This is a follow-up article to the conversation that can be found here. First appeared in The Jewish Week.
Can Jewish religious life be full and fulfilling with no connection to Israel? Must a connection to a concrete Israel live separate from synagogue worship? Should our religious rituals ignore Israel in any way other than the metaphorical, or should it accept that the establishment of the State of Israel affected not just Jews but also Judaism itself? To Full Post
First appeared in The Jewish Week.
I went to a wonderfully inspiring religious service on Friday night at Romemu congregation on the Upper West Side. Beautiful singing – much of it in Hebrew -, an inspiring sermon, a warm and welcoming community atmosphere. In some ways, it was a snap shot of all that is dynamic and valuable about North American Jewry. And at the same time a snap shot of how sustainable Israel engagement is in real trouble.
A snap shot of all that is dynamic and valuable about North American Jewry. And at the same time a snap shot of how sustainable Israel engagement is in real trouble.
There is a terribly ugly phrase here that is used whenever someone (usually Ashkenazi) doesn’t want someone (usually Mizrachi) to talk about anti-Mizrachi racism in Israel. The whistle-blower, the moaner, the inciter is accused of “letting the ethnic genie out of the bottle”. That is the literary translation, though a more literal translation would refer to the escape of the ethnic “demon”.
It’s a shocking phrase, which is used by the most seemingly enlightened of public figures, and its connotations are so widely accepted that it is gradually falling into cliché. Historically, anyone who has tried to call the Ashkenazi establishment on its appalling treatment of Mizrachi Jews has been accused of rabble-rousing, of irresponsibly inciting uncontrollable violence on the streets. Though in many ways the Israeli phrase is more insulting, suspecting the Mizrachi of uncontrollable destructive urges, literally demonizing Mizrachim who protest at their treatment.
It is heart-breaking to realize that this is a prejudice that dare not speak its name while its effects are seen everywhere. In academia, the justice system, government, finance, Mizrachim are rarely seen, despite their making up over 50% of the Jewish population of Israel. Only in the percentages of those under the poverty line, those with poor academic results, and those who populate the prisons do Mizrachim score highly.
And yet to point out this state of affairs is so frowned upon it is like pulling out a rotting carcass in the middle of a dinner party. Not only does it stink, but it is a spiteful act, designed only to spoil the party.
It is perhaps only to be expected that the latest example of this phenomenon is connected to money. New shekel notes are being designed and printed with the images of famous Israeli role models. They are all heroes of the Ashkenazi establishment. None are Mizrachim. What is upsetting is not only the decision of the Finance folks, but also the fact that the media has no patience for anyone pointing out these hurtful and unnecessary choices. Mocking memes are rolled out, complaints are cut off mid-sentence, and damage is denied.
For many years I had accepted the standard definition and excuse for the problem. Mizrachim – Moroccans in particular – were victims of an insensitive absorption policy in the early years of the state that led to them being humiliated, poorly housed, and culturally deracinated by the host Israelis of the early 50s.
How could this have happened? How could Jews have treated their fellow Jews in such a way? I had always given much weight to the mainstream narrative that pointed out how Ashkenazi Israelis of the 50s were so numbed by the horrors of the holocaust and the ravages of the Israeli War of Independence, they simply did not have the emotional energy to empathize with someone who has “only” lost their belongings, language, and self-respect. “It is true,” they sigh, “that Mizrachi children were told to Hebraicise their names and forget their culture, but a new united nation needed to be forged. Don’t forget, even Yiddish was banned back then.”
And then a few months ago singer-songwriter Ehud Banai broke my heart. He recently brought out a collection of his memoirs called This is The Place, and in it he tells the story of the Kinneret Yemenites. As is his style and temperament, the story is told almost as a tangent, gently recalled and just as gently acknowledged. But still, a disturbed character in Banai’s book tells of a devout Yemeni community living on the banks of the Kinneret, at the same time as the Degania Group was busy weaving legends out of pioneering and working the land and inventing Kibbutz for the world.
The white European chalutzim did not take kindly to the presence of these Yemenites. They did not like their religious devotion, and had no respect for their work (back then it was simply accepted that Yemeni laborers were paid half what European laborers were paid). When Kibbutz Degania moved to its permanent dwellings in 1930, it desired the land on which the Yemeni community was living. And so the Yemenites were simply moved out. Expelled. Evicted. And Kibbutz Degania took their land.
How can I count the ways this breaks my heart?
First, I fell in love with Israel and Zionism through the stories of these very chalutzim pioneers. These foundation stories of Israel, shared around the camp-fire, of chalutzim and chalutzot, turned my relationship with Israel into a romance. The “inverted pyramid”, the ill-fitting clothes, the late-night discussions – I fell in love with it all.
We didn’t avoid questions about the status of women in the early kibbutz, nor did we duck issues of attitudes to local Arabs (remember that heroic and horrific story of uprooting and replanting a forest planted with Arab labor?) – but internal racism? Never. Who even knew that there were other Jewish communities by the Kinneret who hadn’t read Borochov and who wore kippot?
Second, very few people in Israel know about this story even now. Feminist reappraisals of Zionist history abound, and “New Historians” have raked over Israel’s treatment of Arabs, but assessments of this European Zionism’s attitudes to the Jews from Arab lands have never been received with the same respect. To this day the official history text book of Israel – a massive 500-odd page tome published by the Education Ministry – has all of four pages chronicling the aliya of Arab Jews (Ethiopians remind me it is still better than the one paragraph awarded to the story of Ethiopian aliya!). When called on this in a recent meeting between the Education Minister and Mizrachi activists, the editors proudly pointed out that the 4-page Mizrachi problem has been solved: The new edition will have seven pages.
Is it any wonder the racism continues? Is it any wonder the easiest way to create a funny character on TV is to give him or her a Mizrachi accent?
And if Israelis hardly teach themselves about the Mizrachi narrative, how can we Israel educators bring it up with our Diaspora-based students? Will they even care?
Finally the story of the Yemenite pioneers breaks my heart because this discriminatory treatment of Mizrachim was common practice many years before the Holocaust. These Yemenites were not thrown off their land by shell-shocked survivors of the Nazis: They were shooed away by bright-eyed ideologues who didn’t even see them.
I finally got it. There was no excuse for the early treatment of Mizrachim in Israel. It wasn’t an unfortunate by-product of post-Holocaust trauma. It was racism. That’s all. Plain racism.
And there is never a good time to talk about it. When elections loom, to bring up this racism is to make political capital (and indeed the Shas party does in my opinion work to exploit rather than heal the hurt). When elections are over, to point out the shockingly low number of Mizrachim in the government and leading parties, is to get in the way of kicking the Haredim. When the racist jokes are repeated, one must always keep one’s sense of humor. And when the only remaining symbols of value in this country – the shekels – are reprinted without a Mizrachi face – just stick it on your forehead, you monkey.
Mo Farah has become the ultimate proof that lefties are right, that liberal immigration and asylum policy is great, and that David Cameron is an idiot for saying that multi-culturalism in Europe has failed.
Poor Mo. All he did was work astonishingly hard to win a fantastic 5,000 and 10,000 meters’ double. But the Olympics are all about the symbolism, so why should Mo be exempt?
In a culture where “hoodies“, young (mainly) black men who cover their faces from police cameras so as not to be caught for their anti-social and un-British behavior, are at once condemned and courted, this meme was a cracker.
I was watching Sky News the other day. (I use it as a sleeping pill. I call it Sky Snooze.) They were going over the day’s newspapers. One guest annoyed me so much I nearly woke up when she said: “It’s lucky we have the Olympics, otherwise there’d be no news to write about!”
Clearly for her the military implosion of Syria, the financial implosion of Europe, the US elections, and Iranian nuclear ambitions are not worth writing about.
But she did get me thinking about one delightful aspect of the Olympics.
Israel doesn’t feature.
And I’m not talking about Munich memorials, I’m talking about the games themselves. Finally, happily, Israel has reached a news-worthy-ness that is proportionate to its size and global importance: pretty close to none.
Israel has won zero medals, along with the other 50-odd countries who haven’t won anything either. Not even any stinging defeats, heart-breaking injuries, or surprising disappointments: nada.
We’re not on the Olympic map.
It’s been so long since Israel has been internationally insignificant – I think we should enjoy it while it lasts. Perhaps this is the “normality” the early Zionists were dreaming of?
A couple of years ago HaDag Nachash came out with a song that took a swipe at the cultural and political choices of most Israelis. Consolation Song critiqued the way in which Israeli music – and the tastes of its listeners – had begun to run away from any engagement with the world. “Best not to stay up all night worrying about things,” rationalized the song, since there’s “no solution anyway. Better to sing consolation songs.”
A combination of fear at what clear-eyed critique might reveal, and a general moral laziness was leading people to kick back, hang out, and enjoy a vacuous kind of dance music. The song was performed in a virtuoso replica of the very genre HaDag Nachash were critiquing. Namely, party-mood, bazooki-tinged clap-fest Mediterranean music.
Thinking towards the Global Jewish Forum on Liberalism and Zionism.
One song and two clips has got me thinking.
Here Ella Fitzgerald sings Don’t Fence Me In. It’s a jaunty declarative and celebratory song, loving the open spaces, remembering the pioneering days of being able to walk freely in one’s own land. On the one hand it extols freedom, and on the other hand it extols sovereignty – the ability, right, and power to do as one wishes on a huge swathe of land.
A few years back I had a bad experience at my bank in Carmiel. There were about 9 people milling around the teller’s desk. No line. No queue. I was familiar with the requirement. You ask “Who’s last?” and then assume that you are the next in ‘line’. It’s a mad system. At some predictable point it disintegrated into chaos. Someone had asked “who’s last” and then gone out shopping. When she returned, she expected to be able to reclaim her place, but no one remembered who she was. Much shouting ensued.
Everyone in the crowd/line was annoyed with someone else in the crowd/line. But really we should all have been annoyed with the bank. For not laying on more tellers, and for not arranging a more efficient and transparent method of waiting. (Since then the bank had a face-lift, and you take a number…)
I was reminded of this incident last night, when I picked up news of the anti-immigrant riots in South Tel Aviv. I was horrified, but not entirely surprised. To Full Post
Okay, so first of all I have to admit that I have read Peter Beinart’s The Crisis of Zionism.
I’m not talking about the reviews of it (though I’ve read a lot of them, too) I read the actual book.
The photo almost looks like it was born for a captions competition, doesn’t it?
A thought-bubble from the young Haredi’s head might read, “Now where did I put that rock?” or the woman might be thinking, “Jeez, living in photoshop is so radical!”
As you might have gathered, my first reaction when looking at this poster at a Yom Ha’atzmaut event, was incredulity and not a little frustration.