MESA Banner
Reimagining Sephardic Studies: Perspectives from outside the Fold

Session VIII-01, sponsored by Organized under the auspices of the UCLA Center for Jewish Studies, 2022 Annual Meeting

On Saturday, December 3 at 11:00 am

RoundTable Description
This roundtable convenes participants of the May 2022 Columbia-UCLA symposium "Reimagining Sephardic Studies" to reflect on the relationship of Sephardic Studies to its sister fields and to methods in the study of race, migration, state violence, and settler colonialism. Far from a narrow focus on Ladino-speaking Jews originating from the Iberian Peninsula, scholarship in past decades has evinced numerous appraisals of the modern histories and cultures of Jews in North Africa, the Ottoman Empire and Iran, and the “Muslim world” writ large under the flexible rubrics of “Sephardic" or "Mizrahi" Studies. Yet Sephardic Studies, broadly construed, has yet to fully account for the political and institutional contexts within which the Anglophone and Israeli study of Jews in the Muslim world operates, and how such contexts have shaped epistemic (im)possibilities within the field. The aim of this roundtable is to bring together emerging scholars not only to interrogate the politics of knowledge production within Sephardic Studies today and its relationship to Mizrahi and Palestinian scholarship and activism, but also to envision how the next generation of scholarship on Jews in Southwest Asia and North Africa (SWANA) might relate to scholarly and lay audiences outside of disciplinary Sephardic Studies.
  • As a participant in this roundtable, I will contribute to explorations of race and racialization within Sephardic Studies. My work approaches this through the lens of Sephardic ethnography in the late Ottoman Empire that unfolded in the second half of the nineteenth century and into the early twentieth. Sephardic writers drew on racial discourses in writing ethnographically about other Jewish communities across the empire, and at times autoethnographically about their own. Though scholarship has long considered how Sephardic Jews have been perceived as ethnographic objects of the European and Ashkenazi gaze, it has barely begun to consider their work and subjectivities as ethnographers. In examining the history and politics of Ottoman Sephardic ethnography, this talk explores how scholars and journalists, rabbis, teachers, and travelers produced, circulated, and marshalled racialized knowledge in service of various reformist ideologies. It seeks to understand how Ottoman Jews, themselves doubly racialized as Jews and as “Orientals,” contended with their consignment to the past as relics of yesteryear by adopting and adapting racializing discourses, situating and representing themselves, and classifying and hierarchizing others. I will focus particularly on the works of Abraham Danon, an Ottoman Sephardic ethnographer and historian whose works racialized both Others he encountered as well as his own Sephardic community. I will also be serving as moderator for this roundtable session.
  • Today, scholars within Jewish and Middle East Studies alike contrast the “states of separation” that succeeded the Ottoman Empire to the “modern culture of coexistence” that had existed there before: it was the advent of European Zionism, the story goes, that transformed “the multireligious land of Palestine” into a “Jewish state led by Ashkenazi European settlers.” These arguments about Jewish coexistence in the Muslim world are motivated by a commendable purpose: to challenge stereotypes about “the demise of Jewish communities in the Arab world” that scholarly and state institutions so often use to justify the ongoing dispossession of Palestinians. Yet what such scholarship nevertheless elides is how their historical subjects’ narratives of coexistence were themselves attempts to “make sense of their crises by remembering a past in which such suffering was hardly possible”—a process that Julie Livingston, writing about the afterlives of British colonialism in a different context, named “moral imagination.” Why and how did the historical subjects so often cited within Sephardic Studies invest in some visions of coexistence — but not others? And what crises are elided when we reinscribe, rather than describe, this moral imagination? Drawing from methodologies in Asian American Studies and critical political economy, my comments press us to imagine Sephardic Studies not as a field defined by its "Sephardic" subjects, but rather as a field defined by its potential for critique. Suggesting ways in which the moral imagination of Sephardic history-writing counter-intuitively came to enable settler colonial dispossession in Mandate Palestine, I argue that Sephardic Studies can serve as an analytic site from which to understand the paradoxical relationships between race and settler colonialism in an age of global finance capital. In so doing, I also address the methodological and political aporia between Sephardic, Mizrahi, and Palestinian Studies.
  • My paper will historicize the divergent paths of Ethnic and Jewish Studies in the U.S. Given recent controversy over Ethic Studies in California and Arizona, I will specifically focus on how accusations of erasing Mizrahi and Sephardi-American histories have been used to justify major modifications of curriculum intended to include previously ignored stories of Indigenous, Black, and Asian communities in the Americas. To help contextualize this controversy, I will discuss the ideological, and later institutional, reasons for largely independent development of Jewish and Ethnic Studies at the university level since the 1960s. Finally, I will address whether the modified model curriculum in California has reified a false binary of inclusion, wherein recognition of Sephardi/Mizrahi histories arbitrarily leads to erasure of Palestinian-American ones.
  • In this roundtable, I am interested in probing why the fields of Mizrahi studies and Palestinian studies have, perhaps surprisingly, intersected very little. Through readings of the literature of these respective fields, I hope to propose alternative ways of reading historical events and discursive exchanges which bring Mizrahi-Palestinian interactions to the fore. In short, it is worth asking: “What is the Mizrahi Question in Palestine Studies?” and “What is the Palestinian Question in Mizrahi Studies?” Taking up previous calls for relational approaches to the study of the history of Israel/Palestine, I look towards a number of understudied sources that reveal how Mizrahi and Palestinian intellectuals understood each other’s struggles as part of or as an obstacle to their own. These writings from between 1950-1982 include articles in 1950s Israeli Communist Party publications; studies of Mizrahim from the PLO Research Center and Fatah-affiliated publishing houses in the Arab world, as well as Mizrahi Jewish literature published in Arabic and its reception by non-Jewish Arabs. Gesturing towards the directions these sources can precipitate, I hope to center the intellectual and political initiatives of Mizrahim and Palestinians rather than viewing them exclusively as common victims of Zionism. Instead, it is important to highlight these works’ connections to broader Arab and global intellectual discourses such as Communism, existentialism, literary modernism, and anti-colonialism. Moving away from approaches that see Mizrahim and Palestinians as either mired in essentializing antagonisms or steeped in a shallow abstracted solidarity, a history of Mizrahi-Palestinian exchanges can help us understand historical intersections but also frictions between the groups’ respective struggles.