How Locals Became Settlers: Mizrahi Jews and Bodily Capital in Palestine, 1908-1948

Thesis Type:

PhD dissertation


This dissertation explores early twentieth-century Palestine through the lens of bodies and material culture. While histories of modern Palestine often treat “Jews” and “Arabs” as naturally distinct categories, I examine how these categories were constructed as racialized, embodied, and opposing identities. At a time when Palestine witnessed major changes— including the transition from Ottoman to British rule, mass Zionist settlement, shifting labor patterns, and the rise of Palestinian nationalism—residents made sense of their identities by spreading ideas about whose bodies were like, or unlike, their own. This dissertation focuses on Sephardi and Mizrahi (Eastern) Jews, many of whom lived in Palestine prior to modern Zionist settlement, which offers a unique lens to explore the process of Arab-Jewish boundary-making. At the turn of the twentieth century, Mizrahi Jewish bodies were not always clearly marked as exclusively “Jewish” or “Arab.” Their clothing, accents, and cultural tastes were often indistinguishable from those of their Muslim and Christian neighbors in Palestine. However, the growing colonial-national conflict in the 1920s and 1930s forced Mizrahi Jews to confront their position vis-à-vis Zionism and Palestinian nationalism. They adopted several strategies in light of this new reality. Many abandoned “Arab” clothing and accents in order to assimilate into the Ashkenazi-dominated Jewish community (Yishuv). In doing so, they helped produce a visual and sonic Arab-Jewish division on the ground. Others challenged the emerging divide by refusing to change their bodies. They expressed pride in their cultural and linguistic heritage in the Islamic world. Yet others selectively employed their “Oriental” bodies as a way to assert Zionist belonging and nativeness in Palestine.

This dissertation makes three broader contributions. First, using photographs, oral histories, material culture, and written sources, it illuminates how clothing, sounds, sexuality, and age become racialized in circumstances of colonial-national conflict. Second, while scholars often point to one “year zero” of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict based on the founding of a political movement, the outbreak of ethnic violence, or the publication of a specific document, I demonstrate that building a Jewish-Arab division demanded the constant policing of how individuals looked and sounded. Finally, the dissertation’s focus on Mizrahi Jews pushes scholars of settler colonialism to think beyond a local-versus-settler paradigm. Many Mizrahi Jews in Palestine were locals who also became part of a settler movement; they were, as I term them, “local settlers.” The story of this dissertation, then, is the story of how the locals became settlers.

Publisher's Version