“After Jews and Arabs: Remaking Levantine Culture”

Levant Fair, Tel Aviv, 1934 (http://www.middle-east-pictures.com/middle-east/Levant-fair-1934-Aviv-002.htm)


Just read Ammiel Alcalay’s After Jews and Arabs: Remaking Levantine Culture. Published in 1993 ahead of its time, I can’t think of a more timely meditation from some time ago for anyone today obsessed about Jews, Arabs, Israel, and Palestine after the collapse of the Oslo peace process and after 9/11.

The almost complete marginalization of Sephardic Jewish cultures in mainstream Jewish and Zionist discourse, both popular and academic, is a long standing disgrace. It should be clear now more than ever that, philosophically, this marginalization has distorted the very concepts with which we think Jewish politics and culture. Not just in Israel, where the problem is most acute, but also in the United States, where “all of a sudden,” it seems that we now have to re-think Jewish-Muslim relations.

A literary scholar who works in Arabic and Sephardic Jewish literature, Alcalay shows what happens when signifiers like “Jews” and “Arabs” get hardened and homogenized by their respective nationalisms. If this was not so clear in 1993, it is painful and obvious in 2011. The author presents Levantism as an alternative perspective with which to carve out a capacious common space for a diversity of peoples, most urgently in the modern Middle East.

Alcalay’s politics are either post-Zionist or anti-Zionist. At work here is the critique of the Eurocentric nature of the entire Zionist project, its inability to deal with others (not just Arabs and Palestinians, but also Sephardic Jews, religious Jews, and diaspora Jews). 

We’ve heard this critique again and again. In 1993 it was more new then it is today, when it’s almost mainstream in academe by now. But unlike most forms of post Zionism or anti Zionism, Alcalay actually takes it for granted that the Jews are not a foreign, European implant into the Middle East –based on the sephardic experience that for years took before (and after) 1977 when “levantine” was a dirty word in mainstream Zionist discourse.

I like the way Levantism loosens up the conceptual field of Jews and Arabs, especially today when these formations seem so calcified, first by nationalism and now by religion. At the same time, Alcalay’s text is to put under question the kind of nomadic placelessness with which the Jews and Judaism are figured in so much postmodern and critical theory (as deftly explored by Sarah Hammerschlag in The Figural Jew). Contrasting the Levantine writers to Kakfa, Alcalay writes about “their concrete and sensual attachment ot the fact and memory of a native space.”

What I find less compelling about Alacalay’s book is the glorification of the Jewish experience under Islam. Marc Cohen’s Under Crescent and Cross is far more judicious. It’s hard to figure out this dreamy version of the great Arab-Jewish symbiosis. What was real? What was only imagined? Like so many others of its kind, Alcalay’s text has to ignore the nightmare of Jewish Ashkenaz. Joseph Brenner and, let’s call it “historical Zionism” get short-shrift here. I’ll admit it’s nice to read “a modern Jewish book” without the Holocaust. But something serious is left out here. I can understand how this book works rhetorically, writing in 1993 against the grain of mainstream Jewish consciousness. But with the benefit of further hindsight, I’d like to read Alcalay alongside more recent writings by Amos Oz. This week in Haaretz, Oz opines, in what reads like an obituary for Zionism, that when people come to slaughter sacred cows, he feels bad for the cow –no matter how bad it stinks (http://www.haaretz.com/weekend/magazine/amos-oz-i-get-up-in-the-morning-and-ask-what-if-1.418823). 


About zjb

Zachary Braiterman is Professor of Religion in the Department of Religion at Syracuse University. His specialization is modern Jewish thought and philosophical aesthetics. http://religion.syr.edu
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