Mizrahi radicals like Rachel Shabi who see Jews from Arab countries (‘Arab Jews’) as victims of Zionism – together with Arabs – are disciples of postcolonialism (the West against the Rest): But Lyn Julius, writing in Fathom magazine (Autumn 2014), says Shabi’s thinking is stale and outdated. The indigenous Jews of the Middle East ought to be at the heart of a new paradigm: the Islamists against the Rest.
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
Similarly, Mizrahi leftist academics, like Ella Shohatin 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 Wurmserpenned 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
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
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 campaignto
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
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.’
Crossposted at Mosaic magazine: How Post-zionists falsify Mizrahi history