Jews, Jews, where art thou?

Back in September 2009, after listening to a speech by Hizbullah’s SG Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah, I wrote this post that was left unfinished. I thought of proposing it today.

On the 18th of September 2009, Hizbullah celebrated what Khomeini had instituted as “Jerusalem Day” (that takes place every year on the last Friday of the month of Ramadan). It was as usual an incredibly interesting speech that Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah gave, an accumulation of fine-tuned reading of political and social history, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict passed through a lens along with the gradual Arab disinterestedness in the question. Notwithstanding, the enlightening ethical advice that a cleric of this stature is bound to give, especially during a month of fasting.

After saying that Jerusalem day should be an occasion to be celebrated by Muslims and Christians as well, Nasrallah poses the question: “Well one could ask, aren’t there any holy sites for Jews?” And he quickly answers quite enigmatically: “What the son’s of Israel have done historically to their prophets, their selves, their tribes, their families and those who oppressed them did not leave anything for them there”. That’s it, territorially at least, Jews have no tradition they could claim as would the Muslims and Christian can. Why? Simply because they have been oppressed and have left. Today, they are a bunch of heterogeneous groups coming from various remote spots of the planet.

Of course, Hizbullah’s officials like to raise the tone with rhetoric of the sort just to anger the Israeli public. But this time it still sounds as if something is missing: There is something profoundly realistic about what Nasrallah is saying, yet also very sad. How did the Jews ‘messed it up’? But more importantly, and that is a question Nasrallah probably does not really ask: Can we Arabs, Muslims or whatever you want to call us, do something about it? My point is that the future of the conflict between Arabs and Israel may well depend on a particular understanding of Jewish traditions.

Indeed, weren’t there vibrant Jewish traditions in what has been called the Middle East? Why is there a total silence around that in the contemporary and politically-engaged intellectual elaborations? In the “Islamist” literature, speeches, media production, we don’t see the mention of Jews. They don’t exist. There are Zionists of course, but not Jews. Islamists call for an Islamic-Christian dialogue, and there is a lot published on the subject. Hizbullah’s media apparatus, books, speeches, all treat of the subject at length. Although this “dialogue of religions” smells liberal in its form, it is still a bit different, no need to go into this aspect of the question.

I find this glorification of Muslim and Christian co-existence so flowery and nice but totally void of content if one is not willing to push the argument further and include the Jews that originated from this region. These ‘co-existence’ dialogues should not be bound by national construction imperatives. Iran includes Jews in their discourse just because it has a significant number of them there. And then when does a significant number becomes eligible for political presence? It seems clear that the reason for mentioning this or that tradition is to create nations.

Now of course, the obvious answer to the omission of Jews from intellectual efforts is that it is the Jews themselves who chose this path, for most of them, by going to Israel. And let’s say that Arabic governments have not done much to stop this process. Indeed, where are the Jews of the East? Mostly in Israel and not really caring much about their “Arabic” background, or what could probably more accurately be called “Islamic” heritage. These Jews refuse to be called “Arabs”, they are “Israelis”. Most have even lost the Arabic language (at least those I had the joys to meet in other countries). There surely must be a sense of disarray amongst these Jews in Israel (see for example Eyal Sivan’s movie “Izkor”).

Isn’t it time to reclaim these Jews as belonging to this area at least at the symbolic level, preparing the ground for a long-lasting different vision of the region? Isn’t that a ‘strategic’ thing to do? Isn’t it time to include in the different efforts at writing history the presence of these Jews everywhere from Iran to Morocco and their once highly rich and complexly different traditions? Belittling Jewish history as taking place only in Europe, even though Zionism works on that, is I think highly immature, and as re-active as any petty European Nationalist discourse was when developing in the nineteenth century. It actually helps Zionism gain ground as a monolithic, nationalistic if not hollywoodean reading of Jewish past.

Now more than ever, when Israel’s existence as a Zionist expansive, chauvinist and violent entity can really be put into question and threatened by successful groups like Hizbullah, now more than ever, it is time to reclaim the Arab Jews and actually give back the European, American and other Jews their rich traditions. Hizbullah (and others) have done a lot in the direction of building a ‘dialogue’ with Christians: They actually re-invented a Christian – more socially conscious – tradition! Can we use this method in order to reclaim the Jews and probably outstrip the last bit of phony legitimacy Israel has? If the Jews of the world can re-embrace their diverse past affiliations, what will be left of Israel?

The main danger in the modern world is not how religion gets mixed up with politics. In any case, religion is profoundly political. Liberal privatized notion of religion (which is a religion/tradition itself) impose this understanding that there is a separation between politics and religion. The real danger, the catastrophic impasse is the use of a poor understanding of religions, traditions, reading of the past, in order to edify these rigid, intolerant, ethically empty, and territorially bound Nations-States.

5 Replies to “Jews, Jews, where art thou?”

  1. Hi Bech,

    You have been inactive on the blog. Me too on mine. Too many other things to write.

    Very perceptive post. I wish loud voices amongst the Arabs would start broadcasting this kind of inclusive dialogue about the place of Jews in their societies (or rather to be more precise – their former place). Such dialogue of this sort that does appear is indeed inclusive, but it is usually drowned out by shrill rival narratives about the monstrosity of the “Jews” (when what is meant by “Jews” is Zionism – the conflating of the two has a venerable and convoluted history that I don’t want to go into here). It may be happening a bit. You probably noticed that dreadfully ponderous Nour El Sherif vehicle last Ramadan which tried to address the difference between the Jews of Zionism and the Arab’s Jews. And of course Ana Qalbi Dalili. I hope for more of this type of recognition that the Jews as culturally and ethnically diverse peoples do not comprise the cosmic evil that they are often depicted to be.

  2. Hello David,

    Careful my point is not at all to differentiate between Jews and Zionism because that’s already been done, no need for that. This anyway would throw us back into a liberal discourse of respect of difference, that actually ends up legitimizing the presence of the “good jew” in Israel.

    No my goal is to delegitimize the presence of Israel as much as possible. So one should help the jews be open to their different pasts so that they let go of the very idea of Israel.

    ‘recognition’ is really not my concern here, but the defeat of an enemy, by outstripping him from any ‘substance’ or ‘historical presence’.

    1. The idea that Arabs would ever take back Jews is laughable. They made it quite clear that Mizrahi Jews were culpable for the temerity of the Zionists when so many of them were given every incentive to leave Arab lands in the 40s, 50s, and 60s. Further, providing citizenship (outside of Jordan), access to professions, and any material wealth to their professed brothers, the Palestinian refugees, has proved an unbearable burden; so why would they take back a people they’ve already so gladly and fully kicked out?

  3. Agreed on all counts, except that I would maintain that within the wider Arabic discourse about Jews and Zionism, the distinction is still blurred. My concern in that respect is that when people say or write “Jews” when they mean “Zionism”, they expose the entire discourse to facile dismissal as antisemitism. That is happens without forethought in Western discourse about Arab attitudes toward Jews, thanks to the tendentious efforts of outfits like MEMRI.

    To my thinking, branding Arabs as antisemites is done precisely in order to provide continued justification for the state of Israel. It is actually said in public fora that Arab antisemitism is worse than WWII-era German antisemitism. You see how it works: The Zionist ideal was finally realized after WWII because the world finally acquiesced in Herzl’s contention that the Jews would never be safe until they had a state of their own; the Arabs are worse than the Germans were, ergo the state is all the more justified.

    Of course this is utter nonsense. But it is a very powerful trope in discourse about the Arab world. This is why I wish for a powerful Arab counter-narrative, which would indeed serve to undercut specious justifications for the necessity and legitimacy of the founding of the state.

    I don’t usually engage the notion of “good Jews” within Israel. As far as I can see, those labeled such are essentially “good Zionists” (in my view an unsustainable contradiction). This, is, of course, a vexed problem, because there now exist at least two generation of Israelis born within Israel who “good” or “bad” possess no other nationality than the Israeli.

    That in no sense legitimizes the principles upon which the state was founded, but it does present thorny problems to the notion of defeating the state as it now exists, especially rhetorically.

    I dream of the day when demographic weight overwhelms all sophistries and the state votes itself out of existence! Mark my words, that will happen.

    That is when alternative discourses such as you are proposing will gain some efficacy.

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