The Arab Jews

A Postcolonial Reading of Nationalism, Religion, and Ethnicity

  • Author: Yehouda Shenhav
  • Translator: yaseen alsayd
  • Number of Pages: 372
  • ISBN: 978-9950-03-004-6
  • Date of update: Sunday, 03 July 2016
  • Price: $10.00
* Book Type:

Ramallah: The Palestinian Forum for Israeli Studies (MADAR) has recently published a translation of The Arab Jews: A Postcolonial Reading of Nationalism, Religion, and Ethnicity by Yehuda Shenhav. Totalling 372 pages, the book was translated from English into Arabic by Yaseen Al-Sayyed.

This book is a leading authoritative reference in the study of the essence and existence of the Jews. who are labelled by Zionism as “Mizrahim,” (Orientals). Shenhav consistently calls these Mizrahi Jews as the Arab Jews.

Shenhav’s use of the term Arab Jews articulates a key objection to a general contrariety between the Arabs and Jews, which has been, and continues to be, promoted by the Zionist discourse. Shenhav declares an approach that deconstructs and places this discourse in the colonial context of the Zionist movement. This approach reveals new archival exchanges, which unveil the Orientalist view embraced by Zionist elites towards the Arab Jews.

Not only does Shenhav tell a new story about the relationships between social groups or history of the construction of these relationships, but he also employs history to scrutinise what lies underneath Zionism itself.

Shenhav argues that “the study of the Arab Jews should begin in the early 1940s, when the Zionist movement turned to the Arab Jews as a reservoir for Jewish immigration, rather than with their arrival in Israel in the 1950s.

This can situate the study of the relationships between Mizrahi Jews and Ashkenazi Jews in the context of early colonial encounters between the Arab Jews and the European Zionist emissaries  prior to the establishment of the state and outside of Palestine  and to examine the manner in which these relationships were reproduced upon the arrival of the Arab Jews in Israel.”

According to Shenhav, the “Arab Jews, usually labeled Mizrahim, have been studied from a variety of perspectives and historical narratives. Research within the Jewish history tradition has long addressed them in their original “host” communities, examined their local cultures, religious histories, their relationships with other Jewish communities, and the changing patterns of their relationships with the Arab surroundings. Social history perspectives have focused on their demographic characteristics, such as marriage patterns and fertility, their everyday lives, and their changing class positions. Studies of Israeli society have concentrated on the absorption of the Mizrahim in Israel, their encounter with the state, their mobilization through politics, their forms of protest, their mobility (or immobility), and their place within the Israeli stratification and political systems.”

“While these different research traditions add up to considerable knowledge, it is at the same time balkanized and extremely biased by Zionist epistemology. Note, for example, that from the Zionist perspective, Jewish history, and for that matter the history of Israeli society, is hardly conversant with Middle Eastern history; that Jewish history and world history are separated into different departments, not to speak of Middle Eastern history; that the lives of the Arab Jews in the Arab countries are considered anomalous; and that their emigration to Israel is conceptualized as the inevitable solution to this anomaly.”

Shenhav presents interesting information about the partnership between Zionism and Britain. Not only did the British authorities facilitate the usurpation of Palestine, but it also provided infrastructure and logistical support for Zionists to contact the Jews of Iraq through Solel Boneh construction company in the Iranian city of Abadan, which served as the basis for infiltrating the Iraqi Jews.

Exchanges in Abadan and with the Arab Jews in Iraq reveal a symmetry between the British colonial language and the language of the Zionist emissaries in their view of the local population.

Based on correspondence and documents, Shenhav demonstrates that secular Zionists sought to consolidate the religious dimension between the Arab Jews in order to “purify” them from their Arabness, providing the ground for adverse consequent during the period the state was established. The attempts to construct an Israeli identity for the Arab Jews by oppressing their Arab identity has caused a stronger attachment to the latter. As a result, sectarian discrimination in Israel has sown the seeds of contradiction within Zionism, both in thought and in practice.

Shenhav provides “a new prism for understanding the intricate relationships between the Arab Jews and the Palestinian refugees of 1948, a link that is usually obscured or omitted by studies informed by Zionist historiography and epistemology.”

“Since the year 2000, we have witnessed an intensive campaign to secure political and legal recognition of Arab Jews as refugees.”

“This campaign has tried to create an analogy with Palestinian refugees, depicting both groups as victims of the 1948 war. In fact, the proponents of this campaign, mainly the state of Israel, assisted by Jewish
organizations, are hoping that it will prevent conferral of what is called a “right of return” on Palestinians and reduce the size of the compensation that Israel is likely to be asked to pay in exchange for Palestinian property appropriated by the Israeli Custodian General of Absentee Property.”

“The idea of drawing this analogy constitutes imprudent politics, moral injustice, and, not the least, a mistaken reading of history.”

“Any reasonable person, Zionist or non-Zionist, must acknowledge that the analogy drawn between Palestinians and Arab Jews is unfounded. Palestinian refugees did not want to leave Palestine. Many Palestinian communities were destroyed in 1948, and some 700,000 Palestinians were expelled, or fled, from the borders of historic Palestine. Those who left did not do so of their own volition. In contrast, Arab Jews arrived in Israel under the initiative of the state of Israel and Jewish organizations. Some came of their own free will; others against their will. Some had lived comfortably and securely in Arab lands; others had suffered from fear and oppression. The history of the Arab Jews and their immigration to Israel is complex and cannot be subsumed within a facile explanation. Many of the newcomers lost considerable property, and there can be no question that they should be allowed to submit individual property claims against Arab states. The unfounded, immoral analogy between Palestinian refugees and Arab Jews needlessly embroils members of the two groups in a dispute, disregards the dignity of many Arab Jews, and harms the prospects for genuine Jewish-Arab reconciliation.”

In relation to historical documents, Shenhav presents for the first time an in-depth research into the work and activity of the World Organisation of Jews from Arab Countries (WOJAC). This organisation played a key role in establishing the “founding myths of Israel”, particularly those which continue to interact in the context of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Shenhav is Professor of Sociology and Anthropology at the Tel Aviv University and a senior researcher at the Van Leer Jerusalem Institute. For many years, he was editor in chief of Israel-based academic journal “Theory and Criticism”, which mostly specialises in the critique of Zionism and Israel.

Finally, Shenhav does not only challenge the “process of purifying the Arab Jews from their Arabness”. This is theoretically evident in this book as well as in many other research papers and articles of the author. Shenhav also supports this theory in practice. He learned Arabic over a period of 10 years. Now, he dedicates most of his time translating Arab and Palestinian literary works into Hebrew. So far, he translated several books of Arab and Palestinian authors, including Elyas Khouri, Salman Natour, Mahmoud Shuqeir, Ali al-Muqri, Mahmoud al-Rimawi, Samirah Azzam and others. Hence, Shenhav embodies a leading example of what he sees as a moral responsibility, which the intellectual must shoulder in the course of their pursuit of many goals, first and foremost the challenge of the theory of the Zionist epistemology.”

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The Palestinian Forum for Israeli Studies (MADAR) is an independent research centre specialising in Israeli affairs, based in Ramallah, Palestine. MADAR was established in 2000 by a group of Palestinian intellectuals and academics, including the late poet Mahmoud Darwish, Dr. Lily Feidy, Dr. Ali Jarbawi, Dr. Ahmad Harb, Mr. Walid Al-Ahmad and Mr. Akram Haniyyeh. The centre was registered as a not-for-profit organisation with the Palestinian Ministry of Interior, and obtained a research centre’s operational licensing from the Palestinian Ministry of Information.