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The Cultural Politics of Water Privatization in an Arab-Israeli Town


From Theodor Herzl’s utopian novel Altneuland, to Seth Siegel’s recent bestseller, Let There be Water, Israeli water development has preoccupied the Israeli and Jewish imagination. Traditional scholarship on water in Israel focuses on high politics and international relations; official policy and its associated techno-logics; or views water problems through a purely economic lens. My dissertation takes a “bottom-up” ethnographic approach to examining water politics. It offers a new framework for thinking about natural resources, and “nature” in Israel by demonstrating the role of struggles over “nature” in linking and shaping two processes that are often assumed to be separate and opposed: nation building on the one hand, and global capitalism on the other.

Drawing on five years of ethnographic and historical research in Israel, my dissertation, The politics of water privatization in an Arab-Israeli town, argues that local struggles over access to water in the context of water privatization, reveals the contradictory relationship between nation building with its rigid delineation of territorial boundaries on the one hand, and global capitalist development on the other. I show how connections between processes of water privatization and ongoing discrimination in the realm of planning have come together in distinctive ways in Kafr-al-Bahar, the Israeli-Arab town where I conducted my research. These convergences are forged at the level of ordinary practices. I emphasize, in particular, the way that notions of "nature" are central to these processes and connections. For instance, I focus on alternative local water histories that residents have revived in the context of water cutoffs and indebtedness, and how they provide a framework for understanding, contesting and engaging with water privatization and the notions of nature that inform these policies. Such notions include taken-for-granted assumptions about the nature of Arab political culture, of national service, and of market logic. The alternative water histories that residents have revived, challenge the national narrative about the nature of Kafr-al-Bahar’s relationship to water and to the nation. Such an approach to water politics in Israel advances emerging scholarship on the interconnections of nationalism with globalization in Israel by bringing it into conversation with geographical and anthropological literature on the cultural politics of nature and difference in Israel.

Everyday water politics, homely as they may seem, are forcing front and center the issue at the heart of Israel’s current legitimation crisis; namely, the tensions between the values and institutions of liberal egalitarianism and the ongoing realities of dispossession, exclusion, and segregation.

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