‘Don’t cry for Ashkenazi elite in Israel yet’

Reports that the Ashkenazi cultural elite in Israel has lost its hegemony to Mizrahim have been exaggerated, argues Rami Kimchi in this provocative piece for Haaretz. Their experience in Europe is making them panic unnecessarily (with thanks: Lily):

 Ashkenazi ‘cultural elitist’ Yair Garbuz, a candidate for the Israel Prize

In the debate over the elitism of the Israel Prize – which was
demonstrated again recently by the unfortunate candidacy of artist Yair
Garbuz – Culture and Sports Minister Miri Regev claimed that the
exclusion of Mizrahim (Jews of Middle Eastern or North African
origin) and Arabs is the inevitable result of a situation in which the
cultural elite is comprised mainly of Ashkenazim.

At the same time, author Meir Shalev denied that the Ashkenazim were an
elite, saying they forfeited their hegemony a long time ago to the
Mizrahim, who have become the new elite.

Indeed, since the 1970s, mainstream Hebrew literature has been careful
to produce allegories that reflect the decline of the old Ashkenazi
elite and its replacement by a new elite comprising all those who were
previously excluded. In other words, Mizrahim,
Arabs and the ultra-Orthodox (or Haredim). Examples include A. B.
Yehoshua’s “The Lover” (1977) and Amos Oz’s “Black Box” (1986). Shalev’s
own “The Blue Mountain (1988) also deals with the death of the old
elite.

A question arises as to what extent these elegiac literary depictions of
contemporary Israeli life correspond to reality. How reliable are they,
and not just the result of a false panic that has taken grip of the
elites – as Regev claimed following the removal
of Avi Shoshan, an expert in Mizrahi music, from Army Radio’s playlist
committee.

Objectively, it seems there is nothing in the Israeli reality which
proves the Ashkenazi elite has lost its hegemonic status. Absurdly, its
undisputed control of Israeli art reflects this.

Art has always been an expression of power. The wonderful statues of the
Roman emperors and senators were nothing more than propaganda posters,
carved out of marble for the greatness of the empire.

The Church used art to raise the standing of Christianity. In ancient
Christian mosaics, Jesus is shown as the model of a Roman ruler, not as
the son of a carpenter from Nazareth. And the two largest ideological
movements of the 20th century, fascism and communism,
also used art as propaganda.

A clear indication that the old Ashkenazi elite had lost its hegemonic
status would be a radical change in the dominant Israeli artistic style,
and its replacement by another, matching the interests of the “new
elite” – just as socialist realism replaced the
European artistic style that had been predominant in czarist Russia,
and which, with the rise of the Bolsheviks to power, immediately became
“corrupt bourgeois style.”

But events of recent weeks show this is far from the case in Israel.

So why do the Ashkenazi elite seem so panicked and paranoid about the
supposed loss of their hegemony? It is possible they have good reason
for their insecurity about the stability of their control.
Unfortunately, though, this is not related to the improved
status of the Mizrahim or Haredim, but to what previously happened to
these elites in Europe.

These Israeli elites are just the heirs of the Ashkenazi Jewish elites
of Eastern Europe. In other words, until just three generations ago,
they themselves were the “other” of Europe, and suffered from exclusion,
discrimination, prejudice and an anti-Semitic
discourse that portrayed them as non-European. It seems the Ashkenazi
Israeli elites inherited from their forefathers an inferiority complex
with regard to their original Jewish culture – an inferiority rooted in
the ethno-cultural suppression of Ashkenazi
Jewry by the Christian European discourse.

Beginning in the late 19th century, a modern Jewish identity was formed
in Europe. This process was accompanied by a racial-ethnic distinction
made by European Christians, which attributed inherent cultural and
racial inferiority to the Jews. This included
the belief that the Jews, by their very nature, had something that
caused them to lack any aesthetic sensitivity. The Jews were
characterized as shameless imitators with an “oriental” imagination,
drawn to superficial beauty.

Therefore, as a result of this history, the Israeli Ashkenazi elites
have a very fragile recognition of their own worth in general, and are
especially vulnerable in the areas of culture and art.

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3 Comments

  • Looks like the culture war between Jews of different ethnicities will continue to divide us. And the Arabs are counting on this.
    Ashkenazi Jews in the US have a very tenuous link to Jewishness and some are only able to recognize Jewish identity in negativity. The Finkler Question is brilliant. What Howard Jacobson writes about British Jews in his satiric novel is true for Americans and from the number of "post" Zionist activists in Israel, apparently true in the Jewish State, especially among Ashkenazim.

    Reply
  • the old elite was more precisely "Leftist" rather than Ashkenzazi. For instance, A B Yehoshua, one of the old elite's favorite authors, is in fact Sefardi or Mizrahi. He is mentioned in the article, by the way. Further, the old elite, being "Leftist", was not interested in promoting the traditional culture of the Eastern European Ashkenazim, which was very much connected to the Jewish religion, as is traditional Sefardi and Mizrahi culture. In the early days of the state, in fact, the MAPAI/MAPAM elite that politically dominated the country, very much wanted to suppress the Yiddish language and literature. I could go on.

    Reply
  • Just because a group of people may be the majority, (approx 52% of Israelis are Mizrachi/Sepharsi or mixed) doesn't mean they are wiping out the elite. Far from it

    Reply

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