Monday, June 22, 2009

The subtle politics of a Cambridge conference

From the University of Cambridge:
A major conference, to be opened by Prince Hassan bin Talal of Jordan this week, will shed new light on the underexplored subject of Arab Jews.

The Jews of Arab Culture: 1948-2009 conference, which takes place from 22-24 June, is being co-hosted by Cambridge University's Department of Middle Eastern Studies and the Centre for the Study of Muslim-Jewish Relations of the Woolf Institute of Abrahamic Faiths.

Over the course of the 20th century, Arab Jews came to Israel from Arab countries ranging from Morocco to Iraq and now constitute more than 50% of Israel's Jewish population. While the study of medieval and early modern Judaeo-Arabic culture and literature is a comparatively well established field in Western academia, the complex identity of the recent influx of Arab Jews to Israel and its impact on the culture of the Middle East has been little studied.

The conference will examine the cultural repercussions of the absorption process of Arab Jews by the State of Israel, the impact this has had on Arab Jewish literature, and the reactions which followed in Palestinian literature.

The conference, which will be held at Westcott House and will include internationally renowned academics, will be accompanied by the screening of various films and a concert of Jewish-Arab music played on the 'Oud and Violine by Israel-Iraqi musician Yair Dalal, all of which are open to the public.

Professor Yasir Suleiman, Director of the Centre of Middle Eastern and Islamic Studies, said: "Arab Jews have historically been an important part of Arab culture well before the advent of Islam. In Arabia, Spain, Iraq, Egypt, and the Levant Jews have played an important role in creating a culture that belonged to all those for whom Arabic was a native language. The conference will tap into this past to challenge and repair some of the ruptures of the present by showing the richness and diversity of an inclusivist culture that belonged to all the communities that helped create it."

Gregor Schwarb, Ariane de Rothschild Academic Director of the CMJR, said: "Showing the richness and dynamism of the culture of Jewish Arabs dispels the myth that there is a total divide between Arabs and Jews. In this way, we hope that the conference will contribute towards greater understanding, a spirit of reconciliation and a greater respect of differences".

Research shows many Arab Jews look with affection and pride on their Arab heritage; others see themselves as "forgotten refugees", whose cause is akin to that of Palestinian refugees. In a recent open letter, a group of prominent Israeli Jews whose parents came from Arab or Islamic lands wrote that "the culture of the lands of Islam, the culture of the Middle East, and the Arabic culture, are all part of our identity, a part of it that we cannot sever and wouldn't wish to sever, even if we could." They added: "The rift between Israel and the Arab and Muslim world cannot be a permanent one, since it splits our identities and our souls."
In general, such a conference is to be welcomed. But some of the details show that what should be a purely academic conference still has plenty of political bias.

First of all, why is there a separate Palestinian Arab track that has essentially nothing to do with the topic of the conference? Here's that description:
14:30–16:00 Panel VII – Palestinian Literature
Chair: Shmuel Moreh (Jerusalem)
Atallah Mansour (al-Nāṣira), The Shadow of the Political Conflict on Hebrew and Arabic literature in Palestine/Israel
Sayyed Kashua (Jerusalem), Language-Choice and Perception among Palestinians and Jews in Israel
Manar Makhoul (Cambridge), Palestinian Novelists in Israel: the Writing and the Context
Secondly, the conference seems to spend a bit of time on the problems that Jews from Arab countries had in integrating to Israeli society - a very valid and important topic - but nothing about the anti-semitism they suffered in their old homes that prompted them to leave. To speak of one and ignore the other puts the responsibility of the disappearance of this culture entirely on the backs of the only place where it still exists.

One of the speakers is Rachel Shabi, an outspoken leftist critic of Israel who emphasizes the Zionist attempts to attract Mizrahi Jews and downplays the Arab countries' discrimination against their Jews. While she correctly points out that there was both a "push" and a "pull," she doesn't seem to realize that the very existence of a Jewish state gave the Jews of Arab lands an alternative that was never available to them - an opportunity to shake off their dhimmi status. There are no comparable speakers who talk about the very real Arab anti-semitism that caused the Jews of Arab countries to all but disappear.

Thirdly, characterizing the Jews of Arab countries as "Arab Jews" is actually offensive to many of them, who never considered themselves Arab and always felt like outsiders, even as they adopted much of Arab culture in their own lives.

This is probably because the conference is consciously trying to be as pro-Arab as possible, inviting the Jordanian prince to open it.