By focusing on Ben Gurion’s undoubted contempt for Oriental Jews in the Israeli army in the 1950s this Haaretz article by academic Shay Hazkani, whose controversial work has been published by Electronic Intifada, adds grist to the leftist view that Israel adopted a ‘colonial’ view of its Mizrahi immigrants. Let’s face it, uneducated Mizrahim were not ideal army material. But the IDF has made immense strides in bridging the divide and today the Chief of Staff is a Moroccan Jew. Prejudice amongst Israel’s Ashkenazi elite still exists, but they are fighting a losing battle, as it were.
Shay Hazkani: published by Electronic Intifada
“A cursory examination of the social structure in Israel shows that for economic and other reasons, this group [members of the Mizrahi communities: Jews of Middle Eastern and North African origin is underprivileged. This applies to ‘old inhabitants’ as well as new immigrants, as a glance at lists of senior officers and officials, etc., will demonstrate. From general conversations and from newspaper articles, as well as from social surveys carried out by the Institute of Applied Social Research, Jerusalem, it is evident that there is a country-wide trend to treat Oriental Jews with contempt; less frequently, among German and other Central European Jews, there is also a feeling of superiority vis-à-vis ‘blacks.’” – From a “top secret” study by Maj. Ezra Aaronson for Maj. Gen. Laskov, 1951
It’s rare to find a document from 64 years ago that reads as though it were written yesterday. In 1951, when Maj. Ezra (William) Aaronson wrote a report about Mizrahim, no one thought in terms of multiculturalism or political correctness. From Prime Minister and Defense Minister David Ben-Gurion to the higher echelons of the Israel Defense Forces and down to brigade and company commanders, hardly anyone was ashamed of the approach taken toward Mizrahim. The archives are studded with on-the-record comments about the supposed inferiority of the “members of the oriental communities” – in the parlance of that era – as compared with their European brethren.
Aaronson was exceptional in his ability to see things from outside the spirit of his time. It’s not surprising, then, that the report he wrote on Mizrahim in the military was immediately shelved, though not before senior IDF officers picked it apart. Fortunately, a copy of the subversive report survived in the IDF Archives.
Aaronson’s was a lone voice. The new Israeli elite – composed almost entirely of European-born Jews – firmly held on to the view that Mizrahim were inferior. Like many of Zionism’s founding fathers, Ben-Gurion too looked down on them, and the example he set was then adopted by the IDF’s entire officer corps.
In April 1950, in a meeting of the IDF high command, Ben-Gurion described the transformation that officers must bring about in the new recruits. “The ingathering of the exiles is bringing us a rabble,” he stated. “Putting that rabble through a melting pot, reconstructing it in a human, Jewish, Israeli and afterward military way – that is the basis of soldiering.” Even before military training, “the young person from those countries has to be educated to sit on the toilet like a person, to wash, not to steal, not to grab an Arab girl and rape her and murder her – all this precedes the other things. Without it, the military training and education they receive is worthless.” Ben-Gurion told Look magazine in 1965, “[Jews] from Morocco had no education. Their customs are those of Arabs. They love their wives, but they beat them … Maybe in the third generation something will appear from the Oriental Jew that is a little different. But I don’t see it yet. The Moroccan Jew took a lot from the Moroccan Arab, and I don’t see much we can learn from the Moroccan Arabs. The culture of Morocco I would not like to have here.”
IDF statistics in the 1950s noted a very high percentage of desertion by Mizrahi Jews, who accounted for only 15 percent of the army’s soldiers. They were also found to loathe the state’s institutions. An internal IDF study conducted in a unit where Mizrahi soldiers constituted a majority found, “The characteristic traits of most of them are: 1. Apathy. 2. Lack of ideas. 3. An extreme tendency to engage in egotistical calculations and satisfy personal needs.”
According to a study by historian Sagi Turgan in 1950 – the same year in which Ben-Gurion spoke to the high command – the chief of staff, Yigael Yadin, ordered research to be undertaken in order to uncover the reasons for the behavioral problems among soldiers from the Middle East and North Africa, and how to solve them. The officer in charge of the study was Maj. Gen. Haim Laskov, the head of the IDF’s instruction branch. He set about examining how “100 Iraqis and 100 Yemenites,” all of them illiterate, responded to various aspects of army life: “Depth jumps, rotation duty and anything else that generates peculiar reactions among them, and possible solutions in order to habituate them to their special role as soldiers in the IDF.”
In July 1951, Laskov received a response from Lt. Col. Dov Yirmiya, the commander of a training base and later a well-known left-wing activist. Yirmiya, who apologized for not being able to conduct a full-fledged study, offered instead his personal observations concerning “primitive people exclusively,” according to origin. He devoted his harshest comments to new recruits of Iraqi origin: “Weak comprehension. Very weak thinking level. They don’t think. They learn only by eye and by touch. They don’t grasp things from explanations … They are convinced only by what they see with the eye.” Punishment is the only way to teach them discipline, he added, and similarly with cleanliness: “They do not react positively to hygiene initially, but become accustomed to it by means of strictness and inspection.”
Yirmiya added that the military fitness of the Mizrahim was substandard and their behavior childish. “At first they treat a weapon like a child treats a toy, after a time they get tired of it … They do not accept physical effort willingly and barely get used to it after much practice. They are afraid of jumping, crawling and anything else that can cause injury.” Their attitude toward Arabs was also a matter of concern. “Their feelings of fear of Arabs are quite developed,” he wrote, though “they get over this by getting to know our military might and heightening their confidence in weaponry.” There was also a dangerous potential in these recruits, Yirmiya noted, as they harbor “feelings of inferiority toward more developed people” and are “easily influenced by instigators and agitators who level negative criticism at them.”
He had a higher opinion of the Turks, Moroccans, Egyptians and Tripolitanians among the recruits. Although they “are afraid of the night and don’t understand it,” they possess “an acceptable thinking level.” As for the Yemenites, though their “comprehension ability is weak” and their “thinking level is inferior,” they are “very industrious and accept everything with love.”
Similarly, German-born Col. Yehuda Wallach, a brigade commander in the 1950s and afterward a military historian, had a positive view of the Yemenite soldiers in the IDF, who quickly became effective soldiers. A 1952 report he wrote shows he was less impressed by members of the Moroccan community. “I have met three major types of Moroccans,” Wallach wrote. “For example, the educated urban Moroccan who was schooled in France and digested certain cultural values. There’s the urban Moroccan who came into contact with culture but did not digest it – he’s the Levantine type whom we know from the Beirut, Damascus or Jaffa Arab. And the Moroccan who comes from rural areas, who is ignorant and is at least a thousand years behind in terms of civilization.”
Israeli academics did not resort to such crude language, but their conclusions about the immigrants from the “oriental” communities were substantively identical. Shmuel Noah Eisenstadt, the father of Israeli sociology, was deeply troubled by the possibility that the immigrants from Islamic lands would undermine Israel’s supposedly Western orientation. In a 1948 study, he noted that “members of these [Mizrahi] families, and particularly the males, having been cut off from their full communal life, are powerfully attracted to some of the delights that exist in every urban setting (including oriental ones): playing cards for money, spending hours in dubious cafés, visiting brothels, smoking hashish and more.”
Eisenstadt developed a process for the socialization of the Mizrahim, which he termed “desocialization” and “resocialization.” First, the state must divest the immigrants of the oriental cultural baggage with which they arrived in Israel; in the second stage they would be refashioned according to European cultural values. The experts argued about whether the immigrants from the Orient suffered from genuine mental retardation or from primitivism, which could be uprooted. As scholars such as Henriette Dahan Kalev, Etan Bloom and Sami Shalom Chetrit have shown in recent years, these ideas were not much different from the theory of civilizing colonialism espoused by the European empires. In the eyes of the Ashkenazi elite, Israel, too, had shouldered “the white man’s burden.”