The tent protesters who’ve shaken the complacence of the Israeli leadership these last few weeks combine, as most protest movements do, radicalism with reaction. That is, they call for sweeping changes in Israeli society and government, but they also hark back to a mythical golden time when, they believe, Israeli society was kinder and more egalitarian, and when Israel’s citizens felt stronger bonds to and responsibility for each other. In this sense, they seek not only to remake Israeli politics, but also to restructure—or renew—Israeli identity.
Yet Israeli identity has always been fluid and divided. A society so diverse in its ethnic origins, religious/philosophical beliefs, and political creeds could hardly be otherwise. In particular, the identity of the country’s Mizrahim—those Israelis whose roots lie in the Islamic world—has never ceased to metamorphose.
One of the best books on the complex nature of this identity to be published in Israel in recent years was Reserved Seats (Meqomot Shemurim) by Tamar El-Or, an anthropologist at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Like the best works of anthropology, it almost reads like a novel. El-Or spent five years at the beginning of the 2000s doing field work in Pardes Katz, a Mizrahi neighborhood in Bnei Beraq, a Tel Aviv suburb. She attended classes, got to know a group of haredi (ultra-Orthodox) women, and sought to comprehend families in which religious practice and Jewish identity varies from negligible to ultra-Orthodox and in which ethnic Mizrahi identity alternately separates and connects women from their Ashkenazi counterparts.