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 YEAR: 2004
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 public sphere.
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 language use.
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 environment.