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Doubly Disenfranchised: A Firsthand Account of Life as a Mizrahi Woman

The largest population of Mizrahi Jews, those with origins in Middle Eastern countries, lives in Israel. However, in this country Mizrahim are historically and currently disenfranchised, with preference given to Jews of European descent, or Ashkenazi. In Wrapped in the Flag of Israel: Mizrahi Single Mothers and Bureaucratic Torture, to be published this month, Smadar Lavie, herself a Mizrahi Jewish woman, explores the Israeli bureaucratic system and Mizrahi women’s relationship with it. Following, the author answers the question: What aspect of writing Wrapped in the Flag of Israel did you find most challenging? Most rewarding?

 

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Most challenging was weaving a text out of two decades worth of fieldwork data. Though I started my research efforts in 1990 as a tenured professor at U. C. Davis, the bulk of the fieldwork was collected during my years as a Mizrahi single mother on welfare between 1999-2007. For a typical book-length ethnography, most scholars spend a total of around two years in the field collecting data, supported by grants and sabbaticals. Afterward, they return to their home university and write the book manuscript, also supported by grants and sabbaticals.

 

To conduct my research, I did not travel to “the field” from the comfort of a university position. I thus did not have the pleasure of returning to a university position after a couple of years of fieldwork. I was stranded in Israel for nine years. Because of my color and politics, no Israeli university wanted to hire me. Less than 1 percent of tenured women professors in Israeli universities are Mizrahi. None of them has questioned the oxymoron of a democratic ethno-religious, Jewish state in mandatory Palestine. I thus was forced to take hourly low-wage, part-time jobs and rely on welfare income augmentations to survive and support my son.

 

Smadar Lavie —Photo by Jutta Henglein-Bildau

Smadar Lavie
—Photo by Jutta Henglein-Bildau

To stay sane, I joined the efforts to build the Mizrahi feminists-of-color movement and other Mizrahi social movements. Through these movements, I spent many hours advocating for and offering hands-on help to Mizrahi single mothers like myself. I assisted in establishing coalitions with Israeli civil society NGOs, Global South social movements, and participated in dozens of community-building events. Forever the ethnographer, I gamely took notes, supported by archival research and data collection.

 

Wrapped in the Flag of Israel underwent dramatic changes as it grew from a chapter in another book to a full-length work in its own right. Not only did I have to assemble the book from fragments of scholarship, diaries, archival materials, and print and electronic media, I also had to wrestle with Hebrew to English translations of most of those materials. I took great care to retain the Semitic cadence of the Hebrew originals.

 

Another challenge was to convey to English readers, well-versed with the progressive peace politics of Israeli Ashkenazim, the complex reasons why the Mizrahim support the right wing. In a book critical of Israel, readers do not expect to read a sympathetic treatment of communities they might consider “warmongers.”

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Lavie will make book presentations at Yale University today, University of California at Berkeley April 10, and The University of Chicago April 17.

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The most rewarding aspect of writing Wrapped in the Flag of Israel is finishing it and getting it to print. This book is the first piece of scholarship of its kind on bureaucracy as a system of ritualistic torture and bureaucratic lines as “the pilgrims progress.” Single mothers on welfare often have to wait in long lines at bureaus with no promise of a resolution to the problems that brought them there in the first place. The bureaucratic webs are never-ending and impede what little single mothers can do to support their children. Single mothers are forced to live in a constant state of torturous anxiety that is almost impossible to escape. They always pray for serendipity, good luck and divine interventions at the government bureaus, their sites of daily pilgrimage.

 

The book analyzes these single mothers’ failed attempts to alleviate their pain through social protest. In so doing, it traces out an ever-repeating pattern of social protest followed by military conflict between Israel and its Arab neighbors. The military conflict creates national unity and quells Mizrahi social unrest. This pattern reaches back into the state’s history as well as forward into its future.

 

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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.