When issues of racial and colonial discourse are discussed in the U.S., people of Middle Eastern

and North African origin are often excluded. This piece is written with the

intent of opening up the multicultural debate, going beyond the U.S.

census's simplistic categorization of Middle Eastern peoples as "whites."

It's also written with the intent of multiculturalizing American notions of

Jewishness. My personal narrative questions the Eurocentric opposition of

Arab and Jew, particularly the denial of Arab Jewish (Sephardic) voices

both in the Middle Eastern and American contexts.

I am an Arab Jew. Or, more specifically, an Iraqi Israeli woman living,

writing and teaching in the U.S. Most members of my family were born and

raised in Baghdad, and now live in Iraq, Israel, the U.S., England, and

Holland. When my grandmother first encountered Israeli society in the '50s,

she was convinced that the people who looked, spoke and ate so

differently--the European Jews--were actually European Christians. Jewishness

for her generation was inextricably associated with Middle Easterness. My

grandmother, who still lives in Israel and still communicates largely in

Arabic, had to be taught to speak of "us" as Jews and "them" as Arabs. For

Middle Easterners, the operating distinction had always been "Muslim,"

"Jew," and "Christian," not Arab versus Jew. The assumption was that

"Arabness" referred to a common shared culture and language, albeit with

religious differences.

Americans are often amazed to discover the existentially nauseating or

charmingly exotic possibilities of such a syncretic identity. I recall a

well-established colleague who despite my elaborate lessons on the history

of Arab Jews, still had trouble understanding that I was not a tragic

anomaly--for instance, the daughter of an Arab (Palestinian) and an Israeli

(European Jew). Living in North America makes it even more difficult to

communicate that we are Jews and yet entitled to our Middle Eastern

difference. And that we are Arabs and yet entitled to our religious

difference, like Arab Christians and Arab Muslims.

To be a European or American Jew has hardly been perceived as a

contradiction, but to be an Arab Jew has been seen as a kind of logical

paradox, even an ontological subversion.

It was precisely the policing of cultural borders in Israel that led some of

us to escape into the metropolises of syncretic identities. Yet, in an American

context, we face again a hegemony that allows us to narrate a single Jewish memory,

i.e., a European one. For those of us who don't hide our Middle Easterness

under one Jewish "we," it becomes tougher and tougher to exist in an

American context hostile to the very notion of Easterness.

As an Arab Jew, I am often obliged to explain the "mysteries" of this

oxymoronic entity. That we have spoken Arabic, not Yiddish; that for

millennia our cultural creativity, secular and religious, had been largely

articulated in Arabic (Maimonides being one of the few intellectuals to

"make it" into the consciousness of the West); and that even the most

religious of our communities in the Middle East and North Africa never

expressed themselves in Yiddish-accented Hebrew prayers, nor did they

practice liturgical-gestural norms and sartorial codes favoring the dark

colors of centuries-ago Poland. Middle Eastern women similarly never wore

wigs; their hair covers, if worn, consisted of different variations on

regional clothing (and in the wake of British and French imperialism, many

wore Western-style clothes). If you go to our synagogues, even in New

York, Montreal, Paris or London, you'll be amazed to hear the winding

quarter tones of our music which the uninitiated might imagine to be coming

from a mosque.

Now that the three cultural topographies that compose my ruptured and

dislocated history--Iraq, Israel and the U.S.--have been involved in a war,

it is crucial to say that we exist. Some of us refuse to dissolve so as to

facilitate "neat" national and ethnic divisions. My anxiety and pain during

the Scud attacks on Israel, where some of my family lives, did not cancel

out my fear and anguish for the victims of the bombardment of Iraq, where I

also have relatives.

War, however, is the friend of binarisms, leaving little place for complex

identities. The Gulf War, for example, intensified a pressure already

familiar to the Arab Jewish diaspora in the wake of the Israeli-Arab

conflict: a pressure to choose between being a Jew and being an Arab. For

our families, who have lived in Mesopotamia since at least the Babylonian

exile, who have been Arabized for millennia, and who were abruptly

dislodged to Israel 45 years ago, to be suddenly forced to assume a

homogenous European Jewish identity based on experiences in Russia, Poland

and Germany, was an exercise in self devastation. To be a European or

American Jew has hardly been perceived as a contradiction, but to be an

Arab Jew has been seen as a kind of logical paradox, even an ontological

subversion. This binarism has led many Oriental Jews (our name in Israel

referring to our common Asian and African countries of origin is Mizrahi or

Mizrachi) to a profound and visceral schizophrenia, since for the first

time in our history Arabness and Jewishness have been imposed as antonyms.

Intellectual discourse in the West highlights a Judeo-Christian tradition,

yet rarely acknowledges the Judeo-Muslim culture of the Middle East, of

North Africa, or of pre-Expulsion Spain (1492) and of the European parts of

the Ottoman Empire. The Jewish experience in the Muslim world has often

been portrayed an an unending nightmare of oppression and humiliation.

Although I in no way want to idealize that experience--there were occasional

tensions, discriminations, even violence--on the whole, we lived quite

comfortably within Muslim societies.

Our history simply cannot be discussed in European Jewish terminology. As

Iraqi Jews, while retaining a communal identity, we were generally

well integrated and indigenous to the country, forming an inseparable part

of its social and cultural life. Thoroughly Arabized, we used Arabic even

in hymns and religious ceremonies. The liberal and secular trends of the

20th century engendered an even stronger association of Iraqi Jews and Arab

culture, which brought Jews into an extremely active arena in public and

cultural life. Prominent Jewish writers, poets and scholars played a vital

role in Arab culture, distinguishing themselves in Arabic speaking theater,

in music, as singers, composers, and players of traditional instruments.

In Egypt, Morocco, Syria, Lebanon, Iraq and Tunisia, Jews became members of

legislatures, of municipal councils, of the judiciary, and even occupied

high economic positions. (The finance minister of Iraq in the '40s was

Ishak Sasson, and in Egypt, Jamas Sanua--higher positions, ironically, than

those our community had generally achieved within the Jewish state until

the 1990s.)

The same historical process that dispossessed Palestinians of their

property, lands and national-political rights, was linked to the

dispossession of Middle Eastern and North African Jews of their property,

lands, and rootedness in Muslim countries. As refugees, or mass immigrants

(depending on one's political perspective), we were forced to leave

everything behind and give up our Iraqi passports. The same process also

affected our uprootedness or ambiguous positioning within Israel itself,

where we have been systematically discriminated against by institutions

that deployed their energies and material to the consistent advantage of

European Jews and to the consistent disadvantage of Oriental Jews. Even

our physiognomies betray us, leading to internalized colonialism or

physical misperception. Sephardic Oriental women often dye their dark hair

blond, while the men have more than once been arrested or beaten when

mistaken for Palestinians. What for Ashkenazi immigrants from Russian and

Poland was a social aliya (literally "ascent") was for Oriental Sephardic

Jews a yerida ("descent").

Stripped of our history, we have been forced by our no-exit situation to

repress our collective nostalgia, at least within the public sphere. The

pervasive notion of "one people" reunited in their ancient homeland

actively disauthorizes any affectionate memory of life before Israel. We

have never been allowed to mourn a trauma that the images of Iraq's

destruction only intensified and crystallized for some of us. Our cultural

creativity in Arabic, Hebrew and Aramaic is hardly studied in Israeli

schools, and it is becoming difficult to convince our children that we

actually did exist there, and that some of us are still there in Iraq,

Morocco, Yemen and Iran.

Western media much prefer the spectacle of the triumphant progress of

Western technology to the survival of the peoples and cultures of the

Middle East. The case of Arab Jews is just one of many elisions. From the

outside, there is little sense of our community, and even less sense of the

diversity of our political perspectives. Oriental-Sephardic peace

movements, from the Black Panthers of the '70s to the new Keshet (a

"Rainbow" coalition of Mizrahi groups in Israel) not only call

for a just peace for Israelis and Palestinians, but also for the cultural,

political, and economic integration of Israel/Palestine into the Middle

East. And thus an end to the binarisms of war, an end to a simplistic

charting of Middle Eastern identities.


Ella Habiba Shohatis Professor of Cultural Studies and Women's

Studies at CUNY. A writer, orator and activist, she is the author of

Israeli Cinema: East/West and the Politics of Representation (Univ.

of Texas Press, 1989) and the co-author (with Robert Stam) of

Unthinking Eurocentrism: Multiculturalism and the Media (Routledge

1994). Shohat co-edited Dangerous Liaisons: Gender, Nation and

Postcolonial Reflections (University of Minnesota Press, 1997) and

is the editor of Talking Visions: Multicultural Feminism in a

Transnational Age, (MIT Press/The New Museum, 2000). She

writes often for such journals as Social Text and the Journal

for Palestine Studies.