of synagogues, incarceration, privilege, and discourse…

by tobybee

First off, apologies for my internet silence over the last month. I’m currently travelling, and while I’ve had the best intentions of blogging while away, (un)surprisingly, that just hasn’t happened. And I finally made it to New York a week ago, and have collapsed in a pile of tissues and throat lozenges. Apparently going through three continents in three days will hurt your immune system. Who’d have thought?


If I went back, I’d tell you about the Ben Ezra Synagogue in Cairo, which I was massively excited to see. For those unaware, the Ben Ezra Synagogue is where the Cairo Geniza was located – the storehouse of documents that Solomon Schechter took to Oxford, and which has been subsequently used by all manner of historians (most famously, I suppose by S.D. Goitein) to write histories of the Egyptian Jews. Unfortunately – as is the way with the things one most wants to see – when we finally made it to the Synagogue, which is located in beautiful, ancient, Coptic Cairo, it was five minutes to closing time on my last afternoon in Egypt. But we went in, and talked our way into staying a few extra minutes and wandering around. We found out where the Geniza documents were taken from, which was this tiny hole in the wall at the top of the second floor. Unfortunately no photos could be taken, and there was no time for any more sweet-talking, so we were left with just a moment in an incredibly stunning synagogue: a synagogue which has existed as such since the thirteenth century, and which was so intricately and beautifully designed as to be almost overwhelming. It was a moment. And then the doors were shut and we had to leave.

And from that moment of Mediterranean Jewish history – of past, present and future bound up in one space – two weeks later I found myself in New York, and on our first night here we (my travelling buddy and I) saw one of (post)modernity’s great Jewish thinkers – Judith Butler – with Angela Davis and Lena Meari, and with some short clips from documentaries by Mai Masri – talking on the topic of “Carceral Politics in Palestine and Beyond: Gender, Vulnerability, Prison”. A point that each of them made in such brilliant fashion was that the Occupation of Palestine and Palestinians is fundamentally constructed by and through carceral politics. What is meant by ‘carceral politics’?  Basically, it’s the politics of incarceration. So, in the fact that the threat of incarceration by the Israeli State is a constant threat, and one which is constantly carried out against large segments of the Palestinian population: if you want to subdue a population, you keep them under constant threat of harassment, imprisonment, maltreatment, separation from family and friends. But it’s not just that the possibility of incarceration is ever-present (although that is fundamental to the project) but also that the length of time that one will spend incarcerated is potentially unknown, potentially unending. This is the regime of Administrative Detention. So everyone has a family member, or a close friend, who has been incarcerated under this regime. It’s literally ever-present, in a temporal and a spatial sense.

Butler made the argument that this system exists not to produce docile bodies who will willingly serve the state – as Foucault has taught us it does – but rather the system works to produce empty bodies who can be incarcerated. The carceral system is the endpoint in a system of colonisation: the colonisation is made (in large part) of the incarceration system. The Occupation rests on it. (to read an important, and incredible moving, account of what it’s like to be the wife of someone imprisoned on administrative detention you should look here, where Sara writes, in part: “I asked friends of mine in Beit Ommar why no one wrote an article for the newspaper about the experience of Palestinian wives of prisoners, and if they’d like me to help them write one in English. Everyone of them laughed. “Ya Bekah”, they said, “who would read it? It’s not news, it’s life.” The wife of a Popular Committee member in Beit Ommar asked me if I’d like to write something about how to cook chicken “the Palestinian way”; it would be more news-worthy.”)

It was quite a panel, filled with amazing insights and extraordinary thinking.

And since then, of course, it’s been Pesach – and Pesach in New York means so many many different types of matzah (egg matzah without the yolk, anyone??), and seders with various different people (including a first night Haggadah-less seder which was filled just with questions and discussion; second night with haggadahs, more questions, and good friends from home; third night at a 40 person Queer Seder in Brooklyn) – as well as last night going to an amazing/crazy klezmer gig in the basement of a shul in the East Village. I’m hoping to write a proper post about the seders – there was so much (earnest) goodness there – so I’ll leave it at that, with a not really ending to this long(ish) post. That’s what you get when I’m writing when sick, I s’pose…