Strangers in a strange land
When I first visited Israel in the early ‘seventies, it was a white man’s land with the look and feel of a European colony transplanted in Levantine soil.
The European Ashkenazim (literally, “German” Jews), the returnees of the diaspora, were in the majority. They had dominated politics and culture from the days of the first Zionist immigration, and through the mandate years of the Yishuv when Eastern Europeans predominated in the movement and in the fledgling military. The republic that the Ashkenazim prepared for during the Mandate and then built after 1948 was, in intent and in actuality, a white, secular, socialist outpost of Central and Eastern Europe.
The Sephardim, Jews who had lived in Palestine for centuries, and up to a million Jews expelled from Arab countries after 1948, were, for some forty years of Israel’s existence, a disadvantaged minority. The name itself was misleading. ‘Sephardi’ originally described Jews who had been expelled from Spain in the late fifteenth century. But it came to be applied to anyone who was not Ashkenazi. They were discriminated against in many spheres of Israeli life, regarded as primitive, backward, ill-educated, and poor – and more like Arabs than Jews.
And this was indeed the case in many respects. Jewish communities had been an integral part of Arab society for centuries. From Morocco to Iran, they had lived, thrived, and prospered among the their Muslim neigbours. The Jewish communities in Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Egypt, Iraq, Lebanon, Syria, Yemen and Iran were old and populous, and indeed often predated Christianity. From high to low, they were entwined in their local politics and economics.The lower classes were as poor and as downtrodden as their Arab neighbours. The professional and mercantile middle class lived very comfortable lives, and under late Ottoman rule, and British and French suzerainty, enjoyed a cosmopolitan lifestyle.
Embedded in the heart and soul of their Arab homelands, they shared the same history, suffered the same depredations, wore the same clothes, ate the same food, made and listened to the same music. Many of their values and cultural norms had more in common with the east than the west.
Oriental Jewish culture was based on three pillars: the community, the synagogue and the father. Faith was the cornerstone and family paramount, and with these, the authority of the rabbi and the head of the household. Piety was respected, chastity honoured, modesty and decorum observed, and marriages arranged. Religion, tradition and patriarchy preserved the community for a millennium. It did not experience European-style secularization, western enlightenment, or a revolt against religion. Even when modernization came, the father and the rabbi remained dominant.
There was harmony between Arab and Jew. Life had order, meaning, and a timeless rhythm. No one imagined that one day, they would have to abandon their lives, their homes and possessions and the graves of their ancestors. Never did they contemplate having to flee, in fear of their lives from the people among whom they had lived for generations, and seek refuge in a fledgling European, secular, modern state on the edge of the Mediterranean.
After 1948, the relatively charmed existence of oriental Jews in North Africa, the Levant, and Mesopotamia ended, and thousand year old communities disintegrated. A million Jewish Arabs were uprooted, their world destroyed, their culture ruined, their homes lost.
In an ironic twist, their Aliyah (literally “ascent” to Eretz Israel) confounded the Zionist model. Israel was created to be the home of European Jewry – until the Shoah brought those Jews to the brink of extinction. Young Israel had to populate or perish, and whilst designed for a European population and culture, it had no choice but to accommodate an oriental one. .
In yet another ironic twist, the creation of the State of Israel doomed the Jews of the Middle East by making mortal enemies of its Arab neighbours. But by giving these exiles refuge, Israel saved them from a life of repression, misery and backwardness in an unstable and violent Middle East. And yet, even as their numbers rose from under ten percent of the population to over fifty today, they were looked down upon, humiliated, discriminated against, neglected, and indeed, ignored by the secular Ashkenazi establishment. They were the Israeli “other”.
Destitute and grieving for their lost world and their old identities, and for the manner in which their longtime Arab compatriots turned on them, they were like flotsam on the shore of a new land. But it was an unfamiliar world, a world made for and ruled by European Zionists with an ethos alien to their own. This was a pioneer society, spartan yet permissive, that valued the individual and his or her contribution to the new state’s collective enterprises above the ties of family, custom and congregation. And for sound if not satisfactory reasons: the ties that bound European Jews to their centuries-old communities had been severed in the killing fields of Mitteleuropa – so many had few or no surviving relatives and friends from the prewar days – and new loyalties forged in the displaced persons camps of Europe, the mass Aliyah into disputed Palestine, and the cauldron on the Independence War.
The immigrant nation of Israel was conceived as a melting pot. The goal of the education system, the exclusive use of a reinvented and modernized Hebrew, and mandatory national service in the IDF, was to assimilate all who made Aliyah as Israelis. To make them Ashkenazis, in fact. The Ashkenazi social engineers encouraged European Jews to get over the Diaspora and the Shoah, and the struggle for independence and national survival, and to get on with the challenges of nation building. These orphans of Europe neither appreciated nor accommodated the eastern Jews’ attachment to their Arab identity, tradition, and culture. And indeed, may have resented, both consciously and subliminally, the fact that these Arab Jews had not come through the Holocaust or fought in the War of Independence
In the national project, the easterners were banished to existential shadow lands. Isolated, marginalized, dispersed, and cut off from their roots and heritage, their rabbis and synagogues, they were consigned to arid development towns in the Negev, to remote villages, and to the impoverished suburbs of the major cities. The state provided refuge, housing, schooling, and jobs. But it took away community, honour and tradition, the social and normative structures that kept Jews together in the eastern diaspora. They were given few tools to deal with the new world of physical and economic hardship, no authority, no bearings, no compass, no meaning. They took low paid, menial jobs, and a lost generation of youngsters drifted into crime and gang culture, drugs and prostitution.
Decades later, these “forgotten people” rose up against the (self)chosen race in a political and cultural revolution that saw “downstairs” gate crash the “upstairs” party. In the political turmoil that followed the Yom Kippur war, they found a political voice and demanded a seat at the top table. They backed Likud against “born to rule”, secular, Ashkenazi Labour, and precipitated a new political dispensation based on faith and values-based political parties and shifting and opportunistic coalitions. They were the working class, the factory hands, the tradies, and the small business owners. They were the parvenus, the usurpers, the nouveau riche, rising about their station, and as such, were scorned and maligned by many Ashkenazim. But they were now the majority. Through immigration and natural increase, their numbers grew, and with it, their political clout. One no longer heard the term ‘Sephardi’ – but rather, ‘Mizrahim’, literally ‘easterners’ – the descendants of Jews from Middle Eastern countries. Their values, interests and expectations were different to those held by the secular, liberal-minded Ashkenazim.
The Garibaldi of this Mizrahim Risorgimento was the charismatic Moroccan Jew Ariyeh Deri who formed the ultra-Orthodox Shas party – Shomrei Sfarad, literally, “(Religious) Guardians of the Sephardim”. Through the late nineties and into the twenty first century, Shas has become a pivotal political player. In the hurly-burly of Israeli coalition politics, its Mizrahi constituency has delivered parliamentary numbers that can make or break governments, and through the torturous wheeling and dealing, it influences policies as diverse and as critical as education and defense.
One of Binyamin Netanyahu’s key people in the current right-wing government is his Minister of Culture Miri Regev, whose family came from Morocco, a former brigadier general in the IDF, where she served as chief spokesperson during the Gaza pullout. She is a member of Likud, not Shas, and Netanyahu needs her backing in order to maintain his support among the Mizrahim. Regev likes to rail against what she calls “the haughty left-wing Ashkenazi elite” and once proudly told an interviewer that she’d never read Chekhov and didn’t like classical music. She has sought to give greater prominence to Mizrahi culture and to deprive “less than patriotic” artists of government subsidies. Many of the government’s recent actions appear designed to address the traditional disenfranchisement of the Mizrahim and of citizens living in the country’s “periphery” (that is, far from the central Tel Aviv–Jerusalem corridor), whilst other measures are aimed at promoting social mobility amongst these “outsiders”.
A changing world
Which brings me back the present and to my return to Israel after an absence of thirty years.
The dazzling sunlight reflected off the limestone brickage was the same. The history literally oozing from the stones was still exhilarating and addictive. The dry heat of summer in Jerusalem was as ever cleansing and enervating. The sociability, conviviality, argumentativeness, and at times obstreperousness of Israelis was the same. But Israel, as a society, had changed – and not just the cosmopolitan cafe and restaurant strips, the vibrant arts scene, the high-tech, wired-to-the-world communication systems, and the ever-present security presence.
Israel’s complexion has changed. Over half of the Israeli population are now Mizrahim (and some twenty percent are Arabs), and Russians and Ethiopians have come in by tens of thousands. There is intermarriage between Jews of all colours and cultures, and the place has taken on a coffee-coloured hue. Israel became the multicultural country it is now.
And it is changing still. As more and more foreign workers come in to work here – one of the consequences of the lock-down and separation that followed the 2002 Intifada, as Chinese and Southeast Asians replaced Palestinian Arabs in many sectors of the booming economy, there will be an increasing number of Israelis taking Filipina, Thai and Indonesian brides..
On our recent visits, we noted the high proportion of Mizrahim, and also, to a lesser degree, Ethiopians – most particularly, among young people. In the street, in the cafes, on the light rail, and especially with respect to the conscript army in which all young Israelis, boys and girls, must serve when they turn eighteen (with the exception of the ultra-orthodox Haredim and Israeli Arabs).
We had been contemplating why in recent years, and particularly, during the last Israeli election, right wing politicians were able to capitalize on an anti-Arab sentiment so incongruent (to liberal-minded outsiders, at any rate) among a people that proclaims itself to be conscious of its history of victimization and oppression. Why Israeli street protests and social media feature virulent tirades and slogans against the country’s Arab citizens and Palestinian neigbours (such inflammatory sentiment is returned with equal if not more vigour on the Arab street, on tabloid television, and from the mana-bir of mosques during Friday sermons). And why, therefore, Bibi Netanyahu’s election dog-whistle was so effective, resulting in a coalition government that is probably the most nationalistic, anti-Arab and anti-Palestinian in memory.
Commentators have suggested that the political shift to the right and to an increasingly authoritarian character has been due in part to the influx during the nineties of tens of thousands of Russian Jews who have no experience, appreciation and empathy for the occidental democratic model established by Israel’s founding fathers. It has also been said that the shift has been propelled by the exigencies of the security state that has perpetuated a pattern of fear and retaliation with respect to internal and external threats, be these Palestinian resistance to the occupation, as in the violent street protests and and bombings the first and second intifadas, and the lone-wolf vehicle attacks and stabbings of recent times, the ongoing rocket attacks and tunnel construction of Gaza, or the calls for the destruction of the Zionist entity by the Iran and its Hizbollah proxy, and by the televangelists and shock-jocks of the Muslim media.
It may well be “all of the above”, but there is also possibly the Mizrahi factor.
Now the majority of voters – this is where I am going out on a polemical limb with an argument that runs counter to what I have written above about the Mizrahim and their oriental legacy – Mizrahim don’t want Arabs – as friends, as neighbours, as fellow-citizens. Although Arabs and eastern Jews are literally ‘brothers under the skin’, although they shared the same lands, cultures and lifestyles for centuries, have they grown so far apart that the chasm has bred contempt?
They have grown up with the stories of their parents’ and grandparents’ own Nakba, the Arabic word for “the Catastrophe” of the 1948 war, when their families were cast out of their oriental Eden, expelled from Arab countries amidst threats and pogroms, murder and plunder. They spend their military service as conscripts and as reservists either serving in the occupied territories, or subject to deployment there or in Gaza when tensions flare, as they do frequently. They are aware of Arab mainstream and social media denigrating Jews and Israelis and calling for the destruction of their country. They know that any time, they and their loved ones, including particularly their soldier children, could be attacked by car, knife or bomb, or worse still, killed or kidnapped. Young – and not so young – Mizrahim have been hearing all their lives from their families and from the Arabs themselves that “they want to kill us”.
Nowadays, in many quarters, the Arab pogroms of the twenties and thirties appear to feature more prominently in Israel’s creation story than they did in earlier decades, providing an historical leitmotif to contemporary acts of violence. Times past, it was always the about the Zionist pioneers and, inevitably and unavoidably, the Shoah (and left-wing, peacenik Jews are predominately Ashkenazi of pioneer or Shoah heritage). Back then, there was also the image of triumphant David fending off five Arab armies and killing and expelling Arab Palestinians to create a contiguous national territory. Over half of Israel’s Jewish population has no connection to the Shoah, and to the secular and socialist Zionist ethos and once-powerful foundation institutions like the Kibbutz and Histradrut. The Israel of today, and the average Israeli, indeed, are very different to those of forty, fifty, sixty years ago, as are their perceptions and prejudices.
Perhaps the “victim” narrative appeals to and exploits atavistic fears of Arab hordes threatening to push the Jews into the sea. Maybe, too, it is a function of Israel’s dysfunctional place in the turbulent and bloody Arab world: a garrison state of citizen soldiers on a permanent, war-footing, the only democratic nation in these parts that nevertheless, paradoxically and immorally, maintains a military occupation of a conquered people, and sustains politically, financially, and among many Israelis, ideologically and spiritually, a neocolonial settler society. But in a sinister twist of fate, it is a narrative that would have been music to the ears of those long-gone Revisionist Zionists who harkened to the call of Zeev Jabotinsky and his Eastern European Ashkenazi crew who had resolved during the Mandate years that there could only be one people in Ha’Aretz, and that The Land would range from the Mediterranean to the Jordan River. Zeev’s vision inspired the vicious Irgun and Stern Gang, and these morphed in time into Likud, which is now effectively the ‘party of government, and the driver of all things intransigent.
One thing’s for sure: the Mizrahi factor adds to the many complications that hinder a just and permanent solution to the intractable conflict between Israelis and Palestinians.
In writing this piece, I am indebted to Israeli journalist and author Avi Shavit and his controversial and enlightening “My Promised Land – The Triumph and Tragedy of Israel” (Scribe 2014). Shavit wrote a brief, sad sequel in March 2015:
Veteran Zionist, humanist, journalist, and fighter for justice Uri Avnery wrote the following in February 2017: “When and how the Ashkenazi and Mizrahi Rift was born”. It is well worth reading:
In the statistics cited herein, there was no distinction made between Sephardim and Mizrachim. (If the Sephardim, Mountain Jews and other non-European groups are included in the Middle East and Asian group, then Middle Eastern and Asian Jews outnumber European and American Jews by a margin of 52 to 48
On a musical note:
From way back, I was particularly familiar with world-famous Israeli singers of eastern origin – Esther Ofarim, of dubious ‘Cinderella Rockefeller’ fame, (with her then-husband Abi, who was, incidentally, of Russian heritage), the late, sublime Ofra Haza, Noa, and latterly, Ladino diva Yasmin Levy].