Iron, Lion, Zion

Groundbreaking, this new study of racialization and reggae among Ethiopian youth in Israel

"Between Reggae and Rap: The Integration Challenge of Ethiopian Youth in Israel," by Malka Shabtai, Tcherikover Publishers, Ltd., 294 pages, NIS 94

In the mid-1980s academic discourse about expatriates and diasporas underwent a process of racialization. This process reflected the critical contribution of scholars of culture who had immigrated to Western Europe and the United States from Third-World countries. These intellectuals felt committed to bearing on their backs the burden of representing the racialized (and the non-white) in the Western public arena, which until then had been defined as monochromatic, as it was fastidious in its whiteness.

Until then, this liberalism had been the only default option, to which a Jamaican from the Cardiff shipyards or a Franco-North African street-sweeper in Cannes had to aspire if he wanted to get on in life. These processes of critical racialization skipped almost entirely over the academic discourse on expatriates and diasporas in Israel, perhaps because of the systematic exclusion of racialized subjects from the Israeli academic faculty club.

Malka Shabtai's book, "Between Reggae and Rap: The Integration Challenge of Ethiopian Youth in Israel," is therefore a breakthrough in Israeli anthropology. The book describes in great detail the club culture of Ethiopian youth in Israel, which is based on transatlantic, world-embracing black music from the Caribbean Islands through Harlem and London to Nigeria. Shabtai sensitively sets forth this experience of musical identification, global but definitely not white, through the biographies of young people who are addicted to it. This focus on the racialized global phenomenon diverts the nice talk about immigration and assimilation ("aliyah" and "absorption") to the current anthropological interest in the potential for opposition to the mainstream arena and its white default option. Such a force is created by exiles and immigrants networked into transnational identities.

These people are rewriting the experience of uprooting and dispersion into borders that run between poor and wealthy neighborhoods of supposedly Western communities and identities, on cyberspace fibers, in the lines that stretch at border crossings, during the hours of flight time that divide the management from the workers in the textile industry areas in Jordan, or on the high-tech production lines on the border between Mexico and the United States.

Emmanuel, the narrator, says this succinctly: "I grew up in Ashdod ... I grew up on Bob Marley ... things like Tina Turner ... All the other blacks in the world - I resemble them first of all because I'm black, and I'm a brother just like them" (pp. 57-58). And Yehuda gives it to us straight: "Racism is that `we have accepted the Ethiopian ethnic group' but are trying to eject it ... When the time comes we will know how to take revenge on this country" (p. 123).

In order to reassure the readers, perhaps, after statements like these that derive from the life of Ethiopian-Israeli youth, and the escape from it that they find in black music, Shabtai has chosen Dr. Palti Stavi, the director-general of the Association for the Advancement of Education, to issue a kashrut certificate by writing the preface. Stavi tells us about "the greatness of the miracle of absorption ... the integration of people who come from strange and distant lands straight into a modern society that is achievement-oriented and developing," where the Pal-Kal floors collapse along with the public libraries and the stability of the government. Perhaps he is asking us "not to get drunk on the success" in absorbing the Ethiopians, and adds in parentheses: "Indeed it [the miracle of absorption] does indeed exist - in a big way!" (p.11)

Like any good ethnographer, Shabtai begins her story with the scene of her arrival in the research field: "I ... find myself making my way in a taxi ... to the Soweto Club in Tel Aviv ... alone ... perplexed at the sight of the young people I met. Girls in revealing, tight, white clothing ... grappling with their partners ... the boys decked in heavy gold chains ... I returned home reeking of smoke and with the music reverberating in my head. And this is the beginning" (pp. 21-23).

It is a pity that afterward Shabtai ignores her own text, instead of sharing with her readers the problematics of the anthropological fieldwork.

The subject-position of the anthropologist used to be the blending of his individual biography with the national, class and ethnic-racial privilege he had brought from the university to the research field. Throughout the book I wanted to know how Shabtai mends the rift between this subject-position and her responsibility for representing the racialized. The sense of something gone awry increased when I saw Shabtai's picture on the back of the book. She could have passed the litmus test of being "a member of a minority."

The female anthropologist who is self-aware as a member of a deprived group has the possibility of scrambling the harmonious subject-position of the anachronistic researcher (the white male, as the default option) and reformulate it as a conflict. Take, for example, the identity of Shalva, from the study, who said to Shabtai: "People didn't grasp what happened to the Jews from the Muslim countries and did exactly the same thing to the Ethiopians" (p. 138). Is Shabtai aware of the social significance of her dark skin and black curls as phenotypical aids to the study of the data? Or must the awareness of her dark complexion be repressed, in order not to deny her the academic authority that lurks behind the intimacy created in "the field" between the colonial researcher and the objects of his research?

And despite this anachronistic lack, reading the book is fascinating. One axis of the plot surveys the entrance of Ethiopian youth into the reggae and rap scene in Israel. This began as conscientious patronizing by the club owners. There were also sex, drugs and violence. There were white DJs. Black DJs. Bezalel says: "It was all mixed up together there - Africans and Israelis and freaks and tough guys ... I was still religious. I was studying at a yeshiva" (p. 77). He continues: Before that, the scene was controlled by "Ashkenazim, what you could call people from North Tel Aviv"(p. 78) seeking exotica without having to backpack. When an entire generation of "blue and white" Ethiopian young people had grown up here, it sought its trans-African identity. This identity, which cannot become a part of the supposedly Western public arena, had been taken from them by those good souls who were involved in the knotty bureaucracy that goes along with supposedly ideological immigration.

Shabtai illuminates the historical connection between Bob Marley and the Rastafarian movement and the imperial reign of Haile Sellassie, as it has been expressed in music. This connection anchors the search for identity by the expatriate Ethiopian young people in the Israeli diaspora. "I would like to see all the beauty that has in effect been eradicated," says Emmanuel (p. 88). And then, as in the banal scenario of a society with a racial hierarchy wherever it may be, "There's a problem with them ... They drink a little and they already become violent ... When people see Ethiopians in a club, they won't come, quite simply. It's a kind of honor among Ashkenazim, among the people from North Tel Aviv, to go out somewhere where the people will be of the sort he's looking for. He's not looking for Ethiopians, they're not at his IQ level" (p. 78). This is how Ethiopian youth acted on the black music scene in Israel.

A second axis of the book turns on the ways black music serves Ethiopian-Israeli young people as "an anchor of symbolic identity and belonging" on the one hand and as a basis for an "ideology of alienation" on the other. Shabtai reveals to us the everyday racism in Israel, which leads to disappointment and accumulating anger among the young people. "After all, the state of Israel is supposed to be the state of the Jews. Any Jew, regardless of whether he is back or white," says Shalva. (p. 118). Then they embark on an imaginary journey in search of the sources of the Nile. They put down roots that are thick with smoke, alcohol, drunkenness, knife-fights and rape, in clubs in the industrial zones at the edges of Israeli cities. And here are the symbols of the homeland: "Zippora has a shirt in the colors of the Ethiopian flags ... Yael has an outfit in the colors of the Jamaican flag" (p.100); "They wear rapper clothes and play gangsters ... They think they're in Harlem. To feel cool, like" (p. 166).

The Ethiopian-Israelis repeatedly confront the fact that their phenotype is beyond the bounds of the Israeli debate on the issue of how a Jew should look. For Gideon, even the "Arab" is more Jewish-Israeli than he is, because the Arab is white and he is black (p. 140). However, when some of them are sent as a worn token of Israeli tolerance on a propaganda mission to the United States to show the Americans how it is possible there to mend the rent between the Jewish and black communities, Menachem informs us: "First of all, I put on a skullcap, so they wouldn't think I was one of the Americans and I really did feel superior to them" (p. 141).

In the book Shabtai tries to weave two additional subjects into the discussion of music as an Ethiopian-Israeli resource: a discussion of intra-Ethiopian gender identity that is being formulated as part of the club culture, and a discussion that determines that Ethiopian-Israeli identity is "adopted, post-modern" (p. 146) - this, despite the extensive quotations from all the young people who share their experiences and thoughts with Shabtai, testify to exactly the opposite. The poet of the Harlem renaissance, Langston Hughes, said that his identity was written on his skin like a burn. The Israeli-Ethiopians too tell Shabtai that identity is inherent in the body. These discussions of Shabtai's, which are not seamlessly interwoven throughout the book but are offered as a sort of fashionable accessory in one of the chapters, detract from the value of the document as testimony about the impossible trap of integration-assimilation (hmmm ... aliyah and absorption? The melting pot?) in which the racialized subject finds himself. And we haven't yet really spoken about his wife, but more about that later.

Meanwhile, we have the third axis, in which, through her sensitive presentations of the objects of her research, Shabtai weaves the personal, social and educational ties of the club youth to Israeli society. This presentation, too, testifies to the astonishing frankness in the relationship between Shabtai and the "research population." On the book cover Shabtai is presented as an applied anthropologist. Therefore she suggests several solutions, supposedly practical, that involve the integration of Ethiopian youth into the heart of Israeli culture through rehabilitative or elitist or educational institutions, and through the army. "Simply to mix them ... to separate all the Ethiopians where there are concentrations ... to try to attach to every Ethiopian someone who will help him ... for example from the yeshiva, from the school," proposes Yisrael, a student at a scientific yeshiva and a devoted clubber (p. 258). And perhaps the integration should be accomplished through musical education, muses Shabtai. She recommends these solutions half-heartedly and the reader finds such Utopian fantasies ridiculous in a world where ethnicity or race, which at the same time constitute another way of saying socio-economic status, are engraved like tattoos on the public arena.

And they cannot be excised by laser surgery. Take, for example, the young girl Dorit, formerly a member of a gang of burglars, who spoke to Shabtai after she had spent time in a "rehabilitative" institution: "Ever since fourth grade I've hated all the whites ... The scariest thing was to break into a store ... one near the villas ... just because I wanted some candy" (pp. 228-230). These harsh words, just a few among the many in the book, express the impossible economic gaps between rich and poor in Israel, which allow for no "rehabilitation" at all of the Israeli-Ethiopian, whether the immigration-absorption system defines him as alienated, or whether it accepts him into an elite military unit.

In the context of the compromises that applied anthropologists employed by national institutions have to make, "rehabilitation," according to Shabtai, is a synonym for "the realization of the dream of the immigration from Ethiopia to Israel ... which is giving way to a dream no less grand than its predecessor that poses a great challenge to Israeli society" (p. 266). Rehabilitation, you said? That we should instill in the Israeli-Ethiopian youth the art of survival of the racialized minority, with its distressed economic situation, through internalizing the values of the replete majority that defines the occurrences in the public arena? But the racialized minority is never able to be like the majority, even if it is a superb pantomime artist. Even if, as Shabtai suggests, it gets music education from newly-observant rappers. Obviously, then, the problem inherent in the Israeli public arena is that the very same people who zealously guard its gates also belong to a secular ethnic-economic group - post-Zionist and leftist. In short, elites, as former prime minister Benjamin "Bibi" Netanyahu, himself a denizen of the prosperous Rehavia neighborhood of Jerusalem, put it.

And just as the anthropologist exists in her book through her absence, also absent from it are these enlightened elites, who dominate the lives of the Ethiopians and others by remote control.

I read this book twice, because I was looking feverishly in it for Paul Gilroy. The spirit of the British Rasta who holds a chair at Yale University, a brilliant DJ who is among the coterie of students of the father of cultural studies, Stuart Hall - hovers over the book like sex without orgasm. His name appears only in the bibliography at the end, even though his monumental work dealing with the dual consciousness of the African diaspora guides Shabtai's choice of most of the ethnographic material she has included in the book. Perhaps she hesitated to cite him because then she would have had to deal thoroughly, not only from the smoke-filled clubs, but also from her air-conditioned office, with his arguments about the trans-nationalism of black identity. This identity is formed through the experience of the horror of slavery that is intertwined with the failure of modernity, because modern humanity has been celebrated in the theaters and literary salons (i.e. the elites) on the bodies of non-white women and men.

The experience of uprooting, exile and the culture of diasporas develop after the failure, which challenges the idea of a "public-civil arena" at the same time as there is a creative multi-local recycling of forms of cultural expression. This kind of recycling of culture was created, for example, in the literature written in Paris by the expatriate group of the negritude movement, which included intellectuals from the United States, the Caribbean and Africa, as well as in the rap clubs of London, the dance halls of Jamaica and Caribbean Nicaragua or the distribution of Billie Holliday's recordings. The development of the black diaspora culture along transatlantic lines that make a patchwork of "race" and "nationality" is what has given rise to resistance movements and negotiations over civil equality.

Gilroy's work, incidentally, is the best criticism written to date of Habermas, without needing to have recourse to the radical linguistic contortions of the best French conservative post-modernism. It is a pity that Shabtai does not cite him. This same dual consciousness - Ethiopian youth betwixt black and Ashkenazi, African and Israeli, Ethiopian and Jewish, youth that lives between the fun of being a hybrid, in motion, able to find release in the club and to join the revolt of the world's oppressed, but within the local danger in which homogeneity, deprivation, forced limitations and the violence of ignoring are the establishment's daily bread - runs through Shabtai's book like a leitmotif, just as it runs through the entire transatlantic complex from which Gilroy's theory was derived.

Shabtai's next task is the translation into English - that colonial language of academic research - of the frank ethnography she has written. Certainly she deserves professional advancement and so on. As of now, this fascinating book is likely to encounter the Western academic yawn that greets so many of the trendy (here) academic studies about Israeli identity that are translated from Hebrew into English.

During the 1980s, when the faculty club was racialized, anthropology suffered a crisis of representation because of the absolute exposure of intimate connection that it had with colonialism. During the 1990s it was reformulated. Nevertheless, its core - now de-colonized - remained based on a fabric of three kinds of research and writing, not a single text: the representation of the life and words of the people with whom the anthropologist shares his or her life for the sake of the research; the comparison of the culture she researches to other cultures in the region, or the comparison of cultural phenomena she is studying to similar phenomena elsewhere in the world; theoretical-conclusive writing , which is derived from the empirical fieldwork in its comparative aspect, as well as from theoretical works on culture(s).

Many contemporary studies on Israeliness as multi-culturalism, which are written in Hebrew, assume that we are an isolated nation unto ourselves, and that our researchers have invented the wheel. To please the fastidious reader who follows the professional journals from abroad, they patch trendy abstract theory written in white Americo-Europe, replete with leftist guilt, into Israeli materials that are as distant from this theory as Silicon Valley is from Ashdod. No crisis of representation and no nothing. Julia Kristeva and/or Norma Alarcon? Francois Lyotard and/or Franz Fanon? Gershon Shaked and/or Ammiel Alcalay? And were Shabtai to recognize quotation as a political act, perhaps she would not have been afraid to flow with the theoretical glossing of the painful words spoken to her by the subjects of her study.

It is collegial hostility, which derives from the absence of racialized subjects from the faculty club of Israeli academia, that has been applying the "moderate physical pressure" to any possibility of the theoretization of this wonderful ethnography. Instead, Shabtai uses the language of hysterical conclusions: "Revealed here is the dream (of the Ethiopians) of real and full integration into Israeli society, of the possibility of being together, in faith, in love, as a bridge and a crossing of borders. These profound feelings are the anchor that can be grasped in order to bring the young people to the shores of the promised land, at this time of stormy tempests that are coming down on them in the middle of the ocean of their adolescence" (p. 216).

And back to the wife of the racialized subject. Most of the literature that deals with the explosive juncture created by the discourse on the national and the civil on the one hand and the integrative discourse on gender, sex, social status and ethno-racial ascription on the other - has been written for the most part about non-white women, and by non-white female researchers - the Indo-Chinese Anna Tsing, the Iraqi-Israeli Ella Shohat, Angela Davis of the Black Panthers, who has been given a chair at the University of California, Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak in a modest sari or motorcycle gear, Chela Sandoval the Latina who dared to argue with Frederic Jameson and won, Lila Abu-Lughod, the daughter of Ibrahim Abu-Lughod and Janet Lippman - I am intentionally mentioning only some of the names, so you can look for more.

Shabtai's study is in dire need of insights derived from this literature, if only in order to analyze the gender relations inside the Ethiopian-Israeli clubs, something that Shabtai does without any theoretical or comparative anchor. The feminization of masculinity in the Ethiopian clubs, which is expressed in excessive violent masculinity and the polarization of role distribution between the sexes, cries out from the book, but remains without scientific analysis.

And believe it or not, the club culture has caught the entire Middle East in its grip. Young people caper to the sounds of Saida Sultana (who is our Dana!) in Cairo, wiggle to the sounds of Snoop Doggy Dogg and Egyptian house in Damascus, in techno clubs with Eminem in Beirut, and dances in the underground with Rai (or in French, Rap Arab) even in Algeria. Therefore, the Ethiopian-Israelis really do not deviate from the regional norm, not to mention the black music clubs in Soweto, San Francisco and Sidney. These youth culture phenomena, as well as the research that follows them, are also absent from Shabtai's study. Ethiopian-Israeli youth is dancing in a cultural vacuum, just as the literary criticism in Hebrew written for the consumption of the educated audience in Israel hardly bothers to take the trouble to compare it to similar genre literature written elsewhere (has anyone bothered, for example, to put the feminist literature written in Israel recently into the Middle Eastern literary context? Or to delve into North African post-modern cultural theory?) Only here, in our proverbially isolated nation, are there "North Tel Aviv" intellectuals who are supposed to be organic, Gramsci-style, and live in the alienated bubble of "duh left," and the ultra-Orthodox politicians with origins in the Muslim countries and Armani Private Collection suits speak out in the name of poverty, while most of the unemployed of the nation goes bankrupt, and they make me repent and turn newly observant. And Al Sharpton, the slick American preacher with the straightened hair - and the astounding suit, how could it be otherwise? - has announced that he will run for president in the 2004 elections.

Nevertheless, I liked this book very much and I recommend it warmly. Perhaps this is because I identified with Sivan, who spoke about her professional future: "I wanted medicine but I know that this will be very difficult for me, and they will look down on me, and say: What? An Ethiopian girl is going study medicine?" (p. 205) And I, Smadar from Holon, who wanted anthropology, and knew that it would be very difficult for me. And 25 years ago, when I came before the acceptance committee of the department in Jerusalem, they said to me: "What? A Yemenite girl is going to study anthropology and even refuses to do research on the Yemenites? Go learn a profession, medicine for example ... " And perhaps because my father, with whom I spoke a lot about anthropology and all kinds of things, was a Lithuanian, but you really can't see it on me that he was blond. But hey, my Yemenite phenotype, of which I developed an acute awareness only after I freed myself, in the United States, both from its stigma and from the burden of the Israeli "All of us (the Ashkenazis) together," really helps me when I am doing anthropology "in the field."

"Displacement, Diaspora, and Geographies of Identity," edited by Prof. Smadar Lavie, was published by Duke University.