Ilan Halevi, A History of the Jews (trans. A. M. Berrett) (London: Zed Books, 1987).

Shlomo Swirski, Israel: The Oriental Majority (trans. Barbara Swirski) (London: Zed Books, 1989).

Ella Shohat, Israeli Cinema: East/West and the Politics of Representation (Austin, TX: University of Texas Press, 1989).

Each of these books, in very different ways, deftly maps those large regions that have become the forbidden territory of contemporary Jewish discourse: the never metaphysical, always concrete geopolitical, economic and cultural relations between the “central” and the “marginal,” whether under the rubric of the Promised Land and the Diaspora, West and East, North and South, Ashkenazim and Sephardim or Israel and Palestine. Although only Ella Shohat’s book specifically defines itself as dealing with representation, all deal with forms of representation, with the whittling away of received ideas, and the analysis, recuperation and construction of alternative versions of history. These are books that stand neither inside, as polemical partisans, nor outside, in a vacuum of supposed objectivity, but alongside their subjects, always ready to point out avenues of possibility, to delineate the space available for a critique (and a self-critique) that can lead to empowerment. In short, they reassert the value of the book as tool and weapon.

The briefest biography of each writer goes some of the way toward outlining the specifically complex problematic of their subjects, and their relationship to it. Ilan Halevi, an ex-Israeli Jew of Middle Eastern origin now living in Paris, wrote his stunningly original History of the Jews in French. Shlomo Swirski, an Argentinian Jew of Ashkenazi origin now living in Tel Aviv, wrote his already classic book (originally published in 1981) on Israel’s Oriental majority in Hebrew. Ella Shohat, an Israeli of Iraqi origin who “descended” to New York to pursue an education that would have been virtually impossible in Israel, writes in English.

What can be defined as the political activity of each writer, the modes in which they have deemed their efforts to be most effective, also reflects the very diffuse and interdependent nature of the problems at hand. Shohat has chosen a reading of history within an academic setting on a solid scholarly basis; her exacting analysis of Israeli film — with its unrelenting insistence on the particular political implications of the power relations between film and audience, producers and consumers — will surely force American film critics and scholars to rethink their own politics regarding the accepted imagery of the contemporary Middle East as well as the reception of any “marginal” cinematic tradition. Shlomo Swirski, on the other hand, has left the academy (at least in Israel) well behind him. Formerly a professor of sociology at the University of Haifa, he has (along with the book’s translator, Barbara Swirski) concentrated most of his efforts on the establishment of Israel’s most important alternative publishing house, Breirot, along with an intense commitment to grassroots work in Israel’s Oriental community. Ilan Halevi, in addition to his writing, serves in a rather astounding but certainly refreshing capacity: As the PLO representative to the Socialist International, he is living proof of what the Palestinian writer Raja Shehadeh has called “the third way,” a way unimaginable to most but entirely possible.

Renegade History

Halevi’s History of the Jews offers an uncompromisingly original perspective in a sweeping but acutely intelligent condensation of an enormous amount of material. Unfortunately, the English title seems to betray his own aims by making the reader expect a comprehensive history; the French title, La Question Juive: La Tribu, La Loi, L’Espace (The Jewish Question: Tribe, Law and Space), better prepares the reader for the kind of conceptual trajectory Halevi has marked out for himself. In this framework, the Jews do not possess some primordial essence that melodramatically and solipsistically sustains them on their march through time; Halevi’s method, rather, focuses on crucial episodes and fissure points that have shaped the social formation of different kinds of Jews, in relation to each other and to the particular geography, peoples and forces of the worlds they have inhabited. By keeping the present at hand (and the tangled net of circumstances leading to it), Halevi provides a remarkably liberating reading of Jewish history.

This present is framed by the development of the Zionist movement in its European circumstances; the Zionist encounter with Palestine; the slow but steady erosion of the status of Mediterranean and Arab Jews as true natives in the region; the expulsion of Palestinians from Palestine along with the forced immigration of Jews from the Arab world; and the gradual but unintended emergence of Israel within the Arab world as a consequence of the occupation of 1967. It is within this matrix that Halevi offers some of his most striking insights, as in the chapter titled “Israel”:

The overlapping of social and ethnic cleavages, together with the fact that Israeli capitalism has been built under the label of socialism, has created a situation in which the pacifism of the privileged classes strengthens popular chauvinism. In the present state of the conflict, there is almost no link between the political crisis engulfing the highest echelons of the state, the moral crisis affecting petty-bourgeois youth, and the structural social crisis of the Israeli formation; no articulation between the political and reasoned opposition of some, and the individual and deviant desertion of others. Light years separate the educated young Ashkenazi Israeli who expresses his moral outrage before the excesses of the occupation, and the uneducated young Oriental Israeli who, in his practices and in his behavior, disrupts the national social and ideological consensus.

While some may criticize Halevi’s knack for extrapolating the whole from the part, identifying tendencies through very particular paradigms, there is no question that his work is infinitely less reductive of this vast field than most of what scandalously passes for Jewish history these days. It is delightfully ironic that Halevi, whom some Jews regard as a renegade, seems to possess an ample dose of that quality Gershom Scholem deemed essential for the study of things Jewish — ahavath yisrael, a love of the Jewish people.

There is not one episode on which Halevi does not throw some new light, forcing readers to reconsider their own hierarchy of assumptions and values. At times, reading Halevi’s text is simply exhilarating: often poetic and compassionate, the writing itself skirts the margins of catastrophe without ever resigning itself to any of the dead ends that so many traveling this route have encountered. By flipping the Russian joke on its head (“The best historian is the one who can predict the past”), Halevi has managed to write a future-centered history that neither romanticizes the past nor trivializes the seemingly indomitable forces of the present that slowly but certainly pull the shade lower and lower on that very future.

Untainted Investigation

Unlike in France, where the sheer presence of a large community of North African Jews and a deeper connection to the Arab world as a whole have generated a very different level of awareness, there has been precious little untainted material on Israel’s Arab Jews available in English. The fact that the US is the most favored audience for the Israeli liberal elite’s often vicious ideological onslaught against the “primitive” nature of Oriental Jews makes the need for alternative sources on this topic more urgent. Make no mistake about it: These stereotypes — at varying levels of vulgarity — permeate precisely those approaches that claim to be most conciliatory toward Palestinians.

It is, as well, indicative of the state of discourse in the United States concerning Israel that we have had to wait so long for an English translation of some of the work of Shlomo Swirski, one of Israel’s most accomplished and innovative sociologists. Swirski has conducted his investigations into Israeli society from a class perspective, something that has obviously contributed to this neglect. Perhaps even more than this, one suspects it is Swirski’s absolute refusal to mystify, his ability to embed complex theory within seemingly simple formulations and his practice of always allowing his subjects to serve as the screen and arbiter of their own efforts, that truly irritates his former colleagues. This economical combination of theory and practice is nowhere more clearly presented than in Israel: The Oriental Majority.

A model of clarity and precision, the structure of Swirski’s book provides a key to its method: Part One (The Ethnic Division of Labor) comprises the analytical section while Part Two (Oriental Activists Speak), almost twice as long, comprises interviews with a representative range of people whom Swirski calls a “potential elite.” The structure takes on the functions of textbook, classroom and blueprint for action at the same time — precisely those functions it has served for a generation of Israeli social activists. These are not the usual spokespeople for the usual crowd with their usual funding and open access to the media, but individuals trying to effect change within a brutally divisive and oppressive system of social institutions that categorize from birth those of “European” and those of “Asian” and “African” descent, regardless of whether they are second- or even third-generation Israelis.

Swirski’s task has been to refute assumptions that run so deep they have even become, as we witness in the interviews, part of the psychological and cultural makeup of the Orientals themselves. To do this, he has gone to that most favored ammunition dump of the state’s faceless ideological machine, the Bureau of Statistics. He does not simply serve up a menu of counter-statistics; rather, each of his seemingly plain but elegant sentences conceals and embeds both fact and theory, as here: “While the Fifties saw the proletarianization of the Orientals, the mid-Eighties saw the Israeli class structure turn into a combination of the First and Third Worlds, where managers, and engineers are paid three to ten thousand dollars per month, while workers and low-grade employees earn one tenth that amount.”

Nor is Swirski ever reticent to approach things from an apparently obvious angle: In the chapter titled “The Development Towns of Israel,” for example, before going into an analysis of investment patterns, he simply asks, “Are the industries in the development towns developing?” Again, in refuting the slanderous stereotypes regarding the “mentality of the Orientals” and their “latent hatred of the Arabs,” Swirski simply points out that “all the wars against the Arabs and the Palestinians have been conducted by an overwhelmingly Ashkenazi establishment.” Discussing the recruitment of Orientals to positions in the military government following the occupation, an essential element in understanding how class issues affect Israeli politics, Swirski points out that

Orientals did not do these jobs out of “latent hatred of Arabs”; for many, the jobs meant an opportunity for advancement in a situation in which such opportunities were severely limited. However, for Ashkenazi commanders and administrators, viewing the Orientals as they carried out the tasks assigned to them from above, it was convenient to attribute the latter’s consciousness to “hatred of Arabs.” Such a stance enabled them to present themselves as having a higher order of humanity than their underlings and as having a monopoly on humane feelings and lofty ideals. It also allowed them to ignore the fact that they were the ones in charge of the policy of control and expropriation.

As both a dedicated activist and a detached analyst, Swirski has maintained a level of integrity all too rare on the Israeli scene. His work is essential reading for anyone interested in the forces that are shaping Israeli society.

Beginning with Film

The remarkable thing about Ella Shohat’s Israeli Cinema is that it manages not only to sustain but even to pique our interest in films we might not have the desire or opportunity to see. She accomplishes this by using the films as raw material for the subtext (and subtitle) of her own book: East/ West and the Politics of Representation. Shohat has produced an impressively “representative” work, one whose subject — Israeli film itself — by no means limits its significance. In fact, with its combination of condensed plot analysis deftly exposing the ideological significance of recurring images, and its skillful weave of social, cultural and political history, the book serves as a model for the intelligible presentation of any national cinema.

Beginning with film itself (the fascination with “exotic” footage of the Orient, an intriguing look at the development of movie theaters in Palestine, and conflicting attitudes toward cinema), the book ends with a detailed survey of the latest group of Israeli movies, “the Palestinian wave.” In between, Shohat manages to categorize virtually all extant Israeli films in groupings that provide a context to illuminate both the films themselves and the issues they raise. Here, for instance, is an excerpt from her analysis of Hill 24 Doesn’t Answer, one of the films from the “heroic-nationalist” genre:

Seen largely within combat circumstances, the Arabs are almost always presented in long shot. When the battles take place at night, the spectator is completely distanced from their humanity. Their great numbers, in soldiers and tanks, contrast with their minimal impact on the spectator…. Although set during the British Mandate over Palestine, when the British were seen as enemies and violently resisted by Jewish underground movements, the film has British soldiers exert more presence than the Arabs and treats them more sympathetically. This appointing of sympathy and interest reflects a broader attention given to European history and culture, completely marginalizing that of the Arabs, an orientation continuous with policies outside of the cinema.

The issues raised by Shohat, however particular they might be, all come back to the question of power and control, imagery and its intended audience. In recounting the representation and misrepresentation of Oriental Jews on the Israeli screen, Shohat has forged an exemplary approach to the study of popular culture, its stereotypes and the reception of that culture by the very subjects of its imagery. Reading her description of the bourekas genre, a particular form of Israeli kitsch aimed at the Oriental public, I was reminded again and again of the African-American painter Robert Colescott’s stunning depiction of a black family attentively listening to the “Amos ‘n’ Andy Show,” at the same time spellbound and horror-struck at the notion of participating in their own degradation. Although the readings Shohat offers of these films are both humorous and moving, they never lose sight of either the intent of the imagery or the humanity of its viewers. In fact, the generosity of all of Shohat’s interpretations — even for some very objectionable films — makes the utopian allusions concluding her book all the more powerful and credible:

The filmmakers take for granted the Zionist rejection of the Diaspora without offering any deeper analysis of the Israeli Jew as a multidimensional precipitate of millennia of rich, labyrinthian syncretic history lived in scores of countries. One is struck by a kind of cultural superficiality in Israeli cinema, a lack of reflection concerning issues that have preoccupied Jews over the centuries, issues which often have cinematic resonances…. True cinematic polyphony will emerge, most probably, only with the advent of political equality and cultural reciprocity among the three major groups within Israel — European Jews, Oriental Jews and Palestinian Arabs. But until the advent of such a utopian moment, cultural and political polyphony might be filmically evoked, at least, through the proleptic procedures of “anticipatory” texts, texts at once militantly imaginative and resonantly multi-voiced.

Having applied such an unyielding gaze, Shohat has cleared the ground for these very unsettling but highly evocative suggestions. The very thoroughness of the project, and the fact that such few films emerge untainted by the ideological consensus, adds a whole other dimension to her intent — that of artistic possibility. It is only at this point that younger Israeli filmmakers can finally begin to see, and then construct, that whole plethora of images so conspicuously absent from the collective screens of their childhood.

How to cite this article:

Ammiel Alcalay "Forbidden Territory, Promised Land," Middle East Report 164-165 (May/June 1990).

For 50 years, MERIP has published critical analysis of Middle Eastern politics, history, and social justice not available in other publications. Our articles have debunked pernicious myths, exposed the human costs of war and conflict, and highlighted the suppression of basic human rights. After many years behind a paywall, our content is now open-access and free to anyone, anywhere in the world. Your donation ensures that MERIP can continue to remain an invaluable resource for everyone.


Pin It on Pinterest

Share This