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Artists Talk: Israel/Palestine. An Interview with Almog Behar

By Chana Morgenstern

Translated from the Hebrew by Chana Morgenstern

In this installment of "Artists Talk: Israel/Palestine,"  Chana Morgenstern. speaks to Almog Behar, whose poem, Sheikh Jarrah, 2010" you can read over here.

Chana Morgenstern: Can you tell me a little bit about how your experiences organizing with Israelis and Palestinians in Sheikh Jarrah [East Jerusalem] informed the writing of this poem?

Almog Behar: Well, I think it was everything combined, the fact that Sheikh Jarrah is really close to my house in Jerusalem, but at the same time is a different world--a world that in its conduct, in its rules, in the police and the army that walk around there, and in the eviction of people from their homes—is a place that steals from me my Judaism, both the state and the settlers do it, and it hurts that for the most part this theft is accepted by the majority of the public.  Also, as a practicing Jew, the confrontation with the religiosity of the settlers—the experience of protesting in front of a congregation in prayer—produced a difficult estrangement for me.  At one point I tried to create an alternative prayer, a combined Jewish and Islamic prayer that would unite the Israeli and Palestinian protesters and shield them from the police, but the Arab-Palestinian community had a hard time with this idea because they associate Jewish prayer with the settlers and the settlements, and I understand that.  It was difficult for them to see prayer—which in my eyes and in my world is a major link between Judaism and Islam—as a symbol of connection.  At the synagogue I go to, we pray in the same Arabic notes that the Islamic muezzin sings in; historically and in the day to day, the music and symbols of Judaism, especially Mizrahi Judaism, have a relationship with the music and symbols of Islam, and part of my own search is about exploring this connection.  Look, it’s really troubling that the Israeli-Arab conflict is often conceived of as a Jewish-Muslim conflict, but in some sense I also think that part of the solution to the conflict has to have a Muslim-Jewish component to it.  This may be far off because the political reality is opposed to it, but in the end, from my perspective, from the perspective of my faith and my belief, some of the tools for recovery exist within the potential for Jewish-Muslim connection.  

CM: The idea of bringing Judaism and Islam together as part of a solution to the conflict seems like a very different approach than the approach taken by the Israeli left or the European left, who are traditionally secular.

AB: Yes, definitely, But look, I think that in this sense there is a difference between the general Israeli left and the Jerusalem left.  The old left or the Tel-Avivy left, at least stereotypically, is far from this perspective because it’s far from its own religion, it identifies its Judaism with someone else: the ultra-orthodox or settlers, them and the state.  In other words what’s left is the state as a representation of Judaism, which I think is a total theft of Judaism. Judaism is something much more complicated, with many more layers.  The Judaism that comes after the second temple, after Christianity, after Islam, is in dialogue with Christian and Islamic practices and customs, and this means that it can be a vehicle for dialogue with other communities instead of a vehicle for exclusion.  Traditionally, In Iraq, where my mother's family is from, these communities were much more intertwined.  Even—for example—in order for the Jewish communities in Baghdad to celebrate Passover they had to have a Muslim to sell their bread to.  You couldn’t celebrate your holidays without members of other religions. This was also true for holidays like the Morrocan Mimuna to which all religious groups were invited—other groups were part of the holiday and the holiday atmosphere in the Middle East my grandparents grew up in.  But here, in the Israeli imagination, the holidays—ours and theirs—are justifications for curfew. When do you hear about Muslim holidays on the Israeli news?  When there is a curfew on the territories because of Eid al- 'Ad'ha and Eid El-Fiter and Ramadan.  And in this sense we are moving farther and farther away from understanding the connections between our cultures and traditions.  Take for example the tradition of joint liturgical poetry: the 16th century  (tzefat) poet Rabbi Israel Najara’s work was in dialogue with Sufism; and in 20th century Rabbi David Buzaglo combined Judaism, Islam, Hebrew and Arabic in his work, over Arabic melodies songs with words in Arabic, Aramaic and Hebrew.  And some of the liturgical poetry is common to both Muslims and Jews, as prayers that are used by both religions.  From my perspective as a Mizrahi Jew I feel that part of the value of Mizrahi culture is that it is part of the tradition of shared cultures in the Middle East.  When Mizrahi culture in Israel disconnects itself from Arabic culture and from Islam it is in danger of becoming a caricature of itself.  The moment we lock ourselves up in Hebrew and in the phobia of Arabic, we start to resemble an immigrant group that has migrated from the East to the West and is trying to assimilate to that Western culture, when in fact we forget that we are still in the East, we haven’t roamed very far. Hebrew and Judaism have roots in the East and it is precisely the living connection with the Arabic language and culture and Islam that nurtures us.   

CM: Do you think that because of their roots in the Arab world, the Mizrahi Jewish community plays a role in the conflict between Israel and the Arab world?

AB: In Shimon Ballas’s book The Transit Camp [1964], his first book in Hebrew, one of the characters says, “We the Arab-Jews, will be a bridge between the Arabs and the Jews.”  But first of all, a bridge is something that people step on, and they were stepped on.  And they, the Arab-Jews, were also a bridge that was forgotten by both sides.  It’s not just that from the perspective of European Jews in the new Israeli state Mizrahim were these kind of half-strangers  that filled roles in the army and the factories and fields, and needed to be re-educated before they could play any kind of national or cultural role.  There was also a great deal of denial about Mizrahi Jews’ connection to the Arab world. In the beginning, the optimism of people like Shimon Ballas stemmed from the fact that in contrast to the half of the nation that came from Europe and treated the Arabs with elitism the Mizrahi half was born into a joint life, into a more equitable life with the Arabs and the idea was that this would help on some level.  But it is clear that as the generations have shifted most of this difference has been erased, and due to the Israeli re-education and the media, most of the Mizrahim have joined the general racism of the majority.  Also, because the Mizrahim were relegated to the working class they were pitted against the Palestinians.   But it’s also important to remember that amnesia and repression existed on the other side as well.  A large part of the Arab world chose most of the time to forget the Arab-Jews within the dichotomy of what eventually turned into the Arab-Israeli struggle.  They were not forgotten in Morocco, but that’s the exception.   After more than a thousand years of being part of the history of Arabic culture we have virtually disappeared in the Arab world.  It’s an understanding on both sides—the Israeli and the Arab—that the Mizrahim were not Arabs and never were part of the Arabic world.  And in this sense, instead of being a bridge between the two sides, the Mizrahim have actually succeeded in being disconnected from both sides.  Both sides forgot them and suppressed their identities.  Paradoxically, one of the last communities in the Arab world to actually remember the Arab-Jewish connection is the Palestinian one, especially the Israeli-Palestinian community, who like the Mizrahim, also find themselves caught between the Arab world and Israel.  Now the positive aspect of this situation is that I think Mizrahim have nonetheless forced and will continue to force the state of Israel to change culturally. For example, I went to a school that erased my past and my family’s past.  Now there’s no way that I am going to let the same thing happen to my child’s education, that I will allow my children and my grandchildren to be sent to a place that erases them. I think the mission of our generation is to change this place from the inside, in terms of the culture, in terms of historical consciousness, and in terms of the definition of what it means to be Israeli and what it means to be Jewish.  

CM: And what role do you feel like your generation—especially the writers and artists you are involved with—play in this process of transformation, particularly in relation to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict?  Given the conservative state of the culture, do you feel like such a small group can make a difference?  Do you feel like the work is meaningful even though it does not reflect mainstream values?

AB: In the words of Emile Habiby, translated by Anton Shammas, I am a pessoptimist. But even if you’re being pessimistic you can say that someone like Samir Naqqash, who preserved his culture by being an Israeli Jewish author who wrote in Arabic during the 1960s and 70s, carried a torch for the rest of us. He knew he lived in a dark age, that he was living in a generation in which this position and this act would not prevail or even stand out.  He knew that this act would be denied, both in Israel and in the Arab world, that it would be swallowed up by all of the darkness around it.  But . . . the simple act of holding the torch, illuminates the notion of possibility for future generations.  There is a possibility; the possibility of a generation that will change and will be capable of changing society and carrying this torch forward. From a cultural point of view and a historic point of view the Jewish-Arab connection is a living possibility, it can be a real possibility right now in a limited capacity, but its existence also provides a torch for coming generations to actualize the vision more broadly.  I think that in the young literature certain things are happening that are optimistic in terms of the Mizrahi-Palestinian-Israeli connection; things are also happening in the realm of music that are very positive and that foreground Arabic culture.  So on the one hand, I’m optimistic that a young Israeli-Palestinian literary community is being created, that change is being created alongside all of the very difficult aspects of the situation.   In terms of the general cultural situation of channel 2 representing our culture and so on, I feel we have not developed very much.  It’s clear that the dominant cultural options exclude our connection.  The dominant cultural situation includes two options: the neutral—in other words Ashkenazi (Jews of European descent)—Israeli option and the American option, or a symbiosis between these two options.  Once someone asked me, why are you even wasting your time on the struggle between Ashkenazi and Mizrahi, when in a few years we’re all basically going to be Americans?   But I feel like as long as we are engaged with these questions of Ashkenazi and Mizrahi and Jewish and Palestinian identity we aren’t completely American.  Part of our engagement around the definition of our cultures, around the question of how we want to educate our children and live our lives reminds us of the alternatives to the dominant culture. These are part of our foundational questions, not just questions of collective and national identity, but also the question of a solution to the horrors that have occurred here; it is both collective and deeply personal and familial, in the sense that we are asking how we want to live as a family, as a community.

Read Almog Behar's poem, Sheikh Jarrah, 2010, over here.

Published Feb 9, 2011   Copyright 2011 Chana Morgenstern

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