Saturday, July 08, 2006

Post-Colonialist Fantasies about the "Arab Jew"

I've had the pleasure of reading some very interesting Ha'aretz articles by Prof. Sasson Somekh, Israel's éminence grise of Arabic literature and a world renowned scholar of that field, in the past weeks. Somekh is one of a number of Jews who moved to Israel from Iraq in the 1950s and made their mark as academics and writers here.

It's always sad to me that anything written about Middle Eastern Jewry in English has to be prefaced by some obligatory background about the fact that there were once vibrant Jewish communities throughout the Middle East and North Africa. The great majority of these Jews fled/emigrated/were expelled after the establishment of the state of Israel in 1948, and the rise of Arab nationalist regimes.

To this day, discussions about the circumstances that caused the massive exodus of Jews from their homelands in the Middle East are highly politicized. There are many people who argue that the Jews who fled Syria, Egypt and Iraq, for example, are no less deserving of the sympathy that has been shown to Palestinian refugees. Scholars and pseudo-scholars of the post-colonialist, anti-Zionist persuasion, on the other hand, have adopted Mizrahi (Hebrew for "Eastern" as in "Oriental") Jews as honourary (but generally reluctant) members of the "victims-of-Zionist-Ashkenazi-imperialist-oppression" club. Generally, the highly politicized claim of these academics is that the Jews who immigrated to Israel were "Arab Jews", whose identity and language was Arab. The post-colonialists argue further that these "Arab Jews,", after being conned into coming to Israel, were forced to abandon their heritage and their true identity, along with their alleged sympathies for their "fellow Arabs", the Palestinians. In the writings of these people, some of whom are Israeli scholars and others foreigners, "Mizrahi" Jews are depicted as the good Jews who were somehow perverted by the white/Ashkenazi/colonialist/Zionist establishment.

I have no problem with critical scholarship that challenges dominant social narratives and examines the problematic relationship of Israeli society to everything "Oriental". Many Middle Eastern Jews were indeed victims of discrimination, and there is no denying that immigrants who came to Israel in the 1950s and 1960s were pressured to conform to what was then an Ashkenazi-dominated Israeli identity. Among other things, this meant that people were made to feel ashamed of speaking Arabic, of having particular "Oriental" customs and of wearing certain clothes. Eastern European Jews, by the way, came under the same pressure to conform to "Israeliness" and to speak Hebrew rather than their native Yiddish, German, Polish, Russian, Hungarian or Romanian. In any case, to insist, today, as some radical, weirdo NGOs (Ahoti-Sista) and pro-Palestinian scholars (e.g. Joseph Massad, who has probably never been to Israel) do, that Israel is some kind of "internal apartheid" country composed of a dominant Ashkenazi elite and a downtrodden mass of "Arab Jews", is to be completely detached from reality. Today, Israelis of Middle Eastern origin are part of the establishment. Ethnicity and cultural backgrounds (and it's not exactly in the North American sense of the word) are celebrated proudly in public – witness the popularity of weddings in which bride and groom dress in traditional Moroccan Jewish attire or the number of people who still choose to have a Henna ceremony before the wedding. Furthermore, no one would even think of suggesting that the people who carry out these ceremonies are any less Israeli because of them.

So, basically, the only people who still hold on to the myth that Israeli Jewish society is about to errupt in ethnic conflict are those who have an interest in discrediting Israel. Usually, these people tend to be rather out of touch with what is going on in Israel. That is the reason why I was not surprised to read what Sasson Somekh had to say about a recent translation and review of an Israeli short story that appeared in the Egyptian literary magazine al-Hilal. Somekh grew up reading al-Hilal as a teenager in Baghdad, wrote Arab poetry and published masterful studies of Nagib Mahfuz's work. He has no problem calling himself an "Arab Jew" and does so frequently, but he is well aware that hardly anyone in Israel defines him or herself that way. That is why Somekh, the Israeli academic reading an Arabic translation of a Hebrew short story, is also quite critical of the translator's review.

The review and translation in question appeared in the June 2006 edition of al-Hilal and are the work of Muhammad 'Abud who translated the Ha'aretz prize-winning short story "Ana min al-yahud" written by Almog Bahar (although its title is in Arabic, the story itself was originally in Hebrew). Somekh starts out praising 'Abud, as he should. After all, it's not every day that Israeli literature is translated into Arabic in the Arab world and published so prominently. From Somekhs critique of 'Abud's review, however, it soon becomes clear that he takes issue with the claims that the Egyptian translator makes in his critique. 'Abud, who has also never visited Israel, characterizes Almog Bahar's story as a "Protest against Cultural Oppression". According to 'Abud, the hidden message that Bahar is trying to convey can be summed up as follows:"אני יהודי-ערבי ואני מדוכא ומקופח בשל ההגמוניה האשכנזית" [I'm an Arab Jew and I am oppressed by the Ashkenazi hegemony]. As Somekh reveals, however, the story is much more subtle and complex than that. It appears, above all, to be a humorous take on ethnic-linguistic tensions in Israeli society. I'll try to read the story before I comment more fully on it. To me it seems clear that even some of the more open-minded Egyptian intellectuals who take a genuine interest in Israel still suffer from a tendency to politicize their study of Israeli literature. For them, Israeli literature is to be read only as a means of understanding Israeli society, but not on its own artistic merits. Of course, that is a charge that can also be levelled at Middle Eastern studies scholars in Israel, although not at Somekh, whose works of criticism really do make an effort to treat their subject - Modern Arabic Literature - on its own merits, rather than as socio-political manifestos.

ששון סומך, המספר הישראלי - שטן או בעל ברית July 7, 2006 Ha'aretz


Derek said...

First I have to confirm that unfortunately English language journalism referring to middle eastern Jews DO need to preface their pieces with an introduction to the sizable Jewish population from the middle east. In America even educated people can only imagine "Jews" as the "white" people we see on Seinfeld and walking around in New York City. This is reinforced by (or perhaps reinforces) a post-colonial perspective of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that is ubiquitous throughout the Left.

Secondly, I just want to say that it was only after conversations with you and Amos, as well as a little bit of dabbling in academic history myself that I ever considered identity (national, ethnic, racial, linguistic) as a construct. Yeah, obviously we're all human blah blah MLK Stevie Wonder Jesus Christ etc... but still identity is still something that has to come from somewhere and anyone who is really interested in learning about current events should not be afraid to delve into the history and evolution of an identity, especially when people are discriminating, dying and killing in the name of it.

Does that make any sense?


Big up yourself John!
Big up yourself Academic History!

John said...

Well, all I have to say is big up Derek for being one well-rounded, socially active, intellectual engineer!

Amos said...

American Jews themselves contribute to the perception of Jews as monolithically of European descent. For all the orientalist interest in "sefardic" Jews (a category in which they lump together people from Morrocco to Bukhara, many American Jews today probably share the impressions cited by Derek. I recently took part in a trip with a group of 19-21-year-old Jewish American undergraduates to Jerusalem and other parts of Israel. All around them were Jews from the 4 corners of the earth - i.e., from Poland to Ethiopia, from Italy to Yemen - and of every appearance imaginable. It was bizarre to hear one of the students on the trip say another student "does not look Jewish."

BTW, I think Seinfeld is half-Halabi (Jews from Aleppo, Syria), and half-Hungarian-Jewish.