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Israel Studies 6.3 (2001) 26-53

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The Yemeni Ideal in Israeli Culture and Arts

Yael Guilat



The study of Israel's visual culture 1 of the 1950s and 1960s enables us to understand the way Israeli society was established and how it created representations of itself. It illustrates how visual culture may be perceived as a signifying-system 2 that encompasses institutions, objects, practices, values and beliefs, and reveals the manner in which society produces and consumes visual reality. 3

One of the most prominent features of the visual culture that developed in the young State of Israel in the 1950s and 1960s may be observed in the imagery and motifs associated with artistic handicrafts produced by Yemenite immigrants. Despite the relatively small number of Yemenites, the prestige of their handiwork greatly surpassed that of the artisan cultures of other immigrant groups hailing from Islamic countries. Even during the period of the Yishuv [the pre-state Jewish community in Eretz Israel], the image of Yemenite Jewry and specific elements in its culture were selected for inclusion in the developing, European [Ashkenazi]-dominated Hebrew culture as representative of the Oriental Jew. A closer look at this "birthright" during the 1950s reveals the deep structure or cultural preference prevalent within Israeli culture where Yemenite handicrafts were included while the art work of other ethnic groups was rejected. This selection defined the normative boundaries of Oriental acceptability in the nascent Israeli culture. The present article will trace the contribution of pre-state models for establishing ethnic motifs and imagery in the visual arts, and it will examine the role that Yemenite craftsmen played in the emerging Israeli culture.

The inclusion of Jewish-Yemenite craftsmen in Israel's visual culture implied neither incorporation nor integration. It denoted, rather, the adoption or appropriation of isolated, neutral, and thus innocuous, elements [End Page 26] of Yemenite culture that served to mold the Yemenite image, its heritage, primacy, as well as primitiveness. This imposed model paralleled the ethnic-class discourse that characterized relations in the Yishuv and defined its boundaries.

Within this early Zionist discourse, Yemenite craftsmen were granted the position of "native workers" in the art studios of the Bezalel Art Academy and other school systems (Alliance and Shani). This was the same role Yemenite field-workers played in the agricultural settlements, and neither group attained cultural prestige or empowerment as a result of its labor. In fact, both groups were designed to "displace" the Arab presence within the same social and symbolic milieus; that is, to replace Arab labor with cheap Jewish labor.

Moreover, cultural models that allowed for partial acceptance by the Yishuv of isolated elements from the Yemenite culture fostered, at the same time, attitudes of entrapment, restraint, and mutual suspicion, which secured an inferior and marginal status for the Yemenites within the dominant Ashkenazi system. Comparisons between the Yemenite immigrants' role in the Bezalel Art Academy during the period of the Yishuv and their activity in the WIZO and Maskit commercial art institutes of the 1950s indicates that the pre-state models repeated themselves with new themes under new patrons. The re-use of these models half a century later attests to their stultifying effect on the enshrinement of the Yemenite immigrants' inferior status in the general system.

Following mass immigration of Jews from Islamic countries, especially those in North Africa, into the State of Israel, the veteran Ashkenazi elites strove to retain the Yemenite model, if only temporarily, because of its availability, familiarity, and functional value. Yemenite Orientalism re-emerged as a "boundary marker" and model for comparison, this time vis-à-vis the new immigrants, the new "other" that threatened the elite's hegemony. Once again the Yemenite was employed to define the new parameters of Hebrew culture and Israeli identity.

The Yemenite Model in Israeli Culture

Characteristics of the Stereotype

Cultural models are not created ex nihilo. Those who came from East Europe in the early waves of aliyah brought with them a Zionist pioneering ideology that had developed in reaction to the stress of physical survival and a...


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