Contested Histories and Disembodied Voices: How to Speak of the Arab Jew
Posted Nov 11, 2006

Contested Histories and Disembodied Voices: How to Speak of the Arab Jew

by David Shasha

Yehouda Shenhav, The Arab Jews: A Postcolonial Reading of Nationalism, Religion, and Ethnicity, Stanford University Press, 2006

They acted according to their custom, and you acted according to yours,
For, indeed, a man is his custom.


Each man’s fate is fixed by his own custom


What the opening hemistich [in Al-Mutanabbi’s poem] is really telling us, then, is that man is responsible for his own fate, that his own habit or custom, or what he has habituated or accustomed himself to, determines, or is simply, his fate.

Suzanne Pinckney Stetkevych, The Poetics of Islamic Legitimacy

The history of African-Americans, the ultimate paradigm when determining the way in which people struggle for their civil rights, is generally left uncontested.  The basic contours of that history – from enslavement to release to social oppression to the emergence of rights after decades of struggle – is founded on a substantial amount of archival research, on documents, and on the eyewitness testimony of slaves, of those who were witness to Jim Crow lynchings and those who marched to protest the conditions of the African-Americans, raising their voices as one to achieve the desired goal of civic equality with those who had once turned them into beings less than fully human.

By contrast, the history of the Arab Jews is deeply contested.  There is not a single point that is agreed upon in this history and the points of disagreement find themselves deeply mired in the current conflict between Zionism and the indigenous Arab world.  The very term “Arab” Jew is the first site of contention.  How can we call Jews by the moniker “Arab” when the Arab world has been at war with Israel, proclaimed without reflection as the state of the “Jews,” and when the Jews who once lived in the Arab world have been spirited away from their nativity and taught by Zionist orthodoxy that their sojourn in the Middle East was one that kept them from living a complete life?

The term Arab Jew is one that is at the very foundation of the contestation of the history of Jews who once lived in the Arab world.  With the exception of the Jews who continue to live in Morocco, the robust, if modest, communities of Jews native to the Arab world have ceased to exist.  The history of these communities has generally been filtered through the mechanisms of the Zionist worldview which claims at its core two important points: First, Zionism has sought to negate the whole of the Diaspora Jewish history.  The Hebrew term shelilat ha-galut has become a constant refrain in Zionist and Israeli thinking, most recently being bandied about by the novelist A.B. Yehoshua who has repeated the claim that one can only be a Jew in the land of Israel.  The Jewish Diaspora in this context is a place where Jews live(d) abnormal lives and even as they function as a link in the chain that connects Jewish history back to its pre-70 CE phase when Jewish territorial life still existed, that Diaspora existence is viewed as an abnormal state.  Second, the Jews who lived in the Middle East, outside the orbit of Europe and its Modernity, have been viewed as primitives and as lacking in refinement and culture.  In addition, these Arab Jews, pejoratively known in Israel as Mizrahim – Orientals, represent an uncomfortable link to the current enemies of the Jewish state.

How then do we speak of Arab Jews and who should do the speaking? 

For many decades the Arab Jews have remained an oppressed community in Israel.  A disconnect was created between those Arab Jews who successfully immigrated to the Western countries who generally prospered, and those who were airlifted to Israel to become impoverished immigrants living in tent cities and newly-built border towns that put them in places of relative danger and trapped them in lives of futility and abject poverty.  These Arab Jews found themselves, after 1948, unwelcome interlopers in an Arab world which had become acclimated to the Zionist argument that all Jews were Zionists.  After many centuries of living productively in their homes in places like Fez, Cairo, Isfahan, Aleppo, Baghdad, Tripoli and Beirut, the Arab Jews had found their fate manipulated by others who claimed to speak in their names.

Such a shifting of fate and voice bore great and awful consequences for the Arab Jewish communities.  These communities had first been fractured by the emergence of European colonialism which used a tactic of divide and rule in the Middle East.  The Imperial powers played various religious and ethnic cards in order to suppress indigenous unrest and the Jews of the region were used as pawns to wedge Arab Muslims into a subservient status.  There was no real consistency in this approach, but many Jews began to identify with the Europeans and started to drift from their Arab cultural identity. 

Such was the beginning of a colonial process engendered by Imperialism that found a home in the emergence of the Zionist movement at just the same time as the Europeans came to settle in the Middle East.

The long history of Jewish life in the Arab-Islamic world was beginning to come to an end. 

This history, now deeply contested, has been most successfully reconstructed in the many studies of the German-Jewish scholar S.D. Goitein.  In his epic A Mediterranean Society, Goitein provided a sharply-defined portrait of the Jewish communities of the Middle East that drew from a textual archive known as the Cairo Geniza; Geniza being a Hebrew term that signified the place where unwanted scraps of paper with Hebrew writing were sent for storage according to Jewish law.  The tens of thousands of texts found in the Geniza permitted Goitein to reconstruct with an amazing fluidity and vibrancy the intimate world of the Arab Jews.  From sociology to intellectual culture, the Geniza texts provided Goitein with the raw material that enabled him to write what without exaggeration remains the most accurate and in-depth portrait of a historical pre-modern Jewish community that we currently possess.

The world of the Cairo Geniza as presented by S.D. Goitein became the starting-off point for the seminal studies of Ammiel Alcalay.  Alcalay’s foundational work After Jews and Arabs: Remaking Levantine Culture, published in 1993, drew from Goitein as well as from the few studies of Arab Jewish culture and history that remained outside the Zionist consensus.  Even with the reconfiguration of Arab Jewish history under the harsh yoke of Zionist ideological prejudice, based on a deeply Ashkenazi sensibility, a few texts emerged over the years to tell elements of the Arab Jewish story:

• Ella Shohat, hitherto a student and scholar of Israeli film, published a lengthy essay in 1988 called “Zionism from the Standpoint of its Jewish Victims”; the title adapted from a chapter in Edward Said’s book The Question of Palestine.  Shohat’s article was the first salvo in a battle that fought the Zionist (mis)appropriation of the Arab Jewish history and marked a frontal assault on the ways in which Zionism had sought to oppress and demean the Arab Jews.
• The English publication in 1990 of a book originally written in Arabic and published in Cairo by the Iraqi-born G.N. Giladi.  Discord in Zion: Conflict Between Ashkenazi and Sephardi Jews in Israel was a prolonged cri de coeur that combined historical polemics and social protest into a work that looked to comprehensively tell the Arab Jewish story from a native perspective, from the perspective of the victim rather than from the oppressor.
• The Israeli journalist Tom Segev devoted a full chapter of his classic book 1949: The First Israelis, first published in Hebrew in 1984 and translated into English in 1986, to the Sephardi problem in Israel.  Segev was the first mainstream writer to discuss the issue of the ma’abarot, the transit camps populated mainly by Arab Jews, the controversy over the Yemenite Babies and of the scientific racism espoused by the mainstream Israeli academics and journalists.  Segev’s recounting of this racism was shocking proof of a concerted effort made in Israel to stigmatize the Arab Jews in a way that served to justify their persecution at the hands of an elite Ashkenazi cadre.

After many years of relative silence and the suppression of the Arab Jewish voice, the few exceptions being the indefatigable Eliyahu Elyachar, the perennial head of the Sephardic va’ad in Jerusalem, and a trickle of literary texts from writers like Samir Naqqash, the last Arab Jew to continue writing in Arab (while rejecting writing his texts in Hebrew), Shimon Ballas who wrote the first novel on the period of the Transit Camps and Tent cities, and Sami Michael; all of whom were intent on preserving, to various degrees, the authentic voices of the Arab Jewish community, there was now a place to go to read of the Sephardi catastrophe in the wake of 1948.

But by and large the efforts of these writers, activists and journalists fell on deaf ears.  In the midst of the emergence of what have become known as “The New Historians” and the “Post-Zionists,” Sephardic voices were muted and often neglected.  The standard Zionist organs continued to either pretend that these voices did not exist, or set out to contest their writings.  Official acknowledgment of anti-Sephardi prejudice was subsumed under what would become the standard Zionist stand-by: The Jews are one nation and there should not be any individual claims by what were termed “the ethnic communities” to tear asunder that unity.

Quite often this argument is repeated to anyone who attempts to set out the actual history of Zionism as it relates to the Sephardic world.

While this “one nation” myth is propounded, the Arab Jewish past, once articulated so powerfully by Goitein, has been co-opted by scholars of the school of Sephardi-hater Bernard Lewis.  Lewis’ school, led by Norman Stillman, has served to reinforce views that were once the provenance of the so-called “Jerusalem School” of historiography led by Ben-Zion Dinur and Yitzhak Baer.  Dinur was best known for his drafting of the Israel State Education Law of 1952 which, a mere four years after the establishment of the country, served to lay down the template from which the Jewish past was to be understood.  As we have said, the Jewish past would have to be revisited and rethought against the patterns that had been established by the German Jewish historians of the Wissenschaft or Jewish Enlightenment of the 19th century.

This revisionist Jewish history, disfigured in the name of Zionism and its new nationalist and anti-Diaspora focus, played down continuity and Jewish normalcy in favor of what the great Jewish historian Salo Baron called “the neo-lachrymose” version of this history.  In the works of Dinur and Baer, and subsequently Lewis and Stillman as applied to Arab Jews, Diaspora Jewish history was an unremittingly and unrelentingly bleak string of pogroms and persecutions.  The Jewish expulsion from Israel in 70 CE was incredibly re-dated to the time of the Arab conquests rather than to the Roman period as had been the case for many centuries.  The reason for the re-dating and the revision of this history was to assert the cognitive paradigms that were now taking shape within Zionist thinking.

The role of Bernard Lewis in this process cannot be underestimated.  As is now fairly well-known, Lewis served British and U.S. political interests during the long and lonely years of the Cold War as an “expert” in Middle Eastern history.  Lewis served the Western political establishment dutifully, providing it with an understanding of the Middle East based on an East/West binarism that promoted the idea of a triumphalist Imperial West which would control and dominate the resources of a decadent and enfeebled East that would remain at the tender mercies of the post-War Imperial powers.

Lewis sought to turn back the clock on Arab independence and reinstate new mechanisms of domination and control in the Arab world; leading to a conundrum which remains a source of continual irritation and violence to this day.

Israeli history is therefore based on these Ashkenazi Zionist myths that have implicated the Arab Jews within a vast labyrinth of socio-political complexity that served to separate the emerging Jewish state from the geo-political realities of the region in which it proudly stood as an alien accretion.

It is therefore quite clear that the assertion of a native Arab Jewish voice, like that of the writers and scholars we have mentioned above, writers who have sought to disentangle the stories of Jews native to the Arab world, Jews who saw themselves as culturally Arab, from the new Zionist mythologies, would become controversial and disputed by the mainstream.

With the publication of Yehuda Shenhav’s masterful The Arab Jews we now have another entry in the small but potent library of works on Sephardic history.

Shenhav, a professor of sociology at Tel Aviv University, tells the story of Arab Jews in a carefully modulated academic voice that Edward Said has promoted as the “subaltern” revolt in academic discourse.  Eschewing the heatedly polemical style of writers like G.N. Giladi, Shenhav has written a brilliant book that adheres to the strict protocols of sociological discourse with arguments that have been carefully documented and footnoted.  His voice is that of a modern academic who has broken into the system and articulated a position, or series of positions, that serves to respond directly to the endemic racism of the institutional Israeli academic discourse that was once modulated to portray Arab Jews as inferior and culturally backward.

The structure of Shenhav’s book is deceptively simple yet quite effective.  Taking a microcosmic approach rather than a macrocosmic approach to his subject, Shenhav frames the book around two intertwined historical markers that he investigates in great detail: Unearthing a hitherto obscure and unknown episode in Zionist history relating to colonial Zionist activity in Abadan, a city at the cusp of the Iraqi and Iranian world(s), Shenhav is able to reconstruct the ways in which Zionism first approached the reality of Arab Jewry.  After this examination, Shenhav goes on to discuss the internal Sephardic discourse regarding its history and how that history functions within the larger context of the Arab-Israeli conflagration.

The book opens with a fascinating anecdote which tells of the internal contradictions of the Arab Jew.  Shenhav relates the odd tale of his father and his father’s role in the Zionist usurpation of Arab Jewish memory.  After the death of his father, Eliyahu Shahrabani (the name Shenhav being a new Zionist accretion as name-changing was fairly common for Israelis whose “Diaspora” names were often transformed into “Zionist” ones thus collapsing elements of the historical past), Shenhav is approached by a mysterious man who came to tell Yehouda about his father’s role in the Israeli intelligence services:

When my father was seventeen, he moved with a group of Iraqi-born friends to Kibbutz Be’eri, on the ruins of the Arab village of Nahbir.  In that same year, Avshalom Shmueli, a recruitment officer, came to Be’eri and recruited them into Israel’s intelligence community.  There is nothing surprising about this.  They were part of an inexhaustible reservoir of ambitious young people, loyal to the state, spoke perfect Arabic, and looked like Arabs.  They had the ideal profile.  As an intelligence man, my father worked hard and was sometimes gone for lengthy periods.  His absence enhanced my status as a boy in the neighborhood.  By working for the state against the Arab enemy, he earned his entry ticket into Israeliness.  I was able to benefit from it vicariously.  But this does not mean I was comfortable with his Arabness.  As a kid, I fought against my parents and their culture.  Employing creative tactics, I would shut the radio off or put it out of commission when they wanted to listen to the great Arab singers Om Kolthoum, Farid al-Atrach, or Abd-el-Wahab.  The truth is that I was greatly preoccupied with my own and my family’s Arab Jewish origins but kept the subject to myself.  Those origins did not provide a valid entry ticket to become an equal member of Israeli society, with its basically orientalist mentality, then as now. (pp. 2-3)

In the course of telling this anecdote, Shenhav has quite knowingly laid out the richly complex thematic layers of his book: The dense interstitial patterns of the Israeli identity are shown to be formed out of a paradoxical relationship between the need to retain and make use of Arabic culture and language, but in a way that serves to negate that culture:

It may seem eminently reasonable for the new Jewish state to use immigrants’ Arab backgrounds as “expertise” and the basis for a “career.”  As such, my use of Israel’s spies to argue that the incorporation of the Arab Jews into the Jewish collective was complex and internally contradictory may seem facile.  But first, though Arab Jews were routinely used as spies, their cultural skills were never used to forge positive links with Arab countries.  This disjuncture suggests that the state was after more than just practical help.  Its practices were used to separate Arab Jews from their Arab backgrounds.  (pp. 5-6)

The interconnectedness between the intrinsic Zionist need for “insiders” who could “pass” as the enemy and a rejection of the culture of that enemy serves as the fulcrum upon which Shenhav’s study turns.  Israeli nationalism, which had generally sought to use the Arab Jews for strategic purposes, for instance to populate border regions as a bulwark against Palestinian recidivism, after it was clear that Western Jews were not going to immigrate en masse to the fledgling country, was required to maintain two mutually exclusive and contradictory positions: Arab Jews were needed to populate and serve the new country, often using their historical and cultural memory, but those very traits were marked as part of the “enemy” culture that Israel was hell-bent on eradicating.

For a young man like Shenhav, as it was for so many young Arab Jews who grew up in an environment where Arab culture represented not merely the world of the “enemy” but that of an unappealing backwardness and incompetence, the process of “De-Arabization” was a socio-cultural mechanism that had been stitched into the very fabric of the nascent Israeli psyche.  The attempt to restore the actual history of this Arab Jewish world would thus be an assault on the very cognitive socio-cultural mechanisms that served to make up Israeli culture which was Ashkenazi in both substance and form.

The meeting of Ashkenazi Zionist emissaries with Arab Jews was one that took place under the guise of the colonial and Imperial encounter.  The charge of colonialism against the Zionist movement has been one that is deeply contested by the Zionists themselves.  Averring that they were not settler-clients of an Imperial power, the Zionists have consistently sought to mark their relationship to Great Britain as one which bristled with conflict and constant tension, but the reality was far more complex as Shenhav points out:

Solel Boneh [the Zionist company devoted to building and construction] began to undertake “external work” in 1936, a year after the company was reestablished, and by 1945 it employed 7,000 people outside Palestine.  Beginning in the late 1930s, and more especially during the war years, Solel Boneh grew and expanded under British auspices, operating in Syria, Lebanon, Egypt, Iraq, Iran, Bahrain, and Cyprus.  The company’s collaboration with the British army landed it contracts to build military bases, airfields, oil facilities, and roads.  (p. 37)

Shenhav explains that it was becoming quite clear that as Zionism expanded in the region the adoption of a non-Arab element would prove to be beneficial to Imperial interests.  The Abadan context provided a perfect example of the ways in which the colonial world functioned:

Indeed, on the ground, in their day-to-day lives, the emissaries were well aware of the social divisions and hierarchies dictated by color and ethno-racial differences produced by the colonial situation.  They could not help but be aware of them.  Everywhere they looked these divisions were ingrained in the fabric of their existence in Abadan, from their segregated “whites-only” neighborhoods to their privileged working conditions and positions of authority.  The emissaries, who had arrived as Zionists, came to identify themselves also – and even mainly – as white Europeans.  Those who had not arrived in Abadan already in possession of a colonial consciousness had ample opportunity to develop one on site.  The emissaries’ descriptions of their day-to-day lives and an analysis of their point of view make it possible to bring in their voices and create a history from below of the colonial experience.  (p. 58)

This process was therefore not intrinsic to the situation, but what it did was to reinforce the Eurocentric elements inherent to Zionist thinking and build upon those ideas a new socio-political reality that fused the Zionist theoretical ideality with the colonialist realities.

And how did this affect the Jews who were native to the region?

In the Zionist context, the question of the encounter between European Jews and Arab Jews becomes complicated, because the encounter, which creates the “otherness,” does not end there, but also seeks to recruit the “other” into its ranks.  It was here that the European emissaries in Abadan positioned themselves vis-à-vis the Arab Jews and tried to define them as “other” (Arab) yet also as “one of us” (Jewish, proto-Zionist).  It is just here, in the interstices between the two categories, that the politics of “difference” lies.  The interesting thing is that Zionism (like other colonial enterprises) created a politics of belonging and of difference and spoke in a number of voices, yet, at the same time, declined to acknowledge the cultural ambivalence of its own creation and attempted to enfold it within closed binary distinctions.  It was a clear case of Jewish orientalism, where one Jewish group orientalized another.  (p. 71)

Shenhav lays out a series of detailed statements by the emissaries, those Zionist functionaries who, under the cover of the Solel Boneh project, looked to proselytize the native Jews and exhort them to immigrate to Palestine.  In the course of this subterfuge, the emissaries were forced to hide their actual identities in order to fool those Arab Jews who they were preaching the Zionist message to.  Their innate contempt for these Arab Jews was barely concealed.  In the words of Enzo Sereni, one of the European Zionist emissaries:

This material is not European material, it is material that is quick to become enthusiastic, but also quick to despair…unable to keep a secret, unable to keep their word…  There are deep waters, and those waters are not bad … but there is the foam on the water, and it is bad, of an Arab-Levantine sort…  Assimilation from a Levantine type into a culture that does not yet exist or is at a nadir…  They can be turned into “human beings,” but we shall not be able to accomplish that without the help of the people in the Land.

And even more pointedly:

Their whole life is in cafes.  There is no family culture.  The man is not to be found with his wife and children, but sits in the café and plays at taula (backgammon) or cards for hours on end…  In every corner are brothels and arak (hard liquor)…  There are clubs of the rich that are frequented by wealthy families.  This is a center of matchmaking and gossip, but if they want a good time – they go to a café…  The theater has no culture.  The talent develops according to the needs of the audience…  This culture is largely that of Jews, it is total assimilation in the Orient.  (p. 72) 
Such racist stereotyping chillingly recalls not merely the many examples of Ashkenazi Zionist racism such as the late Ephraim Kishon’s execrable “Sallah Shabbati,” but even more pointedly the now-standard arguments presented by Edward Said as a response to Lord Cromer in his classic book Orientalism:

Orientals or Arabs are thereafter shown to be gullible, “devoid of energy or initiative,” much given to “fulsome flattery,” intrigue, cunning and unkindness to animals; Orientals cannot walk on either a road or a pavement (their disordered minds fail to understand what the European grasps immediately, that roads and pavements are made for walking); Orientals are inveterate liars, they are “lethargic and suspicious,” and in everything oppose the clarity, directness and nobility of the Anglo-Saxon race.  Cromer makes no effort to conceal that Orientals for him were always and only the human material he governed in British colonies.  (pp. 38-39)

Said’s description and analysis of Cromer’s words can be easily fitted to those of Enzo Sereni the Zionist emissary to Abadan.  The native Jews are presented as pathological and deficient, their rehabilitation can only be effected with the “help of the people of the Land”; the “Land” here meaning those Ashkenazi Zionist settlers in Palestine.

The categories developed by Said in his Orientalism are thus operative in the encounter between Ashkenazi Zionists and Arab Jews in Abadan. What is even more startling is the degree of subterfuge that was undertaken in the process of trying to brainwash the Arab Jews to leave Iraq and Iran and come to Palestine.  Sadly, this subterfuge implicates the figure of the revered Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook who, as a hardened Zionist fighting his own internal Jewish battles against the Orthodox anti-Zionist Ashkenazi establishment, provided “cover” to emissaries like Sereni who required a new identity in order to be permitted access to the Arab Jewish communities.

What Kook did was to confer upon the emissaries – all atheist socialists to a man – the traditional character of the shali’ah, or in Shenhav’s term shadarim.  These shadarim concealed their true identities under the guise, ironically, of religious emissaries empowered to persuade the local Jews to come to Zion not for secular or nationalist reasons, but for religious ones.

Kook supplies letters to these emissaries providing them with necessary “cover.”  In a letter written in 1932 for the emissary to Yemen Shmuel Yavne’eli, a completely non-religious Jew, we see the rabbi “state” the following:

The bearer of this letter who is visiting your country is the important dignitary and sage [sic!] Mr. Eliezer Ben Yosef…  This dear man was in the Holy Land for many years and he has information about the customs of all our brethren, may they live…  We have entrusted him with matters to investigate and to inquire about from the high and honorable sages … in order that we may also allow the communities of Yemenites who are gathering among us to follow their own customs….  (p. 94)

And lest there be some confusion over whether or not Rabbi Kook is explicitly and with malice lying to these gullible Yemenites, let us read the words of Yavne’eli himself who states explicitly how the swindle was to work:

For reasons of caution vis-à-vis the Turkish government … it was decided that this trip should be cast in a religious character and that I should go, on the surface, on a mission from Rabbi Abraham Yitzhak Kook in Jaffa in order to pose to the rabbis of the communities in Yemen a series of questions concerning marriage, divorce, family life, prayer, synagogues, and receive from them written replies.  Equipped with a letter and with a notebook of questions from Rabbi Kook … I sailed from Jaffa to Port Said.

And in explaining the way in which the operation was set up:

The mission to Yemen was a joint operation of the representatives of Zionism in Palestine and the Labor movement, together with members of Hapoel Hatza’ir (the Young Workers’ movement) headed by Yosef Aharonovich, together with certain circles of farmers from the colonies, and functionaries, such as Eliahu Sapir and Aharon Eisenberg, and a representative of the rabbinical world, the chief rabbi of Jaffa and the colonies, Abraham Yitzhak Kook.  (p. 93)

The confluence of various sectors of the Zionist movement, as would become typical of the early years of the state, emerged at a nexus that brought together religious and secularist elements of the Zionist machine in a harmony that permitted them to function as a single unit.  Here that unit was brought together in order to create the illusion that Zionism was a logical extension of the Jewish religion in a manner that would engage and persuade the Yemenite Jews to leave their homes and come to Palestine.

From this we can clearly see that Zionism was based on a series of strategically interlinked falsehoods that would serve to undermine the communal integrity of the Arab Jews in ways that are felt to this day: Arab Jews, in Shenhav’s words, were “religionized” in ways that went well beyond the organic ways of life in the community itself. 

Hence the paradox presented at the outset.  Emissaries who declared that they were secular (and even socialists), but who were imbued with a strong ethnic (national-religious) thrust, arrived on a mission to the Arab world via a hybrid network that was religious in origin (shadarut), found there communities that observed religious practices, yet reported back with disappointment about their lack of religion.  Rather than accepting this reality, they aspired to infuse the Iraqi Jews with religious fervor.  (p. 104)

What Shenhav is pointing out here is the way in which Zionism manipulated religion as a means to undergird and reinforce the nationalist idea which was understood in neo-Hegelian terms.  Religion was for Zionism not a concrete reality; unlike the practices of Judaism inherent to the Arab Jewish tradition, Zionism was quite unconcerned with Halakhic praxis.  What Zionism was concerned about was Judaism as the abstract foundational basis of the national entity.

Such a transformation of Jewish praxis and its cognitive realities led to an undermining of the traditional customs and beliefs of the Arab Jews and ultimately led to a fusion of Jewish praxis with the Zionist imperatives that have served the State of Israel quite well through the years.

The second half of The Arab Jews discusses the complex ways in which Arab Jewish history has intersected with that of the Palestinian Arabs.  Evoking the highly charged and often utilized argument that in 1948 a population exchange occurred between Arab Jews and Palestinian Arabs, the issue of reparations and repatriation of refugees in peace discussions between Israel and the Arabs would take on a quite expansive dimension in the perpetuation of the conflict and the ideological polemics that continued to swirl around it like bees around a hive.

In reality there is no organic connection between what happened to Arab Jews and to Palestinian Arabs.  In spite of the fact that Zionists sought to lure Arab Jews to Israel, the Arab Jews by and large did not heed their call and elected to remain in their lands of origin.  Indeed, a number of Arab Jews who came to Israel in its first years looked to return back to the Arab world.  Mistreatment of Arab Jews took a number of different forms: From the forced settlement in tent cities and immigrant camps to their increased dependency on the organs and institutions of the Mapai (Labor) establishment, Arab Jews were caught in a lethal web of an almost absolute reliance on a venally paternalistic Ashkenazi hegemony. 

A particularly heinous example of such racist treatment is presented by G.N. Giladi in his Discord in Zion:

Sephardi Jews suffered from harsh health conditions in the camps with each family, usually with many children, living in one tent whose area was smaller than a normal room.  In 1950/1 the winter was unusually harsh, with snow falls everywhere.  The tents and the huts had no heat, and since there were only a few standpipes in every camp people had to stand in long queues for their water ration.  In rural areas, priority was given to the Ashkenazi farmers and the camps had their water cut off.  Often the water was muddy and unfit for drinking which led to an increase in complaints and violent demonstrations against the authorities which were put down with a steel hand.  There was one shower, with cold water naturally, for every 16 people, but it was rare to find a shower which worked regularly.  The toilets consisted of a small pit measuring one metre square, and there was one for every four families.  The queues to use them were long and sometimes there was only one per hundred people.  After heavy rainfall, the contents of the pits would overflow and in summer they gave off a foul stink and nourished armies of stinging insects.  The government did not bother about rubbish removal, and, since the camps had no gutters, mounds of rubbish piled up.  Since some of the camps lay on the Lod-Tel Aviv highway, Ashkenazi journalists wrote that these camps were jeopardizing Israel’s image since they could be seen by foreign tourists and it would be better to move them away from the highway.  The establishment thus started building cement huts a few kilometers away and demanded that the camp inhabitants buy them and move into them.  The Sephardim, however, spurned the offer because there was no asphalt road from the new location to the highway, but the Ashkenazi newspapers picked this up and reported ‘these Sephardim refuse to live in buildings because they are used to living in tents like the Bedouin.’  (p. 121)

A crucial aspect of the contestation of Arab Jewish history lies in the fact that Giladi’s text itself has become a part of the debate.  Notwithstanding the many Sephardim who have presented such stories which are well-known in our communities, the “official” Israeli version of the history of the period has largely erased the Arab Jewish voice, suppressing instances of institutional oppression like the Yemenite Babies’ scandal and the Ringworm Children scandal which continue to remain mysteries even after many vain attempts to have them adjudicated within an Israeli justice system that continues to perpetuate the lies and myths of the state.

And lest we should think that the matter of ethnicity did not play a central role in this, Giladi cites the minutes of a meeting of the Zionist Executive Council from December 1949:

Y. Refael (Hapoel Hamizrahi-Religious Labor): The Polish immigrants are not like immigrants from other countries.  Immigrants from other countries came here because we demanded.  For a long time they did not want to immigrate and put it off.  For this reason we have no obligation toward them whereas Polish Jews could not immigrate – they did not have the opportunity to do so.  If we exempt them from the camps and give them priority in housing, they will settle down much more quickly than the Orientals in the camps for there are amongst them professionals who are much in need in the country…  The Jews of Poland come from a comfortable background and thus camp life would be more difficult for them than for the Yemenite Jews who consider the camps a rescue operation…  This group of immigrants is not like the Yemenite immigrants.  When a Polish Jew gets a loan he knows he has to pay it back.

Y. Burginsky (Mapam-Zionist/Marxist): There is a possibility we will have only one camp, which is Atlit Camp where there are at present Yemenites.  We’ll shove them somewhere else and then we’ll be able to cram in between three to four thousand (even though it will not be as luxurious as Greenbaum is demanding), like in the other camp … as a precautionary measure we have rented between two and three hundred flats at 200 Israeli pounds each.  We shall take the houses that have been allotted to the North Africans and Yemenites and hand them over to the Polish Jews…

E. Dobkin: We have resolved correctly to give preferential treatment to the Jews of Poland.  [But] priority should be given to those who arrive first.  This does not have to continue throughout, but our aim is that the first to come should communicate to the others in Poland that the situation is not too bad here.  We don’t have to treat all the ten thousand like this.  There is no harm in letting those who follow later live like the rest of the refugees.

Y. Greenbaum: Instead of cramming the Polish Jews together like this, I believe it would be preferable to treat the Turkish and Libyan Jews that way.  That would not be unfair.  You ought to know that those [Polish] Jews are the elite.  Every family had three or four rooms – a German house with German furniture and the latest German conveniences.  There will be doctors from Poland.  You just put one of them in Beit Leed or Pardes Hanna and see what he’ll think of them and how he’ll feel.  (pp. 113-114)

These citations from Giladi provide the context in which we can begin to understand the arguments that Shenhav presents over the history of Arab Jews once they arrived to Israel and the acrimony that ensued over their sense of what they had lost and what they felt that they were entitled to.

Having been herded into ghetto-like conditions far more reminiscent of Nazi Germany than of the vain and illusory promises of the Zionist functionaries who were responsible for bringing over the Arab Jews in the first place, the new Sephardi Israelis quickly sought to raise the issue of compensation to the government.  Shenhav cites the minutes of a 1951 cabinet meeting where Bechor Shitrit, himself a Sephardi, raises the specter of the matter:

The Iraqi Jews [in Israel] … are planning to go to the Foreign Ministry, and the foreign minister will have to receive them.  I do not think that we can make do with vague words; there is no doubt that their demand for the property of the Arabs in Israel is well-founded.  We cannot simply say that we had a windfall.  Their [the Iraqi Jews’] situation is due to the creation of Israel, and we must think of a way to compensate them – compensation drawn from the property of the Arabs.  Otherwise they can argue, with justification: “If it were not for the state of Israel, after all, [we would not have been obliged to leave Iraq;] we lived there for hundreds of years as free people, we engaged in commerce and crafts, we accumulated riches and property’; and if we tell them that is irrelevant, we shall only be fanning the flames.  (p. 126)

In unpacking Shitrit’s words a number of things emerge: First, internal to the elite government circles there is a tacit acknowledgement that Jews did not live as persecuted citizens in the Arab world.  His words confirm that the situation of the Arab Jews in their homelands was impacted by the emergence of Zionism and by the establishment of the state of Israel.  Next we can remark that Israel had gotten a “windfall” through its confiscation of Palestinian Arab property.  And not only this; something Shitrit fails to mention – it would be a few years in coming – was the massive reparations that would flood Israel from West Germany.  Finally, we see the seething discontent of the Arab Jews which was in 1951 beginning to boil over; the trauma of the camps and the institutionalized racism had begun to take its toll.

What Zionism faced in this case was a clash of histories and a battle of ideological perspectives over those clashing histories.

Were the Arab Jews free immigrants to Israel along the lines of Zionist ideality, or were they persecuted refugees hounded into leaving their homes in the Arab world?

Here many of the explanations would run up against one another and would serve to complicate what was already a very tense situation fraught with the ethnic component that had been suppressed in the external Zionist discourse, but clearly understood within the inner circles of government and institutional Israeli life.

The government of Moshe Sharett took the step of linking the fate of the Arab Jews to the Palestinian Arabs:

The Israeli government’s creation of the linked property account was a singular act – something of a historic milepost – that constructed a zero-sum equation between the Jews of the Arab countries and the Palestinians in Israel.  The political theory that underlay the Israeli government’s construction of that equation rested on a system of moral, diplomatic, and economic assumptions that resulted in a practice of nationalization and naturalization that was riddled with contradictions.  The government of Israel automatically assumed that the Jewish ethnicity of the Iraqi Jews meant that they harbored a Zionist orientation.  It “endowed” them de facto with that particular form of national identity before they had any intention of immigrating to Israel, and certainly without having obtained their consent.  (p. 130)

This linkage would forever mark the ways in which this subject would be discussed and contested by all sides of the equation.  Palestinians would continue to fight the linkage as what happened to Jews in Iraq or elsewhere in the Arab world had nothing to do with asserting their own claims to compensation for property that was taken from them.  Arab Jews would argue that they were not a single, monolithic group that could be “represented” exclusively by Israel.  In addition, up to that time the Arab Jews had more or less been fleeced by Ashkenazi Zionism and had become the de facto underclass of the state.  Monies going into the coffers of the government had little impact on the actual day-to-day existence of so many Arab Jews whose poverty and lack of social standing would become more of a problem as time went on.

But within two decades of the Sharett decision, a startling thing occurs:

In 1975, the newly established government-financed pressure group known as the World Organization of Jews from Arab Countries (WOJAC) argued that Palestinian refugees should not be allowed back into Israel, since an involuntary population exchange had already taken place in the Middle East.  (p. 131)

The distance from the age of the ma’abarot and the more overt forms of institutionalized racism which had once affected the Arab Jews dissipated to a degree and led to the creation a new Sephardic elite that was quite amenable to work on behalf of the government in the wake of the PLO maneuvers and the Egyptian overtures which led to Anwar Sadat’s visit to Jerusalem and the 1978 Camp David accords.  WOJAC initially served to reinforce the Israeli position with no questions asked.  But as time went on, the group began to take on a life of its own and developed arguments and strategies that were not in sync with the desires of the government.

Shenhav terms WOJAC a “community of memory” which served the Arab Jews with a mechanism of expressing its own history and the way that history functioned within the larger paradigms of the Middle Eastern conflict.  Utilizing a model of what he calls the “primordialism” thesis, Shenhav marks the ways in which WOJAC began to deviate from the Ashkenazi Zionist script in order to assert a variant understanding of Arab Jewish history.

As the Iraqi-born WOJAC member David Fattal states:

The Jews arrived in Iraq … in 600 BCE.  There they settled, built, produced, [and] continued for nearly 1,300 years.  It was only in 638 CE, during the reign of the [second] caliph ‘Umar al-Hatib, that [his general] Khalid al-Walid succeeded in conquering Iraq.  That was nearly 1,300 years after the Jews came to Iraq, preceding the Arabs and Islam.  There they did productive work, developed settlements, and built; there they produced not only earthly things but also things of the spirit and science, of knowledge, and there they produced the Babylonian Talmud in that period.  Only afterward did [the soldiers of] Islam come as conquerors…  And the Jews of Iraq in all the generations, under all the governments … did not stand aside, but were a great help to them, they aided in the advancement of the building [sic] of each and every Iraqi government.  And in recent generations they were even the prime vessels that the rulers used in order to establish the government units, to build the administration, to raise up the economy of that country, and to deal with and administer the natural resources of that Iraqi state that was established after the British occupation.  In Iraq, the first finance minister was a Jew, the director of the Treasury’s offices were Jews, the managers of the trains, the customs, the post office, and the oil fields … were all Jews.  (p. 147)

It should be more than obvious that Fattal’s arguments, perfectly consistent with a proper and rational understanding of the organic history of the region, was not the version of the history that the Ashkenazi Zionists had presented as the officially-sanctioned version in Israel.  Aside from the fact that Zionism had set out to eviscerate and make invisible the history of the Arab Jews, Fattal was even more dangerously moving to the other extreme in his assertions that Iraqi Jews were not simply a tolerated minority, but a central part of the socio–political configuration of the country.

This “primordialist” thesis became a part of the WOJAC platform even as the Israeli government and certain members of the WOJAC group assertively contested it.  Primordialism functioned to raise the haunting specter of the “ethnic question”; just the thing that Zionism had wanted to suppress.  The implications are laid out by Shenhav in his expert analysis of the matter:

The narrative presented here imagines a past consisting of several components.  The most important of these is the affinity of the Arab Jews with “the region,” a perception that splinters Jewish ethno-national unity by adducing different pasts for Arab Jews and European Jews.  Although the source of the cultural and political rights of the Jews “in the region” lies in a pre-Islamic world, those rights were not affected even with the rise of the Arab empire to greatness or afterward.  In this narrative, Jewish culture remained dominant “in the region” even under the Arab conquest.  As opposed to the classic Zionist account, the Jews of the exilic era are described, not as a stagnant community whose existence is lacking, but as almost Promethean progenitors of culture in the Middle East.  Relations with the Muslim world are portrayed in narrative association with a Golden Age that existed (or ostensibly existed) until the expulsion from Spain.  However, in contrast to the Spanish Golden Age, Jewish culture in the Middle East remained vigorous after 1492 and, indeed, continued to exist as such well into the Modern era.  (pp. 147-148)

The primordialism thesis thus looks very much like “The Levantine Option” as I have presented it.  What is left unremarked in the WOJAC context is the way in which Palestinian Arabs had become an object of derision among the Sephardim.  A breakdown occurred within the Jewish-Arab symbiosis, a matter that has been pointedly accounted for in the Zionist explanation that is here implicitly critiqued and unwittingly rejected: Within the Zionist presentation of Arab Jewish history, the neo-lachrymose features serve to connect the physical existence of Jews in the region, but that existence was one of unremitting misery rather than the vigor and brilliance of Fattal’s interpretation.  Fattal’s sunny optimism forgets that the Jews and Arabs are in a state of conflict that Zionism has marked within a larger context of Muslim anti-Semitism that we can see for instance in the harsh anti-Arab polemics of Bernard Lewis and his school.

So here we see that the “population exchange” thesis is mere book-keeping rather than some form of race-hatred and primordialism that ascribes an eternal enmity between Jews and Arabs – very much contrary to the standard Zionist thesis which colors the Islamic world in Christian tones.

This neo-lachrymose conception is cited by others in the Sephardic community as a counterweight to the approach being presented by Fattal and others in the WOJAC group:

The most radical position concerning the relations between Muslims and Jews was taken by Ya’akov Meron, an official of the Ministry of Justice and one of WOJAC’s most articulate speakers from its inception.  Grounding his views in the antagonistic model, Meron stated explicitly and plainly that the Jews had been expelled from the Arab countries.  Meron cited two arguments in support of this contention.  The first was that the Jews had been in a dire situation in the Arab countries; as proof of this, he described at length the pogroms against the Jews of Iraq (1941), in Libya (1945), and in Egypt (1945 and 1948).  The second argument, based on “two pieces of evidence,” was that there had been a coordinated expulsion policy among all the Arab states.  (pp. 156-157)

Again, we see the manner in which pieces of evidence are marshaled in a way that serves to contest the historical realities of the Arab Jews.  The example provided by the Iraqi Farhud, where a few hundred people were massacred by Iraqi nationalists after the failure of a coup attempt by anti-British elements, is a particularly apt one in this context.  There is no proof that the Farhud was a coordinated attack and it has become clear from archival research over the decades since its occurrence that the role of the British in permitting the bloodletting to go on was more than a bit suspicious.  In any case, it remains clear that although the Jews were the main targets of the attacks, that Muslims were also killed and that many Muslims put their own lives in danger to help save Jews from the attacks.

Meron’s position, parroting the Zionist approach, is to fit the persecution model into Arab Jewish history at any cost – even in contradiction to the historical record.  Such is the way in which nations contest histories that offer alternative explanations to their own certainties.  And the split between Fattal and Meron reflects the ways in which natives and outsiders perceive history; Fattal is at pains to portray Iraqi Jewish history in positive terms while the Zionist functionary Meron bears his allegiance not to Iraqi Jewry, but to the requirements of the Zionist master narrative which rhetorically encodes Arab-Islamic civilization as “barbarous.”

And after all of this debate, WOJAC (formally shut down in 1999) was left as an organization that would be manipulated by the steady hand of the Ashkenazi-controlled government of Israel.  In spite of working diligently on behalf of the state regarding the Palestinian Refugee question – at least this was the WOJAC understanding of the matter – we see that

[D]espite WOJAC’s seemingly tempting offer to the state of Israel, the attitude of the establishment remained patronizing and suspicious.  As Leon Taman described it, “The government treated us like infants, little children.  When the infant cries, people give it a pacifier and say, Take the pacifier and be quiet.  That is how we felt.”  An analysis of the relations between WOJAC and the Israeli establishment reveals a Tower of Babel syndrome: parallel languages of discourse that never meet.  (p. 177)

The image of the Tower of Babel that Shenhav uses here is an apt rhetorical model that both typifies and magnifies the ways in which Arab Jews have been treated in Israel.  Like the famous het and ‘ayin, two Hebrew letters that cannot be pronounced properly by Ashkenazim and which mark the Sephardi pronunciation of Hebrew, the very idea of an abstract Jewish “unity” is itself an impossibility.  Jewish unity as expressed and reified by Ashkenazi Zionist discourse is something that retains the same utopian character as that of the fabled Israeli “democracy”: It is a unity and a democracy that is monolingual and monocultural – as it remains discursively constructed by a monocausality.

As Shenhav explores the paradoxical ways in which Zionism has had to be inclusive of a Jewish religion whose legal and textual strictures it has long since marked as defunct, we can better see how at its very conceptual root Zionism is caught in a trap of religio-national ethnocentrism anchored in the Ashkenazi experience and its tragic history.  In this regard Shenhav wisely cites Gershom Scholem:

The people here [in Palestine] do not understand the implications of their actions…  They think they have turned Hebrew into a secular language, that they have removed its apocalyptic sting.  But this is not the case…  Every word that is not created randomly anew, but is taken from the “good old” lexicon, is filled to overflowing with explosives…  God will not remain mute in the language in which he has been entreated thousands of times to return to our lives.  (p. 195)

It is here that Shenhav shows us the paradoxical nature of Zionism and how that paradox functions in the context of Arab Jewish history and identity.  Forcing the richness of the Jewish past, its language, its religion, its culture, to serve at the altar of a monocausal identity – of an Ashkenazi Hegelianism – can only serve to touch off the tripwires of history and its wide reserve of hidden energies and suppressed antinomianism.

The Arab Jews is another significant chapter in the literature of Sephardic culture and history as it relates to Zionism.  Its impending publication brought me back to pondering the final pages of Giladi’s Discord in Zion, a book that has never been published in the US or Israel and remains out of print in England, in which he is insistent that, after decades of struggle and failure, the Arab Jews are set to emerge from the cloud that they have been living under.  And in the early 1990s figures like Ammiel Alcalay, Ella Shohat, Sami Shalom Chetrit and a few others looked like this promise might actually be fulfilled.  But the internal censoring mechanisms inherent in the Zionist project locked into the Sephardic community which resolutely rejected the activist approach and began to fulfill the “death of the Sephardim” project that Shenhav narrates as being a crucial part of the Ashkenazi Zionist project.

With the eradication of the Black Panthers and Matzpen and the increasing movement of Sephardi activists into an academic context – a place where the vast majority of the great Sephardi “unwashed” remain deeply uncomfortable – the discourse of the activists became increasingly esoteric and obscure.  The direct approach of Giladi was deemed “controversial” and lacking in the niceties of a civilized academia.  The malodorous realities of the ma’abarot are direct and immediately accessible in Discord in Zion in ways that elude the more reserved nature of the scholarly, even though the anti-Sephardi polemic continues on its harsh and merry way.

Amazingly, I read an article by the hateful Steven Plaut attacking Shenhav in David Horowitz’s Front Page Magazine – the article forwarded to me, sadly, by a SEPHARDI who is a fan of Plaut – a few months in advance of the actual U.S. publication of the book.  This Ashkenazi racist-mongering reminded me of a recent unpleasantness that I experienced with an American-born Israeli professor, an Orientalist sociologist who is well-known in interfaith circles and who fancies himself knowledgeable about Sephardim, who attempted to have me removed from a conference that I was invited to as a presenter.  When the professor did not succeed in having me removed from the conference panel, he used his time as a respondent on his own panel to attack my paper – confusing the audience because I had yet to present the paper!

The punchline to my personal anecdote is that the professor in question recommended as a corrective to what he called my “wrongheaded and dangerous approach” that I read the work of – wait for it – Yehouda Shenhav!  As I had read The Arab Jews in its Hebrew edition, I thought the “suggestion” rather odd, and yet when I read the English galleys with all of this in mind, I better understood the ways in which discursive contestation operates within academic discourse.  In spite of the fact that Shenhav has written a stinging and at times insistently merciless defense of Arab Jewish identity in its battle with the malignant racism of Ashkenazi Zionism, the manner of its rhetoric and its subtle and wise discursive strategies, quite different from those I utilize which are closer in spirit and tonality to G.N. Giladi’s unstoppable rage, enabled this professor to put forward Shenhav’s learned subtlety as a way to foreclose its activist potentiality.

And here I am led to the difficulties of assessing The Arab Jews in a socially contextual fashion.  Like Ammiel Alcalay’s After Jews and Arabs, the book will prove too difficult for the average reader.  The learned nature of its discourse marks it in the ranks of books by people like Benedict Anderson, Eric Hobsbawm and other academic theoreticians of nationalism and culture that are widely read by academics in universities but whose arguments rarely enter into the common currency of the average person.  This is not to stigmatize any of this writing in an anti-intellectual sense; it is not my intent to argue that we should avoid bringing our activism and our cultural arguments into the fields of the social sciences and of the wide spectrum of literary and philosophical study.

The argument I am making has to do with the way that knowledge is all too frequently marked as inaccessible and unusable in a mainstream context because it partakes of the technical lexicon of the academic.  When Sephardim lack the very rudimentary elements of their own history and culture, basic studies which would allow Shenhav and Alcalay’s masterfully-argued books to be more easily understood, books like Giladi’s which, as I have said, is almost completely inaccessible to the American reader, the complex discourse of these books may estrange them from the very people who so badly need to read them.

Paradoxically, part of the anti-Sephardi racism that has been endemic to the Ashkenazi Zionist argument is that Sephardim are primitive and less capable that Europeans.  How better then to show the “other side” that Sephardim are as smart, if not smarter, than they are by approaching the subject of Sephardic culture from within the very scientific and intellectually sophisticated parameters of the European academic tradition?

The Sephardim thus find themselves between the proverbial rock and hard place. 

It must therefore be stated without hesitation that Yehouda Shenhav’s The Arab Jews serves to articulate the Sephardic cause in ways that are bracingly innovative and intellectually challenging.  As Sephardic readers we must lift ourselves up to the rarefied heights of such a discourse and not simply sit back and wallow in a sense of anti-intellectualism.  The challenge of Shenhav’s brilliant book is to internalize the passions and emotions that often serve to fire up our consciences and to see the ways in which the methods and protocols of social scientific discourse can serve to subtly detail the glorious richness of our history and preserve the intensely human complexities of self-understanding within a sociological configuration.

The Arab Jews is not an easy book to read, but the arguments that it so brilliantly makes come to raise our consciousness of who we are as Sephardim.  It is yet another mandatory addition to the small but potent library of Sephardica that may yet lead us to emerge out of the darkness that we have sadly been placed in by the often brutal machinations of Ashkenazi culture and the ways in which that culture, especially through Zionism, has served to unsettle and undermine the genius of Arab Jewish culture in its wide historical trajectory.