DevMode
While reading Tamar Mayer's book Women and the Israeli Occupation, I happened to stay with a close relative while her Palestinian cleaning lady came for the weekly cleaning day. As they worked together, moving the furniture or vacuuming the carpets, the two women, both grandmothers by now, discussed their children and grandchildren, exchanged recipes, spoke of vacation plans (the cleaning lady was going to Egypt for the first time in her life). When the house was clean, and the cleaning lady had gone, I asked my relative whether they ever discussed politics.
No, she said, this they never do. It has been a sort of unspoken law between them in the years they have known each other; potential land¬mines are left untouched. And I thought that if and when dialogue does take place between Israelis and Palestinians in the normal, daily lives of the people living in this tom country, this is the form it usually takes: all diffi¬cult questions, with the potential of causing emotional pain, questions of power relations, of suspicions and mistrust, accusations and guilt feelings, aggressiveness and defensiveness - all are avoided for the sake of a super¬ficial coexistence. This is probably necessary for daily life.
Tamar Mayer's book, it occurred to me, tries to break with this tradition even as, in other ways, it cannot free itself from it. For such a book, written in a "neutral" or common English language, is directed at both communi¬ties, and is, by its mere appearance, a form of dialogue, even if by corre¬spondence. And so it is this movement between speaking and not speak¬ing, and the other dynamics of the dialogue, which run through the 200 pages of the book on which I wish to focus in this review.
Mayer has edited a collection of essays (eleven altogether), dealing with different subjects concerning women and the Occupation. Some of them discuss the Israeli and the Palestinian women's movements, others explore the ways the Occupation has influenced women's lives, in economic, envi¬ronmental or other ways. Men and women, Mayer writes in her introduc¬tion, experience the Occupation in many similar ways, yet "their separate daily experience has also caused them to experience [it] differently from one another" (p. 5). It is upon these particular feminine experiences that she wishes to concentrate, knowing very well that they are not homoge¬neous: "The Occupation has also been experienced differently according to class, ethnic or national group. Difference and conflict, even contradiction, therefore, paradoxically, are major common threads in this book," she promises.

The Dialogue

In her introduction, Mayer goes further to introduce the conflicts and con¬tradictions which are later to be thoroughly discussed in the different arti¬cles: the Jewish-Israeli women face the dilemma of participating in the national security discourse, even while it is clear that maintaining the pri¬ority of security prolongs the marginalization of women. Palestinian-Israelis, on the other hand, have to struggle with their conflicting identities and their role as mediators, which leave their own needs unanswered, while Palestinian women in the Occupied Territories are tom between (some¬times) conflicting demands of social and national liberation. All of these conflicts also affect the efforts to hold dialogues between Israeli, Palestinian, and Israeli-Palestinian women: gender loyalties strengthen these efforts, whereas conflicting national loyalties, sometimes strength¬ened within those dialogues, make them more difficult.
A very moving example of the intricacies and delicacies of such a dia¬logue can be found in the second chapter of the book, the one describing a direct, open discussion which took place between Naomi Chazan, an Israeli-Jewish Knesset member from Meretz, and Mariam Mar'i, a Palestinian citizen of Israel and a feminist activist, right after the 1992 Israeli elections. As in the other chapters of the book, Chazan and Mar'i try to discuss the ways the Occupation has influenced women's lives. They speak about the marginalization of women in both societies, about the double oppression of Palestinian women, about the effects the Israeli-¬Palestinian dialogue has had on both of them. Yet between the lines and behind the content, the fascinating part is not so much what is being said, but rather when it is being said, and as a reaction to what.
The discussion begins with an apparent agreement: on page 17, Chazan and Mar'i find a common denominator by claiming that women on both sides are victims of the Occupation. This common clinging to the victim's side facilitates the agreement, yet not for long. By page 19 Mar'i is already setting the boundaries, saying that Israeli women do not understand many things their Palestinian dialogue partners take for granted. The common victimization, then, has its limits; having too much in common can perhaps be too dangerous, threatening the loyalty to the separate national identi¬ties. By page 22 Chazan takes responsibility for the Occupation as part of the Israeli society, but then, as her national identity is threatened to be morally inferior, the theme of the Holocaust - where the Jews were the victims - soon comes up. Chazan also speaks about the resistance to the Occupation within the Israeli society (again, trying to shed positive light on her side), to which Mar'i now reacts by paying her respect to those voices, and saying how much she appreciates them.
It is only at this point - after the first superficial common denominator, agreement and harmony, have been "broken" and separated into two enti¬ties where self-criticism can be voiced - that a true, open and very per¬sonal dialogue can take place between the two women, where they discuss their individual experiences with the conflict, their emotions, hopes and fears concerning their own society as well as the "other." For the next few pages such an exchange does indeed take place, but it does not last for long: after Chazan claims that peace is an egotistic interest for Israel, Mar'i's distrust is again awakened; she claims she cannot understand Israeli security fears, and she reemphasizes the Palestinian victimization. The common denominator of being women is not enough to cut across national lines, she says. "It is harder for me to differentiate women as a separate group" (p. 29). In the next few pages a search for the common inter¬twines with defining the separating boundaries, and as Mar'i accuses the Israeli-Jewish activists of not being aware of the needs of the Israeli¬-Palestinian women, Chazan refuses to go on. "You raise some very inter¬esting questions, which make a good place to close," she says (p. 31). The dialogue, which started with so much in common, ends with a clear sepa¬ration and accusation, which may be unbearable. Thus the meeting must end. In my opinion, this does not devalue the exchange which did take place. It only shows how difficult it is.

The Spoken

I have concentrated on the dynamics of that particular dialogue, because it seems to me that it is typical for what then goes on through the rest of the book. Though no more direct discussions are found there, and the next pages contain separate articles which stand for themselves, the same dynamic prevails: finding common denominators and redefining the lines of separation, accusing the other and being self-critical all happen as part of an ongoing dialectical process.
Thus, in Suad Dajani's article concerning the Palestinian women's movement, a clear line has been drawn: the national (separate) identity is stronger than the common gender, and furthermore, self-criticism directed at that (separate) Palestinian society can only be voiced after clear accusa¬tions have been directed at Israel - only after the "other" has been declared "bad" can I look at the "bad" parts in me.
Tamar Mayer's article, on the other hand, shows the opposite trend: writing about Palestinian women, her search for the common gender iden¬tity is so insistent, that she seems to be fearing any criticism of the "other" will destroy it. Thus she seems to glorify the Palestinian national struggle, even at points (such as the nationalization of motherhood and child care) which it is hard to believe she would accept were she discussing them in the Israeli society. Self-criticism towards Israeli society can be found in Yvonne Deutsch's article (about the Israeli women's peace movement) and Simona Sharoni's (about violence against women in Israel). In both cases the criticism appears without accusing the "other" first, which seems to be the privilege of the more powerful in the relationship: being able to be self¬critical without fearing it to be interpreted as collaboration with the enemy.

The Unspoken

While many painful and difficult subjects are discussed in these and other articles in the book, other things, as in the dialogue between the Jewish housewife and her Palestinian cleaning lady, are left unsaid. It might be unavoidable - "all" can never be said - yet it still is interesting to try and see what was left out.
The essays, for example, were written by Palestinian, Israeli, and foreign writers, ten of them women, one, a man. The heterogeneous combination of the different points of view, it seems to me, is one of the reasons which make the book so interesting. However, due to some pretension of acade¬mic neutrality, or perhaps as part of an unconscious avoidance tactic, except for one case, the national identity of the contributors is interesting¬ly enough not mentioned in the pages which are meant to introduce them. The universities from which the writers have graduated and their Ph.D.s are attached to their names, while their other history - though obviously no less important in the formation of their point of view - is left in the dark. Thus we learn that Suad Dajani has graduated from the University of Toronto, yet her Palestinian identity (which I inferred from her name) is not mentioned. Mariam Mar'i received her degree from Michigan State University, yet the fact that she is a Palestinian and an Israeli citizen is not mentioned.
Were it all in the open, it would be clear who writes about whom: Palestinians write about themselves, Israelis write about themselves and about Palestinians, foreigners write about Palestinians. Is this by chance? I think not. Writing about someone is putting yourself in a position of power over them. The fact that no Palestinians write about Israelis, but that Israelis and foreigners feel free to write about Palestinians, is part of the power structure within which this book was written. Yet, this is not dis¬cussed at all - as part of the avoidance tactic? For lots of other difficult issues are left out as well.
Again, due to the academic, detached and supposedly "neutral" tradi¬tion, the writers, though most of them heavily involved in the conflict and in women's issues in more ways than one, hardly ever write about them¬selves, about their own experiences and feelings. They remain on a gener¬al, analytical academic level, which has its merits but also its disadvan¬tages. Feelings of frustration, humiliation or aggressiveness are discussed as though they were independent entities, not carried by particular women with voices. There are hardly any portraits of individual women in the book, their voices (or citations of what they said) appear only rarely among the many pages.
In a collection titled Feminism and Social Theory, Dorothy Smith, from the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, tries to define what disturbs her in this kind of writing: "So long as we work within the objectifying frame that organizes the discursive consciousness, we will find ourselves reinscribing the moment of discovery of women's experience, as women talk with women, into the conceptual order that locates the reader's and the writer's consciousness outside the expe¬rience of that talk." Recognizing that "The knower is always situ¬ated in the particular actualities of her everyday world," she suggests, admitting it, even using it and not trying to ignore it, would be more fruitful than pretending to be objective. And she sketches the alterna¬tive, for what she believes could be a feminist sociology:
"An insider's sociolo¬gy, that is, a systemati¬cally developed con¬sciousness of society from within, renouncing the artifice that stands us outside what we can never stand outside of."
Mayer and her collection of writers, it seems, have not taken on this sug¬gestion, and the book, I believe, did not become the better for it: knowing some of the leading characters, I believe that if Yvonne Deutsch had writ¬ten about her own experiences in the women's peace movement, and Nabila Espanioli had used her own thoughts about her Palestinian-Israeli identity, the book would only have profited. The fascinating thing for me is, though, how the effort to remain detached and academic failed in spite of itself, and how the emotions and dynamics of dialogue do come out at the edges, even of such an academic book.

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