Thursday, August 14, 2008

Odds and Ends: The Representation of Jews in anti-colonial thought

A friend who happens to be a poet sent me a link to a blog by a better known poet (also a professor). My friend is admirer of this man's poetry but was put off by a particular post, entitled "A tribute to Abdelwahab Elmessiri," reproduced from another website. In it:
Elmessiri was equally concerned with viewing Zionism from the perspective of its Palestinian victims and within its broader socio-historical context. He thus argues that Israel is a Zionist settler colonial enclave similar to other Western settler colonial formations, though it has specific traits that set it apart. Elmessiri employs the analytical concepts of the functional group and the functional state to account for many of the specificities of the Zionist settler enclave. As he explains it, the functional community is a group of people, usually a numerical minority, either imported from outside the society or recruited from within its ranks, who are generally defined in terms of a definite, limited, abstract function (for example by its profession), rather than by their complex, concrete, and full humanity. They are entrusted with certain jobs and functions that members of the host society (the majority) either cannot or will not perform for a variety of reasons.

Elmessiri sees Jewish communities, especially in Europe, as a prime example of the functional group. For him, the Jewish question is basically the question of a functional group that lost its function. The Western world failed to solve the question in a civilized and humane manner, by integrating members of functional groups that had lost their function into the host societies that utilized them. Instead, Western civilization solved its Jewish question in its customary imperialist way, by exporting it to the East...

On the basis of this analysis, Elmessiri argued that the Arab-Israeli conflict could be settled in a peaceful manner if the Zionist state were to shed its identity as a functional state and became a state for all its citizens, integrating into the Middle Eastern cultural formation.
I'd like to answer that with reference to Shalom Lappin's recent article at YIISA "This Green and Pleasant Land:
Britain and the Jews" (.pdf)
. Lappin refers to a position held by the British historian Arnold Toynbee, which is similar in certain respects. Page 22:
Toynbee is expressing a classic Christian European notion of Jews as a community that ought not to exist as a collectivity. As we have seen, it has been at the core of deep rooted mainstream attitudes towards Jews in Britain throughout the centuries. It is also a vintage case of what Edward Said has identified as “Orientalism”.49 Jews are not to be entrusted with the stewardship of their own culture, nor are they entitled to understand themselves in their own terms. The significance of their culture and their place in history is a matter to be determined by those who exercise power over them and have a true understanding of their significance and their needs.
Elmessiri has simply replaced Toynbee's blatantly philosemitic facade ("The Jewish religion is meant for all mankind") with a more mundane characterization of Jews as an essentially European (despite that half of Israel's population are Mizrahim whose families never lived in Europe) "functional group." Both Toynbee's philosemitism and Elmessiri's indifference, however, are double-edged. Elmessiri retains the same self-professed right to define Jews over Jewish protestations. And that if Jews are at all, it is only in relation to another group. Both positions attempt to inoculate themselves against the charge of antisemitism while excluding Jews from the conversation.

I considered that, as a Palestinian he sought to collude with European antisemitism, importing what is undoubtedly a European conception of Jews as an illegitimate subaltern group. But that's not quite the case. Rather, it seems more straightforwardly, that he presents himself as an Arab and therefore as a member of one of the groups that has historically oppressed Jews and seeks to continue the old hierarchical relationship. The particular pattern of defining Jews as an illegitimate grouping may be imported, but the oppression of Jews in the Middle East certainly isn't anything new.
Elmessiri remained categorical when it came to condemning any form of racism and colonialism and would not submit to any regime of political power.
While it may have been a sincere conviction, I find this bizarre. To me, the claim the Jews must give up the kind of self-determination found only in Israel in order to "integrate" into Middle Eastern culture -surely it's a fantasy that this will work better than our integration into European culture- is an entirely colonial attitude.

(On the other hand, I encouraged my friend to read Mahmoud Darwish by forwarding this post at South Jerusalem.)


David Schraub said...

Brilliant -- couldn't have said it better myself.

Also, do you have an email address I could have?

Rebecca said...

But you've missed the most bizarre part of his statement about how Europeans "solved" their Jewish problem. He says that they exported it to the Middle East - completely avoiding reference to the German attempt to murder all the Jews of Europe! Did he really not mention that at all? (Is that in the ellipsis?) That seems to me to be a truly telling absence!

Matt said...

This is a very good point Rebecca. Thanks.

Btw, I've been reading your blog for a while and really enjoy it. I'm flattered that you've commented.