BBC alleges Israeli contempt for Arabic culture

The BBC provides a platform to Khaled Diab, who has been beating the drum for a one-state solution based on the cultural connections between Mizrahi Jews and Arabs in Israel. The polemic of state discrimination until the ‘recent’ rediscovery by the younger generation of their Mizrahi roots does not stand up to scrutiny, argues BBC Watch: the revival has been going on for at least forty years.



Zohar Argov’s 1982 smash hit ‘The Flower in my garden’ : Mizrahi music has been popular for at least 30 years. 


Listeners to the March 26th/27th edition of the BBC World Service programme ‘The Cultural Frontline’ heard a long item (from 20:17 here)
which presented a caricature of Israel and Israeli Jews from Arab lands
which is rife with subtly misleading inaccuracy and omission. An
abridged version of the item was 

promoted separately on social media.

The programme’s synopsis misleadingly describes the item as follows:

Khaled Diab explains why Mizrahi, or Eastern Jewish, music is becoming
popular amongst both Israeli and Palestinian young people.”

Longtime readers of the Guardian will of course be familiar with Khaled Diab: he has after all been promoting his ‘one-stater’ ideas on its pages for years and he is the man who, in 2009, tried to persuade them
that the solution to the Arab-Israeli conflict ought to be modelled on
his adopted homeland of Belgium – an idea which might currently seem
even less plausible than it did at the time.

So let’s take a look at some of the
notions Diab promotes on this generous BBC World Service
platform. Following a rather long and flowery introduction, Diab gets to
his subject matter:

Israel’s image abroad and the self-image it projects is very Western,
about half of its Jewish population originates in the Middle East.”

So far, so good but then Diab goes on to
make the following assertion about a country in which Arabic is one of
three official languages and everything from passports and ID cards to
food packaging displays Arabic script – including the signs Diab
presumably saw when he first stepped off the plane.

“But Israel is generally coy of showing its Arab face to the world while many Arabs don’t like seeing it.” 

He continues:

welcome to Israel sign

“Known as
Mizrahi or Eastern Jews in Hebrew, the first generation were born in
Arab countries. The second generation grew up in Arabic speaking
households and many in the third generation are busy rediscovering their
roots. The first generation had it tough. They fled their homelands out
of fear following the creation of Israel.”

Diab does not elaborate on that last sentence and the significance of his sidestepping of events such as the Farhud in 1941 or the pogroms in Libya in 1945 will later become apparent.

He goes on:

“Their Arab
culture, which was also the culture of the enemy, was shunned and looked
down upon by the Ashkenazi pioneers who founded Israel. This led the
Mizrahim to seek escape from their offending Mizrahiness [sic].”

Whilst there is no denying the cultural clashes
of Israel’s early years, that simplistic caricature  erases from
audience view the topic of the process of building of a national
identity in the formative years of the Jewish state (and its
satirisation in works such as the 1964 film
Sallah Shabati which garnered unprecedented box-office success at the time) and the work of people such as Abraham Zvi Idelsohn (author of the Thesaurus of Hebrew Oriental Melodies), Shoshana Damari and Sara Levi-Tanai.

Diab continues:

“However even
if their culture was shunned in public, the Mizrahim maintained it in
private, speaking Arabic at home and listening to the music they had
grown up with. Some of the musicians who moved to Israel were among the
crème de la crème of Arabic music but found no interest from the
Ashkenazi establishment. These included Daoud and Salah al Kuwaiti. Born
in Kuwait to an Iraqi-Jewish family, the Kuwaiti brothers were popular
with both the political elite – including Iraq’s then King Faisal – and
the masses in Iraq and the Gulf, though they were expunged for decades
from the Arab collective memory. In Israel they found little better.
Salah and Daoud were forced to eke out an existence as shopkeepers in
Tel Aviv and sang in small bars. Decades later, Daoud’s grandson Dudu
Tassa revived their memory by fusing their songs with the guitar riffs
he had become famous for as a rocker.”

Dudu Tassa

Here is Dudu Tassa’s own account of his grandfather’s move to Israel:

“In the
beginning of the 1950s, they decided to leave Baghdad and join the big
wave of emigration from Iraq to the newly-established Israel. In spite
of their wealth and of the wide range of possibilities before them Saleh
and Daud had to leave everything behind. They emigrated to the young
Jewish state without using their connections to gain permission to take
their property with them.

Saleh and
Daud’s status in Iraq was of no use to them when faced with the
difficulties of finding their place in Israel. Their welcome in the new
country was harsh due to the mass migration of Jews from oppressive Arab
regimes they were sent first to live in a temporary tent camp in Beer
Yaakov. Later they moved to the Hatikva quarter of Tel Aviv, there
sometimes they used to play in the Noah café. Upon their arrival Saleh
and Daud began playing and performing also in the Arab channel of “The
Voice of Israel” (Israeli radio), soon becoming two of its leaders. They
performed as guest soloists with the Arabic orchestra of the Israeli
Radio led by Zuzu Mussa. For many years they gave a regular live radio
performance, with thousands of people in Israel and millions in Iraq and
Kuwait listening.”

An Arabic orchestra belonging to
Israel’s state-run radio? An Arabic channel run by the same official
radio station? That of course is a very different picture to the one
painted by Khaled Diab who would have listeners believe that such
culture was “shunned and looked down on” by the “Ashkenazi
establishment” but indeed the state-run ‘Voice of Israel’ radio station
did have an in-house Arab orchestra from 1948 until 1993.

Diab then tells listeners that:

“Recent years
have seen Mizrahi music come out of the home and onto radio, TV and the
club scene. You can hear it at parties, weddings and even on Saturday
nights at Mahane Yehuda; Jerusalem’s covered market.”

Diab does not clarify what he means by
“recent” but obviously his definition is somewhat different to that of
the dictionary given that in 1971 the Israeli Broadcasting Authority
produced the first Mizrahi song festival which was aired on radio and
screened on television. Apparently he has never heard of Zohar Argov’s
smash hit ‘The Flower in my Garden’ from 1982.

Read post  in full 

More from and about  Khaled Diab

One Comment

  • ‘… in which Arabic is one of three official languages’ – last time I looked, Israel had two official languages: Arabic and Hebrew.

    I’ve seen the mistake of thinking that English is also official in Israel some time before now. It is not so, and Israel is not part of any mythical Anglosphere.


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