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Book of the week: Birthing the Nation

By SHIRLEY SAAD   |   Nov. 19, 2002 at 12:01 PM   |   Comments

SAN DIEGO, Nov. 19 (UPI) -- In "Birthing the Nation: Strategies of Palestinian Women in Israel," Rhoda Ann Kanaaneh gives voice to people we rarely hear from, the women of the Galilee -- Palestinian women living in the state of Israel. She examines the way the state of Israel, and the Palestinians, have politicized the procreative process. It is amazing that in the 21st century, women's bodies are still being used and manipulated for political purposes.

As in the exploitation of the "droit de seigneur" of the Middle Ages, and the political alliances of royal families, Palestinian women in Israel today find their bodies being used in the political arithmetic of reproduction.

The women of Galilee are being told on the one hand to stop having babies, and on the other to keep on having as many as possible. The cover of the book depicts a woman in Palestinian national dress, crouching, with a flow of men and women emerging from between her legs.

This painting by Sliman Mansour is titled "The Intifada ... the Mother," and illustrates the close association of nationalism with reproduction.

Kanaaneh recalls Foucault's statement concerning the utility of the state: "It is males that make up its power, while females assist in producing the numbers."

This is precisely what the Israeli state fears: the increase in Palestinian numbers versus Israelis. Kanaaneh quotes former Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin: "The red line for Arabs is 20 percent of the population; that must not be gone over." He insisted that for Israel to keep its Jewish character and culture, they had to keep their numbers up.

Palestinian women, on the other hand, are encouraged by the Israeli state, through its health clinics, to use contraception and limit the number of children, and some Palestinians agree. While some advocate larger families to outnumber the Jews, other argue that fewer, better educated children would challenge Israeli domination by their quality rather than their quantity.

As Kanaaneh points out, "The dual nationalist discourses have allowed for a multiplicity of reproductive strategies and decisions." Her own father, a physician, told her several of his patients decided to stop using contraceptives after the release of the Koenig report. Israel Koening called for "obstructing any natural increase in the Arab population" and diluting the number of Arabs by Judaizing areas where there was a large concentration of Arabs.

This anthropological/sociological study is by no means a colorless series of statistics, numbers and graphs. Kanaaneh interviewed women as well as men in the Galilee, the birthplace of her father, and her report brings vividly to life the problems facing young Palestinian women living in Israel today.

Instead of the anonymous numbers of the nightly newscasts, we get to hear from the mouths of women like Suha and Ghada and Fatmi and Samiyyi.

Like us, they want what is best for their children, and make their choice accordingly. They are painfully aware of their role as mothers, wives, and citizens and react to the pressures of the society surrounding them, whether Israeli or Arab, in a variety of ways.

One Arab woman, Iman, told the author, "The Jewish doctor wishes he could tie all our tubes. I told him, 'I'm going to have another baby and name him Muhammad and you can't stop me.' " On the other hand, Kamli Sliman, one of Kanaaneh's high school classmates, told her she only planned on having two children because of economic considerations. The Galilee, like most other regions of the world, is not immune to the new economic requirements of modern life. Children there, just as in the States, want their Nikes, computers, and video games. Parents seek a better life for their children, higher education, more opportunities. As one woman put it, " The circumstances decide, not the husband or wife."

Palestinians grade themselves as modern and sophisticated according to the number of children they have. Some believe the fewer, the better, while others view this as becoming like the "others" -- Jews, Europeans, and foreigners -- and denying their own traditions and culture. A recurring theme throughout the book is "Arabs love children," and many of the more religious people misinterpret the Koran's or the Bible's injunction to "go forth and multiply."

The perception is divided between urban, rural and Bedouin, or between rich and poor, educated and ignorant, non-religious and religious. The former have more children and the latter fewer. The author found that even within these groups, people rank each other as being more or less modern, or more or less educated or sophisticated, according to the number of children and their procreative and parenting techniques.

Those who believe that "God will provide" and have as many children as possible are often looked down upon by those who prefer to have fewer children, but provide them with a better education and more material benefits.

As Kanaaneh found out, Palestinians in the Galilee equate family planning with modernity, and modernity with improved economic conditions. "The need for economic rationality and family planning frequently arises from the fear of poverty and the constant threat of underprivilege," as she points out. Older, more conservative and more religious people criticize this attitude and accuse its proponents of adopting the "enemy's" culture. It is true, as Kanaaneh points out, that most Palestinians "have been forced and seduced onto the lower rungs of the Israeli and global economy. But they have come to express many of their hopes, desires, and fears largely from within it and using its terms."

The problem of the Israeli state with its Arab citizens extends to Arab, or Sephardic, Jews. Ashkenazi, or European Jews, hold the same racial attitude towards Arab Jews as European Christians had towards the Ashkenazi. They view them (the Arab Jews) as being "savage, primitive, despotic, and backwards, sometimes genetically inferior, brought to Israel as the Africans were brought to the United States, to be civilized."

Ella Shohat, an Arab Jew, wrote that the Arab Jew was "hijacked" from his Judeo-Islamic history and culture and subordinated to the European shtetl experience. This separation of Arab and Jew, and the perceived ancestral animosity and enmity, is a modern project, and has created a rigid duality. According to Shohat, "The Mizrahi (Arab) Jew was prodded to choose between anti-Zionist 'Arabness' and a pro-Zionist 'Jewishness.' For the first time in the history of Oriental Jews, Arabness and Jewishness were posed as antonyms."

The Arab Jew confuses the Israeli state's wish to draw a neat line between Arab and Jew. Golda Meir, greatly relieved when Russian Jews began arriving in Israel, is quoted as saying, "At last real Jews are coming to Israel again."

The Israeli government has encouraged Ashkenazi Jews to "be fruitful and multiply " while seeking to reduce the number of Oriental Jews, notably through family planning. Nevertheless, Arab Jews make up the majority of Israel's population. This has led some Palestinians to identify with Arab Jews and perceive a common enemy in government policies.

Kanaaneh found that her own mixed heritage enabled her to elicit confidences from all parties concerned: her American mother opened the doors to Christian and Jewish confidences, while her ties to the family of her Muslim Palestinian father loosened tongues on the Muslim side.

"Birthing the Nation" is an eminently readable study, and as Hanan Ashrawi wrote in her foreword, "Indispensable to anyone interested in struggles for justice and freedom, including those against racism and sexism, wherever they may occur."

Kanaaneh is Assistant Professor of Anthropology at American University in Washington D.C.


(Birthing the Nation: Strategies of Palestinian Women in Israel," an anthropological study of procreative strategies by Palestinian women in Israel, by Rhoda Ann Kanaaneh, University of California Press, 256 pages, $24.95.)

© 2002 United Press International, Inc. All Rights Reserved. Any reproduction, republication, redistribution and/or modification of any UPI content is expressly prohibited without UPI's prior written consent.
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