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Global Jewish History, Zionism, and Palestine: Complex Entanglements

Session XI-20, 2022 Annual Meeting

On Sunday, December 4 at 8:30 am

Panel Description
  • This paper examines three recent mass mediations of Cold War Jewish American revenge fantasies: Inglorious Basterds (2009), Hunters (2020), and The Plot Against America (2020). First, I read these three films/shows across anthropological and literary studies of the racialization of Jews in Euro-American modernity [Brodkin (1997), Boyarin (1997), Boyarin and Boyarin (2002) Schreier (2015)]. Accordingly, I argue for a productively unstable positioning of Ashkenazi Jews as colonized people, model minorities, and agents of white supremacy. Subsequently, I link these films/shows to the eras they depict and contextualize their storylines within the ascendance of Jabotinskyist and Kahanist Jewish nationalism expressed primarily in the Middle East. In the process, I ask whether these films/shows advance nuanced understandings of Jewish identity and politics; or whether they essentialize and fetishize Jewish identity – that is whether they partake in Orientalist discourses of a noble savage. Finally I ask whether or not these revenge fantasies obscure from view historical and ongoing acts of violence committed by groups of Jewish nationalists who employ neqama (revenge) in the articulation of their political violence.
  • This paper argues that the ‘Adeni Jewish Emergency Committee (“the Committee”) played a decisive role in laying the groundwork for Operation On Eagles’ Wings, the mass migration of Jews from Yemen and ‘Aden to Israel in 1949 and 1950. To that end, it also analyzes the tense relationships between the Committee and both British colonial authorities and the Zionist movement in Mandate Palestine and Israel. One objective of this paper is to highlight the agency of ‘Adeni Jewish leaders. The minimal research on ‘Adeni Jews as political actors during this period is a significant lacuna in the academic literature. In December of 1947, a wave of violence rocked the British Protectorate of ‘Aden. From the ruins of Jewish ’Aden, a new leadership consolidated its influence under the Committee’s banner. Chaired by the merchant Selim Banin, the Committee built relationships with international Jewish organizations and with the British colonial authorities. Committee leaders learned and utilized the language of British colonialism, reproducing orientalist constructions of Yemeni Arabs and appealing to an ostensible British commitment to abstract ideals of “justice” and “equality.” At the same time, in their correspondence with Jews in Palestine/Israel, Britain, and the United States, they expressed a deep mistrust toward the British authorities, whose divide-and-rule policies had resulted in the 1947 violence. This paper unpacks the scant archival material available on the Committee to argue that a letter Banin received from the British authorities in response to the Committee’s lobbying marked the central policy shift that secured British authorization for Operation On Eagles’ Wings. It sheds light on the Committee’s role in facilitating negotiations between the British regime and Israeli representatives. The paper also reconstructs the complex and tense relationships that the Committee formed with both the British authorities and the (Zionist) Jewish Agency. Those relationships situated the Committee to perform a mediating role between the two parties. The Committee’s relationship with the Jewish Agency was complicated by the reality that the Committee itself was divided on the question of Zionism. Some leading members, such as B. J. Ya‘ish, were Zionists, but others, including Banin himself, viewed the Zionist project with ambivalence. Banin even implicitly threatened an ‘Adeni Jewish anti-Zionist declaration if the Jewish Agency refused to dedicate resources to protecting Yemeni and ‘Adeni Jews. Later Committee reports highlighted the consequences of mass emigration for the ‘Adeni Jews who stayed, tragically narrating the collapse of the remaining community’s institutions.
  • Jews lived in Palestine before Zionist colonization formally began, in 1901, with the creation of the Jewish National Fund. They included urban Sephardi Jews, urban Ashkenazi Jews, and the first private Jewish settlers, Ashkenazim who formed agricultural colonies in the late nineteenth century in the hopes of “productivizing” Jews. The first two of these groups, the urbanites, are typically regarded as “pre-Zionist” or “non-Zionist” populations; the third has been regarded, retroactively, as the “First Aliyah,” the first wave of proto-Zionist rural settlement. Meanwhile, the Sephardi Jews are typically regarded as “Middle Eastern Jews” or “native Jews” and the latter two groups as “European.” The line between “native” and “settler” Jew, variously defined, runs through and bisects these communal groupings. These historiographic commonplaces are productively challenged by the organization at the heart of my paper. The Union of the Sons of the Yishuv (Hitahdut Bnei ha-Yishuv), was founded in Mandate Palestine in 1939 to serve and unite Palestine Jews whose families had been in the country since at least the late nineteenth century. Despite their fathers’ prominence in agricultural, commercial, and religious institutions, individuals in all three of the groupings listed above now found themselves on the margins of the largely immigrant, Zionist-controlled organized Jewish community (Yishuv), albeit for different reasons. Organizing on the basis of having preceded the Zionist movement but also, implicitly, on shared financial interests and conservative mores anathema to the hegemonic Labor Zionists, they nonetheless sought recognition and resources from Zionist institutions. They did so both by asserting their native status and by claiming the mantle of the Jewish settler “firstness.” In articulating the identity of native settlers, or settler natives, across the typical subethnic or linguistic categories, the case suggests an intervention in debates about whether settlers can become native, recently complicated by Yuval Evri and Hagar Kotef’s suggestion (2020) that natives (in this case Sephardi and Oriental Jews in Palestine) can also become settlers. The paper shows the making of identity categories in retrospect through a survey of over 500 newspaper articles that record the activities of the Union; the “Library of the First Ones” biographies that it published between 1942-1967, and personal archives of leaders. As an organization devoted to collective memory, it also lends insight into the uses of the past not only under the British but also amidst Palestinian displacement and new mass Jewish immigration to Israel after 1948.
  • Around 100,000 Ashkenazi Jews migrated from Central and Eastern Europe to the Middle East and North Africa from the early 19th century to 1914. The large majority of these migrants settled in Ottoman-ruled Palestine, with smaller numbers in Egypt, Lebanon, Turkey, and elsewhere. This migration is typically understood as ideologically driven by Zionist or proto-Zionist sentiments. Zionist scholarship presents this migration as a Jewish “return” to an ancestral land, motivated by religious connection and a quest for national self- determination, while critical historiography analyses it as a form of European settler colonialism. In both approaches, the relationship between the migrants and their environment is understood as essentially antagonistic, framed through dichotomies of Europe and the Orient, settlers and natives. However, as demonstrated by Gur Alroey, most Ashkenazi migrants to Palestine before 1914 were not motivated by Zionist ideology but by material considerations much like Jewish migrants elsewhere. However, even Alroey portrays East European Jews as essentially incompatible with the Arab environment. Ashkenazim, claims Alroey, “had no interest in becoming part of the majority Arab society and made no attempt to adopt the Middle Eastern lifestyle.” In this paper I will challenge this assumption. I will argue that, although the level of Ashkenazi integration was not as deep as that of long-standing Middle Eastern Jewish communities, acculturation was nonetheless taking place. Ashkenazim adopted Arab clothes and diet, participated in local Muslim festivals, formed business, neighbourly and romantic relations, studied Arabic and Islam, and forged local political alliances. This cultural integration was insufficient to withstand the political forces of the 20th century. The advent of Zionism and Arab resistance to it inevitably positioned Ashkenazi Jews – even those who were already living in Palestine before Zionism - as European settlers against local Arabs. Ashkenazi “Arabisation” was undone and was erased from cultural memory and the historiography. In the case of Ashkenazi Jewish migration to the Middle East, the categories of the migrant, refugee and colonial settler have been collapsed into one, due to the triumph of Zionism. Challenging this reductive reading, I aim to place Ashkenazi migration to the Middle East within the larger story of migration into the Middle East, involving Muslim refugees from the Balkans and the Caucus, Greek and Italian merchants and others. I will explore the different paths Ashkenazi migration followed, and the divergent political horizons it facilitated beyond separatism and settler-colonialism.