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review of: wrapped in the flag of Israel: Mizrahi single mothers and bureaucratic torture and agency and gender in Gaza: masculinity, femininity and family during the second intifada

Wrapped in the Flag of Israel: Mizrahi Single Mothers and Bureaucratic Torture. Smadar Lavie, Berghan Books, New York and Oxford, 2014, 214pp., ISBN: 978-1-7823-8222-5, £25.00 (Hbk)

Agency and Gender in Gaza: Masculinity, Femininity and Family during the Second Intifada. Aitemad Muhanna, Ashgate Press, Farnham, 2013, 222pp., ISBN 978-1-4094-5453-3, £54.00 (Hbk)

Wrapped in the Flag of Israel by Smadar Lavie and Agency and Gender in Gaza by Aitemad Muhanna are produced by scholars positioned as partial insiders within the proximally near and yet fundamentally apart communities they analyse. Gazans are separated from Mizrahi and the rest of the world by guns, towers, walls and fences.

In Wrapped in the Flag of Israel, Smadar Lavie begins her ethnographic account with the Mizrahi Jewish single mothers’ movement and camp in Jerusalem in 2003, led by a part-time cook at an army base, Vicky Knafo. The term Mizrahi refers to Jews of Arab, North African, Kurdish or Persian origin. These women challenged a legal change in Israel that reduced the welfare benefits of single mothers. In Israel, Mizrahi comprise the majority of, respectively, citizens, the Jewish poor, and soldiers and settlers in the Occupied West Bank and Jerusalem. European Jews (Ashkenazi) dominate economic, state and educational institutions, and cultural and non-governmental organisations in Israel. In contrast to Ashkenazi divorced women, Mizrahi divorced women cannot as a rule rely on their families for material support (p. 7). Lavie traces the dynamics of privatisation from the mid-1980s in Israel and offers an incisive indictment of Zionism, including how racism remains fundamental to the project.

The most intimate enactments of racist violence target Mizrahi Jews, argues Lavie. They have been needed from the beginning as labourers and bodies in a Jewish settler-colonial demographic project and yet considered culturally inferior to European Jewishness. Mizrahi are the first subordinated ‘other’ of Ashkenazi Zionists of Socialist, liberal and later ‘peace’ and Labour orientations. Jewish nationalism of the collectivist variety is responsible for Palestinian expulsion (p. 55) and the subordination of Mizrahi (p. 57). Nevertheless, Palestinian non-Jews are the primary ‘other’ for the Mizrahi (p. 9). Indeed, Mizrahi single mothers hate the `Aravim, or Arabs (p. 53), which seems partly a hatred of the non-European Jewish self (pp. 106–107). Mizrahi as a group are strongly Zionist and desperately want to belong to the Israeli mainstream, argues Lavie, including by dropping markers of their ethnic difference, and thus her title, ‘Wrapped in the Flag of Israel’. The Mizrahi feminist group in which she was active did not call for a just peace with Palestinians or make connections between Mizrahi and Palestinian subordination because activists believe the Mizrahi women they target for mobilisation would refuse to participate, since the binary of non-Jew versus Jew holds sway among them.

Mizrahi single mothers have low regard for Israeli feminist and peace groups, which are dominated by Ashkenazi, given Ashkenazi refusal to address Jewish racial-class inequality and Ashkenazi support for neo-liberal policies. In response to racialised and class subordination, Mizrahis largely vote right-wing. Lavie found that the Israeli welfare bureaucracy is the main mechanism for the ‘torture’ of Mizrahi single mothers. It encapsulates ‘two types of divine cosmology’ for the women: Israel is the homeland for the ‘chosen’ Jewish people, which Mizrahis accept, and the ‘Divinity of Chance’ wherein ‘faithful’ Mizrahis persistently appeal to this homeland for needed resources, all the while ‘praying for a miracle’. This deeply gendered and racialised contract forecloses a rise in ‘resistive identity politics’ (pp. 79–80, 96, 100). The Israeli-Palestinian conflict allows the state to evade its ‘intra-Jewish racial feuds’ (pp. 21, 80), and may even be encouraged by the state to maintain its racial-class power. Indeed, a Palestinian suicide bombing that killed twenty-three people and injured 130 ended the ‘Knafoland’ sit-in without a discernable victory. Even the secular–ultra orthodox rift obscures the much more significant Ashkenazi–Mizrahi division (p. 76).

Wrapped in the Flag of Israel is an idiosyncratic work grounded in sound scholarship as well as entertaining gossip and acidic commentary. Lavie is an anti-Zionist who supports a secular state ‘between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea’ (p. 14) and refuses the model of ‘dispassionate scholarship’ (p. 86). Indeed, Lavie’s personal story is woven throughout. She was born of an Ashkenazi father and Yemeni mother in Israel, where she grew up, but was a tenured anthropology professor at UC Davis in the 1990s […]. Like most Palestinians and Mizrahis, she is deemed unemployable in the Ashkenazi-dominated academy. She joined the Mizrahi feminist movement and struggled to feed herself and her son and buy the necessary ‘milk bags’ (p. 124). She was considered overqualified for service jobs. Thus, she was a welfare mother researching welfare mothers.

Lavie challenges the insistent focus on agency in feminist scholarship and explicitly works within the ‘victim narrative’ (p. 23). She problematically argues that Mizrahi single mothers have no agency, not even the submissive kind. These women, however, certainly have racist agency in relation to the ‘Arabs’ and ‘Goyim’ they deem lower than themselves. This agency simply differs from the racist bureaucratic agency of the Zionist state. I completed the book not fully understanding why the women hate ‘Goyim’, why they offer no recognition of themselves as racial-class subjects, and why there was so little evidence of a ‘double consciousness’. W.E.B. Dubois argued that whiteness pays valuable ‘wages’ even to poor whites in the United States. It seems that Jewishness in Israel pays wages to Jews, even when they are subordinated on the basis of ethnicity and class. Thus, the question asked by poor Mizrahi mothers can only be ‘How can Jews do this to other Jews?’ (p. 84).

In Agency and Gender in Gaza, Aitemad Muhanna is also concerned with agency, but especially among poor ‘housewives’ in Gaza since 2000. The study is based on her interviews with sixty women aged between 18 and 65 years, and life histories with a subsample, evenly divided between El-Shujae`ya, a non-refugee Gaza town, and the Beach Refugee Camp. Muhanna conducted additional focus groups with men and women from throughout Gaza. The subjects of this study are the ‘extremely poor and vulnerable’ (p. 20). Since the 2000 Second Intifada and especially the 2006 Israeli blockade and closure of Gaza, life in Gaza has been characterised by ‘insecurity’ and ‘economic collapse’. These transformations have produced ‘crises’ in masculinity and femininity, she argues, grounded in the stress of feeding and sustaining families. The contours and consequences of this crisis produce ‘coping mechanisms’ that remain committed to male dominance and having many children, especially boys (p. 4).

Muhanna argues that women enact public presentations of a subordinate ‘moral feminine selfhood’ (p. 174) and male dominance because this system is important for achieving ‘their objective and subjective interests and desires’ (pp. 31–33), which are historically and contextually produced and cannot be reduced to lack of ‘capacity’ (p. 37) or ‘consciousness’ (p. 38). The women largely see themselves as ‘victims of the victimization of their men by … Israeli military occupation’ (p. 178). Gaza women ‘continually present themselves as inferior [to men] and label this presentation “feminine” ’ (p. 42), even if they have largely been in charge of money and the survival of extended households since 2006. ‘Male dominance’ (p. 29) is sustained ideologically and symbolically by women. Poor women and men use the symbolic system of male dominance in the family to cope with ‘chronic personal and familial insecurity’ (p. 12), since it offers the basis of ‘self-respect and dignity’ (p. 15). Materially disempowered masculinity means women cannot rely on men for economic support and are reduced to begging for food coupons and other resources from relatives, ‘community-based’ organisations and international charities. Muhanna argues that Islamicised ‘women’s agency’ in Gaza is ‘an instrument used by poor women for the material survival of their families in situations of dire necessity’ and ‘an ethical and moral framework enhancing poor and vulnerable women’s capacity to endure pain, suffering and hardship, while maintaining meaning for their social existence’ (p. 47).

Agency and Gender in Gaza draws richly on the words and retrospectives of women, who argue that the Israeli occupation has demasculinised men and reduced the dignity and status of men and women. The ‘traditional’ family, Muhanna shows, is idealised as necessary for the physical and cultural survival of Palestinians, with women equally if not more invested in maintaining ‘the reputation of the family’ (p. 69) and ‘demonstrating the power of their sons’ (p. 71). Mothers are highly focused on ‘produc[ing] real men who have a strong say’, in the words of a 57-year-old mother from Beach Camp (p. 76). As a 32-year-old wife states, ‘I don’t really need his love or material support, but I do need people to say I have a real husband’ (p. 139). Even men in love with their wives and sharing household labour must present themselves as tough husbands to avoid stigmatisation. While some wives spend significant energy managing and avoiding male domestic violence, especially against children, at least symbolic male ‘authoritarianism’ in the household is seen as important for the ‘honour of wives and sisters’ (pp. 79–80). Men are hurt by their inability to work and support the family, their reliance on daughters and wives for survival, and their inability to protect girls and women from the humiliation and vulnerability of ‘begging for aid coupons’ (pp. 147–148).

One leaves this text with no doubt of the economic, political and cultural centrality of Gaza mothers, especially as they age, to the survival of Palestinians. Older mothers in these communities are in charge of practically all aspects of intimate life, no matter the optics of male dominance. Gazan fathers and sons seem highly cognisant of women’s efficacy and power and largely cede management of budgets and money to older women, many of whom report having little say when they were younger wives and often feeling subordinated and abused by their own mothers-in-law, who even decide the number of children a wife must have.

Muhanna is ‘emotionally in tune with local Gaza women’ as a Palestinian resident of El-Shujae`ya until she was 22, a resident of Beach Camp and Gaza City, a long-time feminist researcher and activist, the wife of a political prisoner who was martyred, and the mother of two children. This intellectual and personal history has undeniably produced a unique book. There is very little gender-focused research on Gaza, and what is produced is largely not by Gazans. The book would have been strengthened by more discussion of the emotional and psychological costs of sustaining intimate relations under such conditions, although stoicism is a form of Palestinian survival, and I suspect the author had to make difficult decisions in this regard. Reproductive and sexual practices, subjectivities, and agencies are not discussed in any meaningful way beyond the presumed ‘economic’ need for a large number of sons. In addition, the book has areas of weak editing for clarity and concision. More substantively, parts of Chapters 1 and 2 read like a dissertation, so that it takes commitment to find the much more important analytical voice of the author. Finally, the discussions of ‘women’s agency’ would have been strengthened by deeper analytical engagement with the rich feminist scholarship on Palestinian women in historic Palestine and the near diaspora and less on ‘the Middle East’, given the specific dynamics produced by national struggle, settler-colonialism, ghettoisation and forced dispersal.

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Hasso, F. review of: wrapped in the flag of Israel: Mizrahi single mothers and bureaucratic torture and agency and gender in Gaza: masculinity, femininity and family during the second intifada. Fem Rev 111, e12–e15 (2015). https://doi.org/10.1057/fr.2015.28

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  • DOI: https://doi.org/10.1057/fr.2015.28