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May 8, 2013 by Robbie Gringras
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 A.D. Gordon 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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July 24, 2012 by Yaira Robinson
This piece first appeared at State of Formation, and was written by a participant in Siach, an environmental and social justice gathering with whom Makom has partnered.
More than one of my politically and religiously liberal friends, when I told them I was converting to Judaism, gave as one of their first responses, “What about Israel?”
Good question. What about Israel?
I’ve understood all along that committing to the Jewish people and tradition also included coming into relationship with Israel—but the history and the issues seemed so complex that I have been reluctant to say much, to anyone, about anything related to the “Jewish State.”
Partly, this silence stemmed from a feeling that I didn’t know enough of the history, the politics, the people, and the issues to be able to speak with any authority. Partly, my place as a new Jew gave me pause. Partly, I saw how divisive the “Israel issue” is both within the American Jewish community and among people of other religious traditions, with whom I work. It is safer not to speak.
After spending two weeks in Israel, though, I’m looking at things a little differently. I traveled to Israel to participate in Siach, a program that brings Jewish social justice and environmental leaders from the U.S., Europe, and Israel together for learning, conversation, and collaboration.
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July 3, 2012 by Gideon Sylvester
First appeared in Haaretz.com
“How beautiful are your tents, O Jacob…” (Numbers 24: 5)
We don’t know whether Bilaam, the gentile prophet prophesied the protest tents of the Israeli social justice movement, but other prophets certainly identified with the spirit of the struggle.
Most famously, Amos, the prophet from Tekoa resolutely insisted that social justice lies at the heart of Judaism. Currently, the gap between the rich and the poor in Israel is one of the widest in the developed world. The protestors object to this, and the ancient prophet shared their concerns. He railed against a society which taxed the poor beyond measure, while the rich lived in decadent luxury. This, he states is intolerable and unsustainable:
“Therefore, because you trample upon the poor, and because you exhort taxes on their grain, you have built houses of carved stone, but you won’t live in them; you have planted lush vineyards, but you won’t drink their wine” (Amos 5: 11).
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If We Build It, They Will Come: A Case for Developing the Field of Jewish Service Learning in Israel
June 10, 2012 by Dyonna Ginsburg
Dyonna Ginsburg is the Director of Jewish Service Learning at the Jewish Agency. Previously, Dyonna served as the Executive Director of Bema’aglei Tzedek, an Israeli social change organization, and was a founder of Siach: An Environment and Social Justice Conversation, an international network of Jewish social justice and environmental professionals.
Currently, the field of Jewish service-learning in Israel is characterized by a handful of programs that target young North American Jews and that are officially recognized and funded by Repair the World, an organization founded in 2009 to “make service a defining part of American Jewish life.”1
Although these programs are known for their high educational standards, many have struggled to fill their ranks and reach financial sustainability. Alongside these accredited programs are others, often larger and better endowed programs that include some aspects of volunteerism, but have yet to adopt the more stringent Standards of Practice for Immersive Jewish Service-Learning Programs developed by Repair the World (Repair the World, 2011).
Many—myself included—believe that the time has come for a concerted effort to build the field of Jewish service-learning (JSL) in Israel—exploring ways of expanding the smaller, high-quality, service-learning programs; adding necessary depth and authenticity to the larger, volunteer-oriented ones; and identifying additional program areas that can appeal to core concerns of young Jews not addressed by existing program offerings. To Full Post
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January 25, 2012 by Robbie Gringras
It’s strange how the most trivial thing brought me closest to violence.
I’m sitting on the train. The carriage is quiet. Four kids get on and sit across the aisle from me. They’re about 15 or 16. Well-equipped with their various mobile devices, they all loudly and boisterously turn to their respective video games. None of them have earphones.
One guy in particular is playing his beeping video game with the volume on full.
After putting in my noise-cancelling earphones and unsuccessfully trying to ignore him, I give in. I ask him, fairly nicely, to turn down the volume.
At first he doesn’t respond.
Then after I repeat my request he tells me to wait until he finishes the game. He is a little irritated that I distracted him. Blood rising to my cheeks I ask him again, less nicely.
His giggling mates guffaw as the kid tells me that I ought to be more patient.
I want to kill him. To Full Post
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January 12, 2012 by Gideon Sylvester
Rabbi Gideon Sylvester directs the Rabbis for Human Rights Beit Midrash at the Hillel House of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and serves as the British United Synagogue’s Rabbi in Israel.
Is belly dancing kosher? How about New Year’s Eve parties?
For years, the Israeli rabbinate has waged wars against such activities, revoking the kashrut licenses of hotels and restaurants that offered them. This enrages those who feel that kashrut authorities should limit themselves to certifying food; others admire the holistic approach, which indicates that both the food and the ambience strictly conform to Jewish tradition.
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Poverty Among Families
Recent economic success in many sectors of Israel society hide the ugly fact that poverty still haunts much of the nation. Recent studies have shown that 420,000 impoverished families resided in Israel (1.5 million people), including some 805,000 children. Perhaps even more alarming, 1 million Israelis go hungry on a regular basis.
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The Problem: An Imperfect Jewish State
The Ideal and the Real
When most Israelis hear the term a “Jewish State,” they think of religious marriage and divorce, the Sabbath, and army exemptions for the Haredi sector. Few people associate the term “Jewish State” with a set of basic, moral obligations between the Israeli government and its citizens. Few think to ask what should a Jewish State do about:
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Children with Sick Hearts Abroad, Resources They Need in Israel
Right this moment, thousands of infants and children across the world are suffering from heart disease. Some of these children have access to the treatment that can help them. Unfortunately, many children do not. Many of these children suffer from congenital heart disease, which is responsible for more deaths in the first year of life than any other birth defects.
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A Global Problem with Particular Needs
According to the World Health Organization (WHO) between 20-50% of all women will be subject to domestic violence in some form during their lives.
In Israel, there are 14 women’s shelters to deal with this problem. However, Orthodox women in abusive relationships often do not take advantage of social services provided for them by the state. They fear the stigma associated generally with welfare services in the Orthodox community. They also have special religious needs, and more children than the average battered woman. In spite of the challenges, the number of religious women seeking help is on the rise. The number of religious women who called domestic abuse hotlines nearly tripled from 477 in 2004 to 1,402 in 2007.
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