Thursday, February 18, 2016

The Issue is Mizrahi Power

The article Analucia Lopezrevoredo and I wrote on the general failure of intersectional analysis to account for Mizrahi Jewish experience (and, more generally, how Mizrahi Jewish experience is erased in broader discourse about Jews -- regardless of whether the speaker falls on the ideological spectrum) has been featured on the Treyf podcast. They brought on llan Benattar from Jews for Racial and Economic Justice’s Mizrahi caucus to comment; he was ... not a fan. The podcast hosts themselves alluded to finding many of our points interesting, but never really got to say which ones -- one gets the sense, though, that their position is that "the article raised a lot of good points right up until the parts where it implicated us in the problem."

In any event, speaking for myself and not Analucia or JIMENA (who are capable of correcting the misapprehensions Benattar has about JIMENA's mission), I found that Benattar's comments were an excellent encapsulation of our core thesis regarding Mizrahi Jewish inclusion (or lack thereof) in broader patterns of discourse.

Let's put two excerpts side by side. Here is how Benattar charaacterizes the core argument of our article, which he terms a case of "Mizrahi-washing":
And here is the part of our article that is most directly germane: 
When asked to speak at certain Zionist functions, many Jewish refugees from the Middle East and North Africa are asked to focus on the mistreatment they experienced under Arab rule—not the ways in which they successfully coexisted with Muslims, or the serious discrimination they have faced in Israeli society after arriving in the Promised Land. In anti-Zionist circles the situation inverts: the hosts are delighted to hear tales of Israeli malfeasance but are deeply hostile if the topic turns to the oppression and expulsion of Jews from Arab countries or if the Jews proclaim a proud connection to Israel. Either way, non-Ashkenazi Jews are engaged with only as far as they support someone else’s narrative. Once they seek to speak in their own voice, their putative allies disappear.
Not only are we perfectly cognizant of the manner in which Ashkenazim have historically been dominant in Zionist circles and have sought to deemphasize the interconnection many Mizrahi Jews have had with Arab history, particularly when they clash with Zionist narratives, we lead with it. Our sin is nothing more than the concurrent observation that the same is true of the anti-Zionist movement: also historically Ashkenazi dominated (at least in its Jewish manifestation), also quite prone to deemphasizing aspects of Mizrahi identity when they conflict with anti-Zionist shibboleths. The sins are identical: "non-Ashkenazi Jews are engaged with only as far as they support someone else’s narrative." None of this is to say that there have not been significant Zionist and anti-Zionist Mizrahi voices, none of this is to say that "to be Mizrahi is to be Zionist" (or not). To frame the question in this way misses the point entirely. We are quite clear that the crucial obligation for non-Mizrahim is to confront the community as it is, on its terms, irrespective of whether those terms are Zionist. It's not us that are seeking to essentialize Mizrahim into one mode of being vis-a-vis Zionism.

The reason we link this up to certain practices in anti-Zionist circles isn't because "to be Mizrahi is to be Zionist", it's simply because as a matter of raw numerical fact many are, and "irrespective of whether those terms are Zionist" cuts both ways. If one excises the Zionist part of the Mizrahi community from the part one is willing to talk to, one is left with a lot fewer Mizrahim. That is no doubt to the benefit of Ilan Benattar, since it means a lot more people will be talking to him. But it is not a viable nor a progressive proposition for engaging across difference; it inscribes the very sort of exclusion we critique.*

Indeed, I think we need to interrogate the move being made here more closely. It is highly reminiscent of Herman Cain's plantation politics: Most Blacks are being duped and deceived by the Democratic Party which wants to keep them "on the plantation," their condition is used as a tool to support politics "we" (those like Cain) know are bad, but a few Blacks, like Cain, "can think for themselves" and are the ones you should listen to. And likewise, Benattar casts contemporary Mizrahi politics as being obscured from itself, the product of a Zionist-Ashkenazi effort to make it in its own image for its own ends, such that it is okay to generally ignore Mizrahi Jews (who largely remain on the Zionist plantation) in favor of the few, like him, who see past the ruse and can tell you what's what.

Now here I want to be very careful about the point being made. It is not that Jews (Mizrahi or otherwise) are not entitled to critique or dissent from the prevailing orthodoxies in the community. I do not believe that Ilan Benattar or Herman Cain (or Ben Carson or Clarence Thomas or Marco Rubio or Ted Cruz) have any particular obligation to adopt the political posture of their broader community. I have always firmly taken the stand that there is no legitimate politics (based on solidarity or anything else) that writes such dissent out; and that means (among other things) that it is flatly wrong to claim that Jewish anti-Zionists have forfeited their Jewishness by virtue of their position. From my personal vantage point, such a stance would make me a terrible Zionist -- I view Zionism as about Jewish self-determination, and that includes the right of a Jewish self to determine that Zionism is incompatible with their assessment of the Jewish condition or Jewish obligations. One can argue against the positions on their merits; but the fact of adopting the positions doesn't mean the speaker "isn't Jewish" or is a "self-hating Jew" or whatnot (for the same reasons I object to referring to Cruz or Thomas as race traitors or Uncle Toms or what have you). Jews should have the same right as anyone else to come to positions that you or I think are wrong.

So the problem isn't the critique itself, that's fair game. The problem rather is in the final step -- the proffer that one can justly ignore most members of the outgroup and instead only speak to the dissident wing. That silencing -- really tokenizing -- move is what's objectionable; the forwarding of oneself as a substitute for engagement with the broader community constructed as defective and unworthy of deliberative inclusion. When outgroups (whether we're talking about Jews generally, or Mizrahi Jews specifically, or Blacks, or Latinos, or Palestinians for that matter) say things that are hard to hear or which raise difficult critiques of passionately-held positions, the right move is not to race off to find your friend who agrees with you and be assured that everything's alright. One need not assent, but one should at least listen and think. And so here I will cop to at least one of the many motives that Benattar ascribes to Analucia and myself: We do need to engage with Mizrahi perspectives in Israel, even when they seem quite distant from our own ethnic, political, or cultural priors. Why? Because that's what one does when trying to ethically encounter difference -- particularly difference that is paired with historical patterns of marginalization.

In terms of substantive responses to our article, I think that covers it. But I did also want to make a note of one of the particular rhetorical stylings that was deployed. Throughout his segment, Benattar accused Analucia and I of "co-opting" the language of intersectionality for our own supposedly right-wing ambitions. He used this word so many times I think he must have hired Marco Rubio's speech coach. And on one level, I find this amusing: I've sometimes remarked that intersectionality brings out my inner hipster -- I was reading it way before it was cool (before Benattar even got to college, in fact) -- so who's really appropriating what here?

But the bigger point is, once again, about exclusion. The language of "co-option", obviously, is intricately connecting to the language of standing -- who is authorized to use terms like "intersectionality" and who is trespassing? We already knew, of course, that Jews generally have no standing to utilize such terms on our own behalf, we now know the same is true of non-Ashkenazi Jews specifically (at least when they do so in ways that are not ideologically amenable to particular elements of the left). Our alleged deficiency is that we are insufficiently "progressive"; left unsaid is who established the metric of "progressive" and who installed Benattar as its arbiter. Why should Analucia or myself cede him, or anyone else, that authority? Why is it just accepted that Jewish entry into progressive spaces is always on a probationary basis?

One can see a very particular sort of anti-Semitic exclusion operating here: Jews are not equal members of political communities (progressive or otherwise) we inhabit; we are members to the extent that others permit us to be; which typically manifests as membership to the extent that we affirm the understandings of the dominant groups. Hence, when we level what we take to be a progressive critique at a progressive discourse surrounding Jews, the fact of our dissent is itself sufficient to exile us from the relevant interpretative community. We are not entitled to stake independent claims on progressive concepts when doing so conflicts with how the "real" progressives, the people empowered to govern the borders of "progressive", conceptualize the understanding of progressive." It's the same damn sin again, we are entitled to partake in discourse "only as far as [we] support someone else’s narrative."

The issue, as Melanie Kaye/Kantrowitz wrote so long ago, is power. Who has it, who wants it. In both the substantive and rhetorical formulations, one can see how Benattar's goal is to delegitimize wide swaths of deliberative contributions from progressive consideration and concentrate progressive discursive power in the hands of people like himself. There is no space for an internal progressive critique by Jews of progressive discourse, because once it emerges it ceases being progressive (now right-wing trolling). There is no space for a Mizrahi critique of anti-Zionist practices because once it emerges it ceases being Mizrahi (now Ashkenazi false consciousness). Hence how Analucia and JIMENA can each be dismissed here as co-opters and appropriators -- what credential exactly are they missing such that their deployment of the term intersectionality is inauthentic? For other readers, of course, the problem is inverted -- there is no space for a Mizrahi critique of Jewish Zionist practices because once it emerges it ceases to be Jewish (what, exactly, are they missing?). All of this is the same politics -- just swapping out whose ox is gored. Progressivism, as I understand it (and we already know how much that's worth) is about breaking down such patterns of power and domination. Progressivism, as many others understand it, seems to be more about reshuffling the deck.

The issue is power -- who has it, who wants it. I do not think that Mizrahi Jews, or any Jews, need to be Zionist, I do not think that it is my place to tell Mizrahi Jews what to be. I think that Mizrahi Jews, like all Jews, should be decide for themselves how they conceptualize their condition and their situation; as it happens, many have decided that Zionism fits, some have come to a contrary conclusion. And then I think that other people should be willing to listen and engage with their reckoning, regardless of whether it coheres to the narratives we began with or not.

* Here Benattar accuses us of ignoring the BDS movement's long-stated principle that it targets "institutions, not individuals". The reason I ignore it is that it is impossible to credit. First, I'm dubious that the alleged principle is even a coherent one, as if in multilayered and stratified societies any of us come in as atomized individualized disconnected from surrounding social, cultural, or academic institutions (such a libertarian way of looking at human experience is particularly difficult to swallow in a discussion of intersectionality, which is quite concern with how we are bound up in a multitude of overlapping identity affiliations that cannot be disaggregated from our core "individual" selves). And second, even if the principle could be expressed coherently it has been breached so often in practice that I can't view it as anything other than rhetorical. There is no serious likelihood that the BDS movement will, in fact, engage with the Israeli Mizrahi community as currently constituted regardless of whether they try to speak "individually" or "institutionally"; more likely (as in the "A Wider Bridge" fiasco -- an organization which, incidentally, has been far better than most about incorporating Mizrahi voices) any efforts to bring such "individual" voices to the fore will be deemed "institutionally" suspect (Benattar even throws out the term "Mizrahi-washing") and thus subject to boycott.

1 comment:

8e1c37d4-d286-11e4-b580-4b7432e703be said...

It's hard to believe anyone would make the case that Mizrahim needed to be tricked or cajoled into a hawkish radical pro-Zionism. Right-wingism in the Mizrahi community is as understandable as the same phenomenon in the Ashkenazi community - as product of their experiences, judgements and lived values. Even moreso in the case of Mizrahim who very recently lived among their current neighbors and still have familial memories of the homes they left behind. No one would question why an Ashkenazi Jew might have defensive feelings towards Ukrainians or Poles, why would they question it here? Of course there can be a Mizrahi critique of Zionism, but even there it is likely to reflect the needs of Mizrahi Jews. Mizrahi Jews in Israel, no one should be surprised to learn, do not need to have their country dissolved and themselves once again marginalized by an Arab majority. They do need to have better representation in the institutes of power in Israel - that is their critique of Zionism. For many Mizrahi Jews I have spoken to their critique of Zionism would be unfathomable to BDSers (though entirely comprehensible to certain Charedi groups) - that it isn't Jewish enough. These are surely not the allies people looking to abolish Jewish Supremacism are looking to include.