Other Judaisms

Ella Shohat is a professor of Women’s Studies and Cultural Studies at CUNY, and is one of the co-founders of Ivri-NASAWI, an organization devoted to the cultural life of Sephardi and Mizrahi Jewry. I know of her indirectly, as one of my partner’s professors and as the author of an incredible essay on Sephardic second-class status in Israel, “Sephardim in Israel: Zionism from the Standpoint of Its Jewish Victims,” in Dangerous Liaisons, which she co-edited.

Shohat is also an Israeli Jew of Iraqi parentage, living and working in the US, and in “Reflections of an Arab Jew” she writes of her awkward position as the three nations she is connected with embroil themselves in war. She writes of her relatives living in both Iraq and Israel, of her experiences during the first war against Iraq, of being at the same time Arab and Jew and American, with all the split loyalties and ambivalent (amtrivalent, maybe) desires that engenders. Shohat talks of her kind of Jewishness as an elision, an invisible yet uncomfortable presence in Jewish consciousness.

The same historical process that dispossessed Palestinians of their property, lands and national-political rights, was linked to the dispossession of 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 same process also affected our uprootedness or ambiguous positioning within Israel itself, where we have been systematically discriminated against by institutions that deployed their energies and material 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 Oriental Sephardic 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 disauthorizes 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.

It’s a short but enlightening read and a good remedy for the binariness that threatens to engulf us in times of war, when all things seem to boil down into “us” and “them”, matters of pure survival. And it’s an especially good corrective for the all-too-facile use of terms like “Arab world” and “Muslim sphere” that have been thrown around far too much since 9/11, as we grapple with the simple-minded question of why “they” hate “us”.

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