Narrative vs Historical Truth: Insights from Field Work in Right-Wing Popular Consciousness in Israel
Weinbaum, Batya, Women in Judaism
The case of Dorit, a right-wing recent convert to Judaism and immigrant to Israel from the United States, is examined in an attempt to show how the need of one woman to dramatize in the performance of life history might forge a truth that is better held together by the force of narrative rhetoric and metaphor than by fact.
Batya Weinbaum teaches multicultural literature, oral history and feminism in the Department of English at Cleveland State University. Her work on women in Palestine/Israel has appeared in such publications as Peace Review, Biography and Frontiers.
Confusion between how something is narrated (narrative truth) and what actually happened historically (historical truth) exists as a hazard in the psychoanalytic profession. This same confusion can be a harbinger in the field for feminist ethnographic research. The issue holds interest for those who attempt to build on theories of the unconscious and politics in cultural studies, especially for those who after Louis Althusser have used psychoanalysis for studying ideology and the transformation of the subject. I acknowledge that neither subject nor object is necessarily free from projection. However, this paper primarily explores how the need of one woman to dramatize in the performance of life history might forge a truth that is better held together by the force of narrative rhetoric and metaphor than by fact. I suggest that this process fuels expansion of the growing Israeli right-wing. This seems to be especially so among women reaching out to grasp religious ideology, and particularly for recent converts. (1)
The telling of the story by the interviewee/subject is perhaps a conversation undertaken with a purpose, of which feminists should be aware. The subject might be constructing a performative event in presenting a wish to be understood and appreciated by the interviewer. (Weinbaum, forthcoming) The subject also might be biased away from the truth of what "really" happened towards the "sayable." Hence, the strength of biases of the subject forges the narrative. Ethically, these considerations must be considered in any report of field research.
In this exploration, I discuss the narrative of a woman I will call Dorit. She presents as a right-wing recent convert to Judaism and immigrant to Israel from the United States. Dorit's narrative indicated how her need to survive personal domestic violence formed her perception of the current scenario. This need of hers led to blind spots in perceiving the actual historical situation. In deciphering her narrative, I make connections between her past battering as a child and as a wife and her experience of the current situation in Israel, particularly at the outbreak of the Intifada.
I collected this interview in the course of a three year project interviewing women from diverse backgrounds in Israel between 1989 and 1991. Dorit was one of 35 subjects I interviewed on 40 hours of tape I collected in the field in this period. I had made an initial trip to Israel in 1989, with an assignment to write something about "the women" by a left-wing feminist who was editing an anthology. She was particularly interested in bonds between Palestinian and Jewish women working against the occupation. However, the stories the right-wing women told me actually gripped me more.
In July of l989, I made contact with women's centers, located research sites, and attended Women in Black and Women at the Wall demonstrations. In the initial trip I made the decision to return for a more extended project. My first return visit was from December, l989 to April, l990, at the height of the period of optimism. At the time, moving Israel to talk with the PLO was the predominant motivation of women's peace groups. My second visit, December, l990-January 1991, was during the Gulf War build- up.
In my own upbringing as an American Reform Jew, I had been indoctrinated to bond with Israel in the Federation of Temple Youth camps. This indoctrination was attractive in that it made up for my own experiences of exclusion from dominant culture circles including girls' groups and the country club set as a child and teenager growing up in the middle west. Yet in these trips to Israel as an adult, I began to have my doubts about Israel's cohesion as a country and the state of denial the people were living in.
I returned in September-November, l991, after the setback of the Gulf War. During this period, the prevalent denial of the pain and disappointment of the situation disturbed me, as did statements I heard and collected from some Israeli informants as they discussed, for example, their perceived morbid fear of the Arabs under the threat of the bombs, juxtaposed to their own bravado of supposedly superior Israeli courage. When I came again in August l993, I was ready to let go of Israel as the organizational nexus of my life due to these recurring complications.
I had entered into the project of interviewing right-wing women with an exploratory approach to understand, to know, to feel, and not to judge. Like a poet, I encapsulated talk. I looked to the roots of these women's personal stories, angers and passions. I searched for the lived experiential realities of the women's lives, rather than for objective facts. My search seemed to be part of the recent struggle for the rights of the disenfranchised which has called women, minorities, and representatives of Third World cultures to set the record straight, since so much has been distorted or left out in traditional telling of history. (Rosenwald 3) My intention was to record how each woman sensed and experienced her own history, and to understand what each woman felt about the history she expressed in her own life choices.
I analyzed the ways my questions and stance as an observer changed in response to the answers I received in the interactions and interviews. Additionally, I explored ways in which the women spoke their stories, the metaphoric use of the language of war, and images they drew upon using language of the family. Denial of some of the harsh realities of the Palestinians by Israeli Jews seemed to stem from trauma. I explored the ungrounded use of history as a way to regain bearings after the upheaval of immigration, the impact of imagined audience, and the intervening factors preventing all women from bonding on the maternal nexus to work together across class, race, ethnicity and nationalism. I discovered that these latter issues included the effect of the media, religion, the aliyah process, and socialization through education.
The language my chosen subject used in describing her first-hand experience of the Intifada and violence in general in Israel reflected her experience of battering in marriage. Hence this reflection provided a strong emotional coherence that held together questionable facts. She tried like other women to make sense of her experiences in marriage and in her case childhood. In both instances, rather than valuing and protecting her, these institutions of childhood and marriage devalued and demeaned her. Thus, if generalizations might be drawn from a particular …
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Publication information: Article title: Narrative vs Historical Truth: Insights from Field Work in Right-Wing Popular Consciousness in Israel. Contributors: Weinbaum, Batya - Author. Journal title: Women in Judaism. Volume: 2. Issue: 1 Publication date: Annual 1999. Page number: Not available. © Not available. COPYRIGHT 1999 Gale Group.
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