Karaite Stories: Narrating Subjectivity in a Marginal Moshav


The Karaites are a Jewish group formed between the 8th and 10th centuries. Throughout their history, they lived in constant confrontation with the usually larger and stronger group of Rabbani’im (the Hebrew Karaite name for non-Karaite Jews) over the definition of Jewishness. This confrontation threatened to continue in Israel following Karaite immigration in the 1950s and 1960s. As the politically weaker of the two groups, the Karaites were forced to contend with their double status in Israel–Israeli Jews according to the Law of Return, yet questionable Jews in Rabbani eyes. This threatened not only their perceived Jewish identity but also their “Israeliness” and national belonging. This paper analyzes stories recounted by members of a Karaite moshav (a smallholder cooperative village) in Israel, which express the social position the community views as fitting and presents the teller’s portrayal of its fraught position in Israeli society. It will show that, while describing life on the moshav over the years, these stories convey ideas about belonging, Zionism and Jewishness. This reading into the stories reveals the Karaite’s version of their identity, as opposed to that of their Rabbani neighbors who challenge their Jewishness, offering a case study in the cultural construction of a marginalized identity.

This is a preview of subscription content, access via your institution.


  1. 1.

    A “moshav” is a smallholder cooperative village. The members farm their land separately. Certain commercial and financial functions, for example centralized marketing, are carried out cooperatively (Schely-Newman 2002).

  2. 2.

    This noun, or, in its plural form, “Rabbani’im,” will be used in this paper in the manner used by the Karaites, not to be confused with the term “Rabbanut,” which refers to the official and state-recognized Chief Rabbinate of Israel.

  3. 3.

    Israel’s Law of Return defines a Jew as anyone who would have been persecuted by the Nazis as a Jew, meaning anyone having at least one Jewish grandparent (Carmi 2003). However, the Israeli Chief Rabbinate defines a Jew as the offspring of a Jewish mother (or a convert).

  4. 4.

    The Karaite calendar is set according to the actual appearance of the new moon, unlike the Rabbani calendar, which, while also lunar, is fixed in advance. Thus, Karaite children sometimes miss one or two days of school since their religious holidays are celebrated on dates that may differ from those of the official school holidays that correspond to the official Rabbani calendar.

  5. 5.

    In building the Israeli nation, one way to develop solidarity among Jewish immigrants was by commonly referring to the Arabs as the “other.” Calling someone an “Arab” could be considered an insult (Bar-Tal and Teichman 2005).

  6. 6.

    Many also describe proving their Jewishness by displaying their identity cards, which, until 2002, included a [Jewish] nationality clause.

  7. 7.

    The origins of Karaism are still being debated. Several scholars refer to cults from the Second Temple period, some to ideas that developed in Muslim societies during the Middle Ages (Lasker 2010), and others to groups that left Rabbani Judaism or to a united and uniform movement (Erder 2004).

  8. 8.

    Similar relations existed between Karaite and Rabbani communities in Eastern Europe (Kizilov 2009; Trevisan-Semi 1994). These relations were documented in the writings of Rabbani’im who were experts in Karaite religious works and of Karaite experts in Rabbani works (Tirosh-Becker 2011). In Egypt, however, unlike the situation in Poland, Lithuania, and Crimea, there was never any doubt that the Karaites were Jews (Benin 2003). Moreover, many Karaites of Egyptian origin are unfamiliar with the distinct history of the Crimean Karaites (Colligan 2003: 458) and their alleged collaboration with the Nazi regime.

  9. 9.

    The Karaite community in Israel is currently comprised of Egyptian, Iraqi, and Turkish Karaites, plus a handful of Karaites who resided in Jerusalem (Trevisan-Semi 2003: 431).

  10. 10.

    In both his historical books (1956) and in a newspaper article (Davar 23.2. 1950), Ben-Zvi publicly claimed that the Egyptian Karaites were clearly Jewish, unlike the East-European Karaites, who were accused of collaborating with the Nazi regime and whose Jewish origin was questioned. To advocate their national inclusion, he mentioned the Karaites’ Zionism, their friendship with the Egyptian Rabbani community, and their support of Jewish British soldiers in Egypt during World War II (Colligan 2003; Trevisan-Semi 2003).

  11. 11.

    Still, Karaite belief was construed as threatening to the Jewish Orthodox hegemony in Israel (Colligan 2001), which led to a demand that they adhere to the practices of Rabbani halakhah (Jewish law) (Colligan 2003: 463; Trevisan-Semi 2003: 436).

  12. 12.

    A doubtful bastard (safek mamzer—pl., mamzerim) is one born of a woman who was previously married, but whose marriage was later considered doubtful, or of a woman who was divorced and whose divorce was considered doubtful. Since Rabbani’im do not recognize Karaite divorce, the offspring of a divorced mother is considered a mamzer. The Rabbani’im upheld this ruling during certain periods.

  13. 13.

    Karaites tend to describe the good life in Egypt that lasted up until the 1950s, after which came the suffering of their men in Egyptian prisons, the confiscation of property, and adventurous journeys undertaken to escape from Egypt (Trevisan-Semi 2003: 434).

  14. 14.

    Thus, the religious explanation may not be sufficient.

  15. 15.

    The Karaites’ cultural context and language enable us to define them as a Mizrahi community (Ben Shammai 2002). For the Karaites, this meant that they were marginalized not only because of their challenged Jewishness, but also because of their perceived Mizrahi identity.

  16. 16.

    The twelve stories are about these topics: (1) life in the country of origin (Egypt); (2) the immigration process; (3 and 4) non-Karaites, those who left the moshav; (3) those of Yemenite origin; (4) those of Moroccan origin; (5) taking action—traveling to see the president of Israel; (6) Rejected—Rabbani rejection of Karaite children; (7) guarding the moshav; (8) help from NGOs; (9) dangers of theft and terrorist attacks; (10) communal (cultural and religious) life in the moshav; (11 and 12) the moshav members’ common personality traits; (11) trustworthiness and dependability; and (12) goodheartedness and mutual assistance.

  17. 17.

    While the current stories are not typical examples of Hooks’ approach, the idea of talking back may be useful for analyzing the stories.

  18. 18.

    The notion of the weak answering back also resonates with Scott’s (1990) idea of hidden transcripts—messages and stories constructed by the marginalized in response to domination and hegemony, which use codes and symbols to convey an anti-authoritarian message (Bussie 2015; U-Wen 2014).

  19. 19.

    This happens, for example, when stories of past and present community members are used to convey a message of change (for example, by using more sophisticated language (Weldu 2007) compatible with that spoken by the receiving culture).

  20. 20.

    The subject of debt is a matter of great importance in the moshav—as will be discussed later.

  21. 21.

    In the 1950s, these Palestinian infiltrators committed theft and murder in Israeli settlements along the border.

  22. 22.

    Halutzim” is the Hebrew term for the country’s pioneers. The term is used mainly to describe Jews who emigrated from Europe to Israel during the nineteenth century with a sense of purpose and mission to build the state The halutzim are considered to symbolize the Zionist-Jewish Israeli identity (Neumann 2009).

  23. 23.

    Although the precise date of their meeting with Ben-Zvi is unknown, it took place during his presidency, between the years of 1952 and 1963.

  24. 24.

    This was part of his belief that Nidhei Israel (groups of Jewish origin, who were not formally recognized as Jews by the state) should be reintegrated into the Israeli Jewish nation.

  25. 25.

    This is a reference to the Sinai Campaign, which took place in October and November of 1956.

  26. 26.

    These are jobs provided by the government, including agricultural work, as presented later in the story, or clerical jobs.

  27. 27.

    During the early 1980s, an economic crisis affected most Israeli rural settlements, and they fell into collective debts. The government, the banks, and the cooperatives tried to solve the crisis. Repeatedly, they signed agreements to settle the debts and, repeatedly, they had to realize that the debts were not settled (Kislev 2015).

  28. 28.

    Freier” is the common Israeli word for “sucker.” Roniger and Feige (1993) claim that the idea of the freier (namely, the wish not to be a freier) marks the difference between current Israeli society and the ideal of the halutz—the pioneer who works voluntarily for the good of the entire community.

  29. 29.

    Trevisan-Semi (1991) described the Karaites in East Europe as having, or as being perceived to have, these characteristics and social image.


  1. Astren, Fred. 2004. Karaite Judaism and historical understanding. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press.

    Google Scholar 

  2. Auyero, Javier. 2002. The judge, the cop, and the queen of carnival: Ethnography, storytelling, and the (contested) meanings of protest. Theory and Society 31(2): 151–187.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  3. Bar-Tal, Daniel, and Yona Teichman. 2005. Stereotypes and prejudice in conflict: Representations of Arabs in Israeli Jewish society. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  4. Beinin, Joel. 1998. The dispersion of Egyptian Jewry: Culture, politics, and the formation of modern diaspora. Berkeley, Los Angeles and London: University of California Press.

    Google Scholar 

  5. Beinin, Joel. 2003. The Karaites in modern Egypt. In Karaite Judaism: A guide to its history and literary sources, ed. M. Polliack, 417–430. Leiden: Brill Academic Publishers.

    Google Scholar 

  6. Ben Shammai, Haggai. 2002. On the study of Karaites in the context of Jewish communities in the East. Pe`amim 89: 5–18. (Hebrew).

    Google Scholar 

  7. Ben-Zvi, Yitzhak. 1950. Le aliyatam shel hakaraim. Davar, February 23: 2. (Hebrew).

  8. Ben-Zvi, Yitzhak. 1956. Nidhei Israel: The dispersal remnant of Israel. Tel-Aviv: Teberski. (Hebrew).

    Google Scholar 

  9. Billings, Dwight B., Gurney Norman, and Katherine Ledford. 1999. Back talk from Appalachia: Confronting stereotypes. Kentucky: The University of Kentucky Press.

    Google Scholar 

  10. Braid, Donald. 1996. Personal narrative and experiential meaning. The Journal of American Folklore 109: 5–30.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  11. Bussie, Jacqueline A. 2015. Laughter as ethical and theological resistance: Leymah Gbowee, Sarah, and the hidden transcript. Interpretation: A Journal of Bible and Theology 69(2): 169–182.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  12. Cameron, Emilie. 2012. New geographies of story and storytelling. Progress in Human Geography 36(5): 573–592.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  13. Carmi, Naama. 2003. The law of return: Immigration rights and their limits. Tel-Aviv: Tel-Aviv University Publication.

    Google Scholar 

  14. Cicurel, Inbal E. 2005. “Good people”: Identity construction as a means for dealing with marginality—The story of a Karaite moshav in Israel. PhD diss., Ben-Gurion University of the Negev.

  15. Cohen, Yinon, Yitchak Haberfeld, and Tali Kristal. 2013. Ethnicity and mixed ethnicity: Educational gaps among Israeli-born Jews. In The practice of difference in Israeli education: A view from below, ed. Y. Yonah, N. Mizrachi, and Y. Feniger, 36–58. Raanana: Van Leer Press and Hakibbutz Hameuchad Publishing House. (Hebrew).

    Google Scholar 

  16. Colligan, Sumi. 2001. The ethnographer's body as text and context: Revisiting and revisioning the body through anthropology and disability studies. Disability Studies Quarterly 21(3): 113–124.

    Google Scholar 

  17. Colligan, Sumi E. 2003. Living liminality: Karaite Jews negotiate identity and community in Israel and the United States. In Karaite Judaism: A guide to its history and literary sources, ed. M. Polliack, 451–469. Leiden and Boston: Brill.

    Google Scholar 

  18. Corinaldi, Michael. 2002. The Law of Return: The confrontation between religion and nationality. In On both sides of the bridge: Religion and state in the early years of Israel, ed. Mordechai Bar-On, and Zvi Zameret, 56–87. Jerusalem: Yad Izhak Ben Zvi.

    Google Scholar 

  19. Dawson, Patrick, and Peter McLean. 2013. Miners’ tales: Stories and the storying process for understanding the collective sensemaking of employees during contested change. Group and Organization Management 38(2): 198–229.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  20. De Fina, Anna. 2000. Orientation in immigrant narratives: The role of ethnicity in the identification of characters. Discourse Studies 2: 131–157.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  21. Fina, De, Deborah Schiffrin Anna, and Michael G.W. Bamberg. 2006. Discourse and identity. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  22. De Fina, Anna, and Kendall A. King. 2011. Language problem or language conflict? Narratives of immigrant women’s experiences in the US. Discourse Studies 13(2): 163–188.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  23. Erder, Yoram. 2004. The Karaite mourners of Zion and the Qumran scrolls: On the history of an alternative to rabbinic Judaism. Tel Aviv: Hakibbutz Hameuchad Publishing House. (Hebrew).

    Google Scholar 

  24. Erder, Yoram. 2013. The Split between the Rabbanite and Karaite communities in the Geonic Period. Zion LXXVIII(3): 321–349. (Hebrew).

    Google Scholar 

  25. Errante, Antoinette. 2000. But sometimes you‘re not part of the story: Oral histories and ways of remembering and telling. Educational Researcher 29: 16–27.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  26. Fish, Stanley. 1980. Is there a text in this class? The authority of interpretive communities. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  27. Frisina, Annalisa. 2006. Back-talk focus groups as a follow-up tool in qualitative migration research: The missing link? [29 paragraphs] Forum Qualitative Sozialforschung/Forum: Qualitative Social Research 7(3): 5. http://nbn-resolving.de/urn:nbn:de:0114-fqs060352.

  28. Habermann, Abraham Meir. 1976 [1947]. Karaite stories. Tel-Aviv: Sifriyat Hapoalim. (Hebrew).

  29. Hooks, Bell. 1989. Talking back: Thinking feminist, thinking black. Boston: South End Press.

    Google Scholar 

  30. Humphreys, Michael, Deniz Ucbasaran, and Andy Lockett. 2012. Sensemaking and sensegiving stories of jazz leadership. Human Relations 65: 41–62.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  31. Goodman, Jane E. 2002. Writing empire, underwriting nation: Discursive histories of Kabyle Berber oral texts. American Ethnologist 29: 86–122.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  32. Jackson, Sandra, and Ann Russo (eds.). 2002. Talking back and acting out: Women negotiating the media across cultures. New York, Bern, Berlin, Brussels, Frankfurt, Oxford: Peter Lang International Academic Publishers.

    Google Scholar 

  33. Kemp, Adriana. 2002. ‘Nedidat ha’amim’ (Roving of peoples). In Mizrahim in Israel: A critical observation into Israel’s ethnicity, ed. P. Motzafi-Haller, H. Hever, and Y. Shenhav, 36–67. Tel Aviv: Van Leer Press and Hakibbutz Hameuchad Publishing House. (Hebrew).

    Google Scholar 

  34. Kitchell, Anne, Erin Hannan, and Willett Kempton. 2000. Identity through stories: Story structure and function in two environmental groups. Human Organization 59: 96–105.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  35. Kislev, Yoav. 2015. Agricultural cooperatives in Israel, past and present. In Agricultural transition in post-Soviet Europe and Central Asia after 20 years, ed. A. Kimhi, and Z. Lerman, 281–302. Halle: IAMO–Leibniz Institute of Agricultural Development in Central and Eastern Europe.

    Google Scholar 

  36. Kizilov, Mikhail. 2009. The Karaites of Galicia: An ethnoreligious minority among the Ashkenazim, the Turks and the Slavs, 1772–1945 (Studia Judaeoslavica, 1). Leiden & Boston: Brill.

  37. Kressel, Gideon. 2012. He who stays in agriculture is not a ‘“freier’: The spirit of competition among dwellers of the moshav is eroded when unskilled Arab labor enters the scene. In Perspectives on Israeli anthropology, ed. Esther Hertzog, Orit Abuhav, Harvey E. Goldberg, and Emanuel Marx, 191–215. Detroit: Wayne State University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  38. Lasker, Daniel. 2001. The Karaite as Jewish ‘other’. Pe‘amim: Studies in Oriental Jewry 89: 97–106. (Hebrew).

    Google Scholar 

  39. Lasker, Daniel J. 2010. Eastern European Karaite attitudes towards modern science. Aleph: Historical Studies in Science and Judaism 10(1): 119–136.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  40. Lasker, Daniel J. 2012. Innovations in the research of East European Karaites. Pe‘amim Studies in Oriental Jewry 130: 209–214. (Hebrew).

    Google Scholar 

  41. Lavie, Smadar. 2012. Writing against identity politics: An essay on gender, race, and bureaucratic pain. American Ethnologist 39(4): 779–803.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  42. Martin, Anne. 2000. Telling into wholeness. Teaching Sociology 28: 1–11.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  43. Meerwarth, Tracy, L., Elizabeth, K. Briody, Robert, T. Trotter II, Shawn Collins, and Gulcin H. Sengir. 2007. Working with stories: Tools for organizational change. Paper presented at a conference in Tampa, FL: Global Insecurities, Global Solutions, and Applied Anthropology in the 21st Century.

  44. Miller, Peggy J. 2009. Stories have histories: Reflections on the personal in personal storytelling. Taiwan Journal of Anthropology 7(1): 67–84.

    Google Scholar 

  45. Motzafi-Haller, Pnina. 2001. Scholarship, identity, and power: Mizrahi women in Israel. Signs 26(3): 697–734.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  46. Motzafi-Haller, Pnina. 2005. Introduction. In Mizrahi voices: Towards a new discourse on Israeli society and culture, ed. Gay Abutbul, Lev Grinberg, and Pnina Motzafi-Haller. Masada: Tel-Aviv. (Hebrew).

    Google Scholar 

  47. Murray, David A.B. 2002. Opacity: Gender, sexuality, race and the ‘problem’ of identity in Martinique. New York: Peter Lang.

    Google Scholar 

  48. Naslund, Lovisa, and Frida Pemer. 2012. The appropriated language: Dominant stories as a source of organizational inertia. Human Relations 65: 89–110.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  49. Neumann, Boaz. 2009. Pioneering and desire in early Zionism. Tel-Aviv: Am Oved Publishers. (Hebrew).

    Google Scholar 

  50. Newman, Albert Richard. 1996. The Karaite Jews in Israel. Thesis, University of South Africa.

  51. Peled-Elhanan, Nurit (ed.). 1996. From speech to writing. Jerusalem: Carmel. (Heb.).

    Google Scholar 

  52. Perets, Yael. 2004. Therapeutic conversation as a narrative: A development of contextual approach for analyzing conversations between social workers and clients characterized by the courts as abusive or neglectful. Thesis, Beer Sheva: Department of Social Work, Ben-Gurion University of the Negev [Hebrew].

  53. Polliack, Meira. 2005. Wherein lies the pesher? Re-questioning the connection between medieval Karaite and Qumranic models of biblical interpretation. JSIJ 4: 151–200.

    Google Scholar 

  54. Polya, Tibor, Janos Laszlo, and P.Forgas Joseph. 2005. Making sense of life stories: The role of narrative perspective in perceiving hidden information about social identity. European Journal of Social Psychology 35: 785–796.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  55. Propp, Vladimir. 1927. Morphology of the folktale. Trans., Laurence Scott. 2nd ed. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1968.

  56. Raufman, Ravit. 2012. Realizations of idiomatic expressions in Israeli oral wonder tales. Fabula 53: 20–46.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  57. Ravitsky, Aviram. 2011. Saadya Gaon and Maimonides on the logic and limits of legal inference in context of the Karaite-Rabbanite controversy. History and Philosophy of Logic 32: 29–36.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  58. Roniger, Luis, and Michael Feige. 1993. The ‘freier’ culture and Israeli identity. Alpaeem 7: 116–136. (Hebrew).

    Google Scholar 

  59. Sasson-Levy, Orna, Guy Ben-Porat, and Ze’ev Shavit. 2014. Introduction: Identities, borders and spaces in the Israeli society. In Points of reference: Changing social identities and social positioning in Israeli society, ed. Ze’ev Shavit, Orna Sasson-Levy, and Guy Ben-Porat. Jerusalem: Van Leer Press. (Hebrew).

    Google Scholar 

  60. Schely-Newman, Esther. 2002. Our lives are but stories: Narratives of Tunisian-Israeli women. Detroit: Wayne State University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  61. Scott, James C. 1990. Domination and the arts of resistance: Hidden transcripts. New Haven and London: Yale University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  62. Sered, Suzan Starr. 1992. Women as ritual experts: The religious lives of elderly Jewish women in Jerusalem. New York: Oxford University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  63. Shapira, Yaackov. 2002. Halacha relation to the Karaites: Policy and Halachic tradition. Mechkari Mishpat 19: 285–360. (Hebrew).

    Google Scholar 

  64. Silberstein, Laurence J. 1996. Beyond historiography and sociology: Postzionism and postmodern theory. Theory and Criticism 8: 91–103. (Hebrew).

  65. Spector-Mersel, Gabriela. 2011. Mechanisms of selection in claiming narrative identities: A model for interpreting narratives. Qualitative Inquiry 17: 172–185.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  66. Tirosh-Becker, Ofra. 2011. Rabbinic excerpts in medieval Karaite literature, Philological and Linguistic Studies; vol. 2: A Critical and Annotated Scientific Edition of the Texts, Jerusalem: The Bialik Institute.

  67. Trevisan-Semi, Emanuela. 1991. A brief survey of present-day Karaite communities in Europe. The Jewish Journal of Sociology 33(2): 97–106.

    Google Scholar 

  68. Trevisan-Semi, Emanuela. 1994. The Crimean Karaites as seen by the French Jewish press in the second half of the nineteenth century. Proceedings of the Eleventh World Congress of Jewish Studies, 9–16.

  69. Trevisan-Semi, Emanuela. 2003. From Egypt to Israel: The birth of a Karaite ‘edah’ in Israel. In Karaite Judaism: A guide to its history and literary sources, ed. M. Polliack, 431–450. Leiden: Brill Academic Press.

    Google Scholar 

  70. Tsoffar, Ruth. 2006. The stains of culture: An ethno-reading of Karaite Jewish women. Detroit: Wayne State University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  71. U-Wen, Low. 2014. ‘What have the Romans ever done for us?’ Postcolonialism, mimicry and hidden transcripts in the Book of Revelation. Pacifica 27(3): 253–270.

    Google Scholar 

  72. Walfish, Barry, and Mikhail Kizilov (eds.). 2011. Bibliographia Karaitica: An annotated bibliography of Karaites and Karaism, Karaite texts and studies. Leiden: Brill.

    Google Scholar 

  73. Watson, Tony J. 2009. Narrative, life story and manager identity: A case study in autobiographical identity work. Human Relations 62: 425–452.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  74. Weldu, Michael Weldeyesus. 2007. Narrative and identity construction among Ethiopian immigrants. Colorado Research in Linguistics 20: 1–10.

    Google Scholar 

  75. Zubair, Shirin. 2007. Silent birds: Metaphorical constructions of literacy and gender identity in women‘s talk. Discourse Studies 9: 766–783.

    Article  Google Scholar 

Download references


I would like to thank Ashkelon Academic College for their generous contribution to the publication of this article.

Author information



Corresponding author

Correspondence to Inbal Ester Cicurel.

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Verify currency and authenticity via CrossMark

Cite this article

Cicurel, I.E. Karaite Stories: Narrating Subjectivity in a Marginal Moshav. Cont Jewry 35, 263–284 (2015). https://doi.org/10.1007/s12397-015-9154-1

Download citation


  • Stories
  • Karaite
  • Israel
  • Zionism
  • Settlement