Jewish Communities in Exotic Places is an admixture of cultural anthropology and reporting which offers an overview of 17 Jewish groups that have been referred to in Hebrew as edot ha-mizrach, Eastern or Oriental Jewish communities. Another translation of the phrase is "the tribes of the east" and is the reason why a new
generation of Israelis from these communities made a political statement when they began to call themselves mizrahim in the late 1960s and '70s. That is, Jews of Europe and the Americas in Israel, the Ashkenazim, erred in calling these Jews "tribes" while referring to Ashkenazim as "the Jewish people." [editor's note]
Exotic Jews of the Middle East
a critical review by the numbers of
Jewish Communities in Exotic Places, Ken Blady (Aronson 2000)
By David Shasha
Ken Blady is connected to the Orientalist anti-Sephardim which includes Norman Stillman, Bernard Lewis and others. A number of points:
1. He does not speak Arabic and has done no research in the field in terms of speaking with the people he writes about.
2. His work is an arm of the Israeli government that seeks to analyze the political status of the Diaspora communities. To this end, each of his chapters begins with a statement on Muslim anti-Semitism and the dhimmi status of Jews in these places.
3. There is no discussion of the community's history as it relates to culture and creativity. It would be like writing an assessment of the Polish Jewish community on the basis of Auschwitz and the Nazis alone.
4. The Muslims are only presented through the prism of the dhimmi question, an extremely inflexible perspective. There is no larger perspective providing a context in which to situate Jewish life in these places.
5. Each community is treated in isolation, outside the organic context of the world in which the people live. We are told for instance that the Yemenites were deeply influenced by Maimonides, yet there is no larger connection made to the socio-cultural universe of Maimonides. There is simply a static relation (based on, naturally, the obvious link with "The Epistle to Yemen" showing that Blady has not really done any real thinking about this complex community) that is established without the larger pattern that Ammiel Alcalay and others have uncovered in their work.
6. Blady, as his progenitors have done, accepts a very insulting conception of literacy and culture. Because these Jews do not go to Oxford and Cambridge, we are to construe that they are not educated. He consistently quotes from S.D. Goitein (interestingly, from the Queen of Sheba book - which Goitein disavowed - rather than from AMediterranean Society) to back up this sense of the primitive.
7. This means that Blady's overall epistemological conception of the Muslim East is retrograde and racist. He truly does see these places as exotic (as opposed to his insistence that the title was imposed on him) in the sense that the image of the Jews set out in the book is primitive.
8. The bottom line in this is that Ken Blady has written a book from a Eurocentric perspective that finds in the exotic Jews what it already knew to begin with: The Eastern Jews lived miserable lives and have been rehabilitated in Israel. While he acknowledges the difficulties Mizrahim have faced in Israel, at least the Zionists got them out of the caves(!). The Yemenites, who preserved a pristine Judaism and showed a fierce dedication to their traditions, are presented as waifs who were tortured for centuries and are a bit dumb.
9. Interestingly, Blady only treats the most primitive elements, intentionally. In Morocco, he does not deal with urban Jews but only the Jews of the Atlas. Contrast Blady's book with Laskier's on the Jews of North Africa and you will note the difference in approach. Laskier provides a more balanced perspective on things. I will grant that Blady is trying to get to the more obscure corners of the Muslim world, but he should then be that much more sensitive to provide a more nuanced and wide-ranging theoretical perspective and not the crud that Sephardim have gotten used to (and as is found in the Forgotten Millions - the Malka Hille Shulewitz book - by far the worst thing ever written on our people - and the most degrading).
10. It is bizarre that Blady cites Ammiel Alcalay in his bibliography, for his own book is a direct attack on everything Alcalay has said in After Jews and Arabs, Remaking Levantine Culture. Alcalay provides a more organicist framework for the interpretation of Jewish life in the East, a framework that takes into account the wider context of life in general, a life in which Jews by and large were able to remain who they were and were able, unlike the European model, to survive.
11. Blady's categories are more applicable to Ashkenazi Jews yet he remains utterly silent in this regard. There is no attempt to create a comparative perspective. His work thus fails to assess the Muslim context historically, as it fails to assess the European dimension in a comparative sense.
12. This, however, is the point of the book: Blady is saying that the Ashkenazim are superior because they have the tools, sociologically and otherwise, to go to these backwaters and "examine" the "natives." There is no sense that these communities lived productively for many centuries and could have continued to do so without Blady and his Zionists.
13. Final point: Blady continues to use the definition of Sephardim as those from the Iberian peninsula and not those from other Arab Muslim lands. Rabbi Jose Faur has addressed this in an article, but the Sephardi/Mizrahi separation (which serves to divide us for the purposes of the conquerors) continues and has been utilized even by contemporary Sephardic scholars working in Jewish studies and history departments in American universities. Blady makes good use of it by saying that the Sephardim are in another class while the Mizrahim are dumb and primitive. This however cannot account for the dynamic interplay between Jewish sages and lay leaders presented by Goitein and known through the facts of the modern Yemenite community, whose spiritual giant, Joseph Qafih, was a great jurist upon his arrival in Israel. The Sephardim are those Jews who lived in the lands of Islam.
To conclude, this is a deeply offensive work that is written from a hating perspective (and Blady will continue to cite his mentors and friends and their pedigrees) and lacks even the rudiments of objective scholarship.
As Sephardim we have allowed others to write about us to further agendas that do not profit us. We continue to remain largely unable to speak for ourselves, in our own voices, while the Ken Bladys of the world are telling us they have coopted our culture and history, and use the genteel language of objective, positivist scholarship to do so.
We must know our own history to be able to respond. Ivri-NASAWI
is an educator and writer based in Brooklyn.
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