Monday, 4 May 2015

Selective Compassion - Zionism from the Standpoint of its Non-Palestinian Victims

One of Edward Said's greatest essays is 'Zionism from the Standpoint of its Victims', which was published originally in the inaugural edition of Social Text, and also as a chapter in Said's 1979 book, The Question of  Palestine.  The essay is magnificent in its yoking together in a relatively brief span (about 50 pages) the full range of his erudition and his critical acumen - literature, history, politics and theory, all woven into a seamless counter-narrative to Zionism's self-aggrandising Whiggish story of the ingathering of the Jewish 'nation', of its 'making the desert bloom' in Palestine, and its creation of a new state.  Said's basic point is that the story of Zionist-Jewish triumph - to a great degree a very real triumph - can only be properly understood, and finally countermanded, by a recognition of the accompanying shadow story of the Palestinian society that was destroyed to make Israel possible.  A properly dialectical understanding of the situation in the Middle East requires - for historical, but also for political and even ethical reasons - a reading of these stories as mutually dependent.

Some years later, the distinguished Israeli-Iraqi scholar, Ella Shohat, published an essay of arguably equal importance and power, 'Zionism from the Standpoint of its Jewish Victims'.  Shohat's argument was that Zionism was essentially a European Ashkenazi creation, and that Mizrahi Jews, encouraged or forced to come to Israel after 1948, had suffered a racial 'othering' at the hands of the Ashkenazi-dominated society of the new state not altogether unlike that experienced by Palestinians left behind in pre-1967 Israel.  Zionism, that is, set up a hierarchy not only of Jews and non-Jews, but also of Jews and Jews that needed to be de-Arabised or flensed of their Middle Eastern heritage.

In the 1980s, during the Ethiopian famines, Israel put in place an airlift, to bring the Falasha Jews, now called Beyt Yisrael, of east Africa to Israel.  The project was cast in the Western media as essentially a rescue operation, but in fact Israel's creating conditions for Ethiopian Jewish aliyah was always also a political matter.  It must be noted, of course, that the Emperor of Ethiopia, Haile Selassie, had not permitted Beyt Yisrael emigration to Israel, and equally, it was only in 1977 that Israel decided that the Law of Return applied to this Jewish community at all.

The fate of the Ethiopian Jews in Israel has not been easy, and this too points to the quasi-ethnic hierarchy on which Israel is built.  Tensions between the Ashkenazi or 'white' Jewish elites, and the African population have now issued in violence.  Here is an essay from Mondoweiss, on this disturbing topic: 

'Baltimore is Here: Ethiopian Israelis protest police brutality in Jerusalem

An extra-territorial demonstration of this attitude is dramatised by Israel's 'aid' operations in Nepal, in the wake of the recent catastrophic earthquake.  Here is Belén Fernández dissecting the ideology, or political intentionality, of Israeli humanitarianism on Jacobin:

Israel’s “Selective Compassion”



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