While this post about a particular person, it also embodies within it many of the prejudices that are writ large throughout Israeli society, even in the attitudes of its liberal Zionist intelligentsia.
Haaretz’s culture blogger, Ilene Prusher, wrote a promotional piece about the UK Limmud Festival in which she extolled the musical genius of a performer called Nuriya. Personally, I have no strong opinion about her. She may be as good as Prusher claims. She may not.
What struck me was the headline and especially the sub-headline:
Israel’s soon-to-be famous songstress turns heads at Britain’s Limmud
The cousin of Israel’s most renowned oud player could soon be Israel’s answer to Shakira or Rihanna.
It turns out that Nuriya’s cousin, Israel’s “most renowned oud player,” is (according to Prusher) Yair Dalal. I have heard many oud players and Dalal is certainly a great one. But Israel has had many, many great oud players. In fact, one who is equally renowned and who was born and lived in Israel until he was an adult, is Simon Shaheen.
I began to wonder why an Israeli-Palestinian oud player cannot be “Israel’s most renowned oud player,” while an Israeli Jew is. After tweeting my comments to Prusher, she essentially replied that Shaheen is not Israeli because he doesn’t consider himself Israeli and doesn’t perform in Israel. She did grant that he may perhaps the most renowned “Palestinian” oud player.
That raised a whole host of interesting notions: first, how can a boy born in an Israeli-Palestinian village in Galilee (and raised in Haifa) and who obtained his musical education in Jerusalem until age 24 (after which he left for America), not be Israeli? Second, does the fact that Shaheen doesn’t perform inside the Green Line exclude him from Israeli-ness?
I responded to Prusher that Shaheen does indeed perform in Israel, though in East Jerusalem. Here is musical-video proof of that and yet another Jerusalem performance. Last I checked Israel had annexed East Jerusalem, putting it under Israeli sovereignty. So by any reasonable standard, this should make him a kosher Israeli. Though I haven’t confirmed this, my guess is that he will not perform inside the Green Line as part of the world-wide cultural boycott. But does Shaheen’s possible respect for BDS exclude him from being Israeli?
Prusher added that Wikipedia called him “Palestinian-American” and that she’d never heard Shaheen call himself “Israeli.” Though Wikipedia is by no means a perfect arbiter on these questions, even if Shaheen himself wouldn’t use even a hyphenated designation “Israeli-Palestinian” (and I don’t know this claim is actually true), the question must be asked: why is that? Why is an Israeli-Palestinian who emigrated to America no longer Israeli? Why would he perhaps not wish to be considered Israeli?
In Prusher’s obliviousness to the nuances of this predicament, she illustrates perfectly the tone-deafness of Israelis, even liberal Zionists like herself, to the political oppression that has driven Israeli-Palestinians (and even some Israeli Jews) so far away from their (Israeli) nationality. If Shaheen does not consider himself Israeli it is far more Israel’s fault than his own. But when Israeli Jews like Prusher exclude him from the national ‘census,’ they only perpetuate the same indignity that drove him away in the first place.
Simon Shaheen is a product of Israel. Israelis (both Jewish and Palestinian) should embrace him as one of their own. If they refuse, then it only further reinforces the cultural racism that underpins Israeli attitudes and further confirms that BDS is a reasonable response to it. It may even reinforce the belief among some (though not myself) that Israel must become Palestine in order to eradicate these prejudices.
A final irony is worth noting here. Nuriya is of Iraqi-Jewish ethnicity. Her family left Iraq and settled first in Mexico and later came to the U.S. (at age 17). Much later, well after adulthood she came to Israel and met her famous cousin. Only sometime after that did she decide to make aliya. When did she make aliya? One year ago. So, as you’ll note in Haaretz’s headline, Nuriya is “Israeli” even though she has only considered herself so for 365 days. She merely had to move to Israel in order to gain that distinction. While Shaheen, who was born in Israel and comes from generations of Israeli-Palestinians born and bred here, loses his Israeliness by virtue of leaving Israel and not adhering to Ilene Prusher’s definition of Israeliness.
That’s an interesting set of ironies and contradictions, wouldn’t you say?
Silverstein has published Tikun Olam since 2003, It exposes the secrets of the Israeli national security state. He lives in Seattle, but his heart is in the east. He publishes regularly at Middle East Eye, the New Arab, and Jacobin Magazine. His work has also appeared in Al Jazeera English, The Nation, Truthout and other outlets.