Israel is really a Mizrahi nation

Dudu Tassa has been acclaimed for his album reviving the music of the Iraqi-Jewish celebrities, the Al-Kuwaity brothers

Put aside your books by Ari Shavit and Amos Elon. Half of all Israelis do not fit the European stereotype of the blond  shirtless Zionist tilling the soil. The real Israel is governed by Middle Eastern norms of tradition, hospitality and family, so much so that it is acceptable for pop singers to croon about their mothers. The new Israel, representing a continuity with the past as much as a break with it, requires not a footnote, but a reframing of the story. Must-read by Matti Friedman in Mosaic magazine. (With thanks: Tom)

The story of Israel, as most people know it, is well trod—perhaps even tiresome by now. It begins with anti-Semitism in Europe and passes through Theodor Herzl, the Zionist pioneers, the kibbutz, socialism, the Holocaust, and the 1948 War of Independence. In the early decades of the return to Zion and the new state, the image of the Israeli was of a blond pioneer tilling the fields shirtless, or of an audience listening to Haydn in one of the new concert halls. Israel might have been located, for historical reasons, in the Middle East, but the new country was an outpost of Europe. Its story was a story about Europe.

This story was a powerful one, and it has not changed much over the decades, certainly not in its English version. A recent example is Ari Shavit’s best-selling My Promised Land: The Triumph and Tragedy of Israel, in which the characters, with few exceptions, are the usual pioneers, Holocaust survivors, lovers of Europe spurned by Europe, devotees of classical music forced to become farmers and fighters, and their children and grandchildren: Ashkenazi Israelis like the author, and like me. Other actors are present onstage, but they are extras or props, not the stars. An earlier example of the form was Amos Elon’s richly told The Israelis: Founders and Sons (1971; reissued 1983), which purported to peer into the soul of the country but had scarcely a word to say about anyone not from Europe. Everyone knew who “the Israelis” really were.

A confluence of interests has endeared this same narrative to Israel’s enemies, who have used it to increasing effect. In Israel, goes one variant of the story, Arabs were made to pay the price of a European problem. A less benign variant posits that Israel is not a solution to anyone’s suffering but instead a colonialist European state imposed by empowered Westerners upon a native Middle Eastern population: that blond pioneer is less a victim rebuilding himself as a free man or an agent of progress than he is a white Rhodesian rancher.

It is 2014, and it should be clear to anyone on even passing terms with the actual country of Israel that all of this is absurd. Israel has existed for nearly seven decades and, like most things on earth, has turned into something that would have surprised the people who thought it up. Half of Israel’s Jews do not hail from Europe and are descendants of people who had little to do with Herzl, socialism, the kibbutz, or the Holocaust. These people require not the addition of a footnote, but a reframing of the story. Hard as this is for those of us whose minds were formed in the West, this means putting aside the European morality play that so many still see when they look at Israel, and instead viewing non-Europeans as main characters.

Read article in full

Down the Memory Hole: Response by Andre Aciman


  • Ashkenazi Jews are NOT Europeans! I am a Middle Eastern, long displaced from my home in Nazareth.
    Ladino and Yiddish aside (even Yiddish and Ladino are written in Hebrew characters); Ashkenazi Jews read, write and speak in Aramaic, the language of the Talmud just like their Mizrachi brethren. All their personal decisions were made based on how they interpreted the Aramaic Talmud. Their prayer service is in Lashon HaQodesh (the Holy Language of the Jews – Hebrew). All Ashkenazi customs and traditions were formulated by consulting Jewish Sources as a basis for determining "minhagim". Besides, Abraham was from Iraq not Germany and in the past, Europeans viewed Jews as foreigners. Where the 1947 League of Arab States passed the draft law on Citizenship of Mizrachi Jews and the Nuremberg Laws are concerned – the Germans and the Arabs saw no distinction between those Jews they persecuted and those Zionists who claimed nationality law protections.

  • While it is very important to note the presence of Mizrahi Jews, their significant presence, and their contributions to Israeli society, it is also very important that we NOT label Jews who returned from European exile as "Europeans" themselves.

    The Jews who lived in Europe for so many centuries surely absorbed much of Europe's culture and ideas, but Jews were always viewed as "other" – outsiders, living in Europe, but not European. And that view, while resulting in many heinous incidents, is essentially correct. European Jews are NOT Europeans! They/We are Middle Easterners, long displaced from our homeland.

  • I've worked with some Israelis, in my opinion, there is still a search for a new israeli social identity.
    My israeli co-worker happily recommended that I visit Israel, but cautioned me to keep in mind that it was in the middle east. This same co-worker also told me that israelis were closer to europeans than arabs. I asked if that didn't invalidate the claim of biblical inheritance? After all, Abraham was from mesopotamia not Belgium and in the past, europeans viewed jews as oriental aliens.
    I think it is a necessary and positive thing for an evolution of isreali identity to take place – for israeli jews to view themselves as a natural and integral part of the near east or levant and not as a western outpost among the semitic savages.

    Just as the destruction of the 2nd temple and dispersal of the Judeans around the Roman empire changed the culture and traditions of judaism – the renewal of a jewish or hebrew homeland must evolve into a native and natural israeli identity to last.
    The seperatist Iron Wall principles of Jabotinsky and revisionist Zionism have allowed a strengthening of Israeli identity and Zionist military philosophy, but in the long run will prove self-destructive.
    The new israelite identity must realize that they are a part of eastern society and culture and always have been and that's where the Mizrahim can play the most important role.

  • Amos Elon was notorious for his disdain for Mizrahi Jews. At the outset of his career he was a journalist for Al HaMishmar, a supposedly socialist newspaper, and covered the arrival of refugee immigrants from Arab countries. His coverage was unsympathetic and sometimes contemptuous. He never expressed regret for any of these racist-tinged opinions.

  • A revisionist of Mizrahi history has already posted a rebuttal by including articles written by Ella shohat, David shasha, and naeem giladi. It is always the same 3 or 4 people that comprise their incredible archive of evidence "proving" that Arabs loved Jews and treated them equally.


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