The Arab-Jew: Caught Between Warring Identities

Nearly five years ago I wrote an article for CounterPunch titled “Voices of the Mizrahim” that discussed “Forget Baghdad: Jews and Arabs – The Iraqi Connection”, a documentary that featured four Jewish members of the Communist Party in Iraq who became part of the “population exchange” associated with the creation of the state of Israel.

All four never stopped feeling like Iraqis after becoming Israeli citizens. In addition to the four, the film includes commentary on the phenomenon of the “Arab Jew” by NYU professor Ella Shohat who was born to Jewish parents in Baghdad and has written eloquently about the problems of divided identity for over thirty years. (The film can now be seen on Vimeo for only $5 and is well worth it:

A generous collection of her articles are now available from Pluto Press in On the Arab-Jew, Palestine and Other Displacements that is of enormous importance in understanding not only the tragedy of the post-1947 “population exchange” but the ethnic conflicts tearing apart the Middle East and North Africa today.

After marrying a Turkish woman in 2002 and visiting Istanbul and Izmir to meet her family and friends, the question of “population exchange” introduced me to the Turkish version of the issues raised by Shohat. My wife’s maiden name was Doyran, the name of a lake in Macedonia that was likely where the surname originated. Under the Ottoman Empire, for all its faults, the desire to create ethnically pure states did not exist. It was only a concept embraced by the Young Turks whose fanatical nationalism led to the genocide against the Armenians and the expulsion of the Greeks in the early 20s. I recall the time I spent on the  Izmir waterfront (once called Smyrna) gazing out at the Aegean when my wife’s relatives pointed out how the Greeks were driven into the sea in 1922. That night, two brothers that were part of our entourage who made a living as musicians played guitars and sang traditional Greek songs of the sort that were perhaps played by Turks in Macedonian cabarets before they were expelled. As part of the enlightened Turkish minority, the two brothers considered Kemalist national chauvinism a curse.

One of the main points made by Shohat is that the Arab Jew, more typically called Mizrahim or Sephardim, were caught between warring identities. When Israel was being populated by Jews from Iraq and other countries where they had lived for up to millennia, they were forced to adapt to the cultural and political norms of a state that considered the Arab and Muslim world barbaric. Shohat wrote in an article titled “Sephardim in Israel: Zionism from the Standpoint of its Jewish Victims”:

Ben-Gurion repeatedly expressed contempt for the culture of the Oriental Jews: “We are in duty bound to fight against the spirit of the Levant, which corrupts individuals and societies, and preserve the authentic Jewish values as they crystallized in the Diaspora.” Over the years, Israeli leaders constantly reinforced and legitimized these prejudices, which encompassed both Arabs and Oriental Jews. For Abba Eban, the “object should be to infuse [the Sephardim] with an Occidental spirit, rather than allow them to drag us into an
unnatural Orientalism.” Or again: “One of the great apprehensions which afflict us … is the danger that the predominance of immigrants of Oriental origin force Israel to equalize its cultural level with that of neighboring world.” Golda Meir projected the Sephardim, in typical colonialist fashion, as coming from another, less developed time, for her, the 16th century (and for others, a vaguely defined “Middle Ages”): “Shall we be able,” she asked, “to elevate these immigrants to a suitable level of civilization?” Ben-Gurion, who called the Moroccan Jews “savages” at a session of a Knesset Committee, and who compared Sephardim, pejoratively (and revealingly), to the Blacks brought to the U.S. as slaves, at times went so far as to question the spiritual capacity and even the Jewishness of the Sephardim. In an article entitled “The Glory of Israel,” published in the Government’s Annual, the Prime Minister lamented that “the divine presence has disappeared from the Oriental Jewish ethnic groups,” while praising European Jews for having “led our people in both quantitative and qualitative terms.”

With such racist contempt for the “savages”, it is not surprising that the actions of the Israeli state reflected the views of the master race. Up to 100,000 Arab Jewish children received radiation treatments to cure them of ringworm whether they needed it or not as part of the immigration process and 6,000 died as a result. Those that survived the treatment suffered brain tumors all out of proportion to their numbers. (A documentary titled “The Ringworm Children” can be seen here).

Among the Arab Jews who rated lowest in the eyes of the Eurocentric elite were the Yemenites whose roots in the Arab world sank deep. Unlike those who came to the Middle East to escape the Spanish Inquisition and other persecutions in the 15th and 16th century, the Yemenites were there all along and thus seen as much more primitive. This pervasive racism helps to explain why many of their children ended up being turned over to “better” Jews as Haaretz reported in a May 7, 2017 article titled “‘$5,000 a Head’ Yemenite Babies Who Disappeared in 1950s Israel Were Sold to U.S. Jews, New Film Claims”. This is more than just a claim. Even Benjamin Netanyahu admitted: “Today we are correcting an historic injustice of disregard or discrimination or concealing — we don’t know which — the fate of what have been dubbed as the ‘Yemenite children.’ As harsh as the reality is, we are not prepared to allow that to continue.”

Growing up in New York with her parents and grandparents (who continued to speak Arabic in the same way mine spoke Yiddish), Shohat was influenced by both the American and Israeli left. After putting up with such injustices, the Arab Jews, who tended to work in low-wage jobs, reacted in the same way as American Blacks. They formed a group called the Black Panthers that was modeled after the one led by Huey Newton. In the same article by Shohat cited above, she describes the shock waves created by the group:

Another large-scale rebellion broke out again in the 1970s, when the Israeli Black Panthers called for the destruction of the regime and for the legitimate rights of all the oppressed without regard for religion, origin, or nationality. This alarmed the establishment, and the movement’s leaders were arrested and placed under administrative detention. At that moment, the Black Panthers launched demonstrations that shook the entire country. In a demonstration that has since become famous (May 1971), tens of thousands, in response to police repression, went into the streets and threw Molotov cocktails against police and government targets. The same evening, 170 activists were arrested, 35 were hospitalized, and more than 70 policemen and officers were wounded. Taking their name from the American movement, the Black Panther revolt was led by the children of immigrants, some of them “delinquents” who had passed through rehabilitation centers or prisons. Gradually becoming aware of the political nature of their “inferiority,” they sabotaged the myth of the “melting pot” by showing that there are in Jewish Israel not one but two peoples.

In reading “On the Arab Jew”, I discovered that Shohat came to prominence as well as generating controversy through the publication of “Israeli Cinema: East/West and the Politics of Representation” in 1989. In a probing study of Israeli films that was based on her Ph.D. dissertation, she revealed how the stereotypical hero was a projection of Eurocentric fantasies. While I have never seen any of these films, her treatment of this theme reminds me of Paul Newman’s Aryan-looking character Ari Ben Canaan in the 1960 “Exodus”, a film that revealed Dalton Trumbo’s Achilles heel. For many on the left in the 1950s, the state of Israel was seen as a laboratory for “socialist” projects that could turn the desert green and other such myths. All it took was the enlightened Westernized Jews to colonize the land and turn it into something resembling Switzerland. Shohat’s hand grenade of a book antagonized the Zionist state and its servile intelligentsia since it went to the heart of their narcissism. She connects it politically to the works of Edward Said and Franz Fanon, two authors she commemorates in the collection.

Enmity toward Shohat reached such a fever pitch that when the editors of MERIP report requested photos from the Yeshiva University museum to illustrate an article she wrote on “Rethinking Jews and Muslims”, the museum complied but was later overruled by higher-ups that demanded to vet the article before the photos would be released.

She was even considered persona non grata by the liberal Village Voice. During the Gulf War of 1990-1991, Shohat wrote an article from her perspective upon the invitation of a senior editor. Titled “Reflections of an Arab Jew,” it was ready to go to print when editor’s boss decided that the piece was “not relevant” for a special section on the war, nor, for that matter, ever in the Village Voice. She did get paid by the Voice, however, with the stub indicating the type of payment as a “kill fee”, one normally received for writing assigned but unpublished articles. In this case, it was abbreviated to “kill” while the subject of the unpublished article was “Arab Jew.” Shohat thought that the words on the stub had “an unintentionally ironic, even ominous ring”: Kill Arab Jew.

Shohat’s writings have a breadth that is sadly lacking in the left academy today, where most Marxist or radical academics don’t stray far from their narrow scholastic concentration. Not only does Shohat tackle media subjects, which is her discipline, but a wide variety of “organic intellectual” matters of war and peace, feminism, and, most satisfying to me, the existential and political contradictions of being an Arab Jew that often draw from her fascinating family history and her personal experience as an immigrant:

When I was six years old, my shyness at school was understood to be a sign of “retardation” by my Ashkenazi teacher, who wanted to send me to a “special school.” Although I knew the material and the answers, I was afraid to speak. A nuanced awareness of “cultural difference” was not part of my teacher’s cultural repertoire or pedagogical understanding when she made her “diagnosis.” But my mother fought the verdict successfully, because by, that point she had become aware of what such a system of labeling and tracking meant. Later, I learned that it was a similar system that reproduced the “savage inequalities”: the mechanisms, ideas, and attitudes toward minorities, especially Native Americans, Blacks, and Latinos in the U.S.

Unfortunately, there has been a tendency today by both liberals such as Mark Lilla and Marxists like Walter Benn Michaels to demonize anything remotely connected to the multiculturalism that has been an important part of Shohat’s theoretical framework as well as something that was central to her lived experience as indicated above.

The takeaway from her profoundly important collection of articles is that there is a dialectical relationship between ethnic or gender identity and class. The Black Panthers in Israel were proof of that just as Black Lives Matter in the USA is now (a group belittled by Lilla). When you adopt a class-reductionist position, you are not only serving the affected community poorly but also selling Marxist theory short. For a more nuanced and dialectically rigorous approach, nothing beats “On the Arab-Jew, Palestine and Other Displacements”.

Louis Proyect blogged at and was the moderator of the Marxism mailing list. In his spare time, he reviewed films for CounterPunch.