A “digital roundtable” held Nov. 14 is the latest example of how 21st century technology is breaking down international borders and transforming Cornell’s campus in the humanities as well as the sciences.
“New Mizrahi Writing in Israel: Digital Roundtable,” held in a Martha Van Rensselaer Hall videoconferencing facility, brought together writers on three continents to discuss the contemporary Israeli literary scene for an on-campus audience of students and faculty. The writers were chosen, said organizer Deborah Starr, because their work grapples with the cultural and linguistic heritage of their families who immigrated to Israel from Arab or Muslim countries (termed “Mizrahi Jews”).
“The webcast panel offered students in Ithaca a glimpse into the vibrant Israeli literary scene,” said Starr, professor of modern Hebrew and Arabic literature in the Department of Near Eastern Studies. “And it gave the writers a chance to get to know each other. It was a pretty lively discussion, as they had very different points of view”.
Michal Held, poet and scholar of Ladino, participated from Jerusalem, and began the event by reading a poem in Hebrew and English that she called a “manifesto” against not being categorized “Mizrahi”.
Her manifesto was echoed by Sami Berdugo, participating from Berlin, who read a poem in Hebrew, Arabic and English that reflected his ambivalence toward Hebrew and his Israeli identity. “I feel I have no community in Israel, religious, Mizrahi, sexual or other,” he said, adding “no category applies to me.
Poet Anat Zecharia, calling in from Tel Aviv, said she agreed with Berdugo. When someone reads her poems “as a manifesto of feminism or as an Israeli poet or as a Mizrahi poet, it makes him see maybe the end of the poem, but he never gets down deep to what I mean or think”.
But Almog Behar, award-winning author and poet and a visiting scholar at Cornell, said, “For me, you can be Mizrahi and Israeli and Jewish and Arabic and so on and they don’t contradict each other.” He noted that in the previous generation, “calling people ‘Mizrahi writers’ was a limiting title that was meant to place them in a narrow place in Israeli culture which would be marginalized within Israeli literature … but as a self-definition it also has the power to broaden Israeli literature. It allows us to connect with parts of our literature that were hidden from us”
Poet and playwright Mati Shemoelof, participating from Tel Aviv, said he has begun writing in prose “to find a new place in the culture so the categories focused on my writing will be different. In my prose I am less aware of the categories and try to write less politically and more freely than before.” Still, he added, “I’m proud that my work until now has been Mizrahi work. I’m proud of my ethnicity.
The roundtable was sponsored by the Department of Near Eastern Studies, the Jewish Studies Program and the Society for the Humanities, with support from the Hope and Eli Hurowitz Fund. Behar’s visiting scholar appointment is funded by the Shusterman Foundation.
Linda B. Glaser is staff writer for the College of Arts and Sciences
Although the racism and hatred between Israel and its neighbors seems as entrenched as ever, many Mizrahi artists are connecting to their Arab roots. Does this trend portend a brighter future for the Middle East?
In an interview with Al Arabiya several years ago, popular Israeli singer Zehava Ben stated that she was interested in performing throughout the Arab world, and especially in Beirut and Gaza. Israel’s security system forbade her entrance into the Strip, due to the fact that Hamas rules the territory. In a later interview, she said that her dream is to perform in Cairo’s Opera House, where her favorite singer,Umm Kulthum, once regularly performed. Ben’s words express the natural desires of many Mizrahi Jews in Israel to connect to the roots of the Arab culture in which their parents lived for generations. Mizrahi music represents the longing of almost half of the state’s citizens for the elements of Arab culture that they know so well. But beyond the question of origin, history and biography, it is a question of Israel’s place in the Middle East, which affects every citizen, Mizrahi or not.
When Israeli music begins exporting Arabic culture to its neighbors, both near and far, it will be able to grow its popularity and double or even triple its sales. Mizrahi-Mediterranean culture can jump over that barrier and draw new audiences. Today, we know that many people in neighboring countries, and certainly in the occupied territories, know and love songs by Eyal Golan and are well-versed in new Mizrahi-Israeli music. It will be easier to sell Mizrahi music in the Mashriq (the geographical region between Iran and Egypt) and the Maghreb (from Egypt to Morocco) in parallel to cultural exports to the U.S. and Europe. It’s important to mention that more than a few Israeli success stories in Europe maintained their Arabic sound, such as Ofra Haza.
Maor Adri covers Syrian singer Wafik Habib’s 2012 hit “Yalla Yalla”:
Music and culture have an additional role. Should we be able to export Mizrahi culture to Arab countries, it is likely to reduce the tension and hatred against Israel. The Arab bloc will no longer see Israel as a vestige of European colonialism that came to settle on Palestinian land. They will understand that over a million Jews arrived in Israel from Arab countries, and maintained their Arab identity, which is expressed in music and culture.
Israeli society today cannot see its place between Beirut, Amman and Cairo. But anyone who listens to the many versions by some of Israel’s best singers (Sarit Hadad, Omer Adam, Maor Adri and many others) will discover that they regularly release covers of Arabic songs in Hebrew. There exists today a contemporary Israeli culture that is effectively in dialogue with a contemporary Arab culture, but no one speaks about it openly. There is a conspiracy of silence around the issue. Zehava Ben was brave enough to openly say that her dream is to perform in the same auditorium as Umm Kulthum in Cairo. But Ben is not speaking out of nostalgia – she is up to date and wants, like other artists, to update her work and create new art that corresponds, influences and is influenced by its surroundings. This is the reason that Ben’s album of Umm Kulthum songs made it to the Arab world (despite the boycott), along with albums in Arabic by Ofer Levi, Sarit Hadad and Sharif. Even albums by singers such as Yasmin Levy, who is very successful in Turkey, or Rita with her album in Persian, which made it to Iran (among other countries), or the Moroccan-Israeli singers, who transcend musical horizons within Israel and outside of it.
Omer Adam performs “Wai Li,” a song by Lebanese artist Fares Karam which was originally released in 2009:
The awaited change won’t only come from the Jewish side. It was an important event when Lina Makhoul, a Christian Palestinian from the city of Acre, won first place on Israel’s The Voice television show. Professor Yossi Yonah sees her victory as indicative of Palestinian citizens’ desire to integrate into Israeli culture. Nasreen Kadri’s victory on the second season of Eyal Golan is Calling You, which Israeli educator and activist Shira Ohayon called “a revolution on live television,” was a big step in that direction. Our shared lives here are not only full of negativity, racism and loathing – they also portend a new-old cultural development despite years of political and cultural deadlock that has been forced on us from above. Israel will find its place in the Middle East with the development of Jewish-Arab (as exemplified by Zehava Ben), and Arab-Jewish culture (as exemplified by Lina Makhoul and Nasreen Kadri). The success of these mixed cultures will only bring prosperity.
Nasreen Kadri and Ofer Nissim perform “Sawah” by Egypt’s Abdel Halim Hafez:
The United States House of Representatives is now considering a bipartisan bill, submitted last month, that would effectively equate the plight of the Palestinian refugees with that of Jews whose origins were in Middle Eastern countries.
Although the tragedy that befell Jews in Arab countries following the creation of Israel certainly requires recognition and redress, many Mizrahi Jews resent the linkage.
“The basis of this equivalence is spurious. Arab Jews and Palestinians have two different histories and their experiences are not similar,” insists David Shasha, who directs the Center for Sephardic Heritage in Brooklyn. “Israel has maintained that Arab Jews are members of the Jewish nation and are part of Israel. The fact that they were or were not expelled from Arab countries should not then be relevant to any peace negotiations.”
Despite this manipulation of the tragedy of the Middle East’s ancient Jewish populations, there are clear parallels between that calamity and the one that befell the Palestinians. In fact, you could say that Arab Jews are the Middle East’s “other Palestinians.”
“Both Palestinians and Jews from Arab lands were at the mercy of competing nationalisms – Zionism and Arab nationalism – sweeping the region at the time, playing off each other and insisting on reductive definitions of identity,” observes journalist and writer Rachel Shabi, herself of Iraqi Jewish descent, who is the author of Not The Enemy, a book on the history of Israel’s Mizrahi Jews.
By 1951, the situation for Iraqi Jews had become so untenable that most agreed reluctantly to give up their citizenship and property in return for safe passage out of Iraq. By the 1970s, the Middle East’s rich Jewish heritage had all but disappeared, though fairly sizeable Jewish communities continued to exist in Iran and Morocco.
Although Palestinians and Mizrahi Jews do have the loss of their homelands in common, the Mizrahim, particularly those in Israel, generally do not wish to return to their ancestral lands; indeed, many Mizrahim are actually situated on the anti-Arab end of the Israeli political spectrum. Some do visit their places of origin, such as Jews of Yemenite descent (who are the only Israelis allowed to travel to that country), as well as Moroccan and Egyptian Jews, but it should be recalled that Israeli Jews from most Arab countries are not allowed to visit their ancestral lands.
The majority of Mizrahi Jews today appear to be ideologically committed to the idea of Israel as their homeland. This is reflected, for example, in the fact that the Mizrahi vote brought the settler-friendly Likud to power in 1977 and has acted as a core power base for the party ever since. This implies that most Mizrahim no longer qualify as refugees, though they once were.
However, there are some, albeit a minority, who do still regard themselves as refugees and dream of unlikely return. Take Mati Shemoelof, a second-generation Iraqi-Israeli poet, journalist and activist who defines himself as “Arab” and believes that Mizrahi Jews went “from exile to exile.”
He wants Iraq, which he wishes to visit “more than anything in the world,” to make up for its historic crime by granting Iraqi Jews the right of return and full citizenship, while allowing them to retain their Israeli nationality and identity. His vision: “I want to live in two worlds.”
Shemoelof’s sentiments echo those of many Palestinians. Not only do many of them dwell in perpetual limbo in refugee camps across the Middle East, but the experience of exile and dream of improbable return is a central pillar of Palestinian identity. “[Exile is] a feeling that I have to carry my roots with me, so to speak, but can never fully put them down anywhere,” describes Jennifer Jajeh, a Palestinian-American actress.
Many in the diaspora feel that both they and their homeland have become phantoms. “I feel like I’m a visitor to my own home, like a ghost walking around in a land where other people refuse to see us even when we’re talking with them,” says Ray Hanania, a prominent Palestinian-American columnist, broadcaster and comedian from Chicago who visits Israel and Palestine regularly.
Those who cannot live in or visit the old country dream of being allowed at least to make it their final resting place. “When we die, bury us in Palestine. If you can’t manage that, then try to bring some of its soil and bury it with us,” the parents of a Jordanian-Palestinian friend used to tell her.
And this sense of exile can be just as acute among the Palestinians who stayed behind, as they watch the land of their forefathers morph into another country. “When I go to Jerusalem and walk around certain parts of it, I don’t feel that I belong to that place, because it has been colonized,” saysHurriyahZiada, a 22-year-old Palestinian student and activist in Ramallah.
Living within the boundaries of her historic homeland does not blunt Ziada’s keen sense of being an exile and refugee, perhaps partly because the movement restrictions imposed by Israel mean she has not been able even to visit her ancestral village of Faluja, near Gaza but now part of the Israeli town of Kiryat Gat. In 1948, Faluja’s residents had refused to flee the fighting but were subsequently driven out following the 1949 armistice.
Echoing the early Zionists, Ziada dreams of making Faluja her home – even though the town does not exist anymore and the surrounding area has become completely Israeli – and living the life of a Palestinian pioneer there. “It’s true that I’m used to living here [Ramallah] and all that, but it is my right to return to the village,” she insists, noting that “I’m willing to pay the price, and to start from scratch because this is the only way.”
It is unclear how representative Ziada’s views are of Palestinian refugees in general, since little research has been carried out on the taboo question of actual versus symbolic return and recognition of the historic wrong committed against the Palestinian people.
For most Israelis, even peace activists and pacifists, the idea of Palestinian return to what is today Israel is a complete non-starter. The creation and development of Israel “entails an essential injustice to the Palestinian people,” Amos Oz, one of Israel’s leading novelists, told me during a long and riveting conversation in his basement study.
In Oz’s view, it is essential for Israel to maintain “a Jewish majority” – though he diverges from the mainstream in his belief that Israel should be a state for all its citizens – even if it means shrinking its territory. His reasoning? That Jews have a right to live free of persecution and to determine their own destiny.
Palestinian return, in his view, should be to a Palestinian state within the full pre-1967 borders, referring to the armistice lines before the 1967 Six Day War. He argues that this is the pragmatic and realistic thing to do. But for an influential segment of Palestinian society, the idea of refugees not having the right to return to anywhere other than the actual homes and towns they abandoned is anathema.
So what’s the solution? According to some, compromise on both sides is the only way to ensure “a means of both of us surviving”, as Ray Hanania puts it.