Who Gets to Tell a

excerpted from August/September Nasawi News

In this paradigm, Ashkenazi/Eastern European Jewish cultures became the norm, while Eastern or Mizrahi Jewish cultures became exoticized; while Arabic and Spanish were once dominant languages, spoken by the majority population of world Jewry, by the 18th century, Yiddish was the dominant language of the Jews. From the 19th century on, Jewish identity had almost completely morphed from its dominant Middle Eastern character to a new model of identity.

If you examine the manner in  which Levantine/Middle Eastern Jewish cultures are depicted in American Jewish institutions today, you often find the emphasis is on our colorful garb, our ìethnicî or religious eccentricities, our traditional cuisine, our ritualistic artifacts, our microtonal music and song.  We are more often represented by quaint old photographs or Judaica than our intellectual achievements in science, medicine, architecture, literature, philosophy and other humanities.

Part of the reason for our continuing exoticization, even though we have contributed amply to Western discourse, and play an absolutely seminal role in the intellectual and historical development of the entire Jewish people,3 can be attributed to the ìlachrymoseî theory of Jewish history, in which the Jews of Arab/Muslim lands are thought to have suffered continuous oppression and persecution.  According to this narrative, we remained in a state of backwardness and destitution.  This is why, when educated Baghdadi Jews got off the plane in Israel in the 1940s and ë50s, they were dusted with DDT for lice; the idea these might be prosperous, educated folks did not cross the minds of their new hosts.  Indeed, that Mizrahi communities excelled economically, intellectually, even politically in Arab/Muslim lands is virtually unknown in the Jewish narrative today.  Another explanation for why Iraqi or Persian or Syrian Jews may be viewed as different from and/or less than Eastern European Jews is that Arabs/Muslims were the designated enemies of the Jewish people; Middle Eastern Jews therefore bore the stigma of unsavory associations.  To gain access to the mainstream of Israeli society, for many years following 1948, Mizrahim were expected to discard all the outward characteristics of their previous identities, and many Hebraicized their beautiful Middle Eastern surnames to blend in.

As a result of the ascendancy of Euro-American cultures and the seeming irrelevance of Eastern cultures, Mizrahi Jews have become the ìotherî Jews, if you will, a minority within a minority.  Though Mizrahim number half Israelís population, they received scant mention in history text books until quite recently.  In the United States, our presence is virtually invisible, despite the fact that  Middle Eastern Jews have been settling here for decades.

In her insightful recent essay, ìThe Invention of the Mizrahim,î4 scholar Ella Shohat points to several telling ironies about the way Mizrahi Jews are represented, connecting her thesis to the central paradox of Israel itself: ì[I]t presumed to ëend a diasporaí characterized by ritualistic nostalgia for the East, only to found a state ideologically and geopolitically oriented almost exclusively toward the West.î  While Israel is slowly integrating itself into the Middle East, and much that is Arab or Middle Eastern is beginning to be embraced (fashionably so at times), Arab/Middle Eastern Jews still have to fight not only to be themselves, but to enjoy equal  educational and employment opportunities.  As Middle Eastern Jews continue to seek positive representation in Israeli culture, a new generation of Mizrahi writers, among them Sami Shalom Chetrit, Ronit Matalon and Dorit Rabinyan, are publishing work which counters Mizrahi invisibility.5

In the United States today, there is an increasing number of Mizrahi and Sephardi writers, scientists, artists and educators, yet Mizrahi and Sephardi cultures are more often represented by non-Mizrahi/Sephardi experts and institutions.  Self-representation was the raison díêtre for the founding of the New Association of Sephardi/Mizrahi Artists & Writers International, Ivri-NASAWI, in 1996.

Who gets to tell a Mizrahi story?  If the role of the Mizrahi Jew is to negotiate the space between Jews and Arabs/Muslimsóto bridge the gap between Western bias and Eastern culturesóI would argue that in mapping out the intellectual landscape of Jewish identity today, Mizrahim must tell their own stories.  We must play a responsible role in educating the mainstream, through vigorous advocacy and educational outreach, and through the creation of creative work reaching both popular and critical audiences.

Among the many producing art, books, films and other creative work today are Ammiel Alcalay, Ruth Behar, André Aciman, Ruth Knafo Setton, Gini Alhadeff, Kocki Doctori, Shaul Smira, Oded Hahlamy, Jacob El Hanani and Ella Shohat.

Jordan Elgrably writes frequently on culture and media. He is currently editing a book of his essays entitled Heart of Whiteness, along with a collection of interviews with diverse authors, including Milan Kundera, Nadine Gordimer, James Baldwin and Edward Said.

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Notes & Recommended Reading


1. For a more equitable accounting of minority contributions to American history, see A Peopleís History of the United States, by Howard Zinn (Harper & Row, 1980).

2. See Orientalism, by Edward Said (Pantheon, 1978). 

3. Recommended are A Mediterranean Society by S.D. Goitein (California, 1967/2000), and After Jews and Arabs, Remaking Levantine Culture (Minnesota, 1993), by Ammiel Alcalay.

4. ìThe Invention of the Mizrahim,î Ella  Shohat, Journal of Palestine Studies XXIX, no. 1 (Autumn 1999). See the JPS website at www.ucpress.edu/journals/jps/.

5. Books and periodical essays by Arab Americans often point out the reality of Arab invisibility in the U.S.  Likewise, a Mizrahi/Sephardi viewpoint in American Jewish media is rarely present. 


         New Assoc. of Sephardi/Mizrahi Artists & Writers Intl.
         1033 N. Orlando Ave., Los Angeles CA 90069
         in New York, 212.362.9074
         in SF Bay Area, 415.338.1706

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