Israel’s Place in the Middle East: A Pluralist Perspective / Dr. Moshe (Shiko) Behar

Israel’s Place in the Middle East: A Pluralist Perspective, by Nissim Rejwan. 216 pages, notes, index. Gainesville, FL: University Press of Florida, 1998.

Dr. Moshe (Shiko) Behar

Rejwan’s thesis aims to square a Middle Eastern circle: “viewed from the perspective of history, culture, demography and temperament…Israel can rightly be considered a normal Middle Eastern state” (p. 5). The rationale for this thesis is advanced in Part One, “The Jews and their Neighbors,” which compresses into one-hundred pages the history of Christian-Jewish relations in Europe and the course of Arab-Jewish relations from their beginnings in the pre-Islamic period. The inevitably telegraphic account will benefit non-specialized readers or introductory classes in comparative history.

Part Two, “Israel as a Middle Eastern Country,” consists of three chapters. The first aims to prove that Israel is neither an alien creation, nor an intrusion, in the Arab world. To this end, Rejwan employs a two-fold strategy: he first highlights the undoubtedly remarkable Judeo-Arabic symbiosis and then circumvents most of the misdeeds of the European Zionists since their landing in Palestine. Hence, the chapter becomes as polemic as the texts it counter-argues. The second chapter in Part Two, “Ideology, Politics and Culture,” addresses themes in the post-1948 Israeli domestic scene, of which the most crucial is the rift between the largely upper-class Ashkenazi Jews of European descent and the largely working-class Jews of Middle Eastern/Arab descent.

Rejwan’s elaboration on Israel’s ethno-class divide is superior to the accounts that were offered by the uncritical sociologists whose prolonged grip over the field has been loosened during the last decade. Unlike them, Rejwan is neither interested in providing academic rationalizations on behalf of the Ashkenazi-dominated Israeli state to explain away the inferior socioeconomic position of non-Europeans in Israel, nor does Rejwan blame the victims for their subordination. Yet, precisely because of these accomplishments it is unfortunate that in describing non-European Jewish Israelis Rejwan utilizes archaic designations such as Orientals or Sephardic Jews while escaping the more appropriate term: Mizrahim. Furthermore, his discussion provides little new information to those who studied the work of scholars such as Eliyahu Eliachar, Abraham Shama, Raphael Shapiro, Ilan Halevi, Shlomo Swirski, Ella Habiba Shohat, G. N. Giladi, Sami Shalom Chetrit, Amnon Raz-Krakotzkin, Oren Yiftachel, or Henriet Dahan-Kalev (none of whom are cited by Rejwan).

The best element in the book’s concluding chapter, “A Postnationalist Middle East,” is the author’s intimate familiarity with both the Arab and Israeli domestic scenes. It surveys some of the more troubling aspects within Jewish and Arab nationalisms and their democratic prospects.

The governing objective of Israel’s Place in the Middle East is to affirm Israel’s normalcy in the Middle East. In so doing, Rejwan overrates the explanatory status of culture, temperament, or demography and undervalues the role of interests and policies. This trend is best exemplified in the little attention that Rejwan pays to the profoundly dissimilar historical relationships of the Jewish and Arab national movements/states to Western powers. The question of Israel’s normalcy in the region should perhaps be tested againstIsrael’s interests, policies, and strategic geopolitical alliances rather than against its culture, temperament, or demography.

Dr. Moshe Behar, Columbia University

First published here