Ethnographic Encounters in Israel: Poetics and Ethics of Fieldwork

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Israel is a place of paradoxes, a small country with a diverse population and complicated social terrain. Studying its culture and social life means confronting a multitude of ethical dilemmas and methodological challenges. The first-person accounts by anthropologists engage contradictions of religion, politics, identity, kinship, racialization, and globalization to reveal fascinating and often vexing dimensions of the Israeli experience. Caught up in pressing existential questions of war and peace, social justice, and national boundaries, the contributors explore the contours of Israeli society as insiders and outsiders, natives and strangers, as well as critics and friends.

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11 Slices

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1: How Christian Pilgrims Made Me Israeli

ePub

Jackie Feldman

IT’S ALMOST 6 o’clock and still over 90 degrees outside. I’m guiding a British charismatic ministry through the sites of Jesus’s ministry around the Sea of Galilee. The packed tour bus jiggles and bounces over the patched road on its way back to the hotel. I take the microphone and turn to the group: “Ladies and gentlemen, if you have any questions, about anything whatsoever that I might have explained today, please feel free to ask.”

A middle-aged Salvation Army guy with an Irish brogue pipes up: “Why don’t you Jews accept Jesus Christ as your true Lord and Savior?” I launch into a five-minute explanation on conflicting messianic expectations, varying interpretations of Isaiah, the plurality of Jewish sects in Jesus’s day, and how the contingencies of history formed deniers and followers of Jesus into Jews and Christians. After five minutes, I put down the microphone. Dead silence. Fifty-five people crammed into the bus and not a sound but the drone of the motor.

 

2: Mission Not Accomplished: Negotiating Power Relations and Vulnerability among Messianic Jews in Israel

ePub

Tamir Erez

THE SUMMER OF 2002 began early; it was only May but the humid hot air intertwined with the smoke of the cars left me breathless and sweaty. I was on my way to interview Ruthie, the secretary of a Messianic Jewish congregation I had been studying. From a distance I saw Ruthie, a woman in her forties, dressed in fashionable stonewashed jeans and a tight white t-shirt, and wearing flashing red lipstick that contrasted with her blonde straight hair. We decided to sit down in a quiet area in a little shopping mall outside of Tel Aviv, with a sticky plastic table between us. Ruthie looked directly at me with her large green eyes and asked softly, “Tamir, you’ve faithfully visited our congregation for a long time, has something entered your heart? Does anything touch you?” I replied, “Some of the messages have influenced me, but there are others I can’t relate to.”

As our conversation continued, I began to realize that Ruthie was on her own mission. She told me that the pastor asked her to meet with me after some of the believers had shared with him their reservations about my continuing presence as a nonbeliever and a researcher. At one point she said, “The pastor thought you would feel more open about discussing your attitude towards faith with me, a native born Israeli.”1 Trying to comprehend what she really meant, I asked if she personally felt insecure because of my presence in the congregation. Ruthie replied, “I have a strong faith, so it doesn’t bother me. But I will tell you frankly, there are times when I look at you in the Kehilah [congregation] and you remind me of all the young Israelis [who are not open to faith], and I feel that I had been punched in the stomach. I ask myself, when will they finally grasp that it’s all true? When will they understand that Yeshua [Jesus] is the Messiah, that there is God and He’s so good and loving? I don’t know which barriers you’ve put up, and where they came from, but I sense a very strong and high wall inside you.”

 

3: Doing Dimona: An Americanist Anthropologist in an Africanized Israel

ePub

John L. Jackson Jr.

I NEVER EXPECTED to conduct any research in Israel. Even though I first heard about the discipline of anthropology’s ostensible biases against studying “at home” while I was still just an undergraduate (matter-of-fact pronouncements about the ways in which some of the differences between anthropology and sociology pivoted on this very issue of geographic specialization), I have always been committed to the idea of conducting anthropological research in the United States. My work has focused on issues of identity and community, mass mediation and racial politics, social difference and cultural conflict in contemporary urban America, specifically in poor “ghetto” neighborhoods like Harlem, New York.2 As a graduate student, this decision to study West Harlem instead of, say, West Africa meant negotiating departmental hallways and stairwells rife with frowning cautions from senior faculty who felt that I was setting myself up for professional failure, for a long life of unemployment. Anthropology departments don’t hire Americanists, they argued. Sociology departments do.

 

4: Seeking Truth in Hip-Hop Music and Hip-Hop Ethnography

ePub

Uri Dorchin

IT WAS BACK in 1997 when a friend, a music promoter and arranger from Tel Aviv, called to tell me about a new CD he described as a pioneering project by a group of local rappers. “We must support them, rasta,” he said with his typical enthusiasm, probably thinking about the radio program I was hosting at that time, where I was playing mostly roots and dancehall reggae. The fact that it was no more than a marginal radio station, located in the northern part of the country, did not make his commitment to black music waver in the least. “As soon as you get to Tel Aviv, rasta,” he started to explain, “inside the central bus station, fourth floor, look for Chulu at the Mad-Man fashion shop.”

Two weeks later I found myself walking in circles in the labyrinth-like dirty central bus station looking for Chulu and his shop. Finally I found it, small and empty, toward the end of a side corridor. Shiny colored track suits were hanging on the walls, alongside baggy jeans, beanies and cup hats, belts and other stuff that left no room for a mistake as to who was the target crowd. Chulu, a polite guy in his mid-20s, was happy to serve me a copy of the CD; the homemade cover featured the curious title Israelim Atzbanim (Nervous Israelis). He himself appeared to be the musical producer of the project, and contributor to three tracks on the album. The other contributors, rappers such as Cottage, Jeremy Cool-Habash, Lil Don and Subliminal were still teenagers whose love for hip-hop, an uncommon phenomenon back then, brought them to Chulu’s place. For them Mad-Man was more than just about clothes; it was a hidden headquarters, a meeting place for their secret union, a base to built a dream on.1 Practically it was a place where they could exchange ideas, practice rap techniques, and finally, record their music, as they dreamt to be heard in public one day. The premature projects they created there, which I still sometimes play for an audience, are recognized today as the cornerstone of the Israeli hip-hop scene.

 

5: The State of the Jewish Family: Eldercare as a Practice of Corporeal Symbiosis by Filipina Migrant Workers

ePub

Keren Mazuz

ON A SATURDAY in mid-February 2001, I went to visit my parents in Ofaqim, a small town in the southern periphery of Israel. The entrance to the town is via a main road that crosses the town vertically, engaging with the plain landscape of the surrounding desert. It was nearly three o’clock in the afternoon and I drove on the main road that passes the commercial center. The road and the center were empty, as is usual for a Saturday. Shabbat is traditionally a time of rest; the town streets are empty, and people gather in their homes with their families.

Yet on this wintry Saturday I saw something different. I noticed a group of people wrapped in coats and holding umbrellas standing next to a bench in the empty commercial center. Their presence surprised me. I didn’t know how many people were there or who they were. I was curious to see who was violating the emptiness of the streets. I pulled over to the side of the road and watched. Suddenly a big taxi stopped next to the bench, and seven women, closing their umbrellas, rushed into it. They had black hair and brown skin. The taxi doors closed and the car turned around and drove out of town.

 

6: Diasporas Collide: Competing Holocausts, Imposed Whiteness, and the Seemingly Jewish Non-Jew Researcher in Israel

ePub

Gabriella Djerrahian

Anthropologists do not go to the field with empty heads and without prejudice. They take with them what has been implanted in them; they go because of what has been implanted in them. If in some small measure an anthropologist may become a member of another culture and perceive the world anew, he can only do so through the lens of his native heritage, trying to answer questions posed in the home environment. (Burridge 1973: 5)

IN 2008 I began fieldwork in Israel to examine the influence of black popular music on the sense of belonging of Ethiopian Israeli youths, a struggling, racialized segment of the dominant Jewish population. It did not take long to discover that in the process of delineating a research site in Israel, I was being reshaped to fit into the operative cultural categories that regulate daily interactions. In anthropology, both the conditions of interactions and their outcomes vary depending on who is researching what and where. Each experience is unique because of the social, sensorial, and dialogic aspects of ethnography. Navigating oneself through this process is the gist of fieldwork anywhere.

 

7: Traveling between Reluctant Neighbors: Researching with Jews and Bedouin Arabs in the Northern Negev

ePub

Emily McKee

THE SUN HAS been up for about an hour as I leave the house, bundled in long pants and thick socks, a warm fleece, and a few layers of long-sleeve shirts and a sweater. A headscarf is tucked into my backpack for later. It is February, and the Negev/Naqab desert morning is cold and dry.1 A breeze blows through, but this is gentler than the whipping gustiness that comes most afternoons. I have been living in Moshav Dganim for about two months, and today I have decided to go back to ‘Ayn al-‘Azm for a visit with the families I used to live with there.2 As the bird flies, these two towns are only two kilometers from one another. But socially, the two communities—one of Jewish Israelis and the other of Bedouin Arab citizens—are much further apart.3 This social distance is reflected in the landscape. No direct roads exist between them, and to travel from one to the other by car requires a trip seven times as long as the bird’s flight. My journey, taken through public and shared means, will illuminate what flows between these communities and what is blocked. It will highlight ethnographic realizations facilitated by this travel between communities that are normally segregated.

 

8: On the Matter of Return to Israel/Palestine: Autoethnographic Reflections

ePub

Jasmin Habib

What the map cuts up, the story cuts across. In Greek, narration is called “diegesis”; it establishes an itinerary (it “guides”) and it passes through it (it “transgresses”). The space of operations in which it travels is made of movements: it is topological, concerning the deformations of figures, rather than topical, defining places. It is only ambivalently that the story circumscribes in this space. It plays a double game. It does the opposite of what it says. It hands the place over to the foreigner that gives the impression of throwing out. Or rather, when it marks a stopping place, the latter is not stable but follows the variations of encounters between programs. Boundaries are transportable limits and transportation of limits; they are also metaphorai

—de Certeau 1984: 129; also cited by Conley 2001: 491–92

Children of refugees inherit their parents’ knowledge of the fragility of place, their suspicion of the notion of home

—Hirsch and Spitzer 2003: 93

 

9: Some Kind of Masochist? Fieldwork in Unsettling Territory

ePub

Joyce Dalsheim

Here we are, standing on the corner of “Walk, Don’t Walk.” You look away from me, tryin’ not to catch my eye, but you didn’t turn fast enough, did you? You don’t like my raspy voice, do you? I got this raspy voice ’cause I have to yell all the time ’cause nobody around here LISTENS to me.

—Trudy

HANNAH’S VOICE IS not yet raspy like Trudy’s, the bag lady in Jane Wagner’s 1985 play, The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe. Standing at her own intersection of “Walk, Don’t Walk,” Hannah is being quiet, busy listening and observing. About to cross into dangerous territory, she feels the fear rising up inside of her.

Hannah has come from a beautiful, sunny place where it rarely rains; a place where people are committed to growing crops in sandy soil. They raise grains, fruits, vegetables, and beautiful flowering plants. Working long hours, they devise all kinds of creative methods to grow fresh produce in conditions that many thought would make cultivation impossible. She has come from a place where people are building a community for themselves, their children, and generations yet undreamed of. They are building a future, a community based on caring, sharing, and hard, honest work. Hannah is about to cross over into a place that everyone tells her is dangerous, and she insists on going there anyway. They tell her the people who live there are immoral. They have lost their way. They’ve placed too much value on material concerns and have lost sight of what matters most.

 

10: The Impurities of Experience: Researching Prostitution in Israel

ePub

Hilla Nehushtan

“DO YOU REMEMBER what the shower in my house looks like? The walls are peeling a bit.” “Yes.” “So listen to this. I took a shower one day, and on the wall in the shower, right in front of me, I saw a tiny ant. There are ceramic tiles, and then a very high wall. So the ant is walking on the wall, and she is still far away from me, not bothering me. I’m usually really afraid of insects, the diseases they bring … but that ant seemed so sweet and lost … and I thought to myself, ‘Wow, you’re just like me! We’re both in this nebulous ocean, trying to find ourselves.’ The ant is moving very slowly, she arrives at the wall next to me, closer, but seems so lost that I really identify with her, to the extent that it doesn’t even bother me that she is so close, as long as she’s on the wall! Well, in this wall there’s a window. Now I understood her track! She was going towards the window! She wants to go out! Such genius on her part! I was amazed by how beautiful nature was … I imagine my shower wall like … like my life! It’s all covered with vortices and upheavals like all those I’m going through. Every wrinkle and peeling of the wall is like a small mountain … she continues to climb up, and I suddenly see that she’s continuing up to the ceiling instead of going out through the window! It started to bother me, and then she fell! I didn’t touch her or anything. She fell by herself. I didn’t know what to do. I didn’t want her to die; I didn’t want to hurt her, really. I just wanted her to be able to go out. So I took an old toothbrush and tried to lift her up, but she fought me! Really fought me, and while I was trying to lift her up I found myself saying out loud—’Dammit! Why are you fighting me? I’m trying to help you!’”

 

11: Falling in Love with a Criminal? On Immersion and Self-Restraint

ePub

Virginia R. Dominguez

JUNE 1982: I was in Jerusalem in the middle of fifteen months of fieldwork trying to figure out “Israeli Jewish society” when Israel invaded Lebanon. Any researcher with experience in Israel or Palestine knows that it is highly likely Israel will be in some kind of war (or occupation or prolonged hostilities) during one’s fieldwork in the region, but some hostilities take the form of all-out war more than others, even in the eyes of veteran residents of Israel, whether Jewish or Arab. This was one of them.

Official lists of Israeli wars always include the War of Independence (1947–48), the Six-Day War (June 1967), the Yom Kippur War (October 1973), and the war that began that June 1982 under the Israeli rubric of “Operation Peace for the Galilee.” Some people count the two Palestinian Intifadas (beginning fall 1987 and fall 2000) and the Israeli military/political response. Nearly all count the all-out war that began early in the summer of 2006 and included two fronts (one against the Hezbollah in Lebanon and a related one against Hamas in Gaza). Official Israeli sites tend to include the late 1950s War of Attrition; fewer include the ongoing exchange of hostilities between Israel and Gaza since 2006. Still others (not usually Israeli government sites) count the Israeli military occupation of the Golan Heights, parts of the West Bank, Gaza, and southern Lebanon (each long-term but varying in length) as acts of war.

 

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