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  • The Place of the Mediterranean in Modern Israeli Identity
  • Ranen Omer-Sherman
The Place of the Mediterranean in Modern Israeli Identity, by Alexandra Nocke. Boston: Brill, 2009. 298 pp. $140.00.

Alexandra Nocke's splendidly written and meticulously researched The Place of the Mediterranean in Modern Israeli Identity (2009) deftly exposes the ways that the spirit of Yam Tikhoniut (or "Mediterraneanism") is employed by Israelis to expand their claustrophobic situation by relating to their locale as intrinsic to a more expansive geo-cultural space. Whether considering daily life or artistic expression, the author provides a timely and richly interdisciplinary perspective that promises to open up important new trajectories in Israel Studies as well as twenty-first-century approaches to Jewish identity. Nocke is keenly interested in journalist Zvi Bar'el's formulation of the transformative broadening of the Israeli sense of spatial belonging that has lately taken hold: "The Mediterranean Sea ceased to be a place into which Jews could be thrown, and turned into a 'basin' around which one discuss[es] common regional problems" (p. 27). While fully acknowledging that such an expansion is subject to the increasingly precarious status of the peace process in recent years, Nocke, together with her subjects, finds vibrant expressions of Mediterranean identity "in the media, in cultural and everyday social practices, and as a part of public debates" (p. 28).

The powerful attraction to this transnational mode of belonging owes in part to its capacity for complementing "existing models of identity without either threatening their legitimacy or replacing them" (p. 29). In other words, Yam Tikhoniut (Nocke occasionally translates this as the "Mediterranean Option") encompasses the "East" and the "West" without imposing a monolithic model of identity. Yet it would be hard to deny that such an orientation might have potentially far-reaching social and political implications. For instance, there is President Shimon Peres' declaration that, rather than devote more resources to settlement in the occupied Palestinian territories, "we must invest in the sea, and stretch our western borders in that direction by building artificial islands" (p. 32). Undeniably, the expansive sense of belonging that Yam Tikhoniut temptingly promises also carries a certain pragmatism and demographic logic; after all, seventy percent of the country's population dwells on the coastal plain. (In this regard, it is worth noting that "Mediterraneanism" has lately taken [End Page 195] hold in other countries in the region; in 2008 Nicolas Sarkozy called for a "Mediterranean Union" that might one day lead to a supranational body.)

For the average citizen, Nocke speculates, "the Mediterranean Idea . . . offers a political vision, adding a new dimension to the prevailing fatigue, bitterness, and disenchantment with politics that can generally be found in contemporary Israel" (p. 33). But the fraught question of belonging posed by the "East" and "West" demarcation is not so easily put to rest. In this regard, some of Nocke's Mizrahi respondents express wariness about the prospect of being marginalized (or condescended to) once again by what sounds to them like yet another Eurocentric rubric. Thus, Iraqi-born Jewish Israeli novelist Sami Michael proposes an alternative formulation that respects the traditional Levantine configuration of Palestine, Israel, Egypt, Lebanon, and Syria but would be called the "Middle Eastern Union." Both of these supranational paradigms look toward a much longed-for integration in the region, but they are heavily idealized, ignoring the prickly identity politics, let alone the tenacious ferocity of religious fundamentalism, that besets the entire region. (Pace Nocke's Israeli subjects, a Lebanese academic complains to her, "Why shall we, alongside with Israel, all of a sudden become 'Mediterranean,' just for Israel to feel more welcomed in the region? We are Arabs and we will stay Arabs!" [p. 247].) Yet it is worth noting that variations on the views espoused by the Israelis who appear in Nocke's book have already been articulated by others, including Arab intellectuals, in the region. In "Re-Thinking the Mediterranean" Omar Barghouti and Adrian Grima call for new regional alliances to transcend the ethos of a West and East destined for permanent enmity: "A progressive alliance that focuses on the Mediterranean can be a credible, indeed a crucial, core of a...


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