Review of Words and Stones
Date: Tue, 11 Jan 2005 15:13:45 +0200
From: Jaqueline du Toit
Subject: Words and Stones
AUTHOR: Lefkowitz, Daniel S.
TITLE: Words and Stones
SUBTITLE: The Politics of Language and Identity in Israel
SERIES: Oxford Studies in Anthropological Linguistics
PUBLISHER: Oxford University Press
Jaqueline S. du Toit, Department of Afroasiatic Studies, Sign Language &
Language Practice, University of the Free State (South Africa)
"Words and Stones" is an accessible and erudite ethnographic investigation
of the social interplay and ethnic negotiation of identity and choice created
by the three official languages spoken in Israel: Hebrew (the "dominant"
language); Arabic (the mother tongue of both Israeli Arabs and many
Mizrahi Jews); and English. The book is largely based on interviews
conducted by the author and a number of assistants during the early 1990s
in Haifa, Israel. "Words and Stones" includes a thorough theoretical overview
of matters related to the negotiation of identity, memory and space, as well
as of the application thereof in addressing crosscultural encounters
(chapter 4); social organization and language learning (chapter 5); identity
in public culture (chapter 6); and, language and the negotiation of Arab and
Sabra identities (chapters 7 and 8, respectively). "Words and Stones" will
appeal not only to a specialized audience of sociolinguists and
anthropologists (especially, linguistic anthropologists), but will also find an
appreciative audience among scholars interested in the Middle East and in
matters of language, identity and social transformation.
This book is an invaluable contribution to an ever growing body of
literature on matters of identity formation. The Middle East, and particularly
Israel, is of course laden with added significance because of its colonial
past, but also because of the religious significance of the geography.
Lefkowitz states his purpose as an examination of "Israeli national identity,
looking at the ways in which it is imagined and at the ways various
imaginings are deployed in the semiotics and politics of everyday life,"
(page 5). He deftly achieves this purpose in the analysis of the "ongoing
recreation, redefinition, and reapplication of nationalist imaginings," (page
5) of discourse. Lefkowitz moves away from a traditional Western emphasis
on the lexical and syntactic significance in speech, to highlight socially
significant messages relayed by conversational interchange. Matters such as
physical setting; identity of the speaker (or the identity the speaker assumes
during the speech act); participants in the interaction; and the language,
dialect, style and genre (page 24); are addressed. The value of his
contribution lies in the realization of the power imbedded in the use of
language as means of expression of nationalist imaginings.
As a hotbed of ever changing cultural, political and religious affiliation and
borders, the State of Israel proves itself the ideal subject for studying the
social negotiation of identities by means of the instrument for societal
interchange par excellence: language. In a country where every subject and
object is laden with multiple layers of memory and meaning (political,
cultural, religious, etc.), none is more so than the choices made, the choices
enforced and the liberties negotiated by means of language. As instrument
of social interaction, Lefkowitz successfully highlights the importance of
strategic language manipulation (in both the choice of language and the
command of the chosen language) in identity formation for the private and
The three main role players in Lefkowitz's study of this multilingual
community are the Ashkenazi Jews, the Mizrahi Jews, and the Palestinian or
Arab Israeli's. Both Mizrahi Jews (originating from North African and Middle
Eastern countries) and Arab Israeli's are predominantly Arab first-language
speakers. Yet, because of the resurrection of Hebrew as spoken language in
the relatively recent past, and the centrality of this language to the political
philosophy of the Zionist movement, the choice of Hebrew or the shunning
thereof, becomes an important political statement. The Mizrahi Jews'
negotiation of their hybrid identity (Jewish by ethnicity, yet Arab by
language) becomes a particularly poignant aspect of this study. Lefkowitz
looks at the significance of first and second language speakers' adeptness
in manipulating language to their advantage and the choices made
depending on social circumstances. Thus the author underscores the
importance of his decision to highlight physical setting and especially the
identity of the speaker and the participants in this ethnographic study of
The author succeeds in his aim to provide insights into social
transformation by means of this study and successfully highlights the
important relationship between language and culture. "Words and Stones"
is highly recommended to scholars of language, anthropology and, indeed,
scholars of the culture and politics of the Middle East.
| ABOUT THE REVIEWER:
ABOUT THE REVIEWER
Jaqueline du Toit is senior lecturer in Afroasiatic Studies and Language
Practice at the University of the Free State. She teaches biblical Hebrew and
Aramaic in the Afroasiatics programme, and Critical Linguistics and
Document Design in the Language Practice Programme of the Department.
Her research interests include the study of language in a multilingual