Birthing the Nation: Strategies of Palestinian Women in Israel

Birthing the Nation: Strategies of Palestinian Women in Israel

by Rhoda 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: 9780520927278
Publisher: University of California Press
Publication date: 06/28/2002
Series: California Series in Public Anthropology , #2
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 300
Lexile: 1300L (what's this?)
File size: 3 MB

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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Birthing the Nation

Strategies of Palestinian Women in Israel

By Rhoda Ann Kanaaneh


Copyright © 2002 the Regents of the University of California
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-520-92727-8


Babies and Boundaries

What is the significance of population and reproduction in thinking, creating, and sustaining the Israeli nation-state? To answer that question I first explore the connections between demography and modern nationalism and present population policies as technologies of power intrinsic to recent conceptions of the nation-state, ones with powerful race, class, and gender implications. Using this theoretical framework, I reflect on the history of political arithmetic in the development of the state of Israel specifically, as well as in the growth of Palestinian nationalism without a state apparatus. With the Galilee in mind, I demonstrate how imaginings of the nation attempt to inscribe the bodies of women and men in new ways, with certain effects on reproductive discourses and practices among Palestinians in the Galilee.


In Technologies of the Self, Michel Foucault observes that in late eighteenth-century Europe, "the care for individual life [becomes] ... a duty for the state." He notes that an obscure book of 1779 by J. P. Frank is "the first great systematic program of public health for the modern state. It indicates with a lot of detail what an administration has to do to insure the wholesome food, good housing, health care, and medical institutions which the population needs to remain healthy; in short, to foster the life of individuals." Oddly, this new care for the individual and fostering of life coexists with increasingly larger "destructive mechanisms," such as those used in war. This puzzling antinomy may be understood through the "reason of the state" developed during this period, whereby the state becomes "a kind of natural object" (Foucault 1988: 147, 151).

The art of governing becomes intimately bound up with the development of what was called at that moment "political arithmetic": "statistics ... related ... to the knowledge of the state." Individuals become an object of concern to the extent that they are relevant to the state's strength: "From the state's point of view, the individual exists insofar as what he does is able to introduce even a minimal change in the strength of the state.... And sometimes what he has to do for the state is to live, to work, to produce, to consume; and sometimes what he has to do is to die" (ibid.: 151, 152). And I would add to Foucault's list that sometimes what the individual has to do—particularly the female individual—is to reproduce or stop reproducing.

During the eighteenth century, the Ottoman Empire, which included the areas that today are Palestine and Israel, did not use such technologies. State power was not measured by political arithmetic, as it was beginning to be measured in European states. According to Abraham Marcus, state power in the Ottoman Empire was measured instead by the success of government institutions in defending the realm against external attack and in extracting taxes. The authorities "maintained no systematic medical or education records; no registration of births, deaths, marriages, and divorces; no data on incomes or employment; and no cadastral surveys or construction records. Such information was not deemed essential to the tasks of governance" (1989: 76, 77). It was not until the late nineteenth century that Ottoman modernization efforts created a more comprehensive population registry (McCarthy 1990: 2) that transformed counting "from an instrument of taxes to an instrument of knowledge" (Richard Smith quoted in Appadurai 1993). With this new conception of the state, power is more diffuse, encoded on the bodies of citizens.

According to Beshara Doumani:

People counting, essentially, was an exercise in hegemony that involved the (re)definition of the individual's place in the Ottoman polity and the use of knowledge to facilitate greater control. In this sense, population counts, perhaps more than any other single administrative action of the Ottoman authorities during the Tanzimat period, had a dramatic effect in that they literally touched the majority of the local population in one brief, but comprehensive sweep. (1994: 13)

Moreover, this new formulation of state power in Europe was accompanied by the rise of new sciences and political technologies created "to observe people in quantitative contexts." The dictionary meaning of the word "population" shifted away from the verb (to people) and became an object that denotes "a natural entity, an issue about which neutral statements can be made, an object open to human control and management" (Duden 1992: 148, 146; see also Hartmann 1995: 24). A new language thus emerged to "marginalistically integrate individuals in the state's utility" (Foucault 1988: 153). William Petty, the seventeenth-century ancestor of statistics, "conceived the idea of quantifying society"; he wrote that "instead of using only comparative and superlative words, and intellectual arguments, I ... express myself in terms of Number, Weight and Measure" (quoted in Duden 1992: 147).

Interestingly, these new technologies were often created on the colonial frontiers rather than in Europe, in order to manage and supervise subjugated populations (Comaroff and Comaroff 1991; Mitchell 1988: 40; Stoler 1997). For example, one of the early acts of the British colonial administration after the military occupation of Egypt in 1882 was to set up a central office to organize the official registration of births in every Egyptian village. While the immediate purpose of this counting was to organize recruitment into the army, it had a wider value:

The new methods of power sought to police, supervise and instruct the population individually. It was a power that wanted to work with 'known individuals' and 'noted characters,' who were to be registered, counted, inspected and reported upon.... The new medico-statistical practices adopted from the armed forces provided a language of the body—its number, its condition, its improvement, its protection—in terms of which political power might operate. (Mitchell 1988: 98)

Benedict Anderson similarly describes the census as an essential institution of power that arose in the mid-nineteenth century and "profoundly shaped the way in which the colonial state imagined its dominion." Nineteenth-century census takers constructed ethnic racial classifications and systematically quantified them. Anderson argues that these racialized identity categories betray "the census-makers' passion for completeness and unambiguity. Hence their intolerance of multiple, politically 'transvestite,' blurred or changing identifications.... The fiction of the census is that everyone is in it, and that everyone has one—and only one—extremely clear place" (1991: 164, 166). Moreover, the invented categories of the census began to shape societies and in a sense become "real":

Guided by its imagined map, [the colonial state] organized the new education, juridical, public-health, police, and immigration bureaucracies it was building on the principle of ethno-racial hierarchies.... The flow of subject populations through the mesh of differential schools, courts, clinics, police stations and immigration offices created 'traffic-habits' which in time gave real social life to the state's earlier fantasies. (Ibid.: 169; emphasis added)

Census taking was and continues to be "one of the basic rituals of state formation" (Patriarca 1994: 361). As Ian Hacking notes, "counting is no mere report of developments. It elaborately ... creates new ways for people to be" (1986: 223). By transforming humans into counted "populations," statistical sciences made it possible "to uncover general truths about mass phenomena even though the cause of each particular action was unknown and remained inaccessible." These sciences reduce people to manageable entities that can allegedly be controlled for the "common good" (Duden 1992: 146, 148). In addition to racial categories, population experts, theoreticians, and planners create labels such as "underdeveloped," "malnourished," and "illiterate" (Escobar 1984: 387). These "counting conventions" (Cussins 1998: 2) then structure the encounter between the state or organization and its "citizens" in such a way that the latter's local realities are "transcended and elaborated upon by the former." The techniques that population studies use for organizing and labeling people and their problems make them manageable for the discipline. These people are then obliged "to maneuver within the limits posed by the institutions" (Escobar 1988: 435).

Most notably, with the rise of population control lobbies in the 1970s, sexual behavior has become a matter of public policy whereby governments and institutions attempt to change the most intimate sexual behavior of millions of people. Population growth came to be considered an essential factor in "developing" the Third World, but soon "not the hope of development but the fear of global disaster gave a new motivation to the attempts at population control" (Duden 1992: 153). Citizens and their bodies, particularly female, nonwhite, and poor bodies, are thus seen as vessels of population growth that must be controlled. Even if one were to agree that continual global population growth is undesirable, the dominant articulation of this belief remains racist, classist, and sexist: it holds poor nonwhite women responsible for impending global catastrophe and claims that the world's very survival depends on containing their reproduction (rather than on, say, limiting levels of consumption or industrial expansion in developed countries, or raising the standard of living for people in the Third World). Political arithmetic is often a highly racialized, classed, and gendered form of knowledge/power.

Still, the coherence and totalizing power of such projects can be overestimated. Population policies are frequently unsuccessful, at least by their stated goals: more often than not the fetishized statistics of population fail to demonstrate the desired changes, as population experts frequently and nervously observe. The desired production of "manageable" subjects often seems to remain elusive. Derek Sayer reminds us that a project such as the state "is a claim that in its very name attempts to give unity, coherence, structure, [purposiveness, and rationality] to what are in practice frequently disunited, fragmented attempts at domination." He asks us to pose four crucial questions: "First, how cohesive historically are hegemonic projects? Second, even if they are cohesive at some level—of intellectuality—how cohesive are they when actually translated into practice? Third, even if these projects are successful at both levels, how confining are they, anyway? And fourth, who is the audience for this performance? Or are we just dealing with stories the elites tell themselves?" (1994: 371).

These questions are paramount in examining how population projects have played out in Israel: How cohesive have population projects in Israel been, intellectually and in practice? What conflicts within and between elites go on behind the mask of the state? Do these disciplines achieve their stated goal and, if not, do they succeed in other unintended ways? Do they empower, oppress, or both? Who is the audience and is anyone listening? How do different people within the Palestinian community deal with these official discourses and practices? Do people challenge one hegemonic project through another?


While Zionist ideology was neither monolithic nor static, for the most part it became increasingly popular, especially among Eastern European Jews, around the turn of the twentieth century and revolved around the idea of creating a homeland for the Jews in Palestine. By virtue of such a goal, 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.

The very definition of the Zionist state, as of most other nationalisms, is based on demography and numbers, but the settler colonial history of the creation of the state of Israel heightens this obsession, as well as its consequences. These include the expulsion and dispersion of the majority of the Palestinian people, referred to by Zionists as "de-Arabization" or the "demographic purge," as well as "Judaization" through "the most active immigration policy in modern history" (Friedlander and Goldscheider 1979: xviii), which settled Jews in Palestine against the explicit opposition of the indigenous community. These processes became foundational for Zionist philosophy and "were necessary requirements for the success of the Zionist enterprise" (Kanaana 1992: 47). The calculation of the ratio of Jews to "Arabs" and the often violent separation, rigidification, and essentializing of these identities is a cornerstone of the imagined community of Israel.

To achieve such a nation, Zionists needed to go to great lengths. Zachary Lockman observes that "Zionism was—had to be—not simply a conventional nationalist movement but a colonizing and settlement movement as well" (1996: 27). Although it is sometimes argued that most Zionists were unaware of the existence of the Arab population at the time they were making plans for the region, recently declassified archives and diaries make it clear that Zionist leaders in fact quickly became highly preoccupied with what was referred to as the "Arab problem" (Said 1988: 239). The image of Palestine as an empty, neglected wasteland, exemplified by the slogan "Land without people for a people without land," was constructed through the colonialist cultural tools that were at the disposal of European Zionists. Although there were dissenting voices, their ultimate marginality demonstrates that Zionism's attitude toward Palestinians "had less to do with ignorance than with a particular way of knowing and a particular kind of knowledge" prevalent in Europe at the time—that of colonialism (Lockman 1996: 36). Hence, "because the Zionist movement was committed to the transformation of Palestine into a 'mono-religious' Jewish state, its success required it to be as intent on the destruction of the indigenous Arab society as it was on the construction of a Jewish life in Palestine" (Said 1988: 238). The marginalization of other people is frequently built into nationalist ideologies rather than accidental or coincidental.

In 1880 about 25,000 Jews lived in the area of Palestine (Friedlander and Goldscheider 1979: 15). Since then, starting in the late Ottoman period, the Zionist movement and the Israeli state have carried out an active immigration policy and today nearly 4 million Jews live in the area. The common Zionist belief that Israel "should be demographically homogeneous" (Flapan 1987: 7) also required de-Arabization of the region. Even before World War I, when Jews accounted for about 8 percent of the area's population, some Zionist leaders suggested that Palestinians be transferred to adjacent Arab countries (Wiemer 1983: 30). At the 1937 Zionist Congress in Zurich, "the idea of transfer was accepted by most of the high-ranking Zionist leaders and became a formal policy" (Shahak 1989: 23). Imbued by a culture that saw non-European peoples as inferior, Zionists were able to construct the inhabitants of Palestine as marginal, as a motley collection of people (rather than as an ethnos or nation), and therefore as movable (Lockman 1996: 35). While a minority dissented, according to Simha Flapan (a Zionist historian), this view reflected the "long standing attitude of the majority of Israel's political and intellectual elite and the great majority of the masses of Jews in Israel" (1987: 12–13). Even moderate Zionists who are appalled by the idea of transfer continue to conceive of the conflict as a "demographic" or "population" problem. In 1937 David Ben-Gurion declared that the "idea of transfer—which immediately outraged the Arabs—was morally and ethically justified, nothing more than the continuation of the natural process taking place, as Jews displaced Arabs" (quoted in ibid.: 16). And I believe Ben-Gurion was insightful in seeing the connection between transfer and nationalism. Given the importance of political arithmetic for sustaining the nation-state, transfer is an extreme yet logical and expedient solution, one that has been implemented elsewhere in the world (e.g., Greece, Turkey, India, Pakistan).

Population transfer plans continued to be drawn up and supported by major figures throughout the history of Israel (Masalha 1997). And while transfer was never officially carried through as such in Palestine, the goals of transfer were achieved largely by other means. In October 1948 the transfer committee appointed by Ben-Gurion recommended that Arabs should number no more than 15 percent of Israel's total population (Flapan 1987: 16). This figure is, in fact, not far from the current percentage of Palestinians living inside Israel "proper" today.


Excerpted from Birthing the Nation by Rhoda Ann Kanaaneh. Copyright © 2002 the Regents of the University of California. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS.
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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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