Wrapped in the Flag of Isarel in Journal of Middle Eastern Women’s Studies
by Adi Kuntsman
Journal of Middle Eastern Women’s Studies
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: A.Kuntsman@mmu.ac.uk.