Two wonderful things happened as a result of the furor over Army Radio’s broadcast in July of a program on Mahmoud Darwish. First, Israeli interest in the works of the late Palestinian poet has grown. Second, a fierce debate over the social identity category “Arab Jew” has erupted in the Israeli media and social networks.
To summarize: On Nadav Bornstein’s late-night show on Israel Channel 2 television, “Hai ba’Layla,” comedian Yossi Tzabari delivered a monologue in which he described himself as an Arab Jew. Social activist Ofir Tubul responded by challenging the validity of the category, suggesting “local Jew” instead. “We are not Arabs,” Tubul argued, since we don’t speak Arabic, we don’t experience our lives as Arabs and Arabs don’t regard us as Arabs. According to Tubul, it’s enough for us to remember that we’re Jews, without any no artificial additions, in order for us to understand that we belong to this land, that we are “locals.”
Tzabari, on the other hand, argued that when Jews from Arab countries immigrated to Israel they were “stripped” of their Arab identity. The issue of whether or not his parents, who immigrated to Israel from Yemen, saw themselves as Arabs is irrelevant, he said, since that generation engaged less with identity issues. To Tzabari, an Arab is someone who was born in an Arab country and who speaks Arabic. The fact that Tzabari doesn’t speak it himself derives from the fact that he was subjected to “the Israeli identity press” that sought to “defend” itself against “Arabness.” It did not change the fact of his Arab identity.
The term “Arab Jew” was coined only in the 1990s, according to Tubul, by “intellectuals from the Israeli Mizrahi left” trying to deliver a provocative message about the erstwhile close cultural ties between Jews and Arabs in their countries of origin. Intellectuals from the Mizrahi left did and do use this identity category, but they did not coin it in the 1990s, or even in the ‘70s.
The term has a long history and it has been written about at length by scholars from different fields (such as Moshe Behar, Lital Levy, Yehouda Shenhav and Ella Shohat). In response to the debate between Tzabari and Tubul, the poet and author Almog Behar published a piece (in Hebrew) on Haokets, a blog site that calls itself a “critical platform on socioeconomic, political, media, cultural and other issues in Israel and beyond.” Behar writes, for example, that before Islam, Arabs were the inhabitants of the Arabian Peninsula and, as attested in the Gemera and in Arab sources, there were certainly Arab Jews. In later periods, too, there were Jewish intellectuals — in medieval Spain and during the Arab enlightenment, from the late 19th century to the middle of the 20th century — who saw themselves as Arab Jews.
“Arab Jew” just might be the most annoying or infuriating word pair in Israeli public discourse. Say it and you’ve marked yourself as a secular leftist, a traitorous toady, a deceitful dreamer and, worst of all, an anti-Zionist. And now, dozens of historians, semi-sociologists and “authentic” cultural informants of the “we lived alongside the Arabs” type are roped in to remind you: “Hey, there never was such an identity, it’s an invention!”
Leftist readers would do well now to pour themselves a glass of water, sit down and buckle up.
It’s true. “Arab Jew” is a fabrication. It’s inaccurate to argue that there never was such a category but one must admit that most Jews who lived in Arab countries never regarded themselves as Arabs. The few who did came mainly from the Mashreq, the Arab east, not the Maghreb, North Africa. Even they enjoyed only a brief grace period as Arab Jews before they were forced to decide, to swear allegiance to one nation, one state. And even then, although many of them lived an Arab existence, Arab Jew was an invented identity.
So, what’s the big deal? What identity isn’t an invented category? What identity is “natural”? Even a person’s sexual orientation become a fabricated category once they define identity. Homosexuality as sexual practice is one thing and homosexuality as identity is something else entirely. The same for heterosexuality. In other words, identity is always an imaginary category, a fabrication that has been “naturalized,” its imaginary origins blurred so that it eventually seems “natural,” an identity one is born into.
Even Judaism, as ancient as it is, did not always exist. There was a particular point at which it appeared, and a historical point at which it already existed. And like every other identity, Judaism has never been static. It disintegrated and was reassembled, constantly changing and crystallizing. The Judaism of today is unlike the Judaism of the pre-Talmudic or of the pre-Mishnaic era, and that of the First and Second Temple periods. That’s a good thing, since like any other identity, Jewish identity presumably would have withered and died had it remained fixed.
This is also true of Arab identity. It began as an ethnic identity of inhabitants of the Arabian Peninsula, became a cultural-linguistic identity of all speakers of Arabic and eventually turned into a pan-Arab political and national identity. Jews, incidentally, were not easily accepted into this club, despite its secular character.
Like loyalty to a single God, like fidelity to a single partner, nationalism demands from us loyalty to a single nation and a single state. But as it turns out, most of us are quite disloyal. Our identity is more complex than the narrow, meager, monolithic nature of the national idea. Human beings are much more complex than any single idea that they hold. Culture and language have great power over our spirits, often much more than any ideology.
I often find myself returning to the writings of the Egyptian-Jewish author and essayist Jacqueline Kahanoff (also spelled Kahanof or Kahanov) and the Levantine option that she proposed. Kahanoff was born in Cairo in 1917. Her father had emigrated from Iraq as a child, while her mother’s family was from Tunisia. She was raised Jewish in an Arab Muslim country, where she studied in a French school and had an Italian nanny who was followed by an English nanny. Each of the cultures and languages to which she was exposed remained with her to some extent.
The option that she suggested was multiplicity: of cultures, of languages, of influences and possibly even of identities. But this multiplicity has a cost: the cost of dual loyalties, as Israeli author Ronit Matalon, who has written at length about Kahanoff, has described. Or the cost of the constant movement between subjective positions, as described by Dolly Benhabib in her article “Skirts Are Shorter Now: Comments on Levantine Female Identity in the Writings of Jacqueline Kahanov.” The Levantine world, wrote Matalon, is a world that is constantly reborn and reshaped. It is shaped according to the situation, according to the person you are facing and according to the hegemonic forces at play.
Kahanoff’s political and social positions are much more complex than the intolerable arbitrariness of an unambiguous choice of an all-embracing ideology, a choice made in an uncompromising manner, oblivious to reality. These should not be dismissed in order to become apolitical. On the contrary, one should rise above such considerations and reexamine and reformulate one’s political positions, instead of abandoning everything to some overarching ideology.
Like all identity categories, Arab Jew — like Mizrahi Jew or local or even Ashkenzi, to the dismay of some people, contains some political ideas. It wasn’t difficult to distinguish between the political leanings of Tzabari and Tubul. Their discussion of identity was based on clear political stances, whether in regard to Palestinians and the Arab world, or with regard to Israel’s place in the region.
Thus, just like a political position, identity is also something a person shapes for himself, creating and imagining and reinventing. I’m not lying when I move from one position to another. It’s the constant motion between subjective positions, natural in my opinion, that defines the Levantine existence.
Tubul and his supporters criticize Tzabari and others who propose an Arab-Jewish identity for their submission to an Ashkenazi dictate. They argue that this is only an identity of defiance, a response to the political right. This seems strange to me, since being a Mizrahi Jew also means adopting an Ashkenazi viewpoint, yet it’s an important category regardless. All nationalist definitions in this region are a reaction to a Western colonialist dictate, but they are such significant factors that we deem them natural. If an Ashkenazi perspective so troubles locals, there is nothing like an Arab-Jewish identity that will stand up to this and to the great fear invoked by such an identity, as expressed for example in the words of Ben-Gurion who said, upon the arrival of immigrants from Arab countries: “We don’t want Israelis to become Arabs. We must fight the spirit of the Levant, which corrupts individuals and societies, and preserve authentic Jewish values which were formed in the diaspora” or in the words of Abba Eban, who said that “our goal should be to instill Western values in them and not let them drag us into an unnatural Oriental existence.” (Both quotes are from Ella Shohat’s “Taboo Memories, Diasporic Voices,” Duke University Press, 2006). An Arab-Jewish identity displeases Israel’s right wing, identified as Mizrahi, but it certainly doesn’t please the left, which is considered Ashkenazi. There are opponents on both sides of the spectrum, wanting, in the name of history, to silence, mock or dismiss it. But this identity persists, as it has done throughout history. It remains marginal, not part of the mainstream discourse. Zionism too was not the dominant approach among Jewish communities around the world.
The category of Arab-Jew is not based only on contrariness. Like every other identity, it does contain such an element. What identity is not build on this? You worship many gods, so we’ll worship one; you sanctify wine and see it as the blood of Jesus so we’ll forbid drinking alcohol; that’s how it always begins. Then, further content is added, less contrary, something which is “ours.”
The Mizrahi intellectuals who identify as Arab Jews don’t pose their position only in opposition to the right. They impart content into this identity on a daily basis. They research, learn and teach, filling gaps which were formed by their sundering from the Arab world. In the nonacademic sphere this is performed by singer Ziv Yehezkel, as was previously done by other singers over the years. All of these not only impart Arabness and the Arabic language into the Israeli and Jewish world, but they also impart Jewish and Israeli content into Arabness. In effect, they are the ones who are realizing Jewishness not only in its Arab aspects but mainly in its local and regional character. It’s no wonder that since the 1990s the discourse regarding Arab Jews has changed in the Arab world as well.
Yes, there are people who exploit this. Many in the Arab world say that Jews who lived among them had equal rights and were considered to be local Arabs who were never persecuted. This is not so. The Jewish-Tunisian intellectual Albert Memmi said it well: “Jewish Arabs—that’s what we would have liked to be, and if we have given up the idea, it is because for centuries the Moslem Arabs have scornfully, cruelly, and systematically prevented us from carrying it out.” However, one cannot ignore the fact that in the Arab world there is increasingly talk of how Jews were once part of that world. This is reflected in TV shows, lectures, media reports, documentaries and other programs that were unimaginable 20 years ago.
It’s okay, then, if we feel ourselves to be locals, sometimes Mizrahi and sometimes Israeli, at other times more Jewish. It’s okay if some of us feel identify as Arab Jews, without anyone mocking or dismissing this identity. There is room for all of these. Not in the name of postmodernism but in the name of simple and basic humanity. As the Egyptian-Jewish lawyer Shehata Haroun, a Levant-oriented contemporary of Kahanoff, put it: “Every human being has more than one identity. I’m a human being. I’m Egyptian when Egyptians are oppressed, black when blacks are oppressed and Jewish when Jews are oppressed.”
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