Setting aside Sephardim in a discussion of Jewish intellectualism

Until a truly rational understanding of culture in the most expansive and pluralistic sense is adopted by intellectuals, we will sadly continue to see the militant presentation of racially-biased Eurocentric values.

Albert Camus (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
Albert Camus
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
The recent article by Eva Illouz in Haaretz on the seemingly intractable problems faced by Jewish Intellectuals raises a number of critical issues for our understanding of Judaism when seen through Sephardic lenses.
Though it might be too soon to really know how much interest this essay will stir up in the Jewish world, I would say that it is truly a shame that a writer of such penetrating insight has not been able to get past Eurocentric-Ashkenazi categories of what it means to be a Jewish intellectual.
The one mention we get of the Arab-Mediterranean world is when Ms. Illouz discusses the French colonialist writer Albert Camus who was a Pied Noir in Algeria during the titanic struggle by the native population to remove the French colonists from their country.
Other than that, one would think from reading the article that being a Jewish intellectual – however this is ultimately defined in ideological terms – is to be an Ashkenazi Jew and to operate according to the religious-secular binarism that defines such thinking.
This binarism is translated according to the terms of universalism and particularism as it has been defined for Jews by Zionism. It is not a traditionally Jewish way of seeing the issue, nor is it delineated according to the complex cosmopolitanism of the Sephardic Jews. It is defined strictly according to the parameters of the Ashkenazi Jewish experience and completely ignores the alternative model of Sephardic Religious Humanism.
I have presented numerous examples of the phenomenon of Sephardic Religious Humanism.
I have even discussed the model in the work of Rabbi Jonathan Sacks.
I have presented an extensive set of resources that aims to show the ways in which Sephardic Judaism is very much a part of global civilization and Modernity.
I have also discussed the complexities of Sephardic discourse in the context of Converso thinking.
I recently addressed the issue in a discussion of Montaigne, a harbinger of modern Western thought, and his relation to the Sephardic tradition.
Such examples can be greatly expanded, but the forced suppression of this information and the ignorance it has generated has been considerable. It has led to an elimination of Sephardic ideas and a reliance on Ashkenazi paradigms. And for the Ashkenazi mentality there is a deep conflict between Jewish particularism and universal concerns that has only been exacerbated by Zionism in its various ideological permutations.
It appears that even an Arab Jew like Ms. Illouz is incapable of acknowledging the traditional Sephardic model: a model which has been elided and marginalized in our day due to the racist ethnocentrism of the Ashkenazim and their corrosive dominance of Jewish discourse.
It is something that I have repeatedly addressed in my writings and comments on the ongoing process of Sephardi exclusion.
We thus have a tacit acceptance of the principle that European thought is itself purely universalist when in point of fact, as has been argued by numerous post-Modern thinkers, the Western system is itself a parochial construct whose universalist pretenses are mere ethnocentric hubris.
The idea of secularism as espoused by philosophers like Voltaire and Spinoza is a chimera: today’s New Atheism has shown us that non-belief is very much a form of belief.  Atheism has become a religion unto itself. Darwin is its Moses and his book The Origin of the Species, its Bible. The New Atheists are as sure of their truth as any religious fundamentalist.  Their science is a fundamentalism; an unquestioned truth that transcends context and debate.
But when we rethink the entire construct that is represented by the binarism universalism-particularism, we can see that the universal is not quite so universal.  In fact, the European universal – as Edward Said has brilliantly shown – is permeated with ethnocentric and religious values that deny the value and cogency of non-European civilization; asserting themselves as the sole legitimate paradigm.
At this late date it is indeed lamentable that the vigorous post-Modern critique of Eurocentrism has yet to be universally embraced by intellectuals.  It is even more unfortunate that we are seeing a militant resurgence of Eurocentric Ashkenazi ethnocentricity and a rejection of the classical Sephardic model of Religious Humanism.
When a Sephardi like Ms. Illouz silences the voices and values of her own tradition, we must acknowledge the very sorry fact that the Sephardic cultural heritage has been the victim of an Ashkenazi assault of epic proportions whose ramifications will be dire for the future of Judaism and Jewish identity.
Until a truly rational understanding of culture in the most expansive and pluralistic sense is adopted by intellectuals, we will sadly continue to see the militant presentation of racially-biased Eurocentric values such as the one utilized in this article.
David Shasha is the founder and director of the Center for Sephardic Heritage in Brooklyn, New York designed to raise awareness of the history and culture of Arab Jews.  He publishes the Sephardic Heritage Update, a weekly e-mail newsletter available on Google Groups.  He has written for publications such as The Huffington Post, Tikkun magazine, The Progressive Christian, and The American Muslim.  You can contact him at