• We Are Fragments of Rhymes: The Poetry of Erez Biton between East and West

    The poetry of Erez Biton, as it found expression in his first book Minha Marokait (1967), was a landmark in Hebrew literature. The starting point for the author—the founding father of Mizrahi poetry in Israel—is his immigration to Israel from North Africa. The article follows the literary structure of the trauma of immigration in Biton’s poetry. Biton contests the attempts at entrapment and domestication that are part of the trauma of immigration and develops a critical stance toward the Ashkenazi hegemony. In this way he develops a poetic voice that opposes the Israeli sovereign, who relates to Biton as an Arab-Jew excluded from the sovereign’s narrative. For Biton’s testimony about his trauma to be accepted, he needed to crack the walls erected by the ruling universal subject of Israeli sovereignty to maintain stability of identity in the face of Biton’s trauma as a Mizrahi immigrant. These walls, which removed the “Arabness” of the Mizrahi immigrant, did not assign a place for him and thus did not allow the testimony about his trauma to be heard. The method Biton proposes to the Mizrahi for simultaneously retaining and not retaining the hyphen in “Arab-Jewish” is to carry on a pretense and use defiant language. Biton is of the opinion that the failure of the Mizrahi to penetrate the walls of Israeli sovereignty’s poetry is predictable and brought on by the attempt to form a cohesive identity. However, he suggests turning this failure into an advantage by using pretense.
    This slide toward the “other,” this redundancy at the core of the process of mimicking the Ashkenazi, creates a critical effect. Biton is in fact suggesting that his readers—you, the Mizrahi—be like the Ashkenazi, but not completely like him; in this way you will undermine the Ashkenazi’s subjective self as well as his authority. This rejection provides the time required to cope with the trauma of immigration. The ambivalence of the mimicry that Homi Bhabha writes of not only disrupts the discourse but also transforms it into complete uncertainty, fixing the colonial, sovereign, and oppressing subject as only a partial presence. In other words, it undermines the sovereign subject, and does not give it authority.
    Erez Biton recreates the Mizrahi stereotype, thus challenging the coherence of the stereotype and the coherence of the identity of the oppressor who uses this stereotype—the same stereotype Biton uses to undermine the oppressor. Biton, who suggests mimicking the Ashkenazi, is in effect also mimicking the Mizrahi and in doing so reveals the mimicking nature of his poetry—a structure with which he expresses the absence of a stable source for and the contingency of all ethnic identities in Israel.
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    Abandoning Language: The Project of Arab-Jewish Subjectivity in Sami Michael’s Arabic Fiction of the 1950s

    Sami Michael is a well-known, Iraqi-born Israeli writer whose best-selling works have been widely discussed in both public and academic discourse. However, long before writing in Hebrew, Michael published several short stories and articles in his native Arabic during the 1950s. This article examines a selection of Michael’s Arabic stories and frames them as the genesis of his representations of Arab-Jewish subjectivity, while also emphasizing the importance of the fact that a well-known Israeli writer began his literary career in Arabic. I argue that to sketch out a fuller picture of Michael’s literary voice, we must take into account the ways in which his early Arabic writings were precursors of his later Hebrew novels and how the process of abandoning his native language was formative even before his switch to Hebrew. The short stories discussed here all confront the ambivalences and, importantly, the possibilities that characterize Michael’s imagined Arab-Jewish subjectivity, suggesting it to be a literary sensibility fraught with a paradoxical sense of simultaneous potential and dissolution.

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  • The Orient in the Literature of the Haskalah: A Levantine Reading in Euchel, Löwisohn and Mapu

    This paper explores Haskalah (Jewish Enlightenment) literature representations of the Orient. Focusing on key Haskalah figures—Isaac Euchel, Solomon Löwisohn, and Abraham Mapu—the article asks how the discursive presence of the Orient influenced Haskalah literature’s definition of modernity and secularity, and provides a comprehensive analysis of the various literary tropes and figures (such as the beautiful, the sublime, oriental despotism, paganism) used by maskilic authors for either coping with or repressing the Orient in their work. The article argues that modern Hebrew literature’s embrace of humanistic western culture is highly ambivalent, and that the regnant historiography of Hebrew literature did not address this ambivalence properly. The  history of modern Hebrew letters is viewed less as a modern framework for overcoming or containing the rivals of modernity and enlightenment (among others, the Orient) and more as an uneven field, fraught with contradictory expressions of religious, exilic, and oriental resistance to the secularist and Eurocentric stance, that still dominate the study of Hebrew literary history.  

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    We can’t understand ourselves without the Arabic: Dreams in Cambridge (2009)

    In this paper I discuss the question of Jewish-Arab identity, its intergenerational differences, its different definitions in Hebrew and Arabic, and the differences in its usage in modern times and earlier periods. In Jewish-Arab identity, as in every identity, there is a mixture of self-identification and outer-identification. Whatever one’s reason for identifying as an Arab-Jew—whether related to the historical and cultural background or because one’s family identified this way prior to Zionism and immigration or in defiance of today’s national identities in Israel and the Arab world—it does not “have” to create as strong an objection as it does. However, the objection is understood when it is an outer-identification that flattens differences between historical periods, regions, or differences between the Jews of the Muslim world. In the late nineteenth century, Jewish-Arab identity was an identification with the Nahḍa movement, with the awakening of Arabic literature and language, and it sought to reweave Jewish-Arab identity, written culture, and memory into the Arab revival, or at least into the Arab literary imagination. Later, in the first half of the twentieth century, Jewish-Arab identity was an identification with local Arab nationalism in the different Arab lands, seen as a potential for a large-scale project, started by the intellectual elite, that would make Jews an integral and equal part of their societies. In the second half of the twentieth century, after 1948 and after immigration, mostly to Israel, Jewish-Arab identity was an identity that expressed criticism of both national projects, Jewish and Arab, their marginalization and nonacceptance of the Arab-Jews, and their exclusive and oppressive nature.

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