A discussion at Zochrot, 12.6.2013
Presented by Tal Dor, a doctoral student in Education in Paris and a member and activist of Zochrot and Tarabut.
25 people attended.
Welcome. Tal Dor is a good friend and a leading activist, and we’re happy to have her come to Zochrot as a guest. Tal’s research is important from an educational perspective since it examines changes in political consciousness. It makes a theoretical contribution to understanding how the professional orientations of Israeli educators are constructed.
I’m really very excited to be here. Zochrot is very important to me. I’ve been in France for six years and recently began my doctorate. My research tries to understand what effect our activism has had on us. It’s important to “name” the process. People in France are very curious about it. I hope you won’t think it obvious. My research is based on the processes of learning and change occurring in people. I examine what we learn and how our gendered and ethnic-ed statuses affect this process.
You get the feeling sometimes that we Israelis are born into Zionism as if it was a natural phenomenon that can’t be altered, like the construction of heterosexuality. My research describes the creation of an identity that we could shed – a physical characteristic we could be rid of, remove the Zionist blotch from our skin. That requires un-learning, making room for new knowledge. Many of the people I interviewed said that a place had to be made for something new.
Here are some examples from the interviews. The research is biographical. Seven people were interviewed – four women and three men. They were asked to describe the process by which their consciousness changed. I had a gut feeling they’d talk about Zionism but I didn’t ask them about it specifically. All referred spontaneously to having to deal with Zionist identity, confronting Zionism and coming to understand that they had to choose whether or not to be Zionists.
Here’s what one of the interviewees said:“First of all, I understood I was a racist, and not only regarding Arabs….Of course, you must understand where I grew up. I became critical, came to understand my hegemonic stand – first vis-à-vis “Mizrachiyut,” then vis-à-vis Arabs, then Palestinian women, and Zionism. I once loved Zionism but suddenly realized its repressive character. I was raised on stereotypes.”
She spoke about meetings with feminist women, lesbians and Palestinians, radical encounters, feminist encounters which allow critical discourse, where it’s possible to ask difficult questions and it’s safe to deal with them.
The five stages of consciousness-change which I conceptualize in my study are based on the writings of Paolo Freire. He begins with a change in the consciousness of the oppressed and moves to the change in the consciousness of the oppressor. That’s familiar to you in the context of the gender and ethnic discourse which accompanies struggles in Israeli society. The hegemonic “I” is located in the dominant society, but not every Israeli is part of it; there are complexities.
Freire sees the first stage as mystical. A person believes that everything is imposed on them, that nothing can be done, that one has to accept things as they are.
In the second stage you discover that others also think like you. Freire calls it the “naïve” stage.
In the third stage people understand that a repressive system exists and begin to oppose it. bell hooks, a black feminist and theorist, believes there’s no distinction between theory and action.
Freire believes that one stage must be completed in order to proceed to the next. I think the stages are entwined; a person advances and retreats in an ongoing dialectic.
Unlike Freire, I identify five stages of consciousness-change. The first two are passive, things simply happen. The last three involve conscious choice and action.
In the first two stages a person confronts lies and becomes very confused. The interviewees report experiences which shocked them into understanding. Like “suddenly I understood something was wrong.” They feel the injustice, then confusion and anger at society and parents who didn’t tell them, didn’t show them. As if the floor opened under them.
In these two stages people talk about “I” and “them” – not the “other,” but “them,” the family, society, but I’m not part of them. Like the processes LGBT’s undergo, there’s a gap between me and the heterosexual part of society or, in our case, Zionism.
For example: One of the interviewees found herself in a confrontation between a hegemonic “I” and Zionism: “When I came to Haifa at 20 I was exposed to unfamiliar narratives. Until then I had been a patriot; I wanted to live in the time of the pioneers. Suddenly I understood there are Arabs wishing to live in peace. I didn’t know! I felt tricked; I really felt bad; for years I’d been completely loyal to the system. It took years to free myself; I was very angry, cut myself off from many things, wasn’t able to finish my studies and felt I couldn’t be part of the system. I’d been tricked, cheated – many people will feel that way. The whole story of the war in Gaza – people are living in total denial, they’re denying what’s right in front of them, unwilling to see through their defenses.”
The encounter with Arab intellectuals in Haifa made her very angry. It was a radical encounter, after which she realized she could no longer perform her hegemonic “I.” She understood that she was ignorant of Arabs. One of the significant aspects of the “epistemology of the closet” is negation through ignorance rather than control through knowledge. Thus lack of knowledge about Arabs and their desire for peace helped her preserve her hegemonic identity.
In the next stage one obtains information. One takes responsibility for the change process. One doesn’t wait in childish anger but takes a step forward. Some people don’t decide to go forward. My interviewees decided to do so. In this stage there’s a task to be done as well as self-reflection regarding one’s own role. It’s a stance that realizes the complexity of the knowledge, a questioning stance that creates knowledge anew, an active stance.
Learning has three characteristics:
1) Reading completely new texts about the history of the country or of others, “things I didn’t know.” Re-reading archives, reading familiar books with new eyes, bringing new analytical tools to familiar texts.
2) Learning from other Israelis who have undergone the same process. Talking about anti-Zionism in Hebrew, creating knowledge communities, sharing knowledge, puzzling, doubting.
3) Learning from the other, encountering the other. Palestinian women, lesbians, those who were more oppressed than the interviewees became their other. The encounter with the other allowed them to understand their own privileged status. “There’s a great need to meet the victim, the oppressed other. That’s when you get it; when you meet you understand.” I call it a radical encounter.
One of them said: “In Belgium a few years ago, during the war, I was in a Lebanese restaurant. The owner asked where I was from. She said she came from Isdud (a Palestinian locality destroyed by Israel during the nakba). She invited me in; I learned a great deal from that woman – the entire courtyard was filled with Palestinian items. We sat for hours; she told stories – she was born there and had to go to Europe. The discussion became totally political. I see her as an example of a person who’s oppressed.”
Paolo Freire writes about the superciliousness of the other, its “inhumanity.” Out of superciliousness comes generosity, which turns into solidarity, not in order to help and to rescue but to join the struggle. He argues that so long as the oppressor and the oppressed don’t recognize each other’s humanity, solidarity won’t be possible.
The fourth stage of change is to emerge from the Zionist closet. It happens as a result of learning and the desire to confront the society around you. The importance of stating “I’m not a Zionist” (or straight) lies in our making clear we’re not like the others. The experience of coming out of the closet is difficult and liberating, as well as costly. Concealment is no longer possible, but I’m free; it’s painful, hard, but accompanied by a determination to continue.
At this stage none of the interviewees was still able to identify with Zionism. They’d made a clear choice.
One of them said: “One day my cousin came to visit. ‘You know,’ I told him, ‘I’m not a Zionist.’ It was hard for both of us to hear that. But it wasn’t like going through the Red Sea, you know; either you’re with us or you’re not…”
Like someone who comes out of the closet he also lost many social connections; people didn’t want to remain in contact with him. He did want to remain in contact with his family and friends, but that was the price he had to pay.
The fifth stage is acceptance. Queer theory dealing with emerging from the closet addresses accepting the self, that I’m a part of this society. Accepting that not everyone is like me, but at the same time wanting to be part of society. At such “moments of truth” the individual understands he’s a queer in Zionist society. “I’m breaking a taboo, I’m not able to be normative, I accept myself as queer but also accept society.” The question is, how can a complex discourse be carried out along with political activity, political activism, which also involves oppression?
The people who went through these changes weren’t special in any way. They had an opportunity and they took advantage of it.
Were the interviewees in Israel?
Something in your analysis isn’t clear to me. What’s the beginning of the process you described? What’s the end? What’s the Zionism? What’s queer about it? Is it like heterosexuality and coming out of the closet? If Zionism is analogous to hetero-normativity, I have a problem with the analysis. Because Zionists also have a complex discourse. They recognize that there were Palestinians here – even the worst racists will admit that. They justify themselves to themselves because regimes of justification are very sophisticated, convoluted, full of hair-splitting.
I haven’t gone through all the stages you describe; I’m at stage 2. I saw the process occur with a good friend. I have another friend struggling with that identity. I respect them greatly; their resistance to society and to their family is courageous. It requires a great deal of courage, which not everyone has.
Many things get lost in post-Zionist discourse. There’s not a dichotomy. For me, the Zionist left was a way-station to where I am now. I always knew about the occupation, but what cut me off from Zionism was the oppression of Mizrachim, understanding Israeli militarism and its relationship to gender.
The analogy between the shift to anti-Zionism and coming out of the closet is imperfect. When a youth tells his parents, “I’m gay,” he’s not telling them there’s something wrong with the fact their heterosexual relations brought him into the world. But when someone announces their opposition to Zionism the implication is that their parents participated in a crime against humanity. On the other hand, there is a similarity between the two cases. Both coming out of the closet and becoming anti-Zionist involve a craving, a strong, tempting attraction, and sometimes there’s no choice at all.
Zionism, as a colonial endeavor, created dependence and apprehension, which is why it’s hard to abandon. I’ve reached the point of ridiculing that fear and apprehension. Judaism has survived thousands of years without Zionism and will continue after it’s disappeared.
I want to talk about coming out of the closet in another way, vis-à-vis the Palestinian. To come out of the closet before them, to explain what my politics are – for example, to identify myself as a Jewish Palestinian woman. That’s a process of coming out of the closet opposite the one who’s oppressed. Did that come up in any way during your research?
What’s interesting is that the way you define yourself, your identity, during the dialogue with the oppressed also affects the other before you; it’s part of the dynamic dialogue stemming from a queer, radical, feminist perspective. That perspective is fluid rather than static. Our hegemonic status frees us (to go through a checkpoint, for example), makes us privileged queers. The question is how to relinquish some of those privileges in order to achieve equality. Many limitations exist – for example, participating in the hegemony. It isn’t possible to completely dismantle one’s identity.
But can that become a political mechanism? Can it lead to thinking politically? A change in consciousness that can confront mechanisms of racism and denial?
Transcribed by Ofer Yehuda
Translation to English: Charles Kamen