JTNews: First, some basics. How old are you and where are you from?
Hannah Mayne: I’m 27 and I’m originally from Ottawa, Canada.
JT: We understand that you will be sharing ethnographic vignettes of women’s lives in West Bank settlements. Tell us a little more about your research and how you got onto this topic.
HM: I’m very much a student of sociocultural anthropology. At UF (the University of Florida), I worked very closely with Jack Kugelmass, an anthropologist who is well-known for his narrative work. Jack’s focus on stories and characters inspired me. I am also influenced by feminist theory and the value of paying attention to voices of those who are often not heard. I’m interested in what people have to say about their day-to-day lives, and how that might bump up against the way they are viewed in the media, or by those far away. Settlers, for example, are generally not thought of as people who don’t have their voices heard, but I began to wonder, on family visits, what women — and mothers specifically — have to say… if they have a different story to tell.
Of course, I also do not want to essentialize the difference between men and women, but most of the settlers are religious Jews and gender difference is indeed significant in that community. Women get a different education, and have different roles in the family, and they participate in community life in different ways.
How did I get onto this topic? Actually, I went to Israel to study something different, but I was visiting some of my husband’s family in the settlements and I became more and more intrigued by the contradiction between my political unease, and the warmth and beauty of the communities. I was (and continue to be) deeply troubled by the occupation of the territories, and yet, the Jewish communities are so pleasant. How did that happen? Radical religious ideologies didn’t seem to be the only answer. I wondered what had been written about the settlements in the field of anthropology, and I discovered that there was very little. So, after a lot of debating, I decided to delve into the subject.
JT: What are one or two interesting findings from your research?
HM: From the beginning, representation and diversity have been majors theme for me. Most of the ethnographic literature describes the settlers as fundamentalists, as crazy lunatics, really. But the truth is that “settlers” are not one homogenous group. There are many different kinds of people who move to the settlements for many different reasons. I’m interested in looking more closely at those motivations.
JT: Settlements are a charged topic. Do you face much controversy?
HM: It’s really tricky. I always have to be extremely sensitive about the terms I use, and depending on who I’m talking to, it can be challenging to talk about my research without receiving a cold shoulder.
It’s particularly challenging because I’m focusing on middle class settlements that are located literally right beside Palestinian towns, where the socioeconomic conditions are extremely different, and more importantly, where the inhabitants do not have basic civil rights. It’s not easy to just talk about the settlers without getting deeply into this major and crucial problem.
But, in a sense, what I’m trying to do is to ask people to move past the ideas and assumptions that they have in their minds, and for a few minutes to consider other voices, and to zoom-in closer into the issue. I find that many, many people have a view of the settlements that is quite distant. Both the settlers and the Palestinians are talked about a lot in the news, but many people don’t know what happens in the West Bank region, what things look like, who these people are as individuals.
JT: What’s the main thing you hope people will take away from your talk?
HM: I’d like people to get a sense for how complicated the situation really is. The conversations about the settlements, about the Palestinians, and also about Israel more generally, are too often painted in white and black; people are either left or right, either for or against the settlements, for example. I think that looking more closely at what is actually going on gives us a much deeper understanding about why and how exactly it’s happening, and, in addition, perhaps gives us some sense for how to move towards a more hopeful future. Right now many people are talking about the intense messiness of the West Bank map, and the impossibility of drawing boundaries between two potential states — but I am interested in looking at the geography on the level of human beings, and how listening carefully might make those boundaries less important.