A Jewish Voice Left Silent: Trying to Articulate “The Levantine Option”
Posted Dec 24, 2002


A Jewish Voice Left Silent: Trying to Articulate “The Levantine Option”

by David Shasha

The Jewish state of Israel is composed of Sephardim, Jews who emanate from Arab-Islamic lands, and Ashkenazim, Jews who hail from Christian Europe.  These groups have developed historically within different cultural milieu and have traditionally espoused divergent worldviews.  Occidental Jews have taken on many of the traits of Western culture, while the Oriental Jews, many of whom continued to speak Arabic and partake of a common Middle Eastern culture until the mass dispersions of Jews from Arab countries after 1948, have preserved many of the folkways and traits of Arab civilization.

Though all of us are deeply aware of the calamitous ethno-cultural situation in Israel – exacerbated by the demographic preponderance and social repression of its Sephardic Jewish population, who when coupled with the native Arab population would form a clear majority of indigenous Middle Easterners as against indigenous Europeans – we can also see that the Sephardic presence in America is just as complicated a factor in contemporary Jewish life. 

Sephardim once wrote the first page in American Jewish history even as they have now seemed to be written out of that very history.

In 1654 the first Jews who stepped on the shores of this country were Sephardic while the first Synagogues of Colonial America, Touro Synagogue in Newport, Rhode Island and Shearith Israel in New Amsterdam, were also founded by Sephardim.  Perhaps the most outstanding rabbinic figure that ministered in the early days of the United States was the now-forgotten Sabato Morais of Mikveh Israel in Philadelphia.  Morais brilliantly exemplified the Levantine Religious Humanism of the Sephardim whose rich legacy was subsequently occluded by the emergence of an Ashkenazi immigrant majority which brought many of its own internal schisms to the United States; schisms that have haunted Jews and the Jewish faith to this very day.

The Religious Humanism of the Sephardic Jews preserved the parochial Jewish legal and literary traditions under the rubric of a much wider sense of universal ethics and morality.  These two components – particularistic religion and universal humanism – often seen by religious people as contradicting one another, were soldered together along the lines of the Maimonidean paradigm which had been a crucial part of the harmonious development of religious scholasticism in the heart of Middle Ages.

But because of the stigma against all things Arab propounded by classical Zionism and Ashkenazi modernism under a Eurocentric bias, the Sephardim have become an invisible presence in modern Jewish life.  Many Arab Jews have surrendered their native Levantine perspective in favor of the ruling ideology in Israel; some Israeli Sephardim in frustration have divorced themselves from the mainstream of the traditional Jewish community; and still others have submerged their ethnic rage in a thunderous barbarity vis-à-vis the Arab Muslims. 

And in America the situation is worse: Sephardim have almost completely disappeared as a cultural entity on the Jewish stage.  Many Sephardim now almost completely identify with the Ashkenazi mentalities of a malignant Jewish exclusivity and have harbored a passionate ethnocentric identification with the state of Israel; a state which has, ironically, been less than generous with its Sephardic population.

The issue of anti-Arab prejudice among Israeli and American Sephardim has made many observers question the very propriety of even raising the issue of the Levantine nativity of Arab Jews; many of whom have become among the most militant followers of the Likud and other Right Wing parties in Israel.  The movement of Jews out of the Arab world and into the orbit of the Jewish state has greatly disrupted the traditional ethos and bearings of Arab Jewry.  This has translated not merely into Sephardic political intransigency, but a complete abandonment of the traditional Sephardic cultural and religious legacy.

But we can indeed recall a time when Jews lived productively in the Middle East and developed a material and intellectual culture that proved amazingly durable and robust.  This culture, what I have called “The Levantine Option,” if adopted as a discursive model in the current dialogue, could speak in a sophisticated and humane manner to many of the underlying civilizational and ideological barriers that frame the culture of brutality permeating the region and in the complex web of factors that haunts the development of a positive Jewish self-affirmation in Western culture. 

Keeping in mind the lamentable erosion of Sephardic cultural history since the establishment of the state of Israel in 1948, “The Levantine Option” might be identified as a radically new perspective based on a very old way of seeing things.

Sephardim have for many centuries practiced a form of Judaism that has sought a creative engagement with its outside environment.  In the Middle East this meant an acculturation to the Arabic model as articulated in the first centuries of Islam.  Prominent Sephardic rabbis, such as Moses Maimonides and Abraham ibn Ezra, acculturated to the Greco-Arabic paradigm, disdaining clericalism while espousing humanism and science, composed seminal works on Jewish thought and practice.  Sephardic rabbis were not merely religious functionaries; they were poets, philosophers, astronomers, doctors, lawyers, accountants, linguists, merchants, architects, civic leaders and much else.  Samuel the Nagid, the famous polymath of Granada, even led troops into battle in the 11th century to fight off the Christians.

Traditional Sephardic Judaism provided for a more tolerant and open-minded variant of Jewish existence than an Ashkenazi counterpart continually living in a world apart, utterly disconnected from European civil society.  The Hatam Sofer, one of the most prominent Ashkenazi rabbis of the 19th century, boldly reformulated the Talmudic slogan for modern Orthodox Ashkenazi thinking: “He-hadash asur min ha-Tora” – “The Torah prohibits the new.” 

Religious humanism was endemic to the Sephardic cultural tradition.  When the Enlightenment came in the 18th century the Sephardim were able to make a seamless transition to the new culture (the Sephardic chief rabbi of London David Nieto was the first Jew to examine the scientific works of Isaac Newton while Isaac Abendana taught Newton Hebrew at Cambridge University) while European Judaism was torn by deep internal schisms, many of which continue to play out in the modern Jewish community through movements such as Zionism and Orthodoxy – each practicing a form of cultural exclusion that is predicated upon a narrow interpretation of the Jewish tradition. 

While Ashkenazi Jews in the modern period broke off into bitter and acrimonious factions, Sephardim preserved their unity as a community rather than let doctrine asphyxiate them.  A Jewish Reformation never took place in the Sephardic world because the Sephardim continued to maintain their fidelity to their traditions while absorbing and adapting the ideas and trends of the world they lived in.  We can point to the rabbinical figures of Sabato Morais and Elijah Benamozegh, two Sephardim born in Italy, who typified the Sephardic ability to construct a Jewish culture that preserved the parochial standards of Jewish tradition while espousing the science and humanism wrought by the massive changes of the 19th century.

Until the founding of the state of Israel in 1948 Arab Jews created a place for themselves in their countries of origin by serving in government, civic affairs, business, and the professions: James Sanua, an Egyptian Jew who wrote for the theater and press, was at the forefront of the nascent Egyptian nationalist movement at the turn of the 20th century.  The last chief rabbi of the Ottoman Empire and then of Egypt (who died in Cairo in 1960), Haim Nahum Effendi, was elected as a member to the Egyptian Senate and was a founder of the Arabic Language Academy.  By request from the Egyptian civil authorities Rabbi Mas’ud Hai Ben Shim’on composed a voluminous three volume compendia of Jewish legal practice written in precise classical Arabic, Kitab al-Ahkam ash-Shariyyah fi-l-Ahwal ash-Shaksiyyah li-l-Isra’ilyyin, which served as a primary source for Egyptian Muslim lawyers dealing with Jewish cases.  Elijah Benamozegh of Livorno composed his seminal work Israel and Humanity in the spirit of the 19th century European modernism as a work that promoted the universal religious values of Noahism; a faith that could unite all humanity under a single compassionate framework.

In spite of the long record of accomplishment in the Sephardi world, the Levantine Option has resolutely not become a central factor in the larger context of contemporary Jewish civilization.

The suppression of Levantine Humanism as a political paradigm is asserted most emphatically in Bernard Lewis’s recent best-seller What Went Wrong? Western Impact and Middle Eastern Response, where Professor Lewis makes a telling statement in his interpretation of the East/West ethno-cultural impasse.  Professor Lewis, in a manner that reaffirms his infamous “Clash of Civilizations” thesis, maintains that the primal battle between Judaism and Islam is also reflected in miniature by the cultural split between Ashkenazim and Sephardim:

The conflict, coexistence, or combination of these two traditions [i.e. the Judeo-Christian and the Judeo-Islamic] within a single small state, with a shared religion and a common citizenship and allegiance, should prove illuminating.  For Israel, this issue may have an existential significance, since the survival of the state, surrounded, outnumbered, and outgunned by neighbors who reject its very right to exist, may depend on its largely Western-derived qualitative edge.
It is Lewis’ belief, as it was for David Ben-Gurion and the Zionist founding fathers decades earlier, that Oriental culture would ultimately drag Israel down into the horrifying abyss of an “unnatural” Levantinism.  Israel, according to this logic, must become a representative outpost of Western civilization in a brutal and barbaric region of culturally inferior Arabs. 

Arriving in the state of Israel from the Arab world in the 1940’s and 50’s, Sephardim underwent a forced process of de-Arabization, losing their native tongue, Arabic, which ultimately led to a complete abandonment of the deep ties they once had with the rich civilization of the Middle East.  This cultural de-Arabization has left the Sephardim in Israel bereft of their own nativity and led to massive social and economic inequalities that have not been fully redressed by successive Israeli governments.

The forceful opposition between East and West promoted by Lewis and his Orientalist cohorts, a permanent feature of the discourse on the conflict as reproduced by the Western media, is a dangerous mechanism that has occluded the voice of Jews whose culture and native standing once maintained a crucial connection to the organic world of the Middle East.  The silencing or marginalizing of the Arab Jewish voice has had a profoundly deleterious affect on the rhetorical process that has been a salient feature of the conflict.

What if the future of the Middle East, contrary to Lewis and his partisans, lay in the amicable interaction of the three religions, Judaism, Christianity and Islam, in a symbiotic formation that lays out the commonalities in culture and politics rather than the deep-seated differences that are rooted in the Ashkenazi experience?

If such a symbiosis were desirable, the cultural memory of Moorish Spain (Hebrew, Sepharad, Arabic, al-Andalus) where the three religions were able to coexist and produce a civilization of great worth, would take prominence. The Sephardic voice would be central in articulating what in Spanish was termed Convivencia, the creative cultural dynamic that fired medieval Spanish civilization, until its untimely destruction in 1492, but which continued through the glorious epoch of Ottoman civilization, until its degeneration in the 19th century. 

The Sephardic voice could unfold the delicate strands of the Levantine memory and construct a cultural model that would be more appropriate to the current situation than the spurious binarism promoted by the concept of Israel as an outpost of Western civilization. 

The model of Levantine Jewish historical memory would serve to collapse the alienating cult of persecution harbored in classical Zionist thought and omnipresent in the rituals of the state of Israel, replacing it with a more positive view of the past that would lead us into a more optimistic present.  The nihilistic “realism” of the current Israeli approach filtered through the rigid orthodoxies of American Jewish institutional discourse, centered on the institutionalized perpetuation of the twin legacies of the Holocaust and European anti-Semitism, would then be countered by memories of a Jewish past that was able to develop a life-affirming and constructive relationship with its surrounding environment.

Current models of the conflict and ways to resolve it, from the Left as well as the Right, ignore the very valuable fact of the centuries of Jewish nativity in the Middle East.  We see Right Wing settlers imposing a romantic version of Jewish history on the conflict that has precious little to do with the organic realities of those who have lived in the region over those many centuries.  And Left Wing groups, such as Peace Now, promote a resolution from within the same Western mindset and construct ineffective “peace” programs that have historically done very little to engender a stable set of relationships between Jews and Arabs. 

Both positions, firmly rooted in Ashkenazi Jewish culture, have failed because they have not seriously engaged the traditional ethos of the Jewish and Arab inhabitants of the region; they have merely adopted Western models of conflict resolution, violent and non-violent, arrogantly assuming that Jews are culturally different from Arabs.  “The Levantine Option,” if adopted, would become a means to create a shared cultural space for Jews and Arabs rather than the establishment of walls and barriers that are endemic to these Ashkenazi approaches.

And current Jewish institutional discourse has completely shut out this deeply resonant Levantine voice.

Quite often, I find myself becoming ever more angry and despondent over what I see as the lack of Sephardi participation in the ongoing dialogue within the Jewish community; a dialogue which may more accurately be identified as an Ashkenazi-only discussion.  I have seen many Sephardim, having lost their ability to articulate their views in a free and open manner, make due with affiliating with one or another Ashkenazi groups – and this can be from the Left or the Right, Religious or Secular.

But in my own life I have resisted and rejected any notion of affiliation with the current centers of Jewish power – all of which are Ashkenazi.

For some, my constant barrage of criticism of Ashkenazim is a bit too much to swallow.  They criticize me on a regular basis, telling me that if only I worded my essays differently or simply laid off the issue of attacking Ashkenazim and Ashkenazi interests that I would be far better off.

The problem with this attitude is that there have been many before me who have traveled that road and who have ended up becoming mere functionaries for a Jewish world that simply ignores the very presence of Sephardim.  Such an eliding of Sephardi realities, past and present, has been mitigated by the proposition that this has been a mere oversight rather than something malicious.

I have not been convinced that Ashkenazi writers, activists and scholars can be deemed completely innocent in this regard.

The few Ashkenazi scholars who work on Sephardic issues have understood this point very well.  They do their work humbly and without much fanfare, yet they too understand that there is a matrix which devalues and militates against the promotion of Sephardic culture and tradition.  These scholars have not only not ignored Sephardic culture, but have seen the salient and relevant aspects in this culture and have applied their research findings to some of the most contentious issues of the day.

Judaism has for many centuries been suffused with the schism between the two traditions – the European and the Middle Eastern.  Sephardi sages and writers were responsible for the lion’s share of Jewish intellectual attainment and developed a scientific and rationalist culture that was famously rejected by their Ashkenazi brethren.  Sephardic writers were the ones who originally furnished the Jewish world with a classic and brilliant literature that has now been occluded by an Ashkenazi hegemony that has narrowed its perspective in an overzealous manner and cannot see beyond its own parochialism.

Scholars would do well to investigate the rich and variegated literature of Sephardic culture; in the case of Feminism, inter-ethnic tolerance and other issues of great import to the progressive Jewish community it may be seen that the Sephardim have critical rabbinical sources – unknown to all but a very select few – that are far more expansive than those of Ashkenazi Orthodoxy. 
But sadly, Jewish progressives, even when presented with this material, tend to continue on their own Ashkenazi trajectory as that is the standard operating language of the institutional world in which they work and live.

While Sephardic music and food are seen as quaintly exotic, the ideas and texts of the Sephardi tradition are quaintly yet resoundingly ignored.

Internal to the Jewish organizations there is a publicly unspoken yet privately understood belief that Sephardim are less capable and not as intelligent as Ashkenazim.  This is not merely sour grapes; it is the most logical reason which might account for the exclusion of Sephardic issues from the mainstream of Jewish discourse.

There is thus a logical conundrum that a Sephardi such as me faces: become an Ashkenazi or get out of the Jewish world.

But I think that we would all agree that the job of the writer is to speak out and communicate to others, in a sincere and thoughtful fashion, what is in his heart and mind.  And this is most certainly not an easy thing for an independent scholar to do – especially when one lacks the institutional affiliation that affords a regular salary, staff support, collegial interaction as well as the ability to apply for grants and scholarly stipends.

In essence, my personal life – the part of my life that is hidden by the work that I do as a scholar and activist – has been deeply intertwined with the issues of process and institutional affiliation that I am discussing.  In addition, the very manner in which I approach the work that is produced by the institutional Jewish world is grounded within my perspective as a Jewish professional struggling to survive.

This perspective has led me to critically assess the functioning of the world around me and develop linguistic conventions and rhetorical stances that are frequently inflammatory.

It would seem that Jewish progressives are happy to promote the views of non-Jewish radicals but not Jewish radicals who would force them to examine their own relationship to what might well be their own ethnocentrism and prejudice.

Jews as a group seem to support affirmative action for minorities, yet they do not look into the way their own community is structured to see whether or not there is inclusion and pluralism – for other Jews – in their own institutions.  And while ignorance is a possible excuse, my own personal experience in seeking institutional positions and funding is that there is an endemic and brutal racism that exists in the Ashkenazi community that can only be appropriately countered through the harsh tonality of my own arguments.

The basic idea I am operating with is to expose this racism for what it is and to have others outside the Jewish community see that there are double standards operating within the Jewish community itself that make it perfectly clear that what is happening in Israel and all over the world with regard to Jewish self-perception does not lack context.  I sometimes ask myself: “If this is how Jews treat each other, is it any wonder that this is how they would treat non-Jews?”

From Commentary Magazine to the New York Times to the Forward to well-known institutional magnates in the Jewish world and their many representatives and the vast army of professionals that are affiliated with this hermetically-sealed Jewish world, there is a vast Sephardi-phobia that is encased within an Ashkenazi-centrism.

I understand that what I am saying will continue to be anathema to those who I am accusing of persecuting my own community, but such is the way of activism.  My own purpose is to break down the walls of racism in the Jewish community and to expose the hypocrisies that have led the Jewish community to remain incapable of self-criticism and self-analysis.

Indeed, the most urgent problem that now faces the Jewish community at present does not come from the outside – it is the very internal fascistic mechanisms that have served to sever the Sephardic Jews from being involved in the process of articulating their own voice within the larger framework of Jewish discourse.

The silencing of the Sephardic voice, internally by the self-censoring mechanisms imposed by Zionism (and all-too-willingly adopted by Arab Jews themselves) as well as by the cultural blindness and insensitivity of the Western media, makes little sense at the present moment.  We should be seeking new and more creative ways to identify what has gone wrong in our world rather than continuing to insist on the same conceptual mindset that has led us to recycle the same options.  We hear a constant stream of repetitive rhetoric that has done little to break the impasse that enslaves Jews and Gentiles to lives of mutual incomprehension and a seemingly endless reserve of ethnic hatred.

Until we develop ways to talk to one another in a substantial and civilized way – from within a shared cultural space that exists for those of us (becoming fewer and fewer) who still espouse “The Levantine Option” – the questions surrounding Israel and Palestine, as well as the endemic violence that is a malignant cancer in the region, will continue to haunt Jews, Arabs and the rest of the world.  The promotion of such a discourse is not merely a romantic exercise in nostalgia; it is perhaps the most progressive and civilized option that we now have to bring a rational order to what appears to be an utterly intractable inter-cultural dialogue.

Bernard Lewis, What Went Wrong? Western Impact and Middle Eastern Response, (Oxford University Press, 2002), page 155

…Inevitably the Jews who created Israel brought with them many of the political and societal standards and values, the habits and attitudes of the countries from which they came: on the one hand, what we have become accustomed to call the Judaeo-Christian tradition, on the other, what we may with equal justification call the Judaeo-Islamic tradition. 

In present-day Israel these two traditions meet and, with increasing frequency, collide.  Their collisions are variously expressed, in communal, religious, ethnic, even party-political terms.  But in many of their encounters what we see is a clash between Christendom and Islam, oddly represented by their former Jewish minorities, who reflect, as it were in miniature, both the strengths and the weaknesses of the two civilizations of which they had been part.  The conflict, coexistence, or combination of these two traditions within a single small state, with a shared religion and a common citizenship and allegiance, should prove illuminating.  For Israel, this issue may have an existential significance, since the survival of the state, surrounded, outnumbered, and outgunned by neighbors who reject its very right to exist, may depend on its largely Western-derived qualitative edge…

article updated 12-7-2004