The task of streamlining nearly three decades of an author’s work—let alone a thinker whose writings insistently push the boundaries of academic provincialism—is no easy feat. Yet the writings of Ella Shohat, which have worked as much to entwine as to disentangle questions of representation, diaspora, dislocation, and post/coloniality, are united by a commitment to do away with historic and political binaries and to explore the solidarities and generative possibilities left out of these Manichean equations. In The Arab Jew, Palestine, and Other Displacements: Selected Writings—and throughout Shohat’s career—she explores the common histories of displacement in and around Palestine/Israel in order to posit the ways in which Zionist, nationalist, and colonialist logics leave little room for multifaceted allegiances and identities.
Most notably, Shohat is credited with popularizing the concept Arab-Jew, an archetype for the over 850,000 Jews across the Middle East and North Africa absorbed by the nascent Israeli state. The Arab-Jew intends to both highlight the hyphenated cultural existence made impossible by divisive colonial categories (e.g. Arab vs. Jew) and call attention to the possibilities of claiming multiple identifications and solidarities. Far from solely an historical analysis of how discourses on race and nationalism produced forms of differing but co-constitutive cultural and physical violences in the Middle East, Shohat’s volume calls for a consideration of displacement and diaspora as “a method of reading” and “way of ‘unsettling’ the settled political landscape.” She thus offers an invaluable challenge to the “ethnocentric self-idealizations typical of the dominant narratives” informed by Israel’s Ashke-normative national mythology.
Throughout this collected volume, Shohat considers the implications of the historical processes that have led to the bifurcation of such categories as Arab/Jew, Occident/Orient, and civilized/premodern. She does so in order to challenge the bifurcation of hegemonic narratives and to suggest that, indeed, space exists for imagining future solidarities. In other words, that “varied forms of out-of-placeness can…open up the possibility of multi-perspectival awareness and, hopefully, of compassionate inter-community identifications.” The book—divided into four sections: “The Question of the Arab-Jew,” “Between Palestine and Israel,” “Cultural Politics of the Middle East,” and “Muslims, Jews, and Diasporic Readings”—serves as both an introduction to and repository of cultural studies on Palestine/Israel. Thus, while the volume is crucial to understanding the development of Israel’s Eurocentric national ethos and the racialization of the majority of the country’s citizens (both Palestinian and non-Ashkenazi Jew alike), it is also an indispensable resource for anyone questioning the dominant narratives of racialized statecraft.
Despite the wide range of material covered in the collection, the pivotal point of analysis remains the concept of the Arab-Jew—a deliberately politicized re-imagining of the pre-colonial Jew in the Arab world,whose self-identifications were not limited to being singularly “Arab” or “Jewish.” Such an ontology, claims Shohat, was made oxymoronic by competing Zionist and Arab nationalisms and the legacy of a colonial divide-and-conquer discourse. The project of political Zionism became a self-perpetuating yet paradoxical narrative that necessitated both the incorporation and the distancing of the Eastern “other;” the return to Eretz Israel was coupled with, like so many other colonial projects, the erasure of the non-European, and thus markers of backwardness. Eurocentrism did not only shape standardized customs and aesthetics, a total privileging of the Ashkenazi population and historical narrative led to a sinister reality of family separation in which possibly up to 5,000 Yemeni-Jewish children were stolen from their parents and given to childless Holocaust survivors.
More recently, the economic and social disparities faced by Jews of Middle Eastern origin in Israel has sparked a debate regarding the erasure of markers of “Arabness” in pursuit of a cohesive Jewish-Israeli identity. Terms like “Oriental communities,” “Jews of Islamic lands,” and other markers of perceived backwardness were applied to Jews of the Arab world upon migration to Israel; David Ben Gurion, Israel’s first prime minister, once remarked that Mizrahi immigrants lacked even basic forms of knowledge and were completely without “Jewish or human education.” The use of the term “Arab-Jew” gained popularity (as well as notoriety and ambivalence) amongst academics and activists who refused the racialization and subalternization of Middle Eastern Jews at the hands of a hegemonic, secular Ashkenazi-Israeli culture. Beyond rekindling an interest in region-specific cultural attributes, like cuisine and literature, the use of Arab-Jew, as Yehouda Shenhav and Hannan Hever explain, is a “discursive juxtaposition.” It signals a refusal of a mainstream Israeli narrative that erases diasporic identity in the wake of Israel’s establishment.
In “Dislocated Identities: Reflections of an Arab Jew” (originally published in 1992), Shohat contextualizes the silencing of the Arab-Jew within the larger mission of political Zionism, whose foundational concept of a “gathering of the exiles” requires a view of the diaspora as an existential threat to the national Jewish body. For many, the Israeli state preceded the spread of a national identity among its citizens, especially its Middle Eastern ones. Zionist discourse, touting Enlightenment ideals, fashioned itself the redemptive re-entry of the Jewish people into the annals of modern world history—in the form of a modern nation-state. Pulled from a history firmly situated in European-Jewish experience, the nascent state’s constructed narrative of universal Jewish victimhood fused the archetype of the Christian-European oppressor with Muslim Arabs and positioned all Jews “as closer to each other than to the cultures of which they have been a part.” This outlook necessitated the need to “cleanse” Arab-Jews of their Arabness, or Mizrahi Jews of their Easternness. It also legitimized the complicated and often coercive ways Mizrahim dispersed from their home countries and solidified a common Arab and Palestinian enemy, which, in turn, provided an impetus for stripping Arab-Jews of their so-called Oriental languages, customs, and affinities.
Shohat’s contribution to conversations beyond Mizrahi studies is most palpable in the connections she draws between postcolonial heavyweights and the condition of Mizrahim in Israel today; indeed, Shohat’s approach to the long durée of “the splitting of the Oriental figure” shows both the writer’s commitment to cross-examining subaltern positionalities as well as her doubt that the colonial period has ever fully given way to the so-called postcolonial. Shohat’s “Postscript to Frantz Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth” (1996) provides a useful framework for understanding both the racialization of Mizrahim at the hands of a white minority foreign to the Middle East and the often assimilated and reactionary political positions taken by many Mizrahi Israelis. Using Fanon’s theory that Europe (and Eurocentrism) necessitates the creation of the Third World, Shohat suggests that Zionist nation-builders relied on the castigation of all things Arab in order to formulate and maintain the binaries between Jewish victim and Arab perpetrator. As Shohat concludes, a comparative analysis between the “split consciousness” of Fanon’s Algerian subjects under French colonial rule and Israel’s Mizrahim under Ashkenazi hegemony provides “the conceptual apparatus with which to view the Mizrahi experience as part of a negative process in which the rejection of the Arab ‘out there’ was linked to the rejection of the Arab ‘within us.’’’
The most productive critique of Shohat’s figure of the Arab-Jew has come from other left-leaning Mizrahim. Tunisian-French writer Albert Memmi, for example, noted the nostalgic ideals embedded in this figure of the Arab-Jew, historically situated in a pre-colonial past, that seek to highlight a lost hybridization that may have never actually existed. Lital Levy cites Memmi’s claim that “it is far too late to become Jewish Arabs again.” However, like Fanon, Shohat remains committed to the political potential in confronting the colonial present, eschewing the notion that reclaiming Arab-Jewishness attempts to engage in an intellectual project of “archaeological recuperation.” And, I hazard to guess, Shohat would agree with Memmi—Arab-Jewish identity as it existed prior to the mass immigration of Middle Eastern and North African Jews to Israel cannot be rekindled if we are to take seriously the porous, historically situated, and multilayered nature of identity formation. Whether or not Jews living in the Arab world historically identified as Arab—and under what circumstances and within what relational structures—is ultimately moot. It is the difference between experience and political ideal that distinguishes the historical study of the usefulness of Arab-Jew as a term from the contemporary political call for re-presentation. This call is less concerned with sociological and historical accuracy than with troubling the ostensible border between Arab and Jew that has made impossible this contemporary hybrid identity.
And Shohat does not equate an acknowledgement of history’s trajectory with defeatism. It is this fidelity to hybridity, I would argue, that makes Shohat’s collected works ever-timely; like Fanon, Shohat refuses to let Israeli Eurocentricity flatten possibilities for resistance. For both Fanon and Shohat, it is important to recognize and, in contemporary terms, reclaim a sense of self and community outside of the racialized dichotomy created by colonial conquest. Shohat locates transformative power not in the denial of of colonial binaries, but in transnational and multidirectional considerations of “ruptures and returns.” For example, in “‘Coming to America:’ Reflections on Hair and Memory Loss,” the writer’s comparison of films that talk between communities of color, rather than back to dominant White culture, suggests the generative possibilities of speaking between, rather than against, binaries of power.
As the exploration of Shohat’s own experience and the works of other artists show, such comparative conversations make room not necessarily for competing victimizations but rather for a better understanding of the realities and possibilities of hyphenated, diasporic existence. Such an approach, which works against the concept of historical uniqueness, can reveal the ways that narratives of traumatic memory always provide new language through which to describe and understand multiple meanings of violence.