Look who has waded into Israel's culture wars in the wake of the Biton report - maverick politician Avrum Burg! Burg has travelled a long and winding road, from religious pillar of the establishment as speaker of the Knesset to French anti-Zionist member of the Arab Hadash party. Some of what he has to say in this Haaretz article is worthy, but the whole lacks context, failing to take into account the seminal Mizrahi experience of ethnic cleansing from the Arab world - the Jewish Nakba. My comments are interspersed in italics (With thanks: Lily).
Avrum Burg: 'Mizrahim to be a bridge'
Although the Ashkenazi culture and institutions are part of
our dwindling interface with the West, they are also barriers
between us and our neighbors, near and far.
Why should Ashkenazi culture and institutions be barriers between Israel and its neighbours? A similar culture and language does not prevent Taiwan and China being at daggers drawn, West and East Germany to have been enemies for 40 years, or Ukraine and Russia to be at war.
When the dust finally settles from the fervor and stupidity
surrounding Erez Biton and Gidi Orsher, when the exploiters
and the inciters fall silent, it will be clear that Israeli
society is indeed undergoing a deep and profound change that
is moving us from west to east.
While Burg has been wrestling with his tortured conscience, the Mizrahification of Israeli culture and society has been happening imperceptibly over the past 40 years. The Biton report serves only to formalise it in the education curriculum.
Israel in 1948 was established using frameworks that were
imported from Jewish and other, general communities of Central
and Eastern Europe. The institutions, the personalities, the
culture, the heritage and the customs all came from there. But
once the state was founded it emerged, alas, that most of the
masses that were expected to populate it had been annihilated.
Thus the Zionist revolution made a sharp turn toward the Jews
from Islamic countries. It was not what had been planned, but
a post factum constraint; human replacement parts for the new
state that needed Jews to populate it.
In contrast to the founders’ sour expression while they
watched the land being flooded with unfamiliar human material
with strange customs and languages, those who arrived here
could barely contain their joy. This initial encounter was
also the seminal point of division. While Ashkenazi Zionism
had been a defiant rebellion against Judaism, for nearly all
the Jews of the Islamic lands Israel was a fulfillment of
their prayers and of their yearning for Zion. It pitted the
Zionism of revolution against the Judaism of evolution.
To mediate between the two, the fiery melting pot became the
heart of Israeli identity. The system did its best to melt
everyone together and reform them into a Hebrew, all-Israeli
mold. Over time it became clear that this furnace didn’t work;
identities were neither melted nor erased.
Not true - perhaps Burg has not noticed from his French look-out tower, but the Israeli melting pot has been a resounding success. Intermarriage has been running at 25 percent and Mizrahi/Ashkenazi distinctions will soon be a thing of the past.
Israel is now dealing with the resulting burns, and its
interethnic struggles are an effort to find a balance between
This is the larger context in which we periodically have
outbursts of "tribal" expressions and vitriol, whether from
the late Ovadia Yosef and Dudu Topaz, or from Shlomo Benizri
and Gidi Orsher, may they live long lives. Oblivious to the
racism embedded in their comments, each is trying swing the
pendulum of Israeliness in their direction. For many years
Israel was substantially Ashkenazi, and its power relations
were tainted by racism and ethnic-based rewards. After years
of distortion, there are those who seek to push society in the
opposite direction. This is not a bad thing; it may even be
But amid the inherent tension between the founders and the
joiners who were hurt, Israel is losing its way. We have
become a disconnected place; we have distanced ourselves from
both ports of departure – in the Christian countries and the
Islamic ones – but we’ve never reached our destination port.
Our society and our state are democratic in character but are
also a natural part of the geographic and cultural fabric that
surrounds us. Our obsession with definitions is not just a
security need, but an ongoing effort to perpetuate the
separation from the Middle Eastern port at which we refuse to
Why should Israel need to to dock at a destination Middle Eastern port? Israelis do not want to return to being 'dhimmis' in the Arab region. Israeli culture is a work in progress - a synthesis of all sorts of influences, including Middle Eastern. That's what makes it so dynamic and interesting.
Part of the responsibility for this rests with our neighbors,
but a substantial part of it rests heavily on our national
shoulders. The founders, who spoke Yiddish and Russian, never
succeeded in really connecing to the Jews from Arab lands, and
certainly not to the surrounding Arab environment.
For Avrum Burg, it all about the Ashkenazi elites making amends for 'discriminating' against the Mizrahim in the 1950s. Mea culpa, mea maxima culpa!
the Ashkenazi culture and institutions are part of our
dwindling interface with the West, they are also barriers
between us and our near and more distant neighbors. The time
has come to dismantle some of them, to rebuild some of them,
and to establish different frames of reference, both internal
A more Mizrahi Israel has a lot to gain. I believe that
yielding the hegemony of society’s Ashkenazi component and
recognizing the injustices toward the immigrants from Islamic
countries will facilitate a crucial airing out of outdated and
tainted foundations, and eliminate a few of the privileges
that never should have developed at all.
In an Israel of both eastern and western Jews, there will be
new social orders that equalize and cherish both. Israel will
respect all the Israeli traditions and legacies, including the
eastern and Arabic ones. This revamped Israel will be unable
to avoid a crucial conversation with the Muslim societies from
whence many of us came.
The Ashkenazim, along with their pioneering and
entrepreneurial spirit, brought with them Western democracy,
the parliamentary system, academia and socioeconomic thought –
but also ideological extremism, both religious and political.
It is true that Ashkenazi religious orthodoxy is narrow and exclusionary compared to the more easy-going Sephardi tradition, but it is false to claim that Sephardim and Mizrahim may not be politically extremist. Just ask the football fans of Beitar Jerusalem!
These are the sources of our contemporary failures. Without a
bridge to the rest of the region, we have no sustainable
future here. Such an external bridge cannot be built without
the heritage of eastern Jewry, and this heritage cannot be
sustained without limiting and eliminating parts of the
outdated Ashkenazi hegemony.
Ah, the well-worn assumption that Mizrahim are a 'bridge' to Arab societies. Burg makes the common, but false, peacenik assumption that by becoming more 'Arab', Israel can make peace a reality.
The Israel of the future will be a synthesis between Western
heritage and Eastern traditions – a traditional democracy. I
don’t think we will ever have a majority here that will favor
giving up basic Western values like democracy, rights,
skepticism and literacy. Reality, however, will be a lot less
secular and more traditional in defining identity and
Agree. But it is hard to see what values, apart from piety, Israel can take from the Arab world. Forgive my cynicism but does Israel really want to import its superstitions, cultural stagnation, sectarianism, barbarism, corruption, gender segregation and intolerance of the Other?
Arabic will be a real social language, a shared
linguistic space, not just the language of a despised minority
and of members of the Shin Bet security service.
Here Burg's hidden agenda is showing - to make Israel a 'state for all its citizens'. Mizrahim never spoke the Arabic of the Palestinians but various Judeo-Arabic dialects that are today on the verge of extinction. They were ethnically separate and their cultural values quite different.
Israelis’ roots in the countries of this region will be as
respected as those in Poland and Russia. Religious customs, no
matter how strange they seem, will not be grounds for
arrogance or contempt (the grave in Uman is no less
problematic from a theological perspective than the grave in
Netivot). This model, of an interethnic conversation and an
interreligious dialogue both here and abroad, could turn
Israel from a place that is chronically ill with conflict to a
global model of dialogue between the different and the rival.
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