My Poor Cousin, My Feared Enemy: The Image of Arabs in Personal Narratives of Former Soviets in Israel

By Yelenevskaya, Maria N.; Fialkova, Larisa | Folklore, April 2004 | Go to article overview

My Poor Cousin, My Feared Enemy: The Image of Arabs in Personal Narratives of Former Soviets in Israel


Yelenevskaya, Maria N., Fialkova, Larisa, Folklore


Abstract

The goal of this essay is to analyse some cultural antecedents of stereotyping of Arabs by immigrants to Israel from the former Soviet Union. The material used in the essay is part of larger project devoted to personal narratives of the immigrants of the 1990s. It is based on 115 in-depth interviews. Unlike Oriental Jews who had lived side-by-side with Arabs before emigrating to Israel, Soviet Jews had had no contacts with them in the "Old Country." While Arabs have always populated the folklore of oriental Jews, Soviet Jews have formed their attitude on the basis of the mass media (both Soviet and Israeli) and on limited personal contact after immigration. Immigrants who have had no personal contacts with Arabs perceive them as hostile Others, and transfer to them the negative stereotypes formed in the USSR. A more contradictory image evolves on the basis of personal experience; some narrators make parallels between Israeli--Arab and Russian--Chechen conflicts, while others perceive the situation of the Arabs in Israel as similar to the discrimination Jews had suffered in the USSR.

Introduction

The theme of relations with Arabs is among the hottest subjects of the public discourse in Israel. Among those who are known for their extremist attitudes to Arabs are immigrants from the former Soviet Union (FSU). The goal of this essay is to analyse some cultural antecedents of negative stereotyping of Arabs by this sector of Israeli society.

The material used in the essay is part of a larger project devoted to personal narratives of the immigrants to Israel from the FSU. It is based on 115 in-depth interviews conducted in Russian, the mother tongue of all the 135 interviewees, which make up approximately seventy-five hours of recording, transcribed in full. In several cases family members and friends preferred group interviews to individual ones, hence the mismatch in the numbers. Sixteen interviews were conducted and put at our disposal for analysis by four students at the University of Haifa: Hanna Shmulian, Svetlana Berenshtein, Alina Sanina, and Marina El-Kayam. The rest of the interviews were conducted by the authors.

Additional sources used in analyses are the authors' diaries containing ethnographic observations, materials of the Russian mass media accessible to the public in Israel, Israeli Russian-language newspapers, and Russian-language Internet forums (discussion threads involving over ninety users were downloaded in 2001-2). The inclusion of the media resources is important for this study, because they show the continuity of mythology and the pervasiveness of stereotypes and symbols in various types of discourse. As Linda Degh points out, living sources, tape records and notebooks containing folklorists' observations and comments should not be rejected as irrelevant for the essential task of folklore research: "what kind of needs created folklore forms and why do these forms continue their existence up to this day?" (1965, 110).

All informants immigrated to Israel in the 1990s. With one exception they are secular urban dwellers, who had scanty knowledge of the Jewish culture and life in Israel before immigration. Most assimilated Jews and non-Jews whom we interviewed demonstrated strong affinity with the Russian and Soviet culture, literature and folklore, which they often mobilised when interpreting realities of the "new country." It is important to note that most of the interviews were conducted in 1999-2000, in a relatively quiet period before the Al Aqsa Intifada, and thirteen subjects were interviewed at its very beginning. Russian-language newspapers, Internet discussion forums and our ethnographic diaries suggest that the attitude of immigrants from the FSU to Palestinians and Israeli Arabs has deteriorated since the beginning of the Intifada. Since our project is not longitudinal, however, the interviews do not show this dynamic.

The study is based on the combination of two methodological approaches to the material: realist and narrative. …

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