The Other as Brother: Nation-Building and Ethnic Ambivalence in Early Jewish-Israeli Anthropology

Article excerpt


Most depictions of "peripheral," nation-states' anthropologies assume that the anthropology's Other is a given, pre-defined subordinated group. Using the beginnings of Israeli anthropology (1960s-1970s) as our case study, we explore instead how while appropriating academic dominant paradigms of the time and aspiring to national unity, Israeli anthropologists were articulating through their choices of research subjects and research topics, and through their interpretations of the field an ethnic difference between themselves, European Jews and their "brothers," Oriental Jews. We follow the ambivalent discursive strategies through which this research project was created, and explore its implications for understanding other nation-building anthropologies. [Keywords: Sociology of knowledge; nation-building anthropologies, ethnicity, ambivalence, Orientalism, Jews, Israel]

When the shouting and confusion had reached a peak, some of the younger members would try to catch my eye, giving me a look of amusement. One of them frequently told me: "This is not an assembly of comrades, asefat haveirim [the other term for the general assembly], but an assembly of asses, asefat hamorim," playing on the words haveirim and hamorim. While some of the young members also shouted when discussing matters, some of the older members rarely participated in the discussions and if they did, they never raised their voices. Some of the members sometimes tried to calm down the enthusiasts by opening their arguments with the mention of God: "May the Lord's name be blessed" (yehee sheim ha'Sheim mevorakh). Though they gained some moments of quiet discussion, the atmosphere soon returned to its previous excitement. Somewhere in the middle of all the shouting, a few members, including those who had screamed earlier, would show their disgust at the way in which the discussion was held by going home. The assembly gradually disintegrated, usually without any decision having been taken on any of the issues that had been under discussion. [Shokeid 1971a:131]

This vivid ethnography of a bewildering and not too efficient assembly of Oriental Jews (Mizrahim or Spharadim), all new immigrants from Morocco, refers to a meeting that took place in a peripheral cooperative agricultural village (Moshav) in southern Israel in the mid-1960s. As apparent in other parts of the ethnography, from the ethnographer point of view the broader significance of this social gathering lay not so much in the topics and decisions to be taken. Instead, it was the deeper structure of the talking event through which the new citizens-who recently emigrated from "traditional" countries-were expected by state's authorities to learn the modern way of democratic politics. It was precisely this type of site that attracted Jewish-Israeli anthropologists of European descent (Ashkenazim, like the founding fathers and mothers of the Zionist movement and the state of Israel) to their Jewish "brothers,"1 Oriental (Mizrahi) Jews who were perceived as posing a deep challenge to the nation-building project of the young state (established 1948). Conceived as a fascinating sociological laboratory for understanding the transition from "tradition" to "modernity," these immigrants' experiences allowed the curious anthropologists to explore the new everyday life and the dramatic confusions created by the move from Morocco to Israel.

The anthropologists were trying of course to locally appropriate the dominant paradigms of the time. However, as we demonstrate below, these paradigms did not determine in themselves the construction of the anthropological project. Rather, taking into account the Jewish state's national missions and the very choice of a social group for study, the formulation of common research questions, and the interpretations given to the findings were crucial for establishing the peculiar relations between the anthropologists and their subjects, and for the specific anthropological knowledge offered. …


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