DSQ > Fall 2007, Volume 27, No.4

Israel/Palestine is a contested space with varying and conflicting perspectives, which affect notions of ability and normality. This contested space provides a unique and interesting locale in which to examine questions of disability formation, activism, policies, laws, ideologies and representations. The significance of the locale cannot be overstated: Israel is a relatively new nation-state with ancient but evolving traditions; its people have been both victims and victimizers; Israel/Palestine exists in a constant state of military alert and everyday violence; there are tensions between Palestinians and Jews, Ashkenazi and Mizrachi Jews, and other groups; religious and secular philosophies often clash; and the penetration of global capital and privatization have widened the gap between rich and poor. As all these factors converge, dis/ability becomes an increasingly important arena of struggle for both dominant and subjugated groups. The special section of DSQ focuses on this fascinating and controversial site.

In recent years, many exciting developments have been taking place in Israel, with a growing focus on disability rights law and activism, and a budding Disability Studies network. In 2006, the first disability studies-related conference took place in Tel Aviv, "Disability Studies as a Field of Human Rights Inquiry and Teaching: US-Israel Binational Conference." Sponsored by the Commissioner for Equal Rights of People with Disabilities, the conference served as a catalyst for initiating a set of conversations about introducing Disability Studies to the Israeli academy and public. It was attended by academics as well as activists and professionals, in an attempt to foster inter-group dialogues among all the participants. This effort to create a broader discourse on disability-related issues also brought forth tensions between attendees about the definition of doing work related to disability, the critical edge of disability studies, and the difference between these two. This conference also provided an opportunity for the Israeli public to meet people who do Disability Studies in the US and people who teach and work in the area of disability in Israel. The meeting was a pioneering attempt at discussing Disability Studies in Hebrew and examining the extent to which the American and European conceptualizations of disability apply in the Israeli context.

The "Disability Studies as a Field of Human Rights Inquiry and Teaching" conference was followed up by two additional conferences, also sponsored by the Commission for Equal Rights of People with Disabilities. The first discussed the experiences of psychiatric survivors and stigma; and the second, entitled "Between Freedom and Personal and Social Responsibility in a Human Rights Era: People with Disabilities in the 21st Century in Israel," dealt with social responsibility in relation to disability rights. 2008 will mark another major Israeli Disability Studies conference; this conference will take place at Bar-Ilan University. The impact of this future conference remains to be seen, but its planning serves as a testimony to the growing interest of the Israeli academy in the field of Disability Studies.

The activities, ideologies, and platforms of new NGOs have contributed to the broader context in which Disability Studies initiatives have emerged, and have helped facilitate a redefinition of disability in Israel. One of the first NGO's working in Israel on issues of disability rights is Bizchut (which literally means "By Right," as opposed to "by charity"). Bizchut, Israel's Human Rights Center for People with Disabilities, is a non-profit legal-advocacy center, established in 1992. More on this prolific and path-breaking organization can be found in this issue in the papers of Hila Rimon-Greenspan, Neta Ziv and others. A more recent organization founded in 1999, Access Israel, is a non-profit organization dedicated to making Israel an accessible place for all its citizens, including those living with an array of disabilities. Another organization which has widened the discourse on disability is Shatil, a non-profit organization funded by the New Israel Fund, which has the mission of providing guidance to grassroots social-change initiatives. In 2002 Shatil sponsored a course for emerging leaders in the disability community (on which you can read more in the article by Israel Sykes et. al). Around the same time, the first Center for Independent Living opened up in Israel. In its newly renovated location in Jerusalem, it serves as an axis through which Disability Studies, as well as activism and principles of the independent living movement, are brought to a wider audience.

This special issue supplements and strengthens this trend of growing interest in critical disability research and activism. These articles, which complement, build upon, or are in dialogue with one another, also set the stage for understanding the ideological, cultural, and political arena that has shaped the development and enactment of disability representations, institutions, and policies. Several articles provide an entry into disability experience through ethnography and qualitative, firsthand research. Several contributions explore different facets of the disability rights movement, including the emergence of disability rights activism and leadership. And finally, a few pieces address aspects of the legal and administrative frameworks in which rights-based issues are interpreted and implemented.

Sandy Sufian opens the issue with an examination of representations and policies concerning mental illness in Palestine during British Mandate rule. She looks specifically at stereotypes constructed by Ashkenazi (western, central, and eastern European) Jews of themselves, Sephardic/Mizrachi (Jews of Spanish or Middle Eastern descent), and Arab Palestinians, focusing uniquely on depictions of the mental states of these groups. She considers how these stereotypes influenced Jewish-Arab relations, as well as Ashkenazi immigration policies for Jews coming from Europe or the Middle East, and how these policies, in turn, influenced the social and medical treatment of Jews classified as mentally ill in Palestine.

Sagit Mor follows with an investigation of the immigration and recruitment debates and policies concerning Mizrachi Jews in the years immediately following Israel's rise to statehood. Mor demonstrates how the carry over of representations from the British Mandate period, as described by Sufian, influenced these considerations but become even more magnified without the imposed constraints of external political entities. Mor discusses the conflation of disability images with images of Mizrachi Jews, and how the blended and nebulous characterization of these images made both groups unwanted, and how then some family members were deliberately left behind in their home countries. Sadly, the Israeli public is only now being made aware of such stories and the contradictions such stories reveal concerning the application of the "ingathering of the exiles" to Mizrachim and the disabled.

Noam Ostrander and Eynat Shevil bring the subject of representation of body images up to the contemporary moment by conducting a preliminary study of media depictions of Jews injured in terrorist attacks during the second Intifada. They review articles from a widely-disseminated Jewish newspaper, which focused on Jews who died or were disabled during the specific period of this Jewish-Palestinian conflict. They also provide some tentative analysis of why articles about those who died in this conflict were much more prevalent than those who were injured and/or disabled. All three of these articles (Sufian, Mor, Ostrander and Shevil) are connected by the significance of body ideals constructed by Ashkenazis during the British Mandate, as a reaction to anti-Semitic mind-body constructions that impinged upon their experiences in the European Diaspora. Ironically, yishuv (pre-state Jewish community) or Jewish Israeli efforts to "cure" the tainted Diaspora body have contributed to the marginalization of disabled Jewish bodies within the Jewish body politic.

In a more ethnographic vein, Shifra Kisch reports on her anthropological fieldwork with deaf Bedouin from the Negev desert in the south of Israel. The Bedouin are native Arab inhabitants of this region; there are high rates of hereditary deafness found in some of their communities, from which an indigenous sign language has evolved. Kisch concentrates her work on changing patterns of marriage and schooling among deaf Bedouin, and the ways in which these shifts are intertwined. She further documents how these shifts have differentially affected Bedouin men and women, bringing men into contact with notions of Deafhood that encourage deaf community-building and deaf-deaf marriages. Kisch engages the literature on the status and consciousness of disabled and deaf women to illustrate why these conceptual frameworks don't necessarily capture the intersectional position of the deaf/Bedouin/female.

Carolyn Gutman's research on blind Jewish-Israeli parents also uses qualitative techniques. In Israel, parenting is an especially cherished role, making the implications of her research most significant for the parents themselves and for the variety of institutions with which these parents interact. Gutman doesn't just focus on the challenges of, and negative societal attitudes toward, blind parents; she also underscores the rewards and achievements of parenting as well. Perhaps most importantly, she asks the parents themselves what supports they would like to see in place to facilitate their parenting role, which in turn, has served as a catalyst for the emergence of blind-parent gatherings. Taken together, Kisch's and Gutman's work contribute positively to a growing body of comparative empirical research on the lived experiences of individuals or groups with single impairments, contesting theoretical, societal, and cross-cultural assumptions concerning these groups.

Besides the strengthening of disability-related research in recent years, Israel had also experienced its share of activism around disability issues. One of the most pivotal moments in disability activism in Israel was in the major protests of 1999 and 2001. Hila Rimon-Greenspan's article analyzes these protests as a form of contentious politics and connects them to more traditional political legal advocacy, conducted by the Bizchut organization, discussed above. Rimon-Greenspan employs Ulrich Beck's definition of subpolitics to demonstrate how these platforms (protests and legal rights-based advocacy) contributed both to making disability more visible and created a shift in the way disability was perceived. Rimon-Greenspan demonstrates how Israeli disability policy and legislation have gradually shifted from a needs-based to a human rights and equality-based platform, and she details the changes that still need to occur to create a full paradigm shift in the way disability is viewed by its activists.

But did disability protests start in 1999, as many researchers, activists, and the media like to portray them? Sharon Barnartt and Rachel Rotman show us that contentious politics have been used in Israel in relation to disability in intervals throughout the years. Through event-history analysis, they provide a quantitative description of 36 disability-related protests (as displayed in the media), which occurred between 1970- 2006. Their surprising findings suggest that, in fact, 1999 and 2001 were not the most protest-heavy years in relation to disability. They also found that the majority of the demands made in these protests concerned services, not rights. Although this article differs in scope and methodology to that of Rimon-Greenspan, taken together, they provide a wide description, and somewhat conflicted analysis, of the possibilities and actualities of the emergence of a disability movement in Israel.

Israel Sykes, Eyal Menashe, Elliot Lazerwitz, Ayala Vlodavsky and Limor Zagha-Shabbat's article demonstrates disability activism in action. The writers of this article are the facilitators and some of the participants in the leadership course for people with disabilities, sponsored by Shatil (discussed above). The authors detail the course process through their use of personal-reflection narratives by the course participants, synthesized together and reflected upon by the course facilitators. One of the most fascinating elements of the course was the explicit attempt to make it cross-disability, intentionally incorporating a significant number of people with psychiatric disabilities. Honestly and vividly, the participants reflect on their attempts to think critically and create coalitions "across disability." The production of this article for this special issue is, in itself, an act of activism and an effort for social change.

Many of the articles in this volume touch upon legal developments in the field of disability in Israel. Neta Ziv's and Dina Feldman's articles take the law as their primary subject matter. Dina Feldman, who is the acting Commissioner for Equal Rights of People with Disabilities, connects two seemingly unrelated concepts — environmental justice and disability law. She demonstrates the parallel concerns between environmental justice, as defined by the UN Aarhus Convention, and disability law, as seen in both the UN Convention on the Rights of People with Disabilities and the regulations detailed in Israel's Equal Rights of Persons with Disabilities Law, enacted in 1998. Feldman finds that disability rights law has a great potential for achieving environmental justice, which can lead to the creation of barrier-free environments and increase the right to participate in decision-making regarding the creation of such inclusive environments. Feldman concludes by stating that Israel still has a long way to go in order to realize this vision, as it is only in the first steps of implementation of its own disability equality law.

Neta Ziv's article also deals with legal issues in relation to disability but from the perspective of its users. In 2005 Israel enacted a comprehensive law requiring accommodations for persons with disabilities in the justice system. The law applies to police investigations and court testimonies of persons with mental and cognitive disabilities. Ziv's paper probes the encounter between the justice system and the so-called helping professionals at the evidentiary stage, when persons with mental and cognitive disabilities testify in court about crimes committed against them. Ziv discusses the implications of implementing this law in actuality, as it involves the expertise of therapeutic professionals in testing the truth claims of witnesses with cognitive and mental disabilities. Ziv not only investigates the problematics of the law as it collides with its implementation, but sees it as a site of investigating truth claims in a court settings in general as well.

As with every anthology, it is important to note not only what it includes, but perhaps equally important, what it omits. Most obviously, this issue was named "The State of Disability in Israel/Palestine"; yet it does not contain any articles written by Palestinians or directly dealing with the state of disability in the occupied territories. This significant lacuna was related to many logistical and political circumstances, including an inability to communicate directly with Palestinians who do disability work (due to language barriers, as well as physical ones, lack of access to Arabic-language Internet sites, and the inability of the editors to tap into a local disability network which may or may not be in place). It remains unclear to us whether there is a budding or even thriving Disability Studies community in the territories and elsewhere. Bearing these difficulties in mind, we decided to leave the title of this special issue as is. One of the main reasons is to acknowledge that Israel and Palestine are interrelated. Indeed, we have two authors (Sagit Mor and Sandy Sufian) who separately discuss how disability was defined, produced and reproduced in mandatory Palestine, and later on, in Israel. The territory was the same, but the dominant ideology, mainly Zionism, transformed the space and lives of the people inhabiting it. The second reason is that the issue does contain articles dealing with the Jewish-Palestinian conflict (Ostrander and Shevil) and with Arab populations (Kisch).

Another lacuna in this special issue is the lack of focus on army/military disabled. In Israel, there is a significant gap between the army and civilian disabled in terms of status and access to resources. There is little presence of military disabled, as a collective, in activist spheres due to their desire to preserve their role as those who have sacrificed for the Zionist project or due to a perceived threat in sharing (and the threat of losing) resources with a broader disability community. Although many of the contributors touch upon the hierarchy of disability in Israel in relation to veterans' status, none investigate this topic in depth. While knowledge of this group would be invaluable as a lens into its social formation, dynamics, and identity politics, the articles in this issue focus less narrowly on policies, laws, and representations that have impacted or impact the most disenfranchised, or activities in which the least privileged have participated. Of course, openings in the disability rights and Disability Studies arena potentially benefit both groups. A greater understanding of the military disabled might provide avenues for dialogue between these populations. Likewise, the military disabled might gain critical insights concerning their ideological and social positioning from the civilian disabled who occupy the margins.

In short, while there are gaps in the material covered by this issue, we consider this endeavor to mark a beginning (but not The beginning) of a very exciting opportunity for exchange between Israeli, North American, and international scholars and activists, as well as an impetus for further research on the Israeli/Palestinian disability scene. Enjoy!

Return to Top of Page


Copyright (c) 2007 Liat Ben Moshe, Sumi Colligan



Volume 1 through Volume 20, no. 3 of Disability Studies Quarterly is archived on the Knowledge Bank site; Volume 20, no. 4 through the present can be found on this site under Archives.

Beginning with Volume 36, Issue No. 4 (2016), Disability Studies Quarterly is published under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives license unless otherwise indicated. 

Disability Studies Quarterly is published by The Ohio State University Libraries in partnership with the Society for Disability Studies.

If you encounter problems with the site or have comments to offer, including any access difficulty due to incompatibility with adaptive technology, please contact libkbhelp@lists.osu.edu.

ISSN: 2159-8371 (Online); 1041-5718 (Print)