Committee: Renée Blake (chair), Rudolf Gaudio, Gregory Guy, Don Kulick, John Singler
Despite significant legal enfranchisements over the past 20 years, gays and lesbians in Israel remain largely marginalized and excluded from society. My dissertation explores how gay and lesbian Israelis understand and negotiate this exclusion, and maps out the ways in which they construct identities for themselves that seek to overcome it. Based on a detailed ethnography of gender and sexuality in Israel, I trace the historical and ideological roots of a perceived incompatibility between gay or lesbian identity, on one hand, and the values that normatively define belonging in Israeli society, on the other. Reflecting the desire of early Zionist leaders to escape what they viewed as the physical and moral degeneration of Jews in Europe, these values are grounded in a powerful discourse of the traditional (Jewish) family and serve to link a heteronormative conceptualization of gender and gender-appropriate behavior to what it means to “be Israeli.” Gays and lesbians exist outside of and in conflict with this discourse, and a crucial component of the construction and performance of a gay or lesbian subjectivity in Israel involves reconciling this sexual/national tension. Combining quantitative and qualitative methods, my doctoral research investigates the multiple and creative ways in which people who identify as both gay or lesbian and Israeli use language to achieve this reconciliation.
The data for my research is drawn from ethnographic fieldwork in Tel-Aviv, Haifa and Jerusalem, where I spent 12 months observing numerous gay and lesbian activist associations ranging across the Israeli political spectrum. Linguistic analyses, which focus on certain prosodic characteristics and are based on over 100 hours of recorded interviews (in Hebrew) with group members, expose significant differences in how members of the various groups conceive of and construct their sexual subjectivities through language. These differences are shown to correspond to the groups’ distinct positions within Israeli politics more generally. For example, comparisons across the groups reveal systematic variation in terms of average speaking pitch: members of those groups who strongly identify with Israel as a nation and with standard definitions of Israeli identity approximate gender-normative pitch patterns, whereas members of those groups who are more critical of Israeli society and distance themselves from identifying with it do not. This finding is meaningful when considered in light of the dominant formulation of Israeli identity and its associated discourse of appropriate gendered behavior. For those who accept this formulation, the symbolic expression of a distinctive sexual identity is superseded and supplanted by the expression of a shared national one. In contrast, those who reject standard definitions of Israeli identity attempt to transform what being (and thus talking like an) Israeli means, in order to make the expression of their sexuality compatible with the expression of their nationality.
As this example illustrates, the results of my dissertation underscore the inextricability of sexuality from individuals’ other national and cultural identifications. My analyses reveal a diversity of attitudes, beliefs and linguistic practices among Israeli gays and lesbians. This finding challenges the assumption that sexuality per se is an adequate or useful heuristic for linguistic, or other, research, and instead promotes a program of study that delves into the intricacies and contradictions inherent in all processes of sexual subject formation. By demonstrating a link between individuals’ understandings of their sexualities and their understandings of the nation, my research goes beyond an examination of reified identity categories to explore the manifold social and discursive forces that frame the construction and performance of gay and lesbian identities in Israel.