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Concrete Boxes

Mizrahi Women on Israel's Periphery

Pnina Motzafi-Haller
With a Foreword by Virginia R. Dominguez

Jewish Studies, Israel and Middle East, Women's Studies, Anthropology

Raphael Patai Series in Jewish Folklore and Anthropology

Printed Paper Cased
Published: August 2018
ISBN: 9780814344422
Pages: 360 Size: 6x9
Published: August 2018
ISBN: 9780814340592
Pages: 360 Size: 6x9
Published: August 2018
ISBN: 9780814340608

Concrete Boxes: Mizrahi Women on Israel’s Periphery offers a rich depiction of contemporary life in one marginalized development town in the Israeli Negev. Placing the stories of five women at the center, author Pnina Motzafi-Haller depicts a range of creative strategies used by each woman to make a meaningful life within a reality of multiple exclusions. These limitations, Motzafi-Haller argues, create a "concrete box," which, unlike the "glass ceiling" of the liberal feminist discourse, is multi-dimensional and harder to break free from.

As the stories unfold, the reader is introduced to the unique paths developed by each of five women in order to keep their families and community together in the face of the stigmatic and hegemonic narratives of Israelis who seldom set foot in their social and geographic periphery. Motzafi-Haller’s ethnography includes the daily struggles of Nurit, a single mother with a drug-addicted partner, in her attempt to make ends meet and escape social isolation; Ephrat’s investment in an increasingly religious-observant lifestyle; the juggling acts of Rachel, who develops a creative mix of narratives of self, using middle-class rhetoric in reimagining a material reality of continued dependence on the welfare system; the rebellious choices of Esti, who at thirty-five, refuses to marry, have children, or keep a stable job, celebrating against all odds a life of gambling, consumption beyond her means, and a tight and supportive social network; and the life story of Gila, who was born in Yeruham but was able to "escape" it and establish herself in middle-class life as a school principal. Taken together, these intimate narratives ask us to consider both the potential and limitations of post-colonial feminist insights about the manner in which knowledge is produced.

Concrete Boxes offers sustained reflection about Israeli reality rarely documented in scholarly work and a thought-provoking theoretical exploration of the ways in which individual agency encounters social restrictions and how social marginality is reproduced and challenged at the same time.

Pnina Motzafi-Haller is an associate professor of anthropology at Ben Gurion University at the Blaustein Institutes for Desert Research. A leading Mizrahi feminist scholar and activist, she has edited key texts of Mizrahi-centered scholarship, including Mizrahim in Israel and Mizrahi Voices. The Hebrew version of Concrete Boxes was adapted into a play produced by the Dimona Theater.

As carefully researched as it is brave, this study breaks out of the ‘concrete boxes’ of established academic thinking. Motzafi-Haller’s account of coping and agency in some of the most marginalized women in Israel realizes feminist methodologies at their best. Clearly situating the author as originally of and from her interlocutors, the unashamedly political insights of this book are moving, honest, and important.

– Rela Mazali, author, independent scholar, and activist

Concrete Boxes offers a deeply attentive account of the pragmatics, aspirations, and connective networks of life amongst female immigrants in the expanding remote town of Yerucham in southern Israel. Each woman offers her own personal account of making a living, creating a religious life, and aspiring to a new future. A remarkable work, which enriches the ethnography of Israel and offers a case for the comparative study of women’s experience in the expanding phenomenon of migration in search of work and a cultural life.

– Jane I. Guyer, professor emerita of anthropology, Johns Hopkins University

Five women from the Israeli periphery are at the center of this exceptionally interesting book, five women whose moments of happiness, despair, and suffering fill the pages. Despite structural discrimination and oppression by patriarchy and by the Israeli state, these women creatively shape their own lives even in the most difficult circumstances. Telling their enchanting stories, the feminist anthropologist Motzafi-Haller avoids standard authoritative academic tone and jargon creating an accessible and enjoyable yet sophisticated academic ethnography.

– Tamar Hager, senior lecturer in the education department and gender studies program, Tel-Hai College, Israel

This timely book reminds us, at a moment of high visibility of the fight against sexual harassment, that liberal feminism does not represent the sufferings nor the desires of women of color, of Mizrahi ethnicity, and of those who reside in the ‘concrete boxes’ of Israel’s periphery. Motzafi-Haller transcends the #MeToo language to offer intersectionality of gender, class, and ethnicity in the lives of the women whose stories she tells, thus creating an alternative methodology of equality and partnership with them.

– Orly Lubin, chair of the Porter Institute for Poetics and Semiotics at Tel Aviv University

This book is a delight to read. It’s much more than an academic sociological study. The author’s fieldwork allows readers to gain a complex view of poor women in the periferya.

– Aaron Howard, Jewish Herald-Voice

Concrete Boxes is an achievement that will be of great interest to scholars who explore gender relations in minority communities and communities of color.

– Orit Bashkin, Journal of Palestine Studies

For too long the community of Mizrahi women on Israel’s periphery has languished in obscurity and their voices have been silenced but this important work addresses the lacuna enabling them to be heard in all their complexity.

– Jennifer Langer, Journal of Modern Jewish Studies

Motzafi- Haller shows the elaborate system of choices and decisions these women face, and the ways in which they demonstrate self- awareness and motivation to change. Focusing on one specific development town, her nuanced account is valuable in its furthering our understanding of social structures in general, and, in particular, the ways in which women take decisions and shape their worldviews.

– Hila Shalem Bahard, Studies in Contemporary Jewry