Palestine and Jewish History: Criticism at the Borders of Ethnography

By Stockton, Ronald R. | The Middle East Journal, Spring 1998 | Go to article overview

Palestine and Jewish History: Criticism at the Borders of Ethnography


Stockton, Ronald R., The Middle East Journal


Palestine and Jewish History: Criticism at the Borders of Ethnography, by Jonathan Boyarin. Minneapolis and London: University of Minnesota Press, 1996. 251 pages. Bibl. to p. 265. $49.95 cloth; $19.95 paper.

Reviewed by Ronald R. Stockton

Jonathan Boyarin's book is a field journal reporting on a six-month research trip to Israel. Boyarin notes that it is unique among published journals in that it is raw and uncorrected. To those not interested in field methodology, however, the mass of personal observations and minor details may be irritating, as he himself notes (p. 4). For example, why do we need to know that the person next to Boyarin on a bus was "nice [and] overweight" (p. 210) or that his dancing partner was "tired and withdrawn" (p. 233) because of a bad foot? Who cares that he reminded himself to check the spelling of a town?

Palestine and Jewish History is filled with anecdotes. In one, a prominent Israeli politician gives his hawkish memoir as a bar mitzvah gift. The boy's parents had been killed by Arabs, and the politician inscribes the book "Remember and do not forget. Revenge!" (pp. 211-12). A leftist guest rebukes the politician, saying that to teach hatred is not right. It is better to give the boy a pen to "create, maybe write poems" (pp. 211-12). The story is pithy, but what do we do with it?

Boyarin the person is central to the text. It is important to him that he is a Jew, active in progressive Zionist causes, whose brother made aliya (immigration to Israel) 20 years ago. But his writing is personal to the point of derailing analysis. For example, he is "alienated virtually to the point of horror and nausea" (p. 215) at his nephew's military swearing-in ceremony at the Western Wall. Each soldier is handed a paratrooper's pen, a Bible and a gun while a speech mentions Nazis, the Warsaw Ghetto, soldiers who died, and the first chapter of Joshua, about taking the land "to the Jordan River" (p. 216). (Note: God ordered Joshua to advance to the Euphrates.) Commenting on the service, Boyarin says he is offended that the Bible is "recruited to reinforce loyalty and inspiration to a military organization" (p. 217). One wonders about the point. Is Boyarin a pacifist? As an anthropologist, does he know of armies that do not call upon God's blessing? …

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