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:
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.