Modern Middle Eastern Jewish Thought:
Writings on Identity, Politics, and Culture, 1893-1958
By Moshe Behar and Zvi Ben-Dor Benite

Eds. Waltham, Mass.: Brandeis University Press, 2013. xxxix + 248 pages + index.

Review note by Jacques Roumani

The intellectual history of eastern Sephardim of the Arab Mediterranean and Levant in modern times (end of nineteenth to mid-twentieth century) remains largely terra incognita  (except through literary writings) even in Sephardic and more recent Mizrahi studies.1 This is particularly noticeable when considering pivotal issues impinging on the Jews of these Arab lands such as the nahda, the nineteenth century Arab renaissance movement roughly equivalent to the haskala in Western Jewish thought, Arab and Jewish responses to European cultural influences, colonialism, the rise of Arab nationalism, Zionism and Jewish settlement in Palestine (Yishuv). The editors begin to remedy this deficit with an anthology of original writings (mostly translated from Arabic), by distinguished Jewish men and women of culture who were equally at home in Baghdad, Beirut, Cairo, Damascus or Jerusalem/Palestine, offering a potentially distinct contribution to modern Jewish thought.  

With this beginning, the editors hope to have laid "a foundation for the rethinking and reconceptualization of modern Middle Eastern and Jewish thought in historical, sociological and political terms" (xvi). This is an ambitious goal, more challenging and complex than the ongoing fruitful efforts of rethinking Jewish culture and society in North Africa, or the Jewish Maghrib, (Gottreich and Schroeter, 2011), where a relative abundance of writings in French, Hebrew and Judeo-Arabic permits wider and deeper perspectives. (see, for example, on the literary side, the late Robert Attal's comprehensive bibliography Un siècle de littérature judéo-arabe tunisienne [1861-1961], Jerusalem: 2007).

By contrast, most authors featured in this anthology represent a small, heterogeneous set of intellectuals who wrote mainly in classical Arabic, felt well integrated in Egypt or Iraq (where a few held high-level government positions, addressed core pan-Arab issues expressing both Jewish Sephardic and Arab identities, sometimes more of the latter). As for the majority of Jews in the Arab East, while sharing traditional cultural space and discourse with their Arab neighbors, they showed little interest in "the intellectual, and political currents that were just beginning to develop among educated Arabs at that time – particularly in Syria and Egypt, the cradles of modern Arab cultural and political revival" (Stillman1996: 65 ). With few exceptions, mainly in Iraq, the majority of Jews, as Stillman pointed out, did not "identify with classical Arabic language and culture" and "did not partake in the late nineteenth-century Arabic language revival."  Nevertheless, to a large extent, they provided the historical, social, and cultural Jewish-Arab backdrop for the emergence of this intelligentsia (traditional as well as secularized).

The writings included in this anthology can be roughly classified into two broad overlapping categories, cultural and socio-political:

  1. In terms of culture, most writings emphasized the relevance  of Arabic and Arab culture (nahda) to Jewish life generally and to the future cultural orientation of the Yishuv in Mandatory Palestine. This line of thought was represented by several authors from Egypt: Ya'qub Sannu', Murad Farag, Joseph Cattaui , Nissim Ya'cov Malul, and Esther Morag who also addressed gender issues. In Sephardic Jerusalem, Elie Eliachar and Avraham Elmaleh also advocated Jewish-Arab understanding and cooperation as a potential bridge between the future national Jewish home and the Palestinians. This perspective on the Jewish past and future was further elaborated by other authors, such as Hayyim Ben-Kiki (Tiberias), into a critique of European cultural influences, colonialism and modernity as alien to both Jewish and Arab Middle East. Full integration into Arab society found vigorous proponents among the Jewish Iraqi elite, exemplified by the writings of Ibrahim al Kabir (Baghdad).  
  2. Politically, ambivalence towards Zionism led some of these authors to seek an 'orientalist' input into Zionism (Malul, David Avisar) and/or an accommodation with the emerging Arab nationalism (Eliachar). Others were outright Marxist anti-Zionists : Marsil Shirizi (Egypt) established the Jewish League to Combat Zionism (1946); Yusuf Harun Zilkha and Sasson Shalom Dallal (Iraq) were leaders in the League for the Struggle Against Zionism (Dallal was executed by Iraqi authorities for being a communist); Henri Curiel (Egypt) was a leading Marxist organizer during the 1940s.  

These positions illustrating Jewish intellectual ferment in the beginning of the Arab awakening in the Middle East are clearly articulated by the editors in a superb, systematic introduction along with annotations to individual writings, highlighting their implications for several major contemporary issues, particularly the possibility of a Jewish Arab identity and of an intellectual legacy of this period for those who identify themselves as 'Mizrahim' in modern Israel and contemporary Mizrahi intellectuals worldwide.

With regard to the Arab identity or 'Arabness' of these Middle Eastern Jewish intellectuals, we are reminded by the Israeli sociologist, Yehouda Shenhav, with reference to his book, The Arab Jews (Stanford: 2006), that this category is "neither natural nor necessarily consistent and coherent . . . given the long history of rupture between them . . . the label was edited out by historical circumstances, particularly the rise of Jewish and Arab nationalism" (9).  Arabness may be at best a shared cultural code but it was not an identity, as another Israeli scholar Amnon Raz-Krakotzkin pointed out: "it was a cultural-linguistic reality" as quoted in Lital Levy's profound essay, "Historicizing the Concept of Arab Jews in the Mashriq", (JQR 98.4 2008),  an important contribution to understanding the subject.  Moreover, and most importantly, Jews could not and were not admitted  to Arab identity, whether in the Mashriq or Maghrib, because Arabs are or perceive themselves to be the main pillar of the Islamic 'Umma or Community of Believers, from which Jews and other infidels are automatically excluded and relegated to the inferior status of subordinate dhimmi. Ironically, almost parallel to the unprecedented effort of the Jewish intellectuals (covered in this anthology) to join the Arab revival and nationalist movements, the "champions of Muslim reformism . . . Muhammed Abdu and Rashid Ridah and their later followers engaged in a form of 'dejudaization' of Muslim tradition . . . and offered a modern restatement of Islam's criticism of the Jews and Judaism" (Michel Abitbol, in ed. Medding ,Oxford: 2007, 47) . For a full discussion of this paradigmatic change in Muslim attitudes in the modern period see R. Nettler and S. Taji-Farouki, eds., "Muslim and Jewish Encounters, Intellectual Traditions and Modern Politics," (OPA and Harwood, 1988: chap. 1). Not surprisingly, the majority of Jews in the Middle East and North Africa sought the protection of European powers and the freedom of Western culture. Exacerbated by political enmity between Jewish and Arab nationalism, the definitive Arab rejection of Jews as Arabs is succinctly encapsulated in Albert Memmi's oft-quoted realization that:  "because we were born in these so-called Arab countries, we share their languages, their customs, and their cultures to an extent that is not negligible" but "the Arabs did not respect the Jewish Arabs . . . and it is far too late to become Jewish Arabs again" (Shenhav: 9) . The broader contexts of these developments in history, historiography and culture are synthesized in Abitbol (2006) and in Harvey E. Goldberg (Introduction, Indiana, 1996, I-55).

Even with 20th century Iraqi Jewry, it was a case of "unrequited love for an Arabic culture that Jews dreamed could be cosmopolitan and non-confessional, and for a liberal national identity that never quite came into full existence" as understated by Michael Weingrad (Jewish Review of Books 3:4, 26). He perceptively indicates that this was not "an exclusively Middle Eastern or Iraqi Jewish phenomenon but rather a familiar part of the modern Jewish experience."

Hence, the future research heralded by editors of this anthology, Dohar and Benite, may well lead to converging outcomes between the modern intellectual histories of European and Middle Eastern Jewry.

Is there continuity between the sample writings in this anthology and contemporary Mizrahi intellectuals in Israel and elsewhere? And, if so, what are its implications for dialogue with Palestinians and Arabs? These questions are tentatively addressed in the final pages of the editors' introduction (xxviii-xxxiv) concluding that "affinities between the two groups – the current Mizrahi intellectuals and their predecessors – clearly exist" (xxxiii). This is more than nostalgia for multicultural "coffee shops in Alexandria" or folkloristic strands of Middle Eastern food and music prevalent in Israeli society today.

The editors suggest that this is part of a broader and deeper Mizrahi consciousness that is mainstreaming Mizrahi studies as "a scholarly field by itself," citing the writings (included in their anthology) of Sammy Michael, the Israeli writer whose Arab fiction is a best seller in Egypt and Lebanon, and of the essayist Jacqueline Shohet Kahanoff,  regarded by some as an avant-garde proponent of a "Mediterranean/Levantine option" for Israel. Indeed, Mizrahi consciousness and literature may be gaining currency, judging by the 500-page special issue of Pe'amim (2010-11) of the Ben-Zvi Institute in Jerusalem, devoted to the question, "Arab Jews? A Polemic About Identity." But again, as Shenhav (above) asked: is this Arab Jewish consciousness coherent, is it real? Or, is it "a disorder of identity," as Jacques Derrida put it? (Gottreich :117). For now, I suspect that Mizrahim may well be promoters of an "imagined community," a concept articulated by Benedict Anderson (Verso: 2006) that emphasizes psychological transformations of individual and collective identities brought about by political and social change and a new cultural discourse.  

The debate continues with heightened interest, thanks in part to the collective effort of the editors (including valuable bibliographies for each chapter) who have enriched "The Brandeis Library of Modern Jewish Thought" series which "aims to redefine the canon, publishing primary source readings from individual Jewish thinkers or groups of thinkers" to promote further research and teaching in modern Jewish intellectual history.


1. According to Rabbi Ben-Zion Meir Hai Uziel ( 1880-1951), Sephardi Chief Rabbi of Mandatory Palestine and the first Sephardi chief rabbi of Israel, "Sephardim are not only those who came from Spain. 'Sephardim' are those who adopted Spanish influence . . . all those who are based in eastern countries." Speech delivered at the annual meeting of Sephardi and Mizrahi Jews in 1939. (xxiv)

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