Saturday, January 22, 2011

An Exaggerated Sense of Deprivation

If, wanting to know more about Israel’s increased razing of Bedouin villages in the Negev this year, you visit the electronic home of the Israeli Foreign Ministry, you will see a curious piece of writing called “The Bedouin in Israel.” It’s dated 1999 and is by a Yosef Ben-David, who is identified as an associate researcher at the Jerusalem Institute of Israel Studies but is no longer at that institution (a think tank). The document doesn’t reveal anything new—even by 1999 standards—about the situation of Bedouin in the Negev, and as a nonexpert, I bring it up not to perform a scholarly analysis but to reflect on the tensions of enunciation that appear in it, and which may call out specifically to the casual reader.

It can’t be a surprise that this officially approved account of relations between the State of Israel and its Bedouin population does not really count Bedouins as Israelis. “Bedouin citizens” are described as though their citizenship has not yet made them into Israelis. Their ongoing “integration” is assumed as an imperative, and Bedouins are said to be resisting to a greater or lesser degree—greater in the Negev, lesser in northern Israel—because of the “‘natural’ difficulties experienced by this cultural group.” Involuntary verbs bear too much weight: the transition “entails relinquishing values, customs and a traditional economy”; “the Bedouin have to cope with the process of urbanization”; “it became necessary to move an airport to a locality inhabited by 5000 Bedouin,” and so forth. Unlike the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs, however—to make a rather random comparison to another agency historically responsible for the impact of colonial settlement on indigenous populations—the Foreign Ministry is personal and hectoring, as though the website were a place to air grievances and international readers could be sympathetic referees. Ben-David’s paternalism is overweening, but it may be more remarkable that he insists on telling us—an audience assumed to be composed of visitors from the English-literate West—all about it, and that this presumes, in turn, that Bedouins themselves are not reading. It is not a matter of course that the role of Foreign Ministry literature as such is to offer (tendentious) facts about domestic groups to the outside. The U.S. Department of State website is not filled with demographic tidbits about U.S. populations, much less opinions about their anthropological stages. It explains U.S. positions and initiatives on other world regions. The Bureau of Indian Affairs makes a demographic report on the state of the tribes available, but any ideological bias in what it’s doing is buried in the particulars of its quantitative methodology; there is not a colorful adjective in the entire text, and the BIA knows better than to attempt a historical overview. You understand I’m not praising the State Department or the BIA; I’m saying that they write differently. The generic possibility that a ten-year-old soft-social science text by an individual researcher could be on the website is out of the question. A ten-year-old piece that points to the “increased attention” the issue has been receiving “in recent years” is embarrassing before it has even said anything.

But then it does start to “speak,” and the oral metaphor, which I don’t usually like in dealing with any writing, is for once apropos. Although there is no literal first person in the text, against the norms of government literature this text is far too close up. Ben-David wants international readers to be impressed by his omniscient view of Bedouin conditions and perspective, and has a egotistic faith in the ability of individual “expert” testimony to legitimate authority: the “last two governments,” he assures us, were “well aware of the difficulties of the Bedouin and based on a thorough knowledge of the subject . . . have begun taking steps to solve the problems.” He becomes confidential. He’s in our intimate space, and has been in Bedouin heads. “The Bedouin to some extent fail to distinguish between objective difficulties and those connected with their changing sub-culture and thus feel an exaggerated sense of deprivation,” he opines. He is even in a position to tell us what the Bedouin cannot, since “the Bedouin themselves have difficulty in articulating their wishes in planning terms.” A Bedouin woman who goes to a hospital for delivery not only is “eligible for a grant” but will receive “unaccustomed pampering.” Northern Bedouin have “pleasant social and political relations with their Jewish neighbors,” conditions that, Ben-David notes with schadenfreude, do not obtain in Arab villages (“Israeli Bedouin enjoy conditions that their [Arab] brethren lack”). So governmental policy implementation is also, complementarily, invested with affective attitudes: “tents and light structures . . . built illegally are treated forgivingly”; “Israel's attitude towards its Bedouin citizens has always been positive”; Northern Bedouin join the armed forces “believing that the Jewish state would be generous to them,” and indeed, as a result of their assimilation and especially their military service, “the Bedouin in the North are rewarded with a friendly attitude, both from the establishment and from Jewish society at large.” What does it mean that Ben-David wants to characterize state policy by its attitude? The structural inequity of the relation modeled is blatantly racist; only one side is considered able to judge and condition the other, and to define what constitutes “the willingness and goodwill of both partners.” Yet what Ben-David wants the policies to be evaluated on instead—their sentiments—is equally blatantly racist, and nothing makes this clearer than characterizing state policy as “forgiving” or “generous.” The oddity is that Ben-David, and the Israeli Foreign Ministry by keeping his text on the public record, does not do what the BIA does and simply not mention history at all. Rather, he insists on drawing our attention to the psychological, resentful, intimate manner in which racism toward Bedouins subsists. And why does he do that? Because he believes that he is speaking to interested, English-speaking Westerners as friends and equals; he really hopes we will agree, since we have so much in common and all. The rhetoric here would be impossible without triangulation. Ben-David’s disdain for Bedouin Israelis is the other side of his trust in his audience, as he constructs it; he craves its forbearance, if not its approval, despite the state’s land restrictions’ being “at times depicted in the media as cruel.” To that extent, the display of racism (as opposed to the racism itself), in the form of would-be conspiratorial superiority, is a kind of gift offered up to us.

This text hits the note of the commandant in Kafka’s “In the Penal Colony”—that of pretending to admire for our benefit rusty equipment all too familiar to local administrators. It’s haplessly blind to the reader’s modern taste for gleaming corporate prose and easy multiculturalism. Not anomalously so; being in its eleventh year of official status, this text has been copied all over the place, for example by tour sites that reappropriate its vulgarity with fresh obliviousness. As in “The Penal Colony,” we want to detach these provincial fingers from our sleeve. And as in the story, we turn away and cast off without any further regard for those we stop thinking of.

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