DR. SAMI SHALOM CHETRIT PRESENTING “REVISITING BIALIK” AT BGU’S 15th ANNUAL WORKSHOP OF THE DEPARTMENT OF MIDDLE EASTERN STUDIES
BY RACHEL AVRAHAM*
On June 1, 2010, Dr. Sami Shalom Chetrit presented his published paper entitled “Revisiting Bialik: a radical Mizrahi reading of the Jewish national poet” at Ben-Gurion University’s 15th Annual Workshop of the Department of Middle Eastern Studies. In the lecture, Chetrit argued that Bialik was an orientalist and racist, and that his poetry was settler colonialist poetry. These themes from the lecture are reinforced in Dr. Chetrit’s paper, where he described “Ashkenazi Zionism” as a “settler colonizing” movement that is responsible for the “dispossession of the Palestinians from their land and livelihood” and is a “politically neocolonial, economically capitalist, and culturally Eurocentric-Orientalist and anti-Arab” movement.
What Dr. Chetrit fails to take into consideration is that settler colonialism is a complicated concept that includes many elements, such as the existence of an imperial metropole and imperial strategic direction and support, which are not included in the Zionist case. As we know well from history, towns in ancient Eretz Yisrael bear the Hebrew names that are mentioned in the Tanakh, Examples of this phenomenon are Beit-Lechem, Yerushaliym, etc. If a land is originally yours, it cannot be considered to be colonialism if you reclaim what is rightfully yours. Regarding the neocolonialism accusation, this mainly refers to the economic exploitation by developed countries of lesser developed countries, and given that the purposes and goals of the Zionist movement never were the economic exploitation of the Palestinians, the fact that Dr. Chetrit refers to Zionism as neocolonialism can hardly be considered an accurate assessment. In regards to the Palestinians, while it is true that some were displaced, it is wrong of Dr. Chetrit to blame the Zionist movement for this fact when in reality the only reason why they were displaced was because the Arab leadership in 1948 decided to wage war instead of accepting the UN Partition Plan.
Regarding the accusation that Israel is a purely capitalist country, I find this accusation to be a bit odd as an American Jew, because Israel has a lot more socialist elements than the United States has, as the existence of socialized healthcare for all Israeli citizens demonstrates. Regardless, capitalism is not a dirty word. It is just an economic system.
As for the Euro-centric accusation, while it is true that Zionism started out originally as mainly a European Jewish movement, no one can really argue that with the passage of time Zionism has evolved to be more like a world-wide Jewish movement than merely a European movement. As to the Orientalist accusation, Dr. Daniel Pipes wrote an excellent review of Dr. Said’s book which demonstrated quite well that Dr. Said and his followers are very misguided for turning a scholarly tradition that focuses on the study of languages and cultures in the Middle East unjustifiably into a dirty word. As Dr. Pipes wrote, “Said ignores this long and massively impressive effort by European scholars and limits his gaze to the generalizations, summations, and characterizations, the casual remarks which often had no relation to the academic enterprise but made up a tiny portion of the Orientalist edifice.” Dr. Pipes also correctly stated that Dr. Said completely ignored the influence of non-French and non-English Orientalists, and that Dr. Said has ignored developments within the field since the turn of the century, by falsely implying that Orientalist scholars today resemble the worldview of scholars back then. Given these serious flaws, it is very difficult to quote Dr. Said like the Tanakh.
Regarding the racist accusation, while Dr. Chetrit demonstrates that Bialik was ignorant of his contemporary Mizrahi intellectual accomplishments, he gave zero compelling evidence that Bialik was racist towards Mizrahim or even Arabs for that matter. Claiming that the Palestinians left the land desolate and only the Jews were starting to plant trees are facts backed up by the American author Mark Twain, and is not a statement that is racist towards Arabs. Dr. Chetrit also fails to realize that Zionism, as the national movement of the Jewish people, is more about promoting the national interests of Jews than it is about being against any other nation, and that goes for the Arabs as well. Zionism is about supporting Israel-----it does not need to be anti-Arab. Zionism is not like the Palestinian national movement, whose essence is just to be against Israel and not to create a better future for the Palestinian people.
But as if Dr. Chetrit’s mislabeling of the Zionist movement and Bialik was not problematic enough, Dr. Chetrit labeled his childhood Israeli school teachers as “engaging in the rewriting of Jewish history through an act of deceit, manipulation, and concealment, and the reproduction of Orientalist assumptions.” Referring to Mizrahi Jews as Arabs, Dr. Chetrit claimed that his Israeli school teachers were “reshaping these little ignorant Arab-Jews to fit an Ashkenazi Zionist mold, featuring a narrative of exile-persecution suffering-Holocaust-immigration-settlement-revolt-triumph-independence.”
For starters, most Mizrahi Jews today in Israel would get terribly offended if one refers to them as Arabs. My husband, who is half Moroccan and half Iraqi Jewish, once told me that it is not accurate to call Mizrahi Jews Arabs because Mizrahi Jews have a different bloodline than Arabs. Indeed, there has been more than one genetic study that has proven that Ashkenazi and Mizrahi Jews have more genetically in common with each other than they do with Christian Europeans or Muslim Arabs respectively. But aside from this basic genetic fact, which is backed up by a very different history of Mizrahi Jews as compared to Arab Muslims, the culture is not even identical. While there are some similarities in the culture in the sense that a lot of the Mizrahi food, music, and hospitality are very similar to the positive aspects of Arab culture, it is nevertheless important to remember that the negative aspects of Arab culture, such as honor crimes, polygamy, female circumcision, etc. are absent from Mizrahi Jewish culture while very much present in Muslim Arab culture. This implies that Mizrahi Jewish culture, while similar to Arab culture due to the fact that the Mizrahim used to live amongst the Arabs, is not identical to Arab culture.
But aside from these basic facts, to pretend as if the Mizrahi Jewish experience is alien to the Zionist narrative is to ignore history. While Mizrahi Jews lived better under Arab rule prior to 1948 than the Jews in Europe lived, this does not mean that the Mizrahi Jews had a heavenly existence either under Arab rule like Dr. Chetrit seems to imply. Like the Ashkenazi Jews, the Mizrahi Jews were exiled from Eretz Yisrael and lived in the Diaspora thanks to the Roman defeat of our ancestors. While not to the same degree as Ashkenazi Jews, Mizrahi Jews also suffered from persecutions. There were massacres and other discriminatory measures against Jews in the Arab world as well. When the Jews of Medina refused to recognize Muhammed as their prophet, two of the major Jewish tribes of Arabia were expelled and in a third tribe, between 600 and 900 Jewish men were massacred while the Jewish women and children were divided amongst Muhammed’s forces in 627. In Granada, Spain, in 1066, 5,000 Jews were massacred by Arabs. A similar massacre of Jews occurred in Fez, Morocco in 1465; Libya in 1785; Algiers in 1805, 1815, and 1830, etc. Decrees for the destruction of synagogues were issued in Egypt, Syria, Iraq, and Yemen during certain periods of history. And during other periods of history, Jews in Yemen, Iraq, and Morocco were given the choice of converting to Islam or being executed. Legally speaking, the Jews of the Arab world were third class citizens, dhimmis, and were required to pay a discriminatory poll tax even during the most tolerant periods of Arab history. While most Mizrahi Jews were spared from the Holocaust, there were still some Mizrahi Jews who suffered under Nazism, as the Farhud in Iraq and the fact that Yad Vashem has documented Libyan and Tunisian Jewish suffering under the Nazis demonstrates. Not to mention the fact that the idea of Jews being forced to wear a yellow badge came originally from a ninth century Baghdad Caliph and the Nazis merely copy-pasted this atrocious idea. Like the Ashkenazi Jews, the Mizrahi Jews made Aliyah after most of them were forced out of the lands of their birth and they have contributed to helping Israel remain an independent state. To me, it seems like the Mizrahi Jewish experience fits the Zionist narrative like a glove. Dr. Chetrit, by insisting that the Mizrahi Jews are really Arabs whose history is alien to Zionism, is indeed the one engaging in re-writing Jewish history in such a way that deceives, manipulates, conceals and reproduces false assumptions about Mizrahi Jews and Zionism in general.
*RACHEL AVRAHAM IS AN MA STUDENT AT BEN-GURION UNIVERSITY AND AN INTERN FOR ISRAEL ACADEMIA MONITOR.