On the unbearable lightnness of (not) being Israeli

on 11 Comments

The adjective ‘Israeli’ is a magician’s trick. But whereas the common magician makes coins and pigeons vanish and reappear, ‘Israeli’ can disappear a whole people, only to pull it back from the ear of an assistant when the show requires it. Let’s see how it’s done.

Technically and legally, the adjective ‘Israeli’ refers to all citizens of the state. Palestinians of 48, the land’s indigenous people, are thus technically ‘Israelis.’ Indeed many in Israel call them ‘Arab-Israeli,’ with the convenience of eliminating Palestine a side benefit. One would expect however that, logically and linguistically at least, an Arab-Israeli is an Israeli, just like one would say that a tea cup is necessarily a cup. Surprise! When the adjective is used in normal discourse, ‘Israeli’ refers to the Jewish citizens of Israel alone. ‘Israeli’ public opinion in what Jews in Israel think. Israeli history is the history of establishing a Jewish state in Palestine. Israeli culture is Amos Oz and Marcel Ianco. It is not Mahmoud Darwish. Israeli economy, as Netanyahu recently quipped, insightfully, does quite well if you just don’t count those who don’t count. etc. etc.

Palestinians with Israeli citizenship have basically two possible responses that are both embedded in the adjective. They can accept it or reject it. Whichever they choose, they are like the audience member who is invited on stage to ‘participate’ in the magician’s show; the choices are scripted into the performance. If they want to adopt the adjective, recognizing that it includes them, they soon discover that they have adopted the adjective in the second sense, as one that excludes them, thus recognizing and affirming their own erasure and Jewish domination over them in return for dubious and illusory “fitting in.” If however they reject it, it turns out that what they reject is the adjective in the first sense. Namely, they reject the democratic state, the will of the majority, their (second class) civil rights, etc. And thus they become grist to the Israeli propaganda mill (‘the Arabs understand only force,’ etc.) and trigger the famous mechanisms by which as everybody knows “democracy defends itself against those who abuse its democratic means to try to destroy it.” la-di-da, la-di-da.

The video above, is an Al-Jazeera show, and if you watch the whole episode, (you will probably wince a lot), you will see the magician at work, and also the incredible racism that Palestinian must contend with regularly. You will also see Stav Shafir, a leader of the #J14 protest movement from a year ago, discovering her inner career politician (she is now running to parliament on the most wretched party ticket in Israel, the labor party). Here you can see her mastering the Obamish art of platitudes, ‘change’ and ‘yes we can’ and a few others, all in the Israeli inflection. I find her viscerally repellant; but your mileage may vary. My prediction, in a few years she will be under investigation for corruption.

Bonus, the remarkable presence, trapped as she is by the magician’s tricks, of Hanin Zoabi. Shlomo Sand also acquits himself decently, to some extend by a few of the things he says and to an even greater extent by the feeling that he is just short of rupturing a vein.

This post originally appeared in Jews sans frontieres.

About Gabriel Ash

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11 Responses

  1. pabelmont
    October 31, 2012, 11:27 am

    Lovely. Oh, the misuses of language! Oh, magic. And, never forget the misuses of political and economic power, maybe greater than the (mere) misuses of language.

    It all reminds me that when I criticize the doings of the government of the USA (“GUSA”) (which some call “Washington”) and criticize the doings of the government of Israel (“GOI”) (which I will not call “Jerusalem”), I am not criticizing all of the people of the USA or of Israel. Not, for instance, the Native Americans or the Native Israelis (aka Israeli-Palestinians).

    On language: how the word “native” seems to imply “without rights” or “without dignity”. These are reserved to the newcomers.

  2. Matthew Graber
    October 31, 2012, 11:14 pm

    Interesting to bring up these connotations in a blog based in the United States. Who is American? What necessitates a hyphenated usage: Asian-American, African-Americans, Arab-American? Is Obama an American? Is Obama as American as French Fries and hamburgers? Is Obama as American as fireworks on the Fourth of July?
    Does that make anyone uncomfortable?

    Furthermore, when one labels Obama – or any other black in the United States – as American, or even African American, does that whitewash the diverse history of struggle against oppression of those non-European, non-colonialists, in America? Does it whitewash an ever-present racism today?

    And finally, what of the indigenous people of the Americas? The people who lived here before the land was ever called America. Speaking of the magician’s trick, eh?

    How ridiculous is it that “America” is named after Amerigo Vespucci, the Italian explorer of Columbus’ time? Talk about historical revisionism!

    • marc b.
      November 1, 2012, 10:53 am

      Is Obama an American?

      you know the answer to that question, matthew. he was american until he had the temerity to become president of the US. at that point, he was no longer ‘american’ because he violated the (unspoken) rules, at which point he became a muslim-african-socialist, every element of that hyphenated identity being a disqualification for full citizenship. that, and he doesn’t like country music or budweiser.

  3. seafoid
    November 1, 2012, 3:30 am

    I thought the setting was really interesting. A TV station run out of Qatar, a British Muslim presenter and the subject of Israel. 50 years ago the Israelis would have instructed the backward Muslims but now the tables are turning. Insight is no longer a solely Israeli Jewish preserve.

  4. eGuard
    November 1, 2012, 9:11 am

    We need a special word for this linguistic magic.

  5. MHughes976
    November 1, 2012, 9:52 am

    The counterpart to ‘technically and legally’, as Gabriel uses it, is ‘authentically’, indicating a genuine, morally sound, deep seated claim to the status in question. I’m trying to slither back into the discussion of authenticity that I half-started the other day in the context of religion. There were several replies that have now vanished along with the Reply button itself, which happens a lot these days.
    Stephen said that we have to accept as authentic to a religion the statements attributed to its founder. That may be true as far as it goes but we have to remember that ‘the devil can cite scripture for his own purpose’ – ie that a version of (say) Christianity that appeals to a statement accepted as coming authentically from Jesus is not necessarily an authentic version. Lots of competing versions do this very thing and make this very appeal.
    Outside religion, I think that one of the things that makes you (me) an authentic in-true-spirit Mondoweiss person is that we think that Zionism is an inauthentic version of Jewish religion and general tradition. That’s part of our defence against the jeering cries of anti-Semitism and the siren calls of the Atzmonists. Mooser’s reply, which survives, reminds me that we may have to settle for the inauthentic. Well, we certainly may have to face the fact that the dominant version of any tradition may be an inauthentic one.
    The ability to play magic tricks with ideas like ‘Israeli’, ‘American’, ‘English’ arises from our strong need to feel a sense of authenticity plus the elusiveness and intangibility of the concept. It’s a jolly important concept and not just for people like me who are perhaps drawn to pretentious words: well, that’s what I’m telling you.

    • Mooser
      November 2, 2012, 12:23 pm

      “Mooser’s reply, which survives, reminds me that we may have to settle for the inauthentic.”

      No, I did not say, nor would I ever say that we should “settle for the inauthentic”! I said, and have always belived that as far as religion goes, we should embrace and celebrate the inauthentic, not just settle for it!
      After all, Seafoid, I was raised as a Reform Jew, and there are some things one never forgets. Things learned when I lisped out my first brochas at my mother’s knee. Oy the memories! “Don’t worry about my knees, sonila of mine” Mom used to tell me, “If you haven’t learned your S’hma by the time your father gets home you’ll learn what his foot on your ass feels like!”

  6. Newclench
    November 1, 2012, 5:26 pm

    I became aware of Arabs as ‘the other kind of Israeli’ pretty early on. My mother encouraged me in this. I attended various programs in school that brought Jews together with Arabs (we traveled in both directions, I hosted and was hosted). I joined a ‘Jewish-Arab’ youth movement. I joined a ‘Jewish-Arab’ political party. For me, Israelis are both Jewish and Arab, but also folks who are neither.
    What’s interesting is that both racists on the pro-Israeli side and opponents of any kind of Israeli identity come together in agreement that Palestinian citizens of Israel are somehow less ‘Israeli.’

    Support human rights and equality? Insist on the full inclusion of Palestinian and other non-Jewish citizens within the Israeli polity.

    • Mooser
      November 2, 2012, 12:31 pm

      “Insist on the full inclusion of Palestinian and other non-Jewish citizens within the Israeli polity.”

      Ah yes, Newclench, a noble sentiment you can well afford, asw every goddam thing we hear from Israel tells us Zionism has decided to, and suceeded at, making that an impossibility (If you know how emphatically I typed that, you’d by worried, pal, and you didn’t see the look on my face, neither!)
      So stick it where they find the Dead Sea Scrolls, buddy.
      Do you really think people can’t see through this patently ridiculous pose?

      “Opponents of any kind of Israeli identity?” Hey, how bout this, Newclench? I’ll respect the “Israeli identity” (good trick, go ahead and personalise it with “Israeli”) when Israel draws its damn borders, and sticks to them! That might make it easier to respect the “Israeli identity”.

      Newclench, do you really think you can pull this off, here?

      • Mooser
        November 2, 2012, 12:33 pm

        “I joined a ‘Jewish-Arab’ youth movement. I joined a ‘Jewish-Arab’ political party.”

        Feel like giving us the name of this ” ‘Jewish Arab’ youth movement” or the ” ‘Jewish-Arab’ political party? I’m sure lots of people here will recognise it.

  7. Citizen
    November 2, 2012, 5:07 pm

    Always fun to entertain the analogy between native American history and Palestinian Israeli history as if the Nuremberg Trials after WW2 never happened and all those folks who died during that war died for nothing, including all those of the American “greatest generation.”

    So what do the Japanese kids read in school about Imperial Japan, and its invasion of China and the Bataan Death March, for example? Anybody know?

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