Book notice

Harold F. Schiffman haroldfs at
Mon Jan 17 14:43:08 UTC 2005

Forwarded from Linguist-List,

AUTHOR: Lefkowitz, Daniel S.
Words and Stones: The Politics of Language and Identity in Israel
 SERIES: Oxford Studies in Anthropological Linguistics
Oxford University Press 2004
 Announced at

 Jaqueline S. du Toit, Department of Afroasiatic Studies, Sign Language &
 Language Practice, University of the Free State (South Africa)

 "Words and Stones" is an accessible and erudite ethnographic
investigation of the social interplay and ethnic negotiation of identity
and choice created by the three official languages spoken in Israel:
Hebrew (the "dominant" language); Arabic (the mother tongue of both
Israeli Arabs and many Mizrahi Jews); and English. The book is largely
based on interviews conducted by the author and a number of assistants
during the early 1990s in Haifa, Israel. "Words and Stones" includes a
thorough theoretical overview of matters related to the negotiation of
identity, memory and space, as well as of the application thereof in
addressing crosscultural encounters (chapter 4); social organization and
language learning (chapter 5);  identity in public culture (chapter 6);
and, language and the negotiation of Arab and Sabra identities (chapters 7
and 8, respectively). "Words and Stones"  will appeal not only to a
specialized audience of sociolinguists and anthropologists (especially,
linguistic anthropologists), but will also find an appreciative audience
among scholars interested in the Middle East and in
 matters of language, identity and social transformation.

 This book is an invaluable contribution to an ever growing body of
literature on matters of identity formation. The Middle East, and
particularly Israel, is of course laden with added significance because of
its colonial past, but also because of the religious significance of the
geography. Lefkowitz states his purpose as an examination of "Israeli
national identity, looking at the ways in which it is imagined and at the
ways various imaginings are deployed in the semiotics and politics of
everyday life," (page 5). He deftly achieves this purpose in the analysis
of the "ongoing recreation, redefinition, and reapplication of nationalist
imaginings,"  (page 5) of discourse. Lefkowitz moves away from a
traditional Western emphasis on the lexical and syntactic significance in
speech, to highlight socially significant messages relayed by
conversational interchange. Matters such as physical setting; identity of
the speaker (or the identity the speaker assumes during the speech act);
participants in the interaction; and the language, dialect, style and
genre (page 24); are addressed. The value of his contribution lies in the
realization of the power imbedded in the use of language as means of
expression of nationalist imaginings.

 As a hotbed of ever changing cultural, political and religious
affiliation and borders, the State of Israel proves itself the ideal
subject for studying the social negotiation of identities by means of the
instrument for societal interchange par excellence: language. In a country
where every subject and object is laden with multiple layers of memory and
meaning (political, cultural, religious, etc.), none is more so than the
choices made, the choices enforced and the liberties negotiated by means
of language.  As instrument of social interaction, Lefkowitz successfully
highlights the importance of strategic language manipulation (in both the
choice of language and the command of the chosen language) in identity
formation for the private and public sphere.

 The three main role players in Lefkowitz's study of this multilingual
community are the Ashkenazi Jews, the Mizrahi Jews, and the Palestinian or
Arab Israeli's. Both Mizrahi Jews (originating from North African and
Middle Eastern countries) and Arab Israeli's are predominantly Arab
first-language speakers. Yet, because of the resurrection of Hebrew as
spoken language in the relatively recent past, and the centrality of this
language to the political philosophy of the Zionist movement, the choice
of Hebrew or the shunning thereof, becomes an important political
statement. The Mizrahi Jews' negotiation of their hybrid identity (Jewish
by ethnicity, yet Arab by language) becomes a particularly poignant aspect
of this study. Lefkowitz looks at the significance of first and second
language speakers' adeptness in manipulating language to their advantage
and the choices made depending on social circumstances. Thus the author
underscores the importance of his decision to highlight physical setting
and especially the identity of the speaker and the participants in this
ethnographic study of language use.

 The author succeeds in his aim to provide insights into social
 transformation by means of this study and successfully highlights the
 important relationship between language and culture. "Words and Stones"
 is highly recommended to scholars of language, anthropology and, indeed,
 scholars of the culture and politics of the Middle East.


 Jaqueline du Toit is senior lecturer in Afroasiatic Studies and Language
Practice at the University of the Free State. She teaches biblical Hebrew
and Aramaic in the Afroasiatics programme, and Critical Linguistics and
Document Design in the Language Practice Programme of the Department. Her
research interests include the study of language in a multilingual

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