Exchange on anti-Sephardi racism on the left

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On January 2nd, David Shasha published the following critique of Rabbi Brant Rosen’s blog post reviewing the new book The Gaza Kitchen:

Let us not be fooled into thinking that committed Ashkenazi Jewish Leftists who support peace and reconciliation are free of anti-Sephardi racism.

Here is yet another case in point dealing with the political football of Arab cuisine and Israel:

The key assertion is made clearly by Rabbi Rosen:

I personally consider the legacy of Israeli cuisine to be a complex and painful one. Reading through this book through the eyes of an American Jew, I was constantly reminded that so many of the foods that we assume to be uniquely “Israeli” are in fact dishes that have long been indigenous to Palestinian culture.

It is certainly true that there is really no such thing as uniquely “Jewish food.” To be sure, Jews have lived (and cooked) in a myriad of societies and cultural contexts over the centuries – and our cuisine has traditionally emerged from a (pardon the expression) fusion of Jewish sensibilities with our respective host cultures. Given the circumstances of Israel’s creation, however, I have long been troubled by Israel’s appropriation of Palestinian/Mediterranean culture – and the assumption, for instance, that dishes such as hummous and felafel are somehow “uniquely Israeli.”

While it is certainly true that Zionism has acted in racist and imperious ways vis-à-vis the native Arab culture of the Palestinians, it is equally true that this Arab culture is not limited to Muslims or Christians, but is shared with Jews who are native to the region.

But when we read the statement we can clearly see that native Arab Jews are not even a possibility in the author’s mind.  Being an Israeli Jew means being an Ashkenazi Jew.  Arab Jews continue to be invisible; without any voice in the discourse.

It is not that Ashkenazi Israeli Jews have not stolen culture, history, and freedom from Palestinian Arabs.  That is certainly true and we should be on guard against it.  But when we look at culture, history, and freedom being stolen, it is not something limited to the Palestinian Arabs. 

In advocating on behalf of the oppressed Palestinians, Rabbi Rosen asserts Ashkenazi hegemonic privilege and completely ignores the fact that the food culture of Palestine is shared by Jews, Muslims, and Christians.  Beyond food, these groups share literary values, religious values, philosophical values, and much else.

Zionism has robbed the Arab Jews of their culture and history.  Those criticizing Zionism, like Rabbi Rosen, should not repeat this Zionist theft of our Arab Jewish civilization.  And yet it seems like the Ashkenazim – whatever their political beliefs may be – cannot help themselves.

The nameless Arab Jews have no role to play in peace discourse or in the formation of Israeli culture:

For the Ashkenazim all Jews are Tevye in “Fiddler on the Roof.”  All Jewish food is Gefilte Fish, Chopped Liver, and Matzoh Ball soup.  It is not in the realm of the possible that Palestinian “Arab” food can be Jewish food as well. 

It is not that we should appropriate this food for Israel or Zionism, but to clarify what is the truth of the matter and to restore Arab Jewish culture to its rightful place in the discourse.

I have addressed it most recently in item 9 in the following “Weekly Items of Note” post:

Even though I have written about this matter extensively in the past, it seems that I will have to continue pointing it out for the foreseeable future:

Once again it shameful to point out that reliably Progressive Jewish voices are themselves harboring racism against fellow Jews who because they are not Ashkenazi simply do not exist.

Brant Rosen responds:

Like David Shasha, I too believe that anti-Sephardi racism is a critically important and egregiously ignored issue. Yes, Arab Jewish voices need to be a part of a great many conversations. This just wasn’t one of them.

It’s true: I didn’t feel the issue of Arab Jewish culture was germane to my review of The Gaza Kitchen.  That’s because the essential focus of my review was the rich heritage of Gazan cuisine and its historic place in Palestinian food culture. My brief reference to the Zionist appropriation of Palestinian food culture (from which Shasha quoted) was quite frankly, a side issue.

No, in the end I didn’t delve into the very complex issue of Israel’s interface with Sephardi culture. I didn’t do so because I believe it was a separate conversation. Shasha is clearly unable to consider that I was justified in making this good faith pedagogical decision. While I don’t expect to change his mind on this score, I would only recommend that in the future Shasha think very carefully before he accuses others of racism – and to consider whether or not his own credibility is compromised when he wields this serious epithet so freely.

Having said all this, I’m struck by some interesting generalizations in Shasha’a argument. While I would never accuse Shasha of something as egregious as racism, I can’t help but feel that he inadvertently falls into some of traps that he obviously wants others to avoid.

I’m certainly familiar with the political background of the term “Arab Jew;” still, I find it notable that Shasha freely bandies about the term “Arab Jewish culture” as if it actually represents one unified socio-cultural tradition. In many ways, his use of the term reminds me of the ignorant generalizations so many Westerners make about “the Arabs,” “Arab culture” and “the Arab world.”

As Shasha must well know, those to whom we refer to as “Arab Jews” in Israel come from extremely diverse cultures throughout a vast region – from countries as varied as Iraq, Morocco, Yemen, Egypt, Syria, etc. I’m sure Shasha would not want his imprecision on this point lead readers to the mistaken assumption that all Arab Jews or Arab Jewish cultures are somehow “alike.”

On this point, I was puzzled – even troubled – by his statement:

In advocating on behalf of the oppressed Palestinians, Rabbi Rosen asserts Ashkenazi hegemonic privilege and completely ignores the fact that the food culture of Palestine is shared by Jews, Muslims, and Christians.  Beyond food, these groups share literary values, religious values, philosophical values, and much else.

True, the food culture of Palestine is shared by Jews, Muslims and Christians. But in making this claim, Shasha leaves out one incredibly important fact: most Arab Jews there, unlike the overwhelming majority of Palestinian Muslims and Christians, came to Israel/Palestine from other Arab countries. And by doing so, they brought with them their own unique regional cultures and traditions. By stressing the importance of “universal” Arab values, Shasha perpetuates the mistaken impression that the “food culture of Palestine” isn’t all that different from the “food culture of Iraq” or the “food culture of Morocco” or the food cultures of any of the diverse regions from which the Arab Jews of Israel originally came.

This is, indeed, one of the reasons I believe The Gaza Kitchen is such a valuable book: it successfully debunks the notion that there is one “Arab culture” by vibrantly illuminating the regional variations within Palestinian cuisine itself – and Gazan food in particular. In his passion to advocate for Arab Jewish culture, Shasha misses these critical points entirely.

Rather than criticize further, I will simply state the obvious: as imperfect and biased humans, each and every one of us will sometimes say or write things that others may experience as “racist” despite our most well-meaning intentions. In this regard, David Shasha is no different than the rest of us.

After reading his self-righteous protestations, I was actually reminded of an old joke I hadn’t thought of in years:

A woman goes to a butcher as asks to see the chickens. She then proceeds to inspect them thoroughly, peering under their wings and sniffing them between the legs. “Not fresh, not fresh” she said repeatedly.

Finally, the disgusted butcher looks up at her and said, “Hey, lady, could you pass that test?”

I do hope that that David Shasha will continue to “write about this matter extensively…for the foreseeable future.” I would only hope that he do so with a spirit of humility and an assumption of good faith on the part of his progressive allies.

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So Mizrahi Jews wanna take parts of their Arab heritage and redefine it as Israeli? I’ll respond with my favorite Arab word, which any Arabic speaker should be able to understand: Toz! Mizrahi Jews rejected their Arabness in favor of their Jewishness. They don’t have the right to take what… Read more »

If the question is “Are ‘Israeli’ dishes basically variations of those found in Mediterranean/Arab cultures”, the answer is decisively “yes”. There was no Israel prior to 1948; there was hummus prior to 1948. QED. And of course Sephardic Jews prepared the same (or very similar) dishes as the Palestinian/Lebanese/Syrian Arabs… Read more »

All nice and true. But contrary to your text, which references “Arab-Jewish”, someone has put a strange title on it, about the Sefardí. Who are present nowhere in that paper, or perhaps only very marginally. The Sefardí don’t happen to be Arab Jews, not because their cooking is any better… Read more »

Rabbi Rosen was right and not disrespecting native Sephardic Jews from Palestine when he said: Given the circumstances of Israel’s creation, however, I have long been troubled by Israel’s appropriation of Palestinian/Mediterranean culture – and the assumption, for instance, that dishes such as hummous and felafel are somehow “uniquely Israeli.”… Read more »

Well, food aside, the issue here is that in the western Jewish narrative, eastern Jews are all but nonexistent. All Jews on the planet are supposedly a people, a collective, but somehow when it comes to western Jews, especially American Jews, to recognize that eastern Jews are also — allegedly… Read more »