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Home » Eye on "Islamophobia" » Reza Aslan’s Ethnic-Literary Cleansing of “the Modern Middle East”: The Real Scandal is Not His New Book on the Historical Jesus

Reza Aslan’s Ethnic-Literary Cleansing of “the Modern Middle East”: The Real Scandal is Not His New Book on the Historical Jesus

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Seen in the wider context of a scholar’s career, a new book about that stone mason, Yeshua, raises the question, When did its author become aware that Jews, and Hebrew literature, are a part of the Middle East?

While TV and the blogosphere are all a-Twitter tonight over FOX NEWS’s purported anti-Muslim bias/ignorance/ineptitude (no argument here), in view of the network’s bumbling treatment of Professor Reza Aslan and his new book, Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth–the real scandal concerning this author goes unreported. The Nation‘s Corey Robin, for instance, declares hysterically on his personal blog that FOX’s interview with Aslan proves definitively that “Islam is the Jewish Question of the 20th Century.” Exsqueeze me? You’re suggesting an equivalence between the condition of Muslims in the liberal-democratic multicultural West today, and that of Jews in the old Europe–either before they were emancipated by law or shortly thereafter, just prior to the Holocaust?

Pretty much everyone else seems to be following suit. Piers Morgan, for instance, had Aslan on CNN tonight to essentially apologize to him, knowingly (chuckle, chuckle), on behalf of the real (tolerant, “PC”) Christendom. The Daily Show, a program that makes fum of everything, won’t touch this except to refer to Aslan repeatedly as “the fantastic Reza Aslan.”

But what neither TDS, FOX NEWS, Piers, Corey, nor anyone else that we’re aware of either seems to know, or think important enough to mention (whatever the merits of the new page-turner on Yeshua, which ZE hasn’t yet had a chance to study closely…more soon on that one), is that his previous book, an edited anthology of fiction called, misleadingly, Tablet and Pen: Literary Landscapes from the Modern Middle East, is completely Judenrein. Yep. That’s right. Sans les Jouifs.

Not so much as a lonely sand dune, let alone even a single oasis or dried-up wadi featured on Aslan’s “map” of the of “the Modern Middle East” is marked “Jewish” or “Hebrew” territory–never mind “Israeli.” Arabic, Turkish, Persian and Urdu literatures–to be sure–are all well represented. As they should be (!), in a book ostensibly interested in representing what the “literary landscape” of the region has looked like over the past century. Yet the naive tourist who begins her journey in 1910 (a year after Tel-Aviv was founded as a Jewish community under the Ottomans, incidentally) and faithfully follows her guide all the way to 2010 (the year before the volume was published) would never know that Hebrew was in fact, of course, one of the languages spoken (and indeed, penned) in the “modern Middle East”–at least if all she had to go on was the excerpts listed in the volume’s sanitized Table of Contents.

To insult an author on TV by bringing up his religious affiliation in order to question his scholarship (Aslan is a Muslim, who as a boy emigrated from Iran with his family: the interviewer seemed to imply that this was suspicious for someone writing about the Christian Savior) is egregious–because it’s ignorant and rude. To intentionally expunge by omission all of the wealth of modern Hebrew-language literature from a fat doorstopper of over 600 pages, a tome that looks very much as if it aspires to be assigned in college classrooms (the thing’s published by Norton), is nothing less than a blatant act of textual “ethnic cleansing”–far stupider and vastly more insulting than anything FOX News’s ill-prepared interviewer ever could have said to such a book’s editor about his more recent book. And that is what calls into question Aslan’s scholarship–not his religion, his education, or his opinion of Jesus.

Aslan (who teaches Creative Writing at UC Riverside) may declare insistently, condescendingly, to said interviewer that he has several postgraduate degrees, is fluent in biblical Greek, and is an “expert” on JC–but, when all is said and done, had said Moshiach come to town a couple of millennia later….  And Aslan were responsible….  We never would have heard of him. (ZE knows full well that Jesus spoke Aramaic, and probably some koine Greek, but he at least read Hebrew literature!)

So, instead of asking (lamely and impertinently) words to the effect of, “How come a Muslim wrote a book about Jesus?,” what FOX–and everyone else–should be asking is, “Why would anyone, of any faith, choose to publish a purported ‘anthology’ of Middle Eastern literature that systematically excludes Hebrew and Israelis? Including not only Jews in this ban but also–that is to say, excluding as well–Arab Israelis writing in Hebrew, such as Anton Shammas, the author of Arabesques, for example?” Such unasked (unaskable?) questions–contra Corey Robin et al–would be far more relevant to the real “Jewish Question” of today.



  1. This was covered before


    Now, Lynn from Potomac, Md. sends us an e-mail asking, “Why were no poets from Israel included in the collection? Israel is an integral part of the region.”

    Very good question. So the collection started in 1910, of course, and really until about the 1950s, the locus of Hebrew literature was not to be found in the Middle East, was actually to be found in Europe and in Russia. One of the rules that we had about this book is that all of the work had to be written, not just in a Middle Eastern language, but it had to be written while the author was himself or herself in the Middle East.

    By the 1950s or so, where we’re about halfway through the book now, when the locus of Hebrew literature does begin to slowly shift into Israel and you get some of these really beautiful profound moving pieces of Hebrew literature, by then, the vast majority of the literature tends to be focused on either the sort of Jewish historical destiny or the Israeli historical destiny.

    And as such, really does not fit into the same themes that are so prevalent throughout this book, the themes of anti-colonialism or western imperialism, the struggle to form a national identity. Those are things that Hebrew literature — and of course, I give in the book a number of examples of absolutely wonderful collections of both Hebrew literature and Israeli literature translated into English. Those are things that it just didn’t fit into the overall narrative arc of the book.

  2. ZE says:

    You don’t find it odd or unsavory, Amir, that Aslan is so comfortable declaring that Jewish/Israeli/Hebrew literature simply “doesn’t fit” into an anthology that purports–in its very title–to offer some sort of a comprehensive sampling of literature from the “modern Middle East”? The editor of a book of over 600 pages, who manages to “fit” together Arabic, Farsi, Turkish and Urdu perfectly well–discerning sufficient commonalities among these disparate traditions to place them side-by-side between the same covers–yet finds them all to have so little in common with Hebrew writers of the region that not a word by Israelis is permitted to find a home next door to its neighbors? We take Aslan’s comments, which you quote above, as further proof of our thesis. As he frankly admitted on the radio, and as he also mentions in the introduction to the volume in question, he in fact goes out of his way to exclude the real Hebrew presence in Middle Eastern literature from his representation of an artificially cleansed “narrative arc.” Tel-Aviv was founded in 1909. Israel declared independence in 1948. The first section of Aslan’s book alone already takes its readers from 1910 to 1950–and there are numerous sections after that, covering up to 2010. No, there is no legitimate narrative of the Middle East–or its literature–that makes sense without acknowledging the presence of Jews, Israel, and Hebrew. Aslan’s phony, condescending temporizing on the Dianne Rehm Show is an embarrassment. Thanks for sharing–in order to prove our original point all the better.

  3. JB Murphy says:

    This is article is a classic example of twenty-first century Zionists wanting a foot on both sides of the fence. Much of the defence of Israel depends on its claim to be a “little bit of western Europe on the Levant”, yet wants to be included among the cultures it despises. When you make up your mind, the conversation can begin.

  4. v says:

    Yeah, haven’t you ever heard that song?

    “In a West End town, a dead end world
    The East End boys and West End girls
    In a West End town, a dead end world
    The East End boys and West End girls

    It’s like, you’re Western, or you’re Eastern, not both. Unless you’ll be visiting one of the hundreds of McDonalds franchises scattered across Jordan, Egypt, the UAE, the KSA, Oman, Qatar, Bahrain, Iran, or Kuwait, then you might be just a little bit Western, but outside of those, (and maybe when you use your iphone to take selfies for Facebook) you are NOT in the West, my friend. Whoever heard of the West having anything to do with the Middle East, anyway? Get yourself a globe, buddy. They’re practically the length of my index finger away from each other. You fit that to scale and we’re talking a pretty good distance.

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