The rhetoric of rescue: "Salvage Immigration" Narratives in Israeli Culture

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As "imagined communities,"1 the nation-states of late modernity construct themselves in and through an array of globalized and localized discourses that often link notions of "homeland" and "diaspora." In a world characterized by large-scale population migrations, public discourses surrounding the issue of immigration make up a distinctive subclass of national and transnational discourses. Indeed, discourses on immigration and its regulation have been long-standing features of public debates concerning the construction and de-construction of national boundaries in many countries around the globe. Such discourses have found their articulation in such cultural-discursive arenas as the language of law and international agreements, popular press coverage, museum displays, school-related pedagogical materials, and commemorative occasions. Addressing large-scale immigrations as transformative junctures in the life of many modern nation-states, these public discourses serve to narrativize and make sense of mass immigration as a significant border-crossing phenomenon. The centrality of immigration discourses in the construction of national identities is recognized by Nicolaus Mills in his introduction to a volume of essays concerned with the argument over immigration policies in the American context, where he points out: "We cannot discuss immigration these days without also talking about the kind of country we are."2 Like other discourses of migration that form parts of the foundation mythologies of modern nation-states, such as the stories of the Mayflower and Ellis Island in the American context, the narratives of "salvage immigration" ('aliyot hatsalah) discussed in this essay thematize peoplehood through a particular construction of the immigration experience. In the Israeli and American cases alike, immigration is constructed as a moment of salvation, which simultaneously indexes a desire to become part of the new land and a decision to leave one's own homeland behind.3 Israeli discourses of aliyah - immigration conceptualized as "ascent" - have been crucially centered on the notion of rescue, marking the Zionist movement's goal of reestablishing the Jews' national homeland in Israel as a matter of personal and collective survival. While socialist versions of the Zionist movement have promoted a utopian vision of the Land of Israel as a site of national renewal, "catastrophic" versions of Zionism have foregrounded the hardships experienced by Jews in their lands of origins, as reflected in the labels 'aliyat metsuqah (immigration of distress) and 'aliyat hatsalah (salvage immigration).4 In the parlance of immigration scholars, the Zionist construction of the Land of Israel as a haven for persecuted Jews highlights the "push factors" that encourage migration to places where life and dignity can be more easily sustained, whereas the construction of the Land of Israel as a privileged site for the cultivation of a utopian and authentic Jewish peoplehood constitutes a distinctive "pull factor."5 The hegemonic versions of Zionist immigration narratives have variously combined reference to push and pull factors, with one or the other foregrounded. Pull factors, in the form of the promise of enhanced social, national, and spiritual possibilities, dominated tales of utopian return to a Jewish homeland. In contrast, salvage immigration narratives foreground the push factors associated with leaving behind the hardships of diaspora life. These narratives refer to well-orchestrated "rescue operations" (mivtsa'ei hatsalah) that took place in pre-state years, continued into the early years of statehood, and were later launched from time to time as the occasion arose. These operations have resulted in the transfer to Palestine/Israel of practically entire Jewish communities (or what was left of them) from countries in which Jews experienced collective distress. Operations from postwar Europe, Iraq, Yemen, North Africa, Ethiopia, and the former Soviet Union have received worldwide media coverage and have been inscribed in Israeli-Jewish collective memory as crucial components of Israel's nation-building ethos. This subgenre of immigration narratives, in which aliyah is constructed as a form of rescue, will be at the center of my analysis. In Israeli salvage immigration narratives, the nexus between immigration and rescue foregrounds the complementary sociopolitical roles of "rescuers" on the one hand and "rescued" on the other. The acknowledgment of these roles and their political implications takes us beyond transcendental tales of shared peoplehood and homecoming to the sociopolitical reality in which they are grounded. By addressing the cultural politics of Israeli immigration discourse, my goal is to attend to some of the ways in which notions of a Jewish homeland, Jewish diasporas, and the relationship between the two have been shaped and reshaped by the shifting historical circumstances of the past century. The following discussion will problematize the rhetoric of rescue in Zionist discourse as it is articulated in stories of salvage immigration, exploring the role that they have played in the cultural politics of Israel's nation-building saga. In so doing, I hope to show how hegemonic versions of Israeli-Zionist immigration discourse, cast in transcendental terms, often mask the fact that they are grounded in concrete and politically situated communicative events and ritual practices. As my analysis will bring out, counter-discourses that contest the widely circulated, dominant versions of salvage immigration narratives have emerged from the very start, subtly destabilizing the meanings and power relations associated with the hegemonic narratives of rescue.

Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationJewish Studies at the Crossroads of Anthropology and History
Subtitle of host publicationAuthority, Diaspora, Tradition
PublisherUniversity of Pennsylvania Press
Number of pages19
ISBN (Print)9780812243031
StatePublished - 2011

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • General Social Sciences


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