7.7 Gender and Religion Within a New Jewish Identity – Zionism: About Or Tesema-Avraham

7.7 Gender and Religion Within a New Jewish Identity – Zionism: About Or Tesema-Avraham


Women and Immigration
7.7 Gender and Religion Within a New Jewish
Identity – Zionism: About Or Tasema-Avraham Artist Or Tasema-Avraham,
a graduate of the Musrara Art College, photographs scenes that constitute
a critical return to her past as a “Generation 1.5” immigrant,
as defined at the beginning of this class. Her photographs show
a reflection of her adolescence in a new and unfamiliar country. She was learning how to be an
adolescent girl and a young woman. During that time,
in which she had to mature, to figure out her changing gender identity
as she turned from a girl into a woman, she also had to
form a new national identity, turning from Ethiopian to Israeli. Of course, she also had to figure out and understand the differences between
being a Jew in Ethiopia and a Jew in Israel. In this photograph, the artist
took a picture of herself sitting on a chair
placed in a dark and empty space. She is facing the camera,
her hands clung to the sides of her body. She is wearing a simple white undershirt,
large white underpants and she is barefoot. Tasema-Avraham’s choice
of such undergarments resonates the very Israeli image
of the pioneers’ ethos. It is also a visual reminiscence
of Kibbutz children without any gender specifications, playing on the lawns,
dressed in underpants and undershirts. Tasema-Avraham’s choice
to wear these undergarments, actually designed for men, allows her to present
a fluid gender identity. Despite being a woman in her own gender, she does not deny herself the opportunity
to wear clothes designed for men. This work has two aspects:
The first is gender, suggesting that we free ourselves from
fixating about what is “appropriate”, what is “right”
for the male and female genders. The other aspect in this work
is national-religious: The scene created by Tasema-Avraham is actually criticizing the
utopic concept of gender equality which the Zionist and allegedly
secular ethos wished to pass on, because gender equality has failed the
test of the Israeli reality in modern times. Feminist researchers like Hana Herzog,
Margalit Shilo, Henriette Dahan-Kalev, Hana Safran
and many others, proved that the rhetoric of Zionism, by which men and women
are totally equal in Eretz Israel and in the State of Israel,
did not pass the test of reality, and, in fact, this rhetoric
fueled the famous “equality myth”. Tasema-Avraham reacts to the
biased and unequal gender history, carrying on the Zionist narrative
and adding the ethnic dimension, of an Ethiopian woman living in Israel. Of course, she happily and lovingly adopts
her identity as a Jew and an Israeli, however, she protests
Zionism not seeing her, a woman from Ethiopia,
as an integral part of it. This is why she adopts the
Kibbutz-Zionist-Jewish-male-white ethos. It is as if she is forcefully
planting herself in the Zionist context. She takes the visual codes of Zionism
and mixes them with her own figure, with her own narrative. You might say that Zionism
is the new Jewish religion. It is a secular
but also very ethnic religion, never forgetting its Jewish nature
and Jewish history, setting it apart from – and above –
all other religions. The State of Israel,
as mentioned in the previous units, is an ethno-national state founded to establish a home
for the Jewish people, and it upholds and maintains
structured biases serving mostly its Jewish citizens. In Tasema-Avraham’s work, we see the gender issue
of the Jewish woman within an essentially masculine narrative, as well as a reference
to the color of the skin: a black Jewish woman deeply rooted
in the white Zionist context. As we all see,
her skin color is very different from that of most Jewish
men and women in the world, Jews from Europe or
Arab countries and north Africa. Zionism, it seems,
finds it hard to accept a black Jewess, and the orthodox rabbinate
is also struggling with it. As we learned in the previous unit, the orthodox rabbinate was slow
to accept the women from Ethiopia into the bosom
of the Jewish community in Israel, heaping many difficulties in their way. Tasema-Avraham’s representation
provides a new interpretation to Zionism. She shows Zionism in a critical light, a new modern-time secular religion
of the Jews, with flaws, and now these flaws and the sexist
and racist injustices embedded in it have to be pointed out. In the scene, Tasema-Avraham depicts
herself as a hybrid integrated figure, a new Jewess, unfamiliar
and unaccepted in Jewish history: both woman, black and a kosher Jewess, and she is proud and secure
in this identity of hers. She adopts the customary visual images. She seizes the exclusivity of the
white-Jewish-Zionist-European narrative, proclaiming:
I too am a part of the Zionist fabric. Look: there are African Jews too, because the Beta Israel community
has a long and glorious history, and the daughters of this community
are an important part of that history.

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