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Ashkenazi in Amman: Learning to belong in the Middle East

After attending a concert in Amman, Keren Sheffi contemplates the sense of belonging to the Middle East unique to Ashkenazi Jews. To what extent are they aliens or locals here? And who is responsible for their rejection or integration to the Middle East?

By Keren Sheffi

In her beautiful post “I’m an Arab Jew,” Lihi Yona writes – a little hesitantly, slightly afraid of being pushy – about how going to Mashrou3 Leila’s performance in Amman had awakened in her questions and hopes regarding the possibility of feeling a part of the Middle East by developing her Arab-Jewish identity. Lihi observed that while this identity has been “rendered a near impossibility in today’s Israeli socio-political reality, [it] is nevertheless essential to who I am and how I see the world.”

I am a strictly Ashkenazi Jew, my four grandparents were born in Poland, but my experience of that same journey to Amman was pretty similar, in this respect, to the experience described by Lihi. I’m not sure whether this similarity justifies an attempt at writing “the Ashkenazi parallel” to Lihi’s post. But maybe it is possible to write about the similarity without covering up the difference, to write in order to find out where similarity and difference actually begin and end, just in case it is not exactly where we have been told. In a sense, I’m writing this post in order to find out whether writing this post is impossible – or essential.


One of my strongest experiences from the journey to Amman was a sense of easy, natural belonging to this alien space. This sense of belonging was partial and problematic, and accompanied by no less powerful experiences of strangeness and unbelonging. But these I expected, while the sense of belonging surprised me. In retrospect, though, the most surprising thing here seems to be that I was surprised at all,  because all the ingredients of the belonging were ones I could have expected in advance: the landscape and weather, naturally, hadn’t drastically changed during the not-so-long bus trip from Jaffa to Amman, surely not as much as they would have changed after a flight to Europe; the architecture of Amman, which deals with the same landscape and weather, is quite similar to the architecture of the towns in which I have grown up and lived; the Arabic food is, of course, exactly the “Israeli” food for which I long when I’m abroad; the Arabic language is not my language, and not a language I’ve heard spoken at home, but it is so close to my mother tongue that I constantly felt (wrongly, no doubt) that I’m only one step away from understanding it, and that having to use English, that totally alien language, is terribly weird. Lastly, the music of Mashrou3 Leila and Zeid Hamdan, which plays with European and Arabic elements in order to create something new from their synthesis, is much more mine than “purely European” music (whatever this may mean). What this music does is exactly the kind of thing which the Israeli musicians that I find interesting are doing.

My surprise at feeling at home in Amman is surprising, because, damnit, I was born and raised here, in the Middle East. This is my home. It is only natural that the landscape of Jordan would feel to me more familiar than the forests of Poland. But my surprise is also unsurprising, because I haven’t often thought about myself as someone from the Middle East. I grew up thinking only that I’m from Israel. That this is my homeland, the only one I’ve got, and it is floating alone in the sea of white-areas-of-the-maps, where there is absolutely nothing that could be relevant to my life except for one big and abstract threat to our existence.


My second strong experience from the journey to Jordan, which now seems as another side of the same coin, was an experience of being a minority. A Jewish minority in Palestinian surroundings, depending on Palestinian friends as mediators, translators, advocates, hosts. It was a weird experience, because I’m so used to being in a situation when the majority-minority relations are reversed (with the same Palestinian friends in Jewish Tel Aviv). And it was also a stressful, exhausting and difficult experience, because, surprise, surprise, being a minority ain’t easy, even in ultra-comfortable, very-temporary conditions. But it was also a somewhat relaxing experience: for three full days I was a minority among Palestinians and nobody rose upon me to destroy me. Here seemed to be a possibility for thinking about being a minority as something which does not have to immediately provoke an absolute horror and the end of rational thought.

In Amman I realized the incredible extent to which Israelis, including myself, are horrified by the thought that the Palestinians might do to us what we’re doing to the Palestinians if the power relations are ever reversed. It is easy to laugh at Netanyahu’s speech at the UN, to be disgusted by it or angry about it – there are good reasons for each of these three emotions – but between the crocodiles and the waving of the map of Auschwitz, Netanyahu had eloquently talked about the very well founded fear of the vast majority of Jewish Israelis of becoming a minority. This fear does not justify the terrible things that are being done in its name, but by itself it is completely justified. A leftist movement that wants to become relevant to the general Jewish-Israeli public – as the radical Arabic-Jewish left is constantly trying to become – will have to deal with this fear straight-forwardly.

In this explosive context, I want to try and say that next to the very rational, and very pessimistic, part of the Israeli fear of becoming a minority here, I have identified, at least in myself, a part of this fear which is unrealistic and unjustified in its totality; and especially, how the utter fear of “being a minority” is the other side of the coin of “completely not belonging,” and how these two nurture each other. This is so, because in Israel we are the majority, at least for now, at least in our own thinking about ourselves (more than anything else we’re afraid of not being the majority any longer), but in the Middle East we are necessarily, and will always be, a minority. If being a minority is completely unthinkable, then obviously the only solution is to never think of ourselves as part of the Middle East in any way, never and under no condition to allow ourselves to become part of it. This means uprooting from the Arab Jews their Arabness and the Arabness of their culture, but it also means uprooting from Ashkenazi Jews the, well, Arabness of their culture too. My grandparents and their peers wanted very badly for their children to belong here, but the New Jew which they imagined was a completely artificial and utopian thing, a Golem of Prague with a cap, because they couldn’t allow themselves to imagine that their offsprings might simply belong in the place where they are born.

Not that I think that I can, or that I will ever be able to, or even that my children will ever be able to simply belong here. On the other hand, who ever does? Even Mashrou3 Leila surely don’t “simply” belong in the Middle East. And yet, they belong more than I do. Yet again, maybe this difference is not an absolute one.

The hotel in Amman where our organized trip was staying had a sauna and a jacuzzi which were open alternately to men and to women. On the women’s day I went with some friends to sit in the sauna, but one of us felt too hot, and she stayed outside and sat in the jacuzzi with an old Jordanian woman, a Palestinian refugee from ’48, like most of the Jordanians. When we came back from the sauna, our friend told us that the old woman told her (“not angry or anything, very politely”) that us Jews came from Europe and will go back to Europe, we are an alien body in this space, and we will go away just as we first came. This is what she believes and this is how she educates her children.

I believe most Israelis would consider it a problem that this is how she educates her children. The weird thing is, that in a sense this is also how we educate our children. The journey to Amman educated me, a little bit, in the opposite way. I’m happy I went.

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    1. A. Khalidi

      Hello Keren,

      As a Palestinian, I had to go through the same journey but with a different starting point. Only when I experienced this ‘transcendence’ if one can call it that that I fully and authentically embraced my Palestinian identity and made way for the rest of what is me to breath and grow. The social reality sometimes can make it hard for someone to explore identity, but only through knowing the interplay between one’s self and the social reality he or she is embedded in -curated by the state, by family, etc…- that one starts to change his or her reality through self expression.

      What this old Palestinian refugee sees, as many of us see, is the otherness of Israelis and Israel, of course intensified, as she and many others knew Palestine as a home not only as a cause. Israel and Israelis celebrate ‘otherness’ as if it’s a complete identity and it’s sustained by the contradictions and the perception of the interplay between Israel and “the others”; hatred, existential threat, demographic bomb…

      This is my experience, happy to have read yours. Indeed, only through transcendence that one’s roots go deeper and branches grow higher and stronger and bear fruit. And only then, the real struggle begins.

      These are lines from a Mahmoud Darwish poem. It’s a conversation between Darwish and Edward Said and here, Darwish asks about identity…

      What about identity? I asked.
      He said: It’s self-defence…
      Identity is the child of birth, but
      at the end, it’s self-invention, and not
      an inheritance of the past. I am multiple…
      Within me an ever new exterior. And
      I belong to the question of the victim.

      Reply to Comment
    2. ARTH

      For the Ashkenazic Jew, no place is more bizaare than Syria, far more than Jordan. For the Syrian people seems like Ashkenazic Jews speaking Arabic and being of other religions. One feels, on the visceral level, completely at home there, as if one could blend in, if the present sort of political order of things was reordered. The Syrian dialect of Arabic has the same “sing song” sound as Yeshiva students studying the Talmud.
      I am 100% European Jew yet the people there often thought that I was a Syrian.

      Reply to Comment
    3. Itamar

      A brilliant and important post. To center a very embodied feeling of belonging in order to rebuild our social world is an essential personal-political project for Ashkenazi Jews in Israel/Palestine, but also for many other settler populations around the world. To me, it seems that the fundamental question that has been keeping me busy is “what is a settler? What is an indigenous person?” When I was in one of the protests in Jaffa for instance, I was struck by how important it was for the Palestinian speakers and protesters to differentiate between Jews who are indigenous to Jaffa and Jews who are settlers in Jaffa. Their distinction is crucial to our liberation.

      Reply to Comment
    4. RichardNYC

      “Netanyahu had eloquently talked about the very well founded fear of the vast majority of Jewish Israelis of becoming a minority. This fear does not justify the terrible things that are being done in its name”
      —>Yes it does…and other people, similarly situated, have, and continue to behave likewise.

      Reply to Comment
    5. RichardNYC

      “I believe most Israelis would consider it a problem that this is how she educates her children. The weird thing is, that in a sense this is also how we educate our children.”
      –>There is something disturbing about your thinking its clever to find poetry in the fact that millions of people hate you so much they’re educating their children to fight and expel your children. Its not poetic – and there’s no way to spin or neuter this…I don’t know why you’re trying…

      Reply to Comment
    6. Henry Weinstein

      Itamar writes: “I was struck by how important it was for the Palestinian speakers and protesters to differentiate between Jews who are indigenous to Jaffa and Jews who are settlers in Jaffa. Their distinction is crucial to our liberation”.
      What do you mean, Itamar, and what do you advocate?
      For instance, what do you mean by indigenous Jews and what do you advocate to differentiate them from non-indigenous Jews?
      If you had the power, what would you do?

      Reply to Comment
    7. Bosko

      All this introspection. Hamlet would be proud, “to be or not to be” LOL. Just “be”. Live the best life that you possibly can without being either a door-mat or making others door-mats. You are a human being, no better and no worse than any other human being. Just accept yourself and others will accept you too, warts and all.
      Enough of this nonsense. Stop apologising all the time just for existing.

      Reply to Comment
    8. Itamar

      To Henry,

      I believe the distinction is crucial because it isolates the crucial factor that makes people “indigenous” to a certain place or not indigenous to it. In Jaffa, it’s not ethnicity that determines who is indigenous and who is not, but rather the ideological intentions of the visitors. The Jewish settlers of Jaffa are not there to live peacefully with the other residents of Jaffa; they are there to replace them, doing their part in a national ethnocratic strategy to establish Jewish majorities in every city. Jaffa is just another target for Judaization. If we zeroed in on this ideological intention as something that stands in the way of our indigineity in the Middle East and in Israel/Palestine, then we would be doing a lot to solve our problems there.

      Reply to Comment
    9. Henry Weinstein

      To Itamar
      Thanks to answer, it’s rare on 972.
      Look, if “in Jaffa, it’s not ethnicity that determines who is indigenous and who is not, but rather the ideological intention of the visitors”, then why to fall in this ideological trap using the same xenophobic language than extremist ultra-zionists? Seems to me very dangerous to think citizenship & civil rights like them, i.e to ‘differentiate’ between Israelis, only reversing the pseudo-ethnical right to the land.
      Personally I think the positive way to fight against their ideological delirium is not only to refuse their claims and criticize their concepts, but above all to advocate and promote equal rights & full citizenship for all Israelis regardless of their origin, religion. Here we are on a real political battlefield, and we can debate about the legacy of Zionism and how the Jewish state of Israel could be truly democratic without losing the Zionist right to self-determination won with blood, sweat & tears by the Israeli Jews. And it has nothing to do with identity, ethnicity, it’s real politics. If you are not Jewish and could have equal rights without restriction & full Israeli citizenship, you’ll have to make a choice if you want to stay or become an Israeli citizen: you’ll have to want to be the citizen of the democratic Jewish state of Israel based on Jewish values. At the present time Israel is the democratic state / homeland of the Jewish people, an ethnic definition based actually on security concerns; real concerns, not irrational fear. Understand me, I don’t pretend it’s an easy task, nor my wording is correct: non-extremist readers will get the picture, even if they disagree.
      Of course all those who want to destroy the state of Israel and the Zionist right to self-determination for Israeli Jews will say it’s rubbish. The same people who pretend to be progressive but just want to reverse the balance of power to establish a new ostracism,based also on ethnic & ideological discriminations.
      In short, I’m again any xenophobic program & ideology. This kind of ideology is very dangerous for both sides, not only for the Palestinians. Do you think the slaughter of the Vogel family at Itamar had nothing to do with racial hatred, xenophobia?
      PS: why this pen name, “Itamar”?

      Reply to Comment
    10. Henry Weinstein

      Errata: I’m against any xenophobic program & ideology

      Reply to Comment
    11. Bosko

      Itamar says …
      “The Jewish settlers of Jaffa are not there to live peacefully with the other residents of Jaffa; they are there to replace them”
      Let’s just change the words a bit in Itamar’s sentence and see how that sounds:
      “North African Arab immigrants are not there to live peacefully with the other residents of France; they are there to replace them”
      Suddenly we would attribute such words to the French National Front and the likes of Le Pen. Could it be that the extreme left and the extreme right are two sides of the same coin?

      Reply to Comment
    12. Deïr Yassin

      @ Bosko
      In fact about half of the North African immigrants to France are not Arabs but Berbers, but how would you know, living in Wagga…
      And as you correctly wrote yourself, they are/were IMMIGRANTS, that is an independant and sovereign French State granted them a status as immigrants. They have not tried to replace the French language by Arabic, Shawia or Kabyle. They didn’t come with a gun to take over the place, expelling 80% of the Native French. In fact last time North Africans came to Europe with guns they participated in the Liberation.
      So your comparison really has no validity.

      Reply to Comment
    13. Bosko

      Deir Yassin says …
      “In fact about half of the North African immigrants to France are not Arabs but Berbers, but how would you know, living in Wagga…”
      Don’t knock Wagga Deir Yassin, it’s a beautiful place and the people are great. You should come for a visit, you will like it.
      Half of the immigrants are Berbers, you say? That still lives the other half who are Arabs. But I am glad that you mentioned the Berbers. Why are they emigrating from North Africa in such large numbers? This is what I found …
      “A fierce, independent people, the Berbers of North Africa are anthropologically considered to be the original inhabitants of the Maghreb region. Despite their ancient heritage, the Berbers are marginalized, violated and ignored by the Arab cultures that have settled there. This research, based largely on Amnesty International reports, examines the violations of basic rights enacted by North African governments (most notably Algeria) against the Berbers”
      As for your attempt to negate my analogy. Like the Berbers, the Jews too were refugees who migrated to Palestine. But unlike the Berbers who are forced to flee their native home land by Arab persecution, the Jews were returning their ancestral home land. At the time when this started, back in the late 1800s, Palestine was ruled by the Ottomans (not the Arabs). Later on it was ruled by the Brits (not the Arabs). So the Jews had just as much right to migrate there as the Arabs some of whom were also recent migrants. Or the Arabs who now migrate to France. As for the intentions of those various migrants. There have been allegations against the intentions of Arab migrants to France. About their demands for instituting Sharia law. And not only allegations but real stuff like riots by those migrants and burnings of cars …
      But you know what, Yassin, my friend? I am against those allegations. I am against the type of statement that Itamar said about Jews or the analogous statement that I made up using his words. Because, unlike you, I am against all kinds of racism. I don’t support racism either against Jews or Arabs. But it seems that you are happy with the former but not the latter.

      Reply to Comment
    14. Deïr Yassin

      “There have been allegations against the intentions of those various immigrants. About their demands for instituting Sharia Law. And not only allegations but real stuff like riots by those migrants and burning cars”

      Oh, my, my, Bosko making a fool out of himself again and again. Well, I live in France, and I’m not aware of this !
      Olivier Roy is one of the leading European academics in this field. “The urban revolts in France were social revolts and had nothing to do with religion”.

      Read it, it’s very interesting. You might even learn something.

      How come most Zionists see these revolts as religious ? I even had a argument with Larry Derfner, a “liberal zionist”, about these ridicoulous claims. You Zionists are all essentialists ? The Ziocaine prevents you from analyzing things clearly ?

      “I am against all kids of racism”
      Yeah, except the one that privileges Jews !

      Reply to Comment
    15. Bosko

      Whats the matter Yassin? You sound cross, are you having a bad hair day again? You have nothing to say about the discrimination by Arabs against the native Berbers who leave their native lands in droves because of it? Oh I forgot, according to you, St Yassin, Arabs are incapable of being racists, the only racists are Jews, right, Yassin?

      Reply to Comment
    16. Bosko

      Yassin says …
      “Well, I live in France, and I’m not aware of this !”
      Well then read this, Yassin …
      “The 2005 civil unrest in France of October and November (in French Les émeutes des banlieues de 2005) was a series of riots by mostly Muslim North African youths in Paris and other French cities,[1][2] involving mainly the burning of cars and public buildings at night starting on 27 October 2005 in Clichy-sous-Bois. Events spread to poor housing projects (the cités HLM) in various parts of France. A state of emergency was declared on 8 November 2005. It was extended for three months on 16 November by the Parliament.[3][4][5]”

      Reply to Comment
    17. Bosko

      Oh by the way, did I say religious? Not in relation to the riots, I certainly didn’t. But the rioters were certainly immigrants from North African Arab countries.
      Why am I bringing it up? Because you constantly point the finger at the Jewish immigrant/refugees to Palestine and pretended that their intention was to DISPLACE the local population (some of whom were Jews by the way). The reality was that there was room in Palestine for both the locals and the refugee Jews. No one need have been displaced if there would not have been a war. Now, I wonder who started that war? HINT – NOT the Jewish immigrant refugees …

      Reply to Comment
    18. Deïr Yassin

      “Oh, by the way, did I say religious ? Not in relation to the riots”
      YES YOU DID !
      You mentioned North African Arabs who demanded I quote you “instituting Sharia Law. And not only allegations but real stuff like riots by these migrants”. Sharia Law & riots in the same sentence, huh !

      And maybe you should look up the difference between ‘immigrant’ and ‘migrant’ !

      I link to an excellent article written by one of the best academics, professor in the most prestigious school of social science (where Shlomo Sand also wrote his thesis), and there are other articles written by other prominent French sociologists such as Wieviorka, and all you do is linking to wikipedia as a response. What a fu…. joke !
      You don’t even care to read an article – certainly too complicated for you wiki-intellectual-level – and you pretend to know anything about the riots.
      I’m not going to answer you anymore. It’s a waste of time and only gives you the occasion to post your usual crap.
      BDS on Bosko !!

      PS. And I didn’t comment on the Berbers because it’s a total non-starter. Two days ago you’d never heard of the Berbers, and today you know they migrated because of Arab racism. Well, now that Morocco has made Berber languages national languages too in their new Constitution, those Berbers are surely going home. It’s not that they mostly come from the poorest areas, no it’s Arab racism. North African Arabs ARE Berbers who adapted the Arab language. Better read some wikipedia to educate yourself.

      Reply to Comment
    19. Bosko

      @Deir Yassin – These were my exact words …
      “And not only allegations but real stuff like riots by those migrants and burnings of cars …”
      I clearly separated between the allegations and the car burnings. But you know what? Since you insist on trying to ridicule the notion, there is also substance behind the allegations. Here look at this …
      “This is not to say that Islamist groups advocate violent takeover in every political environment, they might simply advocate Sharia Law. Because influence in French politics is possible without resorting to violence, the use of violence in that context is considered counterproductive toward achieving their goal of guiding the political system according to the principles of Islam”
      As for your assertion about when I have or haven’t heard about the Berbers, please don’t big note yourself. It just makes you laughable. Of course I knew about the Berbers and the oppression of their culture by Arabs, probably even before you were born. But even if you want to deceive yourself that I didn’t, even then, to use that as an excuse to ignore that oppression when I brought it up to you is pathetic. But definitely in style with your normal intellectual dishonesty.

      Reply to Comment
    20. Bosko

      Here is just one example of what has been happening in Algeria …
      “To accelerate Arabisation in 1970’s many Arabic teachers were imported from Egypt and Syria. They carried with them Colonel Nasser’s vague romantic pan- Arab nationalism ideology, which only added confusion to the blurred mosaic of Algeria”
      Clearly a case of cultural colonialism of native Berber language and culture by Arabs.
      See St Yassin? It’s not just Wikipadia. Search the net, including Amnesty international reports and you will see this repeated over and over again in relation to other North African countries too.

      Reply to Comment
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