Mizrachim in Israel – Letting the Demon Out

May 8, 2013 by

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Cross-posted with Times of Israel.

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.

mizrachim on notes 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. 

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