Saturday, February 21, 2009

Zionism's Internal Others: Israel and the Oriental Jews

Dawood Marhabi (C), a Yemeni Arab Jew from al-Salem village in the province of Saada, is seen with Muslim guests at the wedding party of fellow Yemeni Jew Yussef Saeed Hamdi (not in picture), in the village of Raydah in Yemen's Amran province, 70 kms north of Sanaa. Hamdi is completing his studies in Jerusalem but he came back home to get married to a young woman from his community, according to relatives. A few hundred Arab Jews still live in Yemen.

Zionism's Internal Others: Israel and the Oriental Jews

By Joseph Massad
Associate Professor of Modern Arab Politics & Intellectual History Columbia University

Journal of Palestine Studies, Vol. 25, No. 4 (2007)

The creation of the State of Israel by European Jews was predicated upon reconfiguring Jewish identities. European Zionist leaders asserted that the creation of a Jewish state would normalize the abnormal situation of European Jewry insofar as it would give them, like Christian Europeans, a state of their own. In addition to defending European Jews against anti-Semitic attacks, Zionism was also going to make possible activity denied to them in Europe, especially in agriculture and soldiery. Hence, the objective of the Zionist movement was not simply to transplant European Jews in a new area, but to transform the very nature of their society as it had existed in the Diaspora, until then.

The type of Jewish culture that Zionism wanted to create had nothing to do with Diaspora culture, seen as a manifestation of oppressed Jewishness. Yiddish, stigmitized as a product of that culture, was and is actively discouraged in favor of Hebrew, while the Arabic of Arab Jews became the contemptible language of the enemy. In sum, Israel created a new Israeli identity and culture alien to Diaspora Jews. Zionism's commitment to cosmopolitan European gentile culture as the totalitarian basis for the New Jew led Georges Friedmann to assert that Israel "constitutes a new kind of assimilation liable to produce 'generations of Hebrew-speaking Gentiles.'"
NIF organizations protest discrimination against Mizrahi girls in
ultra-Orthodox Ashkenazi schools.

Thus the creation of Israel was to have far-reaching effects not only for Palestinian Arabs but also on the identity both of European Jews and of Asian and African Jews. Whereas non-European Jews were classified as Sephardim (Spaniards) and later Mizrahim (Easterners) and were juztaposed to the Yiddish-speaking Jews whose Ashkenazi identity preceded Zionism, Palestinians were divided into Druze, Bedouin, and Christian and Muslim Arabs. Israel, consequently, was based on a complete overhauling of the ethnic identities of the population over whom it was to have jurisdiction. The irony about the Mizrahi identity created by the Ashkenazi establishment is that it came to be internalized by the Mizrahim themselves, who launched ethnic protests based on it.


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