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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Does Israeli Equal Jew? On a Shared Israeli Identity

Gershom Gorenberg

A few days ago, Haim, you responded to a challenge I raised in a post on the conversion battles. Your answer made me realize that I hadn’t phrased the question sharply enough.

I wrote: “We need to define a civic Israeli identity not dependent on halakhic status.” You wrote that I was right, but that it was sad that I was. And then you said:

The secular Israeli state’s way of determining who is Jewish—and therefore who belongs to the state’s majority culture and ethnic group—is a religious definition.

It seems to me that by beginning the discussion there, you are mixing two separate questions. One is: Can someone belong to the majority culture and society in Israel without being a member of the Jewish faith? The other is: Can Israel develop a civic identity that is shared by Jews and non-Jews, including Palestinians who are citizens of the state?

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Black and White and Jew All Over: Eric L. Goldstein’s “The Price of Whiteness”

Haim Watzman

If, like me, you are a Jew who grew up in America in the second half of the twentieth century, your Jewish identity was molded by a set of what seemed like self-evident propositions. First and foremost, Jews are different from other people in that they belong to a community that was both a nation and religion. That means you could be a Jew even if you didn’t buy into the God and mitzvah stuff. Second, only racists and Nazis maintain that Jews are racially (that is, biologically) distinct in any significant way from other people. Indeed, “race” is a bad word used mostly by people who want to deny equal rights to Jews, blacks, and other minorities. Third, Jews straddle the great racial divide in American society. We are white of skin, but black in spirit. Sharing a history of oppression and slavery with the blacks, we have a peculiar ability and duty to emphasize with their plight-empathy that the blacks appreciated at first, but strangely stopped appreciating as the century progressed.

Eric L. Goldstein’s The Price of Whiteness: Jews, Race, and American Identity (Princeton University Press, 2006) is a fascinating account of how Jewish identity in the United States was formed in the context of American race relations. In the process, Goldstein shows that our self-evident identities are self-evident only in the framework of the peculiar American experience. That’s one reason why American and Israeli Jews so often miscomprehend each other’s sensibilities.

(Goldstein and his book were awarded a Choice Award in the framework of this year’s Sami Rohr Prize for Jewish Literature. My book, A Crack in the Earth, received an honorable mention.)

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