Karaite Stories: Narrating Subjectivity in a Marginal Moshav

Abstract

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.

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Notes

  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.

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

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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

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Keywords

  • Stories
  • Karaite
  • Israel
  • Zionism
  • Settlement