- Wrapped in the Flag of Israel: Mizrahi Single Mothers and Bureaucratic Torture by Smadar Lavie
New York: Berghahn, 2014
216 pages. isbn 9781782382225
Smadar Lavie’s Wrapped in the Flag of Israel brings together several foundational principles that are detrimental to the lives of many poor, disenfranchised, marginalized women in the Middle East and beyond and yet are not explored systematically: gender and race are intertwined deeply and powerfully and cannot be understood separately; poverty destroys bodies, minds, and spirits, its effects long-lasting and often deadly; the state can be ruthless in its mundane management of its most vulnerable citizens while still enjoying their wholehearted loyalty. First and foremost, it is a book about understanding the grip of state violence on its defenseless subjects—poor women of color—through the notion of bureaucracy as a form of torture: from everyday humiliation and powerlessness to the paralyzing impact of all-encompassing webs of procedures to debilitating and long-term scarring of women’s bodies, minds, and souls.
At the center of the book is the 2003 protest of a group of disenfranchised Mizrahi single mothers, whose lives depended on welfare that had been severely cut by the economic reforms of the early 2000s. At the moment of utter desperation, one of the mothers, Vicky Knafo, decided to march from the periphery where she lived to Jerusalem, setting up a protest camp over the summer. Her protest was sporadically and conditionally supported, judged, ignored, co-opted, and eventually abandoned in a moment of a perceived national crisis when violence erupted once again between Israel and the Palestinians.
Following the protest and its many actors, Lavie, as a Mizrahi feminist activist, a scholar, and a welfare-dependent single mother herself, uses the protest as a case study through which matters of poverty and ruthless neoliberal economy, Israeli intra-Jewish racism, Jewish Ashkenazi domination, nationalism, and the occupation of Palestinian territories intertwine. It is the first ethnography of the day-to-day experiences of Mizrahi [End Page 264] women living at the mercy of the Israeli welfare state. It is also a highly innovative theorization of state power as divine—a theorization that opens new directions in thinking about women and religion and in explaining the state’s grip and the failure of antistate social protest by faithful disenfranchised citizens. Last, Wrapped is among the very few works that tie Israeli colonization and military occupation of Palestine with internal colonization of non-European Jews, intra-Jewish racism, and Ashkenazi rule.
Wrapped challenges two key assumptions that still dominate both the academic knowledge and the political discourse with regard to Israel/Palestine. The first assumption deals with the presumably monolithic category of gender and “women” and the related expectation of joint women’s experiences and (potential for) solidarity. Instead, Wrapped demonstrates both the persistent Ashkenazi domination of most Israeli women’s non-governmental organizations and the ways Ashkenazi Zionism and its deadly racial and national logic divide between groups of marginalized women (the Mizrahi, the Bedouin, the Russian immigrants), preventing solidarity and alliances among disenfranchised minorities.
The second assumption concerns the simplified distinction between Jews and Palestinians, which also leads to a simplified understanding of the Israeli occupation and military rule as concerning solely the relations between Israel and Palestine. Instead, Lavie draws the complex interrelations between the occupation of Palestine and the internal colonization of the Mizrahi Jews, or Arab Jews, whose “border zone” position makes them hostages to Israeli colonial nationalism twice, both times through the divine logic of Jewish unity, “one state, one people.” First, the myth of such unity is used to sustain Mizrahi women’s (and men’s) love for the “Jewish state,” no matter how harsh the dispossession, how poisonous the racism, and how debilitating the economic precariousness. Lavie shows us the impossibility of resisting the violence of the state due to both the state’s divine nature and the survival mechanisms inflicted institutionally and psychically by the bureaucratic torture. Second, the state uses the myth of “one people” repeatedly and effectively to shut down the social Mizrahi...