‘Traveling Scholar’ Ella Shohat: The Contradictions and Challenges of Being an Arab Jew

Author Ella Shohat

As a public intellectual, Ella Shohat has found that her personal history profoundly informs her scholarship. Born in Israel to Iraqi parents who had migrated to that country after 1948, Shohat grew up in an Israeli culture that discriminated against Mizrahi Jews. Living a life of contradictions and tension as an “Arab-Jew” – a person of the Jewish religion whose culture and primary language are Arabic, she has found herself on countless occasions having to explain an identity that seemed like an oxymoron, an impossibility, to academics and others.

Intensely aware of elisions and erasures, as well as of unacknowledged pain, realities, and cultures, Shohat has embraced diverse methodologies, disciplines, and subjects of research. A critic of the essentialist, monolithic ideologies, which deny complexity and can create powerful and dangerous political systems, she sees Zionism as both idealizing and denigrating the East: “…[T]he paradox of Israel is that it presumed to ‘end a Diaspora’ characterized by ritual nostalgia for the East, only to establish a state ideologically and politically oriented almost entirely toward the West.”

Shohat believes this has resulted in Israel pursuing a “civilizing mission” to erase or neutralize vestiges of Oriental culture within its borders, as well as the country’s adoption of the “master narrative of Jewish victimization.” She both criticizes and acknowledges this victim narrative as having been necessary to facilitate Jewish migration to Israel, but points out that it does not apply equally to Jews from Arab cultures, stating, “Sephardi Jews experienced an utterly different history within the Arab world than that which haunts the European memories of Ashkenazi Jews.”

Several articles relate Arab-Jew displacement from Arab countries to Palestinian displacement, linking one diaspora to the other, after the partitioning of Palestine. Shohat’s work, both scholarly and impressive, offers much here for academics interested in cultural studies and its related fields of critical race theory, border theory, critical multiculturalism, and postcolonial theory. However, the interviews detailing her upbringing and “survivor’s desire to tell again and again about the ‘hidden injuries’ of translocated class, race, gender, and sexuality” prove equally powerful. These include her memories of spending countless hours, as a little girl, in front of a mirror perfecting her European Hebrew accent so that all traces of an Arabic accent would disappear. That pain, along with the shame she felt toward her Arabic-speaking grandparents, shows that ideas, ideologies, and official narratives, far from being mere academic exercises, have real consequences in people’s lives – and in turn, grow out of those lives.

These edited excerpts come from Pamela Nice’s “‘Traveling Scholar’ Ella Shohat: The Contradictions and Challenges of Being an Arab Jew” book review essay, scheduled to appear in the forthcoming issue of Al Jadid, Vol. 22, No. 74, 2018.

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