The disenchantment of the Orient:
A history of Orientalist Expertise in Israel
by Gil Eyal
2005, The Van Leer Jerusalem Institute
Ha kibbutz Hameuchad Publishing House
Reviewed by Marc Eliany
Zionist aspirations aimed to transform Diaspora Jews into New Jews. In this attempt, lines were drawn between Jews and Arabs. An Arab like transformation provided early pioneers the looks and language of Arab Palestinians as a way to shed the old Diaspora image, to wear the image of local inhabitants that seemed to recall for them ancient Hebrew and biblical images. It was, of course, only a superficial transformation, as the same pioneers perceived local inhabitants as primitive rather than people to look up to. The adoption of the external look as well as the modest lifestyle, was a mean to cleanse oneself from the old Diaspora self to adopt a new Israeli one.
Early pioneers also considered the Sephardic Jewish transformation, as local Sephardic Jews were well integrated with the Arab Palestinian population, as well as, symbolized the Golden Era of the Spanish Jewry, and thus provided the potential to bridge between East and West as well as between Jews and Arabs. But, local Sephardic Jews were not given the opportunity to fulfill the bridging role, as it presented a threat to the hegemony of the early pioneers. Early Zionists also looked at the inhabitant farmer as an icon of the ‘hidden Jew,’ perhaps descendent of the ancient Hebrews, who stayed in Palestine in spite of exile and destruction to farm the land of his ancestors. This image provided early pioneers with a model that brings them close to the land of Israel.
But the war of independence brought its own changes and exposed the pioneers to a new reality, and the necessity to draw new distinction between Jews and Arabs.
In the course of the war, local Arab inhabitants, who fled or were expelled, became refugees. Some of these refugees, called infiltrators, tried to come back and thus presented a threat to the newly established state. There were also the local Arab inhabitants, now called Israeli Arabs, who presented also a threat to the newly established state and had to be contained under military rule until 1966. And finally the new immigrants from Arab countries, labeled Orientals, who came from Arab countries and carried with them an Arabic image, were also perceived as a threat. The new state of Israel attempted to establish borders between itself and surrounding Arab influence.
In the Israeli attempt to draw lines between Jews and Arabs, deserted Arab villages were plowed, so as not to leave any memory of their existence. New Development towns were built in their place, to settle the outskirts, to claim a hold on the land as well as to absorb new immigrants. The new towns were to serve as service centre to moshavim (cooperative villages) and kibbutzim (collective villages). But the new towns failed to serve as service centers, as moshavim and kibbutzim had their own a well developed system of purchases and distribution. Further, the state as well as independent industrialists opted for investments in the center rather than in remote outskirts for economic reasons. Consequently, immigrants with skills as well as with small families left the outskirts to settle in the center, which provided better opportunities, leaving behind the unskilled and large families, mostly immigrant from Arab countries. The new towns failed and became structurally disadvantaged, as well as, centers of poverty, where ‘Oriental’ like culture evolved.
After the establishment of Israel, a number of organizations specialized in dealing with local and out of state Arabs as well as with Oriental Jews. There was a competition between the different groups of experts. These groups were closely associated with military and political elites. They were to provide advice based on the accumulated information; but in reality, it was to serve state interests. Thus, the advice the experts gave was the result of a balance between supply and demand. The experts adjusted their advice to the demand of the elite it served (p.157, 160). Members of the centers of research remained closed to a selected membership, even if research activities were of an academic nature, such as at the Dayan center at Tel Aviv University. These centers thus reflected a social hierarchy in which Oriental Jews served at low level functions, while Arabs were left out (p. 168).
The leading discourse then remained in the hands of an elite, which held the authority to interpret the ‘truth based on facts and evidence.’ Other parties, i.e., Jews from North Africa and the Middle East, or Arabs, who attempted to state any other interpretation, had to face up to an authoritative elite, which reinforced and served the authority of the state.