The A-Z of Israel
On 22 January, Israelis will go to the polls. The world watches – but how much do we really know about the country that calls itself “the sole bastion of democracy” in the Middle East?
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M is for Mizrahim
Yemeni Jewish sisters Aden and Jamila as they sit in an apartment in Sanaa. Photograph: Getty Images
Rachel Shabi writes: First-time visitors notice it, but they don’t always know how to put it. They might say that the country is not as “European” as they’d imagined; or perhaps less developed-looking – or, more bluntly, “backward”. One foreign correspondent, on arriving in Tel Aviv and seeing its Mizrahidense, open-air food market, told me: “It’s not exactly Tel Aviv University, is it?”
Global Jewry is predominantly Ashkenazi, or European, in origin but Israel isn’t. Almost 800,000 Jews came to the nascent Israel from all over the Arab and Muslim world: Iraq, Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Iran, Syria, Egypt, Turkey, Yemen, Libya and a few from Leba - non. By the 1980s these oriental or “Mizrahi” Jews (the word means “easterner”) – “black”, as their European co-nationalists sometimes called them – were the majority in Israel. The mass arrival of Jews from the collapsed Soviet Union a decade later reshuffled the pack, so that Mizrahim (the Hebrew plural) now comprise about 40 per cent of the population.
That shows up on the streets – in the food, pop music and dancing, mostly: the harmless stuff. But the reason why Mizrahim are more visibly working the food markets is that they faced persistent discrimination in Israel, whose pioneers (see G for Golda) intended it to be a European construct. Disproportionately sent to Israel’s initial “transit camps” and stuck there longer than others, disproportionately sent to the country’s remote periphery – often at night, told that it was close to main cities – the Mizrahi population grew disadvantaged. They were denied equal access to land and resources, sent to factories and vocational schools and told that their home culture was backward and had to be discarded.
Israel was supposed to be a melting pot, into which everyone’s cultural bounty would be thrown to produce a new, national amalgam – but in reality the country’s culture was set to the tastes of the Europeans in power. Scores of children of first-generation Mizrahim told me how they had become embarrassed about their parents’ Arabic language, their oriental-accented Hebrew (see Q for Qoph) and obsession with Middle Eastern music. Leading Israeli sociologists developed theories about social absorption, claiming that Mizrahi Jews needed to come up to European speed or Israel’s foundations might get swept away.
By the 1970s, it was obvious that class had an ethnic dimension among Israeli Jews, as the majority of welfare recipients were Mizrahi and the majority of the nation’s better-off citizens had European roots. There were mass demonstrations, rapidly mobilised by the Israeli Black Panthers, consciously binding the plight of African Americans to that of the “blacks” in Israel. The Panthers didn’t just want an equal share of the pie, they wanted Mizrahi involvement in its distribution. But these demonstrations were vilified by the government and media, crushed and semico- opted, while the social causes were dismissed – as they always are.
In the late 1970s the right-wing Likud party clocked that the way to dislodge Labour, the European-dominated party that had been in power since 1948, was to play for the Mizrahi vote. Likud’s then leader, Menachem Begin, visited the country’s Mizrahi-dense slum cities and peripheral towns and addressed people’s sense of alienation and discrimination. So popular was he that, at one point, rumours began circulating among the Mizrahim that the Polish-born Begin was in fact Moroccan. He won by a landslide in 1977. And then in the next election, in 1981, Labour put out leaflets that depicted oriental-looking crowds with the tagline: “This time you must choose between this sort of reality, or an enlightened government.”
Israel is still in denial about its denigration of Mizrahim and, by extension, the disdain for a long, proud Jewish history in the Middle East. Even those who concede that there was historic discrimination say it was not deliberate, and in any case has been redressed. They will talk about intermarriage between Ashkenazi and Mizrahi Jews, as though this is how dominant cultures stop dominating. Yet there remain gaps in education, employment and pay. And there is still an absence of Mizrahi faces in the judiciary and academia, on serious radio and television, or even in serious advertising (Mizrahim get to appear in ads for down-to earth products such as hummus and the lottery; European Jews sell cars, banks and education courses). The ethnic dispute persists, unresolved but unforgotten – weakening Israeli society and disconnecting the country from its own Arab heritage. And, by extension, from the region, too.
Rachel Shabi is the author of “Not the Enemy: Israel’s Jews from Arab Lands” (Yale University Press, £10.99)