“Je Suis Juif/ I Am Moslem”

5th International and Interdisciplinary Conference on Emotional Geographies, “Je Suis Juif/ I Am Moslem,” University of Edinburgh, Scotland, June 10-12.


1980. Dripping Springs.

Does she dance like that ‘cause she’s Jewish?” Children in my 4th grade class in Texas searched through my big curly hair looking for horns; the kids in the school cafeteria would go into vomit-mimicking hysterics because they saw my grapeleaves and bagels as dog biscuits and my colorful clothes and elaborate jewelry as Gypsy-like and gaudy—my voice, gestures, opinions were too big. My mother and I were clearly foreigners—trespassing on U.S. territory. They encountered my Jewish otherness as danger and as a reflection of the abject.

1492. Andalucia.

The Samuel Abravanel family of Crypto-Jews secretly lights candles in their cellar on a Friday night.

1977. Tel Aviv.
Thousands of Sephardim lined the streets to cheer Anwar Sadat—remembering “their golden past in Arab lands” (Eliachar,
To Live with the Palestinians).

1999. San Francisco.
I was a lecturer at the Jewish Museum during the exhibition of
Too Jewish? A panel discussion ensued with museum administrators and exhibition curators from The Jewish Museum in New York City who referred to Yiddish (Judeo-German) as Jews’ “mother tongue.” I questioned why Too Jewish? neglected to include a single artist of non-Eastern European descent. No one on the panel responded to my protests. Finally, a woman from the audience stood up in anger and tears: as an Italian Jew, she had never been accepted as an Italian but always identified as a Jew. And in the States, she was not recognized by Ashkenazim as Jewish, but was identified instead as Italian.

The Spanish Inquisition was both a culmination and a continuation of expulsions of Jews from the Iberian Peninsula, across Europe (particularly Italy), and the Americas. Jews were forced to flee Iberia, convert to Christianity, or were publicly executed. Thousands of conversos (converted Jews who were also called New Christians), anusim (forced ones), marranos (swine), chuetas (pig-eaters) practiced Judaism in secrecy. Crypto-Jews (hidden Jews) devised secret strategies to practice religious traditions, including: hiding a mezuzah in the foot of a statue of the Madonna, pretending to light candles for Catholic saints but only on Shabbat, and in the Caribbean covering synagogue floors with sand as symbolic of the Jews in Spain and Portugal who, during the Inquisition, had to spread sand across their floors in order to muffle sounds of chants and prayers. When discovered, they were denounced as Judaizers—as judios mamas “really a Jew.” Because mothers and grandmothers maintained practices among converted Jews, far more women than men were tried, convicted and burned at the stake. In recent decades, Crypto-Jews who have maintained Sabbath and other traditions in secrecy for 500 years are nevertheless required to formally convert to Judaism!

Concomitant to any discussion of collaborative, political action is my acute awareness of my own Turkish, Hispanic Jewish identity. This discussion is a vital element in my understanding how and why I am absolutely compelled to collaborate in unfamiliar and often liminal territories in order to build or renew coalitions of empathy and action. My impetus to focus on the criticality of transdisciplinarity was initiated as a Sephardic/ Arab Jew growing up in rural communities in Colorado and Texas. Seemingly grotesque in our hyperbole, we Sephardim reside within the interstices of being Jewish. Living in the intermedial is a familiar zone for all Jews, but especially Spanish Jews here in the US. The multiple folds of being Jewish are collapsed into the homogenized stereotype of the Ashkenazic/Eastern European and then distilled into the all-consuming category of “white.”

Within the colonial legacy of anti-Semitism, I question what color is this white? James Baldwin tells us:

No one was white before he/she came to America. It took generations, and a vast amount of coercion, before this became a white country. …The Jewish community-or more accurately, perhaps, its remnants in America have paid the highest and most extraordinary price for becoming White. For Jews came here from countries where they were not white, and they came here, in part, because they were not white (“On Being White….and Other Lies,” Essence, April 1984).

We are taught that the Other, the immigrant within ourselves, makes us vulnerable, and must be contained and categorized by the authorities—those who define what is real, what is socially acceptable. Historically and presently, others have defined Jews as “belonging to a single and contemptible bloodline. …It is anti-Semites who first characterized Jews as a race. The Jews then accept this false label as their own” (Rushkoff, Nothing Sacred 158). Too often, Jews internalize this anti-Semitism; we swallow and propagate misinformation and prejudice by not even knowing how we are different from one another. I argue that we must historicize our own libelous racial identity.

The cultural complexities of racism and ethnocentrism emerge as Jews are seen as a monolithic category, in particular by “normative” /white Jews. The assumption that all Jews are white and have unequivocal privilege denies the complexities of whiteness, anti-Semitism, and particularly the multiplicity of Jewish peoples from India, Iran, China, Ghana, Libya, and Ethiopia—to name just a few Jewish homelands. Two recent PBS specials (2014/15), David Grubin’s The Jewish Americans, and Simon Schama’s The Story of the Jews, made no reference whatsoever to Sephardic /Mizrahi histories, let alone the pioneering contributions of Sephardim to colonial America as early as 1600. Stripping a people of their history as well as their names is a classic colonial device to expunge identity and memory. As Laila Lalami states in The Moor’s Account, “a name is precious; it carries inside it a language, a history, a set of traditions, a particular way of looking at the world. Losing it meant losing my ties to all those things too” (5).

As an ethnic category, we are told there is no such identity as an Arab Jew; we do not exist. Like stateless Palestinian-Israelis who are betrayed by many Arab nations (using them to incite war rather than encourage co-existence), my experience as Sephardi/Mizrahi is one of inherent betrayal and ambiguity. Our origins and cultures are disparaged as primitive and inferior by Ashkenazim in Zionist Israel, and ironically not recognized as non-white by people-of-color in the US. Smadar Lavie reminds us: “Even though the Ashkenazim are themselves of hybrid ethnicities, from many different Eastern European communities, they can overlook their hybridity thanks to their political and economic power…” (91). Like black women in the US who embrace their African ethnicity, our cultural behavior is often seen as ‘too ethnic.’ To Ashkenazi Jews, we Sephardim are often labeled as “exotic,” and sometimes not seen as really being Jewish, given that our physical characteristics, language, Hebrew, customs, and foods are hybrids of Spanish, Turkish/Greek/Bukharian, Italian, Arabic, Iraqi/Syrian/Yemenite, North African. Jewish languages include Ladino (Judeo-Spanish), Arabic, Judeo-Arabic, Judeo-Greek, Judeo-Persian, Judeo-Italian. In the midst of this rich multiplicity, many Ashkenazim dismiss Ladino, my family’s language, as a dead language. In her introduction to Lionheart Gal, Honor Ford Smith speaks similarly of the Patwah language: “Not to nurture such a language is to retard the imagination and power of the people who created it” (17).

This three-pronged invisibility (Ashkenazim/ people-of-color/ whites) reifies the insidiousness of xenophobia, heightened by sexism across our communities and within corporate and academic institutions. Judith Butler warns:

Various terror alerts that go out over the media authorize and heighten racial hysteria in which fear is directed anywhere and nowhere, in which individuals are asked to be on guard but not told what to be on guard against; so everyone is free to imagine and identify the source of terror…The result is that an amorphous racism abounds, rationalized by the claim of ‘self-defense’ (39, Precarious Life: The Powers of Mourning and Violence).

Lavie concurs: she tells us that as well as a cultural construction, “[t]he idea of racial identity as essence is well understood by Mizrahim who look like Palestinians and are mistaken for them and beaten by angry mobs whenever a homemade bomb blows up in a local Jewish trash can”(98). The ramifications of such wanton stereotyping have had and will to continue to have dire global consequences. It behooves scholars and identity activists to heed historian Americo Castro’s declaration that “Spain is ½ Jewish, ½ Moslem, and ½ Christian,” acknowledging ourselves in the vilified other—Je suis Juif / I am Muslim.

The Arab/Jew dichotomy is one of the most vitriolic and inaccurate divisions that dictate both international policy and quotidian behavior across the globe. Monolithic institutionalized categories, such as Jew, Arab, white, perpetuate divisiveness, racism, and international terrorism. Forced migration to Israel at the inception of the Zionist state in 1947, created traumatic conditions for Arab Jews who would not have otherwise left their homelands. Victor Perera and Eliyahu Eliachar recount intentional European Zionist strategies of Ben Gurion, Golda Meir, and Abba Eban to erase Sephardi/Arab Jew identity for fear of Israel becoming just “another Levantine state…if the Sephardim wielded too much influence” (172). Scholars refer to Palestinian-Israelis and Arab Jews as inhabiting the Other Israel. This “oppressed majority” consistently lose privileges to new immigrants from Russia, and are kept “at the bottom of Israeli society…to provide cheap manpower for their wars and their industry without contaminating the European image they wish to project to the world… .In prisons, whose population is 98% Sephardic and Arab….[they turn them] against one another” (Perara, 170). Creating myths of the ‘primitive’ and ‘backward’ North African/ Arab Jew, they were denied educational opportunities and adequate housing, and humiliated by demeaning jobs and work conditions. “What is needed now is a profound change in our conception of ourselves as Jews. Our enslavement to history and to biblical precedent is so insidious that it prevents us from undertaking initiatives that could break our impasse with the [Muslim-] Arabs…The only way to shed our fatalism is to break our preoccupation with the past and learn to improvise. We must create a new Jew” (ibid., 174).

Moving beyond socially imposed binaries, my work attempts to illuminate possibilities of inhabiting the fertility of often seemingly contradictory, interstitial terrain. As a minority within a minority, a Sephardic among Ashkenazim, I unequivocally traverse the topography of the uncanny. Julia Kristeva tells us the uncanny is “the boundary of what is assimilable, thinkable…” (1982: 18). I have seen myself as a kind of invisible Jew in Christian North America. Appearing Spanish, Italian, or Arabic, Sephardim and Mizrahim are often mistaken as Moslem or Catholic and “pass” into situations where anti-Semitism would have stopped a Yiddish speaking person. When I was living in Tunisia, for reasons of daily survival, I had to conceal that I am a Jew. In spite of the guilt I felt, I was grateful to be able to pass, mistaken as a Moslem Arab from the city.

Not merely underrepresented, as an Arab Jew I am a spectacle of the invisible—an alienated, mythified, commodified site of colonization. In 1980, Audre Lorde characterized the white women’s movement in the US: “today, there is a pretense to a homogeneity of experience covered by the word SISTERHOOD in the white women’s movement. When white feminists call for ‘unity,’ they are mis-naming a deeper and real need for homogeneity.” Constructed typologies, such as illusory “sisterhood” or hegemonic Judaism, become official stories. In order to dispel our internalized oppression, we must decode these stories. I propose we re-examine the generic terms of intersecting hegemonies, including whiteness and masculinity, and re-configure the intricate systems that sustain these collusive tyrannies. Reanimating the complexities of ethnic differences among Jews as people-of-color will potentially undermine and eradicate racial profiling.

My work-in-progress, a historical fiction titled Zazu Dreams: Inhabiting the Arab Jewish Interval, is an elliptical tale combining time-travel with geography, history, ecology, and a co-mingling of ethnic identities. Zazu Dreams is visually and textually layered for audiences of all ages. Cross-generational storytelling can stimulate an ethic of empathy that urges us to expand our sense of play, vulnerability, and intuition. Like Salman Rushdie’s Haroun and the Sea of Stories, Zazu Dreams explores this transformative power of the imagination and the necessity of storytelling to both generate and nourish a community of integrity and dignity. Zazu’s expeditions across the globe weave stories of family life into philosophical and ecological allegories, encountering philosophers, scientists, and artists who share insights of exile—of home. The story concludes with Zazu’s realizations of the embodied implications of the Jewish tenet, tikkun olam (repair of the world through lived empathy, mutual responsibility, and collaborative action) and the Jewish tenet, bal tash chit (do not destroy or waste). Zazu Dreams dispels popular stereotypes of what most people in the US, Europe, and Israel think of as a typical Jewish community.

Recently, while in casual conversation with an activist/writer, I was asked about the background of my family name, Alhadeff. When I reciprocated the question, the response was, “Well, I’m a regular Jew.” Catching her faux-pas, she stammered to correct herself, “I mean, my family comes from Eastern Europe.” Zazu Dreams thus highlights the imperative of re-examining history for all of us “irregular Jews,” “regular Jews,” and non-Jews. Loolwa Khazzoom’s anthology, The Flying Camel: Essays on Identity by Women of North African and Middle Eastern Jewish Heritage, and my transdisciplinary philosophy book, Viscous Expectations: Justice, Vulnerability, The Ob-scene, serve as foundational texts for examining embodied theories of difference and conviviality. To counteract divide-and-conquer techniques that can only be inflicted when individuals do not experience themselves as relational beings, such the ahistorical Jew/Arab schism, recognizing the nuances of being an Arab Jew could significantly break down the institutional apparatus of fear. Like Classical Middle Eastern and Asian Languages & Cultures scholar, Ammiel Alcalay, I argue that one reason the rich intricacies of historic Judeo-Islamic relations have been ignored is because of the virulent anti-Arab sentiment rampant in the US and Europe. Given heightened global terrorist attacks, post 9/11 racial profiling, the US government’s irresponsible relationship with the Middle East, and the resurgence of global anti-Semitism, it is critical that as a global community we commit to a paradigm shift through a comprehensive appreciation of Middle Eastern cultures that include Arab Jewish histories, contributing to sustainable peace in the Middle East. As Rushdie reminds us that freedom is not divisible, I am acutely conscious of how these multiple subjectivities and commitments are inextricably bound. The Arabic word ummah refers to the co-existence of Jews and Muslims as a community of believers. Under Medieval Islam, over 90% of Jews flourished throughout the Islamic world—a convivencia. I am not suggesting a nostalgic return to a diasporic homeland, but rather, an investigation into the ‘deterritorialization’ of our home in the borderzone (Lavie).

This fertile territory that recognizes the intersections of ethnicities can become a basis for global justice—a modern manifestation of convivencia, reminiscent of Spinoza’s “declaration of cooperation.” In 2005, Jewish Ugandan farmer J.J. Kei worked with Jewish, Christian, and Muslim Ugandan coffee farmers to form Mirembe Kawomera (Delicious Peace), a fair-trade cooperative that builds peace and economic prosperity. For further information, see the documentary film, “Delicious Peace Grows: In a Ugandan Coffee Bean,” www.deliciouspeacethemovie.com and http://www.mirembekawomera.com/farmers?farmer=1 This remarkable collaboration in Uganda is a contemporary economic example of Spain’s 14th century Convivencia during which Jews, Moors, and Christians lived together in relative harmony. Other convivial fair trade examples include: Salam Shalom, Jewish and Palestinian olive oil producers; Sindyanna of Galilee, that combines olive oil from Galilee Arab and Jewish farmers for use in Peace Oil, providing Arab and Jewish women an opportunity to work together to promote land preservation, environmental quality, and women’s and labor rights; and, Green Action Israel that encourages socio-ecological change through youth empowerment and community programs. Although the Jews and Arabs in these programs may not be Arab Jews, I include these coalitions as examples of cross-pollinating pro-activism that achieves sustainable reconciliation. A poignant example of radical empathy is the recent Unity Rally in Paris during which an Islamic French woman held a sign of solidarity: “JE SUIS JUIF.” Presumptuously, a CNN commentator interviewing her stated, “You clearly are not Jewish, yet…” This Muslim sign-bearer looked far more like my family than most Ashkenazim I know. It is this species of taken-for-granted ethnic assumption that I hope to undermine.

In contrast to our culture of blame and shame and its tyrannical addiction to certainty and meaning, my work invokes both the Talmudic and Quranic practice of interpretation through conversation, while engaging complex webs as a process of multi-layered storytelling in which ambiguity is not a lack of clarity, but instead demonstrates a multiplicity of clarities. By challenging how we internalize binaries and taxonomies, I investigate lived empathy not as a unified merging which dissolves into an amorphous normativity, but as the fluid exchange of autonomy and interconnectedness—a conscious embrace of a collective healing process.