Short Text for the Work Shop
Double Exclusion and the Search for Inessential Solidarities:
The Experience of Iraqi Jews as Heralding a New Concept of Identity and Belonging
I would like to start with three short comments; to some of them I already referred during the second session.
First, my point of view here is that of an outsider, both in Jewish and Israeli Studies. I am a student of Arab culture. When I was investigating Arabic poetry of the 20th century I came across some Jewish poets, especially in Iraq (such as Anwar Shaul and Murad Michael), and when I studied Palestinian literature in Israel, I came across Jewish writers writing in Arabic (such as Sami Michael and Shimon Ballas) – in both cases I followed the writers and tried to understand their subjectivities against the background of Arab culture but I had to study them also against the backdrop of Jewish and Israeli culture. Why? Because they were Jews and because most of the Jewish writers who wrote in Arabic immigrated to Israel.
That is why I would like to thank Prof. David Tal for enabling me to take part in such a workshop despite my limited knowledge and even ignorance in Jewish and Israeli studies. And believe me, it is by no means modesty, because in my field of knowledge and expertise there are too many outsiders and I know how ignorant they are and when I listen to them I recall a saying by the medieval scholar al-Khalil ibn Ahmad al-Frahidi [some Arabic must be heard in any gathering of any decent Israel studies]: لا يدري ولا يدري أنه لا يدري (He does not know and he does not know that he does not know). This is, by the way a description of the Fasiq (disobedient to the rules) according to al-Khalil. On some of them I speak in my paper. I am trying to be just, according to al-Khalil: لا يدري ويدري أنه لا يدري (He does not know but he knows that he does not know), al-Khalil says: this is the Jahil, the ignorant and he needs education – that’s is why I am here.
Second, my paper is based on investigations I have conducted during the last twenty years into the subjectivities of more than one hundred Iraqi-Jewish writers and intellectuals, the list of them appears in the appendix of my paper. From a sample of partial investigations however I have a solid basis for the hypothesis that the same developments have occurred, if in different rhythms, among other communities of Arabized Jews as well. Because the Iraqi Jews have been the topic of my studies during the last two decades, I concentrate in my paper only on them.
Third, I am sure that one of you will ask whether my arguments are related only to the elite or to the lower classes as well. Of course, all the subjectivities I have investigated are of intellectuals and writers but, at the same time, I believe that, because of the global developments and changes, such as the Internet and the wide migration, we are not speaking any more of a limited groups in society as in the past but of wide populations that are exposed to the global phenomena. Here I want to quote Giorgio Agamben: “If we had once again to conceive of the fortunes of humanity in terms of class, then today we would have to say that there are no longer social classes, but just a single planetary petty bourgeoisie, in which all the old social classes are dissolved.”
Now to some points in my paper: my basic argument is that, in the modern history of the Iraqi Jews, we may notice some processes which led, already around the middle of twentieth century, to the creation of embryonic forms of such singular subjectivities which, some decades later, would be celebrated globally, as I show in the first part of my paper, among intellectual and academic circles in the West. The main reason is that the Iraqi Jews as a whole had experienced during the twentieth century at least four major processes of collective interpellation and at least two intense collective exclusionary operations and erasure. To be interpellated is to identify with a particular idea or identity; it is the process by which you recognize yourself to belong to a particular identity.
1. The first process was the hailing of the Iraqi Jews as Arab.
2. The second one was the hailing of the Iraqi Jews as “Zionist” between quotation marks (=this was the first exclusion). The quotation marks mean that the hailing ascribed to them an identity, which most of them rejected.
3. The third was the hailing of the Iraqi Jews, this time in Israel, as “Arab” between quotation marks (=this was the second exclusion). The quotation marks around “Arab” here, because it was a derogatory label, most of those who hailed the Iraqi Jews as Arab meant that they were primitive and needed to be reeducated.
4. The last process was the hailing of the Iraqi Jews as one side in a binary monolithic category.
I ascribed a great importance to the two processes of exclusion. “Once it is understood that subjects are formed through exclusionary operations,” says feminist theorist Joan Scott, “it becomes necessary to trace the operations of that construction and erasure.” Every one who experienced such an exclusion knows that if you want to survive you must look for ways out of that deadlock. In my view, those processes of interpellation, especially the two processes of exclusion, are very much important for understanding the subjectivities not only of the Iraqi Jews but of the most of the Arabized Jews as well.
I want to mention my main conclusions:
First, there were Jews that identified themselves as Arab, but no Jewish community has ever declared itself as Arab-Jewish or Jewish-Arab. We can only find retrospective allusions to Jewish communities who lived in Arab societies as such. It goes without saying that no Arab-Jewish or Jewish-Arab community currently exists.
Second, all current references to any historical Arab-Jewish identity do not aim to celebrate the past but only to express present and future ideological and political desires and aspirations.
Third, Arab-Jewish identity has been paradoxically reinvented in the late 20th century, precisely when those who could have been mostly interpellated as Arab Jews were in the process of escaping such a recruitment. More than that, the interpellating machine is being now administrated by people who pretend to be such, but never had the potentiality of such an identity.
Fourth, most of the individuals who, during the last decades, have been identifying themselves as Arab Jews, have been only using such an identity as a war-cry against Zionism. I mean those radical Mizrahi leftist scholars such as Ella Shohat, Yehuda Shenhav, Sami Shalom Chetrit and their followers – all of them adopted Arab-Jewish or Mizrahi identity as part of identity politics in Israel.
Fifth, those radical Mizrahi intellectuals have succeeded to provoke “real” Arabized Jews, mostly Iraqis (e.g., Nissim Rejwan, Shimon Ballas, Sasson Somekh, Shmuel Moreh), to “reclaim” their Arab-Jewish identity and to use it as a war-cry against... those very radical leftist intellectuals themselves. Those Arab-Jewish “veterans” rightly feel that, if there is any credit to be given for having such an identity, they deserve it more than anyone else, certainly more than Shohat, Shenhave, and Chetrit who can hardly read Arabic.
Sixth, Muslim and Christian Arab intellectuals in general do not pay any attention to the emergence of that new fashion of Arab-Jewish identity in Israel. If they do so it is mostly for only political reasons and as a tool against Israel and Zionism
Last but not least, against the background of the fluidity of identities in the beginning of the current century and the intense globalization, I believe that the notion of identity has gradually been wearing off, at least in its traditional sense. This by no means implies that there is no significant differences between the elite – the intellectuals whose subjectivities are the main subject of my paper and who are intensely affected by the global phenomena – and other segments of society whose members are more liable to adhere to the traditional notions of identity. But, first, unlike the irreconcilable gap, in my view, between the radical “Mizrahi” post-Zionist elite and the relevant masses, the tendency towards inessential solidarities may be considered as vanguard in the sense that it is not unlikely to precipitate a large-scale similar tendency in the middle of these masses, even if in this stage it is still far removed, politically, socially, and mentally, from them. And, second, the global phenomena such as the wide migration and the Internet, which are no more limited to the elites, have broadened those segments in society that are influenced by the universal inclination towards inessential solidarities. Singularity, not identity, is now the major war-cry in our contemporary liquid societies.