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«The Diverse Geographies of Jewishness: Exploring the Intersections between Race, Religion, and Citizenship among Israeli Migrants in Toronto by Tamir ...»

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The Diverse Geographies of Jewishness: Exploring the

Intersections between Race, Religion, and Citizenship

among Israeli Migrants in Toronto


Tamir Arviv

A thesis submitted in conformity with the requirements

for the degree of Doctor of Philosophy

Department of Geography and Planning

University of Toronto

© Copyright by Tamir Arviv 2016


The Diverse Geographies of Jewishness: Exploring the

Intersections between Race, Religion, and Citizenship among

Israeli Migrants in Toronto Tamir Arviv Doctor of Philosophy Department of Geography and Planning University of Toronto Abstract In this dissertation, I explore how Jewish migrants who have relocated from Israel, but who are now living in the Greater Toronto Area understand, negotiate and perform their identities, belongings, and citizenship upon migration, both individually and collectively. Working from a series of forty-eight interviews and a set of participant observations at public events, I discuss how the discourses and material realities of life in Israel and in Toronto inform their attachments, identities, and claims of belonging. I illustrate the ways in which their hybrid and transnational identities, attachments, and claims of belonging challenge Euro-Zionism’s homogenizing project

- opening up potential for new revitalized spaces for conversations about Israel/Palestine.

The empirical chapters in this study focus on the themes of diaspora, whiteness, and citizenship in an attempt to foreground the multi-dimensional and diverse nature of Jewish identity and Jewish multiculturality and multiraciality in Canada (and in Israel).

Theoretically, this opens up opportunities to consider scaffolding that describes the complex multiplicity within cultures. Case studies are used to address the formation and re-formation of racial, religious, and national identities after migration, providing theoretical insights into the complex relations of multiple local racial formations to global racial formations, both historically and in the contemporary period, and their interconnectivity with other axes of difference, such as religion.

iii In particular, I emphasize the intersection of racial formation and religious identity by foregrounding the immense diversity of Jewish identities, cultures, and racial connections. Doing so, I begin to map previously unexplored intersections between Jewish studies and critical theories of race in order to illuminate spaces for potential critical geographical analyses of these fields. This study, therefore, opens up new questions not only for future research on the “Israeli diaspora”, but also for studies of race, religion, migration, and urban space in social and cultural geography.


–  –  –

In writing this dissertation I was fortunate enough to receive extraordinary support from many people. First and foremost, I am deeply thankful to my co-supervisors, Prof. Debby Leslie and Prof. Minelle Mahtani for their unconditional personal and professional support from the time I arrived in Toronto in the fall of 2009. Thank you for your faith in my project and for constantly pushing me to think critically about both theoretical and methodological issues. Your critical thinking, patience and assistance (especially in times of crisis) have made completing this project possible.

I am also deeply indebted to Prof. Ju Hui Judy Han and Prof. Rachel Silvey who joined as members of my committee without hesitation. I gained invaluable insight from reading your work and hearing your comments about mine.

I wish to acknowledge the support of my colleagues, including both students and faculty in the Geography and Planning Department. Prof. Robert Lewis and Prof. André Sorensen, thank you for your trust in opening the doors of teaching for me. Thanks are also due to Prof. Ahmed Allahwala and Prof. David Roberts for their guidance in teaching, as well as to the diligent Graduate Program Administrator, Jessica Finlayson, for her help at various stages during my tenure.

I owe many thanks to the ISEF Foundation and the Andrea and Charles Bronfman Philanthropies that supported this research.

I am particularly grateful to Dr. JP Catungal, Nehal El- Hadi, and Dr. David Seitz who have been exceptional friends throughout this journey. A special thanks to David Fisher, for many interesting and challenging conversations about race, religion, and geo-politics. Krysta Pandolfi is deserving of thanks for her friendship and intellectual discussions on Italians, Jews, indigeneity, and whiteness in Canada.

A big thank you goes to my interview subjects, whose names are protected for confidentiality.

Thank you for your courage, for your openness, and for sharing your time and experiences with me, even when I disagreed with you. You have challenged me to revisit my understandings of identity, belonging, and citizenship in numerous ways. Without you, this dissertation could have not been written.

I am grateful to my family and friends worldwide, for their continuous support. My dear mother, Gila Sarussi-Arviv, thank you for raising me with awareness of a ‘higher power’, teaching me humility, and sharing with me your childhood memories. Your wisdom guide me in every step I take and in every word I write.

–  –  –

Scenario #1 A young woman sits on a bus in Toronto on the way home from the university.

The bus is filled with people from a wide diversity of cultures, and age groups – a level of diversity that she has become accustomed to since moving from Israel to Toronto two years ago. After one stop, a young, lighter skinned man of about the same age moves to sit down next to her, hoping to strike up a conversation. After hearing her talk on the phone in Hebrew for a few minutes, he asks her where she is from. She replies that she is from Israel and a surprised look crosses the young man’s face. “Are you Jewish?” he asks, in an incredulous tone. “Of course,” she replies. Curious, he begins to press her. “Oh, me too! But I wouldn’t have known

- you don’t look Jewish!”. Offended and irritated – this has happened before since she moved here – the young woman explains that her parents came to Israel from India and Iraq, that she certainly is Jewish, and that, actually, more Jews in Israel look like her than like him. The young man seems quite surprised; “I guess I knew Jews can be kind of dark, but I never heard of Jews from India!”

Scenario #2

A darker-skinned Jewish man in his early 40s sits on a bus in Toronto. As the bus approaches a stop, an older woman wearing a headscarf scans the passengers, focuses in on the man with a look of relief, and approaches him. She then begins to ask him something in Arabic. Although the man, who mainly speaks Hebrew, can in fact recognize many of her words, he freezes with a sense of alarm and without thinking quickly stammers in English: “I’m sorry, I don’t understand what you’re saying.” As the woman leaves the bus looking confused, the man begins to feel ashamed, realizing that he in fact did understand enough to help her find her stop. He thinks to himself how much this woman looks and sounds like his own late grandmother, and realizes how automatic his fear of his own grandparents’ first language has become.

Scenario #3 A group of Mizrahi (Jewish of Middle Eastern descent) Israeli immigrants in their mid-40s sits in a Kosher café in Thornhill on a break from work, loudly arguing in Arabic-tinged Hebrew about Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu’s latest speech.

At the next table sits a Canadian-born Jewish couple in their 70s having coffee.

The man, who recognises the group as Israeli, whispers to his wife: “Listen, you know how much I love and support Israel, but if our ‘brothers from the Middle East’ are going to come over here you’d think they would try to learn some social skills. Talk about reinforcing stereotypes about ‘the loud obnoxious Jews’!

They’re bringing us right back to where we started!” They ask the waitress if they can move to another table.

After apologizing to the couple, the two Israeli-born Ashkenazi (Jews of European decent) waitresses stand by the kitchen eyeing the group of men disapprovingly.

With a smile, one of the waitresses says to the other: “No wonder the Canadians hate us Israelis.” Her co-worker replies in annoyance: “It’s because of “Arsim” (a racialized term for Mizrahi men) like them that I left Israel in the first place. Let them stay over with all the Arabs, yelling and complaining like that while we actually make our lives better here like the Canadian Jews”.

All three of these mock scenarios, which are based on my own experiences as a Jewish immigrant from Israel in Toronto, as well those of participants who I interviewed for this study, exemplify the intersections of race, religion, migration, nationality, and geo politics, that materialise everyday among members of a heterogeneous ethno-religious group – ‘the Jews’.

Despite their cultural, political, and racial diversity, Jews are treated as a largely monolithic group in North America (Train, 2006; Kaye/Kantrowitz, 2007; Levine- Rasky, 2008; Haynes, 2013).

Using narratives presented in my interviews with a diverse range of Jewish Israeli immigrants to Canada as a guide, this thesis examines ways in which Jewish migrants from Israel living in the Greater Toronto Area (the GTA) understand, negotiate and perform their identities, belongings, and citizenship upon migration, both individually in their everyday lives, and collectively in public spaces. Interwoven with these narratives and self-interpretations, I present social, historical, and political contexts that frame the complex ways in which religion, race, and geopolitics intersect and are complicit in migrants’ identities, belongings, experiences, and spatial practices, as they move between Toronto, Israel, and other lands of ancestry. Yet, it is the narratives themselves that are at the centre of this work.

My study foregrounds the actual lived experiences, offering interpretive framings exploring the subjectivities of Jewish immigrants from Israel living in Toronto, collected through two ethnographic methods: semi-structured interviews and participant observation1. In placing the migrants’ stories at the center of this study, I adopt some of the tenets from recent approaches in social and cultural geography that seek to escape the ethnocentrism, masculinism, and economism that have dominated the discipline of human geography (see Silvey and Lawson, 1999: 27; Silvey, 2013: 419). Most studies of migration have attempted to analyze “the experiences of `the immigrant', as an objective analytical category, rather than the experiences of `an immigrant' (Kelly and Lusis, 2006:831). I have chosen the latter. As Walton-Roberts (2003) notes, “human mobility cannot be comprehended through a language of economic rationale alone, but must be interpreted as involving socially grounded processes imbued with thick cultural meaning” (236). By providing critical ethnographies of migration, feminist and antiracist geographers illustrate that cultural geographies of migration are intermeshed with social relations of power, including the politics of gender, race, class, and religion.

Attention to these types of lived geographies reveals “the political dimensions of migrants’ cultural geographies [illustrating] that cultural geographies of migration are political geographies” (Silvey, 2013:


The choice to study Jewish Israeli immigrants had much to do with my own position as a member of that group. It presents an opportunity to examine a deeply complex set of questions regarding the political and social dimensions of identity through migration. These questions relate to the fact that Jews, when considered as a group, are simultaneously and sometimes interchangeably, associated with numerous categories of identity such as ethnicity, religion, culture, nation, and race. Such a degree of overlap is not uncommon amongst immigrant groups, though it is also not completely unique. Social and cultural geographers have yet to apply historical and geographically contingent forms of analyses to fully question how racial identifications and orientations intersect with religious identities amongst immigrants. There has been a particular lack of analysis exploring the experiences of Jews and Israelis, despite their complex positions between different types of identities.

The thesis is based on semi-structured interviews with forty-eight “first-generation” Jewish-Israeli immigrants living in Toronto (the GTA) and field observations at various community public events such as pro-Israeli protests and marches, Israeli national commemoration ceremonies and festivals, and Jewish holiday celebrations. The interviews and field observations were conducted between February 2011 and August 2014. The methodology will be discussed in greater depth in Chapter Two.

Academic scholars, particularly in Israeli diaspora studies, have long tended to generalize Israeli immigrants as Zionist, white and/or Western diasporic subjects (Gold, 2001; 2002; 2013; Rebhun and Lev Ari, 2010:31; Mittleberg and Waters, 1992; Sobel, 1986; Kass and Lipset, 1982).

Scholars have contributed greatly to the problematic parcelling of Jewish identities both inside and outside of Israel. Furthermore, they have seldom acknowledged that the choice of any one or two types of Jewish identity in ethnographic research (such as religious group, or ethnicity, or a race) implies its own set of contextual assumptions, political projects and outcomes.

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