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Israel: Where do the Mizrahim Fit In? (Part 2)

Ayman 'Odeh and Aryeh Der'i in the Knesset 2015 Ayman 'Odeh and Aryeh Der'i in the Knesset 2015

See part one of this piece here.

In the first part of the article, I discussed the consolidation of a new Israel-based Mizrahi identity by the 1970s and the rise of radical protest associated above all with Black Panthers movement. Much of dissatisfaction with state policy and social marginalization, however, was channeled into support for the resurgent Right wing Likud, which won elections under Menahem Begin’s leadership in 1977 and 1981.

The main reason for the shift to the Right was the rejection of the Labor Party, which was 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.

The Post-1977 Scene

Although the Ashkenazi elites had lost political power in 1977, they were still in control over media, academia, the cultural apparatuses, and the legal system. Transforming these spheres and demoting the old elites became a goal that many Mizrahi activists have come to share with the Right and the post-1967 settler movement, even if they came at the issue from different directions. Reinforcing the Jewish nature of the state, and countering liberal notions of universal human rights, civil equality and Western-style democracy, which threaten to make Israel into a “normal” state, have become ideologically unifying themes in that struggle.

The swing towards the Right was accompanied by a movement in another direction, much smaller but potentially important. It saw Mizrahi activists and intellectuals, including academics, writers, and educators, seeking to restore the link between different types of emancipatory struggles as had been attempted by the Black Panthers before them. The Mizrahi Democratic Rainbow (Ha-Keshet Ha-Democratit Ha-Mizrahit), which operated primarily in the mid-1990s during the heyday of the Oslo peace process, took advantage of the relatively good “security situation” to direct attention to internal social conflicts. It addressed issues of land, housing and education, crucial to the subordination of the Mizrahim during the formative state period. Its campaign to equalize access to public land allocated to agricultural settlements associated with the Labor movement, aimed to provide redress for the exploitation of Mizrahi-populated development towns by their neighboring kibbutzim (almost entirely Ashkenazi in composition). They also campaigned to transfer ownership of public housing in poor neighborhoods and towns to their Mizrahi residents, and to address the marginalization of Mizrahim in the education system in physical facilities and curriculum content.

The Mizrahi Rainbow included in its ranks leading Israeli intellectuals and chose issues with great visibility, of concern to many people. It achieved some successes but could not sustain its thrust. In contrast to the Black Panthers before them, its activists could not be dismissed as no-good troublemakers. But, like the Panthers, once they attempted to link Mizrahi social justice issues to Palestinian rights and celebrate the Jewish-Arab cultural heritage as a model of coexistence, even if in a tentative and hesitant manner, they became politically tainted. The fear that its constituency would turn away from it if “security” issues – as anything to do with Palestinians is defined in Israeli discourse – were incorporated into its program hampered the ability of the Rainbow to leave the mainstream. As a result, they could not deal effectively with the fact that the land it sought to redistribute equally between Jews of different ethnic origins had belonged to Palestinians displaced in the 1948 Nakba, as was the case for many poor urban areas in which the Mizrahim settled. Sharing the spoils equally among Jews would have done nothing to redress Palestinian dispossession and might have entrenched it further. 

The Rainbow was unable to tackle core issues of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and on that basis seek mass support. Still, it made an important intellectual contribution by challenging Eurocentric analysis and dominant cultural norms from a position of confidence, one that was then rare in local exchanges. It attacked the sense of superiority of the Ashkenazi-dominated academic establishment, played an important role in encouraging a move beyond taken-for-granted approaches, and explored the meanings and implications of post-colonial theory and the critique of Orientalist assumptions for the analysis of Israeli society. It sought to combine theory and political practice, though ultimately proved much stronger on the former front than the latter one.

Debates in the 2000s

As was the case for other critical voices, progressive Mizrahi activists found it difficult to survive the second Intifada of the early 2000s intact. The drift of Israeli Jewish society towards ever-growing segregation from Palestinians, without relaxing its domination over them, and the “no-partner” mantra, formulated by Ehud Barak and adopted by all subsequent Prime Ministers, gave a huge boost to the Right. Without taking a clear stand against this trend, a socially-progressive agenda stood no chance. The obsession with enhancing “security” by using military force as the only response to Palestinian resistance has led to the violent suppression of the uprising, the second Lebanon war and the repeated brutal attacks on the Gaza Strip. In this environment, those resisting the trend were marginalized politically and those going along with it could offer no alternative to mainstream politics. Effectively they became the “social” wing of right-wing parties. This divide, which reflects the dual legacy of the Mizrahi Rainbow as both an ethnic-particularist and a universalist movement, has shaped radical Mizrahi discourse in recent years.

Some experienced activists with background in left-wing politics continued to advocate a link between Mizrahi struggles and other social justice causes. The marginalization of Mizrahim due to their origins in Arab culture and society, and the treatment of Palestinians, obviously are connected. To speak about that openly requires political courage, though, as displayed by Orly Noy in a Nakba Day 2015 address:

As someone who is of this region, I reject the colonialist mentality of barricading ourselves in Ehud Barak’s imaginary ‘villa in the Jungle.’ I know that a solution to the problem of ’67 — that is, a return to the Green Line — will not change a thing if we do not gain the courage to take apart the human food chain that has become established here since ’48. One that classifies the sons and daughters of this land to supreme or inferior, all the while setting them against one another. This is my moral call and political obligation as a Mizrahi, as a Jew and as a person who comes from this region.

Noting the pioneering role of the Black Panthers, she added: “It took me many years to understand that the privileges granted to me as a Jew were part of the same mechanism that oppresses me as a Mizrahi who hails from this region.”

Orly Noy: Mizrahi activist giving a Nakba Day speech 2015

At the same time, another approach has shifted away from any association with Palestinians and re-directed attention to relations within Israeli-Jewish society. It identifies Ashkenazi cultural hegemony as the enemy, but not the hegemony of the old political establishment. Rather, liberal-left academics, public intellectuals, artists, journalists, NGOs and human rights activists have been targeted as the worst perpetrators of ethnic supremacy and cultural arrogance. Adherents of this approach direct their ire at Jews to the left of the Labor Party, such as Meretz supporters, advocates of humane policies towards African asylum seekers and refugees, and those expressing solidarity with the Palestinian struggle. The charge against them is hypocrisy: they flaunt their progressive and humanist credentials in order to disguise their historical and racist attitudes and practices against Mizrahim.

What is the logic used here? Two conceptual moves are central to it: (1) the Ashkenazi Left remains guilty for the deeds of its parents/grandparents because it does not acknowledge and take action to redress them, and (2) its involvement in rights-oriented campaigns for the sake of “outsiders” is a conscious strategy to escape accountability for its privileged position in its own society in relation to its own – Jewish – people.

And so the argument goes: it is easy to fight for the rights of African refugees to stay and find work in poor neighborhoods in southern Tel Aviv, whose Jewish residents are usually marginalized Mizrahi people, rather than to accommodate them in the Ashkenazi-dominated wealthy northern neighborhoods or kibbutzim. It is easy to fight for the rights of Palestinians in the 1967 Occupied Territories because there is no danger they would come and stay next to where Ashkenazi leftists live. It is difficult for these leftists to support the Mizrahi struggle because they cannot distance themselves from its consequences. They do not determine the agenda and cannot maintain a paternalistic detachment in their safe spaces. Better housing, better educational facilities and greater access to lucrative jobs and cultural expression for Mizrahim would deprive Ashkenazim of their sense of historical superiority by exposing them to competition. Hence, their need to undermine that struggle and denounce it as divisive and as motivated by resentment and hate rather than by emancipatory social and cultural agenda.

This criticism addresses attitudes prevalent among sections of the Ashkenazi liberal public, as found frequently in expressions of disdain towards Mizrahi popular culture by writers such as Nathan Zach, Igal Sarna and others. But, it ignores two crucial dimensions. First, the social and cultural marginalization of the Mizrahim was a state project undertaken by the leadership of the Labor Party in the context of the conflict with the Palestinians and the Arab world. It was continued by the right wing in power since 1977. While Likud used a different rhetoric, its social, economic and “security” policies exacerbated inequalities and deepened the poverty of vulnerable groups, including many Mizrahim, Russian and Ethiopian immigrants, and Palestinians. With its focus on culture and identity, the material aspect of ethnic relations, the ongoing role of the state and the impact of militarization and national conflict are absent from this discourse.

Second, in its attack on the “Ashkenazi Left” (as if there were such a unified entity), this critique uses scattered utterances by people with only a vague association, if any, to organized movements and political activism. It may be a phrase used by an artist in an election rally, a sentence by an actress in an interview, a Facebook post by a journalist, an expression by a theater director in an appeal to government, and so on. This is common practice in discourse analysis but it provides a weak basis for a political critique and no basis for action. There is no attempt to outline an alternative course of action for the Left and no attempt to reach out beyond the Mizrahim. Alliances that challenge the boundaries of the Jewish public are out of the question.

Putting the two together, what we are left with in this approach is a critique of cultural prejudice by Ashkenazim that is removed from social and political grounding. It can only be countered, from this perspective, by an alternative cultural discourse, that of Mizrahi ethnic pride and defiance in the face of adversity. It is not surprising that writers have played a leading role in this trend. The group ‘Ars Poetica stands out in this respect (a pun based on the word ‘Ars, literally a pimp in Hebrew/Arabic slang, which became a derogatory term applied to aggressive, vulgar Mizrahi youth, and by extension to Mizrahim in general).            

This critical discourse, then, despite the intentions of many of its adherents, runs the danger of reinforcing the state-sponsored attack on “The Left” as not Jewish enough, too remote from the real concerns of people (meaning Jews), following a “foreign” agenda determined by hostile human rights NGOs and donors. This is reflected in some Mizrahi activists expressing support for right-wing politicians of partial Mizrahi origins if they make occasional noises about liberal elitism in the cultural and legal spheres, even when their own agenda clearly is oppressive and anti-Palestinian. Some examples include Miri Regev and Ayelet Shaked. Other manifestations include condoning anti-Arab sentiments and hostility to refugees as expressions of authentic popular feelings, rejecting protests against attacks on Gaza because they alienate the common people, and so on.

The most blatant illustration of this approach is a recent series of documentary clips featuring monologues by activists, with one of them telling an apocryphal story about her grandmother who used to sit at the end of the work day together with an Arab colleague, the grandmother saying “death to the Arabs” in Hebrew, the colleague responding with “kill the Jews” in Arabic, and both continuing to drink their tea together. The point of the story apparently is to dismiss verbal expressions of racism by Mizrahim as one of life’s happy little routines. This is supported by a reference to a famous statement by Jamal Zahalka (MP for the Joint List and leader of Balad): “It is the Ashkenazim who took Palestine from us, not the Mizrahim. It is not those who call ‘death to the Arabs’ who took our land. Those who sing ‘we brought you peace’ (Hevenu Shalom Aleikhem) did that.”

It should be obvious that Zahalka never condoned such calls. He merely pointed out that those who shout “death to the Arabs” – a slogan associated above all with the thuggish Mizrahi supporters of racist football club Betar Jerusalem – talk, while the historical ethnic cleansing of Palestine was carried out by men of action who belonged to the Zionist Labor movement. He did not use this difference to exonerate right-wing Mizrahim, let alone praise them as expressing some kind of acceptable modus vivendi. In fact, looking back at his statement, he said recently: “Let’s admit the truth: Mizrahim could have been partners to our vision maybe 50 years ago. Today it is much more difficult to turn back the wheels of history.”

In a 2015 TV elections campaign debate, Zahalka’s colleague in the Joint List, Ayman ‘Odeh, approached the leader of the Mizrahi religious party Shas, Aryeh Der‘i, in a call to form an alliance to fight poverty, given that their constituencies are similarly marginalized in society. But Der‘i declined to accept the offer. This did not deter ‘Odeh from making further gestures towards the Mizrahim. In a speech in Parliament regarding the cultural heritage of Jews from Arab and Islamic countries he had this to say:

Let's talk about the Jewish and Arabic culture combined, about joint culture. After all, the culture of the Jews in Arab countries wasn't just the communal traditions of their specific communities: it was also part of the culture of the Arab world as a whole ... But unfortunately, the reality of the State of Israel didn't have room for the richness of this culture. Not only because it was considered inferior, but because it blurred the boundary that the cultural hegemony was doing its best to draw between Jews and Arabs. It was inconceivable to suggest that Jews and Arabs could draw from a common culture. For that very reason we have an obligation, for our own sake and for the sake of our future, to glorify these neglected cultures whose great wealth has been mostly lost.

These words begin to point a way forward. The great task of the Left and progressive forces in general is to help open up cracks within the alliance between the bulk of Mizrahim and the nationalist-religious Right. There is no simple formula for how this could be done. A genuine opening of Arab Islamic and Palestinian arms to embrace the Mizrahim as lost siblings could be a first step. This must not be only a rhetorical gesture but accompanied by concrete action. At the same time, it should be based on recognition of the roots they struck over the years in Israeli culture and identity – there is no going back to a mythical past based on nostalgia and harmony. Both the Mizrahim and their former host societies had changed irrevocably. As Haifa-based Palestinian musician Jowan Safadi shows in his recent video clip “to be an Arab”, this confrontation-reconciliation between the ‘imported’ and ‘local’ Arabs, must take place on the local terrain.

  Jowan Safadi, "To be an Arab," Youtube 2015

Politically, the actions of the Joint List would be central. For the first time in history there is a solid, unified force that represents Palestinian citizens of Israel. They can play a vanguard role by striving to move beyond “tribal” boundaries to position themselves as a force for change of the entire society. Their strategic location – the only group that can operate in the Palestinian and Israeli political arenas simultaneously – places a great responsibility on their shoulders. But of course, they are a minority on both scenes and must form alliances with other forces.

This is where the Left, especially Mizrahi left activists, could play a role by systematically developing an agenda for social and political mobilization that builds on concerns shared by different groups and potentially unites them in action. Reformulating “sectoral” demands in a universal language of rights, justice and redress that goes beyond the limitations of ethnic and national identities, is a first move in this direction. Ultimately, all these can become effective within an overall framework for change, based on three conditions: a unified Palestinian front, social mobilization from within Israeli society, and a global solidarity movement.

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