ISRAEL: Words and Stones: The Politics of Language and Identity in Israel

By Rabinowitz, Dan | The Middle East Journal, Autumn 2005 | Go to article overview

ISRAEL: Words and Stones: The Politics of Language and Identity in Israel


Rabinowitz, Dan, The Middle East Journal


ISRAEL Words and Stones: The Politics of Language and Identity in Israel, by Daniel Lefkowitz. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2004. xiv + 272 pages. Figures and tables. Notes to p. 297. Refs. to p. 308. Index to p. 316. $49.95.

Daniel Lefkowitz's Words and Stones: The Politics of Language and Identity in Israel is part of a growing body of ethnographically informed linguistic anthropological research. Based on fieldwork conducted in Haifa in 1990-1992, the book purports to explore "interactional negotiation of identity" in Israel by looking at "situated occasions of language use" (p. 263).

Research that seeks to integrate refined linguistic approach and discourse analysis with sensitivity to power, social structure and hegemony should be encouraged. Properly executed, it can provide fascinating insight into the politics of culture, hegemony, and resistance. It hinges, however, on sensible reading of ethnographic detail and linguistic nuance - a realm where every error might send a theoretical construction down the drain. This, unfortunately, is what happens all too often in Words and Stones. The author, who embarked on his fieldwork armed with a coherent set of theoretical and technical concerns, obviously amassed a plethora of observations and technical detail as he went along. What the book often lacks, however, is signs of the broader understanding, personal background and, sometimes, common sense that are prerequisites for proper contextualization of ethnographic detail into a larger picture. Unfortunately, the length of this review allows for but a limited number of examples.

Chapter 6 looks at the murder, in May 1992, of Helena Rap, a 15-year old girl from Bat-Yam near Tel-Aviv, by a Palestinian terrorist who stabbed her, and at the riots by Israeli mobs that ensued. Mainstream media coverage of these events is interestingly analyzed, suggesting that media tropes of the ostensibly "emotional" nature of Mizrahi Jews played a major role in shaping the drama, its representation, and its memory. The book fails to mention, however, that the murder and the riots took place during a historic election campaign in which Labour's Yitzhak Rabin, "Mr. security," beat Likud's Yitzhak Shamir to become prime minister. This omission is particularly strange since Rabin's winning campaign rode a tide of widespread frustration on the part of many Israelis with deteriorating personal security, and used the Bat-Yam event as a milestone - some say a turning point - on its way to victory in a campaign marked by the Mizrahi-Ashkenazi divide. The fact the elections were never mentioned in the book is inexcusable.

Chapter 5 presents another type of decontextualized assertion. It mentions a survey "published in an Israeli magazine" (the name of which is not disclosed, nor are there any survey figures), claiming Israeli yuppies prefer the English edition of Israel TV news to the main Hebrew news show later in the evening (p. 166). A statement such as this, made in relation to a nation known for its addiction to news broadcasts, cannot be made off-handedly, particularly when its "data" blatantly defies reality. In fact, the English edition of Israel TV news is hardly watched by Hebrew-speaking Israelis, and has been fledgling, with miniscule viewer ratings ever since it was first aired after the 1991 Gulf War. This does not stop the author from using this questionable, unspecified "data" as foundation for a preposterous claim. On page 289, note 18, Lefkowitz claims the reason Israeli Yuppies prefer the English broadcast to the Hebrew one is their fatigue with the Israeli-Arab conflict, which gets less prominence on the English news. A clear example of how a false fact can produce a ridiculous explanation.

The author's propensity to careless inference emerges again in an account he offers of a detail he once observed in a corridor at Haifa University. It was, he says, "a particularly sloppy paint job that had left a different color paint behind a picture hung on a nail in the wall. …

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