Tuesday, May 12, 2020

Explicit Mizrahi Zionism and the California Ethnic Studies Curriculum

In Jewish Currents, Gabi Kirk has a long piece on the antisemitism controversy over the California Ethnic Studies curriculum (last year I wrote on the matter here). It's a wide-ranging issue and a wide-ranging essay, but (in keeping with my prior contribution) I want to focus on the specific issue of Sephardic/Mizrahi inclusion.*

Here is what Kirk says when she reaches that angle of the story:
Complaints about the [proposed Ethnic Studies Model Curriculum] aren’t coming solely from white Ashkenazi Jews; Sephardic and Mizrahi Jewish groups have also claimed the curriculum leaves out their experiences. Jews Indigenous to the Middle East and North Africa (JIMENA)—which is also an explicitly Zionist group—claimed in multiple letters to the CDE that the draft ESMC “portray[s] Arabs as a homogenous, Muslim group,” and “excludes and erases the experiences, perspectives, and voices of diverse Middle Eastern communities.” (JIMENA did not respond to requests for comment for this piece.) California is home to a large Mizrahi Jewish population; Los Angeles is home to the largest Iranian-Jewish population in the US. 
Have you fixated on one word in a passage, and just felt it inexorably press layers of meaning onto you? That's me with "explicitly" (as in JIMENA is "also an explicitly Zionist group").

Throughout Kirk's essay, the Jewish organizations criticizing the draft ethnic studies curriculum were pretty much always referred to as "Jewish Zionist". Nobody was ever referred to as "anti-Zionist" -- only the Zionists needed the perpetual modifier attached to them. It's the Zionists versus the unmarked neutrals. But of all the groups mentioned -- from the AJC to the ADL to AMCHA -- only JIMENA was "explicitly Zionist".**

And I started wondering -- why explicitly? What was that word doing? How was JIMENA explicitly Zionist in a way its peers were not? To be sure, JIMENA is Zionist in the same way that most Jewish organizations are, in the same way that most Jews are. I'm quite familiar with them, and I know what role Zionism plays in their organizational orientation. JIMENA is an organization that was formed to represent the interests and the stories of Sephardic/Mizrahi Jewish refugees whose communities in the Arab and Muslim world were decimated in the decades surrounding the establishment of Israel. It is Zionist because (a) most of the community it represents is Zionist and (b) in its estimation, its mission and values are furthered through some iteration of Zionism. But Zionism is not its raison d'etre. It does not even appear in JIMENA's "About" section.

One would be hard pressed to explain how JIMENA is notably "explicit" in its Zionism in a way that, say, the AJC is not. And what would "non-explicit" Zionism look like? If it's not "explicit", is it "covert"? "Hidden"? It starts to look pretty lose-lose, pretty quickly.

The almost assured truth is that the word "explicitly", here, is redundant in terms of cognitive content. It is not actually meant to distinguish JIMENA from the AJC; it does not add information. Its purpose is more affective -- meant to convey a mood of danger, or of shamelessness. It reads like an "explicit lyrics" stamp slapped on an album: these Jews need a warning label. It's similar to how one sometimes sees groups or speakers called "openly" or "avowedly" Zionist. Taken literally, one might ask "as opposed to?" But the purpose of the modifier isn't really to add new content as it is to tut at the brazenness of it all. How very dare they. These are not respectable Jews. They flaunt. If there is a reason why "explicitly" got attached to JIMENA in particular, it was as a red flag for the unwary reader who might otherwise be inclined to credit the worries of the Mizrahi community.

There is something that I think is worth saying about the manner in which the Zionism of Mizrahi Jews is often cast and denigrated in these tones -- as brazen, audacious, flamboyant, even obscene. It's late, and I'm tired, and others can pick this ball up if they want to. But it is something I've noticed before, and I was not surprised to see it here.

* There's a separate issue burbling up regarding a column on this issue written by a certain disgraced Jewish journalist in the Jewish Journal. I have no desire to give this writer any more attention, so I'll just say that the disgraced journalist is disgraced for a reason and that it's a further disgrace that they are still being published in respectable outlets.

** Though the letter was hosted on JIMENA's website, it actually had ten other co-signatories, all California-based Sephardic/Mizrahi Jewish organizations including five synagogues. They go unmentioned in Kirk's essay (are they "explicitly" Zionist too -- whatever that means?). By comparison, in the next paragraph Kirk contrasts JIMENA's letter with "others [who] trace the difficulty of imparting Mizrahi history to Zionism itself." The link goes to an essay hosted by Jewish Voice for Peace (a far more "explicitly" anti-Zionist organization than JIMENA is "explicitly" Zionist) and was signed by two people, one of whom lives in Indiana. Nonetheless, Kirk spends roughly twice as much time on (and extends much more sympathy to) the analysis of this duo. That later in the essay she quotes a proponent of the draft ethnic studies curriculum complaining about "tokenizing" is more than a little rich.

1 comment:

chicago teamster said...

The whole "Jewish Currents" article can be boiled down to "because Zionism." Because Zionism, Jews aren't welcome in Ethnic Studies. "Jewish Currents" has a blind spot that stretches from Kiryat Shmona to Eilat.