A few days after US President Barack Obama addressed the world’s Muslims in his historic 4 June speech in Cairo, 27 Israeli Mizrahi Jews issued an open letter entitled “A New Spirit – A Letter from the [Jewish] Descendants of the Countries of Islam.”
The open letter supported “the new spirit that president Obama has expressed in his speech in Cairo”. The signatories to the letter said they were born in Israel, and are Israelis, but the culture of the Middle East and the Arabic culture are “part of our identity, a part that we cannot sever and wouldn’t wish to sever even if we could”.
The letter added that despite some tough moments in the history of Jews in the lands of Islam, there was “a magnificent history of shared life” It called for Mizrahi Jewry – “which today constitutes 50 per cent of the Jewish population in Israel!” – to “embody a living bridge of remembrance, healing and partnership” between Judaism and Islam.”
In October the online newspaper “Palestine Chronicle” carried a lengthy interview with one of the signatories, journalist, poet and activist Mati Shemoelof (37) whose ancestors lived in Syria, Iran and Iraq.
Shemoelof is a member of the Mizrahi organisation Mimizrach Shemesh, ie the Jewish Social Leadership Centre. He said the letter was “a call to the Arab World to show that the Israeli government and policy makers don’t speak in our language.” He said the first reaction to the open letter in Israel had been that it was racist because it did not include European Jews.
The sentiments expressed in the letter are undoubtedly genuinely felt, but a recently-published book on Israeli Mizarhi Jews by the journalist Rachel Shabi gives little hope that they can in current circumstances play the role of a “living bridge” as described in the letter.
Shabi’s book is published by Yale University Press under the title “Not the Enemy: Israel’s Jews from Arab Lands”. It reminds readers that the idea of the Mizrahis becoming a “bridge” to peace with the Palestinians has been around for a long time.
Back in 1971 the Mizrahi activists known as the Black Panthers were the first Israeli group to make contact with members of the PLO. They recognized the Palestinian right to self-determination, and they linked this with the Mizrahi cause.
But by the time of the 1973 war the Black Panthers had lost public support. The political grievances that they expressed, and their disillusionment with the Labour Party, were instead channelled into support for the right wing of Israeli politics. The Mizrahi vote helped Likud win the 1977 and 1981 elections.
This year marks the 20th anniversary of another attempt at Mizrahi bridge building: a meeting in Toledo, Spain, attended by Palestinian and Mizrahi politicians, writers and academics. The Palestinian participants included the poet Mahmoud Darwish and future president Mahmoud Abbas.
There was a furious reaction to the meeting within sectors of Israeli society which rejected any suggestion that the Mizrahi Jews were in any way victims of the Jewish state, and that this might in any way be linked to any victimhood suffered by the Palestinians.
Shabi writes: “Attempts by Mizrahi activists to act as political bridges between Israelis and Palestinians collapse under the weight of improbability, vilified on both sides, occupying a narrow strip of dialogue in the middle of two polar-opposite forces that squeeze it off the spectrum.” Once the Second intifada had broken out in 2000, talks of bridges seemed irrelevant, and even some of those who had once been “bridge activists “abandoned the idea.
In Shabi’s view, “bridges don’t build a way out of a territorial war – they might only evolve after that war is over, and that’s assuming it ends fairly.”
Shabi’s book is a rich, thoroughly researched and well written account of the history and current situation of Israel’s Mizrahi Jews. Many Israelis claim that over the decades the divisions between European Ashkenazi and Oriental Mizrahi Jews have been vastly reduced. Shabi’s book contains much evidence to the contrary.
Shabi is herself a Mizrahi, born to a father from Basra and a Baghdad-born mother who lived in Kirkuk. When her parents left Iraq they first lived in Israel, where Rachel was born, but they then left Israel to settle in London. To this day, when her father is asked to which country he most belongs, he replies: “Iraq! Of course, I am an Iraqi!”
Shabi uses the term “Mizrahi” to cover both the Sephardi Jews who were expelled from Spain in 1492, and those such as the Iraqi Jews who were already living in the Middle East. At one point Mizrahis were the majority of Israeli Jews, around 70 per cent, but the mass influx of 800,000 or more Jews from the former Soviet Union reduced this to 40-50 per cent. Shabi notes that if we add together the number of Mizrahi Jews, and Arabs in Israel then two thirds of the Israeli population is of Middle Eastern origin.
She told Al-Hayat that her book has been received very well. “It has had positive reviews and people write to tell me they found it really eye-opening. It has been wonderful to hear these responses and reaffirms why I thought it important to write the book, because it is not really known that at least half of the Jewish population of Israel come from Arab or Muslim lands..”
She adds: “I don’t think you can really understand Israel’s relationship to its neighbours in the Middle East unless you can see and understand the fraught relations it has with its own Middle Eastern self. There have been criticisms too, from people who think that the book is somehow an attack on Israel. But, like many others, I do not accept that any criticism of Israel is, by definition, anti-Israeli.”
A German translation of the book has been published by Berlin Verlag, and Shabi hopes the book will also be published in Arabic and Hebrew.
Shabi writes in the book: “If there is a set attitude to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict among Mizrahis, it is that the Ashkenazi elite is not capable of solving it.” Time and again Mizrahis insist they could have done a better job, given the chance. But this is not the perspective of Palestinians involved in the negotiation process, who point out that the Mizrahis were not excluded or absent from such negotiations.
Shabi quotes the chief negotiator for the Palestinian authority, Saeb Erekat, as saying: “I’ve seen Iraqi Jews sitting at the negotiating table. I’ve seen Yemeni Jews, Moroccans, Iranians, in the highest echelons of power and decision-making. Tell your Iraqi cousins and friends. Tell them that [I say] no, you were at the negotiating table and you screwed.”
Ashkenazi Jews started to settle in Palestine in the 1880s and it was they who established and controlled all official bodies before and after the foundation of Israel in1948. After the killing of millions of Jews in the Holocaust “only then did Zionism remember the Middle Eastern Jews” and the Jewish Agency had the job of locating and absorbing Jewish immigrants.
David Ben Gurion, who became Israel’s first prime minister, insisted: “We do not wants Israelis to become Arabs.” Shabi gives many examples of discriminatory anti-Mizrahi attitudes and remarks from made by politicians, journalists, scholars and others over the years. The low Mizrahi attainment in for example education was often attributed to the backward conditions in the Arab world from which they had come to Israel. Mizrahi culture was seen as inferior and only to be enjoyed in private.
She examines in detail, and with balance, the reasons why Jews left Arab countries, and examines the role Zionist underground agents may have played in Iraq, for example in planting bombs at Jewish targets so as to encourage an exodus to Israel. Yemenis who migrated to Israel had many things permanently taken away from them on the journey including handwritten manuscripts hundreds of years old.
Newly-arrived Mizrahi immigrants were often transported in cattle trucks, sprayed with disinfectant, and dumped for years in transit camps in dreadful conditions. They were then frequently sent to development towns on the margins of Israel such as Sderot, which is 70 per cent Moroccan. These deprived towns have a low socio-economic status and are full of resentment.
In one development town, Ofakim, Shabi meets a 36-year-old Moroccan Jew who is so bitter at the treatment of his community that he declares “my children will never raise the Israeli flag, never!” He describes anti-Mizrahi discrimination in schools and the Army, and even blames Jews themselves for the Holocaust.
Shabi argues that the Babylonian Jewry Heritage Centre in the town of Or Yehuda (which is known as “little Iraq”) presents a distorted version of the history of Jews in Iraq: for example the centre makes out that Jews were more isolated within Iraqi society than was actually the case.
Shabi gives many examples of the persistent discrimination against Mizrahis in Israeli society. On Israeli TV, presenters of serious programmes rarely have Mizrahi accents, but buffoon characters on TV often are Mizrahi. The majority of university professors and students and Supreme Court judges have Ashkenazi surnames, while the overwhelming majority of university cleaners, market stall traders, and working-class criminals are Mizrahi in origin.
The majority of residents of high-status city areas are Ashkenazi, while Mizrahis often live in slums and other poor quality housing. Ashkenazi students are about three times as likely to hold university degrees as their Mizrahi equivalents. By the late 1990s 88 per cent of upper income families were Ashkenazi, while 60 per cent of low income families were Mizrahi.
The Mizrahi Hebrew accent, with guttural sounds like those of Arabic, was historically regarded as the “correct” spoken Hebrew. But spoken Hebrew is changing and losing its guttural sounds.
Many Mizrahi Jews took with them to Israel a love of Arabic music and of the great Arab singers, but found this was looked down on in Israel. In Iraq, 90 per cent of musicians had been Jewish, but they found their Arabic music had little place in Israel. The brothers Saleh and Daoud al-Kuwaity had been stars back in Iraq, and Saleh had composed much of the musical repertoire in Iraq and beyond, but the brothers had a difficult time finding new audiences in Israel. [picture shows Saleh al-Kuwaity's orchestra in Iraq, with the famous Iraqi singer Muhammad al-Qabanji]
Music and song had a role in creating a new Israeli culture, “but it was a national culture set to the tastes of the ones in power. And the soundtrack was Eastern European – comprising old Russian, Polish and Yiddish tunes.”
Some Israelis claim the growing prominence of Mizrahi music is the community’s biggest breakthrough into the mainstream culture. For example, the singing star Moshe Peretz is of Moroccan origin. But one of the biggest complaints of the Mizarhi music industry is that Mizrahi music is not classified as Israeli music but as “ethnic” or “world” music.
The concluding chapter of the book is entitled “We are not Arabs!” In it Shabi explores the complexity of reasons why many Mizrahi Jews do hate Arabs, even if at the same time some of them love the Arabic language, culture and music and are avid watchers of Arabic satellite TV.
[original of article published in Arabic in Al-Hayat on 31 October 2009]