Since the late nineteenth century and the emergence of the Zionist idea, the Land of Israel – after 1948, the State of Israel – has been presented as a shelter where Jews would build a state of their own and put aside their past life and experience in the diaspora.2 The return of the Jews to the Land of Israel would bring about the emergence of a new “Hebrew” man and woman, of a unified and rejuvenated people, speaking a common language and sharing one ethno-national identity. In fact, Zionism viewed the diaspora (think of the idea of shlilat ha-galut) as a set of negative parentheses in Jewish history, something to be forgotten and substituted with other (national) memories. So the ideology and policies built on that basis before and especially after the founding of the State of Israel intended to erase the diasporic origin of the (Israeli) Jew and support this Jew’s feeling of having grown up in a void and of originating as a tabula rasa of sorts in Israel. Socialist Zionism and an originally European (Ashkenazi) identity became the hegemonic models to which Jewish migrants would need to conform.3 However, despite efforts to gather all the Jews from the diaspora in Israel and fuse them as part of the so-called mizug galuyiot (“ingathering of exiles”), since its beginnings and especially in the last few decades the country has paradoxically experienced the emergence of new, Israeli, diasporas.
The State of Israel faced difficulties in integrating North African and Middle Eastern Jewish immigrants as far back as the 1950s and ‘60s.4 This led to the emergence of Mizrahi (“Eastern”) groups on the margins of the mainstream Ashkenazi society, which in turn often resulted in “little nations inside the nation” – think of the Moroccan Jews, the Bukharians or the Georgians – or in “reversed diasporas.”5 Since then, other diasporas, or other socio-cultural groups overall became visible in Israel: for example, the haredim (ultra-Orthodox), the migrants from the Former Soviet Union, the Jews of Ethiopia and the Palestinians that obtained Israeli citizenship since they were living inside Israel’s 1948 borders. To these cases, one could add the more recent one of the ‘olim (“Jewish migrants”) that have a double nationality (Israeli in addition to their original one) – for example those from France – and that sometimes tend to regard and experience Israel as a satellite of their main (diasporic) home.
The category of diaspora has a long history and is rooted in what has been called “the Jewish paradigm:” as seen from this perspective, any diaspora possesses a common language, memory and often a single religious identity. In addition, a diaspora often defines itself and evolves through an opposition between the context – or contexts – where its members live, on the one hand, and the motherland, on the other (or, in other words, through a continuous relationship with the homeland).6 This is what distinguishes a diaspora from a more loosely defined socio-cultural group or community. Over the last few decades, the term has stimulated extensive theoretical reflection by social scientists and historians seeking to explain the production of locality and belonging by displaced people. In a globalized era of international migration practices, this gave birth to a specific research field known as Diaspora Studies. The field “emerged in fragmentary fashion, without fanfare or theoretical self-consciousness, as earlier disciplines dealing with nation, ethnicity, race, migration, and postcolonialism felt the need to adjust their methods and categories to the pressures of new transnational and global phenomena.”7 Thus, if the concept of diaspora nowadays can be interpreted in many ways, it is also extremely significant for understanding the dynamics and effects of migration and displacement, as well as for clarifying one’s position vis-à-vis the homeland and nationalism.8 In addition, it is essential in elucidating the identity dilemmas and nostalgias common in an age of global uncertainty.
As the contributors to this issue show, twenty-first-century Israel is facing different and sometimes conflicting visions of its past, present and future – visions built both inside and outside the country. Some of these visions aim to consolidate a strong national identity based on the recovery of the ancient Jewish heritage, while erasing, silencing or ignoring the multiplicity of other memories.9 Others are oriented towards integration and mutual understanding of all the inhabitants of this country, so as to appease historical memories that remain painful and antagonistic.10 Our aim is to look at some of the processes of diaporization nowadays observable in the State of Israel, reversing the assumption that its foundation sanctioned the end – or at least the decline – of the diaspora.
Going back to the case of the Mizrahim, it has to be remembered that it was thanks to them and their activism – consider the foundation of Ha-panterim ha-shehorim (“Black Panthers”), a social movement and later political party, in 1971 Jerusalem by a group of youngsters mainly of Moroccan origin – and the crisis of the Labor party, among other things, that in 1977 Menahem Begin’s Likud won the general Israeli elections for the first time.11 The Jews of Morocco always played a prominent role in Mizrahi society, due in part to the size of this community.12 Through a cultural-historical analysis of the novels Avney-shaish tahor (“Stones of Pure Marble,” 2004) by Herzl Cohen, Asterai (2008) by Omri Tegamlak Avera and in Ha-derekh li-Yerushalaim: reshit ha-aliyah me-Etiopia we-qelitatah (“The Road to Jerusalem: From the Beginnings of the Aliyah from Ethiopia and on Its Integration”, 1995) by Yilma Shemuel, Emanuela Trevisan Semi compares the memory that the Jews of Morocco and Ethiopia have of their respective history of migration, on the one hand, and of Israel, on the other. As she explains, the aforementioned writers contribute to the formation of a more nuanced collective memory. In their accounts, we find a certain distancing from Israeli reality and a reversal of the exile/redemption discourse, with Eretz Israel becoming their new country of exile. Trevisan Semi defines this discourse as shelilat ha-geulah, the negation of redemption. Here, the act of writing aims at recovering the history of a past erased and claiming a history different from that making up mainstream Israeli discourse, so as to rehabilitate the country of origin. This is something shared by both Moroccan and Ethiopian writers, and on reading the authors belonging to these two communities – which had very different histories both before and after their arrival in Israel – the similarity of images, feelings, content and goals are striking.
The article by Lisa Anteby-Yemini traces the trajectories of Israeli Ethiopians, characterized by their heterogeneity in terms of regional divisions, social class, degree of religiosity. Also called Falashas, they preferred to define themselves as Beta Israel or “House of Israel” in the Geez language.13 Having built their differences in the long term in Ethiopia as descendants of an ancient exiled Jewish group, they cultivated a myth of return to Jerusalem (Yerussalem), imagined as their ultimate homeland, before being recognized in 1975 as Jews and descendants of the lost tribe of Dan by the Israeli rabbinate. In theory, under the Law of Return, this recognition should have immediately opened for them the doors of the Promised Land, but in actuality this only occurred from the beginning of the 1990s. Since then, their dream of “homecoming” has been stained with disenchantment. In Israel, they had to face a process of inclusion and exclusion by the national absorption policies, harsh treatment by the rabbinate and a difficult encounter with Orthodox Judaism, along with socio-economic marginalization, discrimination in the work place, army and education, and spatial segregation that further marginalized them. They were enjoined to erase their culture, their memory and their history and to swap their Ethiopian identifications and names for Israeli or Hebrew ones, in order to integrate while being at the same time racialized, and their religious tradition denied and viewed as illegitimate.
This paradoxical injunction – both silencing and overexposing an assigned Ethiopian identity – has apparently produced a line of fracture or a rift between generations: it led the elders to reshape and maintain their linguistic, religious, social, cultural and economic practices in Israel, while the younger generation, initially ashamed of their Ethiopian culture, endeavored to be as Israeli as possible. They claimed inclusion in the Israeli collective, which actually drove them to recover their silenced heritage and create physical and symbolic diasporic spaces through theatre, dance, music, literature or the visual arts, return trips to Ethiopia and heritage tourism. These dynamics between generations and different spheres, both civil and religious, of the Israeli society, reshaped and renewed these Jews who had imagined a return to their homeland, making them into a sort of “reversed diaspora”14 – both Ethiopian and Black – and turning Ethiopia into a home. Produced within the Israeli environment and, more recently, abroad (most notably in the US), the imagination of this new Israeli-Ethiopian diaspora is obviously also determined by Israeli patterns, such as the importance ascribed to trauma as a founding principle and political means of achieving common identification and affiliation, or the organized root trips for teenagers in order to strengthen their affective and emotional adherence to a Jewish landscape of identity (think, for example, of cemeteries or synagogues).15
This means that the memory of the diasporic past should not be observed only from Israel, but also from the perspective of the country that the Jews left. Based on in-depth fieldwork with Jews of Egyptian origin now living in France, Italy, the US and Israel, Michèle Baussant’s article details the tangible sites and objects of memory that can still be traced in Cairo and Alexandria. Synagogues, cemeteries and different forms of material culture not only attest to the Jewish presence in Egypt, but become vectors of contrasting narratives and of different practices of heritagization. In this entangled history at the crossroads between Egypt and the West, Israel appears as a crucial actor whose relations with Egypt – before as well as after the signing of the “cold peace” treaty by Menahem Begin and Anwar al-Sadat in 1979 – continue to influence the paradoxical trajectory of the Jewish heritage in this country: namely, promotion, co-option, abandonment, and rejection. As Baussant clarifies, the Egyptian Jewish heritage is a metaphor both for the physical exclusion of the Jews (who had to leave or were expelled from the country), and for their symbolic inclusion (when considering Egypt’s recent claims of tolerance of multiple communities).
To further understand the connections between Israel and the diaspora, Jews and Arabs, past and present, the contribution by Esther Schely-Newman focuses on contemporary Israeli poets of Mizrahi origin, and particularly on the literary collective ‘Ars Poetiqah founded in Tel Aviv in 2013 by Adi Keissar. By shedding light on this still understudied yet successful group of poets, Schely-Newman explains what it means to write and think of oneself in relation to the countries and languages of the ancestors vis-à-vis the national ethos of erasing the past. The poets brought together by ‘Ars Poetiqah, many of whom come from the Israeli periphery, were all born in the 1980s and belong to the third or fourth generation of Mizrahi Israelis. At stake here is the clash between Israel and hutz la-aretz (“outside the Land [of Israel]”), Hebrew and the different mother tongues of the diaspora, and last but not least, the attempt to initiate a more open dialogue to bridge the ethnic tensions between Mizrahim and Ashkenazim, Israelis and Palestinians.
The emergence of the State of Israel as a potential end to the Jewish diaspora resulted in the opposite for the Arab population of Mandatory Palestine. The Nakba – “catastrophe” in Arabic – divided the Palestinians into refugees, i.e. those who left, escaped, or were expelled from the new state, and those who stayed as Israeli citizens, the Palestinian (or Arab) Israelis.16 The choice of terms is politically charged as is the decision of how to treat the events of 1948 in the Israeli narrative(s). Based on Pierre Nora’s distinction between memory and history, Avner Ben-Amos analyzes the ways Israeli history textbooks treat the tragedy of the Palestinian people from 1950 to the present. Considering the mission of the educational system as a major means of creating collective national memory, Ben-Amos offers a periodization of the way the Nakba has been treated in the curricula of mainstream Jewish Israeli high schools. His discussion proceeds from the period when the Nakba was completely ignored to a more balanced presentation of events, and from unidimensional top-down history books sanctioned by the Ministry of Education to privately issued texts. Thus, the (absent) voice of the Israeli Arab population enriches our understanding of Israeli multi-identity and narratives.
This said, the cleavages that Israel presents nowadays are not only related to one’s ethnic origin. They also have to do with the secular/religious divide that has grown enormously since the 1970s and then especially with the growth of the settler movement in the West Bank and – until the 2005 disengagement – the Gaza Strip. The case of Gush Emunim (“Block of the Faithful”) explored by Perle Nicolle highlights the often little-known or ignored inner divisions and different ideological margins that have gradually changed the face of the once hegemonic and statist religious Zionist movement.17 Nicolle depicts how a “new Israeli space” has emerged from the Israeli settlement, which became normalized and did not only gather messianic zealots and radical fundamentalists, but is also permeated by a deep ideological diversity.18 This “new Israeli space” is composed of both competing and related factions that diverge in their behaviors, aspirations and imaginations and challenge the clear cut Zionist distinction between Israeli redemption and diasporic exile. She portrays different young settlers, men and women, who adopt different tactics and strategies and espouse a complex range of political and ideological positions: notably, in relations with the state and its role as a vector of diasporization inside the country and concerning Jewish redemption from exile (by advancing or by reviving the memory of a mythicized biblical past and erasing the experience of the diaspora) or the different religious views of conflict resolution and alternatives, sometimes contradictory, for the future in the land and for Judaism itself. But she also demonstrates how these young settlers, despite their differences, are strongly bound by the same vision of the disengagement of the Israeli state from the Jewish messianic redemptive process, by their self-distancing from the ideology of the founding generation of Gush Emunim and by memories of the diaspora and of past persecutions, which structure their interpretations of exile and redemption from exile. This reframed and renewed way of questioning the dichotomy of Jewish redemption in modern Israel and the idea of Jewish exile, associated with the diaspora, attests to the vitality of messianic hopes in the redefinition of Israeliness today. It sheds light on how the diasporization process and the creation of new centers, generated by Israeli society itself, are being questioned and experienced, defying the Israeli assimilation model and its relevance in an era of globalization.19
It should be noted in this connection that the last ten years have witnessed new (smaller) migratory waves from the diaspora. One in particular – the French ‘aliyah – has attracted the attention of journalists and the public, yet has so far been relatively understudied.20 This migration provides a good illustration of new patterns of social and local integration of migrants into Israeli society, articulating multi-layered identifications, transnational frameworks and a contractual conception of adhering to a community. The motivations underlying the migration of many French Jews to Israel are manifold: from religious or theological-political convictions, to gender and age, to difficulties in the French and European economy in the past decade, up to feelings of insecurity and unease related to ethno-religious identity. The article by Shirly Bar-Lev and Karin Amit questions how these migrants address difficulties in following Israel’s dynamics of integration, less in terms of adherence to religious (dati) lifestyles than in the various areas of everyday life. Their sometimes limited ability to integrate into the Israeli labor market except in certain job niches is symptomatic of the difficulty. The article follows the trajectories of French women who endeavored to integrate locally through transnational forms of employment such as working in French-speaking service companies in Israel (mostly call centers). These companies provide services in French to French-speaking customers abroad, and require their employees to behave and speak as Francophone natives do in their work (accent training, other methods of de-Israelizing, such as adopting non-Jewish French names and masking the call center’s location). In doing so, the companies ultimately maintain their employees’ strong connections with the country of departure, France, and create a kind of enclavement, reinforced by the precariousness of this form of employment, which also holds out no real prospect of career advancement.
Shirly Bar-Lev and Karin Amit describe the cultural and social isolation experienced by these women in a French Israeli environment, initially shaped by the tendency of French speakers to live in specific communities in major Israeli cities, by their common socio-cultural background (most are educated, religiously observant women and of North African origin) and, contrary to all expectations, their feeling that their economic status has worsened in Israel. As a convenient employment opportunity and a necessary source of income for women, the call centers constitute for their employees a “bubble” where the lines between sacred and secular are blurred, a community center enabling them to practice their religion openly and reinforcing feelings of solidarity. The authors stress how these ambivalent dynamics created by their job environment enable the women both to develop and strengthen their feeling of religious and national belonging, French and Israeli, and at the same time to conceal it, turning them into neither Israeli nor French. In a certain sense, these jobs entrench their condition of outsiders in the country, the weakness of the resources mobilized to enable them fully to participate in Israeli society, especially through language and work. Yet at the same time, the authors show how the call center enclave, which functions as a “supralocal” place, does not involve a process of dissolution of the women’s differences as Jewish and French, but values the two aspects, rehearsing a singular conception of their cultural uniqueness in Israel.
Surely, the seventy-one-year-old State of Israel is passing from being a nation founded on a specific and rather rigid identity and memory, to one in which many different identities and memories can coexist. But at stake is if what Eyal Naveh has called “memory privatization” and the proliferation of hitherto hidden or repressed memories are going to function in the long run, and what kind of consequences this will have for the transmission of a more or less shared feeling of Israeliness.21 The articles in this issue highlight memories and identities in different ways. Some groups remain at the margins of the national arena, and some have only recently started to be more visible. This occurs at the same time that the pasts and the imaginations of the first immigrants are being transformed, discussed, even challenged and sometimes erased by the national and transnational context and the influx of diverse populations who do not share the same experiences or a common past within Israel. One should then ask whether the way in which the experiences and imaginations of the first waves of immigrants were integrated and made Israeli can also be true for successive waves of immigrants settling in a country with an already “fixed” identity? Could it be that, more than towards multiculturalism, Israel is going in the direction of increasing social polarization, replete with identity conflicts that cannot be easily resolved?
For this reason, the relationship with the diaspora remains a central topic, bringing out the need to describe and analyze more deeply the notions of exile, homeland and homecoming in a contemporary context within which people are entangled in dissonant yet connected histories, deterritorialized “spaces of origin and cultures” and transnational belongings, as well as borders, roots, national and clearly territorialized history and identity. These references have often been aestheticized or romanticized, especially by scholars and politicians, who largely failed to address the issue of identification processes and persistent identity dilemmas experienced by populations going through displacement, exile and resettlement.22
The paradoxical and complex dynamics described in the articles of this issue seem to erode the filtering capacity of a country, at least in the sense developed by Georges Perec and Robert Bober,23 as a kind of ongoing matrix space for populations with multiple interests and expectations. If the filtering process targets a certain homogenization of the many different populations, it also seems to have no end and to have destructive potential.24 But at the same time, we can also consider that these diverse phenomena of ethnic and mnemonic awakening in Israel, often following the same patterns – first migration and resettlement, then process of “de-diasporization” and erasure or “invisibilization” of the culture of origin as the price of integration, and finally re-diasporization – stoke opposing urges that fulfill a socializing function, even when it is a conflictual one.25 As Schely-Newman suggests, instead of the melting pot metaphor one should perhaps think of the present and future Israeli society as a salad bowl or salata baladi (“country salad”), to quote the title of the documentary that the Egyptian film director Nadia Kamel dedicated to her complex Egyptian Muslim, Jewish and Italian family background: something in which each part keeps its appearance and aroma while contributing to the emergence of a different new whole.26
But this also questions the prerogative of the state as the sole definer of citizens’ rights, which thus start to depend on the ability of individuals to gain equal access to local resources. In the salata baladi model, integration does not imply a process of dissolution of original identities in a new land, nor an erasure of the past, but produces the affirmation and the recognition of new rights. Far from erasing differences, it values their existence, revealing a singular conception of equality within a system that is nevertheless very stratified and hierarchical. For many Israeli Jews, their links to Jewishness, Judaism and the multiple components of a plural identity, are combined with many other territories and centers experienced or imagined. On the other hand, in this perhaps romanticized vision of a salad bowl we can also see a humanistic picture of harmonious coexistence of different communities that, however, still keeps many of the members at the margins of the social body: the non-Jewish migrant workers, the ultra-Orthodox population or West Bank Palestinians. In other words, what for many are enchanted dreams and promises, for others are lapsed pasts or dystopias, forcing them to look toward a future from other promised lands or to wait – in diaspora – for a different kind of modern redemption.
Michèle Baussant is a social anthropologist, Director of Research at the French National Center of Research (CNRS) and Fellow at the Convergences Migration Institute (http://icmigrations.fr/). She has published extensively on the issues of migration, memory and cultural heritage and has worked four years in Israel at the French Center of Research in Jerusalem (CNRS/MEAE). https://isp.cnrs.fr/?project=baussant-michele
Dario Miccoli is Lecturer of Modern Hebrew and Jewish Studies at the Department of Asian and North African Studies, Ca’ Foscari University of Venice. His research and publications deals with the history and memory of the Jews of the modern Arab world, notably Egypt, and Israeli literature. He is the author of Histories of the Jews of Egypt. An Imagined Bourgeoisie, 1880s-1950s (2015) and La letteratura israeliana mizrahi (2016). With Marcella Simoni and Giorgia Foscarini he edited Homelands and Diasporas. Perspectives on Jewish Culture in the Mediterranean and Beyond (2018).
Esther Schely-Newman has recently retired from the Noah Mozes Department of Communication and Journalism at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Her research interests include life stories, migration, literacy, Israeli Hebrew, gender, and folklore. Her book, Our Lives are but Stories (published in 2002 by Wayne State University Press) treats life stories of North African women who migrated to Israel in the early 1950s. She has published in Language and Social Interaction, Discourse Studies, Pragmatics, Narrative Inquiry, Nashim, Journal of American Folklore, Western Folklore, and Mehkarey Yerushalyim beFolklore Yehudi (Hebrew).
How to quote this article:
Michèle Baussant, Dario Miccoli, Esther Schely-Newman, "Introduction" in Israel: A Diaspora of Memories, ed. Michèle Baussant, Dario Miccoli, Esther Schely-Newman, Quest. Issues in Contemporary Jewish History. Journal of Fondazione CDEC, n. 16 December 2019
La sezione italiana di Quest sarà online entro breve!
The italian section of Quest will be soon online!