Israel Studies Seminar - Fire in the Camp: Committed Arabic Literature and Mizrahi Aesthetics in Israel/Palestine


This paper will examine the influence of Arab Marxism and the aesthetics of Arab commitment literature on Iraqi Jewish and other Mizrahi literatures in Israel. I will begin by presenting the largely unknown corpus of transit camp stories published in Arabic by Iraqi Jewish intellectuals such as Sami Michael and Shimon Ballas, examining how these were shaped by the socialist aesthetics of the Israeli Communist party’s (ICP) Palestinian and Jewish literary circle and its publications al-Jadid and al-Ittihad. In the 1950’s, these publications were developed by both Palestinian and Iraqi Jewish intellectuals, many of whom brought valuable expertise from their involvements in the Communist Party and modernist and progressive literary scenes in Iraq. Transit camp literature—appearing in the1950’s as Arabic short stories and in the 1960’s and 70’s as Hebrew novels—provided literary accounts of the material and existential depravation of the Jews of the Arab world in the ramshackle immigration camps where many began their lives in Israel; with their themes of collective responsibility, class consciousness, resistance to Ashkenazi racism, and the importance of Arabic culture, these stories are considered by many scholars as the bedrock of Mizrahi literature, and as acritical genre in Israeli literature. However, existing studies of this genre are based on the Hebrew transit camp literature published in the 1960’s and 1970’s, and situate it as a product of the Jewish-Israeli cultural sphere. My paper addresses this gap by demonstrating that the early literature of the camps was in direct conversation with the aesthetics and ethics of Marxism, anti-colonialism and commitment literature practiced by Arab writers in Iraq, Palestine, Israel and the larger Arab world. Examining essays and conference notes from al-Jadid and al-Ittihad, I show how the camp stories emerged from a politically engaged literary project that shaped both Mizrahi and Palestinian literatures and forged a cultural tradition between them.

About the speaker:

Dr Chana Morgenstern is a scholar, writer and translator. She is University Lecturer in Postcolonial and Middle East Literature at Cambridge University and a Senior Fellow at Newnham College. Dr Morgenstern is co-director of the Documents of the Arab Left Project. She is currently at work on a book manuscript titled, A Literature for All Its Citizens: Aesthetics of Coexistence in Israel/Palestine.