“The political and intellectual history of modernity,” writes historian Robert Orsi, “is also always a religious history.” However, as significant and diverse recent scholarship is now bringing to light, narratives around the political, intellectual, and religious history of modernity often serve not only to illuminate the past, but also to obscure it through the authorization of specific forms of experience and knowledge.
This symposium, entitled “Decolonizing Narratives, Denaturalizing Modernity,” aims to highlight recent scholarship that complicates received notions around the history of modernity. While focusing on distinct temporal, geographical, and religious contexts, in their shared attempts to uncover histories hidden by the dominant discourses of modernity, the authors featured in this symposium uniformly challenge the naturalization of modernity’s emergence and indicate that that the history of modernity has always been (and remains) fundamentally contested.
It is the ninth week for me as a new professor at Columbia University. The move here from UCLA, where I taught for fifteen years, has been full of surprises, and not always of the kind one expects. But nothing prepared me for the sight I encountered recently as I crossed the main plaza of the college on the way to class to teach Edward Said’s Orientalism to a large group of MESAAS (Middle Eastern, South Asian, and African Studies) majors. I was thinking about how best to make them see the political relevance of Orientalism to our present-day reality, and just then, as if by divine intervention, I noticed a flyer: “Hebrew Liberation Week: A Celebration of Semitism.” Curiously I approached the plaza. After all, I was about to teach Said’s discussion of Semitism as an invented 19th century orientalist category and this seemed relevant. I soon faced three tall poles mounted with Israeli flags and was surrounded by about a dozen of young men and women wearing kaffiyehs (a checkered scarf, which has long been a symbol of Palestinian national liberation) that were blue and white (the colors of the Israeli flag). “Things don’t look right,” I noted to myself. But it was only when I noticed the bombastic billboards covering the borders of the plaza that the effect became truly chilling.
First I saw a large portrait of a Native American wearing a traditional headdress, with the word “Judah” written across it.
Another banner, shown above, presented a group of men in indigenous dress with a bearded man in a tallith (a white prayer shawl worn by Jewish men) placed right in the center among them.
There is, of course, nothing wrong in suggesting an alliance between Jews and Indigenous people, and in the context of Jews living in Europe and elsewhere as “inside outsiders” and as part of internal European colonization (too much has been written about “The Jewish Question” for me to summarize here) it indeed makes sense to compare and point out similarities between the position of Jews as a fragile minority and the position of other oppressed groups, like the indigenous, colonized, enslaved, and more. However, placing such images underneath the Israeli flag makes them, at best, tasteless depictions of a pseudo alliance. Suggesting, as the posters do, that Jews have been driven out of their land (like indigenous people) and have finally returned to Israel–a trajectory that all indigenous people should unite behind–is a crude and cynical manipulation of (Jewish) history and a vulgar fabrication that not only makes no sense, but is also offensive in its use and abuse of indigenous peoples’ histories of oppression.
Indigenous people are not the only ones exploited in this campaign, run by SSI (Students Supporting Israel). SSI is the new kid on the block of campus hasbara groups (only five years old) but this kid is well funded by the usual suspects. A notable amount of the $319,598 in 2015 contributions SSI reported on tax forms comes, for instance, from the Milstein Family Foundation, which also supports CAMERA, Stand with Us, Hasbara Fellowships, and other right-wing Israel advocates. The mission of SSI, as their webpage indicates, is “to be a clear and confident Pro-Israel voice on college campuses,” and for this mission, they even offer scholarships for students “to visit Israel and come back to campus ready for action!” Nothing on the webpage, however, mentions what SSI’s current campaign at Columbia University makes clear beyond all doubt: that the organization has decided to shamelessly appropriate histories, narratives, political symbols and imagery of indigenous people, Native Americans, Africans, and even Palestinians for the purpose of producing a fictitious, if colorful, narrative of Jewish indigeneity and self-Orientalization. By Self-Orientalism I mean, in this context, a certain instrumentalization of Orientalism and its stereotypes for the purpose of producing a figure of a modern Jew/Israeli who is at the same time ancient, biblical, Semitic, Oriental. This figure is in fact an updated and improved version of the early Zionist invention of the Occidentalized ‘New Jew.’ If the Occidentalized New Jew was said to bring European civilization and progress to the East, this updated version is no longer associating the Israeli Jew with the West and its promise of modernity and progress. On the contrary, the self-Orientalized Jew/Israeli embraces his/her position as the son/daughter of the East. He/she is the native indigenous of the east (Palestine, the biblical Holy-land, Israel) whose temporality expands from the biblical time to the present.
As a bold background to the blue and white kaffiyehs being sold on location, there were posters covering the plaza, inundated with images of Brown and Black people and proud Israeli soldiers: Asians (children of mainly Filipin@ guest workers who became Israeli citizens and “won” the opportunity to serve in the Israeli army), Ethiopian Jews, Bedouins, and overtly joyful Druze. If yesterday’s message was that the Israeli army is welcoming of gays*, today’s message is that the IDF is a place where Brown, Black, African, and Arab people all feel happy. Together.
In addition to the soldiers, there are images of Arab-Jews (Mizrahim) who must not be forgotten, not again. Images of Yemeni families, perhaps making their way to the Promised Land, are shown on other banners.
One must ask: why a “Brown people campaign”? Or: How did all the Israelis (or Jews, the campaign isn’t clear) become so Brown all of a sudden? (I ask as a very fair Polish Jew!) Why does an organization like SSI feel the need to “celebrate Semitism” and parade Ethiopians, Yemenites, and Druze in order to make historical claims of belonging and ownership? And why the sudden need to create the pretense of a coalition with the indigenous people in North America?
The answers are to be found in the logic of political tactic and not in the realm of a real existential identity transformation. In other words, Orientalism–which here functions also as self-Orientalism–is meant to do political work, masking settler colonialism with the language and images of nativism. But what is the political work of self-Orientalizing? What is gained by associating Zionism with the struggles of Native peoples and people of color? Correctly identifying past and present trends of the liberal and the radical left (the focus of indigenous rights, multiculturalism, and siding with the colonized and the oppressed) SSI disdainfully adopts these characteristics in order to unarm leftist critique. Indeed, if Israelis are indigenous people returning to their colonized lands, their political struggle must be considered valid and progressive.
SSI’s Semitic campaign is based on a simple but dangerous manipulation of historical facts. It abuses the historically ambivalent position of the Jew in the West as not-white-not-quite and the Orientalized modern biblical iconography of the Israelites as prototypical Orientals and Semites to create a narrative of a present-day political hallucination, according to which Jews are the colonized natives fighting for their land. If only this fantasy wasn’t so cynical, offensive and well-funded, we might have had a good laugh.
*Pinkwashing is a term by the growing global gay movement against the Israeli occupation to denote Israel’s deliberate strategy to conceal the continuing violations of Palestinians’ human rights behind an image of progressive modernity symbolized by Israeli gay culture. See: Sarah Schulmann, “Israel and ‘Pinkwashing’” Opinion, NYT, Nov 22 2011.
Grace Yan and Carla Almeida Santos, “China Forever: Tourism Discourse and Self-Orientalism” Annals of Tourism Research, Vol. 36, No. 2, (2009): 295–315.
Matthew Jaber Stiffler “Consuming Orientalism: Public Foodways of Arab American Christians” Mashriq & Mahjar 2, no. 2 (2014): 111-138.
Arif Dirlik, “Chinese History and the Question of Orientalism” History and Theory, Vol. 35, No. 4, (1996): pp. 96-118.
Plamen K. Georgiev. Self-Orientalization in South East Europe. Springer, 2012
Yonatan Mendel and Ronald Ranta. From the Arab Other to the Israeli Self: Palestinian Culture in the Making of Israeli National Identity. Routledge, 2016
Nicholas Rowe “Dance and Political Credibility: The Appropriation of Dabkeh by Zionism, Pan-Arabism, and Palestinian Nationalism” Middle East Journal Vol. 65, No. 3 (Summer 2011): 363-380
Susan Slyomovics. The Object of Memory: Arab and Jew Narrate the Palestinian Village. University of Pennsylvania Press, 1998.