Understanding Religion, Ethnicity, and Identity-Tamar El-Or’s “Reserved Seats”

Haim Watzman

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.

Amnon Illuz. On Looker. 2005
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.

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Sex in the Diamond City — “Necessary Stories” column from The Jerusalem Report

Haim Watzman

Leaflet pasted up on a bulletin board at the Tel Aviv Central Bus Station:
“The Carat Hotel in Ramat Gan: small, comfortable, discreet, rooms equipped with DVD and coffee, hourly rates.”

illustration by Avi Katz

To: Adina Hefetz, counsel, The Association for Civil Rights in Israel
From: Gal Dagan, proprietor, the Carat Hotel, Ramat Gan

Dear Ms. Hefetz,

I write in response to your letter, received today, with regard to the large sign that I have placed in the front window of my establishment in Ramat Gan’s Diamond district, which declares in large, bright orange letters “No Jerusalemites Allowed.”

You state in your letter that your organization, for which I have the greatest admiration, “has reluctantly concluded that said sign may, by denying access to a group based solely on city of origin, constitute illegal and unwarranted discrimination. While the sentiments expressed may be understandable, indeed shared by a significant portion of the Israeli population, our mandate requires us to take legal action to end all infringements of the rights of all Israeli citizens, even in those cases, as this one, in which they are richly deserved.”

Believe me, I am happy to see that the Association for Civil Rights in Israel, the watchdog of our freedoms, stands vigilantly on guard. But I am certain that if you knew the facts of the matter, you would agree with me that the sign in my window is not an infringement of human rights but rather a desperate attempt by an embattled Metropolitan Tel Aviv to survive in the face of an onslaught of medieval mores from the primitive Levantine highlands.

The incident occurred on Monday, March 21, a normal work day, although we were all still feeling the effects of our hard Saturday night Purim partying.

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