Tuesday, June 03, 2008

Professor Abdelwahab Elmessiri of Ain Shams University in Cairo has just won the Jerusalem Prize from the General Union of Arab Writers.

His major work is the (Arabic-only) "Encyclopedia of Jews, Judaism and Zionism," which was published in 1999.

I found a four-part article by this professor in Al-Ahram where he summarizes his theses of the encyclopedia, and it is pretty much what one would expect - a ridiculous analysis based more on his own biases and perceptions than on any reality, all dressed up is pseudo-scholarly garb.

To summarize his thinking, he defines the concept of a "functional group":
Functional groups, defined as a group of people, usually a numerical minority, either imported from outside the society or recruited from within its ranks, and generally defined in terms of a definite, limited, abstract function (profession, etc.), rather than their complex, concrete, and full humanity. They are entrusted with certain jobs or functions which members of the host society (the majority) either cannot or will not perform for a variety of reasons. Among the characteristics of these groups, besides those mentioned in the first part of this series, are: Separateness from time (history) and place (homeland) and the illusory feeling of a separate identity.

The following are examples of functional groups:

1. Hebrew and Macedonian mercenaries in the Hellenic states.
2. Armenian merchants in the Ottoman empire.
3. Gypsies in Europe.
4. Eunuchs in the Chinese and Ottoman courts.
5. Chinese in Southeast Asia.
6. Arab traders (especially Lebanese) in Africa.
7. Huguenots in England and Canada.
8. Mamelukes in the Islamic Middle East (especially Egypt).
9. Cossacks in Tsarist Russia.
10. Janissaries in the Ottoman empire.
11. Ethiopian prostitutes in Africa.
12. Jews in Europe, especially Eastern Europe.
Jewish communities, especially in Europe, are a prime example of the functional group. The Hebrew Kingdom of David and Solomon, and the United Kingdom of Judah and Ephraim, were not characterised by high technological standards. Therefore, they failed to offer job opportunities to the population. This forced large numbers of people to emigrate, forming functional groups in new host societies. Due to their weakness, and consequently their failure to afford protection to their population, the Hebrew Kingdom and the United were the source of thousands of captives who worked as mercenaries or merchants. The idea of Zion, a country of origin, was deeply entrenched in the Hebrew imagination, which loosened the ties binding Hebrews (and later Jews) to the countries they lived in. The Mediterranean and the ancient Middle East were dominated by a number of powerful empires which recruited members of the Jewish communities as mercenaries, settlers, and spies. But the decisive reason that contributed to the transformation of the Jewish communities into functional groups is the very nature of Western feudal society. Commercial and financial activities were not subsumed under the two main normal activities of this society, agriculture (the peasantry) and warfare (the knights). Therefore, they had to be assigned to a group of people imported from outside the society.

What complicated matters was the nature of land ownership in Western feudal societies. There were laws prohibiting members of the Jewish communities (as well as monasteries and churches) from owning land. Due to this, members of the Jewish communities were concentrated in the commercial and financial sectors, and their status as middlemen was firmly established. By the 13th century, they were largely landless, which made their transformation into functional groups almost inevitable.
This is all very interesting in an abstract sense, and one gets the clear impression that the author used his perception of Jews as the paradigm for this concept and then shoe-horned in his other examples so as to make it appear universal.

What he pointedly fails to address is the idea that Jews' historic separation from their host countries during the diaspora is more a function of the oppression imposed from without rather than a role that the Jews embraced from within. To Elmessiri, this persecution is a minor point, while in reality Jews have been more than willing to assimilate into their adopted homes when given the chance. He implies that ancient Israel and Judah disappeared because of Jewish voluntary emigration in order to fulfill this strange will to be a "functional group" rather than because of attacks from without.

In other words, Elmessiri is trying very hard to turn Jews into the architects of their own misery, which might not be classically anti-semitic but is clearly a biased and warped perspective.

Elmessiri's descent into pure fantasy can be seen by his definition of Zionism:
In attempting to define Zionism, I did not follow the normal course, namely choosing one or two definitions. Instead, I developed what I term the "basic comprehensive Zionist formula". This formula, in my view, includes all the elements of Zionism that form the basis of Zionist consensus, regardless of the strain of apologetics (socialist, religious, liberal, fascist, etc.) used to justify it. This formula could be summarised in the following elements:

1. The Jews form an organic people (a Volk) that is organically attached to Palestine, and therefore does not belong to Western civilisation.

Why exactly are the two mutually exclusive? Obviously, Zionism is the most Western of all Middle Eastern nationalisms.

2. They are also a functional group without a function, a pariah Volk, a parasitic people in Zionist or anti-Semitic parlance.
Not a "persecuted" people, but a "parasitic" people.

3. To transform this parasitic people into a useful one, it should be transferred to any area outside Europe (Palestine eventually became the targeted area, on account of its strategic importance to the West).

Even though he admits Jews' historic connection to the Land of Israel, here he denies it as irrelevant, in order to fit his pre-conceived notions of "Jew as colonialist." Considering Zionist Jews as revenants would destroy his theory.

4. The pariah Volk would then be settled there, replacing the indigenous population (that should be either exterminated or expelled, as is always the case with similar settler colonial projects).

Again, he considers this concept as being "Zionist consensus," not bothering to notice the million Arabs who live in Israel as citizens under this Zionist rule.

5. In its new habitat, the pariah Volk would reconstitute itself as a state that would serve as a base for Western powers and a fortress defending Western interests in the region. In exchange, Western powers would support the new state and guarantee its survival and continuity, as long as it discharged its function, namely serving Western interests. In this way, the Jewish Volk would achieve through the Western imperialist formation what it failed to achieve through the Western cultural formation.

The idea that Jews wanted to move to Israel in order to serve Western interests, as opposed to their own, is the height of Arab fantasy.

But it is dressed up in lots of big words, and it also fits a comfortable Arab formula of how to look at Jews and still appear intellectual and nonbiased, so this encyclopedia of drivel is worthy of awards and praise.

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