Longing to Belong: Levantine Arabs and Jews in the Israeli Cultural Imagination

By Omer-Sherman, Ranen | Michigan Quarterly Review, Spring 2010 | Go to article overview

Longing to Belong: Levantine Arabs and Jews in the Israeli Cultural Imagination


Omer-Sherman, Ranen, Michigan Quarterly Review


In a world where Jewish is synonymous with Central and Eastern European, where North African I Middle Eastern is synonymous with Arab Muslim, where "of color" is synonymous with "not Jewish," and where communities are generally represented through their men, our mere existence threatens to destroy the foundation of numerous identity constructs as society knows them today.

-Loolwa Khazzoom1

Inevitably, whenever one writes of Israel it seems that one must do so either in the context of the latest cycle of Jewish and Arab violence or, as has lately been the case, in the aftermath of some political leader's cynical expressions of xenophobia. For instance, at the time of this writing (early July 2009) Ariel Atias, Israel's housing minister, declared that it was a national responsibility to curtail the Arab population in the state. He stipulated that the proximity of Jewish and Arab populations (especially in the Galilee, a region of many Arab Israeli communities) was highly undesirable: "Populations that should not mix are spreading there. I don't think that it is appropriate [for them] to live together."2 Though it is hard to imagine a more incendiary statement (nor one more likely to frustrate those who would defend Zionism from the charge of racism) such remarks undermining the prospects for healthy civic attitudes toward Israel's multicultural complexity have been uttered with greater frequency ever since the ascendancy of Benjamin Netanyahu's coalition.3 Atias's official hostility hardly bodes well for dreams of coexistence in the region. Yet, even at a time when members of Israel's minority have good cause to feel dangerously alienated from the state, a careful examination of cultural and intellectual trends suggests that a more hopeful multicultural ethos based on an expansive sense of regional belonging (that transcends national identity) continues to find vibrant expression.

In place of the reductive, inherently hostile paradigms of identity that demarcate discourses about the "East" and "West" or that presuppose a "clash of civilizations," an impressive and eclectic range of Israeli writers recover the creative potential inherent in ambiguity, hearkening back to the cultural world of Muslim Spain in which the spirit of convivencia, or interactive and adaptive Muslims, Jews, and Christians flourished, recognizing and embracing the creative tensions that have subsequently stood the test of time as literary models of a civilization sophisticated enough to overcome our own age's paranoid and fanatic predilection for certainty and absolutes. Even in contemporary Israel, built on the foundations of a manifestly monolithic, collective identity, it is not difficult to come across substantial formulations of a creative multiculturalism that might yet transcend the brutality imposed by the all-consuming attachments of territory and identity. Accordingly, Israeli artists, both Arab and Jewish, struggling against the closure and stability of the nation have a special regard for the Levant as an affirmative space for exercising their sense of selfhood as open, unstable, and unbounded. Though it is true that most Israelis do not yet perceive themselves as part of the Levant, many younger Israeli writers express variations on a special geographic identity that is paradoxically also an "uprooting," or welcome displacement, in Emmanuel Levinas's sense of recoiling from the violence of nationalism and fetishization of place and origins: "Every word is an uprooting. Every rational institution is uprooting. The constitution of a true society is uprooting."4 This would mean an outward movement, whether from the egoistic self or from the tribalistic society.

The Jewish Israeli writer's attraction to the promising indeterminacy of Levantine space is not a new phenomenon. Perhaps the most eloquent formulation of the Levant comes from the luminous prose of Jacqueline Shohet Kahanoff (1917-1979). Born in Cairo to a father of Iraqi descent and a mother from Tunisia, Kahanoff later lived in Beersheva and wrote numerous polemics advocating a "Levantine" orientation which she felt would help Israel overcome its isolation and increase the prospects for regional peace:

The Levant is a world of ancient civilizations which cannot be sharply differentiated from the Mediterranean world, and is not synonymous with Islam, even if a majority of its inhabitants are Moslems. …

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