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boundary 2 31.2 (2004) 219-243

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"Permanent Immigration":

Jacqueline Kahanoff, Ronit Matalon, and the Impetus of Levantinism

The Mediterranean is another way of writing history.
—Michel Eckhard Elial1

Following the first wave of Moroccan immigrants to Israel in 1949, a French diplomat, who has chosen to remain anonymous, was quoted in the leading Israeli newspaper Ha-aretz as warning the new state that "the immigration of certain human material is liable to bring the Jewish nation down, and make it into a Levantine nightmare."2 A decade later, the British daily the Manchester Guardian had accused Israel's then prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, of "plunging the new nation into Levantinism," and Ben-Gurion himself was quoted as saying that he would surely "prevent Levantinism from creeping into [Israel's] national life!"3 [End Page 219]

What is Levantinism, and what does it mean for a people or a nation to be Levantinized? What, on the other hand, does it mean to save a nation from Levantinization? As the examples above reveal, Levantinism is understood to be a social threat imagined as a process, culminating in an undesirable state of affairs. What exactly does this state of affairs involve, and why has Israel, in particular, been the target of so much concern regarding the possibility of Levantinization? The first and most detailed attempt to define Levantinism and explain the source of its social threat was made by the Israeli writer of Iraqi descent Nissim Rejwan, in an essay published in the Jerusalem Post in 1961. The Levant, he writes, is first and foremost a geographical space, yet Levantinism has less to do with geography than with culture: "Levantinism is a cultural [concept] . . . you can come from the Levant and be the opposite of a Levantine: you can hail from Europe and be the epitome of Levantinism."4 Levantinism, Rejwan argues, is "a state of mind" brought about by losing possession over one's own culture and values. Along similar lines, A. H. Hourani suggests that "to be a Levantine is to live in two or more worlds at once, without belonging to either; to be able to go through the external forms . . . of a certain nationality, religion or culture, without actually possessing it."5 Drawing on these words, we can conclude that Levantinism is a state of performing culture: "going through the external forms of culture, without actually possessing them." Now, if anyone, as Rejwan suggests, can be "Levantinized," or "on the way to a perfect Levantine mood" (What Is), we can begin to see the threat Levantinism presents and possibly relate to Ben-Gurion's promise to prevent the Levantinization of the newly born nation. Yet we still need to ask, What does it mean to "perform culture," that is to say, to "go through [its] external forms" without possessing it, and how can a possession over culture be lost? Finally, if it is possible to perform culture without having to possess it, what does it mean to embrace this state of mind as a conscious and subversive political and cultural stance?

Levantinism: A Culture-in-Becoming

The French and British colonizers of North Africa and the Middle East were the first to use the terms Levant and Levantine to mark not only a geographical [End Page 220] space but also a state of culture and a "type" of person.6 The literal meaning of the French word levant—meaning, among other things, "rising sun"—was often used by French colonizers to denote the evolutionary cultural development from East to West. The affiliated term, Levantinism, came to mean, in this context, a state of cultural impurity: a failed attempt on the side of the colonized to imitate the ways of the West, resulting in poor performance of (Western) culture. The trajectory of such colonial imagination can be easily traced in numerous literary and journalistic texts published in Hebrew since 1948 and dedicated to the problem of Levantine influence (hashpa'a levantinit). What for the French and British was part of a half-legitimate...


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