Academic studies

Israeli Indians - Positioning Indianism in the Israeli identity landscape

M.A Thesis - 2020 - Department of Anthropology and Sociology - University of Haifa

This work addresses the topic of Israelis who adopt practices and identity characteristics inspired by indigenous cultures of the Americas. It is based on anthropological fieldwork that included mapping the field, short-term visits to Indian hotspots, and a year-long participant observation in a self-defined Indian-environmental village, home to a group that calls itself the 'Yehudiani' tribe. The latter included continuous relationships with key members and dozens of informal conversations with the tribe's members during extended periods spent in the village.

The study focuses on endorsements of native-American identities, lifestyles, images, practices, and artefacts. It examines the nature of such endorsements, their relationships to local practices of self-definition, and the phenomenon's affinity to broader New Age culture. The ethnography reveals that doing native-American-ness in Israel includes a wide range of frameworks, reference groups, and centers that together comprise a unique and colorful fabric.

Theoretically, the analysis draws on anthropological literature on representations of indigenous peoples generally, and of Native Americans in particular. This literature highlights the Orientalist nature of romantic longing for an imagined past in the context of post-colonialism and late capitalism. The analysis also draws inspiration from Bourdieu's practice theory and Geertz's interpretive approach, a combination that allowed me to consider subjective agency in the process of identity work I encountered in the field.

Findings show that endorsements of Native American-ness in Israel form a continuum that ranges between total identification and deep appropriation on one end, and narrow, utilitarian, and context-blind commercialization on the other. Whereas in many places the Native American objects and images are used commercially as part of eclectic combinations of other representations of exotic Otherness, there are people and groups, such as The Yehudiani tribe in the ecological village of Tierra, who lead a way of life that holistically integrates Native American rituals, motifs, objects, and beliefs into a locally-produced environmental lifestyle. Although they, too, hold a romantic view of, and attach a super-temporal authenticity to Native American cultures, they are mindful of the broader cosmology in which the objects and artifacts that they borrow originate. The result is a synthesis of an imagined Native American culture, contemporary environmental ideologies, and local Jewish traditions, which are themselves adapted and transformed, all done as part of ongoing identity work and self-distinction from the larger Israeli society.

The overall finding that Israeli appropriations of Native American-ness engender different meanings in different places raises questions regarding mimicry, essentialism, and the tensions that accompany the commercialization and romanticization of indigenous cultures. The adoption of Native American-ness into the local environmental lifestyles, in particular, also touches on the subject of ethnic identity work, albeit denied as such by the participants themselves, particularly considering the notion of sacred land.

The study presents a thick ethnographic description of white shamanism in Israel, a first of its kind to the best of my knowledge. Its contribution lies in broadening the discussion of adopting foreign nativism into local environmental identity work in general, and in expanding our understanding of group boundary work in Israel in the era of late modernity and globalization.