Conflicted loyalties fuel visiting scholar's research

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Orit Gazit (Photo by Rebecca Kendall)

Orit Gazit, an incoming post-doctoral fellow at the Nazarian Center for Israel Studies, examines issues of nationalism, transnationalism and identity in the aftermath of political struggle.

“I think that understanding what states do beyond their borders and how these state interventions affect the identity of the locals, and the way it might change their whole perspective, identity and practice of the local people, is important.”

The Middle East has had a tumultuous history rife with conflict and fierce loyalties. In the aftermath of one such struggle, issues of identity and transnationalism emerged, sparking a stream of research for one young scholar.

Orit Gazit has been awarded a one-year post-doctoral fellowship from the UCLA Nazarian Center for Israel Studies. In this role, she’ll be working in UCLA’s sociology department and playing an active role in the academic activities of the Center for Israel Studies and the UCLA International Institute. This fellowship is her second one in as many years. Last year, she was selected as a Rothschild post-doctoral fellow in UCLA’s Department of Anthropology.

While at UCLA, Gazit is teaching a class about Israeli society and sociology and its connection to migration and diasporas within Israel. She is also continuing to research issues of nationalism, transnationalism and identity, topics that first intrigued her as a student at Hebrew University of Jerusalem, where she earned undergraduate, masters and Ph.D. degrees in sociology and anthropology and international relations, as well as a law degree.  

Her current research is focused on the legal and formal categories created by the state, as they relate to migrant groups with conflicting loyalties.

She says UCLA is an ideal location to conduct her research because it is well-known for its cutting-edge and comprehensive study of migration patterns and the flow of people from their ancestral homelands.

“I think that understanding what states do beyond their borders and how these state interventions affect the identity of the locals, and the way it might change their whole perspective, identity and practice of the local people, is important.”

Gazit’s doctoral dissertation, which she completed in 2010, focused on the South Lebanese Army (SLA), a group of Christian-Maronites from Southern Lebanon that collaborated with Israel in the Southern Lebanon - Israeli security zone for more than 20 years and then fled from Lebanon to Israel in May 2000 when Israel withdrew from their country.

“The Israeli state had to deal with approximately 7,000 people at Israel’s border,” she says, adding that less than 3,000 of those settlers remain there today. Some returned to Lebanon, while others went to other countries where they had family or job prospects.

“They then also had to cope with the Israeli reality, which is not simple at all with all the different groups and subcultures in Israel,” says Gazit, who is believed to be the first to study this particular group of migrants in exile.

 “I dealt with their identity and how their identity is constructed in relation to Lebanon, Israel, the Lebanese diaspora worldwide, and the legal and formal categories created by the Israeli state in relation to them.”

Her research started from scratch in a series of Jewish towns in Northern Israel. There, interviewed some 80 former SLA soldiers them over the course of four years. She wanted to learn more about how they perceived themselves after leaving their homes for what many of their countrymen deem to be enemy territory.  

She says the situation facing the South Lebanese Army was a complicated one because the people lived on the border between two states, and for many years they were under attack by different local forces due to the prolonged Lebanese civil war. They eventually felt like they had to choose a side in order to secure military protection, says Gazit. “Israel offered protection and it was in their interest to accept it.”

 What came out of these interviews was the moral discourse of betrayal and loyalty, blame and shame, she says.

“They are always questioning themselves about whether or not they were loyal to their Lebanese state since they collaborated with Israel and now that they live in Israel, and how they relate to the Lebanese people they left behind.”

She also conducted interviews with some of the government representatives who have been involved with setting policy and helping them immigrate and gain Israeli citizenship.

Today, life of the members of the former SLA and their families in Israel is colored by rejection from the Jewish majority and the Palestinian-Arab minority, where they live in the social, political and economic margins of Israeli society. Many are in poor mental and physical conditions and struggle to pay their rent with no job or professional prospects, she says.  Adding to the turmoil is the reality that the loved ones they left behind in Lebanon face grave danger if their former activities are made known. 

She says this topic interested her because she has always been interested in the idea of exiles— people, she says, who “don’t feel like they belong here or there and have a split identity and conflicting loyalties.”

Her master’s thesis examined another marginalized group who experienced a conflicted sense of identity: political exiles from Latin America who fled the military rule in nations such as Argentina, Brazil and Chile and ended up in Israel. She has also previously researched and written about Ethiopian immigrants to Israel.

Gazit’s recent publications include "Power and Examination: A Critique of Citizenship Tests" in Security Dialogue and the edited volume Collective Identities, States and Globalization – A Tribute to SN Eisenstadt.