Monday, November 23, 2009

palestine in pieces

Can there be peace for a ‘Palestine in Pieces’?
by Susannah Tarbush
Saudi Gazette 23 November 2009

The American writer Kathleen Christison and her husband Bill have made long personal journeys over the past three decades in becoming outspoken critics of Israel and of US Middle East policy. In their youth they were political analysts in the CIA where, they recall, they failed to gain an adequate understanding of “Zionism’s true meaning or its inevitable impact on the Palestinians.” It was only after leaving the CIA and “the insular Washington bubble” in 1979 that they developed wider perspectives on US policy.

They started to question their earlier assumptions, and their views on the Palestine-Israel issue gradually changed. The latest manifestation of their concern for the Palestinians is their book “Palestine in Pieces: Graphic Perspectives on the Israeli Occupation”, published by Pluto Press of London and New York.

Kathleen is the author of two previous books. “Perceptions of Palestine: Their Influence on US Middle East Policy” (1999, updated 2001), and “The Wound of Dispossession: Telling the Palestinian Story” (2002).

The latest book was launched in London a few days ago at an event at the Kensington Hotel hosted by The Cordoba Foundation (TCF) and Middle East Monitor (MEMO). Kathleen and Bill, who had traveled from their home in Santa Fe, New Mexico, appeared on a panel of speakers along with TCF’s founder and chief executive officer Anas Al-Tikriti, MEMO’s director Dr. Daud Abdullah, the chair of Liberal Democrat Friends of Palestine, John McHugo, and the co-founder and director of Forward Thinking, Oliver McTernan.

Since 2003 the Christisons have made eight visits to the West Bank, staying three to four weeks each time. Bill said he and Kathleen wrote their book with two aims. “One was to give the best analysis we could of what was actually happening in the Israeli occupation. The other was to tell as many individual stories of people who live in the West Bank and Gaza as we could.”
The 212-page book includes 52 full-page black and white photographs with detailed captions, and a number of maps. The photographs present a generally grim picture of checkpoints, destruction, house demolitions (a form of “slow ethnic cleansing”), the ugly eight-meter high separation Wall, military harassment, suppression of demonstrations, economic deprivation and the humiliations of Palestinian daily life.

The few shots of the Palestinian countryside show the beauty of the terraces and olive trees – but a caption states that this landscape is fated to be the site of a segment of the separation Wall, and that sewage from Israeli settlements is being dumped on Palestinian farmers’ fields.

The maps show how from 1948 Israel has “squeezed Palestinians into ever smaller, more disconnected cantons with little possibility for political or economic viability and virtually no hope of true national independence and sovereignty.” The “Israeli-only” road network for Israeli settlers covers more than 1,000 miles.

The Christisons write: “You cannot, in fact, possibly come away from even a single trip to the West Bank without realizing that Zionism is no mere abstract political philosophy but is an aggressive, exclusivist movement of Jewish redemption intended from the beginning to sweep everything non-Jewish from its path.”

With the invaluable assistance of their driver and guide Ahmed, the Christisons travelled widely in the West Bank. One place they visited was the Bedouin village of Numan, cut off by the Wall from Jerusalem and Bethlehem. Israel wants the land for the settlement of Har Homa and has declared the village’s houses illegal. Virtually every house has been demolished by Israeli bulldozers or issued with a demolition order.

“All Israeli actions against the village and its residents – the restrictions on entry to Jerusalem, the cutoff of water and electricity, the demolitions, the Wall and the system of closures, the land confiscations, the settlement construction – are illegal under international law,” the authors write. “Numan’s horror story represents the Israeli occupation in microcosm. Hundreds of other villages are experiencing similar fates.”

The Wall was built not only for Israeli security, but for political objectives too, and it is a sign that Israel always intended to retain control over almost all of the West Bank. The building of the wall has led to the confiscation of Palestinian fertile agricultural land and freshwater wells, and has had a disastrous effect on the West Bank and East Jerusalem.
There are photographs from the regular protests against the Wall in the village of Bil’in, against which the Israeli military retaliate. The Bil’in demonstrations are the most prominent and prolonged of the protests that have taken place in villages near the Green Line whose lands have been expropriated, or in some way separated, by the Wall.

The authors do not gloss over the split between Fatah and Hamas and the damaging divisions among the Palestinians. Many Palestinians are disillusioned with their leadership.
The conclusions of the book are not wholly pessimistic. The Christisons state: “The Palestinians know that justice is one their side.” Civil society has been gaining a voice: for example the Palestine Strategic Study Group paper of August 2008, published by 45 civil society activists and others, challenged not only the usual Israeli-US discourse but also the Palestinian leadership.

Bill says he and Kathleen believe that everything that happens in the Middle East is related to “almost everything else” in the region. “What goes on in Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq – all of these things are related in some way, and all taken together are also related to the Palestine issue.”

As long as the US and Israel retain their “excessively close partnership” there will be no end to warfare and terror. “We are not going to have peace in any way, shape or manner in the Middle East or Central Asia until there are massive changes in US foreign policy in the entire area.”
The authors quote the prominent New York-based commentator and journalist Tony Karon, who asked in an article written in February this year: “Will Obama, too, indulge Israeli rejectionism?” The need for an answer to this question becomes more urgent with each day that passes.

Monday, November 16, 2009

shlomo sand book launch at borders

Jewish historian’s book makes waves in London
by Susannah Tarbush
Saudi Gazette 16 November 2009

Borders bookshop in Charing Cross Road, central London, is normally a tranquil haven where book lovers can browse the shelves at leisure and perhaps refresh themselves at the in-house café.

But last week the shop’s calm was shattered by the uproar that erupted during the launch of one of the most controversial books to have been published in London this year: the English-language version of Israeli historian Shlomo Sand’s “The Invention of the Jewish People.”

During the launch certain hard-line supporters of Israel in the audience shouted hostile remarks at the author to the annoyance of other attendees. The vocal pro-Israel faction included Jonathan Hoffman, co-vice chair of the Zionist Federation in Britain, who declared: “Why, Shlomo Sand, have you chosen to write an anti-Semitic book: was it because of the fame, or was it because of the money?” Sand vigorously denied that his book was anti-Semitic and answered his critics’ various points robustly.

“The Invention of the Jewish People” runs to a densely-packed 332 pages, full of references and footnotes. Sand deconstructs the national myths of Israel and asserts there is no”Jewish people”. He argues that there is no evidence for an expulsion and exile of the Jews by the Romans in 70AD, and without exile there is no right to “return”. The “Jewish people” is a construct of Zionist scholars from the 19th century onwards, and most Jews are the descendents of converts to Judaism from early times when it was a proselytizing religion, rather than being descended from Jews of ancient Israel. Four kingdoms saw large-scale conversions to Judaism: the Kingdom of Babylon, the Himyar kingdom in Yemen, a Berber kingdom in North Africa and the Khazar kingdom in the northern Caucasus.

The book has been published simultaneously in the US and UK by the radical publisher Verso. Before his visit to London last week, Sand was in New York to promote the US edition. The original in Hebrew caused enormous controversy in Israel when it was published there last year. It triggered much debate, was widely discussed on TV and in the written media, and became a bestseller.

The French translation, published by Layard, was a bestseller and won this year’s Prix Aujourd’hui, the prize that goes to the best work on contemporary politics or history. The book is set to be available in more languages than any other Israeli history work, with translations under way into eight languages including Arabic, Turkish, Japanese and Indonesian.

The launch at Borders was billed as a ‘Conversation with the New Statesman’ and was chaired by the cultural editor of the New Statesman magazine, Jonathan Derbyshire. Appearing alongside Sand was Labour MP Denis MacShane. MacShane, a former Foreign Office Minister, is chairman of The European Institute for the Study of Contemporary Antisemitism. He spent most of his allotted time talking about Antisemitism in the Middle East rather than discussing Sand’s book, and was interrupted by a couple of members of the audience who reminded him he was there to speak about the book. MacShane responded: “I assume I’m here because I do a lot of work on Antisemitism. I really am not an expert on Shlomo’s thesis at all – I heard him on Start the Week this morning and I thought it was very interesting and convincing.”

Sand is a professor of contemporary history at Tel Aviv University, and his books include volumes on Georges Sorel and on Israeli intellectuals. He explained at the launch that Jewish history is not his field, and that the subject is only supposed to be dealt with the Jewish history departments of Israeli universities. These are quite separate from other history departments because the history of the Jewish people is regarded as “something exceptional”. He noted that the harshest criticisms of his book in Israel came from departments of Jewish history.

As a historian he helps construct the collective memory of his students and readers, and as he grew older he felt it was no longer enough to occupy himself with French or European history and not to touch the history of the Jews and of Zionism.
He writes in his book’s introduction: “I could not have gone on living in Israel without writing this book. I don’t think books can change the world – but when the world beings to change, it searches for different books.”

His visit to London last week attracted a great deal of media attention. He appeared on Start the Week, the one of BBC-Radio 4’s most popular programs, on Monday morning. He was also invited to be interviewed on BBC TV’s World News Today on the basis that the controversy over his book is “an international news story”.
Following the book launch at Borders on Monday he gave a lecture at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), London University Wednesday and on Thursday was in conversation at the Frontline Club with another of the revisionist or new Israeli historians, Avi Shlaim, Professor of International Relations at Oxford University. Shlaim’s latest book “Israel and Palestine: Reappraisals, Revisions, Refutations” was published recently by Verso. The event was chaired by Professor Jacqueline Rose.

Sand marries his critique of Zionist historiographers with severe criticism of Israel. “I think the future of Israel is very dangerous because it defines itself as a Jewish state,” he says. Israel cannot be described as a democratic state while it sees itself as the state of the “Jewish people” rather than as a body representing all its citizens, including the 20 percent of the population which is Arab and a further five per cent also regarded as non-Jewish. Israel defines itself not as a state that belongs to all Israeli citizens but as a state that belongs to all the Jews of the world.

Sand acknowledges that there is rising antisemitism in the Arab world, but says “Israel is giving good reason to hate her. The last Gaza war was proof of our cynicism.” He notes that the 2002 Arab League summit decided to recognize Israel in return for a complete withdrawal from the occupied territories. “What was the response of Israel to this? Everybody knows today that the Arabs will accept – and I am happy they accept – the Israeli state within its 1967 borders but the Israelis insist they want all Jerusalem for themselves.”
He said he was “very pessimistic, and I will continue to write and to fight.”

Monday, November 09, 2009

portrayals of british muslims on stage

Dramas on British Muslim life grab theater audiences
by Susannah Tarbush
Saudi Gazette 9 November 2009

The play “What Fatima Did...”, which ended its two-week premier run at the Hampstead theater in North London last Saturday, is the latest example of a British Muslim-related play to have gained favorable attention from critics and theater goers alike.

The author of the play, 21-year-old Atiha Sen Gupta, is the youngest playwright ever to have had a work staged in Hampstead theater’s main auditorium. Her play deals with the fallout of the decision of a British Muslim, on the eve of her 18th birthday, to start wearing the hijab. Up to then, Fatima had behaved like a typical British girl of her age – drinking, smoking, and partying – and had a white Irish boyfriend, George (Gethin Anthony). But after donning the hijab she turns her back on her former way of life.

Atiha Sen Gupta is not herself a Muslim, but as a young Asian Briton growing up a multicultural environment she is close to Muslim issues. She is the daughter of a Sri Lankan father, and an Indian-born mother, Rahil Gupta, who is a writer and an activist with Southall Black Sisters.

The play, directed by Kelly Wilkinson, is set in and around Fatima’s multicultural secondary school. The performances are full of vitality and humor, and the engaging characters include Fatima’s classmate Craig, played by Simon Coombs [pictured top with Farzaba Dua Elahi, credit Alex Rumford].

Fatima’s twin brother Mohammed (Arsher Ali) tries to defend her against the reactions to her decision to take the veil. Her mother, played by Shobu Kapoor, who had fought with her ex-husband for the right to wear Western dress, is angry with Fatima. George finds it near-impossible to come to terms with Fatima’s decision, and her feisty best friend Aisha (Farzana Dua Elahi) is also perplexed. But others, including her teacher, defend Fatima’s right to have made what she considers the right choice.

“What Fatima Did...” received generally high praise from the critics. Charles Spencer of the Telegraph, for instance, found it “entertaining, thought-provoking and topical, giving a vivid impression of what it is like to be young and growing up in multicultural Britain.”

Fatima herself never appears on stage. This in a way reflects the reality that the veil is frequently talked about by British commentators, but much less is heard publicly from the women who wear the hijab themselves. Cabinet Minister Jack Straw started the debate on the veil when in October 2006 he said he had been asking women wearing the niqab to remove it when they came to consult him, as he felt it impeded communication.

Straw’s comments paved the way for a tougher and more confrontational government attitude towards the Muslim community, partly because of anxieties that there would be further terror attacks following the suicide attacks of the July 7, 2005 attacks on the London transport system.
This has been a fruitful year for Muslim-related theater in London. It got off to a memorable start in February with the staging by the Royal Court theater of Alia Bano’s “Shades” as part of the theater’s Young Writers’ Festival. The Royal Court is encouraging writing by young Muslims through its annual 11-week playwriting course ‘Unheard Voices’. The 26-year-old Bano took part in the first ‘Unheard Voices’, in 2008.
The central character of “Shades”, Sabrina (Stephanie Street), is a British Muslim eager to find a good husband. She goes to a Muslim speed-dating evening and gets to know two potential marriage partners: charming but flashy Ali (Elyes Gabel) and the more religious and traditional Reza (Amit Shah). Her flatmate Zain (Navin Chowdhry) provides her with pithy comments and advice. Matt Wolf of the New York Times wrote of “Shades” that his excitement in finding fine new writing was “matched by my delight in an ensemble packed with talent but, as yet, no well-known names.”

The most high profile work by a writer of Muslim background to be staged so far this year has been “The Black Album” by the acclaimed Pakistani-British writer Hanif Kureishi. “The Black Album”, Kureishi’s second novel, was published in 1995 and is set in 1988/89, in a period marked by furor over Salman Rushdie’s novel “The Satanic Verses”.

To mark the 20th anniversary of the issuing of Ayatollah Khomeini’s fatwa calling for Rushdie’s death, Kureishi transformed the novel into a play which was staged at the Cottesloe theater, part of the National theater in London’s South Bank complex, in July-October. Following its London run the play embarked on a tour of English cities, which ends with a run at the Oxford Playhouse from Nov. 10-14. “The Black Album” is a joint production of the pioneering cross-cultural theater company Tara Arts and the National theater, and is directed by Tara’s artistic director and co-founder Jatinder Verma.

Shahid (Jonathan Bonnici) is a young student newly arrived in London from a provincial town. He is torn between a group of brotherly Muslim students, led by the charismatic activist Riaz (Alexander Andreou), and his attractive hedonistic lecturer Deedee Osgood (Tanya Franks).

The play is energetic, funny, and delivered at a fast pace, but there was some disappointment that it failed to transfer the full richness of the novel to the stage. Although the play generally sticks closely to the novel, there is an allusion to the 7/7 attacks.
In the novel, impressionable hothead Hat is fatally injured while trying to firebomb a bookshop. In the play he picks up a rucksack (similar to those used by the 7/7 suicide bombers) and the play ends with a massive explosion.

Theatrical activity around Muslim themes is taking place not only in mainstream venues, but also at a community level. After 7/7, the government was keen to increase community cohesion as a way of fighting extremism, and saw grassroots theater as having a role in this. It has funded some theater projects through the Community Leadership Fund (CLF) of its Preventing Violent Extremism program.

One beneficiary of CLF funding has been the Khayaal theater Company founded in 1997 by the black American Muslim writer and director Luqman Ali. Khayaal has received CLF funding of nearly 130,000 pounds Sterling to deliver 200 to 250 performances of two plays – “Hearts and Minds” and “Sun and Wind” – in schools across the UK over three years. Both plays address issues of radicalization and extremism at family and community level.

GW Theatre Company’s play “One Extreme to the Other” tackles both right-wing and Islamist extremism. A Muslim youth, Ali, has become entangled with an Islamist extremist, while his former friend Tony is flirting with the racist far right.

The play is primarily aimed at youth audiences aged from 14-25. GW Theatre received a grant of 95,000 pounds to deliver a national tour of the play, around 110 performances over three years, in schools, colleges, youth clubs, community venues and arts centers.

Friday, November 06, 2009

caine prize for african writing 10th anniversary tour

Tenth birthday tour of the Caine Prize for African Writing gets on the road
by Susannah Tarbush
Saudi Gazette, 2 November 2009

All too often Africa only receives coverage in the Western media when bemoaning issues of violence, disease, famine or corruption. But in the cultural field there is better news, and African literature is attracting growing international attention. An important engine of the African literary renaissance has been the Caine Prize for African Writing, and to celebrate the prize’s 10th anniversary, a 10-day tour of England took place in the latter half of October.

The tour featured the 2002 winner of the prize, Binyavanga Wainaina of Kenya, the 2004 winner Brian Chikwava of Zimbabwe, and two Nigerians: this year’s winner E.C. Osondu, and Chika Unigwe, who was shortlisted in 2004.

The Caine Prize is for a short story of between 3,000 and 10,000 words. It is worth 10,000 pounds to the winner, plus a month as a writer in residence at Georgetown University, Washington DC. Each summer the five writers shortlisted for the prize are brought to Britain for the prize-giving dinner at the Bodleian library in Oxford University and for a busy week of book readings, signings, media opportunities and meetings with publishers and literary agents.

The anniversary tour began with a packed event at the British Library in London, introduced by the Nigerian novelist and poet Ben Okri [pictured top signing books after the event]. Okri, who has lived in Britain for many years, was chairman of the judges of the prize in its first year, and is a patron of the prize. In 1991 he won Britain’s most prestigious literary prize, the Booker, for his novel “The Famished Road.”

Okri described the Caine Prize as being “the result of a love story: Baroness Emma Nicholson’s love for Michael Caine, and Michael Caine’s love for Africa.”

The late Sir Michael Caine was the former chairman of Booker plc and for nearly 25 years chairman of the Booker Prize management committee. After his death, his widow Baroness Nicholson, a Liberal Democrat member of the European Parliament, launched the Caine prize in his memory. The prize represents “the translation of grief into dream, and of the dream into reality,” Okri said.

Okri recalled that when the prize was first launched “we didn’t know how it was going to turn out; it had never been done before. I thought it was an extraordinary adventure: submissions were invited and suddenly from all over the continent these entries started coming in. We read our way through hundreds of stories.”
The inaugural prize in 2000 went to the Sudanese-Egyptian writer Leila Aboulela for her story “The Museum.” Okri noted that the prize has so far been won by five women and five men: “there has been no gender bias.”

Okri said he warmed to the Caine Prize because it was for a short story. “I have always felt that the short story is, apart from the sonnet, the most difficult literary form,” he said. “I think what defines it is some mysterious element of inner completion in a small space.

"What the Caine Prize has done in these 10 years is the enabling of a new generation of African writers scattered all over the globe. This has been accomplished under the wise and watchful eye of Nick Elam [administrator of the prize] and Jonathan Taylor [chairman of the Caine Prize Council].”

All four writers on the tour currently live outside Africa. Binyavanga Wainaina is the newly appointed director of the Chinua Achebe Center for African Literature and Languages at Bard College, New York. He used his 2002 Caine Prize money to launch the literary journal Kwani? in Kenya, and is finishing his first novel.

Chikwava’s first novel “Harare North” was published by Jonathan Cape to critical acclaim in April this year. He was a Charles Pick fellow at the University of East Anglia, and his work has been published in several short story collections and magazines. “Harare North” is the term by which London is often known among Zimbabweans.
Chikawava amused the audience with a reading from his novel, in which the first person narrator arrives in Britain as an asylum seeker.

Chika Unigwe
lives in Belgium. Her second novel “On Black Sisters’ Street”, set in the red light district of Antwerp, appeared in Dutch last year and was well received when it was published in English this year. E.C .Osondu is teaching at Providence University on Rhode Island. A collection of his short stories is to be published by Harper Collins next year.

The British Library event was chaired by the distinguished writer and memoirist Aminatta Forna, daughter of a Sierra Leonean father and Scottish mother. She is on the Caine advisory committee and has twice judged the prize. In April this year she was a facilitator at a Caine writing workshop in Ghana.

During a lively discussion between Forna and the writers, she said she was “surprised how few African writers do non-fiction memoir”. She would like to see more travel writing by Africans.

After the British Library event, the Caine tour took in the Cheltenham Literature Festival, the University of Kent, the University of East Anglia in Norwich, Ilkely Literature Festival in Yorkshire, Newcastle University and Lancaster Literature Festival. The tour’s Facebook page includes a separate event held at the Book Lounge in Cape Town, South Africa, on 28 October. Caine Prize winners Henrietta Rose-Innes (2008) and Mary Watson (2006) were in discussion with novelist Imraan Coovadia, who teaches at Cape Town University.

The Facebook page also links to a video blog by Oprah Winfrey, who has chosen the short story collection “Say You’re One of Them” by Nigerian writer Uwem Akpan as a pick for her hugely influential Book Club. Akpan was shortlisted for the Caine Prize in 2007 with the story “My Parents Bedroom”, one of the five stories in the collection. In the video Oprah talks about the “stunning” impact of another story from the collection, “Luxurious Hearses”.

A discussion with Akpan will be the focus on Nov.9 of the biggest-ever Oprah Book Club meeting online, in which and Facebook will also participate.

In addition to the tour, the Caine 10th anniversary has been marked by the publishing by the New Internationalist of the anthology “Ten years of the Caine Prize for African Writing”, which includes all ten stories to have won the prize. There is an introduction by Ben Okri, and stories by two African winners of the Nobel Prize for Literature, Nadine Gordimer and J.M. Coetzee.

Sunday, November 01, 2009

rachel shabi's book 'not the enemy: israel's jews from arab lands'

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.
Susannah Tarbush
[original of article published in Arabic in Al-Hayat on 31 October 2009]