Peter Beinart blackens ‘white’ Eli Yishai

In case you haven’t heard of him, Peter Beinart (pictured) is the new enfant terrible of the US Jewish community after he caused a stir with his new book The Crisis of Zion. In the post below he wrote for Open Zion, we can now see what Beinart thinks of Sephardi/Mizrahi Jews. What a bitter disappointment. Instead of gaining an insight into Middle East politics from his Egyptian grandmother, he naively concludes that Mizrahim must be freed from hatred and self-hatred! My comments are interposed in bold.

“In my youth, I noticed an odd dynamic in my extended family. My Sephardi grandmother, born in Alexandria, Egypt, often denounced “the Arabs,” a group toward which she felt a kind of intimate hostility. When I said something about the Middle East that she deemed naive, she’d insist that if I understood Arabic, as she did, I too would understand the capricious, treacherous Arab mind.

“Some of my Ashkenazi relatives shared similar stereotypes, but with one noteworthy difference: When they talked about Arabs, they included my grandmother and her Sephardi relatives in the definition. I remember one Shabbat dinner, many years ago, during which my grandmother lustily denounced Yasser Arafat. An Ashkenazi relative leaned across the table to me and whispered, “She is Arafat.”

With all due respect, what a bunch of ignoramuses Beinart’s Ashkenazi relatives are. Jews from Arab countries are not Arabs. Even Egyptian non-Jews do not see themselves as Arabs. (Beinart’s grandma came to Egypt from Rhodes, I believe. That makes her Greek/Italian.) It is undeniable, however, that there is an undercurrent of anti-Mizrahi prejudice amongst Ashkenazim. It is strongest on the Left (yes, those who often claim to be most tolerant). The reason is very simply because the Sephardim vote rightwing and appear to be embarrassingly bigoted against Arabs. One surmises that Beinart’s grandma had a healthy suspicion of the Arabs, borne of first-hand experience of being driven out of an Arab country.

“All this came flooding back when I noticed this weekend’s comments by Israeli interior minister Eli Yishai about the Eritrean and Sudanese migrants whose presence has sparked such ugliness in Israel in recent weeks. “Most of those people arriving here are Muslims who think the country doesn’t belong to us, the white man,” Yishai the Israeli newspaper Maariv.

“Us, the white man.” Here’s a photograph of Eli Yishai, whose parents immigrated to Israel from Tunisia:

A little more Barack Obama than Mitt Romney, wouldn’t you say?

Well, Yishai may not be as white as Peter Beinart, but he is quoting what black African economic migrants who have flooded into Israel in their thousands say to Israelis. Beinart took his remarks out of context, trying to paint Yishai as a racist behaving like a ‘white’ colonialist in spite of the fact he is himself ‘black.’ Yishai is of course from Africa too, but as a Jew, he is entitled to live in the Jewish state. The economic migrants are not.

“Yishai’s comments illustrate the awful paradox of contemporary Sephardi (or more accurately, Mizrahi) identity. As in my own family, Jews from Arab lands were long seen by their haughty Ashkenazi cousins as, well, Arabs. Intra-Jewish bigotry has certainly declined since Israel’s early years, when David Ben Gurion said that Israel’s Mizrahi immigrants had “no Jewish education.” But it persists. A Mizrahi friend who speaks Hebrew with the guttural pronunciation indigenous to the Middle East recently told me that he is routinely hassled at Ben Gurion airport because his Hebrew sounds too much like Arabic. In her fascinating book, We Look Like the Enemy, Rachel Shabi tells of swarthy Mizrahi Jews who in order to avoid being mistaken for Palestinians by the Israeli police begin wearing kippot or Jewish stars.

There is no paradox, except in the minds of the ignorant. Rachel Shabi’s book (fisked here) belongs in the 1950s. She cherry-picks passe examples of ‘discrimination’ against Sephardi Jews. One could equally write a book illustrating what a success story the integration of Sephardi Jews has been; how many oriental Jews have done extremely well in Israel, reaching the highest echelons of army and government.

And historically, Israel’s Mizrahi Jews haven’t just been deemed Arabs. They’ve been deemed black. In Israel’s early years, Shabi notes, Yiddish-speaking Ashkenazi Jews sometimes called their Mizrahi counterparts “Schwarz.” In 1971, a group of radical Mizrahi activists even appropriated the term, calling themselves the “Black Panthers.”

Another sweeping generalisation, this. Some Ashkenazim may call Sephardim ‘black’ but their children are intermarrying with them in their droves. As Beinart himself admits, the age of intra-Jewish bigotry has passed.

“Now along comes Yishai, the leader of Shas–a party born to give voice to the very Mizrahi Jews long considered black–to declare that Israel must expel its African migrants because Israel is for “us, the white man.” (As you might imagine given the gendered language, Yishai doesn’t have particularly enlightened ideas about women either).

“This is the same Eli Yishai who in 2010 denounced a lawsuit by Mizrahi Jews protesting their school’s decisionto segregate Mizrahi girls from their Askhenazi classmates. The lawsuit, Yishai feared, would upset the Ashkenazi ultra-Orthodox leadership that Shas’s rabbis mimic.

So despite being ‘black’, Yishai is upholding ‘white’, ultra-orthodox values. Yet this example shows that Yishai is not above using the ‘race card’ himself. How very confusing!

Partly out of disgust, a rebel Shas parliamentarian, Haim Amsalem, last year launched a new Mizrahi political party aimed at fighting discrimination and promoting a “unifying and tolerant Jewish approach” to social divides. Amsalem, an Israeli hero almost unknown among American Jews, represents a radically different Mizrahi spirit, freed from both hatred and self-hatred. His party is called Am Shalem (Whole Nation). Whole nation: black, white, Arab, Jew and yes, Arab Jew as well.

It is not disgust with Yishai propelling Amsalem, so much as a desire to revert to traditional Sephardi orthodoxy, outward-looking and integrated in secular life.

Read post in full


  • Shlomo Sand's work may be compelling but it's rubbish. Every geneaological study including the most recent one proves him wrong.

  • a couple of points. you write:

    Jews from Arab countries are not Arabs. Even Egyptian non-Jews do not see themselves as Arabs. (Beinart’s grandma came to Egypt from Rhodes, I believe. That makes her Greek/Italian.)

    Not entirely true. A tendentious historiogrpahy has muddied the waters but Schlomo Sand argues compellingly that modern israelis are a mixed people with Turkic, European, Punic, Berber and Arab antecedents. What you probably believe, the ethnocultural and ethnoreligious narrative that most people believe about a unified, homogenous people is false. part of the zionist mythmaking that justified a return to Israel. If it were put about that most Ashkenazis were of Khazar stock and that judaism was once a proselytizing religion, then the historic claim to the land would evaporate. Read Shlomo Sand if you don't believe.

  • Most likely, Sylvia, beinart, weiss, & gurvitz are hacks on somebody's payroll.

  • Thanks for your input, Sylvia. The subtleties have been lost in translation!

  • Please hold your horses!

    Elie Yishai was only REPEATING what North Sudanese (who are Muslim and consider themselves Arabs) often say to old-time residents of the Tahana Merkazit when they complain: "this belongs to us, not to you whites".
    Elie Yishai was being ironic while at the same time illustrating his "didn't I tell you so? See what wwe have come to?" bit.

    He was particularly being ironic when he said "us whites" for reasons most Israelis who follow closely the daily debates understand. But the most obvious and which makes the statement by the "refugee" even funnier is the fact that the African refugees/illegal workers/Eritrean army dodgers were bused directly from the Egyptian border to poor "Mizrahi" neighborhoods, on direct order "from above" (at the time the Olmert/Livni government).

    In fact, Yishai has been asking his detractors why they don't take them to "Rehavia" (a "good" Jerusalem suburb) or to North Tel Aviv (also mostly East/Central European).

    So to say that he doesn't think of himself as "white" would be an understatement.

    I am definitely closing the book on Peter Beinart and putting him up on that dusty shelf right next to Mondoweiss and Yossi Gurvitz. I fail to see the difference.

  • In earlier years, some "leftists" saw Jews from Arab lands who had come to live in Israel as traitors to the Arabs. As if the Arabs owned them and they needed to be loyal to them. "Leftists" wanted these Jews to work for revolution in Arab lands. Jewish Communists in Poland and USSR used to tell Jews in those places the same thing. Then there were the "leftists" like Gidon Levy who wishes that these Jews had not come to Israel –for several reasons. And of course "leftists" wanted to believe the false notion that the Arabs had always treated the Jews well. Therefore, the Jews had no need to come to Israel.

  • Agree with you that Yishai's 'white man' remark was a stupid one and a gift to his detractors.
    Leftists can only conceive of Mizrahi Jews as victims of Ashkenazim – they use the facile white-colonialist-oppressing-brown native paradigm. Of course it is largely nonsense, the points that unite Ashkenazim and Mizrahim far outnumber what divides them. The assumption that Mizrahim are people of colour is a nonsense too, plenty of fair-skinned blonds among us.

  • Whatever one's opinion on what needs to be done about Israel's situation with the refugees/migrant workers/infiltrators, Eli Yishai's comment implicitly equating "Jewish Israel" with "white Israel" was stupid and obnoxious and a gift to Israel's detractors who constantly peddle the trope all over the Web on anti-Israel fora that Israeli society is a "white European colonial ettler state" opressing "indigenous brown natives." Now they have a prominent Israeli politician voicing that POV (never mind that he's kinda brown himself and of North African Jewish heritage).

    That said, when I frequently argue back with people making this false assertion that Israeli society is largely copmposed of Jews whose families have never left the Middle East/North Africa, sometimes the anti-Israel cultists are willing to acknowledge this reality, but then assert things along the lines of "Well, those are the brown Jews who are kept down by the white Jews. They should join with their brown Palestinian brothers!" Although anti-Sepharadi/Mizrahi discrimination certainly did exist in the early years of the State and prejudice still exists in many quarters still–not only among the Ashkenazi post-Zionist hard left that you mention, but also in many Haredi circles–the other ignorant and facile assumption I find particularly galling is the assertion that Mizrahi Jews (and Arabs) are always uniformly of swarthy complexion and Ashkenazim are always fair-skinned. Middle Eastern people (including Arabs, Jews, and Kurds, are mostly white.)In my own family, many of my Syrian and Morrocan Jewish relatives are faiere-skinned than some of my Ashkenazi relatives of Polish and Russian descent.

    There has been a tendency as of late among Israel-bashers to racialize the conflict that I've noticed.

  • There's an Elizabeth Warren/George Zimmerman comparison in here, but it'd probably be in poor taste.

    Don't know whether to laugh or cry.

    As always, thx for an informative blog.


  • Beinart represents an all too common phenomenon in American life, the bright, young glib opportunist who is always ready to offer justifications for currently fashionable notions. For example, in 2003 he supported George Bush' invasion of Iraq. In 2012 when Israel is being kicked around by the mainstream media herd more than ever, he joins in kicking Israel while it's down. Beinart is nothing if not bien pensant.

  • Point taken about Rhodes. And Beinart's misunderstanding of Amsallem's party only shows how little he really knows about Israeli politics.

  • Rodos was Italian for a brief 20 years … I assume like my Nonnou, and many relatives on my paternal side, Beinart's grandmother was born in this era.

    As for R' Haim Amsalem's Am Shalem party/movement – it's NOT a Mizrachi political party … It's essentially a 'social justice' party.


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