Marc Lamont-Hill, the controversial far-left academic activist, has gotten himself into hot water once again recently. Hen Mazzig, a gay, progressive Israeli activist wrote a piece in the LA Times discussing the stereotypes of Israeli identity and the “Ashkenormativity” associated with it. Mazzig’s own family comes from Iraq and North Africa, like the majority of the Israeli Jewish population today. For some reason, Lamont-Hill took issue with these facts and decided to intervene. He claimed that the identity of Mizrahi Jews was a manipulation on the part of Jewish immigrants from Europe, to erase the “Palestinian” identity of the existing Jewish community in Mandatory Palestine. This is an erroneous claim. It presents Mizrahi Jews as lacking agency, unable to have their own identity without others imposing it on them. There has never been a significant Jewish population that identified as “Palestinian.”
The larger problem with Lamont-Hill’s claim is that it gives into tropes that he seemingly opposes–namely, Orientalism. When Mazzig corrected Lamont-Hill’s alternative facts on Mizrahi identity, the professor merely countered by saying that he “literally” studies the Middle East and its Jews for a living. Lamont-Hill is not a Jew, Mizrahi or otherwise. He has no skin in the game when it comes to the conflict over Israel & the Palestinians. So it is incredible that he feels he knows more about Jewish identity than a Jew whose parents are refugees that fled Arab Nazi-type regimes.
As Edward Said stated, Western scholars of the Orient treated the region (and its peoples) as a passive object. It was something to be studied, exoticized, and objectified. But whereas older, more conservative and European Orientalist lenses were focused primarily on Persians and Arabs, the modern, more progressive lens of Orientalism is focused on Jews. That is why Lamont-Hill tried to obscure the voice of a gay Mizrahi Jew. It is why he belittled the rich history & identity of Middle Eastern Jewry merely to some time he allegedly spent studying them. It is why Rashida Tlaib tries to erase the suffering endured inflicted upon Jews by her own people. It is why Ilhan Omar claims Jesus was a Palestinian, when numerous writings depict him as Jewish and he lived in the land long before the Arab Conquest. There has been much concern over the lack of attention paid to non-Ashkenazi Jewry throughout the world. Lamont-Hill, Tlaib, Omar, and others on the far-left spectrum are only contributing to the erasure of these marginalized voices with their Neo-Orientalist alternative facts.
The tragedy in all of this is that history is repeating itself. Orientalism is condemned nowadays and there’s a call for marginalized peoples to participate actively in research and discussion. Yet much of the time, this is just talk and the same old patterns keep repeating. There are many important conversations to be had about the conflicts in the Middle East and Jewish identity–and the voices leading the way should be those with skin in the game. Lamont-Hill has none and is trying to speak over those who do. He continues to show his hand as a privileged Western scholar, who condemns bigotry only when it affects him, yet regularly disregards the pain of other communities when it suits his political agenda. Lamont-Hill has the right to voice his opinions. But he should also have the decency to stop pretending to care about justice & human rights when he personifies so much of what he claims to oppose.