Ashkenazi working‐to‐middle‐class neighborhood less than ten miles south of Tel Aviv” (11). Thus, unlike the average Mizrahi girls, she had access to superior education, leading her to the US as a researcher‐anthropologist. However, divorce from a violent husband and the loss of her 9‐year‐child’s custody, through a controversial Parental Alienation Syndrome charge[iii], make her take her child back to her family, in Israel. Here starts her drama as a welfare mother, after having resigned her tenured associate professorship at the University of California, Davis: her color – the Arab phenotype[iv], and her politics – anti‐Zionism – exclude her ”from academic positions that paid a living wage” (13). Here, she becomes the member of a feminist NGO which actively supports the anti‐governmental protests of poor Mizrahi women, such as Vicky Knafo, a protest – the Knafoland – that begins and ends Lavie’s book.

5 As the author declares in the “Introduction”, the purpose of her book is “my simultaneous existence as Mizrahi single mother on welfare, former university professor turned into feminist‐of‐color activist, and media personality” (22). To which she adds an “attempt to counter Israeli Anthropology’s insistence on harmonious inals” (22).

6 The irst important concept, the equivalence between “GendeRace”, bureaucracy and torture, can be explained by starting with the educational system in Israel, a gender‐segregated one, with “far fewer classrooms for girls than for boys” (50), with mainly vocational highschools (seamstresses, knitting, weaving), with fewer kindergartens only in the evenings. In other words, “inferior education, if any at all” (50). Bureaucracy, associated with physical force, is the educational of icials’ argument for enrolling “into boarding schools or kibbutzim any children about the normative two‐child family” (51). There, ”the Ashkenazi educators made sure that the boarded Mizrahi children would not intermingle with the superior Ashkenazi children” (51).

7 Work in Israel is another “GendeRaced” issue. Not only did and do the favored Ashkenazi women have dif iculties in inding a job and face lower wages than Ashkenazi men, but, well into the 1960s, the Arab Jews were the domestic servants, cleaners, launderers and agricultural workers. They were battered by their employers, they were victims of “sexual abuse and rape”. As feminists in the 1990s and the 2000s, Mizrahi ONGs are not allowed to ”educate our communities on feminism of color” (61).

8 As single mothers, they are too fond of the Jewish State to be really able‐willing to ight ”the somatic pain in licted upon them by the state’s bureaucracy”, which means queuing in huge lines at the welfare bureau, with endless papers to be illed in, in order to try to obtain their monthly income check:

“Even though she moves through time and space, she can only move through the time and space allotted by the regime. Because she loves her Jewish homeland and fears that genuine resistance will weaken her homeland’s stand against the Goyim[v], she can enact only a igurative simulacrum of resistance. The regime merely lays its web in wait for her to entangle herself (81).”

9 Another bureaucratic shortcoming is ambiguity and evasiveness, lack of any obvious rules, plus the demand of sexual favors by the clerks and/or potential employers, turning any success at the bureau into “a miracle”. The mother does not know and has no way of knowing, which actions correlate with success or failure” (82). Finally, the single mother is practically denied even the chances of obtaining her money through court. All judges care for are endless fees, papers, signatures and stamps, all these involving much more money than any Mizrahi single mother may produce. In other words, “Government bureaus are where the Divinity of Chance meets the Divinity of the State” (84).

10 Speaking about this “Divinity of the State”, Zionism is another central factor linked with bureaucracy and torture.

11 De ined as a “European ideology of Jewish nationalism whose main goal was to colonize Palestine in order to establish a Jewish State” (61), an ideology which perceives Arabs as “primitives”, Zionism is the “destruction of Palestinian villages” (61) and the portrayal of counter‐reactions as “pogroms” (61). Today, it means a huge social‐economic gap between the Ashkenazi ruling minority and the Mizrahi lower‐class majority. It means discriminatory education, employment and wages, plus the denial of “Arab culture and Orthodox Judaism”. It means the master narrative of the ight against the Goyim. And it means that “from the craddle to donning military fatigues at age eighteen, all Israel citizens tracing Jewish lineage learned that their most vital responsibility to the state was in creating new generations of Jewish citizens. Judaism is citizenship” (61). Finally, for Smadar Lavie, it meant not being allowed to study Jewish intra‐racism as a tenured professor, the only recommended ield being the binary Israel‐Palestinian con lict.

12 The last two inter‐twined concepts, “agency” and “identity politics” are direct consequences of GendeRace and Zionism. We are talking about Hebrew media stereotypes of Mizrahi single mothers[vi] and we are talking about the denial of their agency through the “mirage of Mizrahi Ashkenazi Jewish unity to narrate how all Jews should ight on a single front so Israel – the little David – can survive surrounded by Arab Goyim Goliath” (79). As Smadar Lavie explains, this is just a mask to hide the State’s use of bureacracy “to crush, marginalize, contain and buy out individuals or groups within social protest movements”. The only protests allowed are those that “showcase the ’chosen people’s’ national unity devoid of race, class or religious observance. Movements that do not showcase this national unity are ignored. Eventually, all Mizrahi movements become sucked into the Palestine‐Israel binary and then disappear from the public sphere” (80).

13 Another way of denying such agency is the impossibility of turning bureaucratic pain into discourse. According to our author’s direct observation, single mothers did not even make the connection between the moment of opening and reading a letter about a new allowance cut or a new paper to be illed in, and their consequent burning of food or yelling at their children.

14 Unfortunately, Smadar Lavie’s Knafoland has no happy end. Being a book about reality, one of Israel’s realities happened to be a “Palestinian suicide bomber” who killed 23 and injured 130, thus ending both the truce between Israel and Hamas and the national and international media attention towards the Mizrahi feminist protest. No solutions to their problems. Only the warning that, should their children fail to be at school come 1 September, they would be reported “as delinquents to the Youth and Family Courts. The judges could then order the removal of the children from their homes to be forcibly placed into boarding schools” (145).

15 Only one possible ending:
“In a press corps’ caravan, they sped across town to cover the carnage at the border. Afterwards, they went to the American Colony Hotel Bar to get drunk. So did I, with my converted food coupons to purchase a drink I would muse for hours and my California English to gather info. Forever the anthropologist, forever collecting data (145).”

[i]The book explains a lot of facts and concepts regarding history, ideology, laws

[ii]Mizrahi – 50% of Israel population; they are Easterners or Orientals and have their origins in the Arab and Muslim world and the margins of the Ottoman Empire (Morocco, Libya, Egypt, Lebanon, Yemen, Iraq, Iran, Pakistan, Turkey, Bulgaria, former Yugoslavia, India); they are the majority of Israel’s disenfranchised; Ashkenazi – 30%; they come from Central and Eastern Europe; they spoke Yiddish; they control the division of power and privilege in the State; other ethnic groups/races: Sephardim Jews (Spaniards), Palestinians (20%), Russim (10‐12%), Kavkazim plus Gruzinim (2‐4%)

[iii]Parental Alienation Syndrome – PAS – the assumption that a child estrangement from a violent father most likely precipitates from the mother causing alienation between the father and child (26)

[iv]Yemeni race marks: olive‐chocolate skin and dark brown eyes, wide eyelids, high cheekbones, prominent collarbone and wrist bones, narrow waistline with wide hips, short torso and Asian height (14)

[v]Goyim – non‐Jew; Arab
[vi]Mizrahi single mothers: ”bleached blonde hair, skinny jeans, smoking expensive import cigarettes – proof of their loose morals and wastefulness” (68)

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Wrapped in the Flag of Israel in Affilia: Journal of Women and Social Work

by Barbara Levy Simon
August 2016

Smadar Lavie has written a brave and scholarly autoethnography, using an extended case study method, of a social movement in contemporary Israel made up of single mothers within the Mizra- him, those Jews of color whose ancestors were formerly part of Muslim and Arab worlds. The Miz- rahim mostly came to Israel in the 1950s from countries of the former Ottoman Empire—nations in Northern Africa, Eastern Europe, Pakistan, and the Middle East. Although they make up 50% of the current population of Israel, the Mizrahim constitute the majority of Israel’s disenfranchised resi- dents and citizens (p. 1).

The author is a feminist anthropologist and Mizrahi single mother of Yemini ancestry. In 1999, she fled with her son to Tel Aviv, Israel, from her home in Berkeley, CA, where she had lived and worked as a tenured professor at the University of California, Davis, in order to protect her 9-year- old boy from her violent ex-husband who had just been granted full custody of the child. She pro- vides a firsthand account and analysis of her research and life experiences between 1999 and 2007 in Israel. While there, Dr. Lavie became an activist in and member of the executive board of a feminist nongovernmental organizational known as Ahoti, Hebrew for ‘‘Sistah—for women in Israel.’’

In 2003, Israel’s National Security Bureau (NSB), the equivalent of the U.S. Social Security Administration, mailed a notice to all single mothers informing them that the national government was immediately slashing their monthly income assurances (welfare checks), rent assistance, and income supplements. This set of drastic, welfare cutbacks left most Mizrahi single mothers without sufficient money for food, rent, or clothing.

Ahoti responded by organizing the Single Mothers’ March in 2003 on Jerusalem’s NSB. Because most Ashkenazi single mothers (Jews with European roots) were able to find financial and residen- tial help from their middle-class kin, the Single Mothers’ March was composed of only Mizrahi women, women of color living with their children in poverty. The author details what she sees as the impossibility of protesters succeeding in making demands on a state that they love. Lavie argues persuasively that single mothers of color in Israel, who are immigrants and refugees beholden to a state that has taken them in as citizens, are constitutionally unable to be sustained agents of their own liberation. Despite the racism and poverty they endure daily, the Mizrahi single mothers, suggests Lavie, are not psychologically or morally equipped to hold the State of Israel responsible for their oppression and poverty.

With theoretical sophistication and granular accounts of day-to-day struggles of her own and other single mothers’ efforts to survive and gain access to resources and entitlements as Israelis, Lavie sets forth a theory of bureaucracy as a system torture. She identifies in nuanced fashion the mental, physical, and existential torments that accompany the processes of requesting hearings, appeals, and procedural fairness. Kafka’s (1957) The Trial comes to mind as Lavie illuminates through diary entries, narrative accounts, and analytic paragraphs the intra-Jewish racism and class discrimination she and many other Mizrahim experienced and continue to undergo in seeking administrative and legal redress in Israel.

This is a painful account well worth reading. Social workers from many nations who are involved in difficult macro- and mezzo-practice would find illuminating the many elements of social move- ment activity and peer-group support that Lavie characterizes and theorizes so powerfully.


Kafka, F. (1957). The trial (Trans. Willa and Edwin Muir; rev., and with additional materials trans. E. M. But- ler; Illustrated by George Salter). New York, NY: Knopf.

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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:

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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.

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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.

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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).

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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(

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