Bound Together: My Longings for Ishmael

14 August, 2023,
Abraham expels or sacrifices his son Ishmael, doing so not for the sake of the god but for the sake of domestic peace. Ishmael has no place in the house.



Foreword by translator Gil Anidjar


The Binding of Isaac, better known in the Christian West as “the Sacrifice of Isaac,” tells the story of child sacrifice, miraculously averted. It speaks a truth that, in its basic elements (father, son, death), has yet to be rendered obsolete. For obvious reasons, it has had a particular resonance in the literature of the State of Israel, the familiarity of its reception strengthened by the large number of its iterations in poetry and prose. Yet when Albert Swissa published his 1990 novel Bound (’Aqud, the Hebrew title, unmistakably evokes the bound victim, about to go under the knife), the shock wave it sent was immediate and intense (just a few years earlier, the Israeli Palestinian writer, Anton Shammas, had published Arabesques to similar acclaim — and inflamed censure). In a Hebrew that was rich, erudite, layered, and painfully beautiful, the book graphically described the devastation wrought upon North African Jewish children in the Israel of the 1970s. Bound also mobilized theological and metaphysical (one might say mystical and certainly kabbalistic) resources that gave it a meaning and energy that transcended its circumstances. The book was squarely, albeit rebelliously, situated in a multifarious Moroccan Jewish (Arab and Berber) tradition, but, most important, it reminded its audience that Isaac had a brother who was expelled, erased, with his mother Hagar, from the house of his father. In “Bound Together,” Swissa returns to the sedimented scene he had staged (he is, after all, a man of theatre) but leaves behind the cloak of fiction. He names Ishmael — his brother, his self — whose exile or death remains to be acknowledged or mourned. Or forgiven and perhaps redeemed.


Albert Swissa 1


Reading and Therefore Writing

Two experiences of youth are, for me, irremediably linked: reading and writing. Reading out loud in the sacred books, with the proper melody and cantillation, was a daily obligation that dictated the order of things daily, weekly, monthly, and yearly. It signaled a world that included all things, that organized all things, the real world in which we lived. I learned quite early the shema’ prayer, which I read before sleep, entrusting my soul every night to the hands of the Creator and thanking Him every morning for its return. Such reading is closely watched by the father, of course, for the Biblical text is itself nothing if not a primeval father clothed in the gaze, the voice, and the body of the actual father. That initial reading was, in any case, directed at you first of all, at you yourself. It was calling you, calling upon you and you alone. At the same time, and on the way, reading was gripping as well because it was brimming with a content you could only guess, could not really measure. It was full of silence and of elisions, things that were, for now, better left unsaid. Over time, reading and practicing rote learning, and with no consciousness to speak of, there comes a time when you become capable, literally, of hearing and understanding the words your mouth has been uttering. There is in such initial reading an experience of shock from this sudden flash of meaning, to which you are, however, not authorized to give voice. Take for instance the reading of the passage devoted to the holding of the male genitals (site and sign of the covenant of circumcision) of the man to whom you swear an oath, according to the ancient patriarchal custom (“Put your hand under my thigh”). You read it repeatedly and out loud, first before the father, then privately and intimately, studiously and critically, away from his eyes, for years after the initial and muffled shock of linguistic nakedness — a kind of imagined and repressed, incestuous exposure before the father. And it sinks deep, really deep, in the soul.

In contrast to reading, writing began as a much more hesitant and cautious act. It was mostly the writing related to Torah study, the purpose of which was “to read aloud for yourself” or else used to convey to those around you that you “read right” what is written. Later, however, once this Jewish learning habit of writing notes on the margins of books was acquired, it is quite possible that part of the silences of an earlier reading would begin to sound or shimmer here and there, in what had been only hinted at in those margins, indeed, marginally. These were mostly signaling parallels, sources, scribal corrections or references to unusual or forgotten commentators, or else reading marks, question marks, exclamation marks, or indications of perplexity, all of which hide much and reveal little. Yet there is a great deal inscribed in the graphology of these notes, much that is forgotten too, repressed, and that never reaches its full potential. Quite a bit of Israeli literature has grown there, in those marginal notes, and so too has my own book, Bound. Yet such writing was never completely free, for me, since every contradiction (stirah) in the text is but a slap (sṭirah) in the father’s face; every raising of voice is a silencing of the father; every excision from the text is an incision into the father’s flesh. Every attempt at writing, therefore, is but a rejection of that initial reading, a turning away from the father and a transition toward a critical reading of the father.

Why the Binding?

The binding of Isaac is a meta-narrative, a topos, the structuring mold of the patriarchal family. It is a personal experience of living faith that surpasses the revelation at Mount Sinai. It is a founding experience, one of threat and of shock, which suffuses the most hidden pathways of the soul. A concrete experiment undergone by each and every individual, be they Abrahamic, Ishmaelite, or Edomite, man or woman. The binding is there in the realm of the learned and of the religious, the existential and the emotional, and so more than any other motif in the religious life as a whole. From the month of Elul, the month of penitence, through the New Year and the ten days of repentance that lead to Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, there is little else than the recurring, ritual drama of the binder, the bound, and the altar. To put it simply, in these “Days of Awe,” the god in his full glory, as it were, undergoes the trials of Abraham, whereas we, his children, we the “Isaacs,” take upon ourselves the task of justifying the judgment and the sentence at the same time as we hope that, in the end, there will be found a ram to be sacrificed in our stead. Such was also the meaning of the shofar that sounded at dawn on these very days, in every prayer of repentance in the “bomb shelter” synagogue of Block 204, section G, of the cIr Ganim neighborhood in Jerusalem. My father was the cantor and he would blow the shofar. Well before the Days of Awe, he would begin to train in our house, and practice blowing the shofar. The shofar is not a particularly musical instrument; its sound is rather chilling, shaking. It plays upon your nerves and upon your most primal emotions. It used to evoke in me the most terrifying thoughts. The voice of the shofar sounded a kind of marginal, acoustic, and psychological note, one that escaped the control of the rabbinic rulings which otherwise codified its blowing and that deviated from the conventional and positive meanings attributed to it within the strict bounds of the law. Here, the Jewish tradition reads the divine kingdom, the revelation at Sinai, and of course the memory of the redeeming sacrifice at the binding, and more. Yet the primal, psychic element of the awful cry of distress that pours out of a slaughtered animal exceeded by far the normative, and benevolent, debates that busied themselves over the reasons for the commandments or their religious significance. Over the years, I learned of the different paths treaded by the dark and obscure texts of the esoteric tradition and the Kabbalah, which, in my youth, also sounded a mysterious melody, a promising and confusing melody that only added oil to the fire of my inner bewilderment. Upon hearing the shofar alone, what came to mind always was the story of the binding, namely, a dark story that carries as its charge a foul crime, something terrible. The strange and seemingly disproven hypothesis raised by Theodor Reik, for instance, that the sound of the shofar is, in fact, the interminable wailing of the slaughtered (totem) father did occur to me early on, out of the thicket of possibilities raised by the binding itself, a founding text and the manifest emblem of which is the ram, the actual, if substitute, victim par excellence, held and constrained in the “thicket.”

The Binding as Monad: The Cleansed Canonic Narrative

The binding is a simple and purposefully terse story and it is difficult to measure the thicket of questions it raises. It appears at the precise turning point between the universal creation stories that narrate the origin of the world and of man, the division of races, languages, and cultures, and the particular stories, the tribal saga of Abraham’s seed. The verses preceding the binding can be read as a quiet, exhausted epilogue following upon an extended tractate of regional and familial dramas that come to an end in a pastoral picture of peace and calm. Just as in Job, the calm before the storm underscores the sheer power of Abraham’s trial. It isolates the event of the binding from everything that took place beforehand. As a matter of fact, according to a number of commentators, the book could have begun with the binding without losing a thing.

Something of the mechanical harmony of the myth clung to the binding and it thus appears before us as a story of astonishing integrity, as a monad. Just imagine, were one to cut the creation prologue, a single god with no history and, to his side, a primeval, phoenix-like father and his only son, silent and void of identity. Such is the triangular, paradigmatically male model of the father, the son, and the Holy Spirit, in the absence of any females at all.

Only there is no such story. Nor does the book present the binding in these terms. The Bible is neither mythology nor theology, nor is it the teaching of monotheism. The Bible is religious history offering both the divine plan and its earthly realization at once. The plan is linear, dichotomous, and non-dialectical. It divides the world in a most decisive manner into two: the god and the world, and, accordingly, man and nature, and again, following the same logic, hegemony and periphery. The plan is not at all neutral. It differentiates between those who find favor in the eyes of the god and those who do not. Whence its particular order of values, one that decisively affects the way in which the plan advances as a tree of life and knowledge, the lengthy and obsessive preoccupation with the matter of who gave birth to whom. This no doubt demonstrates the significance it finds in genealogy. But it is a genealogy that is cleansed, dedicated exclusively to the “elect,” who uphold the divine plan in spite of the “rejects,” those exiled from within. It is predicated on a systematic distinction, at times arbitrary, between good and evil. Its ultimate principle is separation: separation between human and animal, between paradise and hell, between man and woman, between earth and man, between Abel and Caïn, between Noah and the generation of the flood, and so on and so forth.

Ishmael Breaks the Idyll of the Binding

There are, in Judaism, 13 principles or basic rules for the interpretation of the Bible, and they are related to each other. Their purpose is to establish the Bible as religious history, the divine plan. One of them, the juxtaposition of legal sections, shows the uninterrupted continuity of events and of generations (chronology and genealogy) of the teleological and textual meaning, of divine interpellations, whereby one thing is learned from another. The phrase “And it came to pass after these things,” which opens the story of the binding, points to  the adjacent section, in which a very difficult story is told: Abraham expels or sacrifices his son Ishmael, doing so not for the sake of the god but for the sake of domestic peace. Ishmael has no place in the house.

Before the expulsion, Ishmael is mentioned again and again in juxtaposition with the recurring and repeated promises made by the god to the childless Abraham that he will  father a chosen and holy people, as if to heighten the significance of the expulsion and its relation to holiness. According to the tradition, when the son of the slave is mentioned, his birth, the birth of Ishmael, is second-best (because of Sarah’s barrenness), a mere “natural” birth, as it were, superfluous and peripheral. Ironically, Ishmael’s birth occurs because of a woman’s desire, but not because of his mother’s, not his father’s either, not a man’s desire. Isaac’s birth, on the contrary, which follows closely, fulfills a long-standing heart’s wish. It is against nature, the god’s explicit will. Ishmael is therefore held up and rejected, well before the binding of Isaac and while in his mother’s belly, as if merely to supplement the divine plan that is Isaac’s birth. The god is the one who returns Hagar to Abraham after she was herself expelled, only to advise Abraham to expel her again for the second and last time. For some reason, the compassionate and merciful Abraham, who stood and defended Sodom, here fails to open his mouth with regard to the torture of his servant. Does he know something we do not? Sarah sees Ishmael “playing” and goes on to demand the expulsion of Hagar and Ishmael, making the explicit argument that “the son of this slave will not inherit with my son, with Isaac.” Sarah thus insists on the status of the expelled, doing so with the phrase “the son of the slave,” which unites mother and child. She refrains from calling their names.

In my opinion, the juxtaposition, nay, the parallel of the expulsion of Ishmael and the binding of Isaac is more than thematic. It is not only based on the 13 principles of interpretation, which some commentators duly follow. There is at work another, and dialectic, principle, the principle of duality and systematic dichotomy upheld by the Biblical narrative, which I mentioned earlier: the division of human and animal, of paradise and hell, of man and woman, and so forth. And then there is the division between the elect and the rejected, which buttresses the status of the elect. The expulsion of Ishmael — or perhaps the binding of Ishmael, according to the Islamic tradition — is the complete and completing opposite of the binding of Isaac, which relates very well to the Biblical narrative reality in which elect and reject are separated. Such is the case with Cain and Abel, Abram and Lot, Jacob and Esau, Joseph and his brothers, Israel and the nations, and even between Cohen and Levi, on the one hand, and the rest of Israel on the other. Ishmael, the profane, earthly, and temporal sacrifice, must therefore be rejected, as opposed to the chosen Isaac, who is the holy and eternal sacrifice. A “religious” reading of the Biblical text would, to my mind, rightly understand that the main injustice done to Ishmael is not the expulsion from the house nor the denial of inheritance. It lies rather in the assertion of his lack of worth, as someone who is undeserving of remaining part of the holy Abrahamic line. It lies in the fact of his expulsion, as first-born, from the possibility of being considered the worthy contender, the intended and holy sacrificial victim.

Drawing directly from the Old Testament, Christianity and Islam have well understood the Biblical principle of sacred genealogy, which is why they both fought — directly and not obliquely — for the right of inheritance from within the patriarchal and sacred canon itself and out of it too. Accordingly, Islam, the religion that descends from Ishmael, locates itself within the very genealogical inheritance, the right of primogeniture, while claiming that the original text or contract was corrupted, distorted. Christianity, on the other hand, was founded by Jesus, who rebelled against the priestly genealogical precedence in the service of the god. Christianity breaks with the genealogical determinism of “Cohen, Levi, and Israel.” It claims an absolute and universal, spiritual and messianic inheritance, in which the god fulfills the role of the actual, primeval father, sacrificing his only son for the sake of humankind. And so Christianity completely destroys the genealogical imperative of the Old Testament, for the divinely sacrificed son has no substitute, nor any biological descendent.


john shayn 1901-1977 modern hagar and ismael 36x30cm oil on canvas
John Shayn (1901-1977) “Modern Hagar and Ismael, oil on canvas, 36x30cm, year unknown (estate of John Shayn).

My Own Private Ishmael

I mentioned how, when I was a child, the idyl of the binding already appeared to occur much too close to that great and shocking injustice upon which traditional commentaries have remained silent or, worse, have showed understanding and even sweeping acceptance. I have no wish to pretend that my own understanding was only the result of careful and erudite analyses. Quite the contrary. There are decisive childhood experiences that obviously brought me here. I will share two stories that are, in my own consciousness, related to each other. The first story makes an appearance here and there in my book Bound, and it goes like this. As a three-year-old child in Morocco, my country of birth, I had an Arab nanny, who took care of me and also breastfed me. For reasons that remain the object of some dispute, this nanny of mine kidnapped me just hours before my parents were to get on the boat to the Arénas immigrant camp in Marseille, a standard stop on the way to the Land of Israel. Since my childhood and to this very day, this drama in its many versions was narrated many times in my extended family. Some versions recall that the kidnapping of Jewish children in general was a well-known phenomenon. I myself do not remember anything of this event, but there are four elements of the story that very much affected me. First, the obviously miraculous conditions that led to my being found after all, just a moment before I was lost forever to another life in the bosom of my Ishmaelite servant. Second, though most of the versions claim that the nanny acted out of greed, there were a few who argued that she simply loved me. My mother, who knew her very well, remained tight-lipped on the matter and said nothing. Third, in my young mind, the kidnapping always turned into an expulsion, or else it fed my desire for a different mother and father. And then there’s the fourth thing, which might have something to do with the field of psychology, though, for me, it is a matter of fate (and perhaps those two things are one and the same), which certainly strengthened this final element. The fact is that I always felt like the black sheep among my ten brothers and sisters. In my youth and adolescence I was a wild and uncontrollable child, a child whose hand was in everything, precisely as it is said of Ishmael. And the important thing here is that every time a fight broke out between my father and mother over my terrible stunts, my father would be in the habit of placing the symbolic and original guilt squarely on her: “It’s all because of you! Because you allowed that Ishmaelite to breastfeed him instead of doing it yourself. It is from her foreign milk!”

The second story is even more famous among my family. It is the story of the binding of my father. My father was the eldest of the children my grandfather had with his first wife. My grandfather was no longer a young man. He was quite sickly, in fact, and he tended to drink, so much so that he was already destitute, having lost all his property during the colonial war at the height of the harsh economic crisis of the 1940s in the south of Morocco. With no options left to feed his family, he entrusted — or perhaps sold — my father to serve for a few years as an apprentice to a traveling silversmith, who would roam distant villages, as was customary in those days. My father was only 10, but there he was, barefoot and wearing nothing but rags, pounding his feet from morning to evening behind his master’s donkey in exceedingly remote villages on the slopes of the Atlas mountains and foothills. Every six months or so, for Passover or for the New Year, my father would return for a brief family visit. Upon the holiday’s end, he had to go back to his wanderings. After two years, at a time of great famine, there were epidemic outbreaks in those southern regions, and my father contracted smallpox. He had to lie sick in the ruins of an abandoned village. The silversmith, his master, was seized with fear and he abandoned my father, who appeared to be dying in those ruins, to his fate. My father lay there for two or three days, in and out of consciousness, and no one came to help him. Finally, an old Muslim Berber woman from a nearby village passed there between the ruins and found him unconscious. This old woman decided to care for my father against the objections of her own family and fellow villagers, who argued that she was endangering herself and them too, coming and going so close to an infected child. Every day, she returned to the ruined house to give my father some camel milk. “Suddenly I woke up and she was sitting right by me,” my father would recount. “And every day that ‘Ishmaelite’ would come to give me camel milk to drink, may God forgive me, in a dish made of dried pumpkin, and this is how she saved my life.”

Every time my father told the story of his saving, he would refer to the old Berber woman as “the Ishmaelite,” and this is the way it remained imprinted in my memory. It is as if in telling the story, he suddenly became finicky, seized with a peculiar sensitivity toward her, as if he had to refrain from calling her simply Arab or just a gentile. As if it was Hagar herself who had fed and revived her dying son, my father, that Isaac who was not hers, wulid l-yahud, without the revelation of any angel. As he recounted the story, the expression on my father’s face would change from wonder to self-pity, though at times it was desire and admiration, and even revulsion, all of which was most puzzling to me. The revulsion, so it appeared, came mostly from having drunk the camel milk, which is strictly forbidden to a Jew, even though he only drank it to restore his health and so was, in fact, permitted to do so according to Jewish law. What came to mind, however, with his silences and facial expressions, was that, since he had been sick and kept moving in and out of consciousness, the Ishmaelite woman must have acted like a mother to him, her body close to his to restore his health. Only he never dared describe this even if it was quite obvious from his expressions, between wonder and revulsion.

It should make sense that my father’s compassionate Ishmaelite began to fuse in my mind with the Ishmaelite who breastfed me, who may have loved me, and whose milk and smell I surely loved as one loves a mother. Both of them merged in turn with the ill-treated figure of Hagar, mother of Ishmael. Slowly, there began to nest in my mind the Ishmaelite option as an openness to the thing itself, one that settled in my soul like a hankering. The Ishmaelite, for all her despised attributes — language, clothing, food, customs, music, and culture — became for me a kind of Proustian madeleine cake, one that awoke the memory that went beyond an Ishmaelite possibility — what you were, perhaps, and can no longer be in the Israeli reality, such does it spurn and separate — but also, in an absurd manner, as it were, an Isaacean possibility — what you could have been in relation to every other canonical narrative but are no longer. My intuition exposed me to a sense that without a true tiqqun there could never be peace, since the rejection of one necessarily brings with it the rejection of another Abrahamic possibility, or else brings about, for all eternity, expulsion and destruction. The sheer repetition of these narratives among my family members, their lingering upon these ambivalent moments in which my own life and my father’s life could have dramatically changed by way of the “Ishmaelite,” these evidently made me, in my own eyes and in the eyes of my parents — first as a child, later as an adolescent — into the family’s “other,” perhaps an Ishmaelite. And it is quite possible that my inner Ishmaelite hence rose up and grew as a kind of psychoanalytic choice, which was lost to me from the beginning, though based on a real experience which I underwent in my early childhood. In retrospect, my own psyche, in contrast to the obsessive immanence of the psychoanalytic subject, grasped at the repressed not as something that happened to me, as a “lifeline” that would establish my own Isaac, but rather as something that could have happened to me but was fated not to. Thinking about this possibility, the yearning to substitute my Isaac for a possible Ishmael was of course taboo, a definite madness that should not enter the mind. That is why I would say that the one conscious emotion that flows through the whole of my book Bound is yearning. It is a longing for what is beyond the genealogical and ethnocratic circle, toward realms of a collective biography that crosses forbidden borders. The intuition that guided me as a child already came from these longings, a sense that the additional sacrifice of the binding — and to be more precise, its additional and rejected offering, the bound, who is also its fated and present absentee — is Ishmael alone, the doomed twin of Isaac, or his possible antithesis.

Accordingly, the true bound of the binding is he who does not receive the status of sacrifice, he who is shoved aside, whose story only defers the main story. His story later becomes, in the Ishmaelite religion, the natural continuation of the Biblical religion (as opposed to Rabbinical Judaism), the story of the true sacrifice. The dispute between the Qur’an and the Bible is not about the genealogical, patriarchal paradigm, hierarchical and divisive as it is. It is rather about the telling of this paradigm. And so, at this stage of my research and, apparently, in the biographical stories of my father and myself, there emerges an alternative genealogy, one that substitutes for the Isaacean genealogy such as it unfolds in the land of the Ishmaelites. This alternative genealogy, which is beginning to come into view, is Ishmaelism, the process by which the Ishmaelite inheritance passes to her primeval uncle, from father to son by way of a substitute servant.2

The question does arise of the difference between my story and the patriarchal  story of the binding, whether Biblical or Qur’anic. That I would have to answer it at some length in the future became quickly apparent over the editing of this essay. For now, I want to lay out two vectors toward such an answer. First is the way my father’s story is, as it were, folded inside my own, for my own purpose and toward a psychoanalytic interpretation of the Biblical story. Yet this isn’t his story with the Ishmaelite woman. It is rather my own mending inclination, the alternative, phantasmatic, genealogical possibility, suspended over a void, and which I weave out of the “Ishmaelite” who gave my father life and to whom he responded with strange ambivalence, a denial that is intrinsically illogical, and perhaps primarily because she cared deeply for his life just as my Ishmaelite cared for mine. In my imagination, my father is Abraham in action — he could have treasured the Ishmaelite — whereas I am a kind of Isaac, albeit redeemed, yet one who developed a critical view of the father out of his longings and the repressed temptation to be other, to play with the son of the desired servant. That the opportunity was missed by force of fate does not diminish the deep imprint it left, the longings that opened a mental breach in the genealogical paradigm.

The second vector is enclosed within the first. It involves the understanding that such longings are in any case founded on a female, not a male, element. The principle of longing is, in the soul, always feminine. And the object of longing too is always feminine: the Divine Presence (shekhinah), for instance, or the King’s Daughter. My own longings are not, it seems, for the son of the servant,3 but for the servant herself — the desire to be a son to her.

And here I should perhaps note that my story may not seem like a common story. It is not the story of a family but that of an unusual individual, one whose fate and picaresque life produced in him a series of experiences that made up his autosuggestive, intellectual biography. And yet the resonance between those real encounters with Ishmaelite women, their repetition and recurrence, were in any case always pregnant with the symbolic meaning of historical fate, of recurring and changing persecution, the hold of one onto his brother’s heel. And what I wish to learn from them is something deep that deviates from historical contingency. I am trying to recognize here a shared fate, one grounded in the resistance to a genealogical, biological transgression, in opposition to the explicit betrayal by the primeval father of his female servant and his son. I propose to see in my Ishmaelite and in my father’s Ishmaelite the connecting links that were broken in sin, as well as the redemption of any servant as such, of Hagar the refugee, dwelling in fear and homeless in the home (Hagar hamehageret ve-hamitgoreret bemagor hamegurim).

The Ishmaelite Transgression of Mizrahi Society in Israel

And so it is that Ishmael became, for me, the guiding sign pointing the way out of the inherited, ideological determinism of the family, which is the basic, physical cell making up any nation and ideology as such. Yet on my way outward to the real and symbolic national realm, there waited a singular surprise for me in the form of a sharp cognitive dissonance. At the moment my young head rose above the familial waters, like an animal craving the open space, out of the warm bosom of the neighborhood ghetto, it was forced to discover that the desired Ishmaelism was but a violent and chaotic battlefield without parallel, which continues to pervade every aspect of Israeli society, be it historical, economical, social, cultural, political, or geopolitical, not to mention the matter of identity. Ishmaelism was enemy and taboo, something that awakens a trite and predictable revulsion, expressed in the most explicit and manifest manner. What is worse, much worse, clear as water even as it remains unspoken, is the fact that my family and I have carried upon ourselves and upon our bodies, in our language and in our culture, the very same threatening Ishmaelism, which returns to claim its right to primeval inheritance. In our bodies and in our different culture, we carried it, yet we also upheld it in our imagination out of a centuries-long life experience among the Ishmaelites. This experience has much in it that is hidden and repressed, as the two stories I have told demonstrate, stories that are but a drop in a sea of stories and complex events that no one ever bothered to write down. To the contrary. So much was done in order to repress and erase them from the official historical narrative.

And these things are known ad nauseam: Upon the Jews of the lands of the Ishmaelites, who returned to be born in the heart of Edomite Zionism as the children of the revived Abrahamic line, there came down a systematic policy of delegitimation in every possible sense: Banishment to the desert of the periphery, silencing of their Arabic voices and names, erasure of their historical memory from school textbooks, from politics and economics, from architecture, media and culture — all this in order to blot out the memory of Ishmael from the Eurocentric Israeli body and landscape. Yet Ishmael came back to haunt it like a primeval spirit. Ironically enough, this concerted effort on the part of the Yishuv’s leadership ended up completely saturating the civic sphere with paranoid signs of Ishmaelism. For each step and each gesture, you had to mark officially the social threshold and your Ishmaelism. On your birth certificate, upon registering for nursery school, for school and for university, upon joining the army or when employed by a government or even private institution — you had to inscribe your genealogy, your country of origin and that of your parents, which was none other than the land of the Ishmaelites. Simultaneously, public discourse was straining to identify all the Ishmaelite monikers and flag them: “blacks,” “children of the Oriental ethnicities,” “Frenkim,” “Arab Jews” or “Jewish Arabs,” “Second Israel,” “Levantines,” “from the Third World,” “from the projects and development towns,” and so forth — white Isaacs facing black Ishmaels. 

For all the cultural production that has accompanied Zionism from its beginnings and to this very day, there are innumerable references to the myth of the binding, with positive or critical uses of it toward an understanding of modern Jewish history. Few among those have been about the symbolically amazing and historically renewed encounter of Isaac and Ishmael. Ironically, and similar to the story of the binding, the Zionist narrative also has Ishmael intruding upon the pure idylls of the heroic plot.

Only this time, he enters it like a Trojan horse: Ishmael appears in Isaac’s clothing. So much so that there emerges a real, complicated complex. According to the ancient Biblical genealogical paradigm, which Zionism adopted in its entirety, it was obvious to all that the Jew of the Orient is, in fact, Isaac. Only his clothing is the clothing of Ishmael. The humor of fate has brought back the same ancient scheme, which was all about the expulsion of the other: the voice is the voice of Jacob, but the hands are the hands of Esau — except inverted. For the Oriental Jew, in the depths of his soul, is not simply Isaac playing at Jacob in Esau’s clothing. He is now actually inhabited by Ishmael himself. And before the historical irony or the poetic justice of history initiated the encounter of new, Zionist Abrahams with their expelled Ishmaelite brothers, in the land of their fathers and around the graves of their ancestors, there were the Jews of the Orient, who, for thousand of years in the proximity of their Ishmaelites, came to be inhabited by them. This was no mere clothing or superficial costume, worn to deceive some absent father. It was life itself. The internalization of a historic, poetic justice, perhaps even the redemption of the primeval fault, the making of the son of the servant into a refugee, from whose lands they found themselves exiled, refugees.


john shayn tower of babel triptych oil on canvas 99x127cm
John Shayn, “Tower of Babel” triptych, oil on canvas, 99x127cm, year unknown (estate of John Shayn).

It is well-known that hatred is an emotion that is governed by distance and rupture, whereas revulsion is awakened by sudden proximity, whether real or imagined, of what was distant or supposed to remain so. The national Jewish revulsion toward the Ishmaelism attributed to my family operates as a Jewish-Israeli interpellation that negates the Oriental substance. Hence, the revulsion occasioned by the intimacy with Ishmael — may God protect us! — that Oriental Jews discovered, as if suddenly, in their own body, their identity, their culture. Their own incantation upon hearing of the Ishmaelites, “may their name and memory be erased!” is in fact nothing if not the erasure of their own name, of their own memory as those who clothed themselves in the clothes of the servant’s son. Such is the amazing leveling and socializing force that presses upon the
mizrahim. The struggle, really the war, that Israeli society has conducted against Ishmaelism, its primary battlefield, was always inside, within ourselves.

I want now to describe the ways in which Ishmael has been expelled again and again from the new Abrahamic inheritance, according to the pointers — visible or hidden — laid out in the Biblical story of the binding.

1. The story of the binding adorns itself with the pure sacrifice of a father and a son, whose superhuman ethical commitment bursts unprecedented on the scene of a dark, pagan world. The canonical Zionist narrative accordingly strives to grant itself the highest values, with its national rebirth out of exile pictured as a kind of Jewish jāhilīyah. As a matter of fact, like Abraham, the father of the nation, the Zionists do little more than wash their hands clean. They have tried to weave a story in which the phoenix rises above history, a kind of ideological “Get thee out of thy country,” cleansed of ethnic and colonial construction on the side of expulsion, destruction, and desolation of other communities. The negation of exile of European and Oriental Jewry constitutes a transgression that undermines the purity of the narrative, just as Ishmael does as he waits for justice to be done in the land of his ancestors. It is of course possible to add the perspective of those who see, in addition to the renewed and double expulsion of Ishmael, the Zionist binding of exilic, Ashkenazi Judaism at the hands of the Jew who was not murdered, truly sacrificed, in Auschwitz, but remained alive only to convert out of his exilic Judaism to the religion of sovereign Judaism. The juxtaposition of Ashkenazi Jew with Arab-Jew is here troubling. For it would seem that both of them were sacrificed, albeit in different ways. But I do not think so. Not at all. The respective work of Sarah Hinski and of Amnon Raz-Krakotzkin have contributed to the mizrahi struggle, figuring the unified, symbolic body of exilic Judaism, whether Edomite or Ishmaelite, as the one bound subject, sacrificed by Zionism. But Ashkenazi Jews and mizrahim are hardly unified in their fate as the concrete, sacrificed body. In other words, according to the deeper meaning I have ascribed to the expulsion of Ishmael, and in contradistinction with the exilic, Ashkenazi body, who has the privilege of being the glorious offering on the altar of the nation, the concrete exilic, mizrahi body was simply expelled from that sanctified field. Recall that the expulsion of Ishmael was meant to make room for Isaac, his majesty, the offering. In Zionist history, exilic, Ashkenazi Judaism serves the function of the ideal, internal sacrifice of the legitimate, Ashkenazi heir, even if there is a reversal here. The son sacrifices the father (there is no murder in Judaism, only burnt offerings rising higher and higher). And so the sacrifices of exile are transformed into pure and favored heirs. As such, they have the exclusive rights to be privileged offerings, to make the desert bloom in kibbutzim and in the settlements, to join the select commandos, and anyway to inherit the land upon which they are sacrificed. Mizrahim, however, have gained no right to serve as favored offering. They remain, in this story, the children of the servant, Ishmaelites expelled from themselves with no legal claim to the inheritance, a mixed multitude occupying the land, resident aliens rather than legitimate heirs, tainted vessels who must be broken in order to be repaired.

2. Hagar and Ishmael are temporarily affiliated with the foundation of the Abrahamic line, but denied any history or significance of their own. And so, Oriental Jewry gets to appear on the stage of history, though only from the moment it was magnanimously granted entry, like a servant handed over to a merchant, on the margins of the main plot, the rebirth of the Eurocentric state of Israel. The Zionist leadership conducted with Oriental Jewish immigrants a kind of inverted colonialism, akin to French post-colonialism after its hurried exit from North Africa. The label of servant or slave for Oriental Jewry seems entirely adequate to their status — Third-World immigrants — and to the roles they were assigned by the Zionist project, as wood-cutters and water-carriers. Orientals became Ishmaelites of a domestic kind, intrinsically and internally expelled, body and soul.

3. The only reason Hagar and Ishmael enter Abrahamic history, albeit briefly and before being expelled from it, is Sarah’s barrenness, which will, a familiar marvel, further adorn the birth of the wondrous, intended offspring, the sanctified offering, the bound and heir and the established altar built for him. Today, there is almost no doubt that, without the bestowal of that deadly shock of the Shoah, the murder of European Jews (undeniably the ultimate, real sacrifice of Jewish history, with no substitute offering), the Jewish communities of the Arab world would most likely have remained as they were, to this very day perhaps. Only the “barrenness” of the sparsely populated Yishuv in the land of Israel after the Shoah, and the need for a docile human mass that would enable the settling and building of the land — these are what led the Zionist leadership to their decision to bring them over, in spite of the deep revulsion they felt toward the possibility that they would then inherit the land together with the children of the Oriental, Ishmaelite servant.

4. The figure of Ishmael is described in the Bible as a kind of human animal — a wild ass of a man, whose hand is against everyone while everyone’s hand is against him. The description was expanded by legends that followed the discourse of master and slave. The commentaries on the verb “play” (“Sarah saw the son whom Hagar the Egyptian had borne to Abraham playing”), the occasion for Sarah demanding the expulsion of Ishmael, insisted on the latter’s inclination to, even immersion in, animal appetites, as befitted the son of a slave. The Zionist leadership and its extensions used similar tactics to the European colonial societies and described the Oriental Jews as savages lacking culture, immersed in the life of instincts, in order to prepare them for the colonial acquisition of the Zionist mistress, Sarah, because of her fated barrenness. Ishmael’s attributes were projected onto them in order to push them away from the rich cultural center of the new, and recently arrived, Abrahams. This further enabled using them as one would use slaves, as wood-cutters and water-carriers for the highly respected Zionist project.

5. The intervention of God’s angel — who commands the fate of Hagar and Ishmael, first by persuading Hagar to suffer the abuse of Sarah, then by convincing her to accept the decree of expulsion — specially fits the religious, messianic state of mind with which Oriental Jews accepted the Zionist gospel. “Go back to your mistress, and submit to her harsh treatment.” The deep semantic difference between “Zion” and “Zionism” was played upon by the secular Zionist leadership. On the one hand, the sublime, religious, and messianic imperative was used by the Zionist envoys as a persuasive and compelling means to uproot the Oriental Jews from their lands. On the other hand, and somewhat ironically, it enabled the later justification of the abuse and contempt meted out by the Zionist leadership, with no movement toward a truly violent struggle or threat of civil war.

As I argued earlier, a more relevant reading of the Biblical text (i.e., as religious, ethnocratic ideology) demonstrates that the injustice done to Ishmael is not reducible to his expulsion from the father’s house and the denial of his inheritance, but is rather found in the negation of his moral worth, as someone who does not deserve to be included in the sacred Abrahamic line, the cancelation of primogeniture and the denial of the possibility he could be the deserving contender, that he too could be the intended, sanctified offering. The latter depends on the former, the inheritance and the right to sanctification. Accordingly, the settlement of the pioneers, the kibbutz project, the initiative and the mobilization toward other national projects, the command of the Israeli army — all these have been described over the course of Zionist history as a chain of binding altars for the glory of the elect, as exclusive binding machines that produce an increasing number of sanctified and deserving offerings, inheriting land, wealth, and status by legitimate and undivided right. In practice, however, these expanded upon Abraham’s actions since, on the margin of such superlative achievements, there was found a great multitude of Ishmaelites, who served as brick and mortar for the construction of those altars, and fulfilled more than once the function of the ram, caught in their thicket, as the substitute offering for the elect son, as the sacrificial lamb rising from the very same altars instead of the anointed Isaacs with their laurel wreaths.

Ishmaelism as a Hidden Concept in Bound Silence and abyssal muteness are the true soundtrack of the binding. The drama repeatedly takes place in a timeless silence, which is further underscored by the faint voices interrupting it. Such a silence was characteristic of the generation of the Holocaust, the “State generation” in Israel, and it continues, to a great extent, until today. When I was writing my book, sparse language in literature and “the want of matter” in Israeli art served as supreme aesthetic ideals. The luscious rhetoric and the constant literary turmoil that pervade the book signaled a rebellion against the double and enduring conspiracy of silence of the repressive, traditional ethos and of Israeli literature in these days (not counting an inspiring minority such as Gnessin, Agnon, Yizhar, Yehoshua, and another select few), over which some seriously tight-lipped Abraham and Sarah stood guard, irritable and overly strict supervisors, very much disapproving of that loud and jabbering Ishmaelite laughter of ours, our laughing and playing.

Parallel to the symbolic analogy in the binding, the main speaker of Bound seems to be Isaac, as a matter of fact. Which is quite surprising, since the silence of Isaac, passive and void of personality, lasted until his death. Among the patriarchs, Isaac is a great mystery, if we assume that he is something more than a sacrificial lamb serving as a mere mediating term in the patriarchal triangle. The figure of Isaac, silent and full of fear, opens many possibilities toward an interpretation of the binding and of the events preceding or following it. I can only briefly point out that, in my eyes, there are many indications in the Biblical text that Isaac was resisting the genealogical principle, based as it was on the distinction between the elect and the rejects. Yet I think of Isaac as incapable of speaking under the strict and watchful eye of Sarah. It is rather Ishmael, the lost brother, who draws him out and speaks on his behalf.

Ishmael constitutes, we have seen, a symbolic necessity in the basic structure of Jewish history. From a dialectical perspective, and from a concrete physical one as well, an ethnic collective makes no sense without an other defining it, limiting it. Ishmael thus signals the eternal tension between a cleansed narrative and, plaguing and dogging it by hook or by crook, the facts on the ground. Which is why Ishmael is a necessary component in the internal structure of the hegemonic narrative — structurally internal, yes, but also phantasmatically. For it is also the case that the Jewish people, should you abstract its ethnic component, is hierarchically divided into classes (Cohen, Levi and Israel or else Zionist, diasporic and mizrahi), tribes and communities, estates and impoverished towns, the patriarchal houses and the multitude, and so on and so forth until the familial core, divided in its turn between male and female, the eldest and the “others.” It seems to me that there is, in Bound, a subversive gesture on the part of the main characters that aims to break this claustrophobic, magic circle made up of biological families and of identity in their ethnic, religious, and gendered layers. Such subversion as the characters conduct it is not always explicit or even conscious. It is, however, expressed in the unexplained longings, the constant bodily gestures toward that which is beyond the here and now, toward other beings, other places or peoples. Whence the significance of the children’s obsessive proclivities toward the laws of forbidden intercourse and their distinct kinds, their perverse and desecrating conduct toward the site of the covenant of circumcision, as if they were constantly seeking to undermine their own sexual identity. I won’t linger here on the deep psychoanalytic association between sexuality and speech, an association made so long ago by the Bible’s own nuclear language by way of edifying verbs like “to know” or in the triangulated words “circumcised [nimol],” “uncircumcised [‘arel]” and “circumcised of the lips [‘arel sfatayim],” not to mention “circumcision [berit milah]” itself, as the Rabbis called it, which binds Abraham’s covenant, the circumcision of the foreskin [milat ha-‘orlah] and the word [milah] of the tongue. There is no need to delve into the thought of the great founders of psychology in order to sense and even to hear very well the struggle conducted in the concrete, symbolic, and linguistic erotic realm between “thigh” and “covenant.” And so, an initial reading of “Put your hand under my thigh and I will make you swear” in front of the father became “things (or words)” better kept unsaid and later turned into “words (or things)” most appropriate for a literary writing concerned with the father and what is beyond him.

Bound appears to be concerned with a mizrahiyut that takes apart the hegemonic discourse of Ashkenazi Jewish ethnocracy, which draped itself in a supposedly enlightened, and Eurocentric, discourse. In my judgment, the book is rather more engaged with the contradiction internal to the concept of mizrahiyut, the meaning of which is, in fact, ethnic, and that in itself is, after all, to fail by one’s own standard. Mizrahiyut, in its popular (rather than intellectual) understanding, does not question the ethnocratic hegemony upon which the Jewish state was founded. It criticizes it only because it seeks to join it as an equal, claiming its part in that tribe called Jews. Even if this is not made explicit in my book, it seems to me right to point to Ishmaelism as the object of yearning shared by the children of Bound, thus turning away from all the closures of the biological seed.

In my opinion, the critical discourse on the history of social and political struggle in general, and on the struggle in Israel in particular, does not aim to debunk the concepts that have served scholars and thinkers in the past, only to show that they are no longer relevant in the present. An analysis of the mizrahi discourse today will show, as I just explained, that it is constructed on an internal contradiction that does not correspond to the current criteria of global, social ethics. I therefore prefer the concept “Ishmaeli” to the concept “mizrahi,” since the former does not try to prove or justify itself vis-à-vis an allegedly dominant center it wishes to conquer. It points rather to an absolute otherness, an inner otherness, an otherness that emerges from within, a displacement of the privileged offering onto the pointless sacrifice. It shows the will to destroy the center as such, to replace it and create an entirely new reality. Ishmaelism is not, from my perspective, the identification of an Arabness hidden in mizrahiyut, protesting its role as the sacrificial victim of the Arab-Israeli conflict, of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict in particular. Nor does Ishmaelism join the essentialist discourse that concerns itself with the dual Abrahamic inheritance of the State of Israel. Instead, it breaks with that basic myth and opens it up to an entirely different register. The expelled Ishmaelite inherits the expulsion in his bones. Alternatively, he severs himself from all sides and all concerns. As the son of the master and the servant both, he discovers within himself the savage element preserved in this fated possibility. He sees neither fault nor blemish here, but a Dionysian disruption of order. He celebrates the profanation of his seed’s holiness and undermines both father and mother. He has nothing but contempt for his father the master and for his mother the slave, and this contempt is his most basic attribute. His hand is in everything while everyone’s hand is against him. He does not discount any possibility. The wasteland, void of fixed civilization, is his preferred playground. The Ishmaelite is a magnificent crossbreed, the child of mixed races, frightening and impossible. He is the stumbling block on the path of inherited or ideological monoliths.


Translated from Hebrew by Gil Anidjar


1 I thank Shaul Setter, who read, commented, and edited. Many of his important remarks have made it into the text. An earlier version of this essay was given as a lecture at the University of Michigan on the occasion of a 2012
conference devoted to my book,
Bound. The essay is part of a larger book entitled The Ishmael Variations. 

2 [TN] The word for “servant” here is amah, which cannot but resonate with ima, mother. 

3 [TN] The word for servant here is amah, which cannot but resonate with ima, mother.

Albert Swissa was born in Casablanca in 1959. His family moved to Israel when he was three years old. He grew up in Jerusalem, in one of the “projects,” those overcrowded and underdeveloped concrete towers built for immigrants, Jews of Islamic countries. He lived in Paris, where he joined the Théatre de l’Ange Fou, the famous school of corporeal mime founded by disciples of Etienne Decroux. Today, he is a prolific writer, poet, and art critic based in Jerusalem, where, for many years now, he has run Zigmond, a small café bistro and a long-standing bustling meet for conversations, cultural events, and learning.

Gil Anidjar lives in New York and teaches in the Dept. of Religion at Columbia. He is the author, among other books and articles, of Our Place in al-Andalus’: Kabbalah, Philosophy, Literature in Arab Jewish Letters (2002) and The Jew, the Arab: A History of the Enemy (2003). His most recent book is Qu’appelle-ton destruction? Heidegger, Derrida (Montreal, 2017).

Anton ShammasIshmaelIsraeliliterary translationmizrahimPalestinianThe Binding of Isaac

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