Kahanoff’s Levantinism: The Anachronic Possibilities of a Concept

Eva Meyer, Eran Schaerf

The modern nation-state is supposed to be ethnically and culturally homogenous; after World War II, both Israel’s implementation of Zionism and Arab Nationalism adopted versions of this purism—purging and excluding from the body social what refuses assimilation.

After the Six-Day War, the Egyptian-born Israeli writer Jacqueline Kahanoff deployed the notion of Levantinism to challenge the national narrative from a minoritarian perspective informed by her memories of colonial Cairo. In engaging with Kahanoff’s Levantine writings, Eva Meyer and Eran Schaerf seek to re-examine her Levantinism not as a readymade solution, but as a complex and cogent—albeit compromised—problematization of the state as we know it.The Levant is a venerable ground where great civilizations and religions were founded.

Film still from Rafael Balulu’s docume
Film still from Rafael Balulu’s documentary Levantine (2019) showing archival footage of Jacqueline Kahanoff, at the head of the table, in a board meeting of the Israel Broadcasting Authority. Kahanoff became board member in 1965 and had a Fren
The Levant is a venerable ground where great civilizations and religions were founded. The adjective “Levantine,” by contrast, is usually used in a pejorative way. This is presumably because it refers to people who are “not all of a piece,” and to a diverse society of immigrants considered “to be partly Eastern in the West and partly European in the East.” 1 Since Levantine society is not all of a piece, it only partially maps onto a particular space. It does not really identify with its territory, and therefore cannot be captured on a geopolitical level. Does this explain why the term is viewed pejoratively?

The Levant is not so much a territory, but rather describes spaces and periods of encounters and trade between different cultures. Levantines are the descendants of European merchants from Genoa and Venice, and they have been found in the eastern Mediterranean region since Byzantine times. They are descendants of Jews driven out of Spain, who were then accepted into the Ottoman Empire. They are migrants, refugees, and dissidents who mixed with the minorities who were already native—or had almost become native—to the regions where they live––those who, in Constantinople and Asia Minor, belong to Greek and Armenian groups, and in coastal Arab countries to Arab-Christian and Jewish groups. In contrast to the usual way migrants are dealt with, Levantines are marked by their place of arrival, rather than by their origin. As such, nineteenth- and twentieth-century colonizers disparaged the Levantine people as poorly imitating European culture. In Israel, by contrast, Jewish immigrants from North Africa or from the Levant itself are called Levantines because they are less oriented toward European culture, and therefore considered a “danger” to a national identity in the process of being formed. 2

Jacqueline Kahanoff, an Israeli author and a Jewish Arab who grew up in Cairo, wishes to think of both her origin and her arrival in conjunction, and calls herself a Levantine. She views Israel’s resistance to “Levantinism”—and the resulting pressure on migrants to assimilate—not only as a disconcerting Israeli form of European colonialism, but as a form of a much older Orientalism. Since Kahanoff sees Levantinism failing in the context of both Arab and Jewish nationalism during the post-war period, she appropriates the term—beginning in the 1950s and increasingly after 1967—so as to give it a positive sense. Taking the side of minorities at all times, she processes the trauma of forced homogenization after World War II. While a form of decolonialization that adopted a European nation state model led to de-Levantinization in North Africa and the Mediterranean region, forms of Levantine practice both there and in Europe could be renewed. This would oppose rampant neonationalism and monocultural identity politics projects, focusing on other forms of coexistence.

We thought ourselves to be Socialist, even Communist, and in our schoolyard we ardently discussed the Blum government, Soviet Russia, the civil war in Spain, revolution, materialism, and the rights of women, particularly free love. The only language we could think in was the language of Europe, and our deeper selves were submerged under this crust of European dialectics, a word we loved to use. . . . Revolution, which would destroy a world where we did not have our rightful place, would create another, where we could belong. We wanted to break out of the narrow minority framework into which we were born, to strive toward something universal, and we were ashamed of the poverty of what we called “the Arab masses,” and of the advantages a Western education had given us over them.

Our teachers expounded knowledge from on high, and most of us who sat, heads bowed, taking notes were Jews, Greeks, and Syrians, the Levantines, those whom the Moslems called with superstitious respect and suspicion, the People of the Book. We the Jews, and the Greeks, were always there, had always been there, changing the world more than we changed ourselves, remaining the same under our many guises.

Jacqueline Kahanoff, “Childhood in Egypt,” 1959

In the Middle East context, it was the Levantinian who acquired the new culture, at first as something desirable but external to him [sic], then as an integral part of his own being. He has been derided by the Westerner mostly because he represented both a danger and a challenge. For all his weaknesses and self-doubts, the Levantinian is a potentially successful crossbreed of two or more cultures in our times, capable of applying what he acquired to the transformation and reconstruction of his own society, and able to compete with the Westerner on his own terms. He then effects a swing back to his native origins, now highly idealized. The increasingly Levantinized Arab nationalist is such a crossbreed, who idealizes Islamic or Pharaonic greatness. Similarly the Jew, regarded as a foreigner, both in Europe and in the Middle East, proclaims his ancient origins. In fact, both Moslem and Jew are far from these ancient origins, and have no intention of resuscitating dead civilizations, but are able to fuse elements of various civilizations into new dynamic patterns, characteristic of the Middle Eastern people—among them the Jewish people—from antiquity to our present day.

All this has directly affected the oriental Jewish communities, which were an integral part of the Islamic world. They learned to use the advantages offered by the colonizing power and, in many cases, achieved a high degree of economic well-being and a higher social status, outside the old minority-community framework. They Westernized and created their own Levantine elite, as did, in fact, all the other minorities, far more quickly than the Moslem majority did.

Jacqueline Kahanoff, “Israel: Ambivalent Levantine,” 1959

The reaction of the Levantine minorities to European influence was different from that of the Moslem majority. To the latter, European rule, overt or covert, was oppressive; to the minorities it was in many ways liberating, and they took to Western ideas and culture with enthusiasm. The trouble was that there was hardly any communication between these better-educated minorities and the Moslem masses; they did not even speak the same language, and theoretical ideas of liberal democracy provided no answer to the plight of the poverty-stricken masses of the Orient or their search for identity. It was only the Moslem Brothers, the nationalists and then the Nasserites who could rouse these masses, either by appealing to xenophobia and the purity of Islam, or by creating an Arab version of nationalism and socialism to fit the specific conditions of the Islamic-Arab world.

The minorities were thus further cut off from the population, and many of them were expelled or otherwise oppressed. The failure of the Levantine minorities in the twentieth century was not that they were “superficially westernized,” but that in acquiring an essentially European culture and outlook, they were cut off from the body of the people among whom they lived, and who distrusted them as non-Moslems. A similar failure occurred again and again in Europe, as its people did not follow the minority communist intellectuals, who were often Jews, but took to some form of fascism or national socialism. The Coptic and Jewish communities in North Africa and Egypt were eliminated, just as their European counterparts had been in Hungary and Germany. In the Orient, too, a narrow nationalism, which excluded all that was not Arab and Moslem, won the day and crushed the new shoots of a Levantine culture that was, or might have been, a bridge between the Western world and that of the Orient, to transform the Levant into a more open and free society that could develop for the benefit of all its people.

Jacqueline Kahanoff, “What about Levantinization?” 2011

In 1860, during the clashes between Maronites and Druzes in Lebanon (already predicted by Lamartine and Nerval), France supported the Christians, England the Druzes. For standing near the center of all European politics in the East was the question of minorities, whose “interests” the Powers, each in its own way, claimed to protect and represent. Jews, Greek and Russian Orthodox, Druzes, Circassians, Armenians, Kurds, the various small Christian sects: all these were studied, planned for, designed upon by European Powers improvising as well as constructing their Oriental policy. . . . British vision, exemplified by Lawrence, is of the mainstream Orient, of peoples, political organizations, and movements guided and held in check by the White Man’s expert tutelage; the Orient is “our” Orient, “our” people, “our” dominions. Discriminations between elites and the masses are less likely to be made by the British than by the French, whose perceptions and policy were always based on minorities and on the insidious pressures of spiritual community between France and its colonial children.

Edward W. Said, Orientalism, 1978

[Kahanoff’s] vision is likely to strike the present-day reader as culturally imperialist. Indeed, although Kahanoff devoted a great deal of effort to unmasking legacies of European imperialism and internal forces of colonialism within Israeli society, she never recognized her own colonizing tendencies toward Arab-Islamic culture. Her social model is derived from a notion of a Levantine subculture composed primarily of minorities that served as a bridge between East and West but had little direct contact with the majority culture outside of their milieu.

Deborah A. Starr and Sasson Somekh, “Editor’s Introduction: Jacqueline Shohet Kahanoff—A Cosmopolitan Levantine,” Mongrels Or Marvels, 2011

Kahanoff’s Levantinism discourse is no magic formula to miraculously solve the problems of the present. Understanding her privileged childhood in Egypt solely as a reference point that emanates a magical aura in her writing, however, misses out on the political dimension of her experiences and her insights into the ways that colonization involves not only the colonizers and the colonized, but also Levantine go-betweens. Even if Kahanoff’s problematization of the situation of “Levantine” Jews in Israel appears at times to displace the issue of Palestine, the go-between can never embody the “unique[ness]” that legitimizes Israel’s claim to violence. 3 The go-between searches for communities. Kahanoff therefore counters the national discourse that posits a binary of occupier and occupied with a chronopolitical view, discussing the new minorities that emerge when there is a shift in power relations.

This chronopolitical view enables Kahanoff to understand both origin and arrival as two experiences along a longer chain of migration: a migration between cultures, religions, national identities, and disciplines that does not end with immigration. Migration is viewed as permanently remaining in motion and assimilating the signs of different cultures—without claiming ownership of them. The anachronic, explosive force of Levantinism lies in becoming similar, not identical. Since identification is indispensable for a system of state government, it is challenged by Levantine fluidity—between being and becoming, originality and imitation, authenticity and mimicry. The state must then reckon with citizens whose status is derived time and again from their performances, and not only from their origin, however defined. “If you are truly a Levantine, you do not have a constitutive super-ideology at the ready that dictates your political standpoint in every situation. You have to look for it again every time.” 4
Women’s corps walking in the parade of
Women’s corps walking in the parade of the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) on Independence Day 1968. This was the first IDF parade to take place in Jerusalem, beginning in a neighborhood that was occupied during the Six Day War just under a year before, an
In the Wake of the Six-Day War
In 1968, Kahanoff notes that the “Six-Day War transported us back into the Levant, to become one of the main forces disrupting the old order, but, hopefully, also a positive force which will contribute to replacing the old order with a more modern and progressive approach.” 5 The “old order” Kahanoff hopes to replace is the model of the nation-state, implemented in the footprint of colonial rule. Thereby she does not think exclusively of Israel, but of the region, and not so much of the states in the region but of the minorities populating them. “The concept of the nation-state appears modern or advanced in regard to the Levant’s hodgepodge of communities, but in global terms nation-states may be already obsolete.” 6 Kahanoff conceives the Levantinization of the nation-state from the perspective of minorities, much like she did before 1967, even though she now no longer belongs to a Jewish minority, but to a Jewish majority that has nationalized itself in its own state and occupying power. For minorities, like anything Levantine, are always in motion—they do not disappear, not during nationalization nor through occupation. When power relations shift, minorities reconfigure and emerge anew to challenge the homogeneous tone set by the national majority.

Strikingly, while Europe unites, the Bretons, Basques, Welsh, Flemish, Irish and Scots assert their own cultural autonomy against the all-inclusive nation-state. 7 Furthermore, newer groups crystallize, as a result of immigration following the breakup of the European Empires—Africans, Pakistanis, West Indians, Indochinese, Algerians, etc. They constitute new social and cultural enclaves in Europe—much as Jews almost exclusively once did—with no territorial claims in their new surroundings. They are not, and do not want to be, totally integrated or absorbed in the nation-state; they maintain ties with their countries of origin. They constitute ummot—folk—much on the old Levantine pattern. 8 In other words, the Western nation-state itself is being Levantinized. Various types of communities, incorporated in a wider, rather loosely organized entity, might provide a solution in the many cases where different people have to share the same geographic space. Human groupings thus comprise concentric, intersecting, and overlapping circles, and ethnic, spiritual, or cultural identities do not and can not correspond to neatly fixed territorial units.

Jacqueline Kahanoff, “Afterword: From East the Sun,” 2011

“These peculiar ideas [of Levantinism] were immediately shared by many in the literary salons of the sixties and seventies [in Israel] . . . back then,” Sasson Somekh recapitulates in 1998, “I did not see in these ideas a political program useful for calming the serious conflict with our neighbors; because they elegantly ignore . . . the national dimension which unlike the Byzantine period or the Cairo of the 1920s, dictates the political reality today.” 9 As if politics could be excluded from literature, Somekh saw Kahanoff’s Levantinism as a “literary option,” not a political one. At the latest, Kahanoff’s 1968 introduction to a planned English collection of essays would contradict this view, emphasizing the political potential of cultural minorities. Like most of Kahanoff’s writings, however, the 1968 introduction was written in English and at the time was not translated into Hebrew, the language most of Kahanoff’s essays were published in after her move to Israel in 1954. Her “peculiar ideas” of Levantinism reached the Israeli salons through the Hebrew translation of Aharon Amir, an acclaimed literary translator and her longtime editor. 10 In the Hebrew collection of Kahanoff’s essays, edited by Amir and published in 1978, the 1968 introduction was not included, nor does the volume indicate that the texts are translations from English—neither Amir nor any other translator is mentioned. 11

Somekh notes that Amir wanted to “emphasize” the “Israeli character” of Kahanoff’s texts instead of giving the impression that they belong to a “foreign cultural context.” 12 Yet the texts were not written in Hebrew, the language of the Israeli melting pot policy, nor did they conform to the national narrative that policy sought to achieve. Kahanoff’s 1968 introduction is very explicit about this: “Our best chance for peace and survival may be to transform the Zionist revolution into a Levantine one.” 13 By omitting the traces of translation, the Levantine option was “integrated” into Israeli discourse, whereby the political implications of this option—that challenge the domination of the national narrative—were excluded. 14 Thus Kahanoff’s chronopolitical view, which emphasizes the multi-temporalities at work in migrant societies, remained “foreign” to Israeli society to the extent that it exploded the context of the “Zionist revolution” and scattered “the seeds of Levantine rebellion against the white man, which has worked such havoc in the Middle East.” 15

In 1968, Kahanoff conceives of the nation-state as a colonial export commodity past its use-by date, whose modernity is only attractive where people are well disposed toward export commodities when they come from Europe. As a postcolonial option, she proposes Levantinization for the geographic region of the Levant, as well as for Europe, with its minorities from former colonies. Further minorities, which had emerged as the result of state-organized work migration schemes, challenge the status of the dominant culture. Western nation states accept them for economic reasons, but without reconsidering their own nation-state ideology. According to Kahanoff, the Levantinization of Europe is not about integrating or assimilating minorities into dominant cultures, but about mutual assimilation. Using the example of Israeli society’s “mixture of . . . people,” she writes: “If only the dominant group . . . would recognize that assimilation is a two-way process, that change is both natural and necessary, and that to make it possible, [the dominant group] must discard many of its own prejudices and misconceptions and renounce its almost exclusive monopoly over its party and state institutions.” 16 Mutual assimilation first involves the reciprocal appropriation of cultural signs whose significance is derived from both their origin and arrival. By engaging in this process, a dominant culture must forego its supremacy and interpretive authority, and recognize itself and the minorities who live within it as politically equally forces within one “mixture.”
Jacqueline Kahanoff, a manuscript page o
Jacqueline Kahanoff, a manuscript page of “The Mini Revolution.” “In Paris,” Kahanoff writes, “she scribbled the thoughts of Mao on the walls of the Sorbonne, and Mao’s roaring revolution became a kittenish ‘miao, miao.’” Jacqueline Kaha
Skirting the National Question
[T]he fact of the matter is: even if we cannot agree that our annihilation is the “only solution,” we do not want to maintain colonial relationships with our neighbors. We will also not be able to embrace a culture that traps people in outdated behavioral stereotypes and prevents them from engaging in modern ways with new times and contemporary problems. . . . The golden age of a civilization shared by Jews and Muslims, the Middle Ages, and shared Semitic origins, are now of little significance either for the Palestinians or for us. A modern secular culture, however, could facilitate exchange and should be accessible for anyone who would profit from change––women, children and vulnerable people both in rural areas and in cities.

Jacqueline Kahanoff, “Im shiva la-mizrah [Upon Return to the East],” 1978

Following a visit to Israel-occupied East Jerusalem in 1967, Kahanoff writes the essay “Upon Return to the East.” The visit is her first encounter with a Muslim society since leaving Egypt in 1949. While Israel is celebrating the conquest of East Jerusalem as a return to the holy places of its fathers, in the occupied city, Kahanoff finds herself transported back to the old town of Cairo. However, this is not about a purely personal memory. Kahanoff’s time travel spirals around within a present, which is not the present foreseen by the “founding fathers of Zionism.” “Any major revolution begins at home, in the relationships between man and woman, between adults and children,” she writes. 17 Using the vocabulary of the European 1968 generation, Kahanoff—the feminist—contradicts its promise that the secondary contradiction of the repression of women would disappear along with the primary contradiction of capital and work. For her, it is necessary to also consider the social relations between men and women when dealing with power relations between occupier and occupied.

On the streets, I recognize the middle-aged urban woman again, veiled—a power that is not to be underestimated. Hidden away at home, this woman manages family matters . . . She is the woman that her son trusts the most; even with multiples wives, he still only has one mother. Nowadays, it is possible that she is losing her authority, since she owes her practical wisdom to a static tradition. Like the Sultans’ mothers and the grandmothers from the tales of One Thousand and One Nights, she is only allowed to start using her brain once her beauty leaves her and her charms lose their effect. Centuries of subjugation to Allah’s will—convenient camouflage for the reality of a foolish male imperialisms—transformed her into an imprisoned mistress, into the invisible ruler of a society that is coming to an end. Today, the lady in black appears to be an anachronism. She can only maintain her authority by resisting changes—as if the black veil that practically obliterates her face, rather than hide her from the world, hides the world from her.

Jacqueline Kahanoff, “Im shiva la-mizrah [Upon Return to the East],” 1978

With the image of this middle-aged Palestinian woman, which precedes an analysis of the length of young women’s skirts, Kahanoff introduces the topic of intergenerational conflict between women. The connection made between the short skirt and the veil is indirect: the short skirt opens up a view of “the world” (modernity and the occupier) and shifts power relations within Palestinian society—a change initiated when the woman foregoes a form of authority that is anchored in a regional “static tradition.” Occupied by both Israel and the patriarchy, the woman appears as a third figure within the binary order of occupier and occupied, introducing a new minority in the resulting power relations. Kahanoff does not expect this “view of the world” simply to “liberate women”—paternalistic and instrumentalist notions of female emancipation having often plagued debates on the veil. Rather, the appropriation of signs such as the short skirt sets the process of mimicry in motion for her.

In the initial stage of contact between two nations at different levels of technological development the native elite undergoes an imitative and acquisitive phase in absorbing the ideas and techniques of the dominating culture, and in so doing, first rejects with a feeling of shame the values of its own society. . . . Before long, the colonizers begin to ridicule what they regard as a superficial imitation of foreign ways, and to idealize and sentimentalize the old native cultures they have in fact destroyed.

Jacqueline Kahanoff, “Israel: Ambivalent Levantine,” 1959

In Egypt, this “initial stage” affects the Muslim majority and the Levantine minorities—who are partly native and partly descendants of migrants from the West—in different ways. The partially western culture of these minorities makes them more suited for “cooperation” with colonizers and they become a “new elite.” Western colonizers, however, largely ridiculed Levantine practices as imitation because they “embodied danger and challenge” to their rule. 18 In this embodied danger, Kahanoff recognizes Levantinism as “a space that enables resistance to hegemonial powers,” and imitation as its action plan. 19 Similarly, Homi K. Bhabha describes “the signifier of colonial mimicry as the affect of hybridity – at once a mode of appropriation and of resistance, from the disciplined to the desiring. . . . The menace of mimicry is its double vision which in disclosing the ambivalence of colonial discourse also disrupts its authority.” 20 For Kahanoff, the Levantinization of the “Zionist revolution” begins with the dual, authority-destroying view of a female minority subject positioned between occupier and occupied. 21

This is where the Left—including the Israeli Left—makes what is perhaps its biggest mistake. During a discussion with a journalist from a leftwing newspaper on the possibilities for cooperation between ourselves and the inhabitants of the occupied territories, I remarked that the fact that women’s skirts in East Jerusalem had become shorter—which would make differentiating a girl by her clothes more difficult—was for me a sign of hope. . . . The leftwing journalist was outraged and asked me sternly if I was proposing the one-sided integration of Palestinians into Israeli society. This view seems to me to result from the obsolete piety of the Left. Leftwing intellectuals who claim to defend the right of all people to liberty and self-determination often end up defending the most suppressed and backward societies. It is doubtful that it occurs to them that women in Muslim societies are striving for their own freedom, and that extending a masculine, backwards form of imperialism to the female half of humanity would be reactionary. After all, female protest already played an obvious role in One Thousand and One Nights.

Jacqueline Kahanoff, “Im shiva la-mizrah [Upon Return to the East],” 1978

[When Kahanoff] sees Palestinian women in East Jerusalem wearing miniskirts, she ventures to think that there may be positive aspects to the occupation. This is essentially heresy—how can a woman who resists any use of violence come to terms with occupation simply because it has resulted in shorter skirts for women? But precisely that is her greatest strength. The national narrative is in her opinion not the main issue. No national narrative, no national occupation either is more important than free women. The assertion that a shorter skirt is inevitably a sign of women’s emancipation is indeed to be regarded and discussed as entirely modernistic. But it forms a basis for Kahanoff’s refusal to accept the national narrative––or any national narrative that claims to be above all. Kahanoff’s position becomes particularly clear to me when considering the fact that so many national liberation struggles recruited women, and encouraged them to leave the home, only to send them back to their traditional domestic roles once national liberation has been achieved.

Eyal Sagui Bizawe in an interview with Elad Bar-Noy, 2017

A “year after the 1967 war,” Doli Benhabib writes in 1997, “Kahanov inscribes Israel into a scenario in which it brings progress and modernity, operating as a supposedly liberating power for the oppressed of the conquered Arab society. Can’t we simply detect here a desire for a return of the scene in which the Jewish girl in Cairo learns and internalizes the principles of the French revolution?” 22 Indeed, we must, if we admit Kahanoff’s chronopolitical view and do not insist on analyzing her according to the identity categories of migrant, woman, Jewish Arab, occupier, elite, and so on. Levantinism means permitting contradictions and recognizing that these cannot always be resolved when someone is several—with origin, arrival, and quite a few other things ahead. When Kahanoff turns back to the Jewish girl in Cairo, to the third-generation migrant that she was, she initially reverts to the migrant condition as a pluri-cultural way of being, with all its contradictions.

The Jewish girl may have been able to discuss socialism in the schoolyard with fellow female pupils, but at home the only things expected of her were marriage and housekeeping. While men of the same age and class were being sent to study in Europe after finishing school, the young Kahanoff was only allowed to work as a volunteer in the Muhammad Ali clinic in one of the poorest Muslim areas of Cairo. “The director of the clinic, Dr. Jemaiel, a Syrian Christian, often exclaimed in annoyance: ‘Look what the Jews are doing in Palestine, they are rebuilding a people—but what about here . . .’” With pangs of conscience, Kahanoff decides to become active in the Jewish quarter and together with friends sets up a kind of clinic in an elementary school. Complications soon emerge in terms of their relationship with the sheikh of the quarter, who views the “modern customs” of these young women as undermining his authority. He incites hostility among the pupils’ mothers toward the women and spreads rumors that they are “ungodly Communists.” 23 This migration through views of the world and cultural values within and beyond her own minority continues at home. Kahanoff has not learned any Arabic at her secular French school or from her British nanny, so she is isolated from both the Muslim majority in the country as well as her grandparents.

As she returns to scenes in Cairo via East Jerusalem, Kahanoff lays claim to her right to migrate between social classes, languages, ideologies, and cultures. She refuses to forego her memories from the time before the existence of the Jewish state and her becoming an immigrant—a status ascribed by the state, and to be maintained until she has integrated herself into the occupying power. Benhabib’s critique of Kahanoff’s time-travel to Cairo is tantamount to the demand of Israel’s “melting pot” policy: to leave diasporic cultures (whether eastern or western) behind and to pay for one’s successful arrival in a new country with one’s origin. In 1968 when Kahanoff focuses on the societal position of a woman belonging to an occupied people—without, however, assuming the perspective of the occupying nation to which she herself belongs—she risks entering a contradictory situation. She did this without the prospect of being able to resolve the contradiction, and without falling into the romantic notion of contradiction as cult. 24 If “Levantine” signifies any identity at all, then it is one “whose almost only consolidate component is motion.” 25 This could be the reason why Levantinism has faded from view in academic postcolonial discourse. Neither colonizer nor colonized, the Levantine simply lacks secure definition. 26

The “no recognition” proclamations of Arab summits offend our deepest sensibilities, making our nerves twitch, but then, the declaration of our leaders that Palestinians do not exist and that Arab countries could have absorbed the refugees makes a raw nerve twitch in Moslem-Arab sensibilities regarding their idea of Ishmael’s identity . . . Our legitimacy will be recognized on condition that we accept the reciprocal recognition of the legitimacy of the Palestinians. It is the price to pay for accommodation and eventually, hopefully, reconciliation.

Jacqueline Kahanoff, “My Brother Ishmael: On the Visit of Anwar Sadat,” 1978

The Levantine miniskirt wearer is an example of Levantines’ role as mediators between tradition and modernity. With their “dual perspective,” Levantines are divided mediators who must occasionally betray the two parties they mediate between in order to show a third way—similar to a translator who, instead of translating from one language into another, translates two languages into a third. For Levantine modernists, universal civilization or the principles of the French Revolution do not represent absolute values, but rather values that must be mediated on a regional basis. This does not involve explaining signs that have been declared to be incomprehensible by some position or other, but a reenactment of the migration between languages and cultures, which allows one sign to become similar to another.

Both the essay “Upon Return to the East” and the 1968 introduction conjure up a first-person plural, a “we.” Does this mean “we Jews”? “We Israelis”? It is a “we” that often affirms its sense of difference from other groups, but at the same time gives up its claim to uniqueness. Kahanoff recommends that the occupying force abandon its claim to be “unique,” and with it its legitimation of violence. She finds this claim to be rooted in a patriarchal tradition, in the story of Ishmael and Israel, where only one of the two “may be blessed,” with the other being eliminated or dominated. “[W]e might rewrite the story of Ishmael and Israel—and of their respective mothers,” suggests Kahanoff . 27 We might appropriate this founding myth of the national narrative and rewrite it. Considering the occupation, Kahanoff begins this rewriting by assuming the minority position of a woman and betraying her own belonging to the Israeli nation.
Illustration from Jacqueline Kahanoff’
Illustration from Jacqueline Kahanoff’s essay “Farewell Little Woman” in the Israeli women’s magazine At (1973). Referring to Roger Vadim’s film Barbarella (1968), the essay sketches possible roles for women in a future society
The Levantine Cosmopolis
Kahanoff takes us through mythical, historical, and also contemporary eras to re-evaluate the concept of the “Levantine”—rearranging the contradictions of its own patterning. She translates between reality and possibility that which perhaps threatens faith in progress and the certainty of faith, and illuminates our present: the Levantine option of a coexistence of minorities that—in chronopolitical rather than geopolitical terms—activates its untimely and unredeemed components and abandons the region of the eastern Mediterranean—still highly contested today—to time. This is not about a territory which perhaps hosted a multicultural utopia once upon a time. It is about coexisting on a daily basis in a manner that is lively and convivial, entrepreneurial and dynamic, in a space that is shared by people of different religions and cultures. The question of whether minorities always need their own state is superfluous when one draws from the richness of this coexistence, instead of safeguarding rights solely through homogenization and nationalization.

To achieve this, we may have to bid farewell to the modern notion that all people are born or are created equal, and that inequality emerges only through “artificial” societal or political institutions. Inherently, people are not equal. For this very reason, they require institutions established by people to become, through law, not equal, but on a par with each other, i.e., equal in the eyes of the law. In her enthusiasm for the Greek polis, Hannah Arendt emphasizes that “[t]he polis was supposed to be an isonomy, not a democracy,” meaning a form of order where the notion of rule was entirely absent (isonomia: equality before the law, from the Greek isos [equality] and nomos [law]). 28 “The word ‘democracy,’ expressing even then majority rule, the rule of the many, was originally coined by those who were opposed to isonomy and who meant to say: What you say is ‘no-rule’ is in fact only another kind of rulership; it is the worst form of government, rule by the demos.” 29

In recent times, Kojin Karatani has linked the term isonomy to ancient Ionia (in modern-day Turkey) rather than Athens. Arendt conceded that in Athens, the freedom to participate in the political realm was available only to those who owned property and slaves. For Karatani, then, the Athenian model of democracy cannot resolve this contradiction between freedom and equality, since on these terms, the greater the freedom, the greater the inequality; the greater the equality, the greater the lack of freedom. Athens cannot represent the long-sought-after model for democracy in the twenty-first century. Based on the internal exploitation of women, slaves, and foreign residents (known as metics) and the external exploitation of other city states, Athenian democracy remained rooted in a homogeneity that is already inseparable from a kind of nationalism that excludes heterogeneity. Isonomy in Ionia is a very different story. Like the Levantines much later, Ionia was far from the Greek motherland and free from the traditions of tribe, clan, and kinship. In the cities of Ionia, a nomadic existence prevailed, which preceded tribal society and took the form of foreign trade and production. Experiences and culture were exchanged as well as goods. Thales, who is said to be the first philosopher, worked as a civil engineer in Egypt. The Ionians did not affiliate with a polis; they affiliated with a cosmopolis.

Why then, asks Karatani, is isonomy, the political system of Ionia, both freer and more equal than the Athenian model? In contrast to the polis, traditional power relations were eroded in the cosmopolis. Here, isonomy was not simply an abstract concept. Loyalty to the community was not based on the accident of birth but the will of the individual. The monetary system did not necessarily lead to inequality, since, according to Karatani, a person who did not own land could simply migrate, instead of having to work on the land of another. “Naturally, this left no room for great landowners to emerge. In that sense, we could say freedom gave rise to equality.” 30 And while even new gods and the priesthood in the motherland had ancient authority, in the cosmopolis, people from different regions came together, whose gods became the ritual symbolization of a social contract among individuals who had broken away from the old tribal society. Their concept of justice had to transcend the borders of the particular polis and merge with a cosmopolis, which marked the beginning of another political philosophy. Already for Democritus, ethics cannot come from within the polis, but only from the cosmopolis.

The Levant “is called ‘Near’ or ‘Middle’ East in relation to Europe, not to itself,” writes Kahanoff. “[P]erhaps the time has come for the Levant to reevaluate itself by its own lights, rather than see itself through Europe’s sights, as something quaintly exotic, tired, sick and almost lifeless.” 31 Such a reevaluation can proceed by examining Levantine social forms for their anachronic use value—forms such as isonomy, or, to perform another transhistorical jump cut, the Ottoman millet system. A millet or millah is a non-Islamic religious community that, under a chosen leader, enjoyed a certain degree of autonomy. According to the Koran, a Muslim has a personal status irrespective of their location. The ruler of Constantinople granted comparable rights to non-Muslim subjects belonging to other religions within protected communities. Especially in cases where politics and religion could not be separated, this legal status could guarantee equal religious freedom for different denominations, a “personal autonomy” regardless of territory––for which Yves Plasseraud scours the archives. 32 The question of class was not, initially, a national question either. It was generally acknowledged that the proletarian had no country, until the hopes of supporters of non-territorial autonomy were dashed at the 1903 convention of the Russian Social Democratic Party. 33 Later, Lenin established the right to territorial autonomy as one of the fundamental principles of the party.

Let us assume that a country comprises of several nationalities—for instance Poles, Lithuanians, and Jews. Each of these nationalities must found their own movement. All citizens of a certain nationality must join their own organization, which will provide a representative assembly in each region and general representation on the national level. Representatives for the individual nationalities must be endowed with independent financial means, and each has the right to levy taxes from their members; the state, however, can also allocate each nationality a budget from its own finances. Each citizen of the country hereby belongs to a national group, but can freely decide with which national movement they would like to affiliate, and this decision is not subject to any kind of monitoring. These autonomous movements can then develop within the framework of the generally applicable laws enacted by the parliament of the country; within their own area of expertise, however, they are autonomous, and no one movement has the right to interfere in the affairs of another.

Vladimir Medem cited in Yves Plasseraud, “Die vergessene Geschichte der personalen Autonomie. Wie kulturelle Minderheiten besser zu schützen wären,” 2000

Zionist efforts to achieve territorial autonomy came into conflict with the Bund movement, which advocated for non-territorial autonomy. Bundist theoretician Vladimir Medem rejects the traditional overlapping of state and nation, and proposes a form of federalism based on autonomous social institutions for regions with mixed populations. Belonging to such a “multination” becomes a “subjective public right,” and through the formation of “entities under public law” the multination itself becomes the “legal person” of this law. 34 This kind of personal autonomy was put to the test in the region of Bukovina in 1910 among Germans, Jews, Poles, Romanians, and Ukrainians. Plans to introduce it in 1914 in the Galicia region of Poland were hindered by the outbreak of war. Such ideas were also proposed at the Paris Peace Conference on 20 February 1920 in an attempt to mitigate the effects of the inevitable dissolution of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. 35

As immigrants to Europe begin to levantinize the continent, the west continues to subsume the issue of minorities under the category of human rights, whose premise of “natural” equality has already been rejected as a false presupposition that contaminates philosophical and political efforts. Yet since this is about balancing freedom and equality, Kahanoff begins with women.


1 Jacqueline Kahanoff, “Reflections of a Levantine Jew,” Jewish Frontier (April 1958), p. 7.

2 German weekly magazine Der Spiegel reported in 1965 that “long-established” Israelis felt threatened by the “danger of Levantinism” and wished to assimilate their “backward” fellow believers from North Africa rapidly. “Milch der Mutter,” Der Spiegel 31 (July 1965), p. 54. This and all subsequent quotations from German have been translated by the authors.

3 “Our history is not all that different from that of many other people, but we cannot possibly find friends and allies as long as we wish to remain in every respect ‘unique.’” Jacqueline Kahanoff, “Afterword: From East the Sun,” in Mongrels or Marvels: The Levantine Writings of Jacqueline Shohet Kahanoff, Deborah A. Starr and Sasson Somekh, eds. (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2011), p. 257. This essay was written in 1968 as an introduction to a planned English collection of essays and is here referred to as “the 1968 introduction.”

4 Eyal Sagui Bizawe in an interview with Elad Bar-Noy, “Habait hajachid she-ha-levantiniut metzi’a ze ha-chipus achar bait: Al musag ha-mafte’ach ba-machshwta shel Jacqueline Kahanoff [The Only Home Levantinism Offers is the Home you Seek for: On the Key Concept in Jacqueline Kahanoff’s Thought],” https://www.bac.org.il/society/article/levantine. This and the other quotations from Hebrew have been translated by the authors.

5 Kahanoff, “Afterword: From East the Sun,” p. 258.

6 Kahanoff, “Israel: Ambivalent Levantine,” in Mongrels or Marvels, p. 249. First published in Hebrew translation under the title “Shakhor al gabey lavan [Black on White],” in Kahanoff’s collection of essays “Mi-mizrakh shemesh [From East the Sun]” (Tel Aviv: Hadar, 1978).

7 The European Community Merger Treaty was signed in 1967.

8 Ummot, the Hebrew plural of umma, usually translated as “nation,” but depending on the context the term hovers between a nation and a people. One difference between umma and nation concerns claims to territory. The Zionist discourse used the term Jewish Nation, not Jewish People. Kahanoff’s use of the Hebrew term umma (in an English text) refers to this discourse before the establishment of the Israeli state.

9 Sasson Somekh, “al ‘Alexandria’ [On ‘Alexandria’],” Mikavov 1–2 (1997–1998).

10 Aharon Amir was a founding member of the Canaanite movement, which grew out of Revisionist Zionism in the late 1930s. The Canaanites drew on the ancient Near East as a cultural space and argued for the dissociation of Hebrew culture from religious affiliation. For the encounter between Canaanism and Levantinism see Tali Shif, “Ben minoriut le-majoriut: Jacqueline Kahanoff ve-projekt ha-“yisraelizatia” shel ha-levantiniut [Between Minority and Majority: The Project of “Israelizing” Levantinism],” Teoria vebikoret 37 (Autumn 2010).

11 Jacqueline Kahanoff, From East the Sun (Tel Aviv: Hadar, 1978). This anthology of her works in Hebrew translation is the only collection of essays Kahanoff published during her lifetime. It contains essays written from the late 1950s to the late 1970s. Given Kahanoff’s references to histories and mythologies over millennia, the reason for excluding the 1968 introduction cannot be a lack of topicality.

12 See footnote 9.

13 Jacqueline Kahanoff, “Afterword: From East the Sun,” Mongrels or Marvels, p. 251.

14 The publication history of Kahanoff’s writings is a story yet to be told. It bears witness to translation as a political instrument of integration. In 2005, when editing a collection of Kahanoff’s writings, editor David Ohana still presupposed that the texts in the book were previously “published exclusively in Hebrew” and were therefore to be treated “in every respect as Hebrew texts.” Jacqueline Kahanoff: Ben shene olamot [Between Two Worlds], ed. David Ohana (Jerusalem: Ketter, 2005).

15 Kahanoff, “Reflections of a Levantine Jew.”

16 Kahanoff, “Israel: Ambivalent Levantine,” p. 201.

17 Kahanoff, “Im shiva la-mizrah [Upon Return to the East],” p. 76.

18 Jacqueline Kahanoff, “Black on White,” in From East the Sun, p. 50.

19 Eyal Sagie Bizawe, preface to the Hebrew translation of Kahanoff’s 1951 novel Jacob’s Ladder (Tel Aviv: Gama, 2014), p. 39.

20 Homi K. Bhabha, The Location of Culture (London and New York: Routledge, 1994), pp. 126, 172.

21 Kahanoff, “Afterword: From East the Sun,” p. 249.

22 Doli Benhabib, “Women’s Skirts are Shorter Now: Levantine, Female Identity as Elitist Disguise in Jacqueline Kahanoff’s Writings,” in Women’s Studies International Forum 20 (March–April 1997), p. 692.

23 Jacqueline Kahanoff: Ben shene olamot, pp. 43–44.

24 “The romantic notion . . . of Mediterranean countries being the origin of all that was good never came to mind for Camus and Kahanoff. On the contrary, they felt it their duty to write about the horrors of the East. This does not mean that they did not love the East. They saw the many different possibilities for coexistence, but also the many possibilities people had to bicker with one another and slaughter one another. They loved motion, including the motion between love of the Levant and fear of it, even fleeing it . . . But precisely their experiences with the deep contradictions of the Mediterranean region immunized them against another kind of romanticism: the romantic notion of contradiction as cult.” Nissim Kalderon, “Tiyul ba-yam ha-tihon [Mediterranean Excursion],” Haaretz Weekend Edition (17 May 1996).

25 Nissim Calderon, Pluralistim be’al korham. al ribui ha-tarbuyot shel ha-yisraelim [Multiculturalism versus Pluralism in Israel] (Tel Aviv: Haifa University Press & Zmora-Bitan, 2000), p. 222. Translating the book’s title as “Pluralists Against their Will” would better correlate with the Hebrew title, and with Calderon’s understanding that pluralism—like Levantinism—is a given condition in migrant societies and not an elitist imagination of a better world.

26 See “The Essay as Form,” in Theodor W. Adorno, Notes to Literature, Volume 1 (New York: Columbia University Press, 1991), p. 13.

27 Kahanoff, “Afterword: From East the Sun,” p. 256.

28 Hannah Arendt, On Revolution (New York: Penguin Classics, 1963), p. 20.

29 Arendt, On Revolution, p. 20.

30 Kojin Karatani, Isonomia and the Origins of Philosophy (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2017), p. 15.

31 Kahanoff, “Afterword: From East the Sun,” pp. 246–247.

32 Yves Plasseraud, “Die vergessene Geschichte der personalen Autonomie. Wie kulturelle Minderheiten besser zu schützen wären,” in Le Monde Diplomatique (16 June 2000), pp. 20–21.

33 See Boris Meissner, “The Soviet Concept of Nation and the Right of National Self-Determination,” International Journal 32, no. 1 (Winter, 1976–1977), pp. 56–81.

34 Vladimir Medem cited in Plasseraud, “Die vergessene Geschichte der personalen Autonomie.”

35 See Meissner, “The Soviet Concept of Nation and the Right of National Self-Determination.”

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