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Modern Middle Eastern Jewish Thought

Writings on Identity, Politics, and Culture, 1893-1958

Moshe Behar

Publication Year: 2013

This volume opens the canon of modern Jewish thought to the vibrant and compelling--yet all too often overlooked--writings of Jews from the Arab East, from the close of the nineteenth century to the middle of the twentieth. Whether they identified as Sephardim, Mizrahim, anticolonialists, or Zionists, these thinkers engaged the fundamental challenges and transformations of Middle Eastern Jewry in this decisive period.

In an illuminating and provocative introduction, Moshe Behar and Zvi Ben-Dor Benite present Jewish culture and politics situated within overlapping Arabic, Islamic, and colonial contexts. They invite the reader to reconsider contemporary invocations of Levantine, Mizrahi, and Arab Jewish identities against the backdrop of earlier generations of Middle Eastern Jewish intellectuals who critically assessed or contested the implications of Western presence and Western Jewish presence in the Middle East, religion and secularization, and the rise of nationalism, communism, and Zionism, as well as the creation and meaning of the State of Israel.

Published by: Brandeis University Press

Series: Tauber Institute Series for the Study of European Jewry & The Brandeis Library of Modern Jewish Thought


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p. 1-1

Title Page, Series Page, Copyright

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pp. 2-7


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pp. 8-9


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pp. ix-xii

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pp. xiii-xiv

It is with great enthusiasm that we present a volume of the Brandeis Library of Modern Jewish Thought devoted to a heterogeneous set of intellectuals who stood at the intersection of Jewish and Arab identities. These Jews from the Arab East, some of whom identified themselves as Mizrahim, wrestled with questions of religious difference and national aspirations in Arabic, Hebrew, ...

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pp. xv-xviii

In retrospect, the inception of this anthology probably dates back to 1990 when we met in Jerusalem as undergraduate students and realized that we were both reading and distributing the now legendary Mizrahi semi-samizdat publication Iton Aher (The other paper). Our friendship is an outgrowth of that one precious Jerusalemite afternoon...

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Editors’ Note

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pp. xix-xx

In translating the texts for this volume, we strove to produce versions in smooth English that would be accessible to the widest readership possible. Thus transliterated Hebrew and Arabic words are rendered in the standard simplified Romanization system, with minimal diacritical markings. However, where names or words appear in the original texts in Latin characters, we preserved ...

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Introduction: Mizrahi and Modern Middle Eastern Thought: Present and Past

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pp. xxi-xlii

A significant development in the world of Jewish thought during the past two decades is evident in the rise of a discourse—better yet, conversations—explicitly concerned with Mizrahim, or Jews of non-Ashkenazi descent whose origins lie in the East outside Europe. At first, the collective name “Mizrahim” simply...

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Avraham Elmaleh

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pp. 1-44

Avraham Elmaleh (1876-1967) was a prolific scholar, essayist, linguist, translator, editor, ethnographer, historian, and journalist. He was also a Sephardic leader and politician in Jerusalem. Elmaleh received an extensive rabbinic education, first at the Mugrabi Talmud Torah of Rabbi Yehouda Kastil in the Old City of Jerusalem, and later at Yeshiva Doresh Tsiyyon and Yeshiva ...

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1 | East and West

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pp. 2-9

This Hebrew essay was first published in Jaffa in 1919 and a year later became the inaugural essay of the new journal Mizrah u-Ma‘arav (East and West), cofounded by Elmaleh. The journal was published regularly for a few years but then was discontinued for lack of funds. The same essay was republished when the journal...

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Ya‘qub Sannu‘

Also called James Sanua—and widely known by his nom de plume, Abou Naddara Zarqa1 (“the man with the blue spectacles”)—Ya‘qub Sannu‘2 (1839– 1912) was an Egyptian nationalist, playwright, colorful satirist, dramatist, journalist, publisher, cartoonist, teacher, lecturer, anticolonialist, protofeminist...

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2 | Some Teachings of the Koran

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pp. 12-13

An interesting paper prepared by J. Sanna Abou Naddara of Paris was read by Professor Snell, on the Koran and other sacred scriptures. The paper said in part:
You desire me to speak freely about my opinion about the Koran.
The Koran has been translated into all languages. I shall not speak of its holiness, lest I profane it, and, besides, I am not a Mohammedan priest—I am a...

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3 | Transvaal’s Exemplary Rebels

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pp. 14-17

Happy ‘Id al-Fitr! Happy Afranji [here, meaning European] New Year! Like dewdrops and like the stars sparkling during these days of ‘Id al-Fitr, I extend my regards and warmest wishes to my Muslim brothers. I ask the Almighty to let joy and bliss prevail for his great caliph, our sultan, and for all the kings, princes...

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4 | The Koran

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pp. 18-20

Islam’s holy book, called by its faithful believers Kitabuhu al-‘Aziz [His dear book], is nowadays studied more than ever by scholars and intellectuals and read by the public. All wish to familiarize themselves with the religion, laws, literature, and morals of the 300 million Muslims residing in every country and

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5 | Ottoman Imperial Schools

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pp. 21-22

The Ottoman emperor has learned the value of knowledge and knows that education is the source of happiness and prosperity among peoples. Was it not the worthy successor of the great Prophet of Islam who said: “Cultivate science, for the study of the sciences, to the glory of God, is an act of good, research into...

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6 | My Last Dream

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pp. 23-25

May the Merciful and Compassionate God—who for half a century has deigned to realize almost all of my dreams—bring this last dream, which has charmed my night and made my morning joyful, to reality! As an Eastern poet once said—the lover dreams only of his beloved and of her beauty, which

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7 | John Bull and the Egyptian Student

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pp. 26-69

The Student: Good morning, John Bull. You seem cheerful today. Have you won the jackpot?
John Bull: Even better! We’ve just received a dispatch from Paris announcing the closure of that accursed newspaper L’Abou Naddara at the end of the year. That patriotic viper’s infamous tongue will soon be silenced: on that day my...

8 | My Poor Eyes

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pp. 27-70

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9 | Letter to Philip Tarrazi

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pp. 28-29

You said, in the beginning of the second page, “The young man then adopted the Muslim religion.” Please omit this because I did not change the faith of my parents, although I respect the three religions [Judaism, Islam, and Christianity]. My only belief is in the omnipotence of God. This is witnessed by the conversation...

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Esther Azhari Moyal

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pp. 30-73

A pioneering and daring journalist, feminist, essayist, literary translator, publisher, and teacher, Esther Moyal, née Azhari (1873–1948), was born in Beirut. She lived and worked in Cairo, Istanbul, Jaffa, and Marseilles and died, intellectually disillusioned, in Jaffa’s Manshiyya neighborhood at the age of seventy-five. A graduate of Beirut’s Syrian Protestant College, Moyal taught at...

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10 | Address at the American College for Girls in Beirut

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pp. 31-37

My dear ladies,1
On behalf of other members of our brilliant society, I congratulate you on the great success that you have achieved after long years of hard work, learning, and inquiry day and night,2 until attaining a high level of education and knowledge. I welcome you to the membership of our society, which welcomes you...

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11 | Our Renaissance

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pp. 38-47

Ladies and gentlemen!
We can say that time has passed and pens have dried up. Misery is our destiny, and the West utilizes it as a tool to ensure our silence. The West manages and shapes our destiny as it sees fit—as if the West owns the East. Westerners divide...

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Murād Farag

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pp. 48-91

Probably Egypt’s most prominent Karaite Jew in the twentieth century and a practicing lawyer, Murād Farag (1866–1956) was a reformer, scholar, poet, essayist, translator, journalist, and editor. (His surname is often spelled Faraj, and his first name often appears as Mourad or Morad). Farag wrote some thirty...

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12 | The War for Our Nation

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pp. 49-61

[By “war”] I mean concrete war—rather than a war of words or an incomplete war of demonstrations. I am not in denial regarding the existence of these words or those demonstrations, and neither do I deny their value, action, or influence. What I do reject is the inadequacy of their effect, benefit, and utility, which lack...

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Nissim Ya‘acov Malul

Dr. Nissim Ya‘acov Malul (1892–1959) was born in Safed to a family that had emigrated from Tunisia to Ottoman Palestine 200 years earlier. Shortly after Nissim’s birth, his father, Moshe Hayyim Malul, was appointed rabbi of the Jewish communities of Tanta and Cairo, and the family moved to Egypt...

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13 | Our Status in the Country, or the Question of Learning Arabic

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pp. 64-70

This essay was published in three consecutive issues of Ha-Herut in 1913. Malul was then involved in a heated debate about Jewish and Hebrew culture, Arabic, and the (Jewish) question of assimilation. The debate began with an attack on Malul’s activities to promote the study of Arabic among Jews. On May 16, 1913, Ya‘acov...

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Ben-Zion Meir Hai Uziel

Ben-Zion Meir Hai Uziel (1880–1953) was the Sephardi chief rabbi of Mandatory Palestine and the first Sephardi chief rabbi of the State of Israel.
Born in Jerusalem, Uziel descended from a notable family of rabbis. His father, Yoseph Raphael Uziel (d. 1894), was the head of the Rabbinical Court (Beit Din) of the Sephardi community. Ben-Zion Uziel received his rabbinic...

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14 | Angels of Peace

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pp. 73-76

My esteemed peers:
For many years we have awaited your arrival on our soil. We waited, as we believed that your arrival fulfills our eminent, longing of millennia. To our great pleasure, the joyous day has arrived wherein your feet walk on the holy soil. Your eyes shall see the flourishing community of the People of Israel in our Land, ...

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15 | A Speech in the Celebration of My Jubilee

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pp. 77-79

Mr. Chairman, dearest and most esteemed rabbis and teachers, I am speechless; you have bestowed much love and effection on me in your words.
[. . .] And in seeing you all here tonight convened together, pleased with the event that vis-à-vis my mere personality is trivial, and [yet is] precious regarding my public stature in your giving honor to the Torah. In my eyes, I am hereby...

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Joseph Aslan Cattaui Pacha

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pp. 80-123

Joseph A. Cattaui (1861–1942) was Egypt’s most prominent Jew between the two world wars, tracing his family’s residence in Egypt back to the eighth-century Umayyad period. His surname is often spelled Cattaoui, and he is also known as Yusuf (or Youssef) Qattawi. A graduate of the world’s oldest engineering...

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16 | On Solidarity and on Diversity

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pp. 81-86

All societies should be founded on the core principle of the equitable and continual exchange of rights and duties that go to make up Solidarity, thanks to which an individual attaches him- or herself to the rest of humanity. To be part of a body, an atom must be animated by a cohesive force just as powerful...

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Hayyim Ben-Kiki

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pp. 87-130

A Sephardi intellectual of North African descent—son of Rabbi Shmuel Ben- Kiki (chief rabbi of the Tiberias rabbinic court, d. 1919)—Hayyim Ben-Kiki (1887–1935) was born in Tiberias and lived and worked there most of his life. During the 1920s he served as the secretary of the Sephardi Union in Haifa and...

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17 | European Culture in the East

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pp. 88-101

The Orient has a unique culture and unique customs and religion that greatly distinguish it from the West. This difference is profound and is based on the Weltanschauung of the great oriental sages and prophets and their opinions concerning life and death, good and evil. In ancient times, Western nations feared...

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18 | On the Question of All Questions Concerning the Settling of the Land

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pp. 102-108

This essay was published by Ben-Kiki nearly four years after the British had issued the Balfour Declaration and at a time when the rising Palestinian-Arab national movement was becoming increasingly hostile to Zionism. Ben-Kiki wrote this essay in response to hesitant calls from various Zionist quarters to reach out to the Arabs...

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Menahem Salih Daniel

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pp. 109-152

Menahem Daniel (1846–1940) was one of the most prominent leaders of the Jewish community in Baghdad. He served in the Ottoman Parliament and was in the Iraqi Senate from 1925 to 1940. In the first half of the twentieth century, he was one of the highest-ranking Jewish politicians in the Arab Middle East. His son, Ezra Daniel (1874–1952), succeeded his father as a member of the Iraqi Senate...

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19 | Letter to Chayyim Weizmann

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pp. 110-113

Dear Sir,
I have the pleasure to acknowledge receipt of your letter of the 20th July 1922. It is needless to say that I greatly appreciate and admire your noble ideal, and would have been glad to be able to contribute towards its realization...

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David Avisar

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pp. 114-157

A teacher, educator of teachers, author, playwright, and Sephardi politician, David Avisar (1888–1963) was born in Hebron and grew up in a religious Sephardi environment. He was educated at the yeshiva of the great rabbi and kabbalist Eliyahu Mani (1818–99), who arrived in Hebron from Baghdad...

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20 | A Proposal Concerning the Question of Understanding and Reaching an Agreement with the Arabs of the Land of Israel

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pp. 115-118

For days and years we have been talking—in [Zionist] Congress meetings and in various other assembly meetings—about the need, the desire, and the possibility of reaching an understanding and agreement with the Arabs of the Land of Israel concerning the building of our national home. Leaders and politicians...

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Elie (Eliyahu) Eliachar

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pp. 119-162

Born to a distinguished Jerusalem Sephardic family of rabbis, leaders, and entrepreneurs, Elie Eliachar (1899–1981) had a long career as a Sephardic leader, politician, businessman, and writer. He was a member of the first and second Knesset, initially representing the Sephardim and the Edot Ha-Mizrah Party...

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21 | A Jew of Palestine before the Royal Commission

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pp. 120-130

I am Jew born in Palestine. My family has resided in the Holy Land for Centuries without interruption and there are few even among the present leaders of the Arab movement who can boast as long and direct a connection with this country. Were I to appear before the Royal Commission my evidence would...

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22 | Jews and Arabs

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pp. 131-136

There has been unrest in the Yishuv in recent days in the wake of the public appearance of a new political body—the Union [Ha-Ichud]—established by Dr. Magnes and others who share his views. The Union’s platform is promising in that it is linked to the Zionist movement while also seeking to address...

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Ibrahim al-Kabir

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pp. 137-180

Also known as A. S. Elkabir (following a different transliteration), Ibrahim al- Kabir (d. after 1964), born to a distinguished Iraqi Jewish family, was one of the leaders of the Jewish community in Baghdad. An economist, he served as director-general of the Iraqi Treasury between 1934 and 1948. He was also a director...

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23 | Evidence Given to Palestine’s Anglo-American Committee of Inquiry, Which Visited Baghdad

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pp. 138-140

I have been invited to testify before the honorable committee. I must in the first place stress that I will speak in a personal capacity. I hold no mandate, formal or implied, to speak on behalf of the Jewish community, who, as far as I know, have no political leaders...

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Yusuf Harun Zilkha and Sasson Shalom Dallal

Yusuf Zilkha (b. 1921) and Sasson Dallal (1929–49) were both born in Baghdad. Zilkha was a railway clerk, journalist, author, and Communist activist, who was elected leader of the League for the Struggle against Zionism (‘Usbat Mukafahat al-Sahyuniyya) at the age of twenty-five. Dallal was a clerk in the...

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24 | Zionism against Arabs and Jews

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pp. 143-161

The Jewish Question is not a stand-alone problem but is, rather, closely related to general community issues. It is part and parcel of these issues, arising in the context of a societal drive toward development and progress. Many historians attribute the rise of the Jewish Question to the presence of Jews in...

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25 | Last Letter

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pp. 162-163

Dear Brother:
It is an enchanting evening. The wind has been blowing steadily the whole day. It suddenly dropped at nightfall. All is still. There is no stir in the air. The world seems fast asleep. I cannot sleep. It is hard to sleep knowing that tomorrow at dawn I will die. Ever since I was arrested, I wanted to write to you. I was...

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Marsil Shirizi

A leading Marxist activist and the author of many works in Arabic, French, and Italian, Marsil Shirizi (b. 1913)—also known as Marcel Israel and Marcel Ceresi —was born in Cairo’s Mit Ghamr neighborhood to a Jewish-Italian family. At twenty-one, he joined the antifascist International Peace Movement, and...

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26 | Anti-Zionism for the Sake of Jews and the Sake of Egypt

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pp. 166-173

The Jewish League to Combat Zionism was formed to counteract the impending danger of Zionism with regard to the settlement of the old and painful Jewish Question. The League founders are well acquainted with the manifold difficulties and obstacles that will doubtless appear in their way while [they are] carrying on...

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Henri Curiel

A cofounder of several communist groups in Egypt and a leading Marxist organizer during the 1940s, Henri Curiel (1914–78) was born in Cairo to a well-off Jewish family. Although his family had lived in Egypt for three generations and also possessed Italian citizenship, its members adopted a Francophone identity in linguistic...

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27 | Egyptian Communists and the Jewish Question

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pp. 176-179

On November 2, 1945—on the occasion of the twenty-eighth anniversary of the Balfour Declaration—British imperialism, fearing the growing strength of the Egyptian national movement, attempted to create a diversionary maneuver by setting up, through their profascist [local] movements, an antisemitic demonstration...

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28 | What Ought to Be the First Official Message from the DMNL to the Israeli Communist Party?

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pp. 180-192

The issue of relations between Israel and the Arab states in general—and Egypt in particular—is of vital importance for the following four reasons: (i) current relations between the Arab states and Israel constitute a grave danger to peace in the Middle East (We deem this thesis [to be] self-evident and see no need to...

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29 | Some Clarifications on “Social Democracy”

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pp. 193-197

Social democracy is essentially the ideology favored by the workers’ aristocracy. It was spawned in the imperialist era at the moment when the bourgeoisie— thanks to the high profits elicited by colonial exploitation—accorded a privileged status to certain elements and occasionally to certain strata of the...

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Sami Michael

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pp. 198-241

Born Salah Menashe in Baghdad in 1926, Sami Michael is today one of Israel’s best-known Mizrahi authors. His literary, intellectual, and political career stretches over decades both in Iraq and later in Israel. Often using the Arabic-sounding nom de plume Samir Murad, Michael began writing for Iraqi newspapers...

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30 | The Newly Arrived Men of Letters

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pp. 199-204

This essay in Arabic was written under Michael’s nom de plume in 1954. We translate it here in full, with the original editorial note that was attached to it. The Arabic monthly al-Jadid was first published in November 1953 as a supplement to the Arabic weekly al-Ittihad, a publication of the Israeli Communist Party (commonly...

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Jacqueline Shohet Kahanoff

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pp. 205-248

Born in Cairo to an Iraqi father and a Tunisian mother, Jacqueline Kahanoff (1917–79) was undeniably the leading proponent of the notion of Levantinism, which she developed after moving to Israel during the 1950s as a holistic, eclectic, and multicultural alternative to Israel’s newly formed society. Like many...

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31 | Bridge to the Oriental Immigrants

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pp. 206-212

The most striking feature in the life of the immigrants from the Orient is their physical and cultural isolation. People mingle with each other in the streets, in clubs, kibbutzim, factories, and this daily interaction [and] this intense negotiation are decisive factors in creating the sense that all belong to one country and...

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David Sitton

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pp. 213-256

David Sitton (1909–89), born in Jerusalem to a Sephardic family, was a writer and an activist intellectual for many years, both before and after 1948. He was a younger associate of leading figures in the Sephardic community of Jerusalem, including Elie Eliachar, with whom he later founded the World Sephardic...

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32 | A Call for Deepening “The Mizrahi Consciousness” among Us

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pp. 214-223

We do not intend to opine here about the question of Israel’s [international] political “orientation”—that is, whether Israelis should turn their eyes to the Western world or strive to integrate within the Asian world. This very important question should be discussed calmly and without a fit of temper. We should...

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Avraham Abbas

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pp. 224-267

Avraham Abbas (1912–58) was born in Damascus and was one of the founders of the Zionist Ha-Halutz movement in Syria. In 1929 he led the first group of migrants from Syria to Palestine, where he became a member of Kibbutz Kfar Giladi. Between 1931 and 1934 he served there as a Histadrut emissary to...

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33 | From Ingathering to Integration: The Communal Problem in Israel

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pp. 225-248

Abbas produced this lengthy and detailed report in Hebrew in 1958. Most notably, it was not written by a member of the Hebrew University’s Department of Sociology, one of whose tasks was dealing with questions of Mizrahi “integration,” nor did it appear in an official governmental publication. It is striking to see how many...

Publication Credits

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pp. 249-250


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pp. 251-257

E-ISBN-13: 9781611683868
E-ISBN-10: 1611683866
Print-ISBN-13: 9781584658849

Page Count: 272
Publication Year: 2013

Series Title: Tauber Institute Series for the Study of European Jewry & The Brandeis Library of Modern Jewish Thought

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Subject Headings

  • Jews -- Middle East -- Identity.
  • Arabs -- Middle East -- Ethnic identity.
  • Jews -- Middle East -- Intellectual life -- 20th century.
  • Arabs -- Middle East -- Intellectual life -- 20th century.
  • Jewish nationalism -- Middle East.
  • Arab Nationalism -- Middle East.
  • Zionism -- Palestine -- History -- 20th century.
  • Israel -- Ethnic relations.
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