Ella Shohat, On the Arab-Jew, Palestine, and Other Displacements: Selected Writings (London: Pluto Press, 2017).
Jadaliyya (J): What made you write this book?
Ella Shohat (ES): In concrete terms, this project, spanning four decades of writing, came into existence over five years ago thanks to the initiative of Pluto Press. In conversation with colleagues, students, and activists, I realized that such a collection could serve to document the trajectory of a debate. This collection hosts texts drawn from diverse sources and belonging to divergent genres: essays, lectures, conversations, and memoir pieces. The basic impulse that threads through all the texts is a critique of the conceptual “separation fence” that has segregated struggles, stories, and possibilities. A key concern revolves around two questions: “the question of Palestine,” which has been debated passionately for over a century; and “the question of the Arab-Jew,” which has only more recently come into the glare of the journalistic, artistic, and academic spotlight. While in the scholarly realm the two subjects have been discussed in isolation, in the public sphere one history has been used to negate the other, for example, in the recent campaign for “justice for the forgotten Jewish refugees from Arab countries.” Yet in many ways, the two questions are intimately entangled, even if that entanglement has been mobilized for conflicting political ends. At the same time, the book addresses the two histories within the wider context of violent post/colonial displacements, highlighting the scars of partition burnt into the flesh of the present.
J: What particular topics and issues does the book address? And how did you approach/engage the central topics and questions of the book?
ES: The book is organized around four sections: “The Question of the Arab-Jew;” “Between Palestine and Israel;” “Cultural Politics of the Middle East;” and “Muslims, Jews and Diasporic Readings.” The narrative begins with the Arab-Jew not because it is the most urgent issue in the region but because it offers a particular entry into the narrativization of Israel /Palestine and the Middle East more broadly. Historically and conceptually the question of the Arab-Jew is embedded in the question of Palestine as the collateral damage of the European Jewish question, impacting the position, belonging, and very definition of Jews within Muslims spaces. Probably without the designation of Jews as “a problem” in post-Enlightenment Europe, we would not have today the two other Middle Eastern questions. What began in Europe as the idea of “the Orient” shaped the ways Zionism conceived of “East” and “West,” especially its vision of an Occidentalized “new Jew” fecundating a “virgin land.”
However, even prior to Zionism, with colonialism, I have argued, the Arab-Jew came to occupy an ambivalent position within the bifurcation of the Oriental figure into a negative pole (Arab) and a positive (Jewish) pole. Divide-and-rule imperial policies, furthermore, enunciated a new racialized grammar for the Judeo-Muslim religious cultural matrix that had existed for over a millennium. A kind of anticipatory rupture-before-the-Rupture led to the first serious splitting of “the Arab” and “the Jew,” a splitting that became more pronounced, as we know, with the unfolding translation of the Zionist idea into a political reality. Against this backdrop, “Arab” and “Jew” came to form mutually exclusive categories, becoming an ontological oxymoron and an epistemological subversion. The historically related yet distinct instances of Arab-Jewish and Palestinian dislocations are not at all equivalent or symmetrical yet remain closely linked within the logic of partition. The visual culture component of the book displays the black-and-white photos of dislocated Arab-Jews in tents that echo, in a haunting specularity, photos of Palestinians refugees. Examining the linked analogies, the book also highlights the way in which both “Palestine” the “Arab-Jew” come to form tropes of dis/placement.
The third and fourth sections encompass a reflexive methodological dimension. Rather than conceive “culture” as an epiphenomenal side-effect of material infrastructure, the book stresses the significance of studying culture and politics as co-imbricated. This cultural studies approach, which upsets traditionally hermetic academic disciplines, has implications for debates within Middle East studies. For example, the still ambivalent reception of Edward Said’s Orientalism teaches us something about the state of cultural studies, and about the related field of postcolonial studies, within Middle Eastern studies. Although Said’s book generated an epistemological crisis, a lower-grade resistance to Orientalism simmers even within anti-Orientalist circles. Such scholars may applaud Said’s critique of Orientalism as an ideology, but they also may not feel attuned with Said’s method of reading, expressing dismay from an “academic” standpoint. These sympathetic critics of Orientalism, usually from the disciplines of history, anthropology, or political science, are ill at ease with the “coverage” of divergent geographies and histories as well as with the engagement of various texts, genres, and institutions.
The related notion of “diasporic readings” in the book also helps us examine the question of the Arab-Jew, and of Jewish pasts within Muslim spaces. While the positing of a singular “Jewish History” (with a capital H) has been seminal for the Jewish nationalist narrative, I have argued for the plural—“Jewish histories.” And while “Jewish Diaspora” (with a capital D) has been perceived as originary and unique, I have tried to narrate multiple diasporas, scattered across various geographies. Every history of demographic dislocation involved diaspora or better diasporization. By emphasizing diasporization in relation to Palestine/Israel, one implicitly contests an originary narrative that sees all Jews as a homogenous unit necessarily going back—in the biological and geographical sense—to the Holy Land. The story of the dislocation of Arab-Jews can be read within experiences of multiple post/colonial diasporas inside and outside the Middle East. One can re-read the trajectory of Middle Eastern Jews not as “the Jewish Return” but rather as one more traumatizing cross-border movement, their dislocation from those spaces as itself act and enactment of diasporas. A return has actually become an exile. (Hence, my reversal of the Biblical lamentation phrase: “By the rivers of the Zion, there we sat down and wept when we remembered Babylon.”)
However, more crucially, the emphasis on the notion of “diasporic readings” alludes to multiple kinds of diasporization, not only demographic and historical, but also textual and epistemological. Here I shift emphasis away from “diasporas” as a demographic designation for population movement into a larger framing based on a methodological concept of “diasporic readings” which contests any ethno-nationalist originary understanding of identity as well as of nation-state determination of belonging. Itineraries of dislocation become also relevant to the multidirectional movement of ideas, for example, the ways anti-Semitic/Judeophobic discourse about European-Jews became ironically relevant to the discussion of Islamophobia. As a method, “diasporic readings” allow us to understand the movement of ideas from one place to another as emerging within a situation of already co-implicated multiple geographies. A diasporic polycentric perspective, for example, situates post-partition Arab-Jewish/Mizrahi cultural practices within a constellation of palimpsestic and porous cross-border movements. Indeed, throughout the book the prism of cultural politics offers opportunities for an expanded notion of the very geography of “the Middle East;” its culture, knowledge, and affiliations viewed as mediated and shaped beyond national and regional boundaries, within transnational, transregional and cross-border frameworks.
J: How does this book connect to and/or depart from your previous work?
ES: Together the essays gathered in the book continue my earlier effort to blur the dividing lines between “inside” and “outside” regions and thus correspond to my ongoing interest in a transtextual and transdisciplinary prism through which to explore entangled ideas and debates usually approached in isolation. Despite the various contexts and issues treated in this book, they are all addressed within a broader decolonizing perspective that “un-thinks” Eurocentrism. I began this critique in relation to Zionist discourse in my 1989 Israeli Cinema: East/West and the Politics of Representation. Engaging the historical and philosophical issues around Arab-Jews, Palestine, Israel, and the Middle East more broadly, this book’s selection offers an overall trajectory from anticolonial critique to diasporic readings, striving to transcend essentialist nationalist paradigms. The texts evoke, for example, the longue durée relationship between Jews and Muslims, critiquing the way this history has usually been invoked in the public sphere. To narrate differently a syncretic Judeo-Muslim culture is of vital significance to offering an alternative to what the book sees as the pogromization of Jewish history in “Arab lands,” and in the case of Iraq, its farhudization.
This book is especially closely related to Taboo Memories, Diasporic Voices. The notion of “taboo memories” clarifies the project of re-membering Jewish pasts within Muslim spaces, highlighting the counterpoint of “diasporic voices.” I articulated the hyphen in “the Arab-Jew” thereby casting doubt on the master narrative that produced the categories of “the Jew” and “the Arab” as mutually exclusive; and, thus against the partition logic of the Zionist de-Arabization of “the Jew.” In doing so, I have tried to transcend not only the material boundaries which are obvious to all of us, but also the conceptual separation wall, as it were, between the two categories. In the book, I try to explain what is at stake in speaking about “the Arab-Jew”—first in terms of its historical existence—in other words, as an empirical classification of Jews who spoke Arabic throughout millennia; and secondly, as a trope full of potentialities that conjures up a relatively convivial past. As examples of Walter Benjamin’s “revolutionary nostalgia,” the entwined concepts of “the Arab-Jew” and “Palestine” point to a shared future precisely because in the present impasse imagining those contours seems so terribly difficult.
The texts here are also related to my co-authored book with Robert Stam, Unthinking Eurocentrism, which defined “Eurocentrism” not necessarily as a stated ideology or a conscious perspective but rather as a buried epistemology. Taken together, the texts destabilize the conventional dichotomous historical, geographical, and cultural framing that Eurocentrically posited Arab-versus-Jew and East-versus-West. The present book is also related to Race in Translation (also co-authored with Stam), which tries to look beyond a particular ideology to the ways in which discourses around race have travelled from one place to another, thus shaping understanding of how the US multicultural debates, for example, have been translated in France through its anxiety around its Arab minorities, while the debates over Palestine/Israel have impacted the move to the right of some Jewish leftist intellectuals. In the case of Palestine/Israel, Zionist discourse emulated the tenets of colonialism, imaging Palestine in ways analogous to indigenous America, while positioning Middle Eastern Jews as Blacks. Palestinian critique, meanwhile, has dialogued with other anti-colonial struggles, and Mizrahis have borrowed from the US Black Panthers. Hence, my argument about the triangular analogy which I began to address in Israeli Cinema and further explored in the early 1990s in: "Staging the Quincentenary: The Middle East and the Americas," “Columbus, Palestine, and Arab-Jews” (included in Taboo Memories) and "Rethinking Jews and Muslims" (included here). The cross-regional circulation of both hegemonic and resistant discourses suggest that we must go beyond the borders set by partition, and rather develop a cross-border analysis to examine the multi-directional flow of ideas.
J: What other projects are you working on now?
ES: I am exploring “the question of the Arab-Jew” from other related but distinct angles. Two recent essays, “The Invention of Judeo-Arabic: Nation, Partition, and the Linguistic Imaginary” and “The Question of Judeo-Arabic” address the issue of linguistic belonging as invented within colonial and national itineraries. More specifically, this larger project explores the notion of “Judeo-Arabic language” and its axiomatic definition as a cohesive unit separate from Arabic. Does the concept of “Judeo-Arabic” proposed by contemporary linguists correspond to the indigenous naming within the community and within the language itself, or rather to a paradigm influenced by post-Enlightenment Judaic studies and Jewish nationalism? In contrast to the idea of “the Arab-Jew,” the emergence of the category “Judeo-Arabic language” tends to evoke a partition logic of the presumed non-Arabic-ness of the language as used by Jews. Examining memoirs by Arab-Jews, meanwhile, I continue to position “the Arab-Jew” within a relational mapping of complexly plural Arab/Muslim space, one which transcends the Eurocentric narratives of both “Jewish History” and the “Arab-versus-Jew” divide. Evoking the hyphenated Arab-Jew (or for that matter, Jewish-Arab) has offered, it seems to me, a way to: (1) complicate the neat Orientalist division between the Hebrew/Jew and the Arab/Muslim whether before or after the bifurcation into negative and positive poles; (2) rearticulate the nuanced spectrum between “the Arab” and “the Jew,” especially given the historically vibrant presence of indigenous Jews of the Middle East; and (3) reframe the perennial enmity narrative so as to stress a thoroughly syncretic Judeo-Muslim culture. The Arab-Jew, both as an empirical category and as a critical trope, has embodied not merely a mutually constitutive cultural past but also an imaginative future potentiality. This overall argument forms part of my current work in progress entitled The Question of the Arab-Jew.
Excerpt from the Introduction:
When addressed together in the public sphere, the dislocations of Palestinians and Arab Jews are usually deployed against each other, in the combat over the monopoly on historical suffering. Addressing both—the cross-border movements of Palestinians, on the one hand, and of Arab Jews on the other—involves more than a simple exercise of comparison. Both the linking and the de-linking of the Nakba (catastrophe) and the tasqit (referring to the revocation of the citizenship of Iraqi Jews) have been marshalled for radically divergent purposes. The diverse and significantly distinct grids that guide the historical reading of these dislocations have serious legal, political, and cultural implications. The more common way of linking the two questions has taken the form of the “population exchange” rhetoric, which has attempted to assuage Israeli responsibility for “the Palestinian Exodus” by pairing it with the presumably equivalent case of “the Exodus of Jews from Arab countries.” In its updated version, in a kind of “narrative envy” usually projected onto Palestinians, each argument used to criticize Palestinian dislocation is echoed with a similar argument and phrasing with regards to Arab Jews. The tragedy of “the Palestinian refugees” is answered with the tragedy of “the forgotten refugees from Arab countries;” “the expulsion of Palestinians” is cancelled out by “the expulsion of Jews from Arab countries;” “the transfer” and “ethnic cleansing” of Palestinians is correlated with “the transfer” and “ethnic cleansing” of Jews from Arab countries; and even “the Palestinian Nakba” is retroactively matched with a “Nakba of Jews from Arab countries.”
Some versions of the “population exchange” rhetoric embed the assumption of Muslims as perennial persecutors of Jews, absorbing the history of Jews in Arab/Muslim countries into a “pogromized” Jewish History. In its most tendentious forms, this rhetoric incorporates the Arab-Jewish experience into the Shoah, now projected onto a Muslim space that did not produce, or even propose, a Final Solution. We see an example of this tendentiousness in the campaign to include the 1941 farhud attacks on Jews in Iraq in the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum. One can denounce the violence of the farhud without instrumentalizing it to forge a discourse of eternal Muslim anti-Semitism. One could provide, as some historians have indeed done, more intricate political contexts that engendered the vulnerable position of Arab Jews within Arab spaces. More critical forms of discourse and scholarship have delineated the complex positioning of ethnic and religious minority-communities throughout the region, taking on board such issues as: the colonial divide-and-conquer tactics and strategies that actively endangered various “minorities” including Arab Jews; the implementation of Zionism as an exclusivist project toward the Arabs of/in Palestine; the hostile rhetoric of some forms of Arab nationalism that deemed all Jews Zionists; the massive arrival of desperate Palestinian refugees in Arab countries; and the various “on the ground” activities, some violently provocative, to dislodge Iraqi, Egyptian, Egyptian, or Moroccan Jews from their homelands. Without engaging the consequences of nationalism for Arab Jews, the recent campaign for “justice for the forgotten Jewish refugees from Arab countries” silences the violent dispossession of Palestinians summed up in the word Nakba, as if one event annulled the ethical-political implications of the other.
The cross-border movements of the Palestinians and those of the Arab Jews are different in nature, manifested in the very question of naming. Departing in various waves, largely from the late 1940s to the 1960s, Arab Jews left their respective countries at different times (from Yemen, largely in 1949, from Iraq, 1950–51, from Egypt, 1956, etc.), each of which reflected divergent circumstances. Some Jews departed early on, while others remained for decades afterward. Given the anomalies of the situation of a community trapped between two nationalisms—Arab and Jewish—it is not a coincidence that many of the terms used to designate the displacement seem simplistic and problematic. Nationalist paradigms hardly capture the complexity of this historical moment of rupture for Arab Jews. Many of the terms—‘aliya (ascendancy), yetzia (exit), immigration, emigration, exodus, exile, expulsion, transfer, population-exchange, and refugees—seem in one respect or another inadequate or incongruous. The very proliferation of terms (as elaborated in my “Rupture and Return” in Taboo Memories, Diasporic Voices) points to the ambiguities. In the case of the Palestinians, the forced mass exodus easily corresponds to the notion of “refugees,” since they never wished to evacuate Palestine and have maintained the desire to return, or at least a desire to have the “right” to return. In the case of Arab Jews, the question of will, desire, and agency—as invoked for example in the memoirs of Arab Jews—remains highly ambiguous and overdetermined.
The induced diasporization of the Palestinians was linked to the project of the diasporization/ingathering of Arab Jews, at times even performed in collaboration with opportunistic Arab regimes who also benefited in different ways from the departure of Jews. Culturally Arab and religiously Jewish, Arab Jews were caught up in the contradictory currents of British and French colonialism, Zionism, and Arab nationalism. Even Jews who participated in various Arab anti-colonial and nationalist movements, who saw themselves primarily as Iraqis, Egyptians, or Moroccans, had to confront a dramatically changed landscape with the unfolding events in Palestine. The reconceptualization of Jewishness as a national identity had profound implications for Arab Jews. The Orientalist splitting of the Semite was now compounded by a nationalist splitting. The meaning of the phrase “Arab-Jew” was transformed from being a taken-for-granted marker of religious (Jewish) and cultural (Arab) affiliation into a vexed question mark within competing nationalisms, each perceiving the “Arab-Jew” as “in excess.” In a different fashion, the two nationalisms came to view one side of the hyphen suspiciously. In the Arab world “the Jew” became out of bounds, while in the Jewish state, “the Arab;” hence, the “Arab-Jew,” or “the Jewish-Arab,” inevitably came to seem an ontological impossibility.
From the outset, the utopian altneuland vision rendered the Palestinians superfluous and irrelevant to the project of the Jewish “Return into History.” In fact, the Herzelian idea of dislodgment and resettlement was first applied to Eastern European Jews, the Ostjuden. As a modern cure for an enduring pathology (anti-Semitism), the movement away from Europe to another site (be it Uganda, or Palestine) was meant to remedy the Jewish predicament. An approach that links the dislocations engendered by the restoration-of-the-Jews project in the lives of all those impacted by it was deemed therefore necessary. To re-inscribe the Palestinian and the Arab-Jew as the subjects of their own histories mandates the replacing of a single national History with a constellation of inter-connected histories, in the plural. This approach requires articulating together the various exiles produced by the modern transplanting of populations in accord with newly drawn maps. Against this backdrop, claiming a false equivalence between the mass exoduses of Palestinians and Arab Jews reproduces the same nationalist Arab-versus-Jew splitting, which had been stirring regional turmoil from the very outset.