Tuesday, December 10, 2019

Joyce Dalsheim's "Israel Has a Jewish Problem"

Joyce Dalsheim is a cultural anthropologist in the Department of Global Studies at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. She has carried out extensive fieldwork in Israel/Palestine studying controversies over historical narratives, nationalism, religiosity, and the secular. Her books include Unsettling Gaza: Secular Liberalism, Radical Religion, and the Israeli Settlement Project (2011) and Producing Spoilers: Peacemaking and the Production of Enmity in a Secular Age (2014).

Dalsheim applied the “Page 99 Test” to her new book, Israel Has a Jewish Problem: Self-Determination as Self-Elimination, and reported the following:
Page 99 arrives ten pages into the chapter called “Self-elimination”—probably the most important chapter in the book. The only full paragraph on that page discusses the Haredim, also known as ultra-Orthodox Jews. They have been protesting recent policy changes that would subject them to the military draft. As a community, the Haredim have been opposed to military service because they want their young men to devote themselves to Torah study. Israel’s first Prime Minister issued an agreement in the 1940s that would allow them to do so. As a community, they are not interested in having their young people interact with the secular world, which poses a threat to their understanding of Jewish continuity.

Less observant and secular Israeli Jews complain that Haredim don’t carry their weight in society. Their men spend more time studying than earning a living, they often live in poverty, and people complain that they are “parasites” living off public welfare:
According to Israeli experts, a population uniformly participating in the national economy is essential to maintaining a “First World army,” which in turn is vital to the continued existence of the state. Survival itself means having a state and an army. This also means people having to sacrifice themselves— paying from their wealth, contributing of their time, and potentially exposing their very lives to the death and destruction of military service— to ensure survival. And having a state and an army means laborizing all Jews, moving Haredim away from their homes and places of study, even if those moves also mean eroding a way of life they have constructed as specifically and prototypically Jewish. Jewish survival, according to this logic, is dependent upon the forced or willing elimination not only of those who die in the service of their country, but also of particular forms of Jewish life.
Remarkably, the test works! This paragraph encapsulates the central irony or contradiction explored in the book: Jewish survival depends on the elimination of some forms of Jewish life. The book is concerned with how political self-determination can also entail collective self-elimination. Much has been written about the exclusionary nature of ethno-nationalism and its devastating effects on the people who are marginalized or forcibly removed from the nation. By focusing on those included in the ethnos of the nation, this book tells another side of the same story.

So many nationalisms, especially anti-colonial or sep­aratist movements, are premised on a rhetoric, ideal, or belief in its liberating quality. Political Zionism prom­ised collective Jewish self- determination, free people flourishing in their own county. And yet the sovereign citizens of Israel struggle to be Jewish there. What occurs is something Kafkaesque: Jews have achieved sovereignty but are not free to be Jewish as they see fit. Instead of being free from the forces of assimilation they faced in other countries, they now contend with the pressures to assimilate in the self-proclaimed Jewish state; to be Jewish there in ways that work with the state and its projects, primarily its settler-colonial project.

Other chapters of the book consider all sorts of struggles to be Jewish in the Jewish State. For example, secular Israeli Jews, or members of Reform or Conservative movements have to contend with the fact that only Orthodox weddings are recognized by the state, and non-Orthodox rabbis have been arrested for performing weddings. Many scholars think of these situations as a secular/religious divide, or as a struggle to become a secular state. Such explanations miss the deeper historical processes through which such a divide is imagined in the first place and ignore the ways that different observant groups also struggle against each other. More importantly, when Israelis focus on a religious/secular divide they sometimes unwittingly end up supporting a politics they claim to oppose. This is part of the complex ways that power works through modern dichotomous categories.
Learn more about Israel Has a Jewish Problem at the Oxford University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue