Friday, March 27, 2009

But first some back round, by David Shasta

This is a subject of which I have been fearful of entering. But the more I become aware of the details of the situation in the Middle East, the more I feel the need to speak out.

For fear of a loss of advertising revenue, virtually no publication will criticize Israel’s policy vis-a-vis non-Jews living in Israel and Israel’s neighbors.

Yet, there is an option, free for the taking that can lead to relative peace and harmony. David Shasha calls it the “Levantine Option.” This article is unavailable on-line so I will post it in its entirety.

Sephardim and Israel Today: “The Levantine Option” on Shaky Ground by David Shasha

About five years ago I formulated a radical perspective on Middle Eastern politics which I called “The Levantine Option.” This new formulation was an attempt to restore an old way of seeing things that was fitted into a dynamic and fresh new context. “The Levantine Option” is an idea predicated on the traditions of Jews native to the Middle East. These traditions contain a significant Arabic component where the indigenous culture of the region has been fused with the realities of Judaism and Jewish identity encapsulated in the rabbinic tradition.

“The Levantine Option” is built on the hallowed foundations of Sephardic Religious Humanism; an elastic concept that goes back to the writings and ideas of Maimonides and his heirs. Sephardic Religious Humanism incorporated the learning of Greco-Roman wisdom into a parochially Jewish context. The religious mandates of the Jewish religion, its ritual laws and traditions, were opened up to the expansive modalities of the Greco-Roman intellectual system; a rich synthesis of sacred Jewish values and politics, science and philosophy.

Enabled in great measure by the opening provided by Islamic scholasticism, Sephardic Religious Humanism showed that Judaism could adapt and transform itself.

The traditions of Sephardic Religious Humanism were fiercely contested by Ashkenazi rabbinic authorities who saw in the new modalities a fearsome liberality and an acceptance of new and different ideas. Ashkenazi authorities looked to seal off Judaism from the new ideas and set Judaism apart from the world and its evolutionary changes.

It is not well-known that the initial impetus in the 19th century for a return to Jewish sovereignty in the land of Israel came from two Sephardi rabbis living in the Ottoman Balkans - Judah Alkalai and Judah Bibas. Their Zionism was one that sought to affirm the right of the Jewish people to be secure in their own country and to serve as a proud member of the international community.

While the ideas of these two Sephardic rabbis influenced the Eastern European Jews who became the de facto leaders of the emerging Zionist movement, the core humanistic ideas of the Sephardic tradition were often ignored in the new formulations of the Zionist idea.

Ideas of separation from the indigenous populations of the Middle East became the norm that European formulations of Zionism articulated. Such a move led to many of the problems that Israel faces as it marks its 60th anniversary as a nation.

Rather than seeing integration of Jews into the cultural and historical contexts of the region, Zionism is today seen by itself and by others as an alien element in the region. From the early concept of what the Zionists called “Avoda Ivrit” - Jewish labor - to the current desire for a separation between the Jewish and Arab peoples whether by the use of physical walls or cultural barriers, the Zionist orientation has sadly followed the Ashkenazi pattern of alienation and parochialism.

It is today a radical idea - given the violent modalities that have subsumed both the Zionist idea as well as its Arab nationalist counterpart - to assert that the future of the region rests in a cultural symbiosis that would continue to acknowledge the genius of the old traditions of Sephardic Religious Humanism that were so pronounced in Spain, North Africa and the Middle East.

With a fierceness that frequently borders on the pathological, many individuals reject the idea that Jews were once a legitimate and accepted part of the Arab world. We are warned that Jews were simply tolerated by a hegemonic Arab triumphalism that kept them in their place. This ignores and diminishes the great accomplishments of Arab Jews who integrated Judaism into the dominant cultural trends in the Middle East.

Indeed, at the dawn of the modern age, marked by the disintegration of the Ottoman Empire, reformist movements in the region acknowledged the indigenous Jewish presence in the region and welcomed Jews as partners in the process of national regeneration. Early forms of Sephardi Zionism acknowledged this cultural symbiosis and demanded of the Ashkenazi Zionists a requirement to acknowledge the realities of the region; its history, its values, its culture.

But from the very start of political Zionism, this native Levantine Jewish voice was silenced. There were Jews whose names are not at all known today such as Albert Antebbi, Elie Elyashar and Haim Nahum Effendi who counseled for a Sephardic role in the Zionist enterprise and in the development of a new Middle East.

As scholars such as Abigail Jacobson, Yaron Harel and Michelle Campos have shown in their researches into the subject of native Middle Eastern Jewish thinking during this period, not only were these voices silenced, but the ideas they presented were mocked and vilified. Rather than accepting the native place of Jews in the region, the incoming Zionist leadership incorporated alien ideas into their thinking which served to ensure that Zionism would become a foreign element in the region.

A corollary to this point was the tension it created between Ashkenazim - whose culture and history would come to dominate the new state and its ideology - and the Sephardim, the indigenous Jews of the Middle East, who were marginalized and often demeaned in the Zionist mission.

As Arab Jews continued to live in their ancestral homes in the region, some adapted to the new Zionism, while some did not. A seismic shift took place in their world that would be deeply disorienting. In the course of a few decades, Jewish life in the Arab world would come to an almost complete end and with it the rich and varied cultural traditions of those Jews.

What I have called “The Levantine Option” died in the 1950s and 60s when Jews were forced to leave the Arab world under the specter of an intractable stalemate between Israel and its neighbors that was not merely a matter of politics and territorial dispute, but of a more insidious cultural divide which isolated Israel from its neighbors.

Arab Jews were forced to undergo a cruel process of De-Arabization that left them bereft of their organic identity. The “melting pot” mentality as it took hold in Israel was in essence a process of Ashkenazi acculturation; a process which has continued to this day in the alienated culture of the state.

So in spite of Israel’s success in re-establishing Jewish sovereignty over the land, the problems that have been created by its alienated stance has led to a residual violence and a sense of paranoia and entrapment that has gripped so many Israelis who have little hope that the country will ever find normalcy. The parallel obstinacy of an Arab world that has also rejected its own native traditions of liberalism and pluralism has added to this dysfunctional picture of a region that is now permanently on edge.

While “The Levantine Option” is an idea that will be fiercely contested by those who hold to the useless orthodoxies - ideas that have led us into violence, anomie and racial hatred - the idea merits examination as a means to restore dignity and rationality to what is now a completely unworkable mess.

“The Levantine Option” and its foundation of Religious Humanism with its ethnic tolerance and pluralism is an idea whose allure rests in the fact that it is the native modality of the region and has its roots in the thinking of the greatest figures in the cultural history of the Jews, Muslims and Christians.

To those who would seek to strangle the idea, the question should be asked quite bluntly: Do you have a better idea of how we should bring people together?

Over the course of many fruitless decades punctuated by hatred, cruelty and violence at the hands of the different protagonists in this drama, the failed premise that continues to inform the discussion is that peace and stability will come from an acknowledgement of the differences between Jews and Arabs.

“The Levantine Option” asserts that the future of the Middle East will come when Jews and Arabs learn that they share a culture and that this shared culture flowered in the many centuries of life in the wake of the cultural giants of the region such as Maimonides, Al-Farabi, Averroes and so many others whose names and memories continue to be venerated in the parochial communities that have now been wrenched apart under the rubric of a failed set of nationalisms.

From Tikkun Magazine, May/June 2008

Mr. Shasha can be reached at and you can Google Tikkun

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