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A Voyage to Toledo: Twenty-Five Years After the 'Jews of the Orient and Palestinians' Meeting

[Members of “The Iraqi Delegation” to Toledo—from left to right: Sami Michael, David Semah, Ella Shohat, Shimon Ballas, and Yosef Shiloach. Image from Ella Shohat’s personal archive] [Members of “The Iraqi Delegation” to Toledo—from left to right: Sami Michael, David Semah, Ella Shohat, Shimon Ballas, and Yosef Shiloach. Image from Ella Shohat’s personal archive]

On 3-5 July 1989, an unusual gathering, which went largely unreported in the media, took place in Toledo, Spain—“Judíos orientales y palestinos. Un diálogo para la paz árabe-israelí” (“Jews of the Orient and Palestinians: A Dialogue for Arab-Israeli Peace.”) Four years before the commencement of the Oslo Accords, the Toledo conference took place at a time when Israeli law forbade such meetings, legally defined as proscribed political contacts with Palestinian terrorist organizations. In defiance of this law, a number of meetings took place in such cities as Bucharest, Budapest, and Geneva. At that time, Israeli officials were still vocally engaged in the mental acrobatics of denying the existence of anything called “the Palestinian people.” Merely enunciating the word “Palestine,” or displaying images of the Israeli and Palestinian flags side-by-side, was considered unpatriotic and even treasonous. Meetings between Israeli citizens and Palestinian representatives were banned, and leftist Israelis who dared cross the lines risked harassment and imprisonment, and some were tried and penalized.

The dominant media and academia refused to consider a Palestinian perspective. The attempt to narrate Palestine was reduced to a case of "narrative envy,” as though “diaspora,” “exile,” and “return” were exclusively Jewish concepts. During the first intifada, for example, the American-Jewish journal Commentary labeled Edward Said and Ibrahim Abu Lughod “professors of terror;” their spilling of ink was compared to the spilling of blood. And an Israeli paper, Yediot Ahronot, nicknamed this new wave of Palestinian spokespersons “Ashafei Hatikshoret,” i.e., media experts, but the word “ashaf” (expert) also punned on the Hebrew acronym for the P.L.O. The American-professional style of these Palestinian intellectuals was dismissed as merely a civil mask hiding a barbaric essence. During that period, the liberal media and academia also disciplined and punished Sephardi/Mizrahi/Arab-Jews who expressed alternative perspectives dissonant with the premises of the Zionist master-narrative. The only “legitimate” Sephardi/Mizrahi position was to parrot the standard rhetoric of “population exchange” between Palestinians and Middle Eastern Jews. Articulating the notion of the “Arab-Jew,” except for a triumphant nationalist telos, was completely taboo. 

Against this legal, political and discursive backdrop, meetings between “Israelis and Palestinians” challenged the doctrine of “no-dialogue with the enemy” (officially voted by the Knesset on 6 August 1986). But the Toledo conference stood out even in its remarkable self-designation as a dialogue between “Oriental Jews and Palestinians.” The initiative also contradicted the Orientalist stereotype, widely promoted by Peace Now, of fanatic Mizrahi “Arab-haters” as the obstacle for peace. The presence of this caricature underlined the absence, even the silencing, of Mizrahi perspectives, as relevant to peace talks. The initiative also moved beyond the habitual division between the so–called “internal social Jewish” affairs and “external political Palestinian” matters. (Within scholarship, as I suggested at the time, academic disciplines similarly deployed a bifurcating framework, splitting off the history and culture of Middle Eastern-Jews from their history and culture after the departure, conceptualized as inherently de-linked.) Against the ongoing political impasse, conjoining Palestinians and Mizrahi/Arab-Jews in the same sentence spelled out new potential paradigms for the future. In the words of Toledo’s Palestinian delegate, Leila Shahid: “What makes this meeting different from all the ones we have seen until now, I believe, is the presence in this room of the largest group of Oriental-Jews ever to meet with the P.L.O. delegation.”

Could Arab-Jews provide a path for peace between Arabs and Jews? Inside and outside Israel, the phrase “the natural bridge for peace” was mobilized by diverse Sephardi/Arab-Jews/Mizrahi activists; a spirit that was brought to Toledo. Thoroughly believing in co-existence, the participants built on long Sephardi history of leaders, already in Ottoman and Mandate Palestine, seeking to mediate and reach a possible solution. In his independently published 1983 book, entitled Tensions and Ethnic Discrimination in Israel, Nahum Menahem documented the efforts by diverse Sephardi leaders—who embraced Zionism but who also acknowledged the rights of Palestinians—to reach compromise. And in the 1980s, in homage to one such figure, Eliyahu Elyashar, the Elyashar Seminary initiative was launched in conjunction with the Mizrahi leftist cultural space New Direction, in South Tel Aviv, some of  whose members also attended Toledo. One of the older generation Toledo participants, Naeim Giladi, who had also believed in the bridging idea, gradually came to the realization that peace was not truly on Israel’s agenda. This realization, which he reached while working as a journalist for the HaOlam HaZe magazine, turned him into an anti-Zionist, a view he delineated in his 1992 self-published Ben Gurion’s Scandals. Although a relatively small milieu, the 1980s leftist Arab-Jewish/Mizrahi scene, whether in Israel, France, or New York, nonetheless featured varied ideological perspectives. The Toledo meeting reflected this diversity as well as the Sephardi/Mizrahi/Arab-Jewish efforts to imagine a future of co-existence. 

Sponsored by the Madrid-based Foundation for the Studies of Peace and International Relations (FEPRI) —an independent academic institute with close ties to Felipe Gonzales and the Partido Socialista Obrero Español—the conference was attended by about one hundred participants, coming from Europe, the Middle East, and North America. It was initiated by two Paris-based Sephardi groups Identité et Dialogue and Perspectives Judeo-Arabes, which were themselves linked to other activists and organizations in Israel, the United States, the United Kingdom, and Morocco. The Jewish members of Perspectives Judeo-Arabes overlapped with Israeli groups such as East for Peace (represented, among others, by one of its founders Shlomo Elbaz) and the Oriental Front (represented by Tikva Levy and Yosef Shiloach, among others,) as well as with the US-based World Organization of Jews from Islamic Countries (co-founded by Naeim Giladi,) an organization that participated in the UN NGO discussions on the question of Palestine. And these organizations themselves included activists/intellectuals historically involved with earlier movements, the Black Panthers (represented, among others, by Kokhavi Shemesh) and the Tents movement (represented by Yamin Swisa).

At the time this group, comprised of about forty individuals, was apparently the largest Jewish/Israeli group to meet with PLO representatives. The Jewish participants in the meeting did not officially constitute a “delegation,” but rather took part as “individuals,” among them: Simon Levy, a leading figure in both the anti-colonial movement and the Moroccan Communist party, along with André Azoulay, advisor to King Hassan II, also from Morocco; filmmaker Simone Bitton as well as past FLN member Daneil Timsit, both from France; politician Latif Dori, poet Erez Biton, and writer Shimon Ballas, all from Israel; author Naim Kattan from Canada; and writers Ammiel Alcalay and myself from the U.S. Also attending the conference from Israel were: two Sephardi Hachams/Rabbis (who were reportedly threatened with ex-communication by Israel’s chief Sephardi Rabbi) as well as a Marxist sociologist, Shlomo Swirski, author of Israel’s Oriental Majority, one of the few Ashkenazi participants, who had worked closely with Mizrahi activists. A few other activists for peace were members of organizations that had little to do with the Mizrahi issue, namely Women in Black and Peace Now. In sum, while the Toledo Jewish participants represented voices for dialogue and peace, they were hardly a homogenous group in terms of their political trajectories, historical positions, and philosophical views. 

The Palestinian delegation, meanwhile, was largely composed of PLO members, along with a few Arab supporters from countries such as Tunisia and Egypt, and in this sense represented the Palestinian mainstream. The delegation included Abu Mazen/Mahmoud Abbas, at the time Secretary General of the PLO Executive Committee – the highest ranking member of the delegation who gave the opening speech; the renowned poet Mahmoud Darwish, who gave the concluding speech; Leila Shahid, journalist and later the Palestinian representative to France; Elias Sanbar, editor of the Revue d’études palestiniennes; and Abbas Shiblak, author of The Lure of Zion: The Case of the Iraqi Jews (a book concerning the convoluted circumstances of the departure, and to which I referred in my presentation.) The Palestinians also invited a number of other Arabs to the conference, including: Egyptian writer Lutfallah Suleiman; Syrian economist Fayez Malas; the Tunisian director-general of the Arab League’s Paris office, Hamadi Essid; and Adel Rifaat and Baghad El-Nahdi, better known under their shared pseudonym of the Marxist Egyptian writer “Mahmoud Hussein.” The Palestinian delegation also included one Jew, Ilan Halevi, the PLO representative to the Socialist International. Aspiring to create a new political landscape, some participants, on both sides, denounced the “no-meeting-with-terrorist-organizations” law as itself terrorist. During a conference break, some commented jokingly on the shared features of the participants: “It’s the only such meeting where it’s hard to tell who is an Arab and who is a Jew.”

The Palestinians were in search of recognition for Palestinian rights in an era when the two-state solution was still unacceptable for official Israel. The Toledo meeting took place a year after the PLO proclaimed Palestine to be an independent state, and the Palestinian National Council in its Algiers meeting had accepted the two-state solution, as envisaged by the UN resolution 181 in 1947, and after it renounced terrorism, and began to seek a negotiated settlement based on Resolution 242 and Resolution 338. The conference, however, as Lelia Shahid insisted, was not about negotiation, but about dialogue. In retrospect, the two-year interval between the Toledo conference and the 1991 Madrid Conference could  be viewed as part of a transitional moment that culminated in the Oslo Accord. One key difference between the largely-forgotten Toledo conference and the later Madrid conference had to do with their different status, one under the auspices of an academic institution, and the other under the official auspices of the government. In his Toledo speech, Mahmoud Darwish pointed to the difference in status between the two sides participating in the dialogue. While the Oriental-Jews were present as individuals who believed in peace and Palestinians’ rights, the Palestinians were official representatives of the Palestinian people. He stated firmly that the Palestinians wanted to carry out this dialogue with Israel in its entirety. Addressing the Jewish participants, Darwish continued: “You are defending the conscience of the Jews.” Darwish saw the Toledo conference as a step in the peace process, and its Jewish participants as potential carriers of the peace message back to Israel  to encourage the state to simultaneously recognize Palestinian rights and thus secure a Jewish future in the Middle East.

Most of the Sephardi/Mizrahi present in Toledo, then, represented civil society. Most were not members of political parties, and certainly did not speak on behalf of Israel’s government. We were activists/intellectuals outside of the centers of power. A magazine supportive of the Toledo meeting, HaOlam HaZe, infelicitously described our group as composed of “intellectuals and Mizrahis” as if the two categories were mutually exclusive – a formulation that triggered bitter ironic responses, but also demonstrated the vital need to speak for ourselves. In the conference, lawyer Avi Bardugo joked that the Israeli establishment could have not foreseen forty Mizrahi intellectuals, and therefore could have not imagined a meeting of this kind. More importantly, hardly anyone addressed the Arab/Palestinian as “the enemy.” Hence, in Toledo you would be hard pressed to hear the Israeli dovish language of “making peace with the enemy,” or the Peace Now quest for “a divorce between Israelis and Palestinians,” to echo Amos Oz, or even the relatively more pro-Palestinian notion of “My Friend, the Enemy,” the title of Uri Avneri’s book.

[Liberation's report on the Toledo conference. Image from Ella Shohat's personal archive]


There we were in Toledo/Tulaytulah, in the historical city of the “tres culturas” and “convivencia” – a  symbolic site of Jewish, Christian, and Muslim joint creativity. In this intercultural and inter-religious learning center began the vital project of multi-lingual translation, including between Spanish, Arabic, and Hebrew. And several hundred years later, we, Sephardis/Arab-Jews and Arabs/Palestinians, were visiting (or, for some, returning to) a centuries-long banned place for Muslims and Jews. The old city was now witnessing a new pilgrimage, not simply for a lost place, but for a lost time before the Inquisition and the Edicts of Expulsion, the forced conversions of both Jews and Muslims, and the Limpieza de Sangre – the form of state-terror fully installed in 1492. Triumphant after the fall of Granada, the Spanish unification and purification program continued until the remaining Muslims were completely expelled between 1609 and 1614. This trope of “al-Andalus,” then, evokes not only utopia but also dystopia. 

Our Spanish hosts ushered us into the old city in a special excursion that highlighted the “tres culturas.” We visited the Santa María la Blanca Church, built sometime in the late twelfth century and early thirteenth century as the Ibn Shushan Synagogue, believed to be the oldest synagogue building still standing on European soil. Constructed under the reign of King Alfonso VIII, and designed by Muslim architects for Jewish community rituals, it embodies the convivencia spirit. The architectural design incorporates diverse Moorish styles, including the Almohad and the Nasrids of Granada; it displays harmonious geometric design, horseshoe arches, interior white walls, vegetal decorations. The five rows of columns crowned with arches especially recall the Mosque of Córdoba of the Moorish “Golden Age” architecture. This characteristically Moorish-style synagogue stands as a testimony to a Judeo-Arab and to a Judeo-Islamic culture. Ibn Shushan Synagogue was converted into a church in the 1405 riots, impacting certain visual aspects. For example, some design changes had the effect of blocking the original source of light, resulting in the darkness typical of cathedrals, in sharp contrast to the brightness of mosques and synagogues.

In Spain, the hybrid palimpsest of sinagoga-turned-iglesia or Mezquita-turned-iglesia came to underline both harmonious co-existence and its exact opposite. The nightmare began with the fifteenth-century forced conversions and violent expulsions. Our Toledo Spanish guide was recounting the city’s oral tales. When the Jews were forced to leave, they kept on trying to return to their homes, their gardens, their city. Those who managed to reach the city held the old keys to open the doors of their former houses, but in the end they could not enter. This image of persistent attempts to return conjured up the more recent history, to wit the attempts by displaced Palestinians to cross the border and return to their former houses, to eat the fruits of the trees they watered, and, sometimes, to just glimpse, if only from afar, the house, the garden, the remains of the town. But in 1989, the literal and metaphorical return to al-Andalus/Sefarad concerned the expulsion and terror of the recent past embodied by 1948. 

The actual—and metaphorical—keys steadfastly carried into exile by the expelled Jews and Muslims from Spain came up in our discussions, but this time the keys in question were those of the 1948 houses to which Palestinians could not return. We also invoked the keys for the homes Arab-Jews left behind in Iraq, Egypt, Syria and so forth, but, in contrast to “the population exchange” discourse, we did so without erasing and negating Palestinian rights. Playwright Gabriel Bensimhon spoke of his family’s departure with only two suitcases from Tefilalt, Morocco, at a time when they deeply believed—or were led to believe – that the coming of the Messiah was imminent. (Indeed, Bensimhon’s play “A Moroccan King” dealt precisely with the passionate belief among some Middle Eastern-Jews that the birth of Israel signified the realization of Biblical prophecy.) As they arrived in Haifa, Bensimhon’s grandfather still kept the key to the Tefilalt house in his pocket. The government then settled them in “an abandoned Arab house” in Wadi Salib. The very same neighborhood was home to Abbas Shiblak’s family, which hastily departed with only a box in their possession. The box contained some pictures, identity papers, and documents, along with the house key that they held onto in the many years to come, in diverse places of exile. “Everyone lives with keys,” Bensimhon exclaimed, lamenting a situation of “too many keys with too few doors.”

So recent was this memory of expulsion and exile, that in Toledo one could not but stop to reflect on the wretchedly absurd turnabout of events. Indeed, the analogy between the two historical moments, between the departures of 1492 and 1948, was suggested in Darwish’s qasida “Eleven Stars over al-Andalus,” published in 1992, after what was, to my knowledge, his first visit to Spain, as part of the Palestinian delegation to Toledo, and after the PLO participation in the first official peace process initiative at the 1991 Madrid Conference, as well as on the occasion of the Quincentenary commemorations. The poem evokes the “Adam of two Edens” and losing “paradise twice,” concluding with “the violins” that “weep for the Arabs leaving al-Andalus,” and “for a time that does not return,” and “for a homeland that might return.” (One of the Arab-Jewish conference’s organizers, Simone Bitton, later directed a documentary about Darwish, where the theme of exile and return was centrally treated.) The idea of “al-Andalus” condenses both the convivencia and its traumatic end, but with the difference that, in the recent historical conjuncture, the Muslims and Jews (and for that matter Arab-Christians) did not take their keys in the same direction.  

This recent historical trauma generated new maps of belonging. An epic-scale shift in alliances and affiliations began with divide-and-conquer colonial policies (arguably including the Crémieux Decree) and culminated with colonial partition (initiated with the Balfour Declaration). And now Palestinians are displaced and wander in exile; their homeland, in Darwish’s words, has become a suitcase. And in the wake of their displacement came that of the Arab-Jews, crossing the borders in the opposite direction. The dispossession of the Palestinians and the dislocation of Arab-Jews, I suggested, must be viewed discursively and historically as intimately linked events, without reductively equating the two. Instead of conceiving the Arab-Jewish/Mizrahi issue merely in terms of intra-Jewish tension, Zionism must also be narrated from the perspective of Sephardi/Mizrahi/Arab-Jews. (My presentation partly was drawn from my essay “Sephardim in Israel: Zionism from the Standpoint of its Jewish Victims,” which dialogued with Edward Said’s “Zionism from the Standpoint of its Victims,” both published in Social Text.) In that essay, I emphasized the need to problematize the discourse of “population exchange” between Palestinians and Arab-Jews, a discourse that ultimately attempted to silence Palestinian claims. While one common response to the Israeli equation of the two dislocations was to simply de-link the two cases, I argued in contrast, that they must be viewed in relation to each other. Re-linking these two historically entangled issues within a complex analytical framework was actually crucial for discerning the analogies and disanalogies between them. Such a relational conceptual prism was for me foundational for any in-depth examination of the present and for the imagination of a different future.

The political partition “begat” new identity barriers: Jews could no longer be Arabs, and Arabs could no longer be Jews. In Toledo, a few of us, myself included, defined ourselves as “Arab-Jews.” I pointed out that Zionism “created wrenching dilemmas for Arab-Jews . . . prodded to choose between anti-Zionist Arabness and a pro-Zionist Jewishness.” For the first time in our history “Arabness and Jewishness were posed as antonyms.” One speaker from Israel, Haim Hanegbi, who had been a member of the anti-Zionist leftist Matzpen group, asserted his family origins from Hebron/al-Khalil, seeing himself as a “Palestinian-Jew.” Challenging the post-67 Rabbi Levinger return-to-Hebron settler movement, Hanegbi identified with his own grandfather, who was the last leader of Hebron’s Sephardi community forced to evacuate the city during the 1929 Palestinian fighting against Zionist activities, which also included attacking and killing local Jews. Yet for Hanegbi, a return to the house in Hebron/al-Khalil could only take place when Palestinians could also return to their homes. Another participant, Anat Saragusti—who, together with HaOlam HaZe editor Uri Avneri and journalist Sarit Yishai, had interviewed Yasser Arafat for the first time for a Israeli paper in 1982 besieged Beirut—addressed her Sephardi/Spanish familial history: “I have a strange last name, Saragusti, and I have to spell it every time. I think that here in Spain, it is the only place I don’t have to do so. My ancestors left Saragossa five hundred years ago and went directly to Palestine; and Saragossa in only few hundreds kilometers from here!” In 1989, only a few decades after the traumatic events of dispossession and dislocation, Palestinians/Arabs and Sephardi/Arab-Jews could meet in Toledo, their old “neighbors” dating back to a time before borders had been erected and new passports, or laissez-passers, had renamed us all. We had to travel outside the Middle East in order to imagine living together again, side by side, in the Middle East.

The conference offered the thrill of breaking new grounds in an old terrain. We were hosted by the Spanish, who themselves were beginning to chart new paths. As a European country, Spain was entering the international diplomatic arena (represented by Manuel Medina). But, also, Spain was beginning to confront its long suppressed Muslim/Jewish history, acknowledging the traces of Arab culture. Although Muslim and Sephardi residues were everywhere – in architecture, language, ritual, music, and literature – the dominant historical narrative remained still entrenched in the values and assumptions of the Reconquista. The “Moros y Cristianos” set of festival rituals, celebrated in many towns and cities across Iberia—and in Latin America as well—suggest that the specter of the Moor has continued to haunt the Iberian unconscious. After all, Cervantes’s magnum opus Don Quixote is embedded in the battles against the Moors. Not only did the author himself fight and get captured by Algerian corsairs, the reflexive novel begins with the account of the book’s origins in the Toledo marketplace where worn Arabic notebooks are sold. After acquiring one manuscript, the author looks around for a Moor to translate it, testifying that it was not difficult to find a translator, including for Hebrew. The author “reports” that the Moorish translator revealed that the Arabic manuscript chronicled the “History of Don Quixote de la Mancha,” composed by “an Arab historian” Cide Hamete Benengeli. And so, the ludic tale of Don Quixote and Sancho Panza, the par excellence Spanish novel, is imbued with Iberia’s Arabness. 

In all these “Moros y Cristianos” reenactments, there is perhaps one consoling element—Muslims and Jews are still imagined together, against the grain of their contemporary splitting, as though from time immemorial. The Sephardi, in this sense, is always-already a Moor, and the Moor is always-already a Sephardi, a kind of a Janus-faced figure. In Toledo, we came, we witnessed the remainders, and evoked al-Andalus/Sefarad; we were no longer ghosts of Moorish/Sephardi history. Only three years before the quincentennary, the two delegations retrieved an era that suggested that there was nothing inevitable or eternal about the “Arab-versus-Jew” polarity. In the Toledo conference, some of the Spanish speakers, along with the Iraqi-Israeli David Semah, explicitly dealt with the unacknowledged Arabic heritage of Spanish culture, demonstrating the links between Arabic and Western literatures. Was our visit part of a new moment, anticipating a wave of the return of the repressed? In Toledo, we were all returning to al-Andalus, not simply to the actual historical place but to the al-Andalus as a potent trope of becoming. We were eager to write a new convivencia chapter for Palestine/Israel and beyond.    

There, in Toledo, Palestinians and Israelis stood side-by-side witnessing the remains of the dream and the nightmare. The analogy to twentieth-century Palestine seemed inevitable, as the era of Arab Muslims, Christians, and Jews living together in the Middle East entered its nightmarish chapter. After the Limpieza de Sangre and the expulsion of Jews and Muslims, only conversos and Moriscos remained in Toledo, and in  the aftermath of the burning of Jewish and Muslim books, the cross-cultural translation project ceased. (Indeed, this was the sixteenth-century Toledo of Cervantes’ novel.) And yet, there we were, Jews and Muslims, hosted by the Spanish, in a kind of a historical mea culpa. We were embarking on an extraordinary voyage; the very act of coming together signified the possibility of becoming something else. The desire for a hopeful memory out of the “tres culturas” was, I believe, an example of what Walter Benjamin called  “revolutionary nostalgia.” (His untimely death on the Spanish border, escaping Nazi Germany, is a reminder of another nightmare.) The idea of the use of the past for the construction of the future was expressed in Shlomo Elbaz’s statement: “We didn’t come to Toledo out of nostalgia for the past. We are not passéistes. It is because we think that in this past we will find strength . . . to look into the future and go beyond the suffocating present.”

My critique of the Eurocentric account of a single “Jewish History” composed of “tracing the dots from pogrom to pogrom,” was inspired not only by the Spain of the convinencia but also by my Arab-Jewish familial history in Baghdad, including Ottoman Iraq. At the same time that the Reconquista was eliminating al-Andalus, many other “al-Andaluses” were flourishing throughout the Islamic world. When Queen Isabella and King Ferdinand issued the Edicts of Expulsion, it was Sultan Bayazid II, after all, who extended an immediate welcome to the expelled Jews to settle in the Ottoman Empire. The convivencia space that we tend to associate with Toledo, then, existed in the multiple “al-Andaluses” of Istanbul, Cairo, Teheran, Jaffa, Damascus, and so forth. However, this evocation of the convivencia,  did not negate, in my view, the importance of considering the complex issue of the protected status of minorities, including Jews, in the Muslim world . It was not a question for me of idealizing the convivencia but rather of  avoiding an isolationist discourse that separated  Jews off from other ethnic and religious communities. It was also about eschewing the reductive relentless persecution narrative that projected the experience of European anti-Semitism onto Jewish life throughout the Muslim world. Acknowledging the difference between these histories, Ilan Halevi argued that the point is not to return to “the protected minorities status,” but rather to fight for equality. Today, in Spain, these words resonate with the recent decision by Spain to grant citizenship for the expelled Sephardim but not to the Muslims, despite their linked expulsions, and despite the shared experience of masquerading religious identities common to moriscos and maranos.


The modern history and status of Middle Eastern “minorities,” as well as the issue of fear and trust, were addressed by diverse speakers from different angles. The more critical Mizrahis/Arab-Jews were closer in their perspectives to the Arab/Palestinians, while others were uncomfortable with the fact that Jews, despite the shared culture, were nonetheless a minority under both Christianity and Islam. Naim Kattan spoke of the great moments of Arab-Jewish history in periods of creativity, of “the symbiosis” of borrowing “the language of the Quran to affirm the Law of Moses and sing God’s praises.” He reminded the audience that “we were not denied in our being by the ambient religion, nor were we rejected in our practice by the common language.” As Iraqi-Jews, “we did not see a contradiction between belonging to our country and to our community . . . No one questioned our sense of belonging, our practices… I learned my Jewishness and I was proud to be Arab.” At the same time, Kattan asserted that “the harmony was damaged,” especially since, like other minorities, “our place was unstable…We were protected as long as we stayed in our place and among the minorities . . . we were still an ethnic group, whose place was unstable.” This “unstable equilibrium,” Kattan concluded, would require  “supporting the other but in your own voice, that is the condition of peace.”

Simon Levy, speaking “as a Jew from Casablanca,” meanwhile, called attention to a history in which the rights of the Jewish-Moroccan community, including the rights to cultural identity, were recognized alongside those of other communities, a situation destroyed by colonialism, and by the de-personalization provoked by a Franco-centric educational system, as well as by Zionist actions, leading to the fracturing of the community and its membership in Moroccan society. In addition, Levy pointed to another key factor – “the fear and malaise created by the Israeli/Arab war.” Levy evoked “the rights of Man” and “the Emancipation of Jews” advanced with the French Revolution, and emphasized that the Palestinians were deprived of these very same rights. The Palestinians, he argued, were indirect victims of the Shoah through a kind of ricochet-effect. As for the remaining Jews in Morocco, Levy insisted that they often showed solidarity with the Palestinians. For example, the Casablanca synagogue around the time of the Sabra and Shatila massacre had a ceremony in honor of the Palestinian victims. Levy spoke of the occupation as “an obsolete form of colonization, completely out of synch with the present. And this colonization is also murderous. Is that the image of world Judaism we want to promote? Are we going to allow the Israeli establishment to dictate to Jewish organizations what is legitimate to say and think? …It becomes quite clear who is practicing colonial and terrorist violence.” He was concerned that now “we have to do better and faster in the interest of peace. We need to disassociate Judaism from a specific political line of the Israeli government. Judaism represents peace . . . Are we going to allow this image of Judaism be destroyed by the image that everyone sees on their TV sets?” For Levy, these actions were clearly anti-Jewish.

Daniel Timsit, a former militant with the FLN in Algeria, pleaded for more candor in the discussion so as “to open up the wounds of racism on both sides,” in order to address the facts that “the Arabs disdained Jews, seeing them as arrogant and oppressive . . . showing little solidarity with the Algerian struggle,” while “the Jews disdained the Arabs, seeing them as inferior.” Distinguishing between “legitimate nationalism and imperialist nationalism,” Timsit stated: “I say as a Jew, as an Algerian, and as a French person that I have no solidarity with Israeli soldiers who kill children . . .Let’s stop talking about Israeli democracy . . . France was democratic when it occupied Algeria; democracy coexisted with torture, murder, and concentration camps . . . We have to defend the intifada because it’s a just cause.” Another speaker, Eli Baida, highlighted the “intercommunitarian coexistence” for thousands of years as in the case of Aleppo. Fear and exile of Jews from Arab countries was very much a result of the partition of Palestine. “It was after 1947 and the riots that eighty percent of the Jews left Syria, not for Israel but for Lebanon, where they joined the Palestinian refugees. Why Lebanon? Because like the Palestinians, the Syrians hoped to go back home, that is to Syria, once the troubles were over. In this way, Palestinians and Syrian-Jews shared a history, engendered by the same cause at the same time.” While noting the Arab discrimination against Arab-Jews in the wake of Zionism, Baida described Lebanon as the only prosperous and growing Jewish community after 1948. “Beirut became the refuge of all the Jews of the Mashreq who refused to leave their multi-faith, multi-community universe. Twenty-five happy years of life together, despite [19]56, despite [19]73, despite the constant Israeli aggressions against a country almost without an army.”

Baida asserted that his personal story was that of a generation born and raised “in an open society, free and multi-communitarian.” The Jewish community itself was multiple, ranging from left-wingers to right-wingers supportive of the phalange. After 1968, the Palestinian question became central issue in Lebanon. “When four Jews were arrested in 1968,” Baida reported, “the Lebanese universities went on strike to free the four Jews” and “in 1982, during the infamous siege of Beirut, 350 Jews refused to leave their towns, despite the effort of the Israeli army to make them leave. Three hundred and fifty Jews in Beirut experienced the Israeli siege alongside their Lebanese and Palestinian brothers.” Jews were able to live there even during the seven years of the civil war. For Baida, “the multi-faith and intercommunitarian nature of Lebanon” formed a negation, a provocative counter-model to the Jewish state.” But after “the Israeli aggression,” he continued, “then we knew fear, and the Jewish community dwindled down to two hundred or three hundred people in 1982… The end of the community came with the departure of the PLO and the emergence of the Shiite fundamentalists... Now the goal has been achieved; the social web, the multi-faith society of Beirut has been torn, with dislocated Jews and Palestinians.” Linking the fate of Palestinians and Arab-Jews, Baida stated: “We have spoken here of the need for trust between Jews and Palestinians. We lived that trust from 1975 until 1982, when the PLO left. Up to then, the Jewish community was protected, supplied, and defended by all the elements of the Palestinian resistance.”

André Azoulay, who to this day lives in Morocco, extended the historical issue to open up a discussion about the current fears of Israelis, rooted in a different history, the Shoah—fears that had become an obstacle to peace. Other Jewish participants, meanwhile, raised the issue of Israeli fears, asking the PLO to make further concessions, and expressed the hope that the PLO would declare that the West Bank and Gaza would constitute the final border, and renounce the Right of Return, or at least promise that the Palestinian state would be de-militarized. In this context, the Palestinians also addressed the issue of trust and fear, responding that they had condemned terrorism and accepted 242 and 338 as a basis for negotiation, which assumed the Israeli withdrawal from the occupied territories in exchange for peace. They pointed out that they were still awaiting any such acknowledgement from the Israeli government, i.e., for Israel to recognize the rights of the Palestinian people and stop state terrorism against them in Jordan, Gaza, and Lebanon. Darwish spoke ironically of Israeli fears of the “Palestinian empire,” asking: “who are you afraid of?,” and asserting: “you have only yourselves to fear!” Elias Sanbar offered both empathy and analysis of the fear: “I believe that we Palestinians know more than you imagine the panic that you have experienced, and we feel it, and we feel solidarity with the blows that you have suffered.” 

[Mahmoud Darwish Addressing the Toledo Conference Participants. Image from Ella Shohat's personal archive]

Sanbar argued that in order to make progress, “the essential thing is to define your fear,” which, for him, contained three elements. The first element, he explained, is the historical component, including “the barbarous and tragic crowning of the oppressive practices that culminated with Nazism in Western Europe. All that we understand as a constitutive and legitimate part of your fear.” The second element is the history of Arab-Jews, for which “we Palestinians are not at all responsible.” He explained that, “Perhaps there are certain phases of your life in the heart of Arab societies that constitute bad memories. And we Palestinians have no problem with that, and no reason to deny it.” And, finally the third problem, for Sanbar, had to do with the fear that “in the bottom of your hearts you are aware of the harm that has been done to you by the creation of the state of Israel… you probably tell yourselves: ‘After everything we have done to the Palestinians, how can we believe them when they say they want to live in harmony with us?’ That is the deepest element within your panic, and I would call it panic rather than fear.” Sanbar continued: “You must be thinking: ‘How could people – who have been denied and displaced during forty years, considered as absent ones, even when they are physically present, humiliated, without recognition, without identity or rights – all of the sudden, become so generous as to propose a two-state solution? And how can we imagine that there would be no risk, or that we could construct a peace together?”

For Sanbar, the panic was related to a delusion about a kind of “a second disappearing” of the Palestinians, when Israelis argue that Palestinians should give up on the right to return. “For us, that demand amounts to asking us to disappear once again, not in physical terms, but as if to reassure yourselves with the idea that Palestinians should give up their very identity and become absent to themselves.” However, “the right to return is established in international law, and it will be a central issue in the negotiations.” Sanbar addressed specifically the Arab-Jewish/Mizrahi issue, suggesting: “I think you are waiting for us to tell you ‘don’t be afraid.’ You Yemeni-Jews have been made absent to yourselves, to your Yemeni identity, and you Iraqi-Jews have been made absent to your Iraqi identity, but you are wrong if you think that the condition for living in peace with Palestinians is for them to be absent to their own Palestinian identity.” Sanbar also added: “I think the solution to your fear is in your hands. We will do a lot, for our part, to make sure you have no reason to fear, and that peace will be constructed. But you also have to do your part—and I say this in a fraternal way—to face your own fear, and not wait indefinitely for a Palestinian response. After all, we had to confront our own fears alone. I think your confronting your own fears is fundamental for the success of any peace process.”


There were some moments when ideas were lost in translation. It was not so much about the common hope to arrive at a peace settlement, around which a healthy portion of the discussion revolved; many were willing to discuss the importance of bringing the Israeli government to the negotiation table, recognizing Palestinians rights, and arriving at a the two-state solution. And with the more critical Mizrahis/Arab-Jews, it was not even around any disagreement with the Palestinians about the interpretation of Zionism and/or the Nakba. Rather, some of the non-meeting-of-the-minds had to do with the definition and the relevance of the Mizrahi issue to the peace process. Abu Mazen for example, treated the Mizrahi issue as a quantitative matter, of a demographic majority; “the Oriental Jews will decide if there will be war or peace.” However, many Mizrahis/Arab-Jews had a different understanding of this issue and its meaning not only historically but also for charting the future. Simon Levy argued against Arab criticism of Moroccan-Jews, who in Levy’s view had not always been understood, and were even mistreated by the Arab press. He gave two examples of meetings organized by Jewish-Moroccans: first, the 1984 meeting in Rabat, attended by a group of Moroccan political leaders—both from the government and the opposition—but also by the Moroccan-Jewish Knesset deputy; and second, the 1985 Montreal meeting of the newly created World Assembly of Moroccan Jewry that included Moroccan-Israelis. According to Levy, the Arab press completely missed the thrust of these invitations to Moroccan-Israelis. “They didn’t understand that the positions we adopted were aimed at generating links with Jewish-Moroccans members of the Knesset no matter what their political position, in order to create the possibility of a broad discussion that would include all the levels of the Arab-Jewish population.” The point was to prevent Moroccan-Israelis from “remaining under the influence of the obscurantist fanaticisms…We happen to believe that we're having some impact thanks to this channel . . . And creating links with Morocco brings with it everything that Morocco signifies in terms of lived coexistence and political courage.” Levy insisted that the remaining Jewish-Moroccan community is “still active and responsible, and acts with autonomy.”

Other participants, meanwhile, highlighted the complex relation of Arab-Jews/Mizrahis to the question of Palestine. Robin Eddi stated that he did not believe that Oriental-Jews feel guilty about what was done to Palestinians “because they do not feel that they were responsible for creating the state of Israel.” “What they are afraid of,” Eddi argued,  “is rather that peace will come at their expense, that there will be an alliance between Ashkenazis and Palestinians against them,” since the Mizrahis end up “paying the price of all the money that goes to the military rather than  to improving their lot.” Mizrahi activists called attention to the fact the 1967 represents different things for the Ashkenazi middle class and for the Mizrahi working class. Some peakers from Israel emphasized the issue of class. For example, David Hamou, editor of the alternative Hebrew Iton Aher, intervened: “As an Oriental-Jew in Israel I have some questions for the Palestinians – how will the establishment of a Palestinian state affect the situation of Oriental-Jewish workers? Do the representatives here speak for the Palestinian working class? . . . Will the Palestinian state be a capitalist state? The answers to these questions will show whether we can move toward a future of prosperity and peace or toward inequality and injustice for the masses in both countries.” Although Arab-Jews/Mizrahim agreed on the goal of Palestinian state, they also expressed concern about the (non-Mizrahi) Israeli “left” continuing with its racist rhetoric and oppressive economic policies.

For many Palestinians, however, the Mizrahi perspective was an “internal affair” that was up to the Israeli-Jews to resolve. Some Palestinian speakers, including Abu Mazen in his opening remarks, addressed the conference participants as the carriers of the message of co-existence to Israel as a whole. The urgency of the Palestinian situation on the ground and the real-politic agenda meant that the Mizrahi issue was in a sense becoming a burden. Evoking al-Andalus/Sefarad in the past tense and even in the future tense was one thing; but what would it mean within the current situation, where Mizrahis participate in the occupation of Palestine? The emphasis on “a common culture” also made some Palestinians uncomfortable, since it was perceived as sidestepping concretely burning matters of land, political rights, and the establishment of a Palestinians state. Certainly we understood the Palestinian sense of urgency, just as Palestinians understood our vision of peace “in” and “of” the East. But at a certain point, it became a dialogue-of-the-deaf. For the critical Arab-Jews/Mizrahis, the skeptical Palestinian response to this vision seemed to echo the Euro-Israeli discourse, only from the opposite nationalist perspective. While Palestinians were stressing the official line of a two-state solution, critical Mizrahi/Arab-Jews raised the issue of what the future would look like after the establishment of the two states, hoping to eliminate borders and produce a shared culture. For the Palestinians, meanwhile, this Mizrahi vision was an issue to be addressed in the future, and ultimately irrelevant when Mizrahis, as Israelis, formed part of an oppressive state apparatus in the present. The Palestinians, as Darwish put it, would eventually have to make peace not with “two different Israeli societies,” but with “one Israeli society.” In any case, it was clear that this specific Mizrahi perspective expressed in Toledo was unusual in the context of Israeli-Palestinian Peace meetings.

At that 1989 moment when the Spanish welcomed Jews and Muslims in an effort to renew the dialogue again, “al-Andalus/Sefarad,” then, became a living site of truth and reconciliation. The Toledo meeting encapsulated the idea of “al-Andalus” not simply as an actual historical place and time, but as a trope for the convivencia of an imagined future. If only for these three days in the summer of 1989, Toledo witnessed once again dialogical translation. Although the Oriental-Jewish and Palestinian delegations were accommodated on different floors of the hotel, and were seated on parallel sides of the conference room separated by an aisle, dialogue was taking place both formally and informally. The hosting institute provided simultaneous translation; speeches were given in Spanish, Arabic, Hebrew, English and French. Exchanges during breaks, meals, and excursions were carried on in varied languages depending on the interlocutors. In this three-day marathon, most members of the Palestinian delegation gave their speeches in Arabic. Arab-Jews/Mizrahis, meanwhile, gave their speeches in Arabic, Hebrew, French, and English. The very diversity of the languages reflected the different trajectories and paths that have shaped Arab/Muslim spaces, in the wake of colonialism, and later of Zionism, reorganizing cultural identities and regional affiliations. 

In the Toledo conference, some Arab-Jews gave their speeches and spoke with the Palestinians in Arabic, and some Palestinians spoke in Hebrew in an informal setting. For the Arab-Jew, Arabic was an indigenous mother-tongue. For the Palestinian, Hebrew, in contrast, was the language of the occupier. Darwish (who was fluent in Hebrew) evoked in his speech the question of language, both in the literal and metaphorical senses. “Now that we are exploring our common cultural roots,” Darwish asked, “I do not understand why I have to go to another language to participate in the output of our common culture.” For Darwish, the Palestinians are sometimes “asked to accept the view of common Semitic origins with Israeli society,” but in doing so Palestinian are “asked to discover it by looking through a different language” while also being “asked to begin from scratch in a new language.” Whereas in the Arab world, the languages and dialects of the diverse minorities were marginal, in Israel, Hebrew/Arabic have existed within an occupier/occupied paradigm, even as Palestinians from Israel have mastered Hebrew. Darwish was not asking for reversal of the occupation dynamic but rather for undoing this grammar altogether. “We are inadvertently asked,” he stated, to be “either the Arabs of the Jews or the Jews of the Arabs.”  He thus criticized the undergirding view that only makes possible two kinds of human beings—Jews and non-Jews—and divides the world in two—the side of the Jews and the side of the Arabs. For Darwish, the answer was in “insaniyya jadida” —a new humanity—words that echoed for me Fanon’s exhortation in the last pages of The Wretched of the Earth


Palestinians were not unanimous on the Arab-Jew/Mizrahi issue, then, just as Mizrahis were not unanimous about their relation to Zionism. Indeed, in Toledo there was a lurking tension among the diverse Arab-Jews/Mizrahis about their own historical position on Zionism and about their present-day relation to Israel. The divide dates back to the arrival of Zionism in the region. While throughout the Arab/Muslim world most Jews maintained religious traditions, and did not adhere to either Zionist or anti-Zionist ideologies, some of the younger educated Jews participated in wrenching debates about Arab nationalism, Zionism, and Communism. In the post WWII era and at the time of the creation of Israel, as the war in Palestine began to intersect with their lives, Arab-Jewish intellectuals were increasingly involved in heated discussions about whether Zionism was a Jewish nationalist liberation movement or an oppressive settler-colonialist endeavor. In Arab countries, the Zionist underground was recruiting Jewish supporters, and actively destabilizing the leadership of traditional Hakhams (in Iraq especially Hakham Sasson Khdhuri) who voiced anti-Zionist sentiments, both because they feared for the Jewish community and because, philosophically, they regarded secular Zionist thought as in contradiction to traditional Judaism. The Communist Jews, meanwhile, believed in a universal inclusive future of equality where religion and ethnicity would be obsolete in Iraq, Egypt, Morocco, etc. 

In Toledo, we, the children of that generation, encountered the echoes of this historical debate. On one informal occasion, Naeim Giladi stated: “There is one thing I regret in my life—that I was an activist in the Zionist movement in Baghdad.” To which Sami Michael responded: “Indeed, you should regret it! How come you all brought us Zionism to Baghdad?” And there they were: the ex-Zionist Giladi (Khlaschi,) who was imprisoned, tortured, and escaped Abu-Ghraib just before his scheduled execution, illegally crossing the border to Iran, and then to Israel, and, once there, became a leader of the 1950s Maabarot rebellions and later a spokesperson for the Black Panthers, and then moved to NY only to renounce his Israeli citizenship. And on the other side, the ex-Communist Sami Michael, who also escaped from the threat of imprisonment and death, but in his case, for being a Communist, and who also illegally crossed the border to Iran, to the center of the Tudeh party, but, in contrast, did not believe in leaving Iraq for Israel, and yet ended up having to go there for refuge (the title of one of Michael’s novels), and who, once in Israel, became an outspoken critic of racism, whether toward Mizrahis or Palestinians, fighting for citizenship rights. Although Giladi and Michael ended up leaving Iraq, Iraq did/has not left them. Michael became the president of “The Society for Solidarity between the People of Israel and the People of Iraq.” Giladi, meanwhile, returned to Iraq for one brief visit after 2003. As he completed his descent from the plane, as he told me, he kissed the ground. 

What my friend Tikva Levy and I dubbed jokingly and lovingly “the Iraqi delegation to Toledo” was revisiting the kind of arguments we heard growing up within the family and the larger displaced Jewish-Iraqi community. And as the Giladi/Michael exchange reveals, these arguments were sometimes paradoxical considering the trajectory of the speaker: for example, bitter Iraqi-Zionists who felt deceived by Israel and its promise; Iraqi-Communists who felt a sense of relief to be a Communist in the open in Israel; Iraqi-Jews who may have celebrated the end of “the Babylonian Exile” but who simultaneously felt trapped in “Zion” and expressed an unrealistic wish to return. These conflicting sentiments within the community, within families, and sometimes within the same individual, were very much present in the world in which I grew up. Cursing and blessing Israel, or cursing and blessing Iraq, could sometimes neighbor within the same thought process. But perhaps, more than anything else, the contradictory emotions, I would suggest, have to be understood as reflective of the contradictions of a world – divided between Arabs and Jews – in which Arab-Jews had or felt they had little agency.

[Members of “The Iraqi Delegation” to Toledo—from left to right: Sami Michael, David Semah,
Ella Shohat, Shimon Ballas, and Yosef Shiloach. Image from Ella Shohat’s personal archive]

These arguments have persisted among the younger generation of Mizrahis/Arab-Jews, including among those who participated in the Toledo meeting. There was no philosophical agreement over the historical meaning of Zionism for Arab-Jews. But, the shared sentiment of “coming from” and “being of” the region spelled out a shared discourse that rejected racist views of Western superiority and embraced  “the East,” even within the – at that time – daring proposal of a two-state solution. Within this perspective, Israel needed to open up toward the East in order to envision an intertwined future of Israel and Palestine. Such was our imagined map of the future. In many ways, Arab-Jews, it could be said, refused to be “the last of the Mohicans.” And in the words of Serge Berdugo who testified for Moroccan-Jews currently living together with Muslims in Morocco: “We live at peace with our Muslim compatriots, sharing the same values and the same destiny. We are not the vestige of some Golden Age...We are the active witnesses of Judeo-Arab coexistence and search for peace…For us it’s not a matter of foreign policy; it’s an intimate, domestic affair.” Berdugo insisted: “We will not be in peace with ourselves as long as Arab and Jewish brothers are tearing each other apart. It is also an intimate affair for us because 400,000 Israelis are Moroccan . . .We understand the hopes and fears of our Muslim compatriots. And I don’t think it would be pretentious to think that Muslim-Moroccans have learned from us a little bit about seeing the conflict in less dogmatic, simplistic, and Manichean ways.”

This was our vision of peace that, to echo Drawish’s Toledo words, was not about “closure” but about “openness.” Indeed, rejecting closure and dreaming of openness for the future filled the air. Leila Shahid emphasized the Palestinian “deep conviction that co-existence based on respect of the rights of every people is our only common future . . . Dialogue is indispensible as it alone can create the understanding and hope, and hopefully the trust and confidence without which there can be no solution worthy of the name.” The dialogue at many points, then, was not “of the deaf,” but mutually audible when some Palestinians envisioned that for Oriental-Jews, peace would also mean that they could go back to their “cultural roots.” It seemed that the pragmatic and vital discussion about potential negotiations and resolutions took a back seat, when the conversation journeyed into rumination about the past and the vision of the future. At those moments, the Toledo meeting epitomized the meeting-of-minds. In contrast to the dovish Euro-Israeli discourse, most of us were not seeking a “divorce,” but rather an “integration” with the East, even if within the framework of the two-state solution. However impractical it may have been, our peace for the East, it could be said, was premised on a complete recasting of the relation between “East” and “West.” One beautiful evening that left a mark on us, embodying what is usually dismissed as “nostalgia” and “sentimental clichés,” was when the Jewish-Moroccan-French singer and composer Sapho graciously delighted us with her singing. I would reflect back on that moment a few years later when Sapho performed Umm Kulthum's legendary song “al-Atlal,” and when she released her album “Jardin Andalou” that fused rock, Arabic, and Andalusian elements. While a long-time supporter of Palestinian rights, Sapho, after that visit to Toledo, began to engage the music of the Judeo-Arab world in which she was raised. To stand up for justice in Palestine was all the more momentous when drawing on the complex memories of Sephardi/Arab-Jews.


The Sephardi/Mizrahis/Arab-Jews who attended Toledo showed solidarity with the Palestinian struggle against the occupation, crossing not only political boundaries but also defying the emotional wall erected between Israelis and Palestinians. The participants could be said to have subverted the false binarism of “Arab-versus-Jew.” In the words of Raymond Benahim: “Peace is not just about borders;” it is also about “recognizing Palestinian memory” and going beyond “the exclusivity of Jewish memory.” After Toledo, in the 1989-1990 period, non-official meetings between dovish Israeli representatives and the Palestinian PLO representatives took place. Needless to say, these meetings hardly matched our vision of peace. Some years later, Ilan Halevi shared an anecdote with me about those meetings. The Israelis, he recounted, met and talked with the Palestinians, but they objected to meeting with one high-ranking PLO member—Ilan Halevi. (Apart from serving as the PLO's representative to the Socialist International, Halevi also became the PLO vice-minister of Foreign Affairs, participating in that capacity in the Madrid Conference.)  In one of these meetings, when the Israeli representatives still refused to speak with Halevi, the Palestinians teased them: “Now you are speaking to us, but you are refusing to meet and talk with the only Jewish member of our delegation? What’s wrong—are you anti-Semitic?” 

The rather unusual case of Ilan Halevi—a kind of a contemporary John Brown—evokes a long and troubling history of excommunication, first religious and later political, that stands in the way of dialogue and reconciliation. Within Sephardi history, the philosopher Baruch Spinosa, raised in the Portuguese-Jewish community of Amsterdam, suffered the censure of the “herem” (a word of the same root the Arabic “haram”). Considered Rationalist, his philosophical texts, seen as at odds with traditional Judaism, were denounced as “abominable heresies.” Iberia’s banned Sephardis in protestant Holland carried out an excommunication of one of their own. And to think about a different, more lethal context, in the Americas, border-crossers were viewed as insane or dangerous “race traitors” when they questioned the ambient pieties. To become “Indian,” to “go native,” was a punishable crime for the settler regimes, be they Spanish, Portuguese, British, or French. But, in contrast, assimilation of “the natives” was blessed and celebrated as a step forward in the barbarian’s entry into civilization. It was inconceivable that a white settler, by choice, could live among “the Indians” and learn anything of value (even though Europe did learn, without acknowledging it, some ideas from “the Indians”—social utopia, federation, herbal medicine, and so forth.) Perhaps, a possible addendum to Darwish’s poem, “The Speech of the Red Indian,” would evoke the spirit of “the white,” the renegade who became an “Indian,” not so much to fight “the whites” but rather to fight for another way of existing and co-existing. 

Those who struggled to acknowledge injustice, to dialogue when dialogue was refused, are hardly the insane ones of history, but rather the future’s past visionaries. Real and symbolic walls have had lethal consequences. Partition and its scarring of the land, of bodies and souls, must be rethought. In the words of one of the Toledo participants, Hisham Mustafa: “The discussion of today is the dream of a new tomorrow.” The Toledo vision of a reimagined future beyond the closed material and cultural borders is still, unfortunately, but a dream. In the face of current violence, blood, and impasse, the common hopes expressed there by Palestinian and Arab-Jews/Mizrahis are still relevant today. And in the words of Leila Shahid: “what is peace in the Middle East if it is not a new relation to be defined between Jews and Arabs and the redefinition of the relation of the State of Israel in its environments? If we come out of these two days with some accomplishment, we would bring back to our people in the occupied territories, in the Arab world, and in Israel the hope they need to continue the long struggle for peace ahead...We have urgency today which is your urgency too…Our battle for peace is also your battle for peace.” Citing the words of one of the Hacham/Rabbi participants, Fayez Malas stated: “‘There is no difference between blood and blood.’ Under this banner I came to this meeting, a call to peace and stopping of bloodshed. We all enjoyed this feeling in the past three days. Moving words and dialogue that restored our faith in humanity. Violence and killing is not our fate. This conference is to bring us back to a common discussion that has been missing. This was a step toward awakening our sleeping conscience based on fear.” And Abbas Shiblak concluded with the hope that “because Toledo witnessed our Golden Age of coexistence and cooperation, Jerusalem will also witness our Golden Age of coexistence and cooperation.”

Toledo, with all its limitations, nonetheless represented at that time an inspiring leap of faith. And the need and hope for a new convivencia, ta’ayush, shutafut kiyumit persists—one lesson perhaps worth retaining from this “voyage” back to Toledo/Tulaytulah.

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