Sunday, November 30, 2014

Mizrahi Reconstruction

Sar Shalom

Back in June, Matti Friedman published an article at Mosaic titled "Mizrahi Nation" contrasting the prevalent Eurocentric narrative of the rise of the State of Israel with a narrative centered on Middle East-Jewry. While I don't have anything to add to his history of Mizrahi Jews, there was one item missing in the parallel between the two narratives. In describing the Eurocentric narrative, Friedman related that many respond to the narrative of oppressed European Jews reestablishing themselves in their ancient homeland by likening European settlement of the Levant to white colonization of Rhodesia. However, there is no external reference for the Mizrahi-centric narrative. I would like to suggest that the appropriate external comparison should be Reconstruction following the American Civil War.

Making such an effort would require two things. One, it would be necessary to have a chance to convince people that the Jewish reclamation of the Land of Israel resembles Reconstruction. Second, convincing people of that notion would have to have an effect on their perceptions of the conflict. The second component is the simpler one. While there is a risk that such an association would alienated some of our right-wing allies who cling to the old Confederacy, the gains among liberals could be substantial. For any liberal who is convinced that supporting the Palestinians against Israel is equivalent to supporting the Klan in its efforts to undermine Reconstruction, it would be game over with us winning that liberal. For the Jew-hatred über alles crowd, there are only two responses to a comparison between Reconstruction: they could assert that while enfranchising the freed Negroes post-Civil War was a positive goal, disenfranchising the whites in service of that goal went too far, or they could circle the wagons to try to prevent the notion that Zionism is like Reconstruction from gaining traction.

This raises the issue of how bring traction to the Reconstruction-Zionism nexus. A start would be to note what is in common between all three of Reconstruction, Apartheid and present-day Israel: they all feature(d) one group that is/was empowered and one that is/was disenfranchised. The task would be to highlight the differences between Reconstruction and Apartheid and pose the question as to whether present-day Israel is more like Reconstruction or like Apartheid. A few examples. Under Reconstruction, the empowered group was previously disenfranchised and the group that became disenfranchised was previously the overlords of those disenfranchised whereas under Apartheid the empowered group only shared the same space with the disenfranchised as the overlords. In Israel, if you take the perspective of the Mizrahi community, the empowered group was previously disenfranchised and the presently disenfranchised were their overlords back then. During Reconstruction, the disenfranchised began a full-press campaign of terror. While the ANC did occasionally commit acts of terror, there was nothing on the scale of the Klan. Needless to say, Israel is faced with a full-press campaign of terror. During Reconstruction, the southern whites never saw anything wrong with any savagery committed in resistance to Reconstruction, only in the North's calling attention to those crimes. In Israel today, the Arabs and their water-carriers never see any crime in any Arab act of savagery against the Jewish population, only in Jews' calling attention to what the Arabs are doing. A further comparison between Reconstruction and Zionism with no analog in Apartheid is the combination of the formerly locally disenfranchised with outsiders. In Reconstruction, this consisted of Northern carpetbaggers helping to enforce the newly established rights for the ex-slaves. In Zionism, this consisted of European Jews, not all of them Ashkenazic, developing a space where Mizrahi had the full rights of free men.

While there are similarities between Zionism and Reconstruction, the lack of any living memory of Reconstruction will make it difficult to make Reconstruction come to people's minds when they think of what is happening in the Levant. Further, it will take more than the sketchy connections I have outlined to withstand the attacks of those who would deny any connection at all cost. A more robust comparison will requiring delving more deeply into the history of Reconstruction. A few examples I could suggest would include The Bloody Shirt: Terror After the Civil War and After Lincoln: How the North Won the Civil War and Lost the Peace.


  1. You are on the right track, Sar Shalom.

    I tend to be wary of historical analogies, but there is no question that Hamas and Fatah / PLO are essentially the Klan. Just as the racist night-riders wore hoods to hide their identity, so do the racist enemies of Israel.

    We need to discuss this on two levels, the popular and the academic.

    What matters most is the popular and that case should be relatively easy to make.

    The Jews of the Middle East have been a persecuted and much diminished minorty under Arab-Muslim imperial rule since the 7th century. Just as Black people were enslaved by Muslims and others and sold to white traders, so Jews were imprisoned for millenia within the racist system of dhimmitude.

    Just as the Klan in the US represented an effort to roll-back the freedom of Black slaves after the Civil War, so Hamas and Fatah want to roll-back the freedom of Jews following the 1948 War of Liberation.

    1. However, it also should be noted that from a historical perspective, what I have written above is absolutely true.

      After 1,300 hundred long years of persecution, often much worse than Black people suffered under Jim Crow, we Jews freed ourselves from persecution and immediately upon doing so were attacked - and continue to be attacked - by members of the majority population.

  2. Assuming of course you recognize that 'technically' Jews weren't completely emancipated in the United States until 1876. It's easy to think of 'those southerners' as unregenerate reprobates but America's not really been an entirely friendly place to specifically the Jews either. No dogs no Jews no Irish wasn't all that long ago. And you have to keep in mind that Reconstruction was rife with corruption and lawlessness all its own too. One wonders if Lincoln had survived would it have out so poorly for so long. Instead we had an ex Southerner alcoholic president followed by a Union General war hero guiding the hand of events through reconstruction. Neither of them was particularly amenable to letting the south up off the floor and neither worked very hard to reconstructed the shattered states of affairs in the south.

    Maybe another view of it is how Germany was sliced up governed militarily after WW2. To the victor the spoils and all that but w/in 4 years the west Germans were given their elected government back for better or worse.