Abigail Jacobson and Moshe Naor, Oriental Neighbors: Middle Eastern Jews and Arabs in Mandatory Palestine (book review)

Bibliographical reference

Abigail Jacobson and Moshe Naor, Oriental Neighbors: Middle Eastern Jews and Arabs in Mandatory Palestine, Waltham (Massachusetts), Brandeis University Press, 287 p.

Text

This book is a major contribution to the growing research community and interest in what might be called the interactionist turn in the history of Palestine/Israel and of the Middle East, which rejects the explicit or implicit historiographic separationist paradigm, sometimes referred to as the “dual society” paradigm (following Lockman).1 This paradigm assumes, and thus reinforces, that Palestinian and Jewish societies in the Middle East developed as basically separate historical subjects, with a rigid ethnic boundary separating them, and that an escalating national conflict made practices of suspicion, hostility, violence, and animosity their only mode of interaction.

In contrast, the interactionist paradigm re-frames historic narrative, placing formative interactions between diverse communities and individuals, their dynamics, ambiguities, and constructed, reconstructed and deconstructed identities and borders (symbolic and physical). It influences varied disciplines such as political, social, cultural, material, and daily history, literature, anthropology and folklore, sociology, sociolinguistics, and geography.

The separatist paradigm has been criticized mainly for two reasons. Firstly, as a continuation of a particularistic assumption intrinsic to “Jewish history” as a distinct discipline. Second, as biased by ideological (mostly Zionist) and political presuppositions, including a Eurocentric view of Jewish history in Palestine, ignoring the active role of Sephardi and Mizrahi figures and communities.

Oriental Neighbors offers a thorough investigation of such often neglected actors in the years of British Mandate in Palestine, placing them as active actors in localized networks of complex political, social, and cultural interrelations.

Part of the historiographical importance of this book and the interactionist paradigm in general, is its theoretical and methodological repercussions: Historical processes not only lead to sociopolitical results, they also produce and construct new vocabularies for defining actors and agents, signifying subjects, and applying categories imposed and used for their own retrospective description, analysis, and interpretation.

Such anachronism might present some entities as monolithic and static actors, ignoring their historicity and dynamics; it presents vague, flexible, and ambiguous boundaries, serving historically as a site for interaction, contract, and exchange, as the strict and rigid physical and symbolic borders they had come to be. The often-misleading result is an implicit teleological framework, in which an actual historic course is perceived as inevitable; it marginalizes the paths not taken, making them not only unsuccessful in hindsight, but almost inexpressible and unthinkable in principle. It transforms the proponents for these alternative paths into passive figures, pushed into the background of a historic scene, shaped and re-contextualized in and by the present. A historical study of the past becomes a reassessment of dominant historiography in the present. In strict contradiction to this dominant historiography, Jacobson and Naor’s study of the complex role the Sephardi and Mizrachi Jews had during the years of British rule in Palestine, provides an historic landscape in which they are dynamic, engaged actors.

The first two chapters focus on the political and ideological activities of Sephardi and Oriental Jewish communities in Mandatory Palestine, offering a detailed and thorough analysis of the Sephardi community’s changing position throughout the British rule, and the escalating polarization of Jewish and Arab societies.

Most of the figures represented in these chapters experienced their formative years during the late years of the Ottoman Empire, perceiving themselves as political and intellectual elite, whose vocation is to lead a Jewish renaissance in Palestine. They shared views, visions, and sensibilities with a complex network of localized Middle Eastern elite groups in Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, and Egypt. But while many of such groups had come into national leadership on the ruins of the Ottoman Empire, the Sephardi and Mizrahi leaders found themselves losing political power and cultural influence to new hegemonies and leadership, and negotiating unsuccessfully over their symbolic assets, loyalty, and stereotyped image.

Redefining themselves as mediators, they moved between, on the one hand, a sometimes harsh and bitter criticism of the Zionist European leadership, and on the other hand, a rhetorical and practical commitment to the Zionist project in face of constant suspicion, questioning their loyalty to it. They also intensely produced memoranda, articles, initiatives and plans, and established institutions, committees, and movements; they led public and covert negotiations with Palestinian and Middle Eastern Arab leaders and spokesmen, in face of an establishment and ethos opposing or ignoring these efforts altogether.

While some of the figures and views in this chapter are known, and some are under on-going research (reflected in the rich bibliography of the book, and the authors’ previous work), Oriental Neighbors provides new sources as well as an insightful description of the concept of mediation itself, and the different ways in which it was perceived, used, promoted, and interpreted by its proponents.

The reaction to these efforts, in the established Zionist leadership as well as their potential and actual Palestinian partners, while mentioned by the authors to some extent, still calls for further, complementary study. Some of the mediation initiatives explicitly contradicted Arab-exclusion policies and practices, such as not hiring Arabs, boycotting Arab products, and putting Jews involved in joint Jewish-Arab business enterprises under extreme pressure; the spectrum of reactions to these proposals ranges from an instrumentalist perception of “mediation” as propaganda to be used for manipulating Mizrachi and Palestinian public opinion alike, to a Europeanized rejection based on ideology or naive misunderstanding.

It also calls for a further study of Arab-Jewish middle-class urban cooperation – the civilian block (HaGush HaEzrachi) traditionally affiliated with the Zionist “right wing”, rejecting revolutionary and unionist rhetoric and praxis, cooperating with Arab commerce institutions, to protect common economic interests in face of British authorities at times of depression (most notably during World War II). Yet, it is a broad and extensive study of the intensive efforts Sephardi and Mizrachi figures took to re-invent themselves as political mediators, and the tension it created with the hegemonic Zionist establishment.

The third chapter discusses cultural mediation, and it adheres to similar sources and methodology as the first two chapters. While adequate for the discussion of political views and ideological positions, such an approach might provide only a partial view of cultural exchange. Yet it provides a thorough overview of cultural politics as reflected in declared views, textualized theories and out-spoken visions, centered mainly on journalistic and Arab language education. Two areas that should be studied further are:

The intellectual effort carried out by prominent figures (such as E. Mani, D. Yellin, A. S. Yahuda, Y. Y. Yahda, Y. Meyuhas, D. Moyal) to base the exegesis of holy scriptures, and the interpretation of Jewish traditions and culture, on Arab language and culture. Making their intimate acquaintance with the Arab language and folklore a crucial and exclusive key for understanding Jewish tradition, as well as a necessary prerequisite for the Hebrew revival, these intellectuals made an unsuccessful effort to transform the know thy neighbor maxim not into know thy enemy (a process covered in Chapters 4, 5), but know thyself.

Second, some popular and folk cultural practices demonstrate areas of contact and exchange not manifested and reflected in elitist cultural documentation - the constant adoption of Arab popular songs in synagogue liturgy (piyutim), cooperation in musical performances, some socio-linguistic evidence indicating diffusion between Hebrew, Arabic, Ladino, and Yiddish, and the presence of Palestinian Arab in Yiddish dialects; or the sharing of leisure and entertainment sites, such as concerts, theaters, and cafes – even in 1940, after the Arab revolt, young Jews filled Jaffa cafes and theater halls, causing some harsh denouncement by establishment newspapers, offering typical accusations of hedonistic individualism, interpreted as a flaw in the Mizrachi commitment to the National cause.

The fourth and fifth chapters offer an original perspective, using valuable material and sources, as well as a narrative re-framing and using a different methodology. Focusing on daily life and interactions in the mixed and frontier neighborhoods (chapter 4), and on the “security sphere” (violent and intelligence activities), Jacobson and Naor discuss the idea of geographical and identity border-crossing, and the complexity of a situation in which Oriental Jews use their “Arabness” as an asset, to be instrumentally used against neighbors and acquaintances.

These chapters are marked by a shift in subject, compared to the previous part of the book: from upper middle-class self-proclaimed elites negotiating and struggling (unsuccessfully) for their symbolic capital by an attempt to re-invent themselves as mediators, to the poor and uneducated, mostly immigrants from Arab and Muslim countries, inhabitants of Jewish-Arab neighborhoods. This necessitates a methodological shift as well: moving from archived self-conscientious and carefully crafted textual representations of ideological outlooks, well-documented political initiatives, and institutionalized activities, to the scrupulous interpretation of elusive and ambiguous marks left in daily journals and fragmented ego-documents, to be used as evidence for non-verbal practices; i.e. moving from political and ideological history, to a history of everyday practices.

This research, with its rich material and insightful perspective, calls for further theoretical analysis, concerning identity and boundaries, violence and co-existence (what comes to mind is, to name just two outstanding and highly relevant examples in which somewhat similar test-cases led to a major theoretical investigation – Brubaker and Laitin on the construction of ethnic identity through violence,2 and Das on violent riots in mixed neighborhoods in India.3

It also calls for a possibly radical re-assessment of what might be considered as a conventional wisdom, still shared by major parts of the research community and by popular writings alike, that most of the Mizrachi related issues (including the term itself) began with the mass immigration from Arab and Muslim countries to Israel during the 1950’s. It re-contextualizes these issues in space and time, making them an immanent characteristic of entangled Arab and Jewish histories in Palestine, throughout the twentieth century. This is yet another achievement, adding to the book’s overall contribution.

1 Zachary Lockman, Comrades and Enemies: Arab and Jewish Workers in Palestine, 1906-1948, Berkeley, University of California Press, 1986.

2 Rogers Brubaker and David Laitin, “Ethnic and Nationalist Violence”, Annual Review of Sociology, vol. 24, 1, 1998, p. 423-452.

3 Veena Das, Life and Words: Violence and the Descent into the Ordinary, Berkeley, University of California University Press, 2007.

Notes

1 Zachary Lockman, Comrades and Enemies: Arab and Jewish Workers in Palestine, 1906-1948, Berkeley, University of California Press, 1986.

2 Rogers Brubaker and David Laitin, “Ethnic and Nationalist Violence”, Annual Review of Sociology, vol. 24, 1, 1998, p. 423-452.

3 Veena Das, Life and Words: Violence and the Descent into the Ordinary, Berkeley, University of California University Press, 2007.

References

Electronic reference

Amos Noy, « Abigail Jacobson and Moshe Naor, Oriental Neighbors: Middle Eastern Jews and Arabs in Mandatory Palestine (book review) », Revue d’histoire culturelle [Online],  | 2021, Online since 08 avril 2021, connection on 13 mai 2021. URL : http://revues.mshparisnord.fr/rhc/index.php?id=1367

Author

Amos Noy

The Hebrew University of Jerusalem