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Conception to Delivery: Sharing an Account of Mizrahi Mothers

Smadar Lavie’s soon-to-be-published book Wrapped in the Flag of Israel: Mizrahi Single Mothers and Bureaucratic Torture is a personally inspired account that  stems from her own life as a single mother in Israel. Following, the author reveals how this inspiration became a book, and speculates about how this account will be received. This is the second of the author’s reflections on the Berghahn blog, read the first here.

 

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http://berghahnbooks.com/blog/wp-content/uploads/2014/04/LavieWrapped-e1397829882448.jpgBerghahn Books: What inspired your love of your subject? When?

 

Smadar Lavie: My years in Israel as a welfare mother forced me to become my own informant. Those years were full of hardship. I am using the privilege of my U. C. Berkeley education and the power and proficiency of my English words to call attention to the plight of all Mizrahi single mothers in the State of Israel.

 

So many people have to navigate their lives through the lethal webs of bureaucratic entanglements. So many engage with it every day and take it for granted because they are merely inconvenienced. But for Mizrahi single mothers, whose lives depend on the whim of a bureaucrat, of a judge, of a computer that assigns her a number, of pure serendipity, it is torture that they have little hope of escaping. Bureaucracy has become the neo-con state’s tool of choice against its disenfranchised citizens.

 

I do not love this subject. Yet, I must engage with it.

 

BB: What inspired you to research and write?

 

SL: Many activists pay a heavy personal and professional price—often their own lives—as they fight for justice, dignity, and freedom for communities robbed of their languages, histories, homes and gainful employment. These activists do not leave obvious traces after they depart from the tangible world.

 

As a scholar-activist, I have the education and the opportunity to leave some written traces of failed Mizrahi struggles for social justice in the State of Israel. Perhaps in the future, scholars, policymakers, and activists of the Global South will be able to use my research and writing to break out of the social protest-war cycle and achieve long-lasting, just peace in the Middle East.

 

BB: To what extent do you think the book will contribute to debates among current and future academics within the field?

 

SL: Social work practice, policy, and research focus on circumstances surrounding single mothers’ reliance on welfare, policies that maintain their marginalization from the work force, and actions that may break mothers away from the poverty cycle. But rarely is bureaucracy itself examined as a ritual inflictor of pain on welfare mothers.

 

I am aware of only one full-scale ethnography of single welfare mothers. And to my knowledge, there are no such studies to be found outside North America and Western Europe. Yet, throughout the world, single mothers of color and their children are one of the populations at highest risk when the nation-state sacrifices human dignity to global neoliberal restructuring. Wrapped in the Flag of Israel is the first ethnography to discuss state bureaucracy through the intersectionality model employed by feminist of color and critical race theories.

 

In addition, most studies of bureaucracy hold that bureaucracy follows rational logic. This book follows in the footsteps of Don Handelman, who challenges Max Weber’s model of rational, secular bureaucracy and argues that state bureaucracy is ritualistic. My book builds off Handelman’s scholarship by analyzing bureaucracy as a divine cosmological order whose rituals are constructed around the classifications of race, gender, and religion—the categories that form citizenship in the State of Israel.

 

This book also challenges anthropology’s tendency to study subjects the ethnographer is personally comfortable or familiar with. In urban settings, the groups anthropologists prefer to study are often progressive and left leaning. As a result there are far fewer ethnographies focusing on right-wing chauvinism. In Israel, this anthropological stance serves to exoticise and trivialize the victimhood of Mizrahim.

 

BB: Do you think there are aspects of this work that will be controversial to other scholars working in the field?

 

SL: Yes. The book goes against two of the key concepts focused upon in the last two decades of socio-cultural anthropology: identity politics and the agency immanent in its enactment. In so doing, it defies the feminist injunction against binary logic and as it analyzes the intersection of gender-race-class with religion as a space of primordial divinity.

 

Integral to my discussion of Mizrahi single mothers is their distinct lack of personal and communal agency when dealing with the state bureaucracies they depend upon to survive. Much of North American and Western European social anthropology and feminist theory of color tend to insist that agency is intrinsic—that all oppressed people have it no matter what their situation. By delving into how citizenship is made into a transcendental essence, I argue that state bureaucracy short circuits agency and its capacities to resist oppression.

 

Wrapped in the Flag of Israel attempts to engage foundational theories such as Durkheim’s concepts of organic and mechanic solidarities in order to re-analyze the concept of agency. Alongside critiquing current theories of identity politics and agency, this book hearkens back to anthropology’s theories of classification—one of the discipline’s historical pillars.

 

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Smadar Lavie is a visiting professor at the Center for Middle Eastern Studies, U.C. Berkeley, and at the Institute for Social Science in the 21st Century, University College Cork. She specializes in the Anthropology of Egypt and Palestine-Israel. Lavie spent nine years as tenured Professor of Anthropology at U.C. Davis. She authored The Poetics of Military Occupation, receiving the Honorable Mention for the Victor Turner Award for Ethnographic Writing, and co-edited Displacement, Diaspora, and Geographies of Identity. Lavie won the American Studies Association’s 2009 Gloria Anzaldúa Prize and the 2013 “Heart at East” Honor Plaque for service to Mizraḥi communities in Israel.