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http://www.forusa.org/fellowship/fel0598-2.htm

Reflections of an Arab Jew

By Ella Shohat May/June 1998


I am an Arab Jew. Or, more specifically, an Iraqi Israeli woman living, writing and teaching in the US. Most members of my family were born and raised in Baghdad, and now live in Iraq, Israel, the US, England, and Holland. When my grandmother first encountered Israeli society in the '50s, she was convinced that the people who looked, spoke and ate so differently-the European Jews-were actually European Christians. Jewishness for her generation was inextricably associated with Middle Easterness. My grandmother, who still lives in Israel and still communicates largely in Arabic, had to be taught to speak of "us" as Jews and "them" as Arabs.

For Middle Easterners, the operating distinction had always been "Muslim," "Jew," and "Christian," not Arab versus Jew. The assumption was that "Arabness" referred to a common shared culture and language, albeit with religious differences. Americans are often amazed to discover the existentially nauseating or charmingly exotic possibilities of such a syncretic identity. I recall a well-established colleague who despite my elaborate lessons on the history of Arab Jews, still had trouble understanding that I was not a tragic anomaly-for instance, the daughter of an Arab (Palestinian) and an Israeli (European Jew). Living in North America makes it even more difficult to communicate that we are Jews and yet entitled to our Middle Eastern difference. And that we are Arabs and yet entitled to our religious difference, like Arab Christians and Arab Muslims.

It was precisely the policing of cultural borders in Israel that led some of us to escape elsewhere. Yet in an American context, we again face a hegemony that allows us to narrate only a single Jewish memory, i.e., a European one. For those of us who don't hide our Middle Easterness under one Jewish "we," it becomes tougher and tougher to exist in an American context hostile to the very notion of Easterness.

As an Arab Jew, I am often obliged to explain the "mysteries" of this oxymoronic identity. That we have spoken Arabic, not Yiddish; that for millennia our cultural creativity, secular and religious, had been largely articulated in Arabic (Maimonides being one of the our intellectuals to "make it" into the consciousness of the West); and that even the most religious of our communities in the Middle East and North Africa never expressed themselves in Yiddish-accented Hebrew prayers, nor did they practice liturgical-gestural norms and sartorial codes favoring the dark colors of centuries-ago Poland. Middle Eastern women similarly never wore wigs; their hair covers, if worn, consisted of different variations on regional clothing (and in the wake of British and French imperialism, many wore Western-style clothes). If you go to our synagogues, even in New York, Montreal, Paris, or London, you'll be amazed to hear the winding quarter-tones of our music, which the uninitiated might imagine to be coming from a mosque.

Now that the three cultural topographies that compose my ruptured and dislocated history-Iraq, Israel, and the US-have been involved in a war, it is crucial to say that we exist. Some of us refuse to dissolve so as to facilitate "neat" national and ethnic divisions. My anxiety and pain during the Scud attacks on Israel, where some of my family lives, did not cancel out my fear and anguish for the victims of the bombardment of Iraq, where I also have relatives.

War, however, is the friend of polarization, leaving little place for complex identities. The Gulf war, for example, intensified a pressure already familiar to the Arab Jewish diaspora in the wake of the Israeli-Arab conflict: a pressure to choose between being a Jew and being an Arab. For our families, who have lived in Mesopotamia since at least the Babylonian exile, who have been Arabized for millennia, and who were abruptly dislodged to Israel forty-five years ago, to be suddenly forced to assume a homogenous European Jewish identity based on experiences in Russia, Poland and Germany, was an exercise in self-devastation. To be a European or American Jew has hardly been perceived as a contradiction, but to be an Arab Jew has been seen as a kind of logical paradox, even subversion of being. This categorization has led many "Oriental" Jews (our name in Israel referring to our common Asian and African countries of origin is Mizrahi or Mizrachi) to a profound and visceral schizophrenia, since for the first time in our history Arabness and Jewishness have been imposed as antonyms.

Intellectual discourse in the West highlights a Judeo-Christian tradition, yet rarely acknowledges the Judeo-Muslim culture of the Middle East, of North Africa, or of pre-expulsion Spain (1492) and of the European parts of the Ottoman Empire. The Jewish experience in the Muslim world has often been portrayed as an unending nightmare of oppression and humiliation. Although I in no way want to idealize that experience-there were occasional tensions, discriminations, even violence-on the whole, we lived quite comfortably within Muslim societies.

Our history simply cannot be discussed in European Jewish terminology. In Iraq, while retaining a communal Jewish identity, we were generally well-integrated and indigenous to the country, forming an inseparable part of its social and cultural life. Thoroughly Arabized, we used Arabic even in hymns and religious ceremonies. The liberal and secular trends of the twentieth-century engendered an even stronger association, which brought Jews into an extremely active arena in public and cultural life. Prominent Jewish writers, poets, and scholars played a vital role in Arab culture, distinguishing themselves in Arabic-speaking theater, in music, as singers, composers, and players of traditional instruments. Not only in Iraq, but also in Egypt, Morocco, Syria, Lebanon, and Tunisia, Jews became members of legislatures, of municipal councils, of the judiciary, and even occupied high economic positions. (The finance minister of Iraq in the '40s was Ishak Sasson, and in Egypt, Jamas Sanua-higher positions, ironically, than those our community had generally achieved within the Jewish state until the 1990s.)

The historical process that dispossessed Palestinians of their property, lands, and national-political rights also dispossessed Middle Eastern and North African Jews of their property, lands, and rootedness in Muslim countries. As refugees, or mass immigrants (depending on one's political perspective), we were forced to leave everything behind and give up our Iraqi passports. The process then produced our uprootedness or ambiguous positioning within Israel itself, where we have been systematically discriminated against by institutions that deployed their energies and resources to the consistent advantage of European Jews and to the consistent disadvantage of Oriental Jews. Even our physiognomies betray us, leading to internalized colonialism or physical misperception. Sephardic Oriental women often dye their dark hair blond, while the men have more than once been arrested or beaten when mistaken for Palestinians. What for Ashkenazi immigrants from Russian and Poland was a social aliya (literally "ascent") was for Sephardic Oriental Jews a yerida ("descent").

Stripped of our history, we have been forced by our no-exit situation to repress our collective nostalgia, at least within the public sphere. The pervasive notion of "one people" reunited in their ancient homeland actively invalidates any affectionate memory of life before Israel. We have never been allowed to mourn a trauma that the images of Iraq's destruction only intensified and crystallized for some of us. Our cultural creativity in Arabic, Hebrew, and Aramaic is hardly studied in Israeli schools, and it is becoming difficult to convince our children that we actually did exist there, and that some of us are still there in Iraq, Morocco, Yemen, and Iran.

Western media much prefer the spectacle of the triumphant progress of Western technology to the survival of the peoples and cultures of the Middle East. The case of Arab Jews is just one of many convenient oversights. From the outside, it is hard to get a sense of our community, even harder to discover the diversity of our political perspectives. Oriental-Sephardic peace movements, from the Black Panthers of the 1970s to the new Keshet (a "Rainbow" coalition of Mizrahi groups in Israel) not only call for a just peace for Israelis and Palestinians, but also for the cultural, political, and economic integration of Israel/Palestine into the Middle East. And thus an end to the polarization of war, an end to a simplistic charting of Middle Eastern identities.



Ella Habiba Shohat is Professor of Cultural Studies and Women's Studies at CUNY. A writer, curator, and activist, she is the author of Israeli Cinema: East/West and the Politics of Representation (University of Texas Press, 1989) and the co-author (with Robert Stam) of Unthinking Eurocentrism: Multiculturalism and the Media (Routledge 1994). Shohat co-edited Dangerous Liaisons: Gender, Nation and Postcolonial Perspectives (University of Minnesota Press, 1997) and is the editor of Talking Visions: Multicultural Feminism in the Transnational Age (MIT Press/The New Museum., 1998). A version of this article was previously published in Emergences, issue 3/4.


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