Reading the 92nd Street Y Catalog: Sephardim and Arabs Need Not Apply

by David Shasha

Screenhunter_01_aug_18_1444Ah, those New York Jews.

Woody Allen, Philip Roth, Ed Koch, Alfred Kazin.

Katz’s Deli, Zabar’s, Pastrami Sandwiches, Lox and Bagels, Matzoh Ball Soup, Chopped Liver, Gefilte Fish.

The Lower East Side.

All one big Ashkenazi world.

I was once told a story by Mickey Kairey, one of the patron saints of the Brooklyn Syrian Jewish community, that by now I have repeated many times, about his father’s experience on the Lower East Side in the first part of the 20th century. Mickey’s father was praying in an Ashkenazi minyan and was asked by the man sitting next to him, “Are you Jewish?” Mr. Kairey was praying donned in his tallit and tefillin and thought it a strange question. The “Are you Jewish?” question is a ubiquitous one among many Ashkenazi Jews – especially the Orthodox – and speaks to a sense of ethno-cultural prejudice that is endemic to the Ashkenazi condition. People are seen in gradations of ethnic acceptability: the Ashkenazi-Yiddish identity is central and all else is simply a drifting away from the core. Mr. Kairey made the mistake of not being able to speak Yiddish and was marked as suspect when it came to being a Jew. In fact, it should be remembered that the Yiddish language was even called “Jewish” by its native speakers.

Now in Israel, this idea that Ashkenazi culture is transcendent in the socio-political sense is one that is clear and needs little commentary. But in America, there is still the pretense that Jews – especially the fabled “New York Jew” – are filled with love and tolerance of their fellow Man.

So when I received the new catalog of events from the 92nd Street Y – it does not get more “New York Jew” than that – I carefully filtered out these Ashkenazi prejudices which are often thought by many to be a product of my own imagination.

Before I begin my argument, I should note that many events in the Y’s program series contain a plethora of non-Jewish figures. From the New York Mets’ Keith Hernandez to the African-American academic Cornel West to famed folksinger Joan Baez to Jazz pianist Dave Brubeck to media celebrity Martha Stewart, the Y has diversity seemingly covered. It is just that this “diversity” is of a very specific kind; a “diversity” that excludes two critical components – Sephardim and Arabs.

While it is not always easy to prove a negative – that Sephardim and Arabs are not welcome in this place of “civilization” – I will try and outline what seems to me to be an ideological bias that speaks to the current condition of the “Jewish” condition here in America.

The central event of the massive series of programs is a day-long tribute to the Holocaust survivor and Ashkenazi activist Elie Wiesel (10/2). I cannot add much to the reams of material that has been written about Wiesel, who represents so perfectly the problem at hand. Wiesel is a humanitarian whose work is predicated on a single issue – the suffering of the Jews of Europe. Very often he uses this suffering as a means to comment on other events where his moral stance is taken as sacrosanct. As has been noted, Wiesel is quite vociferous on the issue of Zionism and Israel and rarely if ever comments on Jewish violence against Arabs. His voice is perfectly attuned to the orthodoxies and rigid ideological posture of the Jewish community that maintains an almost complete silence about the Palestinian Arabs and their travails. Wiesel has been out front on Darfur and other tragedies in our time, but has remained silent on the Middle East conflict out of his own sense of personal Jewish loyalty. In other words, making a moral stand is acceptable, so long as that stand does not apply to your own community – the very thing Wiesel insistently demands of non-Jews.

There is precious little balance in terms of the Israel-Palestine matter on the program for the season: Rabbi Michael Lerner (10/30) and Gershom Gorenberg (2/5) appear to be the only critical voices that will be heard in the series. Not a single Arab or Palestinian voice is to be allowed into the discourse. From Right Wing ideologues like Bret Stephens and Abe Foxman (3/24) to Ed Koch (10/30) to Cynthia Ozick (10/29) to more moderate Zionists like Aaron David Miller (5/7) and a panel on the new liberal lobbying group J Street (3/16), the basic idea is to appear to be presenting a wide-range of ideas, but in reality only affirmations of Israel will be presented. It is important to note that Gorenberg will be presenting in a series on the media and Rabbi Lerner will be part of a four-person panel where he will likely be the only participant critical of Israel in any way. And by no means should we think that Rabbi Lerner’s voice can truly represent a Palestinian vision, even if it is sympathetic to that position.

Most importantly, the series will have two programs that deal with the hysteria over Israel and the sense of embattlement that is a central part of Zionist thinking at present. There will be (12/8) the now-obligatory panel discussion of anti-Israel sentiment on college campuses – a panel loaded with Right Wing ideologues including a member of the U.S. Congress. There will be another panel called “Why Zionism has Become a Dirty Word” (3/24) that will in effect be another uncritical look at the current situation in the Middle East.

And here we must look at the program series specifically addressed to discuss Middle East issues. “Middle East Struggle” begins (9/16) with a program on Islam being given by an Ashkenazi rabbi named Reuven Firestone who is certainly not a Muslim. More to the point, the program continues with one of the only two programs that overtly deal with Sephardic Jews. Michael Fischbach (11/18), the author of a controversial study regarding the issue of Jewish financial claims against Arab countries, continues the negative basis upon which contemporary Jews deal with the Arab world. It is important to note – as we have when dealing with this subject – that the institutional and conceptual structure of this issue has been designed and thought out in an Ashkenazi context with Ashkenazim running the show and the Arab Jews simply playing their assigned role, having no real voice or decision-making role in the process. Native Sephardic approaches are either rejected, or calibrated to fit the Ashkenazi model that relies on a deep antipathy and hostility towards the Arabs.

Moving forward in this series we have a program on Radical Islam (12/1) co-moderated by Wall Street Journal editor Bret Stephens (the first of his two appearances at the Y this season) and finally a panel on Jewish philanthropy and Israel’s Arab minority (3/3).

As one can easily see, the series is weighted towards pro-Israel commentators, with those who would be considered critical of Israel definitely in the minority. But what is most important for the political aspect of the discussion is that there is not a single Arab Muslim listed in any of the events on the 92nd Street Y calendar. This would mean, I think it is fair to say, that those attending the events will not get any alternative perspective from the “other” side. I note here the presence of two non-Arab Muslims on the schedule. Both Fareed Zakaria (10/15) and Azar Nafisi (1/6), moderate Muslim secularists, have been welcomed into the discourse as benign commentators who do not espouse any views that would be deemed by mainstream Jews as controversial or unacceptable.

Finally, we must well-note the ubiquitous presence of the Ashkenazi Arabic speaker Noah Feldman (9/11) who seems to “represent” Arabs for the Jewish community (and even for the U.S. government as Feldman has famously written the Iraqi constitution in the wake of the American-led invasion). Feldman may well be a “moderate” on many issues, but the fact that he remains an Ashkenazi Jew should not in any way blind us from the role he is deployed to play as “spokesman” for Arab concerns.

Now back to Sephardim.

The only real time the word “Sephardi” appears in the catalog is in a lecture called “Diversity, Dissent and Disunity” (12/8) given by someone called Rabbi David Kalb in a series on Jewish extremism. (For the sake of completeness I should point to the trivial use of the word buried in the blurb to a program on a Mexican film called “Like a Bride” (9/24) which is listed in the “Exploring Jewish Communities” series. The program is to be moderated by an Ashkenazi named Edna Eizenberg and the blurb for the film asks, “How do you grow up Jewish in a Hispanic culture?”)

Are we to take it that the use of the term “Sephardi” is itself – as many Ashkenazim would have it – a divisive element in contemporary Jewish discourse? The answer would seem to be in the affirmative as the only legitimate “Sephardi” program on the entire 92nd Street Y calendar – a program moderated by Arab Jews – is a screening of “The Last Jews of Libya” (3/15) which, as we have previously discussed, continues to fit into the larger anti-Arab paradigm that is being reflected in the aforementioned Michael Fischbach lecture. The “Libya” film is less a celebration of a rich and prolific Jewish past, and more about anti-Jewish sentiment in an Arab country that is shown as having persecuted Jews for many centuries.

In a Jewish world that is very often hypersensitive about “positive” portrayals of Jews and Jewish concerns, it is curious that the only way in which Sephardic Jewish history can be discussed is through its most negative and fatalistic elements. The history of the Sephardim is filtered through the Zionist lens where its sad trajectory leads to the triumphal return to the ancestral homeland and a glorious exodus from a hateful and corrosive Arab world – a place where we never really belonged in the first place.

Apropos of this point, the only lecture on a Sephardic figure in the series is on Maimonides (12/15), the Sephardi-Egyptian rabbi, which is being given by Edward Hoffman. The program listing does not mark Maimonides as Sephardi or Egyptian. We can safely assume that the larger political implications of the Arab Jewish question, elided throughout the event calendar, will not be given any role in this program.

Two lectures in the series are worth noting from a Sephardic perspective. The Sephardic academic James Kugel will be presenting a lecture on his recent book on the Bible (12/9). But Kugel’s lecture is not thematically Sephardic and he himself is not often noted as being Sephardic – given his Ashkenazi-sounding name (even though many of us know him as “Kaddouri”). And in the Literature series Peter Cole will be interviewed by Daniel Septimus (12/2). In the blurb for the Cole program, there is a brief mention of the work he has done in “Medieval” literature – the word “Sephardic” is left absent even as Cole’s work is exclusively in that area – and in “Hebrew” literature – even though Cole’s innovative publishing initiative Ibis Editions has also released many works translated from the Arabic and sees itself as an inclusive entity bridging the many cultures of Israel/Palestine.

The one brief mention of Arab culture in the entire series is a program on Egypt (3/18) that is listed in a larger series on Africa. I note that in this Egypt program – the presenter’s name is not listed – the novel The Yacoubian Building will be discussed. While the countries of North Africa will also be represented in this series, no mention of their Arab identity is provided.

So after carefully reviewing many of the relevant events in the massive series that is the 92nd Street Y’s ongoing cultural and intellectual programming, we see that the voices of Arabs – Jewish and Muslim – are left missing in action.

In my opinion this state of affairs represents a profound dilemma for the Ashkenazi-dominated Jewish world.

There is a formal pretense of diversity, but when more closely examined, this purported diversity is only masking a much more profound sense of cultural isolation, especially when it comes to the two most pressing issues in Jewish civilization – that of the Middle East conflict and that of internal Jewish pluralism. I have not even elected to enter into the part of the 92nd Street Y catalog that treats Jewish matters like prayer, Torah and Jewish life-cycle events. In these cases the events are all completely run and conceived within an Ashkenazi framework by Ashkenazim. In the context of Jewish life there are no Sephardim just as there are no Arabs in the context of the Middle East conflict.

If my “Levantine Option” framework is to have any saliency within the larger Jewish community, it would be necessary for this issue of diversity to be addressed.

When Sephardic Jews are exclusively represented in largely negative ways as if they lacked agency and an intellectual culture of their own, the corollary of a negative stance towards Arabs in general makes a good deal of sense. But here we can clearly see that there is simply no effort being made by the Ashkenazi community – the fabled “New York Jews” – to look outside itself. Sure, there is Toni Morrison and there is Mario Cuomo, but inside Judaism, where it truly counts, there is no good-faith attempt to deal with the endemic racism and insular pathology of an Ashkenazi world that wants to be catered to on its own terms. Jewish advocacy means falling in line with the orthodoxies of Ashkenazi thinking and remaining completely silent on the larger cultural issues that plague the Jewish world.

If we are to preach diversity in the Jewish community, that community must allow those with alternative views to be a part of the discourse. It is not enough to say that certain issues will be discussed – by Ashkenazim – even though the primary actors in those events will not have their voices heard.

In the epigram to his famous work Orientalism – a work that continues to remain off limits in most sectors of the Jewish world – the Palestinian scholar Edward Said uses a quote from Karl Marx (an Ashkenazi Jew!) that states of the colonized: “They cannot represent themselves – they must be represented.” Here too in our reading of a seemingly benign document like the 2008-2009 program catalog of the 92nd Street Y – a fairly accurate barometer of where Jews are at the moment – we see that the Sephardic Jews and the Arab Muslims are to be represented by others and not offered the opportunity to speak for themselves.

For those who continue to see the New York Jews as a “liberal” community, this reading points to the racism and ethnocentrism that such Jews would much prefer to have swept under the carpet. To show the New York Jew as someone who is unconcerned with critical reflection and tolerance for others is something that is quite unthinkable. And yet regarding the most explosive issues for the Jewish community at the present moment, the 92nd Street Y remains a reactionary institution which sets out the agenda for the larger world as it relates to Jews and Jewish concerns.

When non-Jews look to invite Jews to their events, the Jews are chosen from within this racist construct. If we look more carefully at the composition of panels at Peace conferences, we will see that Sephardim are not welcome. In addition, in many of the so-called “dialogue” programs there is a preponderance of non-Arab Muslims and a neutered discussion of Islam in general rather than a more nuanced and specific discussion of Islam, not as a religion, but as a civilization.

To better grasp the enormity of this racism, simply replace the term “Arab” with the term “African-American” and you will get the idea. It would be totally inconceivable to have non-Blacks speaking for the Black community. The outcry would be deafening because of the many advocacy groups representing the African-American community.

So too we constantly hear demands for Jewish representation from the very same Ashkenazi groups that have locked out the Sephardim and the Arabs!

“The Levantine Option” is thus stymied on the Jewish side by Ashkenazi racism and ethnocentrism and on the Arab side by a forced acquiescence to the Ashkenazi paradigms that we have seen so clearly in the 92nd Street Y catalog.

Over and over it is the same tired voices and the same failed approaches that are trotted out in conferences and events all over the world. More fruitful collaboration between Sephardic Jews native to the Middle East who maintain their ties to Arab civilization and the Arabs of the Middle East are not actualized because of the discursive calamity that has been demanded by an Ashkenazi-only policy.

For any real progress to be made, we first have to acknowledge that this Ashkenazi intolerance exists and then find substantial ways to remedy it. If this discursive impasse is not remedied, we will continue to find ourselves caught in the perennial vicious cycle of mutual incomprehension and intolerance; toxic elements that have led to endless violence and socio-political dysfunction. Given the continued absence of new possibilities that have been knowingly blocked off from the agenda by Jewish institutions run by Ashkenazim, there is little hope that we will ever be able to solve the intractable problems that face the Jewish community at present.

David Shasha is the director of the Center for Sephardic Heritage in Brooklyn, New York. The Center publishes the weekly e-mail newsletter Sephardic Heritage Update as well as promoting lectures and cultural events relevant to Sephardic culture. To subscribe to the newsletter or to contact David, e-mail him at