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Talking Policy: Yonatan Mendel on Israeli Identity

To fully understand Israeli identity, the relationship between Israeli and Arab-Palestinian cultures during the creation of the Israeli state must be taken into account. Yonatan Mendel’s new book, From the Arab Other to the Israeli Self: Palestinian Culture in the Making of Israeli National Identity, co-authored with Ronald Ranta of Kingston University, examines the dynamics between these two cultures and what it means to be a “local” in your own home. World Policy Journal spoke with Mendel to discuss the prominent effect of the Arab “other” on modern day Israeli identity, the role of cultural identity in foreign policy, and how the desire to belong in one’s own nation can mold cultural perceptions and practices.

WORLD POLICY JOURNAL: Your book From the Arab Other to the Israeli Self dissects the notion of “Israeliness” by creating an overarching inter-cultural analysis of Israeli cultural productions and their Arab origins. Why has the framework of cultural adoption through erasure been the central element in the creation of what you describe as an illusion of Israeli identity?

YONATAN MENDEL: We both identify two important patterns in the book. One is that what many Jewish Europeans, who came to the country at the end of the 19th century and beginning of the 20th century, wanted the most was to become local—meaning to be not diasporic, and the people who were most local in the country were the Arab Palestinian people. The second part, which will answer your question, was we found that not only the creation of Israeli food and culture but the creation of a new language, the Israeli language. There was an admiration or romanticization, in which they looked down upon the local Palestinians but they also wanted to be local themselves—this is why they adapted to and imitated them. There was a feeling of, “If they are local then who are we? Are we foreigners?”

The Arab people had an ancient culture to preserve, but this ancient culture is actually Israelis’, too. The Arabic language is actually our people's language. The Arabic food is actually our biblical food. You cannot have a nation-state culture while acknowledging that it is made from your enemy's culture, which created part of divide.

We identify with food culture, folklore culture, music, language, and other things. We think that these things that make our world original, refreshing, or, some would say, unique, some would consider to do the opposite. Other Israeliness, meaning other Arab Palestinian culture, was real and that is not part of the Israeli self.

WPJ: You've done much of your research in the movement and status of language and culture in Jewish Arab society. Can you talk about the role that cultural identity plays in the construction of a nation's foreign policy?

YM: We are looking mostly at the way that Israel imagines itself. My research generally deals with the Arabic language, which is what I contributed to the book. I try to evaluate how we see language today. Jewish Israeli students usually say say that Arabic is the most difficult language for them to study—more so than English and French. Both Hebrew and Arabic are mixed languages. Their evolution reflects the Jewish Israeli feeling that they are not very much part of the Arab world or culture. We tried to show this in the book.

One example of how language is reflects power relations is the fact that Israelis imagine Arabic to be so different. We can learn about the way Israelis see themselves, Israeliness, and the Arab world. We can also see how language shapes our perceptions—we could study, for example, Arabic, a language that is very similar to Hebrew, and understand the people by understanding Arabic. At the end of the 19th century and beginning of the 20th century, Arabic words were adapted in order to recreate and revive the Hebrew language. What we know and what we don't know, what we remember and what we want to forget, the similarities that we put at the forefront or the similarities that we hide—the book explains a lot of this.

We look first at what we know, second at what we don't want to know, and third at the vacuum of language that make us a nation. Viewing the Arabic language as an “other” doesn't allow us to see that part of our identity as part of our self, and prevents people from being exposed to the works written in Arabic that reflect Jewish Israeli identity.

WPJ: You introduce the idea of Israeli Orientalism in what ways have you seen the U.S. reject or buy into this idea when dealing with Israel?

YM: When we write about Israeli orientalism, first we have to connect it to the general idea of orientalism. The general idea of orientalism goes back to the work of Edward Said and the body of language that not only shaped the East but also shaped the West, which means that by creating binary differentiations between the East and the West, it’s also an imagination of the East and a shaping of the West. Israel is quite an interesting case, and we can learn quite a lot from it, because Israel at the end of the day was created by both people of Ashkenazi descent mainly from the West and of Sephardic descent mainly from the East. But the idea of the Zionist culture, and the whole idea of the creation of the Jewish state in Palestine, were at the of the day European ideas. A lot of the ideas of those people who created the state were influenced by orientalist thinking. They looked at the other, the Orient, and they romanticized it and they exoticized it. They had to characterize these groups as something that would be similar to themselves because they wanted to become local, but they also had to be very, very different because they didn't want o be Arab. I think that this can tell us quite a lot.

WPJ: Your book goes beyond most literature on this topic in terms of how you expand your study of the formation of Israeli culture past the initial immigration waves. How has this cultural formation evolved during the digital age?

YM: Generally, regarding the movement of Israeli culture, that this idea of the process or the problems that we identify in the book—imitation, participation, adaptation, displacement, and identity—is not a linear one. A good example would be the keffiyeh, the famous Arab dress worn by men, which was considered in the 1930s and 1940s to be a local sign. You could see Zionist Jews put the keffiyeh on their heads, including leaders like former Prime Minister Shimon Peres, who just passed away. It was considered something that was very, very local. Then you jump—or leapfrog—to 2016, and you see one member of the Knesset criticizing an Arab member of the Knesset for having the keffiyeh, and she considered it to be an act of provocation. Which means that some of the symbols that were Arab and were adapted by Jews, and were considered signs of localness by them, today have ceased to be signs of localness at all. In other examples, such as the way some of the words in Arabic were adopted by Hebrew, there is a complete denial. In others, you sometimes see a better type of relationship.    

It is not a straight line; sometimes, Arab culture is the opposite of Israeli culture, and sometimes there will be complete denial, and they will say there is no connection whatsoever between the Israeli and the Arab. In some areas, there is an acknowledgement that there are Arab ingredients in what we consider to be Israeli. If we highlight the connection and if we are not willing to turn a blind eye to the creation of Israeli culture, which is very much based on Eastern culture between Arab and Jews, one would argue that it could be some kind of breakthrough, in which the Jews would not see the Arabs as the ultimate other but as part of the self. Maybe this can be the one way create something that would unite us.

*****

*****

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Visit the Talking Policy archive page for more World Policy interviews!

[Interview conducted by Kristine Jordan]

[Photo courtesy of Yonat Sharon]

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