Arabic Language among Jews in Israel and the New Mizrahi Zionism: Between Active Knowledge and Performance
According to Command of Arabic among Israeli Jews, a report by Shenhav et al. (2015), the vast majority of the Jews in Israel neither speak nor understand the Arabic language. Proficiency in Arabic has declined dramatically with succeeding generations. While slightly more than half of the participants in the study believe that knowledge of Arabic is important, the majority of the participants also stated that its importance is security related. This bleak picture of Arabic as a vanishing language among Israeli Jews is related to the protracted ethnonational conflict, which has divided “Jews” from “Arabs.” This is in contrast to the recently expanding number of Jewish Israeli musicians, mostly of the third generation (the grandchildren) of migrants from Arab countries, who sing in Arabic and receive wide local and international exposure. In this article I examine the discrepancy between the low rates of proficiency and interest in the Arabic language and the growing number of singers and audiences in Israel who appreciate music sung in Arabic. I first summarize the findings of the report. I then examine Jewish Israeli musicians who perform in Arabic, focusing on Neta Elkayam and Ziv Yehezkel, to consider the possibilities of a cultural dialogue between Israeli musicians and local Palestinian, as well as regional, Arab audiences. I discuss the political significance of these performances, both in the context of Mizrahi identity among the third generation and in relation to local and regional Arab audiences. In the last section, I tie these musical performances to the policy of the right-wing government in Israel and the rise of a new Mizrahi Zionist discourse in relation to the Arabic language and culture. Finally, I point to the possible negative consequences of this cultural shift for Palestinians.
Breaking Boundaries, Bricking Walls: Oriental, Sephardi, and European Jews in a Late Ottoman Palestinian Classroom
This article explores the relations between European Zionists, Sephardim, and Oriental Jews in late Ottoman Palestine by narrating the story of A. Yehudai, a Bulgarian Jewish teacher in the Sephardi community of Gaza in 1913. Reading through Yehudai’s ambitions, deliberations, and frustrations, the article makes two main arguments: First, it challenges the inclusivity often attributed in scholarly literature to the category of “Sephardi,” suggesting that as a practical category used by historical figures, especially in the context of national discourses, it was regarded as much more bounded and rigid. Second, the article points to the period before European Zionist domination over Middle Eastern Jews. Through the case of late Ottoman Gaza, the article shows that Jewish communities in Palestine were essential for institutional Zionist bodies, were aware of their situation, and even used this power structure for their own gain. Taken together, both arguments testify to the fact that communal demarcations are essential for human society in the sense that the crossing of boundaries always entails the delineation of new ones.
Musicians between the Hegemonies
Musicians between the Hegemonies: A Response
Declarations of (In)Dependence: Tensions within Zionist Statecraft, 1896-1948
This article analyzes the relationship between dependence and independence in four foundational texts in the history of Zionist statecraft: Theodor Herzl’s The Jewish State of 1896, the Balfour Declaration of 1917, the Biltmore Program of 1942, and the Declaration of the Establishment of the State of Israel in 1948. These documents differ greatly in authorship, structure, and audience, but taken together, they illustrate the Zionist project’s convergence with and divergence from anticolonial projects and postcolonial states in the first half of the twentieth century. Both the political program that Herzl sketched out in The Jewish State and Chaim Weizmann’s lobbying during the First World War depended upon the good graces of Europe’s colonial powers. After the war, jubilation among Jews over the Balfour Declaration was accompanied by displays of gratitude, an emotion associated with conditions of dependence. Like anticolonialism in India, Zionism was cautious about demanding outright independence, although the Zionists’ dependence upon Britain was far greater given their status as a minority of Palestine’s population, facing a hostile Arab majority. When the Zionists did demand independence in the Biltmore Program, they also acknowledged their ongoing dependence upon Britain, which they called upon to fulfill its Mandatory responsibilities. In 1948 the Zionists did not separate from Britain so much as Britain separated from Palestine. The Palestine war of that year was a struggle between Israel and Arabs, not between Israel and Britain. Accordingly, the state’s founding declaration was an assertion of creation, not separation, and of sovereignty, not independence from another power. Nonetheless, the document reflected dependence on the international community that had approved Palestine’s partition in November 1947.
May Your Sons Settle the Land: David Ben-Gurion’s Attitude toward Tel Aviv as Reflected in the Press
With the establishment of the State of Israel and the reduction of power and political status that the Tel Aviv municipality had enjoyed under the British Mandate, an open confrontation erupted between the central government, led by the Mapai Party, and Tel Aviv’s municipal government, aligned with the General Zionists. This dogged struggle was thoroughly covered in the Hebrew press, which at the time consisted partly of partisan newspapers. This article examines and analyzes the attitude of David Ben-Gurion, Israel’s first prime minister, toward Tel Aviv in particular and toward the process of urbanization in the state in general. Through the prism of Tel Aviv, the article defines and analyzes Ben-Gurion’s ambivalent attitude toward the emergent Israeli urbanization. To understand Ben-Gurion’s attitude toward both urbanization and Tel Aviv, the article also examines the underlying approach of the leadership of the Yishuv, and later of the state, toward cities as opposed to rural areas, and it considers the settlement strategy during the Mandate and the early years of the state. Did Ben-Gurion indeed seek to disperse Tel Aviv’s residents throughout the country? Did he turn his back on the city he had lived in and in which he had declared the independence of the State of Israel? The article deals with these and other questions.
Exile, History and the Nationalization of Jewish Memory: Some reflections on the Zionist notion of History and Return
The essay tries to analyze the notions of “history” and “return” in Zionist discourse in order to clarify their political and cultural implications. I investigate the meaning and function of the phrase “return to history”, commonly used for the description of Zionism, in two different sets of terminologies: the theological terms that defined Jewish-Christian polemics and the terms “culture,” “civility,” and “ethnicity” as used in the discourse of modern nationalism and colonialism. Accordingly I argue that the consciousness embodied in the phrase “return to history” meant the acceptance of the very terms and principles that generated the exclusion of the Jews in Europe. Thheologically and in the terms of premodern Christian-Jewish polemics, the phrase expresses an acceptance of the Christian perception of history of the Jews and their exile. On another level, the use of the modern national model of history for the representation of the Jewish past reveals the obvious Orientalist dimension of the secularization of the concept of history, as referring exclusively to the Christian West. In Zionist discourse both the theological-redemptive and the Orientalist aspects were integrated in a way that illuminated them both. Finally, the return to history and the return to the land meant the obliteration of the history of the land and the existence of its inhabitants. It also determined the removal of the Jews from the multiple local histories in which they had existed in exile in order to include them in one common, separate narrative. As a conclusion, I suggest to re-consider the options embodied in the concept of exile for an alternative way of thinking Jewish-Israeli existence and collectivity.
Between Politics and Politics of Identity: The Case of the Arab Jews
The article introduces the term “political Arab Jew,” its nature and meaning. It will show that proponents of the Arab Jew seek to separate the ethnic from the national, the Jew from the Zionist, and realign ethnic identities: Arabs, who include Jews and Muslims, vs. Ashkenazim/Zionists. They do so by creating an “imagined community,” by rejecting an ascriptive identity based on an ethnic/national juxtaposition, and by suggesting their own kind of identity, a self-ascriptive identity that separates the ethnos from the nation. They have failed in their mission, as the majority of Jews of Middle Eastern and North African origin reject the Arab Jew definer as representing their own identity. Even the more militant Mizrahim, who are fighting to change Mizrahi-Ashkenazi relations, limit their activities to the cultural field; when their goal is to redefine the place of the Mizrahim in Israel, they do so from within, not outside of, Jewish/Zionist society.
A National Home in the Diaspora? Salonican Zionism and the Making of a Greco-Jewish City
Derided by Jewish assimilationists, Greek Christian nationalists, and subsequent historians as un-patriotic, Zionism in interwar Salonica in fact followed a broader pan-European trend and developed a symbiotic relationship with Greek nationalism. This article refines the emerging historiographical orthodoxy on European Zionism as a complementary nationality by approaching Salonican Zionism as a modern urban identity that renewed the local Jews’ ties to their hometown. The article focuses on the multifaceted relation Salonica’s Zionist youth associations developed with the public space of a rapidly Hellenizing city during the interwar years. Drawing on the local Christian and Jewish daily press, as well as numerous Ladino Zionist publications, it shows that Zionist associational practices and discourses produced a local identity that was at once Salonican and Greco-Jewish. The multifaceted sociability of the Maccabi Sports Club rendered Jewish youth visible in the public sphere and turned the young Maccabeans into the main symbol of Jewish presence in Salonica. Concurrently, the key role of the club in the local sports scene facilitated Jewish integration into a Hellenizing Salonica. Zionism was a primarily urban phenomenon, a diasporic but not deterritorialized national movement with multiple spatial references, as much to the land of “exile” as to the imagined homeland of Eretz Yisrael.
The Arab Jew Debates: Media, Culture, Politics, History
For the past twenty-five years, and particularly during the last decade, the idea of the Arab Jew has been debated in multiple forums in different parts of the world. The Arab Jew is represented in literature and film, discussed in blogs and social media, and featured in live performances. It has informed scholarship in literary and cultural studies, sociology, and history, in Israel, the Arab world, Europe, and North America. Yet the term “Arab Jew” remains controversial, especially in Israel, where it is widely viewed as a left-wing political concept. This article surveys the Arab Jew’s full range of expression to date, emphasizing the reciprocal movement of ideas across different geographies and between discursive spheres. It argues that the Arab Jew idea has developed as both a project of political intervention into the present-day separation of Arabness from Jewishness and a project of reconstruction focusing on the Jewish past in the MENA region. Examining recent episodes in the Israeli public sphere, the article investigates how contemporary discussions about Arab Jewish identity and culture utilize competing views of history. It concludes by reconsidering the relevance of the “Arab Jew” to the burgeoning historical scholarship on Jews in the MENA region during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.
Zionism, Binationalism, Anti-Semitism: Three Contemporary Jewish Readings of the Balfour Declaration
The letter from the British foreign secretary to Lord Rothschild dated November 2, 1917—the Balfour Declaration—had a mixed reception in Jewish circles in Britain and beyond. This article focuses on the attitudes expressed in three texts that were more or less contemporary with the Declaration, all of them written by prominent Jews who were either British or temporarily residing in Britain at the time. I examine, in turn: a “Zionist Manifesto,” which appeared in the name of the London bureau of the (World) Zionist Organization under the joint signatures of Chaim Weizmann, Nahum Sokolow, and Yechiel Tschlenow; “After the Balfour Declaration,” an essay by Ahad Ha’am; and an internal British Cabinet memorandum written by Edwin Montagu, secretary of state for India, who was the sole Jewish member of the Cabinet in Lloyd George’s government. The angle of approach in this article is textual rather than historical: I analyze the logic and rhetoric that structure each text, with an eye to two topics that lie at the heart of Arab-Jewish confrontation in Palestine: (a) Jewish identity vis-à-vis nationhood and statehood, and (b) the existence of an Arab population in Palestine. The result is a kind of snapshot of an extended moment in time: a juxtaposition of three radically different Jewish European readings of the Declaration within three years of its being issued.
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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