“An Enhanced Supply of Babies”: The Politics of Race, Gender, and Population in Israel

A dialogue between Rela Mazali and Rachael Kamel

 

Rela Mazali, an Israeli writer and feminist peace activist, is one of the founders of New Profile, an activist group that supports young Israeli draft resisters (and other military refusers). An outspoken critic of Israeli militarism, she has worked for many years to challenge torture and other human rights violations by Israeli authorities and was instrumental in exposing the use of depleted uranium shells by the Israeli military. She is the author of Maps of Women’s Goings and Stayings (Stanford University Press, 2001) and many other books and articles.

 

Rachael Kamel is a member of the steering committee of the Committee on Women, Population, and the Environment (CWPE) and one of the founders of the Philadelphia Jewish Peace Network. Since the outbreak three years ago of the Al-Aqsa intifada, she has been involved in building grassroots networks of Jewish Americans as well as cross-constituency coalitions opposed to U.S. support for the Israeli military occupation of Palestinian lands. She has written and edited numerous publications for the American Friends Service Committee on economic globalization, immigrants’ rights, women’s issues, and related  themes.

 

Rachael: I invited Rela to join me in creating this interchange (which we have done mostly over e-mail) to explore the militarization of Jewish consciousness and culture, in both Israel and the United States. For both of us, turning a critical eye on our own culture and our own community is not an academic pursuit, but a vital dimension of our activism — against militarism and U.S. intervention and in support of a peaceful future for the Middle East. 

The activist movements we are both part of have focused, quite naturally, on resisting Israeli (and U.S.) militarism by challenging its devastating impact on Palestinian communities, on the status of women, and on human rights. Another aspect is the role of the United States as the chief source of the military, financial, and diplomatic support that sustains the Israeli occupation of Palestinian territories.# 

For many reasons, the ideas and approaches of the past have failed to bring a peaceful resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, or even a minimal level of stability to the region. Instead, as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict settles into  an even more deadly phase, there are increasingly open discussions of ethnic cleansing — known as “transfer” in Israel — and political parties advocating transfer are now part of the Israeli government. 

As supporters of peace with justice — in Israel/Palestine and around the world — we need to take an unflinching look at how this happened and where it is leading us. To that end, we wanted to explore how ideas about race, gender and population have shaped the discussion of the conflict, in Israel, in the American Jewish community, and in the United States overall.

 

Rela: My belief in de-militarization, and my related views about demography in Israel, formed gradually over 20-some years of activism against the occupation. My parents’ commitment to Zionism, or the formation of a Jewish state, and their choice to come here to live in 1947, formed the point of departure for my consciousness. While their choice was an undoubtedly political act, it functioned during my childhood as an underlying foundation, taken for granted and unquestioned. So I grew up in the tension between their coming here, which was affirmed as an explicitly political choice, and the very conformist world I lived in, in which dissidence didn’t even occur to us as an option. While many of my peers were children of refugees from Europe, who didn’t choose freely to come here, we did share the experience of Zionism as a way of thinking that was not really open to question and that was central to our idea of what was “normal.” 

I became politicized relatively late, in my early thirties, and I’ve been learning ever since. For me activism is a continuous learning process — finding out new information, opening myself to new perspectives and new interpretations, and also unlearning what I had always believed. 

When Rachael proposed interviewing me, one of the issues she mentioned was reproductive rights and how I viewed political developments here in that area. I wasn’t sure I understood her and, frankly, I was intrigued. Her explanation of that concern, as well as of the background for other questions she had in mind, turned out to be a learning experience for me. In my view, knowledge building is a shared process. I think this is often hidden from view in standard writing formats, so I suggested we keep this piece a dialogue, incorporating both of our standpoints and some of the process of how we drew on each others’ views and cues. Here it is, then. 

 

Rachael: I wanted to explore the tensions between  the way we think about demographic realities and the vision of Israel as a Jewish state. Among American Jews, the importance of maintaining Jewish numerical superiority in Israel is usually taken to be self-evident. At the same time, it functions largely as part of an abstract, idealized discussion — about Jewish safety, or Jewish nationhood, or Jewish destiny (or all three). What is the impact of this ideological framework in the lives of real women, both Jewish and Palestinian?

 

Rela: I’ll start my answer from Jewish safety. There are obviously considerable historical grounds for wanting to ensure that people are not put at risk by the fact of having been born Jewish. More than fifty years after its foundation, however, Israel is the place where the greatest number of Jewish people are continually put at risk, where the highest number of Jewish people are killed and injured. That seems to be a reality that Jews outside Israel, and even many inside Israel, tend to brush aside, to discount as temporary, perhaps as a phase to be endured on the way to the creation of this safe haven.

Some of this disregard for reality is rooted in an extension of the idea of “home” as a protective, safe space. I think it’s a mistake to assume that safety for an entire society comes from creating something like a “home,” but on a larger scale. I don’t think that citizenship in a state can or should be seen as a larger version of family. And I don’t think modern-day borders (which Israel doesn’t even have) can or should function like the walls of what is hopefully a protective home. 

I don’t believe that a solution to the risk of persecution on grounds of identity can be a geographical one — for Jews, for people of color, or for other types of minorities. Jews and all people need to be safe everywhere and to be able to exercise their human rights everywhere.

 

Rachael: Women of color in the United States have been in the forefront of questioning whether the idea of the home as a safe haven is even true on the micro level, given that law enforcement and immigration authorities routinely disregard the supposed privacy or safety of the homes of people of color, both immigrant and U.S.-born. Failing to come to terms with this reality has led many domestic violence advocates, for example, to cooperate with law-enforcement agencies in ways that have been very harmful to women of color. So perhaps we should be asking ourselves whether the idea of a safe haven is ever a useful one.

Rela: Regardless of what you and I may believe, however, the assumption of such analogies is present and potent in every aspect of Israeli culture. Yet this very preoccupation with demography, with numbers and birthrates and immigration rates of Jews as opposed to others in Israel, shows that the attempt to establish this supposedly safe space simply creates another kind of risk. Will the space continue to be “held” by sufficient numbers of “our people?” Will its government continue to be in “our” hands, thereby supposedly making it safe for “us?” 

All this, of course, affects individual women’s lives in Israel in endless ways. One of the most cogent is the sense, shared by the vast majority of Jewish people in Israel, that “we” and the state live in constant, immediately present existential peril. (So much for our protective home!) This sense is usually a presupposition, not questioned or examined, but rather accepted as self-evident. It is transmitted to all of us through myriad cultural channels. 

One of its chief premises is the history of antisemitism and particularly the Nazi genocide of European Jews. Its other main premise is the history of chronic warfare, which began here even before the declaration of the state of Israel in 1948. As a result, it is widely accepted that Jewish people in Israel need to maintain and take part in a culture of military service, for what are perceived as defensive reasons. This in turn has a huge effect on childrearing in Jewish society in Israel, where children are raised in an awareness of their impending conscription. Parents and children consent to, and actively implement, a contract according to which the children will be put at risk (at least potentially) at age 18. This fact has many very practical implications in the daily routine of families.# Among other things, this contract may be one more reason for the relatively high birthrates in Israel as compared to other advanced industrial countries.

 

Rachael: In U.S. society, the politics of fertility is an integral part of the discussion of race as well as military dominance. The fertility of U.S. women of color, and of women in the developing world more generally, is portrayed as a “threat” to “our way of life,” through violent imagery about the “population bomb” dating back to the 1960s and proceeding from there.# The need to respond to this supposed threat then offers a rationale for social policies that criminalize women, particularly poor women of color, and exert very repressive and coercive types of control over their reproductive and sexual lives — through the health care and social welfare system and also through the criminal justice system. 

I’ve heard many echoes of this in how Jews in both Israel and the United States talk about the “threat” posed by Palestinian fertility, as well as Arab fertility more generally. All, of course, without any acknowledgement (or perhaps even awareness) of the close parallels to the larger global context of this discussion. I’m curious about your perspective as an Israeli woman as to how this discussion plays out in Israel. What kinds of pressure do Jewish Israeli women face to reproduce for the nation, or in order to help perpetuate a Jewish majority? How does that affect their ability to make their own reproductive choices?

 

Rela: I have believed for many years that Jewish women in Israel are under a great deal of pressure to have children. Just to mention two random channels and symptoms of this pressure, Israel’s per-capita investment in modern reproductive technology,  such as “test-tube” fertilization, is the highest in the world by far. Or there’s the familiar custom of quite casually asking both married and unmarried women when they plan to have a child. To paraphrase an apt formulation by feminist author Tamar Hager, [add footnote: A Perfectly Ordinary Life (Hakibbutz Hameuchad/Siman Kri’a, 2000) [Hebrew] everybody assumes they can stick their noses right into my womb. I myself, as a young woman, thought about when to have children but never actually asked myself whether I wanted to have children at all. In other words, Israeli society quite successfully ruled out my capacity to make the most fundamental of reproductive choices. Today, over a quarter of a century after I had my first child, as far as I can tell it’s no different for the vast majority of young Jewish women in Israel.

In recent years, a young feminist researcher of Mizrachi# origin, Yali Hashash-Daniel, has demonstrated the differing social pressures exerted on Jewish women of the Ashkenazi middle classes and the lower-income Mizrachi communities in Israel. Hashash-Daniel has documented and revealed how Israeli medical and social services (run by the predominantly Ashkenazi middle class) have pressured lower-income Mizrachi women to lower their birthrates, on the assumption that their children would be poorly educated, “underprivileged,” and not the kind of “quality” people needed for building the young Jewish state. To the best of my knowledge, this kind of analysis is still unrecognized by the majority of feminists in Israel (not to speak of Israeli society at large) and cannot be said to be part of mainstream Israeli feminist discourse.

 

Rachael: What about Palestinian Israeli women — are there state policies that restrict women’s freedom to have children? 

Rela: The short answer would be, yes, of course. However, the details are complex and not always obvious. This is an issue that has been exhaustively researched in recent years by a young Palestinian feminist from Israel, Rhoda Ann Kanaaneh.# She has documented numerous policies intended to increase births to Jewish Israeli women and decrease births to Palestinian women who are citizens of Israel. As she has demonstrated in detail, “While Zionist ideology was neither monolithic nor static … this movement was concerned largely with maximizing the number of Jews in Palestine in relation to non-Jews through immigration, displacement of Palestinians, and selective pronatalism” (p. 28). However, as she has pointed out, “The coherence and totalizing power of such [population control] projects can be overestimated” (p. 27). And, in particular, “Pro- and antinatalism are more complicated to implement than immigration and land distribution policies” (p. 56). Like the work of Yali Hashash-Daniel, Kanaaneh’s work is not (yet?) a standard or widely recognized part of feminist discourse in Israel. 

Beyond the issue of reproductive rights, for well over a decade now there has been an ongoing public discussion in Israel of embedded, institutionalized discrimination against Palestinian citizens of Israel. The voices participating in this discussion and driving it are by no means exclusively or predominantly feminist. A very recent example from the public sphere is the large segment of the Or Commission Report# dedicated to analysis of the severe and ongoing discrimination against Palestinians in Israel in the allocation of  public resources.

To cite just a few statistics —19 percent of Israel's population is Palestinian, while 19 of the 23 communities with the highest unemployment in Israel were Palestinian in 2001. Of the fourteen Israeli communities rated lowest on socioeconomic measures, eleven were Palestinian. More than 41 percent of the Palestinian families inside Israel were living under the poverty line that year, as opposed to fewer than 18 percent of Jewish families. Despite the growing visibility of activist groups working to counteract this discrimination, it is still very much in place and affects every aspect of the lives of the Palestinian citizens of Israel. 

In addition, the discussion in the Jewish public sphere by and large implicitly assumes that Palestinian citizens of Israel are, first and foremost, potential enemies. This is a direct result of the militarized thinking into which Israeli Jews are socialized, and a reflection of the historical fact that Israel was founded through the dispossession of the Palestinian people. As a result, even when discrimination by both the state and the dominant Jewish society is clearly acknowledged, proposals for amending it are most often linked with the requirement that Palestinians must somehow demonstrate their loyalty to the state. It is only rarely that the point of departure is an unconditional, straightforward recognition of Palestinians’ inalienable rights as human beings and their rights as a minority in a state that claims to be a democracy.

 

Rachael: As I try to understand the Israeli scene from the outside, it looks like the politics of demographic balance are spiraling out of control. In July 2003, the world was stunned by the passage of a law that bars Palestinians from the occupied territories who marry Israeli citizens from seeking either citizenship or residency in Israel — a restriction imposed on no other group. In  August, the World Zionist Organization announced a new initiative to  build 30-new Jewish-only settlements in the Negev and Galilee (areas inside Israel’s pre-1967 borders that have traditionally been predominantly Palestinian). In commenting on this initiative, the treasurer of the Jewish Agency (a non-government organization which is in charge [!] of regulating land ownership in Israel) explained that “the settlement drive is the only way to ensure that Israel remains a Jewish state.”# In 2002, the government-funded Israeli Council of Demography was reactivated after being dormant for five years. Among other things, this group has tried to discourage Jewish Israeli women from having abortions. 

As we were editing this piece, Rela sent me an article from the Israeli daily Ha’aretz about the rollback of public benefits for fertility treatments, one of many types of benefits currently being slashed in Israel. In describing the controversy sparked by this proposal, the article commented that "the background is demographic: there is an expectation that the state of Israel will do everything, without limiting resources, in order to ensure an enhanced supply of babies" (Ha’aretz, 9/21/03). There are many other examples we could mention.

Beyond Israel proper, meanwhile, the drive to expand Jewish-only settlements in the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, is continuing and even accelerating. Even mainstream Jewish voices, including some very prominent figures in both Israel and the United States, are beginning to say that the government of Gen. Ariel Sharon is doing everything within its power to render the establishment of a Palestinian state a practical impossibility. What was introduced as the “separation wall,” which was billed as a border fence along the “green line” (Israel’s pre-1967 border), has morphed into a $1.5 billion project to build walled ghettos around Palestinian population centers in the West Bank. In the process, tens of thousands of Palestinians have already been cut off from some of their most fertile agricultural land, either because they cannot reach their land to work or harvest their crops or because olive trees, wells, and other vital natural resources are being destroyed outright during the wall’s construction. Ultimately, hundreds of thousands of Palestinians will be displaced by the wall (if it is completed as planned).

Where do you think this is all going? Are we heading, as some people argue, in the direction of a massive tragedy of ethnic cleansing, to rival or even surpass the original expulsion of Palestinians in 1948 from what is now Israel? What can we do to stop this scenario? How can we imagine a different future, for Jews as well as Palestinians?

 

Rela: In my view, and that of thousands of others in the anti-occupation community, it’s not that we’re heading there, but that we’re already at least part way there. The situation is misleading because it is the inhuman restrictions on daily life that are pushing more and more Palestinians to leave if they have the means to do so, rather than dramatic large-scale operations such as loading thousands of people onto trucks. Such restrictions impose a daily, mundane routine of making it impossible to earn a living, to feed and cook for a family, to provide children with schooling, to reach doctors or hospitals or pharmacies, or to attend prayer services, to say nothing of watching a play, or just sitting at a cafe, or going to the beach. 

Under such conditions, which have existed for over a decade but have worsened very sharply in recent years, individuals and families are forced to make very painful choices, and many are indeed leaving in a gradual, largely invisible stream. The advantage of this “silent transfer” is that Israel is not condemned for it. The massive tragedy is and has been occurring for years. And it is and will be both peoples’ tragedy. While the balance of power is very much in Israel's favor, life here inside the green line is also becoming steadily uglier. People live in constant fear of bombings, the economy is in deep recession and has been for years, unemployment is very high and still climbing. Social services are being slashed across the board. Here, too, many young people are leaving in search of saner, less brutalized lives. 

Mainly, though, I believe that sooner or later Israelis will have to bear a consciousness of their responsibility as perpetrators of this tragedy, along with the shame and guilt that go with that, for many years — even generations. Beyond the crimes that Israel is committing against the Palestinian people, I think that Israel is sentencing its children and grandchildren to bearing this terrible burden.

What can we do? If the United States really wanted Israel to pull out of the territories and reach an agreement with the Palestinians, it would simply clarify that the huge amounts of foreign aid it channels into Israel and the enormous loan guarantees it hands the Israeli government every year would be cut in the absence of a peace treaty. As a citizen, rather than a government, however, I have no simple answer to this question. Keeping up pressure on both of our governments in as many creative ways as we can find is a general sort of answer, without going into specifics. Finding people to talk things over with and work with. Working as a group to find yet more people. Spreading information and views. 

I’ve been doing all these things for more than 20 years now. The bottom line for individuals, I think, is that it’s important — imperative — to find some form of action that you believe in and can commit to and to keep at it. I draw hope from the model of South Africa, for instance. If people could bring about the end of apartheid there, they can, in the long run (though I hope not too long), bring about the end of the occupation and of oppression here.

Rachael: I’ve thought a lot about how the Jewish-American experience has shaped our perceptions of this conflict. Like most progressive Jewish Americans, I grew up thinking of the Jewish community as a mainstay of the liberal/progressive coalition within this country. The great social and political movements of the 20th century — the union movement, the socialist movement, the Civil Rights Movement — were part of my family’s history and my community’s history, continuing on into my own individual experience of the Vietnam antiwar movement, the feminist movement, and so on. 

Earlier generations of my family fought to participate freely in U.S. society and to gain the right to be “just like everyone else”: to attend the same schools, have access to the same occupations, live in the same neighborhoods, and so on. When I was growing up, these democratic values were central to the Jewish-American experience. To my parents’ generation, it seemed only natural to support other sectors of the population, such as African Americans, in what they understood to be another version of the same struggle against discrimination and exclusion. Which, of course, in many ways it was, except that at the end of the road we got to be white folks, and they did not. I’m not sure we have ever really understood the implications of this.

That same generation of Jewish Americans mostly believed that the creation of Israel was the crowning achievement of our process of democratic empowerment. Finally, we would even have “our own country,” along with access to virtually every other social realm. It’s been very hard for us to say out loud that every day the dream is looking more and more like a nightmare, and that Israel is in fact a society founded on dispossession, ethnic cleansing, racial segregation, institutionalized violence, and unending warfare. (Which, of course, makes it very similar to the United States.) 

We also face the problem of racialized interpretations of Israeli militarism — of people buying into the mythology that Israelis act as they do because they are Jews, or (in a more nuanced version) that the U.S. is not more “even-handed” in the Middle East because of Jewish influence.  This in turn only helps strengthen Jewish fears of antisemitism and plays into the hands of those who argue that we have to defend “our own” — even though the “defensive” measures they advocate invariably make the world more dangerous for Jews and everyone else.

As the terrible human costs of Israeli militarism become harder and harder to deny, there are different ways that people try to come to terms with this understanding. I believe it is one of the major factors causing many people to distance themselves from Jewish communal life and a sense of Jewish identity. Other segments of our community have responded by moving very far to the right and espousing a very hawkish and openly racist way of understanding the world. 

Still others (and this group includes many non-Jewish white Americans) have simply flipped over and entered into a vicarious identification with the suffering and dispossession of Palestinians, or with Palestinian history and culture. In the end, this can become a more sophisticated form of cultural appropriation — it is Palestinians who need to be free to develop their culture and identity, not outside supporters. 

As someone who has been involved in antiwar and solidarity movements my entire life, I think this is the deepest challenge for those of us who are part of the oppressor group in any type of conflict: to understand our own humanity in a positive and transformative way, without closing our eyes to the realities of oppression and the ways we are asked to be complicit with it. Guilt and self-hatred are of no use to anyone — whether we enter into it as Jews, as white people, or as citizens of the U.S. global empire. Likewise, political activism that we undertake “for” somebody else is never fully authentic. It can never win strategic victories or develop into real social transformation. Ultimately, it is not solidarity, but charity.

After many years as an activist, I’ve come to believe that authentic solidarity work must always have three dimensions. It must expose and challenge the concrete structures of oppression: the war profiteers, the corporate exploiters, the military planners. Second, it must be willing to see the world through the eyes of those who are oppressed and exploited, and to respect their political leadership. And third, those of us who are not the primary targets of oppression must bring ourselves fully into the picture, joining in the struggle from our own deepest and most authentic selves. 

This is why I remain committed to struggling over Jewish identity as well as fighting the occupation, the Wall, and the rest of it. We must believe that not only another world but also another Judaism is possible.

 

Rela: I can’t say we share the last point. I’m not very aware of my Jewish identity and not working to create or re-create it. I feel quite skeptical about group identities in general and see them, more often than not, as forcibly imposed or exploitative. 

For me, part of upholding people’s rights means complicating our understanding of “belonging,” of the ways in which violence that is based on a presumed group identity — such as violence to Jews, women, Palestinians, or the elderly, to name just a few examples — flattens out the gray zones, intersections, and multiple facets of our experience. 

Such violence is based on the perpetrator’s understanding of who we are, not the understanding of those suffer the violence. In this sense violence not only trespasses on our most fundamental human rights, it also enforces a very simplistic notion of group identity and “belonging,” erasing the specific emotional, psychic, and biographical reality of the person who is targeted by the violence. 

I am less inclined to assume identity as a necessity and a given. And I personally am not struggling for Jewish identity. I suppose if anything I feel more Israeli than Jewish. Maybe this is part of being born and raised (mainly) in Israel, in a non-religious, loosely socialist family of Jewish descent. Jewishness was the baseline. Paradoxically, I experienced it as unmarked, unremarkable — something like “whiteness” in the States. And I think this is true of many non-religious Jewish Israelis. 

The belonging I feel is more to a language, to specific landscapes and kinds of sunlight and smells, to the Mediterranean beaches that Israeli real estate developers are steadily trashing, to a particular kind of social atmosphere, to a community of friends and family. This is what I’m fighting for — this place where I live and this community that I happened to be born into. I’m struggling for its humanity, for its sanity, fighting to make it a more decent community, with a real respect for human beings of all kinds and for the environment they live in. This struggle, for me, has branched into almost every part of my life. It has fed and formed both my creative work as a writer and my work as an activist, which are in turn interconnected. My writing is an aspect of my activism while my activism finds expression in, and draws on, my writing. 

For the past seven years, I’ve had the extraordinary privilege of conducting part of this struggle with and through a feminist group. We started out with an intensive learning process focused on women’s position within the context of Israeli militarization, after which we went on to found New Profile, a feminist anti-militarist group, working to de-militarize society in Israel. While a number of very serious, committed organizations do important work “across the lines,” against the enmity between Jews and Palestinians, our orientation is “inwards,” towards changing the society into which many of us were born and raised, the culture that all of us live in. 

Our basic tenet is that this culture is actively making wars, not simply defending itself against outside aggression. We see this, at least partly, as a result of deeply rooted mindsets that in turn blind the majority of Israelis to this simple fact, and so we work to raise consciousness regarding this vicious cycle. The main channels through which we work to counteract it include challenging the militarization of Israeli education, creating public opportunities for discussing and learning about militarization in Israel, and supporting young people, men and women, who refuse to enlist. 

There is a growing movement of draft resistance in Israel today, and New Profile is providing the young people who are part of it with information as well as moral and emotional support. Most draft resisters start out very isolated, and we put them in touch with each other so they can develop a consciousness of being part of a group. At the same time we learn from them, both from their thinking and from the experience that each of them goes through in his or her process of refusal. 

This is a truly important development in Israeli society and we are intensively engaged with it. Most of the movement is unorganized, a de facto accumulation of thousands of young people who do not comply with the legal obligation of mandatory military service. About a third of each annual group of candidates for service doesn’t enlist at all. Another 12–15 percent, at a minimum, drop out of service early. So about half of the candidates for service don’t serve or don’t complete their service every year. 

A small but highly significant minority of these are brave young men and women who openly declare their conscientious objection to military service. Given the mindset of the Jewish majority in Israel, this is a difficult step to take. While women are legally entitled to exemption from service on grounds of conscience, based on the sexist assumption of a militarized culture that women aren’t “real” soldiers anyway, there is no law explicitly allowing conscientious objection for men, and the declared COs are routinely imprisoned. This past year has witnessed the highest numbers ever of young Israeli men refusing conscription in prison at the same time. It has also seen the unprecedented (and still ongoing) court martials of six of these brave young 18- and 19-year-olds. 

While the general situation in Israel and the occupied territories continues to deteriorate quickly, and the Israeli government deploys the army to take criminal actions on a scale many wouldn’t have thought possible just a few years ago, these young people are a reservoir of hope and energy. I feel lucky to know some of them and to be able to support their stand in a concrete way.