The discrimination and injustice suffered by Mizrahi Jews in Israel has been used instrumentally by Rachel Shabi to attack Zionism itself. Lyn Julius of Harif argues that Shabi’s ideas are out-of-date and useless in explaining ‘Israeliness’ today.
In the 1930s, Jews from Palestine smuggled date palms out of Iraq and planted them in what became Israel. Supposedly, they never bore fruit as delicious as the original, magnificent, Iraqi dates. As with the dates, so with the people, if we are to believe Rachel Shabi. For the author of Not the Enemy: Israel’s Jews from Arab Lands the Jews of the Orient, or Mizrahim ‘did not grow right’ in their new land.
Shabi, the Israeli-born daughter of Iraqi Jews who settled in England, where she was brought up, has become one of the leading figures of a new post-Zionism since the publication of her book in 2009. She is part of a small group of activists and academics from Arab lands who have, with the encouragement of leftists outside Israel, managed to make the word ‘Mizrahi’ synonymous with ‘discrimination by the Ashkenazi (Jews from Eastern Europe) elite,’ while denying, or, at best, minimising, the discrimination experienced by the Jews in Arab lands as an ‘understandable’ backlash to the unjust creation of Israel.
Shabi and her colleagues think the Mizrahim have been torn away from their Arab brethren by Zionism, which has prevented them from making common cause with the Palestinians. She aligns herself with anti-Zionists who argue on behalf of an ‘Arab-Jewish’ identity as a way of repudiating Jewish nationalism. She presupposes that Jews were just another faith group in the Arab world, that Arabs and Mizrahi Jews are natural allies, and that both are postcolonial victims of the Ashkenazim, who, she posits, lured Mizrahim to Israel under false pretences as a reservoir of cheap labour.
Shabi’s Not the Enemy catalogues the ‘European‘ prejudices which Mizrahi Jewish refugees – at one time a majority, now half of Israel’s Jewish population – encountered when they arrived in Israel in the 1950s and 1960s. ‘Israel’s leadership was perennially paranoid about the possibility of the Jewish state sinking to a Levantine cultural level,’ she writes. She sees every injustice through the prism of identity politics; blue-eyed, privileged Ashkenazim forced dark-skinned, deprived Mizrahim to speak Arabic only in private, gave them the worst education and housing, and consigned them in the dead of night to frontier development towns, and to the ranks of Israel’s poor and criminal classes. Cherry-picking examples of cultural repression, Shabi meets actors rejected for their guttural accents, and claims that Arabic music was ‘scorned and hushed up, decreed as belonging to the enemy camp and considered low-quality – like all things Oriental.’
Rachel Shabi is not alone. The Moroccan-born poet Sami Shalom Chetrit and the sociologist of Iraqi-Jewish descent Yehouda Shenhav founded the Mizrahi Democratic Rainbow Coalition in 1996 to challenge Ashkenazi hegemony in Israeli society. Sami Michael, a popular author now in his 80s, is among a number of Jewish communists from Arab countries who continue to inveigh against Israeli ‘racism’. Other activists include Oren Yiftachel and Smadar Lavie.
The poverty and slum deprivation among Jewish immigrants from North Africa who arrived in Israel was real enough; it spawned Israel’s own Black Panther movement in the 1970s. Menachem Begin’s Likud government was elected in 1977 on a wave of Mizrahi support, breaking the Labour Party’s monopoly over Israeli politics. Few of the Black Panthers were anti-Zionists, but Shabi uses their emergence as a weapon to undermine Zionism itself.
Similarly, Mizrahi leftist academics, like Ella Shohat in New York, borrow heavily from Edward Said’s postcolonialist bible Orientalism, which divided the world crudely into ‘the West versus the Rest’, viewing both Mizrahim (‘Arabs of the Jewish faith’) and non-Jewish Arabs (the Rest) as victims of Zionism (the West). ‘If Israel could find a way to reconnect with its own Middle-Eastern self, the chances are that this would result in the country having entirely different relations with the region,’ writes Shabi. ‘Because long before they were apparent arch enemies’ she claims, ‘Arabs and Jews were culture collaborators, good neighbours — and friends.’
However, Shabi’s concept of ‘Arab-Jewish identity,’ and her rosy history are predicated on several fallacies.
First, postcolonialism fails to take account of Jews who were, until their 20th century exodus, indigenous to the Middle East and North Africa, predating the Arab Muslim conquest. Moreover, postcolonialism cannot admit that the relationship between Muslim rulers and their subservient Jews and Christians resembled that between colonisers and colonised. These minorities accepted a precarious, inferior, and frequently wretched, status as the price of survival, ‘bought’ with a special tax.
Middle Eastern communities coexisted alongside each other, but rarely intermarried. Jews never considered themselves Arabs. Arabs did not consider them Arabs either. The ‘Arab Jew’ school of thought is a recent development. Interestingly, few intellectuals who glory in the label ‘Arab Jew’, were born in Arab countries, speak Arabic as their mother tongue, or lived in Arab countries for any length of time.
Second, discrimination in Israel was more a function of class than ethnicity. Shabi fails to distinguish between the readily employable immigrants of Iraq and Egypt – many highly educated, courtesy of the Alliance Israelite Universelle schools network – and, on the other hand, illiterate Jews, perhaps from the Kurdish and Atlas mountains, who had never seen a flush toilet.
Third, in its zeal to take the galut (Diaspora) out of the Jew, Israel was equally hostile to the Yiddish culture of Eastern European Jews. Yiddish theatre was proscribed and Israelis discouraged from speaking their mammaloshen (mother tongue). ‘That language grates on my ears,’ said David Ben-Gurion.
Fourth, many charges of early cultural discrimination no longer hold true in 21st century Israel. Mizrahi food culture has eclipsed kreplach, kugel or lochshen pudding on Israeli restaurant menus, while ‘Mizrahi’ music is the staple popular culture.
In the first decades of the state, Israel’s leadership decided what was good for the people, from television to the Beatles. With values infinitely preferable to Levantine corruption, extortion and lack of freedom, Israel boasted it was an outpost of Europe: an argument that has been turned against it by its enemies to considerable effect.
Rachel Shabi seizes on derogatory statements against Mizrahim by Ashkenazi celebrities or politicians. Israel’s first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, reputedly said that the half a million Mizrahim flooding into the state in the 1950s and 60s ‘had the worst Jewish and human education.’ Any Jew with education and connections went to the Americas or Western Europe rather than languish in a leaky ma’abara (tent camp) in Israel. But David Ben-Gurion also told the Knesset in 1949 that, ‘There is no reason to think that Jews from North Africa, Turkey, Egypt, Iran or Aden are fundamentally different from those of Lithuania, Galicia and America. They also have, deep inside, that pioneer spirit, an instinct for hard work and creativity.’
Although it was then a struggling developing country, Israel took in the stateless, the destitute, the sick and the elderly – because they were Jews. Shabi’s curmudgeonly focus on discrimination obscures just how far Israel has come. Today Mizrahim are generals, doctors, property developers, bank managers, and have held every government post except prime minister. Most importantly – a hugely significant fact that Shabi simply glosses over – intermarriage is running at 25 per cent and the mixed Israeli family is fast becoming the norm. Soon there will be no such thing as Mizrahi or Ashkenazi in the Israeli melting pot.
None of this means the fight for equality has been won. Meyrav Wurmser penned a thoughtful essay in 2005, arguing that discrimination was still very real – Sephardim (Jews who fled 15th c. Iberia, mainly for the Muslim world) and Mizrahim remain under-represented in academia and the media, and without doubt still comprise the poorest and most disadvantaged of Jewish Israelis. But anti-Zionism, she insisted, was the wrong cure for the disease. Rather, Mizrahi Jews needed to seek solutions within the framework of an independent Jewish state.
Shabi simply ignores the huge and inconvenient fact that, as Matti Friedman points out , in his groundbreaking essay Mizrahi Nation, a cultural and religious fusion is taking place: ‘if they (the Mizrahim) joined the world of European Jews, the European Jews of Israel simultaneously, and unwittingly, joined theirs. The new identity known as “Israeli” is a product of that meeting. This is what is not noticed by many observers, even the knowledgeable among them – and even the Israelis among them – who, it sometimes appears, see one country out their window and then sit down and write about another country entirely. As a result, they are left with stale ideas and an out-of-date story that is increasingly useless in explaining the country as it exists right now. They miss the lively and potent fuel that drives the place, and they underestimate its resilience.’
Shabi’s nostalgia trip to a world before Zionism leads her up a blind alley. She confuses the interpersonal with the political: good neighbourliness with the (unequal) power relationship between Jews and Arabs. An overlap of culture and language with Arabs over 14 centuries did not protect Mizrahim from pogroms, dispossession and expulsion to the point where fewer than 5,000 Jews live in Arab countries today, out of a 1948 population of one million. This is a lesson lost on some who eagerly espouse Arab-Israeli coexistence projects.
A common culture and language did not save the Jews of Iraq, any more than the Jewish contribution to German culture saved German Jews from Nazism. Far from endearing Mizrahim to Palestinians, displacement created a legacy of bitterness and mistrust. Mizrahim are neither able, nor willing, to return to their countries of birth.
Shabi’s obsessive focus on Israel’s ‘racism’ towards its Mizrahi Jews distorts the historical record. She portrays the pro-Nazi pogrom in Iraq of 1941 in which 180 – some say up to 600 – Jews were murdered as a mere hiccup in Arab-Jewish coexistence. On the other hand, the refugees being sprayed with disinfectant on arrival in Israel is a ‘visceral memory’.
Convinced of the pre-Zionist coexistence idyll in Arab countries, Shabi is at a loss to explain why the vast majority of Mizrahim have ‘hard-right, Arab-hating opinions.’ She sees, Marxist-style, a false consciousness that has been deliberately nurtured by Zionists: ‘After so many years of learning to hate their own rejected Arab features and having to hide them, the Mizrahis simply projected all that revulsion on to the neighbouring Arab community.’ It’s desperately unconvincing stuff.
And by whitewashing the past, Shabi has allowed herself to be co-opted into the Palestinian campaign to denigrate Mizrahi rights. In 2012, when Israel’s Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon launched a media campaign for justice for Jewish refugees from Arab lands, Shabi – and likeminded intellectuals like Yehouda Shenhav – strenuously denied that these Jews were refugees at all: aggrieved parties should seek justice as individuals, they argued, not as a collective.
Of course, Shabi and co. are correct to insist that Mizrahi heritage be preserved and Jewish thinkers, actors, musicians and writers in Arab lands ought to be celebrated. Such is the Jewish world’s eurocentricity, notes David Shasha, who runs the Center for Sephardi Heritage in the US, that only seven books by Mizrahim made it into a recent list of the top 101 ‘Essential Jewish books’. Others, not necessarily anti-Zionists, have lamented the modern Ashkenazi dominance of thought and custom in the practice of religion, and the transformation of orthodox Sephardim, represented politically by the Shas party, into ‘Lithuanian’ black-hats.
Jews suffered under Arab rule to the point where they could see no future in their ancient, indigenous communities. Israel, for all its faults, is the place where they regained dignity, freedom, rights and a sense of personal security. Mizrahi radicals refuse to acknowledge this. But if they really want to promote peace and reconciliation, ignoring Arab responsibility for Jewish suffering and idealising the Jewish-Arab past will only alienate the Mizrahi half of Israel’s electorate.
By applying the paradigm of Edward Said’s Orientalism to the Mizrahi Jews, Mizrahi radicals deny a political solution to the Mizrahi Jewish question. Reduced to a religious subset of the Arab nation, they become tools of pan-Arabist politics. Their postcolonialism denies that cultural imperialism has ‘Arabised’ an ancient Middle Eastern and North African civilisation.
Instead of driving a wedge between western and eastern Jews, the Mizrahi debate in Israel should now centre on the present disastrous predicament of non-Muslims and minority Muslim sects, and to a lesser extent, non-Arabs, in the Middle East. It is the Islamists versus the Rest. More than ever, the plight of minorities validates the existence of a majority- Jewish state able to defend itself and determine its own fate. That’s why Israel is often the envy of other indigenous minorities with unfulfilled aspirations to self-determination – Assyrian Christians, Amazighen (Berbers), Kurds.
The real challenge today is not to carry on wielding the ‘discrimination against Mizrahim’ card as a stick to beat the Zionists but to hear and answer Matti Friedman’s call for a new intellectual paradigm about the Mizrahim: ‘if we place the story of the Jews of Islamic countries at the center rather than at the margins of our consciousness, we see that Israel represents a continuation of the past as much as it does a break with it. We Israelis are Jews in the Middle East. That we are free, safe from persecution, and in charge of ourselves these things are new. But that we are here? There is nothing new about that at all.’