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Social Text 21.2 (2003) 49-74

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Rupture and Return
Zionist Discourse and the Study of Arab Jews

Ella Shohat

Eurocentric and Zionist norms of scholarship have had dire consequences for the representation of the history and identity of Arab Jews/Mizrahim (that is, Jews from Arab/Muslim regions) vis-à-vis the question of Palestine. In previous publications I suggested some of the historical, political, economic, and discursive links between the question of Palestine and Arab Jews, and argued for a scholarship that investigates the erasure of such links. Here, I will trace some moments in the hegemonic production of an isolationist approach to the study of "Jewish History" as crucial to a quite anomalous project in which the state created the nation—not simply in the metaphorical sense of fabrication, but also in the literal sense of engineering the transplant of populations from all over the world. New modes of knowledge about Jews were essential in this enterprise, which placed Palestinians and European Zionist Jews at opposite poles of the civilizational clash. Yet, Arab Jews presented some challenges for Zionist scholarship, precisely because their presence "messed up" its Enlightenment paradigm that had already figured the modern Jew as cleansed from its shtetl past. In Palestine, freed of its progenitor the Ostjuden, the New Jew could paradoxically live in the "East" without being of it.

Central to Zionist thinking was the concept of Kibbutz Galuiot—the "ingathering of the exiles." Following two millennia of homelessness and living presumably "outside of history," Jews could once again "enter history" as subjects, as "normal" actors on the world stage by returning to their ancient birth place, Eretz Israel. In this way, Jews were thought to heal a deformative rupture produced by exilic existence. This transformation of Migola le'Geula—from diaspora to redemption—offered a teleological reading of Jewish History in which Zionism formed a redemptive vehicle for the renewal of Jewish life on a demarcated terrain, no longer simply spiritual and textual but rather national and political. The idea of Jewish return (which after the establishment of Israel was translated into legal language handing every Jew immediate access to Israeli citizenship) had been intertwined with the imaging of the empty land of Palestine. Its indigenous inhabitants could be bracketed or, alternately, portrayed as intruders deemed to "return" to their Arab land of origins (a discourse that was encoded in the various transfer plans).

A corollary of the notion of Jewish "return" and continuity in Israel [End Page 49] was the idea of rupture and discontinuity with diasporic existence. In order to be transformed into "New Jews" (later Israelis), the "Diasporic Jews" had to abandon their diasporic culture, which, in the case of Arab Jews, meant abandoning Arabness and acquiescing in assimilationist modernization, for "their own good." Within this Promethean rescue narrative, concepts of "ingathering" and "modernization" naturalized and glossed over the historical, psychic, and epistemological violence generated by the Zionist vision of the New Jew. 1 This rescue narrative also elided Zionism's own role in provoking ruptures, dislocations, and fragmentation for Palestinian lives, and—in a different way—for Middle Eastern and north African Jews. These ruptures were not only physical (the movement across borders) but also cultural (a rift in relation to previous cultural affiliations) as well as conceptual (in the very ways time and space, history, and geography were conceived).

In this essay I will examine some of the foundational premises and substratal axioms of Zionist discourse concerning Arab Jews, arguing that writing a critical historiography in the wake of nationalism—both Arab and Jewish—requires the dismantling of a number of master narratives. I will attempt to disentangle the complexities of the Mizrahi question by unsettling the conceptual borders erected by more than a century of Zionist discourse, with its lethal binarisms of savagery versus civilization, tradition versus modernity, East versus West, and Arab versus Jew. While one might examine the position of Mizrahim within the restrictive parameters of what Zionist scholarship constructed as "Jewish History," I have long argued against creating such a segregated discursive space...


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