How to Assassinate a Sephardi: The Calumnies of Meyrav Wurmser

How to Assassinate a Sephardi: The Calumnies of Meyrav Wurmser

Hey now what you doing
Don’t go down the road to ruin
Look back at where you came from
Count to ten before you go wrong.

You’ve got to hold your head up high
You know it’s not too late to try
You’ve got to lift that heavy load
You’ve got to get back in control.

New Order, “Hey Now What You Doing” (2005)

Many critiques of Sephardim are filled with an overt viciousness.  In Avi Picard’s recent attack on Ella Shohat in the right wing Zionist journal Azure he slammed Shohat for her ostensible irreligiosity and the ways in which her Sephardi critique of Zionism does not fit into the larger social patterns of Sephardi self-perception in Israel at present.  The writings of Norman Stillman and Bernard Lewis combine a radical critique of Arab society as a backward and reactionary civilization that served to eviscerate the Jewish presence in its midst with a clear demeaning of Sephardim. 

Even worse is when Sephardim are set off to the side and ignored.  A reactionary like Daniel Pipes rarely if ever speaks about Sephardim at all - his gaze is completely fixated on the degenerate Arabs whose very existence is so repugnant to the Jewish state.  The focus thus goes on the Arabs and not on those Jews who were once their neighbors.  Once assimilated into the Jewish mindset, this position not only removes Sephardim from the discourse, it turns the Sephardim themselves blank to their own concerns as a community.

Meyrav Wurmser, a member of the Pipes group, is a very intelligent writer who does something that we have yet to see from her fellow travelers: In her article that we print below, Wurmser lays out fairly accurately the case being made by Sephardi activists in Israel with regard to the destructive transformation of Sephardi life in Israel since 1948.  Wurmser thus takes a new and a different tack than the overt anti-Sephardism like Stillman and Lewis and the silent apathy of Pipes.

In the first half of the piece - after letting us know that, just like Golda Meir once said, these Sephardim are “not nice” - she slyly lays out her case by setting out the Sephardi critique in a cogent manner.  We see that issues such as the Yemenite babies, the DDT, the social humiliation and all the rest are confirmed and explicitly acknowledged - a rarity among Zionist partisans who have continued to battle with Sephardi activists and deny the coherence of their critique.

Wurmser is therefore much smarter than her colleagues on the Right because she accepts the premises of the Sephardi critique before she tries to assassinate the messengers of Sephardi integrity.

After enumerating the wrongs that the state of Israel has perpetrated against the Sephardim - none of which are in dispute, though she does not mention the matter of the Ringworm Children which is still being contested by the Ashkenazim - she fixes her sights on the Sephardi activists and accuses them of treason.

First, there is the question of whether these Sephardi activists want to destroy the state of Israel.  Such a canard slips through the cracks of the article practically unnoticed because rhetorically Wurmser has verified the Sephardi critique.  By so doing, Wurmser sneaks in this slander against the Sephardi activists and does not utilize one single footnote to do so. Indeed, it might be seen that Wurmser, in keeping with the radical Right Wing provenance of the group that she is a part of, tries to argue not that these writers wish to destroy the state of Israel - but to destroy the version of the state that she and her cohorts believe in.  There is absolutely no evidence that any of these writers have ever called for the destruction of the state of Israel - but such slanders are common to writers like Wurmser who traffic in such partisan name calling.

By labeling these Sephardim as Post-Zionists, Wurmser is using some loaded code-words that are meant to communicate to her readers - those who share her worldview - that these Sephardim are pinko agitators and malcontents that do not belong in the civilized world of political discourse.

The means by which she disarms and ultimately tries to kill off the Sephardi critique of Zionism and the state of Israel is on the one hand by acknowledging the truth claims of Sephardi oppression and then on the other hand to decry as illegitimate any attempt to articulate those claims in a free and open manner.

Israel is purportedly a democracy, but it does seem rather strange that those who espouse the most virulent and racist forms of Zionism are constantly berating and de-legitimizing the rights of others - in this case the Sephardim - from freely criticizing those who have wronged them.  It should be remembered that by vilifying these Sephardim as traitors that Wurmser is subtly trying to remove their voices from the discourse.

How and under what circumstances would Wurmser permit the Sephardim to air their grievances?

What mechanisms would Wurmser put into place to redress these grievances?

We hear Wurmser go on about the ways in which Sephardim have “integrated” into the state of Israel and have become Likud-niks and have rejected the approach of these Sephardi activists.  What we do not hear is how Sephardi self-perception has been, as the Sephardi activists have stated so eloquently, reduced to a cipher in Israel and consequently in the Diaspora where an Ashkenazi-centric form of Jewish self-perception has permeated the entire Jewish community - including the Sephardim. 

It is quite true that Sephardim in Israeli and by default in the Diaspora have not by and large signed on to the program of the so-called Sephardi radicals.  The institutional logjam that has been created, and is firmly implanted and affirmed by Wurmser in her article, is one that demands an Ashkenazi self-identification for Jews.  Wurmser is effectively silent on the issue of Sephardi history and education in Israel and the Diaspora.  As we see with the very omnipresence of Holocaust Day, all Jewish children are taught about the tragedy of the Camps, but these same children are taught nothing about the world of Arab Jews.

As Wurmser points out, the very connections between Jews who were native to the Middle East and their Arab Muslim neighbors have been torn asunder.  The Ashkenazi Zionist version of Arab Jewish history where the Arabs persecuted Jews for many centuries has been adopted in a blanket fashion by all institutions of Jewish learning - secular and religious, Israeli and American.  The very interconnectedness between Jews and their Arab Muslim neighbors has been rewritten and the sources of this history from Wolfson to Goitein to Beinin have all been occluded and made absent from the present discourse.

So as you read the Wurmser article you must understand that her mode of argument is highly sophisticated yet it leads to the same end as those of her predecessors like Norman Stillman, Bernard Lewis and the others - the Sephardim need to shut up and get with the program.  Suck it up and forget about it.

That discrimination still exists - BIG DEAL - be happy that you are in Israel and do not even try to criticize it or we will call you all sorts of names like TRAITOR and POST-ZIONIST!

That your history has become invisible and your culture has been eviscerated - DON’T WORRY - we are all ONE PEOPLE - just become ASHKENAZI and everything will be fine!

Meyrav Wurmser has understood that if the Sharon plan succeeds and there is - God should let it happen - peace between Israelis and Palestinians that the social inequalities in Israel and the maltreatment of the Sephardim will finally come to be heard.  There are great fears in Ashkenazi Zionist circles that a day of reckoning will one day come and that the Sephardim will eventually wake up from their stupor.  Indeed, one thing that Wurmser is completely correct about is that the Sephardim have been narcoleptic when it comes to what the radicals have been saying.

For this, Judaism has an apt model.  The Biblical prophet Jeremiah ranted and railed against the Jews of his time and preached Exile and Calamity for them and their state. 

I suppose that Jeremiah was also a POST-ZIONIST!

The tradition of critique is a Jewish legacy that has been actively utilized for many centuries.  In the Sephardi world disputes were handled in a fair and equitable manner through a system of rabbinical courts.  In the Ashkenazi world critique was handled through the agency of the HEREM, the rabbinical ban and anathema that cut a Jew off from his or her community.  In the Ashkenazi world new sects and communities would be created when the HEREM was utilized.  The inner unity of the community was torn asunder - unlike in the Sephardi world where community togetherness, SHALOM BAYIT, was of prime importance.

As Wurmser correctly states, the Sephardim have been oppressed and continue to be oppressed, by the Ashkenazim.  We need to develop mechanisms to address these problems - mechanisms that the Sephardi activists - who Wurmser seeks to assassinate by de-legitimizing them and slandering them - are trying to create.

The crimes of the Ashkenazim have been swept under the rug for decades now.  A number of Sephardi writers in Israel and America have been trying to have the grievances of the Sephardim heard and redressed.  Writers like Meyrav Wurmser, cannily trying to co-opt the critique, are working through their institutional bases to prevent these very activists from even being heard.  The net aim of her pathetic article is to silence the voices of Sephardim who dare to stand up to their Ashkenazi oppressors.

The idea is to innoculate Zionist readers with an antidote that will have them see Ella Shohat, Sami Chetrit, Yehuda Shenhav and the others as hateful lunatics whose work has no legitimate purpose.

One should not underestimate the power of institutions like The Hudson Institute and The Middle East Forum, read by many policy-makers world-wide, to set the agenda and mark the way that the debate is to function.

Tragically, there are many Sephardim who will adopt Meyrav Wurmser’s perspective, as she herself states, and anathematize their own community activists - those Sephardim whose love and allegiance for their own community is far more significant than that of Sephardim whose institutional role has been to decimate their own culture and history while scratching their heads when they see that their culture is being completely lost.

We owe a debt of gratitude to those Sephardim who, like Jeremiah, are unafraid to speak truth to power and work diligently - no matter the political cost - to protect the dignity of their fellow Sephardim.  We must stand by their side against the despicable and vicious onslaught of writers and Sephardi-haters like Meyrav Wurmser who would simply have us lay down and die.

David Shasha

Post-Zionism and the Sephardi Question
By: Meyrav Wurmser

A growing group of Jewish Israeli professors is challenging the legitimacy of the Israeli state from within. Many are Mizrahim, as the Sephardi Jews from the Middle East and North Africa are increasingly called, and do so from a distinctly Mizrahi outlook. In July 2004, for example, a poem appeared online entitled, “I Am an Arab Refugee”:

When I hear Fayruz[1] singing,
“I shall never forget thee, Palestine,”
I swear to you with my right hand
that at once I am a Palestinian.
All of a sudden I know:
I am an Arab refugee
and, if not,
let my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth.[2]

The author is not a Palestinian refugee but rather an Israeli Jew. His name is Sami Shalom Chetrit, a Mizrahi professor at Hebrew University in Jerusalem who, along with Mizrahi academics like Ella Shohat, Eli Avraham, Oren Yiftachel, Yehouda Shenhav, Pnina Motzafi-Haller and others has developed a radical critique of ethnic relations in Israel. True to post-Zionism, an intellectual movement that believes that Zionism lacks moral validity, post-Zionist Mizrahi writers believe that Israel has no right to exist as a Jewish state. According to Mizrahi post-Zionism, the Mizrahim, about half of Israel’s Jewish population, are “Arab-Jews,” who like the Palestinians are victims of Zionism. While this new school of intellectual radicalism remains so far contained within the halls of academia and without broad support among the broader Mizrahi population, it, nevertheless, represents a new and worrisome twist on the post-Zionist phenomenon that continues to dominate Israel’s academia and media.

The Mizrahi Rejection of Zionism

At the center of the radical, post-Zionist Mizrahi critique is a deep feeling of victimization. The post-Zionist Mizrahi writers continue to live their parents’ insults and humiliations at the hands of the European Ashkenazi Jewish establishment that absorbed them in Israel after immigration. Discriminatory policies created a continuing social and economic gap between Mizrahim and Ashkenazim. These academics promote the view held by many young Mizrahim that discrimination did not end with their parents’ generation. The children—who, in large part, were born in Israel—continue to face discrimination and cope with social and economic handicaps.

The radical Mizrahim who turned to post-Zionism tap into anger beyond the well-known complaints of past ill-treatment, including the maabarot, the squalid tent cities into which Mizrahim were placed upon arrival in Israel; the humiliation of Moroccan and other Mizrahi Jews when Israeli immigration authorities shaved their heads and sprayed their bodies with the pesticide DDT[3]; the socialist elite’s enforced secularization; the destruction of traditional family structure, and the reduced status of the patriarch by years of poverty and sporadic unemployment. These Mizrahi intellectuals’ fury extends beyond even the state-sponsored kidnapping of Yemeni infants for adoption by Ashkenazi families who lost their children in the Holocaust.[4] The real anger Sephardim feel nowadays, and upon which these Mizrahi post-Zionists seize, comes from the extent to which, in their view, the Zionist narrative denied, erased, and excluded their historical identity.

Some of the adherents of this new Israeli school of thought now equate Mizrahi grievances with those of Palestinians. In an article, “Zionism from the Standpoint of Its Jewish Victims,” a takeoff on Edward Said’s famous “Zionism from the Standpoint of its [Palestinian] Victims,”[5] Ella Habiba-Shohat, an Iraqi-Israeli woman and one of the principal Mizrahi post-Zionist leaders, claims that, alongside the Palestinians, Mizrahi Jews are Zionism’s “other” victims.[6] According to Shohat, Zionism is a white, Ashkenazi phenomenon, based on the denial of the Orient and the rights of both Mizrahi Jews and the Palestinians. Indeed, she argues, the conflict of East versus West, Arab versus Jew, and Palestinian versus Israeli exists not only between Israelis and Arabs but also within Israel between Ashkenazi and Mizrahi Jews.

This view contradicts the mainstream Zionist narrative, which maintains that Zionism saved Mizrahi Jews.[7] According to this view, the Mizrahi Jews were devout Zionists who deeply wished to leave the Diaspora and return to Zion.[8] Zionism saved these Mizrahim when persecution in their Arab and Iranian homelands intensified after Israel’s independence. It also rescued them from the backwardness of Arab society and introduced them to the technology and culture of the civilized world. Zionism helped them to overcome the disadvantages of the illiterate, despotic societies from which they came.

In contrast, post-Zionist Mizrahi writers believe that this official Zionist account is false and needs to be de-constructed. They maintain that the Mizrahim did not come from backward or primitive societies. Cities like Alexandria, Baghdad, and Istanbul were great metropolises of wealth and culture. Most Mizrahim had been exposed to Western culture and ideas since they came from countries once subject to British or French rule. The Mizrahim were also largely literate, if not highly educated. Most men and even some women could read the Torah.

The post-Zionist writers also attack the claim that the Mizrahi Jews longed to immigrate to Israel. In reality, they argue, as loyal residents of the Arab world, Zionism played a relatively minor role in the Mizrahi world-view. Despite the role that the longing for Zion played in their religious lives, they did not share the European-Zionist desire to leave the Diaspora. Even after the Holocaust, post-Zionist writers maintain, Mizrahi Jews remained largely opposed to Zionism and lived peacefully with their Arab neighbors. Yehouda Shenhav, professor of sociology and anthropology at Tel Aviv University, writes in his study of the Jews of Iraq that the Mizrahim were never really Zionists. Instead, he argues that the Ashkenazi establishment encouraged their immigration less to protect the Mizrahim and more to address its own need for cheap labor.[9] Instead of saving the Mizrahi Jews, Zionism only ruthlessly displaced an entire community, Shenhav maintains, and removed its members’ right to determine their own future. Pursuing this logic to its end, he argues that Zionism cannot be considered a liberation movement for all Jews. It liberated European Jews but enslaved the Mizrahim who, like the Palestinians, are an abused Third World people suffering under the yoke of first world Ashkenazi oppressors.

One of the main complaints of this radical intellectual school is the belief that Zionism destroyed the Mizrahi sense of community and culture by forcing the adoption of new “Zionist” and “Israeli” identities so as to eradicate any threat of a Mizrahi-Arab alliance. This action not only destroyed the natural Arab-Jewish identity of the Mizrahim, these post-Zionists argue, but also sparked the Arab-Israeli conflict. Shiko Behar, a Mizrahi post-Zionist writer, asserts that identity in the Middle East today is shaped around post-colonial nationalism, not the religious division between Muslim and non-Muslim Arabs.[10]

Before the rise of modern Jewish and Arab nationalism, Mizrahim and Arabs could coexist without conflict because they all shared an Arab identity and only differed in their religious beliefs.[11] In Zionist Israel, continues Behar, the Mizrahim could not be considered Arab-Jews even if their historical identity was more closely aligned with the Arab rather than Israeli identity. The Arab-Israeli conflict meant that the Mizrahim were forced to choose: either they were Jews, or they were Arabs. Mizrahim suffered communal schizophrenia because, for the first time since perhaps the time of the Caliph Harun ar-Rashid (763-809) when the Islamic caliph forced Jews to wear yellow patches, Arabism and Judaism were in conflict. Yet for this very reason, argues Behar, the Mizrahim—victimized by both Ashkenazi Zionism and the rise of Arab nationalism—are the key factor in solving the Arab-Israeli conflict. They alone can serve as the bridgehead into the Arab world since they, like the Palestinians, are refugees whose identity was destroyed.[12]

Zionism and the Mizrahim: What Went Wrong?

The Mizrahi academic embrace of post-Zionism is an attempt to address a broader, genuine problem. Post-Zionist Mizrahi writers present a compelling account of the systematic economic and ethnic discrimination that they personally, their families, and Mizrahi Jews in general have faced since the establishment of Israel to the present day. They provide evidence of discrimination and racist attitudes beginning with the early years of statehood. For example, in 1949, Ashkenazi journalist Aryeh Gelblum wrote the following about the arriving Mizrahi immigrants:

This is the immigration of a race we have not yet known in the country. We are dealing with people whose primitivism is at a peak, whose level of knowledge is one of virtually absolute ignorance and, worse, who have little talent for understanding anything intellectual. Generally, they are only slightly better than the general level of the Arabs, Negroes, and Berbers in the same regions. In any case, they are at an even lower level than what we know with regard to the former Arabs of Israel. These Jews also lack roots in Judaism, as they are totally subordinated to savage and primitive instincts. As with Africans you will find among them gambling, drunkenness, and prostitution ... chronic laziness and hatred for work; there is nothing safe about this asocial element. [Even] the kibbutzim will not hear of their absorption.[13]

Gelblum was not alone. Post-Zionist Mizrahim quote one of Israel’s leading intellectuals in the 1950s, Karl Frankenstein, a celebrated professor at Hebrew University and the man considered the father of the Israeli education system. Frankenstein expressed outright racist attitudes towards Mizrahim, writing, “We have to recognize the primitive mentality of many of the immigrants from backward countries.”[14] He further suggested that Mizrahi Jews have the mentality of primitive people who are somewhat mentally disturbed.[15] Israeli sociologist Yosef Gross argued in the early 1950s that Mizrahi immigrants suffered from “mental regression.”[16] One of the worst examples of the anti-Mizrahi discrimination involves The Ashkenazi Revolution published in 1964 by writer Kalman Katzenelson in which the author argues that the Mizrahim suffer from irreversible genetic inferiority that endangers the superiority of the Ashkenazi-Zionist state. He called for the establishment of an apartheid regime that, among other limitations, would abolish their political rights. He also objected to mixed marriages and demanded the prohibition of the Hebrew language because it resembled Arabic too greatly. Instead he demanded that Yiddish become the national language because of its supreme Germanic origins. His book was a bestseller until Ben-Gurion banned it.[17]
The sentiments expressed by these intellectuals, the Mizrahi post-Zionists argue, were not uncommon. There were racist attitudes toward the Mizrahi Jews even among the highest political levels. Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion described the Mizrahi immigrants as lacking even “the most elementary knowledge” or “a trace of Jewish or human education.”[18] Furthermore, he said, “We do not want Israelis to become Arabs. We are bound by duty to fight against the spirit of the Levant that corrupts individuals and society.”[19] Likewise, Abba Eban, one of Israel’s most eloquent diplomats, noted that “one of the great apprehensions which afflict us is the danger of the predominance of immigrants of Oriental origin forcing Israel to equalize its cultural level with that of the neighboring world.”[20] In 1949, Shoshana Frasitz, a member of the Knesset, said of the Mizrahim, “You know that we have no common language with them. Our cultural level does not fit with their level; their lifestyle is the lifestyle of the middle ages.”[21] Nachum Goldman, chairman of the Jewish Agency and president of the World Zionist Organization in the late 1940s and 1950s, said, “A Jew from Eastern Europe is worth twice as much as a Jew from Kurdistan,” and continued, “We should return a hundred thousand of the Jews of the East to their countries of origin.”[22] Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir once asked, “Shall we be able to elevate these immigrants to a suitable level of civilization?”[23]

The current clique of radical post-Zionist Mizrahim argues that such attitudes have not disappeared from Israel. Even as late as 1983, for example, the left-wing liberal and Palestinian-rights advocate, Shulamit Aloni, who headed the Citizens’ Rights party and served as a member of the Knesset, denounced the Mizrahim as “barbarous tribal forces” who were “driven like a flock to the sound of tom-toms … chanting like a savage tribe.”[24] In the same year, the celebrated Ashkenazi columnist Amnon Dankner raised the possibility of an Ashkenazi-Mizrahi cultural war in Ha’aretz:

This will not be a war among brothers … [because] these are not my brothers … The sticky blanket of “Jewish love and brotherhood” is thrown on my head and I am asked to be considerate of the [Mizrahi] cultural deficit and the authentic feelings of discrimination. My blood boils when I hear those hypocritical calls. They put me in a cage with a baboon running amok and then they tell me: “Okay, now you are together and begin a dialogue.…” Now I want to tell you that I am tired of empathizing and understanding. I have heard all the stories about discrimination, the social-economic gap, the feelings of frustration, the DDT and the maabarot. [I am told that] we [the Ashkenazim] have Heine, Freud, Einstein, and the wonderful synthesis between Judaism and Western culture, but the [Mizrahim] also have some wonderful things: hospitality, respect for mother and father, and a wonderful patriarchal tradition. … For me, however, they are not among the traits that I wish to see in the society that my spiritual fathers and I dreamed about establishing here: an exemplary and modern society laced with the most beautiful visions of humanistic liberalism. [Still] the advocates of Jewish love and brotherhood say, “Do not call them [the Mizrahim] Khomeini-like or primitive. It makes them even angrier.’[25]

These anti-Mizrahi attitudes, argue the post-Zionist Mizrahim, exist in the depiction of Mizrahim in movies, literary works, and especially, the media. They quote the findings of researcher Eli Avraham who investigated the media portrayal of the Mizrahim in the 1980s and 1990s. He found a number of recurring themes were associated with the Mizrahim. Those included violence, crime, and social unrest; unseemliness and neglect; limited future prospects; a herd mentality, and ethnically-determined political identity; an inability to be “like us [Ashkenazim]; and a syndrome of ‘primitivism.’”[26]

While anti-Mizrahi attitudes are a legitimate concern, for radical post-Zionist writers, the problem does not end with the racism of some of Israel’s founding fathers, politicians, and intellectuals. For them, the core issue is economic and social discrimination. In the 1970s, the Mizrahi Black Panther movement emerged to address economic and social discrimination through violent protests. Prime Minister Golda Meir ordered a brutal crackdown on the movement, which took its revolutionary outlook from the African American struggle in the United States and Marxist movements in Latin America. Radical post-Zionists believe that socioeconomic discrimination continues to exist, and they see it as the key factor that has led the Mizrahim to vote in droves since 1988 for the religious Mizrahi party Shas.

The Persistent Social Gap

According to the radical Mizrahi critique, one of the great recent myths about Israel is that the social, economic, and educational gap between the Ashkenazim and the Mizrahim—which peaked in the 1960s and 1970s—finally closed in the 1990s. According to this myth, after years of Ashkenazi state-run and personal discrimination, the Mizrahim, who until the Russian immigration of the 1990s represented the majority of Israelis, were able to finally catch up to the standards of Ashkenazi Israel.
There were many reasons to believe that the great social and economic gap between the Mizrahim and Ashkenazis had closed and that discrimination had become a thing of the past. Since the 1980s, a growing number of Mizrahim have held key positions in the Israeli government and military establishments. Moshe Katzav won the presidency in August 2000, while David Levi, Meir Schitrit, Aryeh Der’i, Shaul Mofaz, and Shlomo Ben-Ami have held top ministerial portfolios in a number of governments. The Israeli military is a tool of social mobility, and several of its high-ranking officers and chiefs-of-staff have been Mizrahim. Moreover, Israel underwent somewhat of a cultural revolution starting in the 1980s and 1990s; much popular culture today is dominated by Mizrahi music, traditions, and customs. Sometimes this translates into the politicization of Mizrahi traditions. For example, attending the Moroccan-Jewish celebration of the Mimuna, which marks the end of Passover, is now a must for every Ashkenazi prime minister and aspiring politician. On that day, the media is full of reports of top politicians visiting Mizrahi homes and tasting the traditional bread (mofleta) baked by the women of the house.

But despite the appearance of change and of a closing Ashkenazi-Mizrahi gap, studies show that during the 1990s the disparity between Ashkenazim and Mizrahim in Israel grew. Even in the late 1990s, 88 percent of upper-income Israelis were Ashkenazim while 60 percent of lower-income families were Mizrahim.[27] In spite of the general increase in standard of living in Israel, the gap between Israeli-born Ashkenazim and Mizrahim, especially in housing, remains comparable to their parents’ generation. In other areas such as income, the gap has only become wider. In fact, as Yoav Peled, a Tel Aviv University political scientist, demonstrated, a “cultural division of labor” characterized Israel in the 1990s when, within the Jewish population, the vast majority of the low income and impoverished families were of Mizrahi origin. The lower-middle class consisted of both Ashkenazi and Mizrahi families, with a small Ashkenazi majority, while the upper-middle and upper classes were almost exclusively Ashkenazi.

Even though the Mizrahim account for almost half of Israel’s population, even as late as 2000, there was still only one Mizrahi for every four college-educated Ashkenazim. Sami Shalom Chetrit’s works focus largely on the gap in education between Mizrahim and Ashkenazim. He argues that the gap has resulted from state policies that have not changed significantly since the 1950s.[28] In areas more densely populated by Ashkenazi Jews, high schools focused on college preparation. But, in mostly Mizrahi areas, the state built special high schools (called makif and amal), which offer mostly vocational training. While in theory these schools included a single class of approximately 30 students who could aspire to higher education, my own experience growing up in the almost completely Mizrahi town of Ramle, Israel, was that far fewer succeeded. I attended a school of 700 students; only 37 students per grade were allowed to engage in full academic study. Of these, only three of us actually graduated high school and went onto higher education. The existence of separate education systems has meant that the disparity in higher education has continued. Naturally, differences in levels of education lead to differences in occupation and income.

As researcher Ya’akov Nahon has noted, since the 1980s, the socioeconomic gap divides Israeli society into two ethnic groups even among the second-generation population. He suggested that despite intermarriages and the process of socialization of the Mizrahim into Ashkenazi society, the gaps between the two groups did not close and even grew. Part of the problem stems from basic unequal conditions between Mizrahim and Ashkenazim: the Mizrahim tend to have larger families, their economic situation was worse from the start, and their negative image in society has made them less able to catch up to the Ashkenazim.[29]

Is Post Zionism the Answer?

The Mizrahi post-Zionist allegations about the systemic ethnic, cultural, and socioeconomic discrimination that marked much of Israeli society in its early years are truthful. The claim that Mizrahim continue to live the consequences of this type of discrimination is not a distortion. The examples they point to are neither fabricated nor taken out of context. They represent a dark chapter in Israeli history that remains open even today. They also reflect genuine feelings of fury and insult against the Ashkenazi establishment that exist among many second- and third-generation Mizrahim. Although intermarriage between Mizrahi and Ashkenazi families takes place in growing numbers and might eventually lead to the end of the discrimination, two distinct ethnic identities and subcultures still exist today. The socioeconomic differences between the impoverished, predominantly Mizrahi development towns along Israel’s borders and the wealthy, mostly Ashkenazi urban neighborhoods of Israel’s large cities are striking. So, too, are the economic and cultural differences between those who are popularly known in Hebrew as the tzfonim—literally, those who reside in the north, a reference to the wealthy and mostly Ashkenazi Herzliya and northern Tel-Aviv neighborhoods—and the dromim, the residents of the south, the Mizrahim who reside in the poor areas of south Tel-Aviv and its southern suburbs.

With this in mind, the post-Zionist Mizrahi radical rejection of Zionism and the Israeli state is the wrong medicine for the disease. Rejecting Zionism is opting for a solution that is outside the Israeli political system. Such a solution will contribute little to solving the existing problems of Israeli society and its Mizrahi population. Destroying the state of Israel will not make the Mizrahim more equal or accepted by either Jewish or Arab societies.

Taking a radical stand against the state of Israel means that the post-Zionists undermine the achievements and accomplishments of Mizrahim in Israel. Years of Mizrahi history in the Jewish state are dismissed by the post-Zionists as atypical or unimportant. Their many successes are ignored and belittled. In so doing, the post-Zionist Mizrahi writers portray the members of their community as the passive object of history. They are forever the victims, too weak to rebel and too naive to fight the system. Although some Mizrahi writers, such as Chetrit, emphasize in their works the story of the Mizrahi uprising against the state at different points of time, this remains a story of a small minority even within the Mizrahi community. It does not offset the general tone of the post-Zionist writers, which remains one of helplessness and weakness.

Moreover, much of the post-Zionist Mizrahi outlook is based on nostalgic reminiscences of the Arab world rather than an unsentimental view of what it was then and now. Even if the post-Zionist point of view were adopted by scores of Mizrahim, it is hard to believe that they could safely go back to residing as “Arab-Jews” in countries like Iraq, Syria, or Libya. Long years of Arab-Israeli conflict exposed Arab society to so much anti-Semitism and hatred toward Israel that the safety and security of Mizrahim who might desire to be a part of the Arab world again would be threatened. This exposes yet another weakness in the post-Zionist argument: the assumption that the Arab-Israeli conflict is one-sided and is only the result of the manipulations of Zionism. The post-Zionists Mizrahi writers forget that the Arab world continues to play a role in the conflict. The Arab world’s version of Arab nationalism was inspired since its creation by both fascism and Islamic fundamentalism—two movements which have by no means been kind to Jews. Modern Arab nationalism—and not “Ashkenazi” Zionism—is no less responsible for the conflict between Arabs and Israelis.

In their attempt to end what they view as the oppression of the Mizrahi Jews, the post-Zionist Mizrahi academics claim to speak in the name of liberty, justice, and equality. Their argument is that the Mizrahim need to break the chains of enslavement in Israel and declare themselves as Arab Jews in order to liberate themselves and revive their self-definition and self-respect. But the post-Zionists once again ignore Middle Eastern reality: what they advocate would put half the Jewish population of Israel under the rule of Arab tyrants since there is as yet no democracy in the Arab world. The so-called liberation of the Mizrahi Jews will only expose them to new forms of oppression.

The Future of Mizrahi Post-Zionism

Perhaps the greatest difficulty with the post-Zionist agenda stems from the fact that its proponents lack a substantial following among the Mizrahim in Israel.
Mizrahim tend not only to view themselves as ardent Zionists, but they also tend to hold religious and nationalist views that lead them to support the Israeli Right in national elections. Perhaps rooted in their families’ past experiences, most hold an antagonistic view of the Arab world and find the attempt to define them as Arab Jews rather than as Israelis insulting.

Post-Zionist Mizrahi writers seem to be aware of this problem, and some of them complain about their Mizrahi brethren who cannot understand what is in their own best interest. Other post-Zionist writers, such as Ella Shohat, explain the political behavior of the Mizrahim as the result of years of Ashkenazi oppression. In her view, Mizrahim have internalized the condescending Ashkenazi attitude toward them to such an extent that they have turned into self-hating Mizrahim. In other words, the East came to view itself through the West’s distorting mirror. Shohat quotes Malcolm X who said that the white man’s worst crime was to make the black man hate himself.[30] She maintains that Mizrahi hatred toward the Arabs is no more than self-hatred caused by long exposure to Ashkenazi ill treatment.[31] But in their argument, Shohat and her colleagues once again belittle their Mizrahi brothers and sisters whose political behavior they explain not as a matter of independent, mature political choice but rather as yet another unintended consequence of Ashkenazi action. In so doing, they present the Mizrahim as childlike people who cannot understand their own best interests and cannot manage to vote “correctly.” This is hardly an argument that can contribute to Mizrahi pride or liberation.

Furthermore, to claim that the Mizrahim cannot express themselves within the Israeli political system, as the post-Zionists argue, is to ignore reality. The electoral victories of the Likud party in 1977 and 1981 were the outcome of the Mizrahi ethnic vote protesting the Ashkenazi elite’s failure in the 1973 war, its corruption, and its condescending attitude toward non-Ashkenazi Israelis. Likewise, the rise to power of the ultra-orthodox Mizrahi Shas party as the third largest political force in Israel in the 1999 elections demonstrates the Mizrahi ability not only to influence Israeli politics but also to master the political system and determine Israel’s political future. Regardless of the politics of Likud or Shas, the Mizrahi ability to understand that they can determine and change their country’s future by using democratic means shows not only a high degree of political maturity but also the aptitude to internalize the democratic process and rules.

The Mizrahi ability to master the democratic game might arguably be where their greatest contribution to Israeli society can be found. Until the Likud victory in 1977, Israeli politics were characterized by single-party rule. The left-wing Labor party (or its splinter, Mapai) had dominated Israeli politics since Israel’s 1948 independence. Only the Mizrahi vote in support of Likud in 1977 turned the Israeli political system for the first time into a full multiple-party, liberal-democracy. Ultimately, Mizrahi power remains its most effective when it continues as an integral part of the democratic Zionist process.
Meyrav Wurmser is the director of the Center for Middle East Policy at the Hudson Institute.

[1] A famous Arab singer born in Lebanon.

[2] Sami Shalom Chetrit, “Ani Palit Aravi,” 2004.

[3] Dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane, a toxic chemical banned in the United States in 1972 due to health and environmental risks.

[4] See, for example, Yael Tzadok, “Yaldi Timan: Hakonflict Shemerov Pahad Mechanim Oto Shed Vemachnisim Oto Lebakbuk,” Kedma, Dec. 2000.

[5] Edward Said, “Zionism from the Standpoint of Its Victims,” in Moustafa Bayoumi and Andrew Rubin, eds., The Edward Said Reader (New York: Random House Inc., 2000), pp. 114-68.

[6] Ella Shohat, “Mizrahim in Israel: Zionism from the Standpoint of Its Jewish Victims,” Social Text, Fall 1988, pp. 1-35.

[7] On Zionism as an Ashkenazi phenomenon, see, Pnina Motzafi-Haller, “A Mizrahi Call for a More Democratic Israel—Israel at 50,” Tikkun, Mar.-Apr. 1988.

[8] Yehuda Shenhav, Hayehudim-Aravim: Leumiyut, Dat, ve’Etniyut (Tel Aviv: Am Oved, 2003), pp. 24-55.

[9] Yitzhak Dahan, “Waters of Babylon,” review of Yehouda Shenhav, The Arab-Jews: Nationalism, Religion, and Ethnicity (Tel Aviv: Am Oved, 2003), in Azure, Winter 5765/2005, p. 127.

[10] Shiko Behar, “Is the Mizrahi Question Relevant to the Future of the Entire Middle East?” Kedma, Jan. 1997.

[11] Norman Stillman, The Jews of Arab Lands: A History and Source Book (Philadelphia: The Jewish Publication Society of America, 1979) p. 157.

[12] Behar, “Is the Mizrahi Question Relevant to the Future of the Entire Middle East?”

[13] Ha’aretz (Tel Aviv), Apr. 22, 1949.

[14] Quoted in Sami Shalom Chetrit, Hamaavak Hamizrahi Beyisrael, Bein Dikui Leshihrur, Bein Hizdahut Lealternativa, 1948-2003 (Tel Aviv: Am Oved, 2004), pp. 76-8.

[15]. Quoted in ibid., p. 77

[16] Quoted in Ella Shohat, “Rupture and Return: A Mizrahi Perspective on the Zionist Discourse,” The MIT Electronic Journal of Middle East Studies, May 2001, pp. 58-71.

[17] Kalman Katzenelson, HaMahapecha HaAshkenazit (Tel-Aviv: Anach, 1964). Quoted in Chetrit, Hamaavak Hamizrahi Beyisrael, p. 133.

[18] Quoted in Shohat, “Mizrahim in Israel,” p. 3.

[19] Quoted in Sami Smooha, Israel: Pluralism and Conflict (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1978) p. 88.

[20] Ibid.

[21] Quoted in Chetrit, Hamaavak Hamizrahi Beyisrael, p. 65.

[22] Quoted in ibid.

[23] Smooha, Israel: Pluralism and Conflict, pp. 8-89.

[24] Shohat, “Mizrahim in Israel,” p. 4.

[25] Chetrit, Hamaavak Hamizrahi Beyisrael, pp. 221-2.

[26] Eli Avraham, Hatikshoret Beyisrael: Merkaz vePeriferia: Sikuran shel Ayarot Hapituah (Tel Aviv: Breyrot, 1993), p. 32.

[27] Shlomo Swirski and Etty Konor-Attias, Israel: A Social Report (Tel-Aviv: Adva Center, 2003), p. 10; Chetrit, Hamaavak Hamizrahi Beyisrael, p. 218.

[28] Sami Shalom Chetrit, “Hahinuch Beyisrael: Bikoret VeAlternativa,” lecture at the Interdisciplinary Center, Herzliya, Nov. 27, 2000.

[29] Ya’akov Nahon, “Pe’arim Adatiyim—Tmunat Matav Leorech Zman,” in Kivunim Hadashim BeHeker Haba’aya Ha’adatit: Rav Siah (Jerusalem: The Jerusalem Institute for Research of Israel, 1984), no. 8, p. 43.

[30] Ella Shohat, “The Invention of the Mizrahim,” Journal of Palestine Studies, Autumn, 1999, pp. 5-20.

[31] Shohat, “Mizrahim in Israel,” p. 14.