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Keepers of The History: Women and the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict

KEEPERS OF THE HISTORY: WOMEN AND THE ISRAELI-PALESTINIAN CONFLICT by Elise G. Young (Teacher’s College Press, Columbia University, 1992, $38 / $17.95).

Unlike Philippa Strum [above], who sees tremendous changes in Palestinian society as a result of women’s participation in the Intifada, radical feminist Elise Young is far less sanguine.

She eschews nationalism and looks forward to a day when both peoples “transcend the boundaries of nation-state patriarchalism.” And while the Middle East puts its own cultural spin on patriarchal control, the question, she says, is one of nuance, not substance.

Young offers violence against women as an example. Such violence, she writes, is central to war, central to nationalism. In fact, the Hebrew word for penis is zayin, which is also the word for weapon. The phrase for Israel’s armed forces can thus translate as “an army equipped with penises,” and the verb meaning “to take to arms” also means “to have sexual intercourse… ” The use of penis as weapon is linked to penetration of the earth through modern military and industrial technology.”

Keepers of the History is intent on placing the Intifada in a broad context of male control over women (Young names it the domination of land and women), and she provides readers with an incisive history of the region. Her focus on Jews from Arab countries and their roles in creating/opposing Zionism is fascinating, as is her analysis of the creation of ideology around ‘Western versus Eastern social mores.

Still, the book’s political outlook seems rigid, paying little attention to the reasons some women opt for nationalism over coalition with other women, or choose women’s committees which focus exclusively on nationalist concerns. And, while she mentions class, her analysis is fundamentally class-blind. Nonetheless, Keepers of the History is a provocative, woman-centered analysis of a conflict that is rarely viewed in terms of gender politics.