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On the Nose is our biweekly podcast. The editorial staff discusses the politics, culture, and questions that animate today’s Jewish left.
The Fraught Promise of Arab-Jewish Identity
0:00 / 49:00
July 10, 2024

Until 1948, around 800,000 Jews lived as an organic and inseparable part of the Arab Middle East and North Africa. But political shifts in the mid-20th century upended this reality. The violent creation of the State of Israel, and the rise of an increasingly exclusivist Arab nationalism, fueled anti-Jewish hostility that led to the exodus of all but a few thousand Jews from the region. The rich Arab-Jewish life that had characterized prior centuries was lost, and the vast majority of Arab Jews ended up in Israel, becoming active participants in the country’s regime of domination over Palestinians. But neither Mizrahi Jews’ enthusiastic embrace of Zionism nor the collapse of Jewish life in the broader Middle East were historical inevitabilities—and these processes did not go unchallenged. Instead, Arab-Jewish thinkers throughout the 20th century drew on their own experiences to offer alternatives to Zionism as well as other kinds of ethnonationalism.

In June, Jewish Currents fellow Jonathan Shamir attended a first-of-its-kind retreat for Arab Jews organized by activist Hadar Cohen and historian Avi Shlaim, where contemporary thinkers came together to figure out how to build on these past efforts. In the latest episode of On the Nose, Shamir speaks with three scholars from the retreat—Hana Morgenstern, a professor of Middle Eastern literature; Yaël Mizrahi-Arnaud, a co-founder of the diaspora anti-Zionist group Shoresh; and Moshe Behar, a senior lecturer in Israel/Palestine studies and co-founder of the Mizrahi Civic Collective—about the history of Arab-Jewish political thought and organizing, and its possibilities and limits for our time.

Thanks to Jesse Brenneman for producing and to Nathan Salsburg for the use of his song “VIII (All That Were Calculated Have Passed).”

Texts Mentioned and Further Reading and Listening:

On the Arab-Jew, Palestine, and Other Displacements: Selected Writings by Ella Shohat

The Arab Jews: A Postcolonial Reading of Nationalism, Religion, and Ethnicity by Yehouda Shenhav

Modern Middle Eastern Jewish Thought: Writings on Identity, Politics, & Culture, 1893-1958, edited by Moshe Behar and Zvi Ben-Dor Benite

Three Worlds: Memoirs of an Arab-Jew by Avi Shlaim

Iraqi Jewish Writers (Banipal Magazine of Modern Arab Literature), Shimon Ballas, Sami Michael, Samir Naqqash, et al.

An Archive of Literary Reconstruction after the Palestinian Nakba,” Hana Morgenstern, MERIP

Were There—and Can There Be—Arab Jews? (With Afterthoughts on the IHRA Definition of Antisemitism and Palestinian Jews),” Moshe Behar

Weeping for Babylon,” Zvi Ben-Dor Benite and Avi Shlaim, Jewish Currents

Toward a Democratic State in Palestine,” Palestine National Liberation Movement

The ‘Friends of the IDF’ Gala Was Like a Rich Kid’s Bar Mitzvah—Until the Protest Started,” Sophie Hurwitz, The Nation

A Democratic Mizrahi Vision,” the Mizrahi Civic Collective


Jonathan Shamir: Hi, my name is Jonathan Shamir, the fellow at Jewish Currents, and I’ll be hosting On the Nose today. I’ve just come back from a five-day retreat at the Cotswolds, the green and hilly region about 100 miles west of London. I was there for a first of its kind convening of Arab Jews, organized by activists Hadar Cohen and historian Avi Shlaim, in order to rethink, deeply, about the historically rooted alternative to ethnonationalist divisions of the region. Jews had a continuous presence in the Arab Middle East and North Africa for over 2,000 years and lived largely in peace through the advent of Islam and up to the political upheavals of the 20th century. Before 1948, around 800,000 Jews lived in the Middle East and North Africa. The creation of the State of Israel and the rise of an increasingly exclusivist Arab nationalism accelerated anti-Jewish hostility that eventually led to the exodus of all but a few thousand Jews. The vast majority of these communities ended up in the newly established state of Israel, and today form an active part of the regime of domination of the Palestinians, while the liquidation of the rich Arab Jewish life of the Middle East and North Africa acted as a bellwether for the decline of a liberal and multicultural society that many are still mourning today.

But neither the enthusiastic embrace of Zionism by Mizrahi Jews (who Israel’s first Prime Minister David Ben Gurion feared would connect with Palestinians), nor the collapse of Jewish life in the region were historical inevitabilities--and they did not go completely unchallenged, either. To discuss these rare instances of struggle and solidarity, and how they might shed light on our present political moment, I’m joined today by three wonderful guests from the retreat: Dr. Hana Morgenstern, an associate professor in postcolonial and Middle East literature at Cambridge University. Hi, Hana.

Hana Morgenstern: Hi. Good to be here.

JS: Yaël Mizrahi-Arnaud, a doctoral candidate in history at NYU and an activist and co-founder of an Israeli anti-Zionist group in the US, Shoresh.

Yaël Mizrahi-Arnaud: Nice to be here.

JS: And last but not least, Moshe Behar, a senior lecturer in Israel/Palestine and Middle Eastern Studies at the University of Manchester and a co-founder of the Mizrahi Civic Collective. Hey, Moshe.

Moshe Behar: Thank you for having me.

JS: So the retreat rallied participants around the term “Arab Jew,” but this was contentious among the group; I can start off by saying that I maintain a lot of skepticism about the term. The overwhelming majority of Jews who originate from Arab countries reject this label, they have little to no relation to the political, ethnic, and linguistic markers that distinguish Arabness today, and even when they did live in Arab worlds, the project of constructing Arabness (beyond their local identities) was not really in full swing at the time when they left. So I was wondering how you all relate to this term: if you accept it, what term you might prefer to use, and what relevance, politically, it might have today.

HM: One of the things that’s important is to think about this somewhat historically. Like our position as diaspora Jews is different from the position of people who came up with these terms, and actually, there’s a big gulf between how this term was maybe originally used by Jews who lived inside of the Arab world, who came up with it and thought about it, thought through it in the 1980s. I think you can say that there were groups of Jews in the Arab world who indicated that they were affiliated and supportive of the Arab collective by calling themselves Arab Jews, that they wanted to be part of the nation, part of citizenship, and so on. Now, that would be in the early 20th century, but if you fast forward sixty years, to the debates that took place around Arab Judaism in the ‘80s, you’re talking about a completely different population that has gone through the colonialism of the Zionist state, the erasure of Zionism, the way in which Zionism erased both Jewish culture and also subjugated the communities of Jews of the Arab world, in the transit camps, the famously dilapidated camps that Jews from the Arab world were largely put in when they arrived in Israel. And so I think, in a kind of conjunction of Mizrahi social movements, such as the Israeli Black Panthers, HaPanterim HaShchorim, and other movements for equality that gave birth to the term Mizrahi, or Easterner, you also have some major Mizrahi intellectuals reviving this term, Arab Jew. But I think its utility at the time--I mean, firstly, it’s a very clear indicator of belonging to the region, to the Arab world, to have roots in the Arab world, in a way that maybe Mizrahi isn’t because it’s more buried inside of the Israeli collectivity. But also, I think really importantly, the term Arab Jew brings together these two terms, Arab and Jew, that Zionism and colonialism have completely split apart and made impossible or mutually exclusive. So the term Arab Jew is kind of partitioned into Arab and Jew, in the same way that Israel and Palestine are partitioned into Israel and Palestine, and Jews are partitioned from the Arab world. So I think it was an important way of challenging colonial paradigms by mending and bringing together these two terms, again, as a possibility, as a political possibility. And that kind of anti-Zionist route or force is what I think is useful, potentially, for us, as diaspora Jews. Although there’s a lot of knotty problems with that term, which actually, Moshe Behar has brought up in a lot of his articles and talks. So maybe he can chat about that a bit.

JS: Yeah. And I would just add that Moshe, your group is called the Mizrahi Civic Collective, and obviously, the term Arab Jew doesn’t quite carry in the same way in the Israeli context. So could you talk a little bit about your relationship to that term, and the Mizrahi Civic Collective and how it identifies?

MB: Yeah, I mostly agree with Hana. I mean, I myself, because I’m more interested in the 21st century, I’m interested in my own present and the future of my daughters, who are students, right? I’m kind of trying to adopt something that is a little bit more pragmatic, something that, in a way, is going to resonate, first and foremost, politically rather than scholarly or academically. I think the single most important factor is probably what you noted in your introduction here: If we are going to count heads of Arab Jews, or descendants of Arab Jews, or people that originated in the Arab world, the empirical fact is the overwhelming majority is probably going to feel uncomfortable with Arab Jews. This is, in a way, the state of the world as we democratic Arab Jews or Mizrahim need to face and confront. And in a way, this is why for me, right now, especially in the context of Palestine/Israel per se, it makes more sense to use Mizrahi: because this is something that is more politicized. And Hana mentioned the Black Panthers--it’s a collective signifier that is there. And also, interestingly enough, even in my own lifetime, let’s say in the 1990s, there were very few Jews that used the signifier Mizrahi when they were outside of Israel. It is only in the 21st century that more non-European Jews or descendants of non-European Jews outside Israel suddenly adopted the signifier Mizrahi, which was kind of nice. So I think maybe Yaël can add her insights, too.

YMA: Yes, thank you, Hana and Moshe. I guess I’ll start with my personal and family history. My parents and grandparents lived in Lebanon. But their ancestors were Persian and Greek from Isfahan and Saloniki respectively. I was born and raised in the US, so I will often tell people that I am a Mizrahi without actually being a Mizrahi, because that’s my last name (which obviously means “easterner”), but I did not grow up in Israel. So that Mizrahi experience--which is really quintessential to the Israeli experience of discrimination and of their arrival to Israel in the 50s--I don’t share that history.

So as interesting as my own personal family history is, I think there’s a larger issue that needs to be addressed when we’re talking about the utility of Arab Jewish identity. One of the major issues I see is of inclusivity, both from the fact that there are many Jews from the Middle East who don’t fit into this category: quite obviously, those from Turkey, or from Iran, or those who had different ethnolinguistic backgrounds, maybe those who spoke Ladino, or are from a Kurdish background. And there’s also, then, the group that Moshe was talking about, that we have to accept the fact that there are many who are not comfortable identifying this way, for many different reasons, they don’t find the Arab Jewish identity attractive or even suitable. So I worry that when we address the Arab Jewish question, there’s a tendency, maybe, to be uncomfortable with the reality that there are many who openly reject this label and actually prefer to identify with Zionism, which we know is an ideology that openly negates and vilifies any connection to Arabness.

So in my activism, I think that if we’re going to position ourselves as Arab Jewish anti-Zionists, then we need to also have a relevant and alternative identity that has something fundamental to say--and something fundamental to say about deconstructing Zionism, as well--and this has to contain a political praxis. So engaging and taking seriously with people who don’t feel comfortable with the label also means that we have to give space for their self-identification and not simply assign categories where it may not fit. It’s actually really interesting to try to look to create a bridge between the lessons that Arab Jewish identity can teach us, and also on the flip side: What does a Mizrahi identity, or a Zionist Middle Eastern Jewish identity bring us?

HM: I think it’s just important to acknowledge that there’s a pretty big gap right now in terms of what progressive diaspora Jews are looking for in labels and identities and communal umbrellas; a gap between that and what Mizrahi Jews and even generally leftist Jews in Israel are needing. I think we should talk about that further, but one thing I did want to say is that I do think it’s important to have umbrellas that maybe don’t always correspond with each other. So the term Arab Jew, or anti-Zionist Jew, or anti-colonial Jew may not be useful to Jews inside of Israel, but those terms in many ways are useful to Jews who are particularly in social movements in the diasporas, because they help us to imagine a world after colonialism and help us to affiliate to it in multiple ways. And because many of us live in already multicultural societies, and have many friends from the Middle East, both Jewish and non-Jewish, we already imagine, and see ourselves, and can situate ourselves within those realities in our current lives. And so I think that gap is both problematic, but it’s also productive and helping us to imagine a future.

JS: Yeah, that’s useful, Hana. Thank you. So everyone here does their own research about different periods, and I was wondering if we can understand what unique perspective we lose from this largely Ashkenazi-centered historiography of anti-Zionism and dissent. Moshe, maybe we could start with you because I know that you’ve written about this in the early-20th century before the establishment of the State of Israel.

MB: Yes, thank you. The conclusion that I reached in my own work is that a non-European Mizrahi alternative to the overall vision of European Zionism was present from day one. So even as early as the first Zionist Congress in Basel, we have documentation, for example, of Abraham Shalom Yahuda (who was the youngest delegate in the first Zionist Congress), that he himself approached Theodor Herzl himself and told him: Listen, you’re envisioning a program in Palestine, but you need to understand that the place is not empty, and it includes Arab, Palestinian, mostly Sunni Muslims, but also Christians and Jews, and you need to factor this issue in. He was ignored by Herzl, and this is just the indication that an alternative vision for Jewish individual and collective existence in the Middle East was there, right? And here, I think that we can communicate and correspond with Jews in the Ottoman Middle East and also later on. And why is this period also interesting for us? Because it is a period whereby there is a sense of collective Jewish identity, but one that does not contradict the collective identity of other groups, let alone the collective identity of the emerging Arab world. So what we have in mind here is an attempt to envision the Arab Middle East as an institutional space that can contain different collectivities based on ethnicity, religion, maybe other things, but at the same time, that can tolerate diversity and that people can keep their unique identity without necessarily contradicting the existence of others.

JS: I’m also interested in how connections between Jews in the Arab world (who were formulating different critiques of Zionism than we might be used to from a kind of largely Ashkenazi historiography of this issue), how those connections with other Arabs led them to articulations that our audience may not be as used to. Hana, I know that you have done a lot of research on the connections in the early years after Israel was established. I’d love to hear about that.

HM: Okay, so a lot of the work that I’ve done was actually inspired or begins with some of the non-Zionist or anti-Zionist intellectual activity that went on in places like Egypt and Iraq by Jews, which is documented in Moshe Behar’s excellent anthology, with writings by groups like the Anti-Zionist League, who were very astute in their analysis that Zionism was going to bring about an end to Jews in the Arab world; that it was a colonial and imperial project; and that it was going to cleave Jews, align them with Western imperialism and colonialism and those projects and pull them away from the Middle East. And my own work looks at Jews who came out of those contexts (primarily Iraqi Jews, but also Egyptians) who came to Israel/Palestine in the 1950s--some of them, actually, because they were leftist activists and organizers fleeing their own governments, who were persecuting them for those kinds of activities. And when they arrived to the country, many of them joined the Communist Party, what was then the Israeli Communist Party and had come out of the Palestine Communist Party, which was a joint Jewish and Palestinian party that got started in the 1920s and fought against partitioning for a binational state. And after 1948, it was still a joint party, but it was then aligned to a certain extent with the Israeli government but continued to be a communist, internationalist, and I think, in many ways, anti-imperial party with people who were decidedly anti-Zionist. Especially the Arab-speaking Palestinian and Arab Jewish operatives in the party had anti-Zionist critiques. And these largely Iraqi and Egyptian Jews got together with a group of Palestinian Jews, and they started a cultural magazine, cultural and political magazine called Al Jadid, and they began a campaign to essentially revive Arabic literature and culture, and politicize Arabic literature and culture in Palestine after the destruction of the 1948 Nakba.

And on the part of the Palestinians, of course, there was an almost complete decimation of their culture, and their press, and their intellectual and literary scenes. For Jews from the Arab world who came over, of course, they were in the process of being told that they had to lose their Arabic language, to begin speaking Hebrew. Many of them lived in the poverty of the Ma’abarot, the transit camps, where society was deteriorating because people had had to leave their money and their property in the Arab world, and many of the social structures were crumbling in this very difficult environment. And what they did together, as Arab communists, internationalists, is they conceived to embark on this project that they called Adab al-Shaʻb or the People’s Literature. And they would write poetry and short stories about the people of Palestine outside of the Zionist project. And those people included Jews from the Arab world, largely those living in the transit camps, as well as Palestinians living under military governance. And then they also wrote a lot of stories of solidarity--whether that solidarity was real or it was a kind of imagined futurity that they shared with each other, they wrote these stories about Jews and Palestinians working together against the Israeli civil administration.

JS: So their imagined community with Palestinians, Arabs across the Arab world, and Mizrahi Jews inside Israel at the time.

HM: Well, I think their vision was very much in flux, in that things were shifting very quickly. But yes, they imagined that region to be an Arab region. They wanted Israel/Palestine to be a binational state that included all of its citizens in its narratives, and a big part of that would be Arabic language and culture. I think that because they were anti-Zionist, everything that they wrote was a kind of counter-narrative to the Zionist narrative. It was not European; it was not about the story of European Jewish liberation. It was about the story of working-class and poor Palestinians and Arab Jews trying to make their way; it was stories of refugees, it was stories of workers, it was stories of fishermen living and surviving on that land. So yeah, it was very much a socialist project. It was very much an Arab language, Arab cultural project, and I think it was a project about trying to imagine how we might live together.

What I would say, is the most important people involved in that project on the Mizrahi side were the writer Shimon Ballas, who’s an Iraqi Jewish novelist who passed away a few years ago; the writer Sami Michael, whose pen name was Samir Mard, or Samir the Rebel, and he sadly passed away about a month ago in his mid-nineties; the scholar Sasson Somekh and David Semah. And the Palestinian writers included many--there were obviously more Palestinian writers than Arab Jewish writers, but they included important writers like Emile Habibi, Tawfiq Ziad, Mahmoud Darwish was an important figure, Samih al-Qassem, and others. And I think next year, I’m going to be publishing an anthology of those short stories and poems so people can actually read that whole collection and see how it sits together as an alternative imaginary to the Zionist status quo that was beginning and calcifying in the 1950s, but it wasn’t a done deal the way that it is today. There was going to be the possibility of other things, other kinds of social orders in the region.

MB: I want to say something that I think is going to challenge existing understanding: We need to understand that for example, anti-Zionist Marxist Jews in Iraq, in Egypt, and also the group that was mentioned by Hana in the 1950s, now inside Israel--and I’m introducing a third group, a group of Ottoman Jews in late Ottoman Palestine and early Mandatory Palestine after 1917 and 1920, a group of Palestinian Jews that called Britain to revise the Balfour Declaration and to safeguard collective national rights of the Palestinian Arabs. These three groups challenged not only Zionism; they also challenge the prevailing movement or thrust that emerged from the Arab world. They challenged both sides. So for example, it’s not a coincidence that the anti-Zionist Jews in Iraq (1945, 1946, 1947) were also, so to speak, persecuted by the Nationalist forces in Iraq. Ultranationalists everywhere on Earth are not very sympathetic to Marxism, right? And the other thing that is also something that is very hard for contemporary activists to understand: The Marxist movement (most of it, not all of it) in the late 1940s, and also inside the State of Israel in the 1950s, it did not have a major problem to acknowledge the fact that in Palestine, there is a Jewish collectivity that cannot be just brushed aside or willed away--it is there. In the 1950s, it already consists of almost a million individuals. In 1967, it’s 2.5 million; and what are we going to do with this collectivity? Why is this important? Because I think that it is best for us to understand that the Mizrahi Arab Jewish alternative from day one is an alternative vis a vis all sides. It is truly envisioning something that is not in the mainstream. It is very hard to digest, of course, by European Zionists, but it is also very hard to digest by anti-colonial Arab nationalists of the dominant trend.

HM: Yeah, I think I have tended to, and other people have done it, romanticize this period. And I think Moshe is absolutely right. These people, partially because they’re not nationalists, were, to many, just considered to be traitors. I mean, many people from the Arab world considered Palestinian communists to be traitors, partially because they were sitting inside the Israeli party, and partially because they were internationalist. They weren’t separatist nationalists, and the same for Jews from the Arab world; they were considered to be traitors because they didn’t ascribe to Zionist nationalism.

JS: Can you talk a bit more about what happened to these mobilizations when they did occur? And why did other periods of convergence fail to take off in a meaningful way that ever accumulated serious political power? In Israel, but also maybe elsewhere?

MB: Let me give you a specific example, because I think it’s better to exemplify it historically. So the Balfour Declaration was published in 1917. It secures collective rights to Jews and only individual rights to Palestinian Arabs. Arabic-speaking Palestinian Jews very quickly realized that something is wrong here. What is needed now is to take the Balfour Declaration back to the author and ask them now to revise it and grant collective rights also to Palestinian Arabs. So this, of course, is a non-Zionist act--even anti-Zionist, but let’s be soft and say only a non-Zionist act--that envisions a binational state, not a Jewish state. It’s going to belong equally to two collectivities. But also, Palestinian nationalists opposed this project of suggestion, because from a Palestinian perspective, they said: Wait a second, why is it that the Palestinian national movement needs to provide collective rights to Jews? Let alone many of them are recent immigrants from East Europe. And this is a totally legitimate argument, you know, that we are willing to grant them equal individual rights if they are willing to live in peace with us--but collective rights? No.

But the Palestinian Jews said: Listen, I mean, there is already a dynamic here, the big puzzle is how to reconcile collective rights to the groups. The problem here is not to safeguard the rights of only individuals--this is the simple thing to do. Because what is at stake here is there are collectivities; that’s the challenge, right? If you go to the quintessential anti-Zionist text that an Iraqi anti-Zionist member of the Anti-Zionist League wrote in 1945, you will see that the Iraqi anti-Zionist Jews engage in this text in a simultaneous critique; they already say to the dominant Arab nationalists arrived in 1944-45: Listen, the politics that you are advancing are going to benefit Zionists because you begin to slide into a nationalist pathway whereby the democratic and equal element that is supposed to be guaranteed by nationalism is not there. They wrote it before ’48. Before the Nakba, it’s already written.

JS: I want to move on to thinking about how these histories relate to some organizing in the present day. Yaël, I was hoping to hear from you a little bit about Shoresh and the work that it’s doing at the moment. Specifically, I know that you’ve been organizing, bringing in these Arab Jewish perspectives into that space. I also want to hear from you, Moshe, about the Mizrahi Civic Collective, and maybe we can speak about how these concepts and organizing challenges are traveling across different contexts. But I’m also interested in what organizing under a Mizrahi or Arab banner brings to these kinds of mobilizations, as opposed to just organizing as Jews qua Jews.

YMA: With Shoresh, we created a group of anti-Zionist Israelis that are living in the US, specifically after the 7th of October, because we saw the gaps that existed in how the Jewish left spoke about Israel. So while we, as an organization, called for an immediate ceasefire, an end to the genocide, and also support the Palestinian right of return, we are also sensitive to the realities of Jewish Israelis in a way that other movements are not. Because the fact that Jewish Israeli society exists, and we know that they aren’t going anywhere, is part of the reality that we have to account for. So a real anti-Zionist politics, I think, needs to be able to account for that. So most of the history of the anti-Zionist Jewish left, or activism that opposes Zionism, is actually from the Eastern European experience. This is, at least, the history that is most commonly discussed in American anti-Zionist circles. And I think that if anti-Zionism can’t take into account Mizrahi history and identity, then it’s actually not going to be able to achieve its goals.

I think that it’s worth reiterating just how this history is translated to the American left and the American Jewish left, that we look at anti-Arab racism, as well as Orientalism, as being key links between Israel’s oppression of Mizrahi communities as well as the ethnic cleansing of Palestinians from their land. So while Zionism has attempted to erase our shared cultures, histories, and languages, this also raises the potential points of connection that exist, or that could exist, between Palestinians and Arab Jews. There’s also inspiration that is happening within our collective groups from a diasporic perspective; it’s been extremely empowering to see how many Mizrahi, or Arab Jewish, or SWANA people are reclaiming this identity as a force for change. The energy and excitement that I have seen from the global Mizrahi activism in the last nine months--it feels extremely unprecedented. I’ve been a part of a few different groups, as you mentioned, we have an active Arab Jewish Working Group in Shoresh. But I should also have a shoutout to IfNotNow and Jewish Voice for Peace, who also have a Black, Indigenous, Jews of color, Sephardim, and Mizrahi caucus. And this movement (particularly Jewish Voice for Peace and IfNotNow), I think it’s really strong because they are capable of rejecting the idea that the identities of Middle Eastern Jews should be exclusively juxtaposed with a Zionist identity, and that’s a very powerful point to be making now.

Also, I should say that we are a new movement. We are trying to figure out what the need is in the different spaces that we’re operating in. There’s still a lot, I think, that needs to be worked out. So it’s an open-ended question, and we’re new to the scene, and we’re learning. But I do think that there is a possibility for a strong, Mizrahi/Palestinian coalition to exist in the United States, and I’m excited to be working on that.

MB: We are completely conscious of everything that Yaël said, because the Mizrahi argument is, of course, internationalist. And it is not confined to Palestine/Israel; we have views about US policies and about specific relations between Donald Trump and Bibi Netanyahu--this needs to be integrated into everything. And this is important because this is a necessary prerequisite for the very success of the American Jewish left. You can’t bypass 50% of the Jewish population of Israel; you cannot achieve anything without them. You need to find ways to bring them on board. So this is part of the argument of the Mizrahi Civic Collective.

So the Mizrahi Civic Collective--note the name, right? It’s a civic arrangement. This is almost liberalism 101; it’s like the civil movement in the US, or anti-apartheid movement in South Africa. One person, one vote--equality in the most basic sense of the word. But that’s easy, right? The second pillar in the Mizrahi Civic Collective: Israel is located inside the Arab Middle East; this empirical fact needs to be seen favorably. It’s an asset to be part of the Middle East; it’s not a burden, and the entire thinking of Jews in the Middle East should be directed into integration and cooperation with the people among whom we live. There’s no way to be an isolated island, European white colonial island in the Middle East. This is the Zionist vision; you left Europe in order to become European in the Middle East. That’s the paradox of Zionism. Zionists, called European Jews, leave Europe because the place is antisemitic, racist--you need to move away, there’s no space for revision from within. But what happened once they left the shores of Europe and ended up in Ottoman Palestine (and, later on, the Middle East)? Suddenly, when they reached there, suddenly they became Europeans. There is no way for a collective Jewish existence in the Middle East that is so anti-everything that is going on there. And the Mizrahi Civic Collective is a vision of productive democratic integration into the Arab Middle East. Culturally, linguistically--hopefully, in 20 years, all the children are going to be able to speak Arabic. It’s not a fantasy; it’s a question of preferences, and attitude, and disposition.

JS: I was interested in the history from the Palestinian side. I’m going to read something to you from one of Fatah’s foundational documents, called “Towards a Democratic [State in] Palestine.” And it’s interesting because their analysis of the situation on the ground does incorporate Arab Jewish history and actually uses it to undermine the case for binationalism. I want to speak about that a bit more, but I’ll just read something quickly.

JS: So the document says: “The majority of Jews in Palestine today are Arab Jews--euphemistically called Oriental Jews by the Zionists. Therefore, Palestine combines Jewish, Christian and Muslim Arabs, as well as non-Arab Jews (Western Jews).”

So Fatah used this at the time--some detractors may say cynically--to shore up their demographic majority for their exclusive national claims, by positioning Arab Jews as part of their collective, and placing Ashkenazi Jews on the outside of this demarcation. And later in 1989, as the PLO began to accept a two-state framework (and before the Oslo Accords), they met with many prominent Mizrahi Jews in a peace conference, actually, in the Spanish city of Toledo, which was a flourishing Jewish and Muslim coexistence hub over a thousand years earlier. But in both cases, it’s clear that Arab Jews were part of their political analysis and practice. But that doesn’t really seem to be the case in the Palestinian national movement nowadays. Maybe because we don’t have a Palestinian national movement in the same organized way nowadays, because of its systematic fragmentation and dismantling by Israel. But I want to know why you think that analysis has fallen by the wayside. Do you think that the absence of our organizing is to blame? And how do you think this sort of perspectives could actually enrich the pro-Palestine movement more broadly?

HM: Yeah. So I want to say, in answer to the question of whether or not we are to blame: Yes, I think we are to blame. I think the Palestinian national movement is extremely disillusioned with the Israeli left, and for extremely good reasons. The Israeli left has, by far, been a Zionist left that has not really been able to meet Palestinians on their own terms, and understand them, and consider them and their story and their needs and their demands on their own terms. And I think there was much more organizing that went on between the Israeli peace camp and Palestinians earlier in the ‘70s and the ‘80s. But I think after the Second Intifada, there has been a real wall that has come down around joint organizing.

MB: I mean, of course, your question is a bit complex, because you started by reading from “Towards A Democratic [State in] Palestine,” a paradigmatic text from 1970. And actually, this is exactly a text opposed by nationalism, because it did not think that the Palestinian national movement should grant collective rights to Israeli Jews. So they say: No problem, we are going to conceptualize you as members of a religious minority group, and we are going to safeguard your individual rights as members of a minority Jewish group.

By the way, this vision that I just mentioned also prevails more the PFLP, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine under George Habash. And the only group among the Palestinians that were a little bit more open was the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine, the DFLP, which was a smaller group and offshoot of the PFLP. And this was the group that, together with some members of Matzpen, and some members of the Black Panthers, begin to entertain the view--they said: Listen, you cannot view or conceptualize the individuals as members of a religious minority group. For better or worse, from 1882, the first (so to speak) colonial migration of East European Jews to Palestine, all the way to 1970, history doesn’t stop. And there is something that we at university call social constructivism, right? And the dynamic on the ground produced a collectivity--Hebrew speaking, Israeli Jewish collectivity--they have universities, they have a language, they have poetry, they have a working class, upper class; you cannot conceptualize and understand these people as simply members of a religious group. That’s the debate.

JS: It’s interesting, Moshe, that you mentioned Matzpen and the Israeli Black Panthers as serving as a bridge for such conversations with the DFLP, which might show us how there’s a need for these radical constellations to exist in Israel to have these sort of conversations, the sort of groups that accept the most fundamental Palestinian political demands, before they can be the space to have these conversations at all.

YMA: I think that learning about Middle Eastern Jewish history, acknowledging the reality that the majority (or somewhat close to a majority) of Israeli Jews are of Middle Eastern origin, challenges parts of the pro-Palestine movement that are based on the idea that Jewish Israeli society is wholly a European colonizing project. A large portion of Israeli Jewish society does not come from this colonizing European history despite the fact that they are settlers and part of the settler colonial framework. I think that, in the simplest terms, this means that these Jews don’t have anywhere else to go. For the most part, they can’t return to their homes in Syria, Iraq, or Tunisia and Algeria. They were forced to abandon their past histories in order to fit into the Israeli collective identity. This collective identity was based on what Zionists called the negation of exile, or shlilat hagalut, and this didn’t offer any official space for communal nostalgia. So I say that because I think that in recognizing this, it creates a certain bond with Palestinians. Maybe I’m being overly utopic. But being ethnically cleansed and displaced from the land Palestinians, have developed and flourished into holding on to a nostalgia that is based in exile. This is a nostalgia that Mizrahim also feel because some of them do feel like living in Israel is actually an exile--even though I’m aware this doesn’t represent the majority of Mizrahi Jews, but it still is definitely the reality, that they are cut off from their Arab environment. So it’s just a way of--maybe not creating a utopic bridge, but at least recognizing that there are different histories that we need to contend with within the settler colonial paradigm.

JS: My own political journey was precipitated by exactly this, thinking about the similarities and differences of my own family’s departure from Baghdad in relation to my best friend from university, whose family was expelled from Jaffa during the Nakba. But even this was happening outside of Israel/Palestine. And I think you’re right, Yaël, to point out that this is a fringe perspective among Mizrahim. Which brings me to my last question: For all the parallels between the two exoduses and the structural discrimination by Israel against Palestinians and Mizrahim, Zionism is predicated on the exclusion of Palestinians, and it has an interest in integrating Mizrahi Jews into its political project. And even though we still feel the legacy of some of this discrimination today, across most metrics, you would say that Zionism has been successful in integrating Mizrahim into its project. So when we do all this history, I sometimes struggle to map it onto our present, especially given how these gaps have only grown over time. And there’s a part of me that wonders whether the historical moment for the convergences that we’ve been discussing has just passed.

HM: I don’t think that the historical moment has passed. I think you can ask yourself similar questions about the United States versus settler colonial society: How do minority communities that came to the US after the genocide of Indigenous peoples actually factor into a struggle for decolonization, even if they might be right wing? I also think that it’s important to acknowledge that Mizrahim in Israel are part of settler colonial society, and yet, they are at the bottom rung of a larger network of racialization within the country. So you have a settler colonial apartheid society in which there are multiple tiers of racialization--just as it were, for example, in South Africa. And I think that, ultimately, part of the colonization (at the very least, in that region) will have to include breaking the binary that has been set up between European Jewish society and identity and Arab society. That East/West binary that has been set up is actually one of the foundations that allows for the subjugation of Palestinians--the dehumanization, the genocide, the ethnic cleansing--and also the subjugation of Mizrahim.

So I think that, in order for decolonization to take place, Israel needs to--in whatever form it becomes, Jewish society needs to figure out how to integrate into a Middle Eastern and Arab region. And I think Mizrahim are an important route for that to happen. It may not happen right now. But I think, if there is decolonization, then they will be the closest thing that Jewish society has to a kind of bridge towards decolonization (at least on a cultural scale). I also think it’s important to think about the class dynamics within the Mizrahi community, which is another piece, I think, of decolonization. Their class position is another kind of positionality that allows for them to be instrumentalized by the system. And I think that the right wing has instrumentalized those communities quite a bit. And I think that having power over Palestinians is another way of feeling less powerless vis a vis Ashkenazim. I definitely think those psychological dynamics are in play. So tackling all of that, I think, would be part of a process of making that society more democratic.

MB: Suppose for a second that someone would argue that Zionism assimilated completely all Mizrahi Jews, and they are settler colonialist like everybody else. Suppose that that’s the case. How does this change the anti-colonial struggle and the struggle for liberation and the next objective? It doesn’t lead you anywhere forward. My view is definitely that Zionism was able to fragment and to assimilate into the nationalist project out of dependency, Jews that came from the Middle East into Israel. They had nothing, so in a way, they were very much dependent upon the state. It’s not that they came with a lot of property or belongings. So I’m saying there was a phase whereby Arab Jews underwent a process of proletarianization in the State of Israel. They also came up to a space that is completely Eurocentric, a place that actively eradicated every Arab trace that they had--linguistically, culturally--and this process has consequences.

At the same time, in 1971, you do have a Black Panther group that revolts. You have a revolt in 1959, already. Every decade, you have a Mizrahi revolt. We are just a part of a chain: Every decade, you always have it. There’s not a single moment where you don’t have an alternative democratic Mizrahi voice that is trying to assert itself. So this does happen parallel to the more easily digested process that is highlighted, usually by people that are living outside Palestine/Israel, and I think it’s good to keep that in mind. So even if Mizrahi Jews were assimilated, even if some of them vote for the Israeli right--it doesn’t change anything about the struggle of democratic Mizrahi and Arab Jews worldwide. Nothing at all. We have a project, we have an objective, and we don’t stop. That’s what we do. That’s our mission, our hope, our activism, you know? We simply try to maximize good, equality, and justice on Earth. That’s what we subscribe to.

YMA: Yes. I’ll start off by saying, Johnny, to your question: I wouldn’t feel comfortable, as a Mizrahi living in America, telling or saying that Mizrahim are doing something wrong in Israel, or should be doing something different. It doesn’t feel like it’s my place, as someone who lives in the US, to be making a commentary on Israeli society. But I’ll say from my organizing experience, I think that American Jews (and we can say Jews in the diaspora, writ large) have a lot to learn about the position of Mizrahi Jews in Israeli society. Unfortunately, we have seen this arena become heavily contested in the West, where we have the extremes on both sides of the political spectrum, who are using--almost, I could say, weaponizing--Mizrahi Jews and Mizrahi Jewish history as an opportunity to bolster Zionism or undermine it. Unfortunately, it’s like Mizrahim are being used as subjects and objects in this debate. So a Mizrahi critique of Zionism is not merely a postmodern, an anti-Zionist phenomenon. But it’s also, as we’ve been discussing, an entrenched part of the history of Zionism in Palestine since its inception. This is obvious in the politics of Wadi Salib and the Black Panthers, in Ella Shohat, in the Democratic Rainbow, and now in international Mizrahi activism. So this is to say that the movement has always been influenced, and is, I think, currently being influenced both from the inside and from the outside.

Finally, there’s an element that I think is useful. It’s uncomfortable to talk about the failures of the Israeli left, but it is also because the Israeli left is notoriously from a privileged secular Ashkenazi background, and one of the internal reasons for their failure is that they couldn’t really account for the fundamental discriminatory structures of Israeli Jewish society--obviously, both in how it relates to Palestinians, but also in how it relates to Mizrahim who are living amongst Jewish Israeli society.

JS: That’s very, very helpful. Thanks, everybody, so much for being with us today.

MB: Thank you very much.

YMA: Nice to see you guys again,

JS: And thanks to our producer Jesse Brennaman and to our listeners. Please rate, review, and subscribe to On the Nose and subscribe to Jewish Currents. You can find us online at JewishCurrent.org. I’ve been Jonathan Shamir. See you next time.

Jul 10 2024
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