Monday, December 13, 2021

The Race To Narrate Mizrahi Jews

We are witnessing the start of a race: the race, between various political factions generally but not exclusively tracking "Zionist" vs. "anti-Zionist", to determine where Mizrahi Jews will be placed in contemporary political narratives. If the starting gun has not been fired, it will be soon. And while I think most readers of this blog are relatively familiar with the competing narratives being put forward, to summarize briefly:

  • The Anti-Zionist narrative seeks to present Mizrahi Jews as "Zionism's other victims". While not necessarily denying the fact of some oppression, this narrative presents Zionism as having destroyed a vibrant and robust Middle Eastern Jewish (sometimes rendered "Arab Jewish") culture and having replaced it with a concocted framework where Jew and Arab were irreconcilable opposites. It highlights past and ongoing discrimination of Mizrahi Jews by Israel's Ashkenazi elite to suggest that Israel's multicultural claims are deceptive and opportunistic, and suggests that a potential alliance exists between Israel's two "brown" underclasses vis-a-vis their foreign European oppressors. More broadly, it presents a rejection of Zionism as a step towards  (and a prerequisite of) restoring a fractured relationship between Mizrahi Jews and their former neighbors, seeing past tales of eternal enmity and envisioning mutual recognition and support.
  • Under the Zionist telling, by contrast, Mizrahi Jewish presence in Israel, and general commitment to Zionist beliefs, destabilizes the notion that Zionism is a European import. It, too, contests the sharp divide pitting "Jew" versus "Middle Eastern", but does so by suggesting that the "Middle Eastern" perspective has until now implicitly Jew-free in orientation by not accepting Mizrahi Jewish political behavior as legitimately "Middle Eastern" to the extent it aligned with Jewish (read: Zionist) perspectives. The oppression and eventual expulsion of Middle Eastern Jewry may not "cancel out" Palestinian oppression, but suggests that anti-Zionists have their own reckoning to do and that there is more interfering with paradisiacal co-existence than evil Zionist perfidy. Emphasizing Mizrahi Jewish life also means that certain more extreme anti-Zionist arguments -- e.g., that Israeli cultural is purely "appropriative" or invented -- can easily be turned as forms of antisemitic erasure that denies basic elements of (Mizrahi) Jewish history. To the extent Mizrahi Jews identify Zionism as part of their liberation (and anti-Zionism as part of their oppression), this links up with elements of contemporary discourse which respect minoritized communities' right to define their own experience, even as against persons who do not accept that (White European) Jews generally count as a minoritized community.

As presented above, these narratives are both over-simplified. This is intentional -- not necessarily because those working this field are committed to oversimplification (though some may be), but because the manner in which these narratives will penetrate popular consciousness almost inevitably will be oversimplified. As a matter of popular political discourse, there likely will never be a deep, layered, and complex understanding of Mizrahi Jewish history (matters of popular political discourse do not tend towards deep, layered, and complex understandings of anything). What there will be a sort of gestalt understanding of a "side" that the Mizrahi Jewish frame supports. And so the casual way of putting the question is: for which side will "Mizrahi Jews" become an argument? Will "aligning with Mizrahi Jews", in its most general public understanding, be taken to mean acting in accordance with the first narrative (broadly conceived), or the second?

Right now, this is an open question. For many years, Mizrahi Jewish history and experience was ignored in contemporary discourse about Jews, Israel, Zionism, and the Middle East. This overlooking was in many way overdetermined. Here are just a few of the factors that likely played a role:

  1. Eurocentrism. For many years, history in general, as a subject, ignored most things and happenstances that occurred outside of Europe and America.
  2. The demographics of American Jewry being disproportionately Ashkenazi, making Mizrahi Jewish heritage relatively unfamiliar to American Jews writing about "our own" history.
  3. The concentration of Mizrahi Jews as being mostly in Israel, meaning that most people not-in-Israel, when they encountered Jews, encountered Ashkenazi Jews and assumed that they were all who needed to be thought about when thinking of Jews.
  4. Israel's desire to be seen as as a "western" nation, which involved minimizing or diminishing the salience of non-European elements (such as its Mizrahi Jewish inhabitants).
  5. Anti-Zionists' desire to present Israel as a purely foreign, colonial imposition to the Middle East, which is disturbed by recognition of significant Middle Eastern Jewish presence; as well as a desire to minimize their own decidedly ignoble behavior towards their Jewish communities in the 20th century (which is why Mizrahi Jews are now concentrated mostly in Israel -- see #3).
There are no doubt other factors as well. Put them all together and you had a recipe which simmered for decades, one in which Mizrahi Jews were mostly a sideshow to broader patterns of political discourse about Jews (and Jewish states).

Even a few years ago, this was still true -- I still remember how rare it was to write on this subject when Analucia Lopezrevoredo and I published our "Intersectional Failure" article in 2016. But things are different now. Like it or not, the turn towards identity politics continues apace, and in the extremely well-trodden terrain that demarcates debates of Israel, Mizrahi Jews represent rare fresh land to till. Most people along most dimensions of Israel have views that are, if not always informed, then are relatively entrenched. Narratives about Israel being colonial or liberatory, a democracy or an apartheid state, struggling against terrorism or crushing necks under its boot, are by now familiar to anyone paying a speck's worth of attention, and people largely know where they stand on them.

But the issue of Mizrahi Jews is not a subject most people have given much thought to, and as a matter of social discourse it has not yet concretely been narrated into a particular side. It also seems to sit adjacent to several important conceptual "nodes" relevant to current debates about Israel -- e.g., indigeneity, Jewish (non-)Whiteness, colonialism, cultural appropriation, and even ethnic cleansing. This makes it very valuable discursive real estate, and one can already see just how hot this commodity is when considering the sharp, dare I say histrionic, reaction found in some quarters to the announcement that several professors have received a grant to write a book about contemporary (post-1800) Mizrahi Jewish history. As ridiculous as it is to witness such fulminations for a book project that is a good three years out (and I say that without prejudice to any judgment as to whether the final product will be good or bad), the underlying cause  of the reaction is recognition that this is a rare arena where opinions remain unsettled, and so nobody knows which will be the book (or set of books, or articles) which successfully implants the new conventional wisdom.

Which raises the question: who do I think will win the race? I can't answer that, but it does seem that both sides have some noticeable advantages and disadvantages that can be flagged from afar (I will skip making any contentious judgments about who has the "advantage" of being right). 

The Zionist-favoring narrative has one very obvious advantage: realistically speaking, more Mizrahi Jews agree them. This is an advantage that can manifest both in terms of raw numbers but also in terms of perceived legitimacy -- if part of this project is to present a "Mizrahi Jewish" perspective, it should matter what position resonates with the bulk of Mizrahi Jews. The fact that many of the anti-Zionist claims simply do not gibe with how most Mizrahi Jews conceptualize and articulate their own history is a decided disadvantage, notwithstanding earnest efforts to present those conceptualizations as matters of false consciousness or foreign implantation.

The anti-Zionist narrative, however, may see its adherents disproportionately present in academic forums dedicated to researching the question, and that may allow them to punch above their weight in terms of driving intellectual conversation on the subject. Moreover, they may be more adept at speaking in the "tongue" of identity politics -- an arena which many more conservative Jewish figures remain suspicious of and whose endeavors to work in this argot sometimes fail to be much more sophisticated than "I know you are but what am I?" The anti-Zionist narrative may be able to more easily produce a resonant narrative that fits within how we are conditioned to think of "identity politics" stories. So both sides have attributes working for and against them.

Ideally speaking, of course, the history would be the history, and we'd talk and engage and write on it because it's important to know and explore regardless of which or what political narrative it endorses -- accepting, as will inevitably be the case, that history rarely supports any one political narrative with its full throat anyway. And I do not mean to suggest that the bulk of authors or academics working in this area are consciously intending to serve as political leafleteers, or that their academic interest is merely a smokescreen for a political agenda. I am sure many of the people working in this area are diligent and are attempting as best they can to be dispassionate, fair-minded, and sensitive to all the various complexities of the area. But I am fairly convinced that the political headwinds here are too strong to be ignored. And the result is going to be a pitched and nasty fight over where to situate Mizrahi Jews -- and I fear that Mizrahi Jews themselves will not necessarily get the last word.

1 comment:

DL said...

Very insightful post, thank you. You're right that Mizrahi may not get the last word - I think that is what troubles them the most right now. Case in point - your description of histrionics and fulmination comes off as scorn, when there is a reason to have some anxiety that, yet again, people who tell a narrative that is at odds with many facts are getting legitimacy in academia, and Jews that know better don't want to rock the boat and speak up for a group whose position is erased over and over again.

I fear the left MUST suppress this story, as it disrupts too many positions. What to make of Memmi when he says Jews had it better under colonialism, than before it, or after it? What if that starts a conversation that perhaps that was true for most minorities in the pre-colonial States, and hanging so much on colonialism is actually empowering and giving comfort to oppressors that were always lingering there?

Why must Mizrahi be described as buffoons, tricked by the Mossad into leaving their homes, neighbors, languages and heirlooms for Israel? They wouldn't describe themselves that way.

What if so many went to Israel because it was the only option? This was the time of immigration quotas after all. What if that means the majority of Jews there are, by definition, refugees? Should that change the narrative of rockets, threats, etc? Would anyone tell people against normalization that their position sounds an awful like wanting to finish the job once and for all?

And it bleeds into other areas... Why did Malcom X, visiting Mecca and North Africa, only visit oppressors? A population was being expelled in on his route, yet he had nothing to say but praise for the Arabization, when languages and minorities were getting wiped out. Slavery was banned in Saudi in 1962, just before his visit... there were eunuchs still guarding the Great Mosque. Morocco didn't ban sex slavery until 1950. Did he praise and visit ex-slaves? or their masters?

What if you pointed out that Fanon was guilty of holocaust minimization when he is brought up as a prophet we should learn from?

North Africa is a real-life in experiment in equity. One guess who got the wrong end of that stick when Nationalism occurred, across the entire area. Is it worth a paper or conference panel to suggest that maybe there are lessons to be unpacked from that for today's practitioners? That things could go wrong? (Maybe you could be the first!)

What if we expected that a scholar actually knew all these facts when they advocated for BDS, or implied Israel shouldn't defend itself, or put their fingers in their ears when you suggest that their positions should account for reality, and facts as they are? The dissonance is too much. The left will suppress this all for as long as they can. After all, who would be left if you called out people on these things?