Across the Bay

Thursday, April 14, 2005

Inventor Joe the Third (Rate)

I thought that this quote from Joseph Massad would tie together my post on Cole the other day. It shows that the underlying premises are very similar, both with regard to the ancient material and ethnicity. This is from an interview in History Workshop Journal (2002) entitled: "'No Common Ground': Joseph Massad and Benny Morris Discuss the Middle East."

The claim made by the Zionists, and by Professor Morris, that late nineteenth-century European Jews are direct descendants of ancient Palestinian Hebrews is what is preposterous here. This kind of anti-semitic claim that European Jews were not European that was propagated by the racist and biological discourses of the nineteenth century, that they somehow descend from first-century Hebrews, despite the fact that they look like other Europeans, that they speak European languages, is what is absurd. Basically by this kind of analogy, the Germans of today should claim northern India as the place of the birth of their nation and go back there.
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Many can claim easily that the Palestinians of today are the descendants of the ancient Hebrews, and this is the bigger irony. (Emphasis mine.)

The highlighted words are the key premises shared by Cole in his view of the past and his view of ethnic identity. I wonder how widespread this primordialist understanding of ethnicity really is in ME Studies. It would be interesting to find out. I know from my reading of works on the ancient material that many just assume what ethnicity means, and often that assumption is primordialist. I suspect the same in this case.

Similarly to Cole, ethnicity for Massad is a matter of biological descent, biological features (Cole's pictures), and language (Cole had language and religion). In other words, it's textbook primordialism! It's funny because like Cole, Massad makes these assertions while simultaneously denouncing the late 19th c. "racist and biological discourses" and romantic nationalism (like Cole)! Yet he has no problem calling the Israelites "ancient Palestinian Hebrews"!

Clearly then, Massad hasn't the first idea of how ethnic identity works, and like the fathers of Arab nationalism, is operating under racialist and primordialist premises himself.

Unfortunately, Benny Morris isn't much better. His reaction to Massad's quote reveals similar underlying premises:

There is a clear, direct line of descent [of Jews]. I'm sure it's genetic as well, but it's certainly religious, and in terms of historical tradition and culture and memory and so on, and the Hebrew language is a living proof of that.

Now, Morris comes closer to a better understanding of ethnic identity when he talks about collective memory. In other words, when he talks about the narrativization of identity, which allows it to define itself and mark its difference (the process of identification and differentiation that I alluded to the other day). Religion certainly plays a role, and so does "culture," although one needs to be very careful equating ethnicity with religion or culture. That narrative line is what would allow Morris to say: "It's ridiculous to disclaim any connection between the Jews of today and the Jews of yesteryear."

Yet I found it ironic that in their respective positions on Zionism and Arab nationalism, the two highlighted much of the same elements, especially language -- the backbone of Arab nationalism -- with its facile equation of language and ethnicity (the greatest fallacy of all). I might come back to discuss this at length some other time.

But the best thing about Massad is his ready answer to everything: "it's an invention" of Orientalists or 19th c. Europeans! Some might remember my earlier post on one of Massad's terrible pieces in Al-Ahram where he informed his readers of the following:

"The term "Semite" was invented by European philologists in the 18th century to distinguish languages from one another by grouping them into "families" descended from one "mother" tongue to which they are all related. In this context, languages came to be organised into "Indo-European" and "Semitic", etc. The philologists claimed that Arabic, Hebrew, Aramaic, Amharic, etc., were "Semitic" languages, even though philologists could never find a parent Semitic language from which they all derived.
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In keeping with the Protestant Reformation's abduction of the Hebrew bible into its new religion and its positing of modern European Jews as direct descendants of the ancient Hebrews, post- Enlightenment haters of Jews began to identify Jews as "Semites" on account of their alleged ancestors having spoken Hebrew. In fact the ancient Hebrews spoke Aramaic, the language in which the Talmud was written, as well as parts of the bible. Based on this new philological taxonomy and its correlate racial classifications in the biological sciences, Jews were endowed with this linguistic category that was soon transformed into a racial category."

That's the unfortunate (but logical?) result of Edward Said's thesis: when in doubt, claim it's an Orientalist invention! It's much easier that way. You can cover up for your ignorance while sounding "sophisticated" and get away with stupidities like this statement from the quote above: "Jews began to identify Jews as "Semites" on account of their alleged ancestors having spoken Hebrew. In fact the ancient Hebrews spoke Aramaic."

But in that HWJ interview, Massad takes that line to another level:

Joseph Massad: But as far as generalizations of racism, Professor Morris, it is you who seconds ago told us about the alleged Muslim tradition of xenophobia.
Benny Morris: It's not racist. It's a cultural tradition which denies the stranger legitimacy.
JM: These are Orientalist and racist claims.
BM: Christians and Jews in the Islamic empire were always considered second-class citizens and the rest of the world was considered infidel, unbelievers, and given to the sword. And you know that.
JM: This is just a rehearsing of tired old Orientalist claims.
BM: This is Koranic tradition.
JM: Perhaps from the Zionist and the racist Orientalist perspective, this is indeed the Muslim tradition as viewed by them, but not in reality.

Beyond the allegation of intimidation at Columbia and what have you, the guy is simply third-rate, and his third-rate assertions on ancient history and ethnic identity seem to be shared by the president-elect of MESA, one John Cole.

Addendum: The question that arises out of the last two posts is linked to the interpretation of the ME to the American public (and others in general): how can someone who has very problematic views about ethnicity properly interpret ethnic conflict, or ethnic identities that may lie at the heart of an ongoing conflict? In fact, the problem goes beyond the lack of a grasp on its workings, to doubting its validity as an analytical category and dismissing it outright. That's why Cole denies that the Darfur conflict is an ethnic conflict. Instead, they favor fitting things in a more familiar box, ideologically. That's why you have more emphasis on class and socio-economic identities as the root of conflict, even when they are not primary mobilizers. Or, you get categories that are all but useless like "right-wing" vs. "left-wing." You see this with AbuKhalil and Cole among others. Incidentally, Stacey Yadav has been noting some related problems in her outings in Beirut's southern suburbs, which are often used by the pseudo-Marxists as proof of the class element. Some of the ideological premises also came to the front with reactions to Lebanon's consociational system (cf. Jonathan Edelstein's excellent writing on this).

Now, when you consider that these are the gatekeepers, with AbuKhalil set to write a book on Lebanese identities when perhaps he provides the most distorted, ideologically biased and dishonest interpretation of them, you know there's a problem (see also Ussama Maqdisi's less-than-mediocre book on sectarianism). And it goes beyond academics to journalists as well. This became glaringly obvious in the coverage of Lebanon, and my primary focus is Lebanon. This is why I tried to shed some light on what I see as a serious problem.