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University of California Press
Birthing the Nation: Strategies of Palestinian Women in Israel / Edition 1

Birthing the Nation: Strategies of Palestinian Women in Israel / Edition 1

by Rhoda Ann Kanaaneh, Hanan AshrawiRhoda Ann Kanaaneh
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In this rich, evocative study, Rhoda Ann Kanaaneh examines the changing notions of sexuality, family, and reproduction among Palestinians living in Israel. Distinguishing itself amid the media maelstrom that has homogenized Palestinians as "terrorists," this important new work offers a complex, nuanced, and humanized depiction of a group rendered invisible despite its substantial size, now accounting for nearly twenty percent of Israel's population. Groundbreaking and thought-provoking, Birthing the Nation contextualizes the politics of reproduction within contemporary issues affecting Palestinians, and places these issues against the backdrop of a dominant Israeli society.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780520229440
Publisher: University of California Press
Publication date: 06/28/2002
Series: California Series in Public Anthropology , #2
Edition description: First Edition
Pages: 300
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.70(d)
Lexile: 1300L (what's this?)

About the Author

Rhoda Ann Kanaaneh is a Jean Monnet Fellow at the European University Institute's Robert Schuman Center for Advanced Studies and the Mediterranean Programme.

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Strategies of Palestinian Women in Israel

University of California

Copyright © 2002 Regents of the University of California
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0-520-22944-4



Jamili gets pregnant. She is going to have a fourth child because "four is the perfect sized family." Her husband hopes for a new construction contract that will allow him to squeeze all of the child's "needs" into the budget. Jamili's friend and neighbor Latifi describes her as still "a bit primitive": "She still thinks the role of women is primarily as breeders." Jamili's nurse is upset with her because Jamili is over 35, and she warns her: "You better do all the tests I send you to, or else." Her mother hopes it's a boy who will "raise our heads high." This pregnancy puts Jamili well above the average birth rate for Jews in Israel and pushes her closer to the higher average birth rate of Arabs. "Another Arab baby for the [Jewish] state to contend with," she says defiantly.

In looking at family-planning processes among Palestinians in the Galilee (il-Jalil in local dialect), it is important to recognize "that reproduction, in its biological and social senses, is inextricably bound up with the production of culture" (Ginsburg and Rapp 1995: 2). The negotiation of reproductive decisions in the Galilee has recently become a struggle not only over women's bodies and lives but also over significant social concepts such as "the feminine," "the masculine," "the household," "our culture," "the nation," and "progress." Family planning is now part of the social processes in which these concepts are daily defined, changed, and redefined in people's lives; in which gender is configured, communities are imagined, and boundaries of the modern are drawn.

The five chapters of this book correspond roughly to five interrelated fields of meaning and power in which reproduction is caught up and constructed: nation, economy, difference, body, and gender. Jamili's pregnancy acquires various significances as it circulates in these realms of life. Jamili's remark that "we want to increase the Arabs" must be understood within the realm of the nation. Her concern that "if I thought we could provide more children with all the necessities of modern life, then I wouldn't hesitate to have more" must be understood within a new conceptualization of household economy. Her mother's preference for a male child who will make her proud must be understood as constructing a particular cosmology of gender. Her neighbor's mocking "What does she think in her simple mind, that if she has another son he's going to somehow make Palestine victorious [yunsur falastin]?" must be understood in light of the measures of difference that Palestinians are coming to use to evaluate each other. Her determination that "after I deliver I'm going on this new diet so I don't become like those fat women whose husbands neglect them" must be understood within a new discourse of the body (as well as economy, difference, and gender). These interwoven spheres of reproduction tell a new and interesting story of how babies, power, and culture are being made in this corner of the world.


There are many ways to name the Galilee, its people, space, and place (see map). Growing up there, I identified at different moments with my nuclear family, parts of my extended family, my school district, my village, the triangle of three villages to which we belong, the neighboring village in which I went to high school, the Battuf valley area, the Acre district, the Nazareth region, the Tiberias vicinity, the Galilee, northern Israel, Palestine, "the people of 48," hapa-haoles (half whites) in Hawaii, internal diaspora, the homeland, the East, the West, the "developing" world, my father's religion, my mother's religion, people of the book, my essence, my hybridity ... I belonged to each of these categories, but not equally and not all at once; or, as Ann Laura Stoler puts it, "in different measure and not all at the same time" (1991: 87). It is in the measure and time that different parts of my identity become salient in my own mind and in the minds of those around me that a fragmentary yet in some ways cohesive history of power can be traced. These various subjectivities emerge situationally, and one can trace the conditions and systematicities that allow them to do so. Power circulates, but not endlessly: it congeals at significant moments.

The many family members, friends, and acquaintances (and enemies?) whom I evoke in this study as the people of the Galilee similarly have concentric, overlapping, and disparate zones of belonging that map out a terrain of power-personal as well as economic, familial, and political histories. I make this assertion to acknowledge the sometimes overwhelming complexity of family planning in the Galilee, and the consistencies that I hope to elucidate. In some nexuses of power, hybridity and complexity are not "an infinite interplay of possibilities and flavors of the month" but rather are experienced as reified essence (Lavie and Swedenburg 1996: 3).

The Galilee is indeed a very composite place. My close friend Nadia, who visits from Germany every summer-the daughter of Othman Saadi, a friend and former neighbor of my father's from 'Arrabi, and Angelica Saadi, a German woman and close friend of many members of my family-Nadia too is part of my Galilee. Othman Saadi is a descendant of religious scholars who came many decades ago from Morocco. Just as my aunt Najiyyi, who has never left the Galilee and rarely leaves the village because she is subject to motion sickness, is also part of my Galilee. Yet this aunt's mother, known to me as mart 'ammi 'Ali, was not originally from 'Arrabi at all-she grew up in the city of Haifa and as a young woman moved to 'Arrabi, where she married my father's uncle. My memories of her, too, are part of my Galilee. The women born in 'Arrabi who married their first cousins next door as well as the many "foreign" brides-women who came from all parts of the world, from the former Czechoslovakia to Sweden to Morocco, from Italy to South Dakota-all are part of my Galilee.

My "Aunt" Miriam, a German Jewish holocaust survivor, and her adopted Yemenite children, whom we visited almost every Sunday of my childhood in the Jewish beach town of Nahariyya, were also part of my Galilee. Fathers Jacob and Thomas, who founded a monastery near my village to emulate the lifestyle of the early Christians in these mountains, were also part of my Galilee. So were the settlers behind the barbed wire on the hilltop overlooking my house who run a yoga meditation center, and who collided not only with my fellow villagers but also with Fathers Jacob and Thomas's monastery, whose land they border. And so was Eli "Yasin," an Israeli Jew who bought an old stone house (from the Yasin family-hence his nickname) on the outskirts of my village, and who allegedly reports to Israeli intelligence on activities in the village through the grapevine of young men whom he supplies with hashish. Nadia, Aunt Najiyyi, and Eli Yasin are all part of the Galilee-but not in the same way. Each relates to the Galilee and experiences it and affects it in his or her own ways. But to describe a place as composite is certainly not to celebrate fragmentation.

Multiplicity and complexity contain institutional frameworks. We were all part of the Galilee, Eli Yasin, mart 'ammi 'Ali, and I, but we had differential access to systems of power-economic, political, familial, gendered.

My mother was one of those foreign brides, yet her hybrid Chinese-Hawaiian-American background was most often referred to simply as American. Her Chineseness was overwhelmed by her Americanness in the context of American economic and political dominance in Israel. My own multi-ethnic background was perceived largely as Arab, since my father's identity was considered more determinative of my identity than my mother's. While I was considered Arab, I was also considered special when I could skip classes in English as a second language at school or when I wore the T-shirts with big Hawaiian prints my grandmother sent me. My mother was never required to convert from Christianity to Islam, partly because my father is an atheist, partly because of the open-mindedness and open-heartedness of my relatives, but also because we children were assumed to belong to our father's faith (even though he called himself an atheist, socially he was still considered Muslim). Yet in my home we celebrated Christmas, and my relatives came to wish us happy holidays. We celebrated the Muslim Eids with our extended family, and my mother participated fully. I rarely experienced disjuncture between the two religions. Yet the ease with which people accepted my mother and the apparent seamlessness of my identity owed much to the assumptions of a father's dominance and American global privilege.

The assumption of my father's and my Muslimness in the Galilee should not suggest that Islam is all-powerful there. In my predominantly Muslim third grade in public school, I memorized verses of the Qur'an and listened to the beautiful stories our religion teacher told about the spider and dove that saved the Prophet's life, while the few Christian students were assigned to a Christian teacher. But in my private Baptist high school, we-Muslims, Christians, and Druze-sang "The Gospel in One Word Is Joy" with Bob the minister from Tennessee. There is hybridity here, but there are also systematic configurations of power. That most private schools for Palestinians are (missionary) Christian is one aspect of this power. That all Palestinian students-even in the private Christian schools-are required to study Jewish religious texts as part of a mandatory unit in Hebrew is another.

That I experienced multiplicity does not necessarily mean that there were no patterns in it. My joy in the seventh grade at seeing the film al-Qadisiyya about Muslim conquests of Persia, was tempered by the remark of my cousin Salwa (who went to a Quaker school in the West Bank) that the Muslims forced people to convert to Islam with their swords. I realized and she realized (in a seventh-grade way) that we had received different versions of history. Many of us in the Galilee are aware that there are many senses of "us," even when we are sometimes able to ignore them.

This hybridity in a context of power is demonstrated in this brief history of my village written by my uncle in his doctoral dissertation:

Like most Middle Eastern towns,... ['Arrabi] is built on the ruins of several previous settlements. Occupation of the site, however, has not been interrupted for the last two thousand years. Several wars brought destruction, but it was always immediately rebuilt.

... The first historical source ... to mention a town in the location ... is the book Milhamot Ha-Hashmoneam (i.e., the Hasmonean Wars), connecting it with Jonathan, a leader of a Jewish army rebelling against the Seleucids. During the rule of Herod it became the third largest town in the whole Galilee and was surrounded with a wall. In the year 67 AD it was destroyed by the Roman forces under the ruling governor and all its population were killed.

During the Byzantine rule, the town was inhabited by Christians and recently (1969) the ruins of a church from that period were uncovered near the present existing church. It is believed that the town was an important administrative seat during this period.

Since the coming of the Arabs to the area, it has been mainly an Arab Moslem town. It existed during the Crusaders' period and is mentioned in maps from that period under its present name.

During the Mamluk period ['Arrabi] again assumed importance and became the seat of a large district.

The period in the history of ['Arrabi] of which its people are most conscious and most proud is that of Zahir al-Umar, the Bedouin who dominated the political life of Northern Palestine for nearly 40 years, from 1737-1775. Zahir al-Umar was a member of the Zeydani Bedouin tribe that lived for a while close to ['Arrabi], raiding the neighboring Druze village of Salama in revenge against a Druze chief who married a Moslem girl from 'Arrabi by force....

In 1710, Zahir al-Umar was authorized by the Ottoman authorities to collect the taxes from 'Arrabi and the neighboring villages. Soon he turned the area into his own feudal domain, recruited an army from these villages and conquered additional areas. The building he constructed, from which he ruled, is still standing in ['Arrabi] and carries his name. Later he shifted his capital to Tiberias and later to Acre, from which he ruled the whole northern part of the country.

After Zahir al-Umar left 'Arrabi, it slipped back into insignificance, from which it started to re-emerge only after the beginning of the twentieth century.

According to the UN decision of 1947, to divide Palestine into an Arab and a Jewish state, 'Arrabi was supposed to belong to the Arab section. It was, however, occupied without war by Israel in 1948. (Kanaana 1976: 55-56)

Yet from the vantage point of the present day, this complex history is sometimes evoked as mythically Islamic or as mythically brotherly and religiously tolerant. For Palestinians in the Galilee now, the events of 1948 are not just another in a long series of events; from this vantage point 1948 seems like a watershed year, after which everything changed. My grandmother revered one of the small shrines in the center of the village as the shrine of a holy man. Today, having been "reclaimed" by religious Jews and surrounded by a locked fence to protect it from the people who a few years earlier had revered it, it is considered Jewish. I was never taught that Salama used to be a Druze village-Wadi Sallama today is a Bedouin village. While the information is somewhere in the history books, it is not on the minds of most people in my village. The Israeli school system never taught me about the Islamic era in Palestine, which lasted about 1,300 years; it tried to keep that out of my mind. And my Communist cousins taught me about the feudalism of that era as they knew of it, especially after the eighteenth century, reinserting it into history and making me look at it in a new way.

I present this autobiographical information to introduce myself to you as your guide through this book, but also as an illustration of how diverse and plural the Galilee is, and yet how certain patterns can run through it. The Galilee contains Muslims, Christians, Druze, and Jews, small villages, large cities, and Bedouin settlements, people that belong to different lineages and possess different amounts of wealth-all categories that people identify with at different moments.


Excerpted from BIRTHING THE NATION by RHODA ANN KANAANEH Copyright © 2002 by Regents of the University of California. Excerpted by permission.
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Table of Contents

List of illustrations
Foreword by Hanan Ashrawi
Introduction. Placing
Chapter 1. Babies and Boundaries
Chapter 2. Luxurious Necessities
Chapter 3. Fertile Differences
Chapter 4. Modernizing the Body
Chapter 5. Son Preference

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