David Shasha has it wrong

(Above) David Shasha. (Left) Lucette Lagnado

Look no further that the comments below David Shasha’s article in the Jerusalem Post ‘When Arab Jews forget who they are’ to understand that Shasha’s views outrage and even disgust Mizrahi/Sephardi Jews. They object to the problematic expression ‘Arab Jews’. Is the Jerusalem Post going the way of the anti-Zionist Haaretz, they wonder? Shasha’s article was meant as a rebuttal to a piece in the Wall St Journal by Lucette Lagnado, whose family came to the US as Egyptian-Jewish refugees in the 1960s. I shall merely ‘fisk’ a few of Shasha’s arguments (in italics).

course the matter is rooted in her distorted understanding of the
Egyptian-Jewish experience and its illustrious history from Philo of
Alexandria to Edmond Jabes.

This argument is akin to saying that an article on Hitler’s persecution of the Jews must always mention the contribution to German culture of Heine, Mendelssohn  and Marx. Apologists for Arab persecution of Jews seem to make the common error that cultural points of connection between Jews and Arabs attenuate, or cancel out, the points of division.

What we see in the article is the usual lachrymose sense of Arabs
and Jews that is connected to the Zionist mission. The argument in the
article is ostensibly premised on her identity as an Egyptian Jew and
what that identity means in socio-historical terms. 

Any reader of Lucette Lagnado’s ‘Man in the White Sharkskin Suit ‘ will know that the family was not ‘connected to the Zionist mission’. How then can Shasha explain away the persecution that they suffered in Egypt as Jews?

 Tellingly, there is no mention of the so-called “Lavon Affair” in which the Israeli government engaged native Egyptian Jews as spies for a bombing mission that targeted prominent sites in the country. 

By invoking the 1954 Lavon Affair, Shasha blames the persecution of the Jewish community on the ‘Zionists’. The Lavon Affair was a botched attempt to damage US-Egyptian relations. Nobody died. A cinema, library and US cultural centre were hardly ‘prominent targets’. What is Shasha’s explanation for the mass exodus of 14, 000 Jews six years beforehand, and the further expulsion of 25,000 Jews two years later?

than this, there is no mention of the hardships and persecution that
Arab Jews faced when they arrived in Israel.  To the contrary,
anti-Sephardi racism is magically transformed into praise of Israel for
so warmly opening its arms to those fleeing the Arab-Muslim world after
1948.  No mention of what lay ahead for those who came to this new and
forbidding Ashkenazi land. 

The classic bogeyman of ‘Ashkenazi ‘ discrimination beloved of anti-Zionists and radical leftists.  If the racism in Israel against Sephardim and Mizrahim was worse than the conditions these Jews fled from, why did they not return to their Arab countries of birth? In spite of the very real discrimination of the 1950s, Egyptian Jews are amongst those Mizrahim whose resettlement in Israel was most successful. But Shasha is only interested in making blanket generalisations.

More about David Shasha


  • Sylvia: There is no process of erasing any Jewish heritage, Sephardic or otherwise. Israel created a testing ground where disparate groups from the Diaspora were finally in close contact with one another. A synchrestic Jewish Culture has taken shape & it is beautiful. More than 70% of Israeli Jewry is Sephardi Mizrachi and our footprint can be found in every aspect of Israeli life & culture save one. That lone exception is Leftism. Thoroughly Ashkenazi Leftism is now becoming a fringe perspective in Israel, Baruch Hashem.

    As for Maimonides, Shasha reveals how very little he knows about Judaism. Anytime someone like Shasha tries to push the "Maimonides as Rationalist" rubbish I ask them to then explain Maimonides' views as he articulated them in "Iggeret Teiman" (Epistle to Yemen). In it he labeled Arabs as animals and Muhammad as, and I quote, "That demented lunatic from the desert."

    How ironic then that Shasha pushed the "Arab Jew" card while in his next breath he is holding Maimonides up as some sort of intellectual & spiritual paragon.

  • Although this is an old thread I still want to comment because, sadly, Shasha is still around and is still muckraking.

    His "Center for Sephardic Heritage is non existent outside his head. He operates it out of the studio flat on Brooklyn's Ocean Parkway that his parents bought him. Speaking of his parents, they are not surnamed "Shasha." It is aupposedly the maiden name of his maternal grandmother.

    His raison d'etre is "exposing" anti Sephardi/Mizrachi bigotry amongst Ashkenazim. He would be much better served hunting white elephants. Historically it is we, Sephardi Mizrachim who have been prejudiced aganst Ashkenazim, not the inverse.

    Any Sephardi Mizrachi using the label "Arab Jew" is as ignorant as a doorknob. Arabs have never considered us Arab., Even al Qu'ran refers to the Jews as acPeople, in tribal terms. The term "Banu Isra'eli" literally denotes this distinction. No Jew with an iota of common sense would ever use that term. The first Arab stepped into history IN ARABIA in 853 BCE. At thst juncture a sovereign Jewish State was close to half a millenia old. When Arabs INVADED HaEretz in 634 CE the Jews had been there for more than 2,000-years.

    How can a cohesive People living on their own indigenous soil, who have maintained the very same culture, spirituality & faith that predated the existence of the Arab People by half a millenia, be consodered to be part OF the Arab People? It is weakminded propaganda.

  • The Nazis actually targeted the european jews who were mostly (certainly not entirely) ashkenazim for having dark skin and middle eastern features.

    In America, Ashkenazim were called Heebs, and other names used in a racist way by gentiles.

    Look at Der Sturmer, and see how the nazis portrayed the ashkenazi jews. There are hundreds of photos out there of Jews from Ashkenaz that perished for looking as dark as the gypsies. Certainly not 'white' by Shohat's or Shasha's own standards.

    Herzl himself does not even look northern european, but rather like he comes from the caucasian lands of Azerbaijan and Armenia. But none of this should even matter.

    I suppose Andre Azoulay is ashkenazi and 'white' according to Shohat's racist, warped views.

    Btw, the most recent autosomal genetic studies place ashkenazi and sefaradic jews right next to each other, sometimes even on top in gene plots. How does she explain this?

    Judaism is the religion, but most Jews are of shared Hebraic/middle eastern and mediterranean descent, no matter which religious rite or cultural background. Even gasp, many ashkenazim. Oh no.

  • And jews form persia, afghanistan, caucasian lands are no more sefaradic than ashkenazim. They are mizrahim. Yet Shohat and the rest want the world to believe that the word 'mizrahi' means 'arab jew'.

    Some of these communist, anti-israeli, pro-palestinian activists even try to say that Italkim and Romaniotes from Italy and Greece are 'mizrahi' or 'sefaradi'.

    These people hate ashkenazim. They are obsessed. They don't represent most sefaradim.

    I have Moroccan Jewish ancestry from Spain, and this woman does not speak for me or for Maimonides.

  • What I am sick of is the myth that all ashkenazi jews are "white europeans". Many are just as dark skinned (some darker) than sefaradim and even mizrahim.

    Shasha claims to fight stereotypes yet endorses the most racist ones. And having white skin does not make one an oppressor automatically just like having tan skin does not make one a victim.

    Shasha, Shohat, Rabeeya, Sami Shalom Chetrit, and the rest of the gang foam at the mouth at the mention of ashkenazim.

    Shohat even made the outrageous claim that Sefaradic women make their hair blonde to blend in with the ashkenazim (who mostly have dark hair anyway).

    Really?? Is that why Arafat's wife dyed her hair blonde? Or Saddam's wife?

    What about all the ashkenazi women that get nose jobs or get their hair dyed blonde?

    And many sefaradim are 'european' jews, just like most ashkenazim are. And how in the world are Jews from Turkey that speak Ladino and Turkish "Arab Jews" or even arabized by any stretch of the imagination?

    North Africa is berber, not arab. Iraqi Jews have alwasy been called Bavlim, not "Arab Jews."

  • Shasha faithfully represents all Sephardim who are communists and hate Zionism and Ashkenazim. All three of them.

  • Elyahu

    Of course they were. In fact, in the 14th century Spain had an Ashkenazi Rabbi Rav Asher if I am not mistaken, and Ashkenazi students went to study Kabbalah in Girondi. As for Rashi, the incontournable companions of the incontournable Rashi – the Metsudot – were the works of the Rasbad (Ibn Zimra).

    I feel however that I must provide at least one example of this pernicious effort to delete the Sephardic contribution or, when not possible, present it as neglectable.

    Take for instance, something I saw just recently, the history of the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York. Everyone knows that Sabato Morais, a Sephardic Rabbi native of Leghorn, was THE founder of the Jewish Theological Seminary new Yor in 1886, and that he did so to form Rabbis in America. This is fact.

    Now, go to Wikipedia at the Jewish Theological Seminary entry, and you'll see the contortions the article writers had to go through to make it appear as if JTS origins were the Theological Seminary in… Breslau!

    You can see for yourself the efforts to minimize the role of Sabato Morais in favor of someone called Bernard Drachman.
    That's just one example that comes to mind.

  • What people of good will may be unaware of was that the Jewish heritage during the Middle Ages was not divided between Ashkenazim and Mizrahim and Sefardim, etc., but was shared. The early Ashkenazim adhered to the Jerusalem Talmud probably because it was more geographically accessible for them. Later on, they went over to adherence to the Babylonian Talmud which had much more prestige than the Jerusalem Talmud. So even in exile in northern Europe, the medieval Ashkenazim were studying a huge work of Jewish scholarship from what is now Iraq. Likewise, Rashi, living in northern France, close to Ashkenaz, wrote commentaries on the Babylonian Talmud and the Jewish Bible, commentaries which were studied in Sefarad and the East.

    A writer on the Yiddish theater, Joseph Landis, invokes Maimonides by name in discussing the cultural ethos of the Ashkenazi Jews. Likewise, in one of Isaac Bashevis Singer's stories, an old woman is depicted reading The Duties of the Heart, a medieval work by Bahya ibn Pakuda. Indeed, the Ashkenazim were not cut off from influence from the Sefardim/Mizrahim, nor vice versa. Consider especially the history of the Qabbalah in Safed and the subsequent history of Hasidism.

    Moreover, the Ottoman empire long controlled Rumania where the Jews were mostly Ashkenazim. And for 27years the Turks controlled Podolya, a part of Ukraine with a large Jewish population [circa 1672-1699]. This facilitated contact with the Jews in Saloniki.

  • It is a tiny minority of Sephardim/Mizrahim who are 'conflicted', usually communists.
    I don't know if David Shasha is a communist, but he has a bee in his bonnet about Zionism. He is wholly unrepresentative of Sephardim as a whole.

  • Jews of Sepahrdic/Mizrahi heritage are my brothers and sisters. Friends from Egypt and Tunisia identify as Jews…Jewish heritage, Jewish ancestry. I thought the Jews of the Islamic world weren't conflicted and tormented about identity like those of the Christian world. Apparently for political ideology some Sephardim are arriving at just the kind of inherently racist doctrines as the anti Israel left. And "Arab" identity as used in the 21st century is a 20th century construct based on shared Islamic heritage and the language of the Koran. Jewish identity is at least 3,500 years old.

  • Agreed wholeheartedly.

    But that's not his only shortcomings.

    The tragedy – and the irony – is that he singlehandedly decides what constitutes legitimate and "good" Sephardi legacy (only Maimonidean rationalistic humanism) and dismisses the rest (Nahmanides, the mystics) with typically Ashkenazic rabbinic intransigeance and arrogance, when both currents drink at the same source of the Babylonian Geonim (namely the Gaon Saadia).

    I read an article by Rabbi Sacks of England where he applied the same tribal bias pitting Maimonides against Yehuda Halevi – when in fact each was addressing a different audience (Maimonides the Jewish scholarly elite and Yehuda Halevi a non-jew whom he tries to convince of the intellectual superiority of the Jewish religion over that of the Greek philosophers). "Maimonides was wrong! Yehuda Halevi was right!" was Sacks conclusion.

    What makes the beauty and unity of Sephardic Judaism is its tolerance of differing views which are only different pieces of the same puzzle and all fit in the larger image.

    Sorry Shasha doesn't see that.

  • Re Shasha's project to erase the Sephardic cultural historical philosophical and religious heritage and push them into the various Ashkenazic denominations'..

    I agree that he has an important point to make here, but he will not make headway if he confuses the heritage issue with politics.

  • It is a shame that Shasha started this line of thought without first thoroughly researching the subject of "who is an Arab".

    Now it is too late for him to repudiate his prior writings despite all the evidence pouring precisely from the "Arab world" that he was wrong.
    Furthermore, he should save himself embarrassment disserting on the topic of Arab Jews and Arabic since it is evident that he doesn't know Arabic nor the difference between written Arabic and the multitude of arabized spoken dialects.

    As to his other "bete noire" — the project to erase the Sephardic cultural historical philosophical and religious heritage and push them into the various ashkenazic denominations (the varieties of orthodox, progressive, etc)– unfortunately it is very real. If something is not done really fast we'll become in the West what we already are in most Muslim countries: museum pieces.

    There are countless examples of the above, and almost everytime I look for something on the internet I am more and more convinced that there is a deliberate widespread and consistent attempt to erase or debase or degrade elements of the Sephardi heritage.

    If this is not forcefully and massively countered, the memory of the centuries of Jewish life in Muslim lands will be deleted as well, and all this will be for naught.

  • There's a name I haven't heard in years. I honestly thought Shasha had simply adopted Islam and gone to work for the PLO.

  • Good point. Philo and Jabes are irrelevant. Dhimmitude is the 'lacrymose' version of history – a version Shahsha rejects.

  • What's the point in mentioning Philo, who wrote in Greek by the way, and very much supported Jewish rule over Judea? There are almost 2000 years between Philo and Edmond Jabes, who wrote in French if I am not mistaken. Were they part of Egyptian culture? Part of Arab culture? What about the oppression of Jews as dhimmis in the 1300 years of Muslim rule in Egypt up to the rise of Israel in 1948?


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