Only because I had lurking bronchitis and reading made my eyes hurt and I’d run out of DVDs — only then did I flick on the TV to watch Israel’s first Big Brother. Only after noting my bad luck in having to witness the reality TV phenomenon take hold twice over and in two languages did I wonder if there’d be any manifestations of ethnic tension in this programme. It took around five minutes to surface. Forgive the lack of names and the paraphrasing, but basically the Ashkenazi-origin young woman was upset over the abrupt manners of a Mizrahi housemate, which were interpreted as rude and which were not apologized for so much as explained away, as the Mizrahi contestant said something like: ‘This is what you get, it’s what I am — I can’t be European.’ Bingo.
Reality-TV aficionados know that the format is predicated on the sort of psychological profiling that is designed to create precisely such tensions. But that doesn’t mitigate the point that ethnic tensions clearly do still exist in Israel. The Big Brother incident — variations of which repeat on a daily basis in real life, some harmless and some serious — is proof of the one thing that so many Israelis believe is no longer the case: that ethnic origin is at all relevant or a source of disharmony within the Jewish state.
It’s a statement based more on wishful thinking than on actual fact. Clearly, (Jewish) Israelis both desire to be and define themselves as a well-integrated nationality — for a people whose nationhood seems constantly to be scrutinised by others, this is understandable. But the most cursory of examinations would reveal that Israeli society is split along ethnic lines, with Ashkenazi (European-origin) Jews more predominantly a feature of the upper layers of society and Mizrahi or Sephardi (Middle Eastern/North African-origin) Jews more present in the lower scions. If you don’t believe me, take the standard university test: walk on to an Israel campus and see how many lecturers are of Mizrahi origin. Now check out the cleaning staff. Or take another test: ask an Israeli to impersonate a market-trader and count how many times the mimicry is carried out using a ‘Mizrahi’ accent.
In fact, academics have figures that easily back up such anecdotal assessments: children of Ashkenazi origin, they report, are three times as likely to hold university degrees as those of Mizrahi origin, while Ashkenazi employees earn over a third more than their Mizrahi peers. By the late 1990s, 88 per cent of upper income families were Ashkenazi, while 60 per cent of low income families were Mizrahi, according to the Israeli policy analysts, Adva. A concerned Israeli education ministry picked up on the schooling gaps sometime in the 1950s and concluded that Mizrahi kids were falling behind because they were playing catch up. Not because they were innately dumb, but because they’d come from the intellectually crippled backwaters of the Middle East. Actually, a team of top-notch Israeli sociologists came up with such theories, which became the backbone premise of the education system. Two generations later, the Mizrahi kids are still playing catch up, and the gap hasn’t been bridged.
Education obviously dictates earnings potential, but there are other reasons for the lag. Mizrahis experienced a constantly reduced allocation of national resources and were excluded from political and state power. Again, Mizrahi and other Israeli academics have shown that this sector of the population was disproportionately sent to live in the periphery, was allocated inferior land and did not relocate to the county’s centre as swiftly as their Ashkenazi counterparts. Ask Mizrahis living in Israel’s periphery — the notoriously neglected city slums and development towns once disparagingly referred to as ‘the Second Israel’ — and many will angrily related exactly how relevant they still feel ethnicity to be.
Meanwhile, there overwhelmingly exists in Israel the sense of a country seeking a Western or European alignment, in tastes, in culture and in sensibility. Sometimes you have to concentrate really hard to remember that you are living in the heart of the Middle East, among a majority population of Middle Eastern origin. Mizrahis suffered a negation of their heritage and culture — perceived as low-quality and belonging to the enemy Arab camp. Having developed over a two- thousand-year period in hospitable, sustainable and creative Arab or Islamic environments, the Mizrahi heritage reflects that — which is why the historians refer to it as a Judeo-Arabic culture. But scores of Mizrahis still recall how this culture was scorned in the Jewish state, causing them either to put it away or to enjoy it in private. Many children of those first-generation Mizrahis were so ashamed of this home culture that they tried to ban it. Actually, some Mizrahis speak of inventing new identities for themselves when they were young, identities that were bleached of all those embarrassing Oriental hallmarks. Nowadays, few Israelis know about the rich and myriad culture brought to the Jewish state by its Mizrahi citizens — something that Mizrahi campaigners, activists, educators, rabbis, writers, poets, artists and musicians are desperately seeking to redress.
But Mizrahi campaigners lament the cultural loss for another reason, too. It’s not just that Mizrahi Israelis have been disconnected — from themselves. It’s not just that Judaic culture in Israel has been stunted by losing one of its supporting columns. It is also that Israel as a nation has disconnected itself from the region — even while the Judaic culture of the majority of its citizens has distinctly regional roots. Throughout the history of Israel, Mizrahi commentators have been arguing the geopolitical stupidity of such a move.
First there was Elie Eliachar, a Sephardi Jewish notable of Mandate Palestine, who later served in several Israeli Knessets. He constantly warned the Zionist movement of the time of the dangers of ignoring the Sephardi community, which he described as ‘a ready-made barometer of Arab sensibilities’. Eliachar thought that the Zionist New Settlement was alienating the native Palestinian Arab population — which might have been avoided, had the movement watched and learned from the long-standing and well-established Sephardi community. The leaders of the New Settlement ignored him. Years later, the Iraqi-Israeli academic Nissim Rejwan would lament Israel’s missed chance as he wrote: ‘The way Mizrahis were looked upon and received — ambivalent, derogatory, and on the whole openly hostile — has proved to be one of the cardinal in a series of fateful mistakes that Israel committed, and continues to commit, that have led to its isolation and alienation and continued rejection by the world surrounding it.’
This is a multi-tiered argument and sometimes difficult to disseminate, especially when the dominant narrative has Israel’s Mizrahi populace cast as Arab-haters rather than proponents of a negotiated peace (the voting polls indeed show this to be the case, but there are myriad possible explanations for it that are not at all connected to the Arab-Israeli conflict). Still, on one level the case is perfectly straightforward: if Israel was not so alternately condescending and ignorant of Arab culture then it might be more inclined to foster harmonious relations in the Arab world — and naturally, those knowledge gaps start to narrow at home, with Israel’s Mizrahi population. Having come from Jewish homes that moved to the cultural rhythms of the Arab world, many older generation Mizrahis are well-equipped to dispel a few myths and misconceptions over the Middle East. Their children might be too, if they grew up within an openly proud Mizrahi environment which nurtured an awareness of the family’s valuable culture-stock. On another level, Mizrahis across the political spectrum often speculate that they might have made better negotiators in peace talks with the Palestinians. This perspective is based on a perception of mindset or outlook that Mizrahis are claimed to share with Palestinians, but which European-origin Israelis do not have. The accuracy of such a statement is debatable — Palestinian negotiators don’t agree with and in any case argue that Mizrahi politicians did not make a refreshingly different contribution to proceedings at the talks tables. But such observations speak volumes about a Mizrahi sense of exclusion from the corridors of power and a desire to bring something new to the Israeli identity at its interface with ‘the enemy’.
Rejwan and others relate that a rejection of the surrounding world has contributed to a false dichotomy of Arab versus Jew, as though the two are polar opposites destined to forever be at each other’s throats. Nothing could be further from the truth: Mizrahi history reveals a long, shared past – not always harmonious (whose history was?) but very often tolerant and productive. Mizrahi kids are often shocked to discover this to be the case: they’d just assumed that Arabs have historically hated the Jews. Indeed, some Mizrahi-Israeli academics have recently tried to challenge the polarity by self-defining with a taboo hyphenation: ‘Arab-Jew’. Such campaigners argue that Jews who once lived in Iraq or Morocco or Egypt are as much Arabs as Jews who once lived in Germany or Austria are European. Such arguments usually prompt fierce reactions, as the dominant narrators of this story seemingly prefer a script of permanent, preordained enmity.
But however Mizrahi-origin Israelis choose to define themselves, what is clear is that Israel desperately needs to rectify the imbalance and bring the Mizrahi fully into its history and culture — as equals, not as some kind of folkloric embellishment (witness the Israeli appreciation of Mizrahi food, traditional dress and customs of hospitality). Researching a book on this subject, I was fortunate to meet countless Israelis of Middle Eastern origin who showed me many manifestations of what I like to think of as ‘Mizrahi booty’. Some of these individuals are first-generation Israelis with clear memories of past lives once easily shared with Arab and Muslim neighbours in Iraq, Morocco or Yemen. Those recollections are stamped with the templates of a possible coexistence today. It is not too late to listen and to learn from these valuable oral histories — for within these memories are the almost buried tracks of a shared, peaceful future for these two nations of the Middle East.
Rachel Shabi is a freelance journalist. Her book Not the Enemy: Israel’s Jews from Arab Lands is published by Yale University Press in January 2009.