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Israel: Where do the Mizrahim fit in? (Part 1)

 Black Panthers poster from 1971. Top text reads, Black Panthers poster from 1971. Top text reads, "Enough with Poverty."

Many people are unaware that the majority of the Israeli population belongs to one of the two groups that cut across the conventional divide between settlers and natives. These are Palestinian citizens, comprising twenty percent of the population, and Mizrahim, Jews whose origins go back a generation or two to the Middle East and North Africa, and who comprise approximately forty to forty-five percent of the population. Jointly they outnumber Ashkenazim, Jews with origins in Eastern and Central Europe, who have been the dominant group in Israel, socially, culturally and politically.

The two groups stand in opposite relations to the Israeli regime: Palestinians are citizens who formally enjoy equal rights, but in the ‘”Jewish democratic state” suffer disadvantages as an excluded minority. Their links to other Palestinians – living under occupation and in the Diaspora – make them politically suspect and “security risks” in the eyes of the Jewish majority. In contrast, Mizrahim are part of that Jewish majority that excludes Palestinians socially and politically, although they have some cultural affinities with them. Their own social and cultural marginalization in Israel generally has not resulted in political dissent based on a sense of shared fate with Palestinians or nostalgia for their shared Arab heritage.

The notion of a numerical majority of non-European citizens is a demographic reality but politically problematic, then. It combines people who share no national or religious identification, have radically different political priorities, and rarely cooperate with each other. And yet, this state of affairs was neither inevitable nor immutable. It emerged recently (in historical terms) in the course of struggles over identity formation that involved political manipulations, material processes, cultural adaptations and discursive contestations over meanings and implications of social positions. Since it was constructed over time it could be de-constructed, both in the sense of seeking to understand the process by examining how its conceptual ingredients were put together, and in the sense that what was built could potentially be dismantled and re-built.

In essence, what we are considering here is a political paradox, perhaps the most important of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Israeli Jews who are closest to Palestinians culturally and socially tend to be the most remote from them, according to conventional understandings of the Israeli political spectrum. Israeli Jews closer to Palestinians politically – supporters of liberal-left movements – tend to be remote from Palestinians culturally and socially. There are exceptions to these generalizations but the statements above are widely accepted as valid for Israeli society for most of its existence.

The Historical Context

Why is that the case? To answer this we need to look briefly at the historical context. Before the rise of Zionism and Arab nationalism in the twentieth century, Middle Eastern Jews lived as religious minorities alongside Christians and Muslims, in a relatively tolerant environment (compared to contemporary Europe, especially Eastern Europe). In a society organized on the basis of communal-religious affiliations, Jews were an essential part of the social landscape, distinct yet culturally integrated. Generally, that was the case for North Africa as well, though the spread of colonial rule in the region complicated things by granting French citizenship to Algerian Jews, thereby aligning them with settler society. In other countries – Morocco, Tunisia, Libya – Jews retained the same political status as their Muslim neighbors even if many of them went through European acculturation.

The demise of the Ottoman Empire changed that picture. Old communal identities retained the loyalty of the majority of the population but they were gradually joined by new pan-Arab identification. The rise of Zionism at the same time created an alternative focus for Jewish identity. While it had limited impact on Jewish communities initially, Zionism tainted them by association later on, with the growing threat it posed to the Arabs of Palestine from the 1930s onwards. Local Jews communicated in Arabic (or Kurdish and Berber, depending on location), and shared daily culture with their non-Jewish neighbors, but only relatively a small group of writers and activists, primarily in Iraq and Egypt, took active part in the native intellectual life that was at the heart of pan-Arab nationalism and left-wing politics. The broad Jewish communities rarely participated in mass mobilization and struggle against colonial rule.

The case of Jews in Palestine was somewhat different. The old pre-Zionist community was not quick to change. This was true both for Ashkenazi communities which opposed the new Jewish nationalism in the name of religious orthodoxy and for Sephardi/Mizrahi communities attached to the Ottoman traditional boundaries that allowed peaceful communal coexistence. Those who became involved with the Zionist project usually tried to act as a bridge between recently-arrived Ashkenazi settlers and indigenous Arabs. Their familiarity with local society, culture, and language made them useful for the Zionist movement, though their advocacy of moderation, cultural respect and fitting into rather than breaking up existing social relations was less welcome. As studies by Michelle Campos and Abigail Jacobson show, indigenous Jews were less eager than Ashkenazi immigrants to support confrontational policies opposed by local Arabs and more willing to reach an accommodation with them on an amicable basis.

With the Balfour Declaration of 1917 and the British Mandate, the Zionist movement was given an official role in facilitating the Jewish National Home and representing the interests of the Jewish population in Palestine. Under these circumstances, it became very difficult for Jewish dissidents to challenge the dominance of Zionism from within. Most local Jews, Mizrahim included, accepted the new situation without seeking to form alternative institutions. But even then, neither their intellectual elites nor the rank-and-file distinguished themselves by expressing militant nationalist sentiments, anti-Arab hostility, or right-wing zealotry of the kind associated with them today. Before 1948, such attitudes were reserved for radical Zionist activists of Ashkenazi origins.

1948 and After

As in many other respects, 1948 was the crucial turning point. Against the background of the Nakba, mass Jewish immigration transformed the demography of the country. Alongside large numbers of Eastern European immigrants, hundreds of thousands moved into the country from Iraq, Yemen and North Africa as a result of informal collusion between Arab states and Zionist institutions. The Arab regimes used local Jews as scapegoats for their failure to protect Palestine, to divert attention from their own incompetence and corruption. Israel required large number of immigrants to replace Palestinians and prevent their return, by serving as a physical barrier along the borders, as cannon fodder and, later on, as a cheap and docile labor force to meet new economic development goals.

The 1950s were a period of consolidation of a divide between Ashkenazi and “Oriental” Jews (officially referred to in Hebrew as “Edot ha-Mizrah,”: the oriental communities). Distinctions between the two groups were not new but before then they had not acquired an institutionalized state-sanctioned form. The original Zionist vision included mass immigration of Jews into the Land of Israel. With Ashkenazi Jews comprising ninety percent of world Jewry, the role and potential impact of “Oriental” Jews were a minor issue. But mass immigration to the United States and other destinations, the closing-off of Soviet borders, and the Holocaust left non-European Jews as the biggest human reserve for the Zionist project. Hundreds of thousands of Middle Eastern and North African immigrants moved to the new state during its first two decades of existence, making them approximately half of the Jewish population.

This development posed a dilemma for the leadership of the new state. It had to resolve a contradiction: how to bolster the Jewish nature of the state at the expense of departing and remaining Palestinians, while retaining Israel’s image as a Western, technologically-advanced, modern society, free of the religious and ethnic legacies and mentalities of Diaspora Judaism? The solution combined three related components: (1) incorporating new immigrants as full citizens – legally, politically and militarily, and (2) marginalizing them culturally and socially by demanding adaptation to norms set by the Ashkenazi establishment. This was facilitated by (3) creating growing distance between their new Israeli identities and their Arab/Islamic past.

Mizrahi identity was born in that period through encounters between people who came from different countries and backgrounds, but shared the experience of incorporation/exclusion in Israel. They became members of the dominant Jewish group vis-à-vis Palestinians although they continued to occupy a subordinate position vis-à-vis Ashkenazim. The term Mizrahim conveyed a new sense of unity that was created over time and matured politically towards the late 1970s. It never replaced the original diversity of its members but rather supplemented it with a common political purpose.

This emerging Mizrahi identity located itself within Jewish tradition and rejected attempts to dilute it through alliances with universal forces such as modernity, socialism, liberal principles and so on. Positioned in contrast to what it regarded as Ashkenazi elitism, it combined loyalty to the Jewish state with “traditional” – not orthodox religious Ashkenazi – values, seen as key to unifying the people – Jews in Israel and elsewhere – under a re-invigorated nationalist hegemony. Overall, this amounted to rejecting secular civic Israeli identity and affirming ethnicity and religion as forces that shape Israel openly and unapologetically.

Of course, Israel never was a civic state. From its inception it was defined as Jewish, and it made distinctions between its citizens on the basis of their ‘nationality’ (le’om in Hebrew, milla in Arabic), a concept indicating ethno-religious origins. It put in place a variety of formal and informal mechanisms to ensure Jewish control over land and natural resources, security matters, symbols and public life. The rise of the Mizrahim as a political force did not change any of this but added another dimension to the debate over the nature of the Israeli state: it re-framed it as a conflict between the popular masses, with clear Mizrahi majority, and the elites, predominantly Ashkenazi in composition.

Elites and Masses

These elites, holding political power until 1977, but retaining a dominant position long after that in the fields of business, media, education and law, were deemed responsible for the historical marginalization of the Mizrahim. Aligned with the Labor Party establishment, they urged immigrants to leave their “backward” culture and habits behind, and embrace Western modernity. Taking advantage of the limited assets and capacities of Mizrahi immigrants, these elites sent them to border areas and poor neighborhoods and towns emptied of their original Palestinian inhabitants in 1948. They thus became dependent on state-created jobs, housing and service provision, and welfare allocations. Access to good quality education was limited as were opportunities for economic and geographical mobility.

In all these respects Mizrahim were pushed into an inferior position in the socio-economic hierarchy. Immigrants arriving at the same period from Eastern Europe also experienced difficulties initially, but family connections to veteran residents and cultural affinities with establishment officials allowed many of them to extricate themselves from the periphery earlier and more easily, while Mizrahim tended to remain stuck there.

Beyond these disadvantages there was a bigger issue. Mizrahim came from an Arab cultural background into a society that was defined and shaped by its exclusion of Arabs, politically and physically. Although indisputably Jewish in religion, they adhered to cultural and social norms that were similar to those of the Palestinians, who had been either ethnically cleansed from the territory just a few years before that or were confined to areas placed under military rule. From the state’s perspective there was no real danger of a political alliance between the two groups based on cultural affinities, but no chances were taken. One crucial task during the absorption process was to ensure that Mizrahim were de-Arabized and inserted into “Western” culture under Ashkenazi hegemony. Little more than folkloric traces were supposed to survive this process. 

The success of this effort required both carrots (citizenship rights, recognition as full-fledged Jews), and sticks (suppression of dissent, persecution of trouble makers, social stigma). Military service played a dual role: it was a right and a duty, a tedious and dangerous chore, which initially reinforced the inferior position of Mizrahi recruits but also could open up career opportunities and give people a sense of belonging. Above all it created a solid barrier between Mizrahim and Palestinians, with the latter not only prevented from bearing arms but frequently becoming the target of “security” operations. From the perspective of Mizrahim, young men in particular, nothing worked better to deflect suspicions of looking and sounding like Arabs (with a large visible Star of David necklace a close second).

We must keep in mind here that before 1967 conflict with the Palestinians did not occupy a central place in Israeli consciousness. Mizrahim were coping with the experiences of dislocation and re-adjustment. The generation that made the transition to life in Israel was too traumatized and incapacitated by the transition to pose a real challenge to Labor political domination and Ashkenazi cultural hegemony. But, with the renewed visibility of the conflict from the late 1960s onwards, and the rise of the next Mizrahi generation – people who grew up in Israel and were no longer scared to confront the establishment – a process of profound change started. There was a focus on using the party-political arena to claim a stake in power and, in doing that, re-positioning themselves within the existing ethnic hierarchy.

Radical Protest

The first manifestation of the new stage of Mizrahi politics was an outlier: the Black Panthers of the early 1970s, helped into existence by left-wing activists affiliated with the Matzpen movement. Associating with the radical left pushed the Panthers towards modes of action and analysis sharply at odds with mainstream ethnic politics. While focusing on socio-economic marginalization of Mizrahim, as others have done before them, they were the first dissidents to begin to link it to other types of oppression, that of Palestinians inside Israel and in the recently-occupied territories. The Panthers never made solidarity with Palestinians a core element of their campaign, but merely hinting at such a possibility was sufficient to make them a serious threat in the eyes of the establishment. They were subjected to repression and were delegitimized as a bunch of juvenile delinquents who were interested in political provocation rather than in helping their own people.

Although they never managed to move beyond the political margins, the Panthers succeeded in putting ethnic discrimination against Mizrahim on the agenda, in spheres such as housing, jobs, and education. The main beneficiary of this development, however, was not the Left but the nationalist right headed by Menahem Begin. Why was that the case? Primarily because the Right advanced a notion of Jewish identity in which they could find a place symbolically without feeling apologetic about their legacies of traditionalism, ethnicity, and alternative versions of modernity. They had no need to show their credentials as “pioneers” or fit into the Labor-Zionist Sabra image, based on young Ashkenazi kibbutz and elite military graduates.

By adhering to the new nationalist norms (reinforced by the 1967 war and occupation) they could free themselves from lingering associations with the Arab enemy – defeated but still threatening – and occupy rather the position of heroic Israelis, sharing in the spoils of victory. And the spoils were not merely symbolic. Numerous Mizrahim moved up the socio-economic scale by becoming contractors of Palestinian labor, middlemen for employers of such labor, officials of the civil and military administrations in the occupied territories, and working with the expanded military and security industries. They were not the only Jews to benefit from the occupation, but they did make the most from the new opportunities that had been unavailable to them before. Familiarity with Arabic and local culture gave them a comparative advantage in these fields.

What did the Panthers offer Mizrahim instead? Not a very appealing prospect: an identity of marginalized victims struggling to assert their place against the resistance of a unified Zionist establishment. In the process they would have tainted themselves politically by the same Arab legacy from which they had distanced themselves in previous decades. Both ideologically and materially, Mizrahim managed to uplift themselves at the expense of occupied Palestinians, and thus acquired an interest in their continued subordination. So did many Ashkenazim, of course, but for them it was an extension of old patterns of domination, not a new opportunity.

Panthers picture from a documentary

The Turn to the Right

The alliance between the majority of Mizrahim and the right-wing Likud had been cemented by 1981, when the party won elections for the second time after its historical victory in 1977. That election campaign, like many others since then, was characterized by acrimonious ethnic conflict that pitted a resurgent Likud enjoying the support of the bulk of Mizrahim, against a Labor Party seeking in vain to return itself to political power by uniting the Ashkenazi elites behind it. Little of the electoral campaign had to do with the positions of the different parties vis-à-vis issues of war and peace, occupation and settlement, or budget allocation. Rather, it revolved around the extent to which the lost honor of the Mizrahim was restored by Likud, and the extent to which Labor sought to reverse that, and re-establish its cultural hegemony. Likud leader Menahem Begin highlighted the nexus between the kibbutzim, liberal elitism, and Mizrahi exclusion, a theme that remained a powerful symbol in years to come.

Much of what followed in Israeli party politics, from the 1980s to the present, has addressed this theme. The historical scars of the first generation of Mizrahi immigrants may have faded over the years but their children and grandchildren still express anger and resentment towards those held responsible for the trauma. There was more to it than just wounded feelings, though. Likud paid more attention – at least rhetorically – to the social needs of marginalized Mizrahi communities, and it was more open to young activists in development towns who wanted to embark on a political career. Other parties, primarily Shas, which focused more directly on religious and ethnic components in Jewish tradition than on nationalism, also benefited from this trend and became central to Mizrahi political transformation.

It is important to realize that this process was not driven by anti-Arab attitudes, as mainstream Ashkenazi liberal intellectuals frequently claim. In fact, until the end of the twentieth century Mizrahi leaders of the Likud were among the least belligerent and most “dovish” – relatively speaking – among its senior officials, including leaders like David Levy, Meir Sheetrit and Moshe Katzav. Meanwhile the worst warmongers and expansionist leaders, as well as most settlers in the 1967 Occupied Territories motivated by religious and nationalist ideology, have been of Ashkenazi origins – including Begin himself of course, Yitzhak Shamir, Ariel Sharon, Benjamin Netanyahu. At the same time, the rejection of Labor Zionism translated into hostility towards policies and discourses associated with the liberal Ashkenazi elites that retained condescending attitudes towards the Mizrahim. These elites were accused of caring more for non-Jewish outsiders, such as Palestinians, and African asylum seekers, than for their “own” people. Equally, others claimed those elites showed more concern for universal norms such as international law and human rights than for Jewish values. 

See part two of this piece here.

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