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Diaspora 2:1 1992 Exile and Political Activism: The Egyptian-Jewish Communists in Paris, 1950—59 Joel Hein in Stanford University Frederick Barth's classic essay on the social construction ofethnic boundaries is one of the landmarks in the discrediting of the notion that culture and identity are essences inherent in racially and geographically distinct ethnic groups. In opposition to the exoticist essentialism of many anthropologists of his day, Barth argued for the social determination of the boundaries distinguishing one ethnic group from another. The current wave of postmodern textualism, with its emphasis on "imagined communities" (see Anderson) and the "invention of ethnicity" (see Sollors), extends the Barthian antiessentialist project even further. There is much to be gained by acknowledging the constructed character ofall categories ofculture, politics, and knowledge, including identity and ethnicity. But many postmodern textualists have gone too far in the direction of regarding culture as a domain to be understood in relative isolation from social determinants, and some varieties of postmodernism have dismissed the relevance of ethnic and national identity altogether. Is there a way to assimilate the insights of poststructuralist social theory while avoiding these antimaterialist and ultimately Eurocentric excesses? James Clifford, in his provocative essay "Identity in Mashpee," tries to integrate discursive, social, and historical elements in the formation of culture and identity, asking: "Who speaks for cultural authenticity? How is collective identity and difference represented? How do people define themselves with, over, and in spite of others? What are the changing local and world historical conditions determining these processes?" (289) In the court case Clifford describes, the central issue was whether the residents of the town of Mashpee on Cape Cod constituted an Indian tribe, and he suggests that "the trial can be seen as a struggle between history and anthropology" (317). That is, historians and ultimately the court relied on positivist forms of evidence according to which the Mashpee community was not a tribe. In the course ofits historical evolution, the group did not always possess the attributes legally required to claim tribal identity; therefore, its claims to land and recognition were denied. The Mashpee community shared a 73 Diaspora 2:1 1992 more anthropological sense of culture, one that privileged its common sentiment and shared experience ofstruggle; these, it felt, merited legal recognition of the community as a tribe and the economic benefits such recognition would entail. Clifford's essay is a model for conducting this kind of investigation : self-conscious without degenerating into solipsism, triviality, or agnosticism; free of the obscurantist style characteristic of many authors concerned with these issues; attentive to relevant historical detail; and cognizant of both the social and discursive determinants of cultural identity. His approach also has political ramifications because he implies that positivist history is on the side of the state (the oppressor), whereas a more dynamic, anthropological conception of culture, privileging shared sentiment and experience, would support the rights ofthe oppressed (the Mashpee community). Or, to stretch the point some at the risk of losing some of Clifford's nuances : in this case social and historical determinants disenfranchised the Mashpee community while their discursively constructed anthropological sense ofthemselves was a vehicle for empowerment. Thus, discourse is potentially liberating, whereas structures are oppressive . I propose to set the apparent conclusions of"Identity in Mashpee" against a very different case that is perhaps no less singular than the Mashpee community: the group of Egyptian-Jewish communist émigrés in Paris during the 1950s whose nom de guerre was "the Rome group." As in Mashpee, the primary determinants of the actual outcome of this case appear to be social and historical, and, as in Mashpee, the Rome group rejected the determination of its identity status reached by outsiders, in this case both the Egyptian state and ultimately the other communists as well. But unlike the Mashpee community, the Egyptian-Jewish communists were not seeking to establish the legitimacy of their separate identity but rather to assert an assimilationist claim. They wished to present themselves as an undifferentiated part ofthe Egyptian nation, while most other Egyptians viewed them as foreigners because they were Jewish. Moreover, they continued to assert their Egyptianity at considerable cost to themselves, despite the loss...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1911-1568
Print ISSN
1044-2057
Pages
pp. 73-94
Launched on MUSE
2011-07-06
Open Access
No
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