The selected writings in Ella Shohat’s book, “On the Arab-Jew, Palestine, and Other Displacements” span a period of more than 30 years, and offer a richly rewarding panorama of the famed postcolonial scholar and cultural theorist’s work. This collection, as the publisher Pluto Press puts it, “gathers together her most influential political essays, interviews, speeches, testimonies and memoirs, as well as previously unpublished material”. It is thus suitable for anyone approaching Shohat’s work for the first time, as a kind of primer, as well as for those already familiar with the New York University based academic’s paradigm shifting scholarship.
The book is divided into four parts: ‘The Question of the Arab-Jew,’ ‘Between Palestine and Israel,’ ‘Cultural Politics of the Middle East,’ and ‘Muslims, Jews, and Diasporic Readings’. The chapters address a wide range of topics, from ‘Mizrahi Feminism: The Politics of Gender, Race, and Multiculturalism’ and ‘In Defence of Mordechai Vanunu: Nuclear Threat in the Middle East,’ to ‘On Israeli Cinema: East/West and the Politics of Representation’ and ‘Reflections on September 11’.
Shohat, born in Israel to an Iraqi-Jewish family, is of course most famous for her work on “the question of the Arab-Jew,” as she puts it in the book’s introduction, and this collection of her writings does justice to her unique – perhaps foundational – contribution to an interdisciplinary shaped field of Mizrahi studies. As she writes in the book, Shohat has pursued “a relational network approach” that takes into account “imperial history, partition remappings, and post/colonial dislocations”. This work, she adds, attempts to “demystify the ethnocentric self-idealisations typical of the dominant narrative, without a) prettifying the Jewish experience in Muslim/Arab spaces, or b) glorifying Arab nationalism, or c) idealising Arab Jews/Mizrahim themselves, some of whom played a very ambiguous role in this convoluted story”.
Shohat’s demystification has meant confronting and challenging powerful narratives in the modern Israeli state; as she writes in “The Invention of the Mizrahim” (first published in 1999), “Zionist historiography pays little attention to the history of the Jews in the Muslim world” – and to the extent that “Judeo-Islamic history” is acknowledged, “[Zionist history] usually organises its narrative around a selected series of violent events, moving from pogrom to pogrom, as evidence of relentless hostility toward Jews in the Arab world, presumed to be analogous to those encountered in Europe”. In the Palestinian context, specifically, “the conflation of the Muslim Arab with the archetypal (European) oppressors of Jews downplays the colonial-settler history of Euro-Israel itself”.
Events over the last two decades – from the September 11 attacks and the ensuing, unending war on terror, to the Second Intifada and solidification of an apartheid status quo on the ground in Israel and the occupied Palestinian territory – have given Shohat’s work added urgency, as well as varied contemporary resonances and insights that go much broader than the confines of the so-called ‘Israeli-Palestinian conflict’. In “Don’t Choke on History: Reflections on Dar Al Sulh,” a reference to a unique project by artist Michael Rakowitz in collaboration with Shohat and arts curator Regine Basha, Shohat highlights how “a discussion about the multiplicity of Iraqi identity,” and more specifically, “about the history of Iraqi Jews,” is especially relevant, “even vital,” post the catastrophic 2003 invasion. Part of “nostalgia for a past Iraq,” Shohat notes, has included “a kind of resurgence of interest in the cultural contribution of Iraqi-Jews and in the question of Arab-Jews in general”. In an era characterised by various forms of displacement, unstable borders, shifting identities, and polarisations, the significance of Shohat’s intellectual rigour and humanity is clear in contexts from Haifa to Baghdad, to the Gulf, and on to Europe and beyond.
As English professor Anthony Alessandrini wrote in Jadaliyya earlier this year, “postcolonial studies has had, by and large... little to do with the question of Palestine”. Shohat, however, is one of a few “brilliant and honourable exceptions,” he continued, describing the publication of “On the Arab-Jew, Palestine, and Other Displacements: Selected Writings of Ella Shohat” as “a major event for the field”. I would only add that the collection is a wonderful resource for anyone interested in Middle East politics, and in particular for those who want to imagine “a shared future in Israel/Palestine”.