Political Science and Chair of Gender Studies, Ben Gurion University, Israel
Orientalist practices were and still are articulated through processes of Othering produced in concrete daily encounters. Clearly, they conceal deepest fears between the interacting groups involved in the processes. Encounters of this type, immersed in fear of Arabness are demonstrated in the relationship between Ashkenazi Jews (Jews of western origin) and both Arab-Jews (Jews of Arab origin, usually termed Mizrahim) and
Israeli-Palestinians in the state of Israel.
How did the fear of Arabness articulated by the Israeli Zionist
establishment affect those Israelis who were both Jewish and Arabs? What methods the Zionist founding fathers employed while coping with this fear? How did the fear of Arabness affect the Israeli-Plestinian citizens? What did the Arab-Jews do when realized that they live amongst people who envision their Arabness as contradicting their Jewishness? What did the non-Jewish Arabs do with their being envisioned as threatening just because they were Arabs?
Unlike the Palestinian whose Arabness was regarded by Zionist nation builder as compatible with their enmity, the Jews of the Arab countries confused them. As the Zionist project saw itself as the Jews redeemer, the idea of redemption in the case of Arab-Jews was taken further to redeem the Arab-Jews of their Arabness whereas in the case of the Palestinians they employed blunt methods of oppression usually practiced against enemies, in order to keep them down.
In this talk I discuss the fear of Arabness of the Ashkenazim, the way in which it has affected Mizrahim as well as Israeli-Palestinians. I explore this topic from a post Zionist perspective and examine the difficulties to trace the roots of the fear of Arabness.
I argued than, that although Mizrahim and Ashkenazin are Jews, they differ profoundly from each other. Fear of Arabness is the sediment lying in their daily encounters amongst themselves and with the
Israeli-Palestinian. I conclude by explaining how this approach opens new context with new options for the understanding of the Israeli Palestinian conflict.
Zionism, post Zionism and fear of Arabness
Henriette Dahan Kalev1
Prepared for the Conference on
Fear Horror and Terror
Oxford 10-12 2007
In this talk I shall discuss the fear of Arabness of the Ashkenazim (Jews of European
and American origin) and its impact on the Mizrahim. I shall explore the Mizrahim's
reaction to the fear of Arabness and examine it in the light of the post Zionist critic of
I begin by relating to two incidents with two episodes.
When I was 10, there was a boy in my class whose name was Baruch (in Hebrew it
means blessed). He had dark skin, black eyes and curly hair. He lived in Beit Saffafa,
an Arab village in South Jerusalem. At school he spoke very little but when he did
one could hear his Arab accent. His family name was Salman – a name common both
to Arabs and Jews. This has always puzzled me: How come an Arab boy was given a
Jewish first name 'Baruch'.
It was only many years later when we met on the street that I dared asking him about
it. He told me that the teachers changed his name from Muhamed to Baruch explaining that it would make it easier for him in a class where he was the only Arab
pupil amongst 35 Jewish pupils. As our conversation went on both of us agreed that
while changing his name made it easier for Jewish children and the teachers to relate
to him it certainly did nothing to ease his social difficulties in the class.
1 Dr. Henriette Dahan Kalev is a political scientists and the Director of Gender Studies Program at the
Ben Gurion University.
A colleague of mine once told me this second episode. She is a woman of Ashkenazi
origin. As a child, she said, her parents have always warned her to never cross the
street but did not explain to her why. She grew up in a middle class Jewish
neighborhood in the Arab-Jewish mixed town of Lead [in Hebrew Lod] and left it
after she had completed her mandatory military service. Only when she became a
peace activist, a couple of decades later she recall, that her parents reason not to
allow her to cross the street was because Arabs lived on the other side of the street,
and like all the Jews in this street, they did not want their children to mingle with
These two incidents, minor to Jewish young girls and critical to Arabs who lived
amongst them demonstrate Orientalism1 at work. Clearly, these incidences conceal
deepest fears that Ashkenazi Jews have both of Arabness and of the Palestinians who
lived around them and amongst them. They show how easy it was to erase Arab
names, bodies, entire neighborhoods while simultaneously living in their midst.
But could they eliminate the fear of the Arabs who lived inside them, the fear of the
Arab-Jews? And what did the Arab-Jews do with this fear? In other words, how did
the fear of Arabness, fueled by the Israeli establishment, an
largely of Ashkenazis, affect those Israelis who were both Jewish and Arab? What did
the Arab-Jews do when they realized that they lived amongst people who envision
their Arabness as frightening and as contradicting their Jewishness? Unlike the Palestinian whose Arabness was regarded by Zionist nation builder as
compatible with their enmity, the Jews of the Arab countries confused them. As the
Zionist project saw itself as the redeemer of the Jews, the idea of redemption in the
case of Arab-Jews was taken further to redeem the Arab-Jews of their own Arabness2
For a couple of decades, that is untill the late 1960s, some success had been achieved
in separating Arabness from the Jews. Assimilated Mizrahim showed loyalty and
condemned the Arab enemy, internalizing the derogatory sense of Arabness. Moreover, they participated in national tasks that the decision makers had place on the
Israeli agenda – they contributed their share to the militaristic efforts, occupying the
territories, and governing the Palestinians people's lives. For a while this helped to
create an illusion amongst many Israelis - both Ashkenazim and Mizrahim - a belief
that Arabness was finally being tamed and that the source of the fear within them was
under control. But this went for only one decade.
Some post-Zionists in the late 1980s involved attemption to bring Arabness back in
and to problematize it within the Israeli discourse, has shacked up this belief and reawakened
the old fears.
The catalyst for this was publication of the breaking through paradigm of Edward
Said, Orientalism. The Iraqi-American Jewish scholar Ella Shohat was among the
first to apply Orientalism to the analysis of the Mizrahi-Ashkenazi social tension in
Israel. Shohat has treated the Israeli cinema and film industry as texts and narratives,
that display the deepest fears of Arabness that is embedded in the Zionist project
(Shohat 1989)3. Shoat claimed that Zionism was more or less a particular case study
of Orientalism, saturated in fears of Islam and Arabness. Her genuine contribution to
the criticism of Zionism, in The Israeli Cinema in1991, was later
continued in her
post-Iraq war article "Dislocated Identities"4 (1992). In both these works she put
forward an analysis with which she laid stress on the idea of erasure of the hyphen
that joined Arabness to Jewishness, and demonstrated it as an Orientalist project.
Moreover, what was threatening to the Ashkenazis and the Ashkenazified Mizrahim
in her works was that she has re-hyphenated it ruining Zionist tireless efforts to dehyphen
the connection between Arabness and Jewishness for decades (Ibid, 1992). Shohat's bringing the hyphen back in has re-inflamed the hibernated fears of the
Arabness of Israeli Jews, both Mizrahim and Ashkenazim. This brought to consciousness hurtful experiences of the past which began to occupy public intellectual discourse in Israel.
Nevertheless, Shohat's views were criticized from all sides: from
Zionist seculars to Mizrahi activists; right wing nationalists as well as left wingers,
and the Ultra-Orthodox Mizrahim of the third largest political party Shas. This multifacetedcriticism
of Shohat's view of the Mizrahim did touch a nerve of fear but did it in a monolithic and anachronistic in nature5. Her view spurred a debate which showed
that Mizrahim do play an active role in the intellectual public discourse in Israel and
that they are not not necessarily ashamed or contemptuous or afraid of their Arabness.
Indeed, I find it difficult to understand the absence of the discussion of what seems to
be the 'Mizrahim's' consent and not just subordination, or Mizrahi dispute with the
Zionist de-hyphenization in Shohat's work. The Mizrahim's position is very difficult
to be summed up. Shohat insists on the Arab-Jews victimization, as the title of one of
her article's announces: “Zionism from the Standpoint of its Jewish Victims”(1988).
Shohat reduces the Mizrahim's diverse reaction to one that is politically passive and
uniform. Mizrahim appear to be objects who accepted the Zionist imposition of the
'de-hyphenization'. This is a monolithic standpoint which does not coincide with
possible political heterogeneity and cultural diversity, which Shohat herself attributes
to them. Moreover, she treats all varieties of the Arab Jewishness just the same, and
what Zionism has done to the Jewish Arabness she also treats in a
Shohat hardly discusses Jewish religion and Jewish tradition in itself. She discusses
negation of the Diaspora only in the context of Zionism's goal to
eliminate the Arab-
Jews history from the school curricula. Shohat' attempt was to bring it back. She
argued that Jewishness when related to the Arab-Jews it was presented in civilian and
cultural terms, as Jewish Iraqi language, family life, customs and space (See for
example Shohat 1992). Jews distinguished them selves as a community only from the
Moslems but not from the Arabs. This was a religious distinction which divided the
Arabs into groups of Jews and Moslems (Ibid). Her conclusion is that in the Diaspora
the Arabs-Moslems and the Arab-Jews were not alienated from each other. This
indeed was the common description repeatedly mentioned by Israeli Jews who came
from the Arab world.
But while Shohat and other scholars such as Shlaim give us a peaceful description of
the community life in Iraq till the emergence of the Zionist movement, even
somewhat nostalgic, Alber Memmi, the author of the powerful work The Colonizer
and The Colonized6, discusses his Jewish-Arabness rather furiously insisting that fear
of Arabs was part of the Jews experience, back there in the Arab
countries. In an
article titled "Who is an Arab Jew?" published in Israel Academic
Community on the
Middle East in February 19757, he responded to Muammer Khadafi's (the Libyan
leader) call to the Jews to return to the Arab countries, rhetorically asking them "Are
you not Arabs like us - Arab Jews?"
Memmi agrees with Shohat that the similarities between Jews and Moslems are rooted
in their Arabness and that Arabness is a cultural similarity. But while Shohat sees
culture with a capital C and includes history, geography politics and space, Memmi's
culture is written with a small c. He claims that Jews Arabness was displayed in
habits, music and menu. But he also claims that "Jews were at the mercy not only of
the monarch but also of the man in the street." (ibid) Thus pointing to the constant
threat, on Arab-Jews, politics is being drowned as at least two histories. Memmi's different view of culture, I want to suggest, results from the time in
which he wrote his reply to Khadafi, the mid-70s. Shohat on the other hand, is
writing in the post- era, post modernist, post colonialist and post Zionist era. To
use Shohat's brilliant explanation of the post- in the article "Notes on the 'Post
Colonial' (1992)8, the focus in the idea of the post here is on new modes and forms
of colonial actions rather then on something that moves beyond. When applied to
the above point, this results both in continuities and in discontinuities. In other
words, experiencing a phase of othering within what is imagined as one's own
country, as the Mizrahim did, had a sobering effect of post naivetÚ. And therefore
we can conclude that Mizrahim from Arab countries have indeed suffered both
from being Jews in Arab countries and from being Arabs in Israel. Zionism looked
down upon then, racializing them for being partly Arabs, and in this sense they in
Israel were Jewish victims of Zionism and Jewish victims of Arabness. However,
they have learned how to survive both in the Arab countries and in the Zionist
country. That is to say that they suffered because of being classified along racial
What I center on here is how they have survived this racialization in Israel.
Although severely economically deprived, in three decades they have learned how
to play the Israeli political game and have became a significant if not the
significant actor on the political arena.
This talk is in a way a continuation of the paper "The Israeli Palestinian Conflict
and the Israeli Arab-Jews" which I delivered in a conference in Al-Kuds University in January 20059. Then I argued than, that the Mizrahim – the Jews
who came to Israel from Arab countries are a diverse social category, and their
political orientation, in general, and their position towards the Israeli Palestinian
conflict, in particular, ranges from the right to the left of the
political parties map.
Unlike their political image as right wingers, their political
complex and influenced by factors which are connected to the peace process directly and indirectly and in any case are influenced by economic factors and
bitter experience of deprivation.
Therefore it would be myopic to see them as Shohat does only as passive and victims
and not to consider their impact on the Israeli Palestinian conflict, though indirect
impact. Today they are scattered across the political map although their voice is
mainly heard from the right wing. Why it is so is a question that still needs to be
studied .From this point of view Shohat's proclamation of Arab-Jewish victimization
of Mizrahim remains an abstract idea that might attract intellectuals but is
contradicted by daily life practices. As their racialization experience was completely
different from that of the Palestinians from within and from out of the green line,
therefore I suggest seeing them exclusively neither as Arabs – victims of Zionism nor
as Israelis identical to the Ashkenazis. This turns the gaze to the Palestinians, and to
how they see them?
This complication was fairly well discerned by many Palestinians who have been
impatient with the abstruse arguments surrounding epistemological
post-Zionism. They have concentrated instead on more historically informed studies
of the political conditions and biases of particular knowledge claims, as works of
Bishara, for example, demonstrate (1993)10. Such works ultimately derive from Said
and they usually want to preserve some kind of distance from Mizrahim as well as
from the post-Zionist discourse. The Mizrahim post-Zionist, like Shohat however,
who want to bring Arabness back in to the Israeli Palestinian conflict, deny this
impatient to exist or to be contestable.
In conclusion the Arab-Jewish idea offers no model of conflict resolution beyond
disputes as to how to remove from Zionism the fear of Arabness or how to move to
political action. Given this contested position, relations between Palestinians and
leftists Mizrahim, have been wary. Mizrahim in the left wing organizations such as
Mizrahi Democratic Rainbow and Ahoti – Mizrahi Women Organization have paid
little explicit attention to the issues raised by Palestinians outside the academic
world11. Like Shohat, the Mizrahi intellectuals in Israel enjoy the game of pulling
Zionism from the hands of the mainstream establishment and delivering it to the
hands of critical, perhaps post-Zionist activist. But the problem is that this does not
accurately mirror the complex relations between the Mizrahim and
conflict. Thus the belief that Mizrahim who hold Arab-Jewish views and who are
often identified as left wingers do not enjoy the sympathy of the
Palestinians on the
common ground of being Arabs while other Mizrahim want the occupation in the
territories to continue the oppression of Palestinians. Such belief would be both
misleading and synthetic as there is no such a single Mizrahi view of the Israeli
Palestinian conflict. It is impossible to ignore Mizrahim right wingers who contest
from the extreme right and from religious and Orthodox the idea of Arab-Jews. Shas,
the Ultra-Orthodox Party representing religious people of Arab-Jewish origin, whom I
did not include in this analysis, proclaim being the true Zionists. They don't even call
themselves Arabs or Mizrahim but Sepharadim. Zionist Sepharadim. However, it
would be too easy and superficial to put all of them in the same pot as right wingers.
It is my contention that understanding the fear of Arabness as it is expressed in Israeli
society both among, Ashkenazim as well As among Mizrahim, can help throw some
light on the exploration of the fear of Islam and Arabness in general as it is expressed
in other places in other historical times such the writings of Bernard Lewis and
Samuel Huntington, and the making of political decisions such as the invasion to Iraq,
are not in vain rooted in the fear of Islam. The fear of Islam is not imaginative only, as
Said himself points out:
"Yet where Islam was concerned, European fear, if not always respected, was in
order. After Mohammed's death in 632, the military and later the cultural and
religious hegemony of Islam grew enormously". P.59 [my emphasis]
1 Said, Edward, 1978, Orientalism, Vintage, NY
2 Dahan-Kalev, Henriette, 2001. “You Are So Pretty, You Don’t Look Moroccan”,
Israeli Studies, Vol. 6:1-14.
3 Ella Shohat, 1989 Israeli Cinema: East/West and the Politics of
Univ. of Texas Press,
4 Ella Shohat, "Dislocated Identities: Reflections of an Arab-Jew," Movement
Research: Performance Journal # 5 (Fall-Winter, 1992) p. 8.
5. See the Left Bank internet site http://www.hagada.org.il/hagada/ article on
the Mizrahi woman trial charged for accusation of Mizrahi woman for collaboration with Palestinian terrorists, Taly Fahima 25.9.04. For religious
Mizrahim discourse on Jewish tradition and religion see for example Zvi Zohar, "Sephardic Rabbinic Response to Modernity: Some Central
Characteristics", in: S. Deshen and W.P. Zenner (eds.), Jews Among Muslims: Communities in the Pre-Colonial Middle East, London,
Macmillan and New York University Press, 1996, pp. 64-80. For left wing Mizrahi discourse see for example the Democratic Mizrahi Rainbow internet site www.hakeshet.org.il For social justice issues see internet site http://www.haokets.org/ For national-religious position see for example Avi
Picard's Book Review: Were the Sephardim Religious? In Shasha's internet site The Shepharadic Heritage September 2004:
6 Memmi Albert, 1967 The colonizer and the colonized Boston: Beacon Press 7 Albert Memmi, 1975, "Who is an Arab Jew?" Israel Academic Community on the
middle East, February 1975.
8 Shohat Ella, 1992 "Notes on the 'Post Colonial', in Social Texts 31/32 9 Henriette Dahan Kalev "The Israeli Palestinain Conflict and the Israeli Arab-Jews",
The Faculty For Israeli – Palestinian Peace, FFIPP, The 4th International Academic
Conference on An End to Occupation, A Just Peace in Israel-Palestine :Activating an
International Network January 3rd – 5th, 2005 Al Quds University East Jerusalem
10Bishara, Azmi, 1993, "On the Question of the Palestinian Minority in Israel"
Theory and Criticism, vol. 3 (1)
11 From a recent draft published in the www.keshet.org.il internet site one can
immediately identify the Zionist middle class spirit blowing in it. There is not even
one issue of the conflict, be it Jerusalem, the right of return or the refugees, that is