One People, One Blood & Coffee and the Moral Order Precis
In One People, One Blood: Ethiopian – Israelis and the Return to Judaism, Don Seeman creates an ethnography which sheds light on the lived experiences of Ethiopian Israelis, specifically the “Feres Mura” through examining the cultural and political challenges that they face. In fact, Seeman’s book focuses on “the ‘Feres Mura’ experience of three separate but closely related spheres of state policy and bureaucratic practice that impinge upon them in mutually reinforcing ways: state immigration policy, public health practice, and the power of Israel’s religious establishment.” (3-4) Seeman, furthermore, wishes to examine claims of kinship as well as agency in religious transformation with regard to “Feres Mura” that go beyond the question of “Are they Jewish?” (29) Instead, Seeman argues that the “Feres Mura” dilemma is a “moral discourse” (32) and only when we stop reducing it to fit “fixed categories” (32) will we truly understand what is at stake for individuals. In fact, he criticizes individuals and scholars who have inadequately deciphered the dilemma of the “Feres Mura.” He writes, “In most cases, debates have focused on privileged moments of religious change – the moment of apostasy to Christianity or of return to Judaism —that are treated as starkly definitive and binary, either purely religious or completely instrumental.” (206) Therefore, Seeman argues that we cannot separate the “Feres Mura” dilemma from the broader cultural and political context that surrounds it and create orderly patterns of behavior; the choices of agency and religious decisions happen in social situations, not in a vacuum.
Seeman offers the same argument in his article, “Coffee and the Moral Order: Ethiopian Jews and Pentecostals Against Culture.” In discussing why Ethiopian Jews and Pentecostals often refuse to drink buna, Seeman pushes against framing such practices through cultural or theological patterns since they do not incorporate the disorganized and often confusing ways in which people think and behave every day in the world. Seeman writes,
Recognizing this everyday potential is not at all to detract from the uniqueness of Pentecostal conversion or to deny the importance of distinctive religious and ascetic practices to the emerging conversation about freedom… But it is intended to suggest that our consideration of these specialized practices should be reoriented to an existential and not just ritual or theological register so that continuities with everyday experience might be made more visible and examined across a broader social field. (11).
Thus, Seeman, similar to the point he makes in his book, argues that the choice not to drink buna is undeniably linked to the social context surrounding the individuals. While the case of the “Feres Mura” must be understood in conjunction with “state immigration policy, public health practice, and the power of Israel’s religious establishment” (3-4), the abstention of buna consumption “need[s] to be understood against an intersubjective horizon of emotionally fraught relationships with kin or neighbors, economic pressures, and the shifting, embodied experience of gender and sexuality.” (10-11)
Throughout his book, Seeman successfully achieves his aim of explaining the “Feres Mura” dilemma within the broader context in which it exists. In fact, not only does Seeman explain the “Feres Mura’ life, he also offers the readers an account of ethnographic research within this specific context. Seeman describes unique challenges for ethnography and leaves us with thought-provoking insights into the field of study. Similar to Kleinman and Wikan, the question of what is at stake for individuals is at the heart of Seeman’s book. Furthermore, methodologically, Seeman argues that in order to understand the experience of the “Feres Mura”, one must engage in an experience- near approach. Seeman writes, “Experience – near or cultural – phenomenological approach to ethnographic writing presumes that our first obligation is to the thick and detailed description not of culture but of what is at stake for real people in local settings – stakes that are patterned in important ways but never wholly defined by cultural considerations.” (6) Furthermore, Seeman concludes his book with the claim that “participant observation – by which I mean living intimately and in conjunction with strangers… is a necessary condition for the very possibility of understanding.” (209)
Living among individuals and trying to understand what is at stake for them means that we are also translating this understanding to readers who have not lived among those communities. Thus, our research bears ethical implications to the lives of the people we study. Not only are we writing about them, but we ought to think about how our writing influences them as well. Seeman brings our attention to this conundrum by stating, “We are also constrained – in a powerful and morally invigorating way – by the fact that the worlds we describe have lives that continue to grow beyond our texts and, with increasing frequency, to talk back.” (208) That being said, what happens when our interpretation of communities, although partially true, is not able to provide a full description of their experiences and thus does not do complete justice to their lives?
Another methodological challenge that Seeman has encouraged me to consider is the question of insider vs. outsider researcher. In chapter three, Seeman describes Messing’s encounter with the descendants of converts. Messing explains that his knowledge of the kin and his positionality helped form trust with his informant. Seeman, furthermore, writes, “Personal relationships are the very medium of knowledge for anthropology, and there is no reason at all for surprise that the existential position of the researcher – here a Jew, tentatively seeking contact with another Jew – made a crucial difference to what he was able to learn about this topic.” (78) A similar issue is brought up again in chapter six, during an Ethiopian-Israeli protest against racism. Seeman writes,
During the chaos of the demonstration, I mustered the courage to ask one young man with a placard what he meant by invoking the Holocaust, and he told me that for him, this was really a protest against racism. Yet when a persistent foreign journalist who had overheard our conversation began to ask leading questions about racism in Israel, he refused to repeat that assertion. Certain accusations, apparently, were still meant for local ears only. (154)
The two accounts of the interaction between researcher and informants beg several questions. How do we form trusting relationships with our informants? What happens if we cannot create trust with our informants? Is it more favorable to be an insider researcher or an outsider researcher? Who decides what it means to be an insider or an outsider? How does our ethnicity, race, religion, gender, and other factors of our identity as future ethnographers influence our research? Can we truly understand what is at stake for individuals if informants don’t trust us as researchers to reveal to us their experiences? I ruminate on these questions because I believe they bring helpful insights into my future research project and help me reflect on the kind of ethnography in which I’ll be involved.