Challenges of Doing Fieldwork under Fear and Fire in an Israeli Border Town
This essay offers some reflections on how long-term field research in conflict settings influences the research process and the researcher. In 2008–09 I did anthropological fieldwork in the Israeli town of Kiryat Shemona situated parallel to the northern border with Lebanon. The town of 25,000 residents is inhabited largely by Mizrahim, Jews descended from Arab and Muslim countries. In the 1950s, they were sent to peripheral regions to populate remote districts, prevent the return of the displaced Palestinian population and create an internal frontier against the neighbouring Arab countries considered hostile to the new state. Over the years, Kiryat Shemona has been the frequent target of Hezbollah-fired Katyusha rockets. The most notable response by Mizrahim to the Ashkenazi political dominance, economic hardship and existential insecurity has been the intensification of their bond with the political right and peripheral forms of ethno-nationalism. Before arriving at the field site I had prepared myself academically, and to my best ability, emotionally, to conduct fieldwork in a politicized setting and potentially under fire. A key challenge was how I would navigate the tension between maintaining an analytical capacity while informants sought endorsement of their angst and at times xenophobic attitudes. How would I feel listening to opinions I did not agree with or handle a situation where it was assumed that I would be sympathetic? Overt calmness and situational self-silencing emerged as combined coping strategies and research methodologies.
Weeks into fieldwork, I noted how some of the residents used “strength” as a spoken and behavioral code to deal with borderland anxieties. When I first met Keren, a Mizrahi middle-aged woman, one warm July afternoon in 2008, she welcomed me mockingly to the “Katyusha town.” As we walked around the neighbourhood she painstakingly pointed towards places that had been hit by Katyusha rockets during the second Lebanon war. An apartment building, a house, roads, streams and trees, all seemed to bear damage from the war. Past wars and trauma were part of collective memory and emerged as frequent themes of conversation. “We have learned to live with fear, we have gotten strong” was a phrase I often heard.
Faced with a rocket attack during the Gaza War in 2009, I had conflicting feelings about the situation I faced. The local population supported the military operation overwhelmingly. I knew that there was a great chance that Kiryat Shemona could be the target of rockets during my stay. While I opposed the war in Gaza, I sympathized with and shared the residents’ sense of fear. Early on the morning of January 14, 2009 I was awakened by the siren alert for incoming rockets, the tzeva adom (red code). I remained in my bedroom which was the fortified room of the house. It was built from solid concrete, but gave a false promise of protection. Shortly after the siren I heard a large sound of rockets followed by distant explosions. Keren and her husband called from outside that we had to seek shelter in their basement. I waited for a period of silence then ran across the yard. We all remained indoors that day, watching the news. The rockets landing near Kiryat Shemona were described as part of a solidarity attack by the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine.
Keren exhaled with a sigh of relief. “There is a word you need to know to live in Israel,” she said. “Balagan (mess). There is always balagan. We try to run a normal life. Whenever a rocket falls you seek shelter, then life continues. You can’t be afraid all the time.” Keren had been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress syndrome. “But it is not post. The post never comes. We are always in the midst of it,” she commented.
I realized that I too, had adopted their ideal of being strong and remained calm during fire. Keren remarked that my reaction meant that I was becoming though and strong, just like an Israeli. She turned my ability to endure hardship into a sign of stoicism, ascribing me with an insider status.
Several scholars of nationalism argue that the production of national sentiments can be a strategy to counter fear and become a source of moral grounding. Hastings argues that nationalist sentiments arise chiefly when and where a particular ethnic or national group feels that its character or importance is being threatened, for instance through external attack or an imagined threat or grievance (Hastings 1997:198). According to Giddens, the psychology of nationalism is that of an extraordinary emotional mood that occurs when ordinary life is disrupted (1985:218). In the context of an Israeli border town, ordinary life was affected by nationalist sentiments because conflict was not a relatively transitory condition but perceived as a permanent. The Jewish-Arab Palestinian conflict has, most of the time, been understood as “routine, immutable, an uncontrollable given, an eternal fate” (Kimmerling 2008:156).
During the build-up to the war in Gaza and in the midst of it, more emotional energy was invested in the symbols of nationhood. Blue and white Israeli flags were flown on balconies, streets and in social media profiles. Banners with slogans such as “We are all IDF” and “We love Tzahal” (Hebrew acronym for the IDF) idealised the warrior image of the soldiers and was intended to boost their morale. Members of the local yeshiva moved their prayer ceremonies from the synagogue out into public space. The residents appearedto symbolically move themselves from the periphery to the centre of the nation as key actors in the moral legitimization of war. In everyday life, I witnessed the anxieties associated with racism, inequality and marginalization that both Mizrahim and Arabs experienced. For Mizrahi residents, expressing anti-Arab and anti-Muslim sentiments had become a strategy to negotiate their position in the Israeli ethnic hierarchy.
Faced with both hot nationalism and banal xenophobia, I applied situational self-silencing as a combined coping strategy and research methodology. As an anti-occupation, non-Israeli student, my political views were different from the majority of the residents who were at times fiercely patriotic. I withheld some of my thoughts and feelings and bordered on an apolitical stance in order to establish and maintain relationships in the town. I did not share the extent of my critical view of the political right-wing developments within Israeli society. This partial self-silencing aimed at not offending or pushing away informants was a source of emotional stress. At times it generated a sense of loneliness and reinforced the feeling of being isolated.
Sometimes we do need to carry on observing the variable salience of social forces. However, it can be equally important knowing when to exit and draw a line. The first months of fieldwork I felt energetic and enthusiastic. The following six months, I adopted local coping strategies that allowed me to deal both with ordinary fear and dramatic events like a rocket attack. To deal with my own self-silencing I took brief trips out of town and stayed connected with friends through social media. However, toward the end of fieldwork in late spring 2009, I started to withdraw from data-gathering activity. I experienced a tension between my informants’ idealization of my strength and the actual anxiety I felt. Keren and her family had generously opened their lives to me but I could not share their (at times) strong xenophobia. While my surface appeared calm, my body was in a state of anxiety as I tried to no negotiate the ambiguous feelings I held. The unintended consequences of carrying on became a sense of leaving with loose ends.
If I had been more aware of tools for addressing anxieties, I would perhaps have been able to reduce its power and knowing when to exit. I propose that more sound guidelines for de-briefing are needed in the ethnography of violence. Post-fieldwork, the anthropologist could have a round of safe supervision, focusing on the affective dimensions of fieldwork. Sometimes one needs a distance to critical events to be able to reflect. The self is more than a research tool. We leave the field marked with new strengths and scars. The professional silence surrounding the potential emotional stress of fieldwork in conflict zones should be removed. Otherwise it can be challenging to carry on.
Cathrine Furberg Moe earned her anthropology PhD from London School of Economics. She is a senior researcher at Fafo Institute for Applied International Studies in Oslo, Norway. Her book Nationalism and the Politics of Fear in Israel: Race and Identity on the Border with Lebanon will be published this fall.