The Arab Jews: A Postcolonial Reading of Nationalism, Religion, ana Ethnicity, by Yehouda Shenhav. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2006. xiv + 201 pages. Notes to p. 230. SeI. bibl. to p. 248. Index to p. 263. $60.
Reviewed by Ian S. Lustick
Even more sensitive than the issue of Arabs in Israel has been the question of Jews from Muslim countries. Although specialists on Israel in the United States may find that critical analysis of Israel regarding the treatment of Arabs is what inflames audiences most, inside Israel academics know that the most ferocious reactions against challenges to orthodox thinking are reserved for those who raise questions about the treatment or status of the communities variously labeled "edot haMizrah" (communities of the East), "Mizrahim" (Orientals), or "Sephardim." In his book, Arab Jews, Yehouda Shenhav drives directly into the heart of this resistance to insight and analysis.
Seldom does the title of a book tell more about its purpose, technique, and content than this one. No one would blink if a book about Israel or Zionism bore the title The European Jews. Everyone, or at least every Israeli would understand, that in the Israeli context this would be a reference to the Jews who migrated to Israel from Europe, thereby bearing with them one version or another of European culture. So why should it be so difficult to pronounce or even hear the term "Arab Jews" as a reference to Jews who migrated to Israel from the Arab world, thereby bearing with them one version or another of Arab culture?
The answer, of course, is that the Land of Israel achieved its contemporary political contours by transforming Palestine, an integral natural part of the Arab world, into a country dominated by Jews and endowed, self-consciously and purposefully, with the proud stamp of a Western, European, non-Arab, and anti-Levantine cultural and political mission. But the resistance of Palestinians and other Arabs to the Zionist enterprise was only one of the challenges Israel's founders and leaders had to overcome. Another was the Nazi eradication of the vast reservoir of European Jewry that the Zionist movement had relied on to establish a secure demographic base. After the Holocaust, Zionist leaders turned increasingly, albeit somewhat reluctantly, to the substantial population of Jews living in Islamic, and especially Arab, countries as recruits for populating the Jewish stateon-the-way. In standard Zionist parlance, as analyzed by Shenhav, transforming these "Levantine types" into the kind of human "homer*' (material) that Zionism required meant imposing a complex and often contradictory array of understandings of exactly who these people were and why they were coming to the Land of Israel. Only one thing was clear: they could not be thought of, or be allowed to think of themselves, as that which, for Shenhav, they most naturally were, viz. "Arab Jews."
The book is a relatively well-integrated collection of essays written separately but within the same research program. The overall argument of the book is that postcolonial categories can be deployed effectively to deconstruct the traditionally hegemonic Zionist narrative and that the history of the experiences and Israel's treatment of Jews from Muslim countries, along with associated discourses, are best illuminated by an analysis framed in this way. Accordingly, Shenhav cites just about all the stars in the post-colonial and cultural studies firmament, including Arjun Appadurai, Talal Asad, Bruno Latour, Edward Said, Michel Foucault, Homi Bhabha, Pierre Bourdieu, Judith Butler, Rogers Brubaker, and Gayatri Spivak, to expose the tensions and contradictions that the natural rigidity of Zionist ideology produces in the practices Zionists adopted in pursuit of their modernist project. …