Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Are Mizrahim still marginal? Rachel Shabi reviewed

No, Mizrahim are no longer marginal in Israel, they're mainstream. Maddeningly wrongheaded: that's Lyn Julius's verdict of Rachel Shabi's book Not the enemy. Here's her book review, published in Israel Horizons Magazine (Autumn 2009).

Not the enemy by Rachel Shabi. Yale University Press, 2009 ( 264 pp.)

We look like the enemy by Rachel Shabi, Walker & Company, 2009 (272 pages)

In the 1930s, Jews from Palestine smuggled date palms out of Iraq and planted them in what became Israel. But they never bore fruit as delicious as the original, magnificent, Iraqi dates.

As with the dates, so with the people. If we are to believe Rachel Shabi, the author of Not the enemy, the Jews of the Orient, or Mizrahim, transplanted to Israel, somehow “did not grow right” in their new land.

Rachel Shabi is the Israeli-born daughter of Iraqi Jews who settled in England where Shabi was brought up. She recently went back to live in Israel to research her book. Not the enemy catalogues the “European” prejudices which Mizrahi Jewish refugees – at one time a majority, now 41 percent of Israel’s Jewish population – encountered at the hands of the Ashkenazi establishment when they arrived in Israel in the 1950s and ‘60s. “Israel’s leadership was perennially paranoid about the possibility of the Jewish state sinking to a Levantine cultural level,” she writes.

Shabi insists on seeing every example of injustice through the prism of identity politics – dark-skinned, deprived Mizrahim versus privileged Ashkenazim. Her book argues that Mizrahim were forced to speak Arabic only in private, mocked for their accents, and consigned in the dead of night to frontier development towns, “like cattle being taken to market.” They received the worst education and housing, and now form the bulk of Israel’s poor and criminal classes.

She cites the genuinely disturbing case of Yemenite Jews evicted from land claimed by an “Ashkenazi” kibbutz on the shores of Lake Kinneret. She also mentions a land dispute between the predominantly North African town of Kiryat Shemona and neighboring kibbutzim.

Yet the author cherry-picks examples of cultural repression. She meets actors rejected for their so-called guttural accents. Arabic music was “scorned and hushed up, decreed as belonging to the enemy camp and considered low-quality – like all things Oriental,” she alleges.

Readers familiar with Israel will have a strong sense of déjà-vu. In the beginning there was discrimination, but Israel has changed. Mizrahi culture has moved from the margins to the mainstream. Songs by Ofra Haza, Avinoam Nini, Kobi Peretz and Sarit Haddad fill the airwaves. Moshe Ibgui, Ronit Alkabetz and Alon Abutbul are Mizrahi stars of TV and film. The new generation is eagerly rediscovering the culture which their immigrant grandparents had been all too eager to get their own children to forget.

Shabi’s claims are mostly based on anecdotal evidence. An Ashkenazi Rachel Shabi could just as easily have written a book lamenting the dearth of klezmer music on Israeli radio. Aficionados of Eastern European cuisine would be hard-pressed to find kreplach, kugel or lochshen pudding on Israeli restaurant menus, while the Mizrahi favorites of mujadera, shakshooka and falafel are ubiquitous. An Ashkenazi Shabi would be outraged that Yiddish is hardly spoken outside ultra-Orthodox circles.

In its zeal to mold the new Israeli, neither European nor Levantine, Israel has had an ambivalent, even hostile attitude towards the Galut (Diaspora). In the 1950s, for example, state authorities used censorship laws inherited from the British to prohibit or severely limit Yiddish theatre in Israel. Israelis were discouraged from expressing themselves in Yiddish. Even Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion himself once sneered, “That language grates in my ears.”

In those days Israel’s leadership patronizingly decided what was good for the people. Western values were infinitely preferable to Levantine corruption, extortion and lack of freedom. Television – there was no national broadcasting until 1968 – was considered a corrupting influence. The Beatles – who were banned from performing in Israel – were another.

When Israel’s first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, said that the Mizrahim “had the worst Jewish and human education,” he was merely speaking the truth: among the half-a million Mizrahi refugees flooding into the Jewish state in the ‘50s and ‘60s were ‘primitive’ Jews -‘poor human material’ - from the Atlas and Kurdish mountains and Yemenites who had never even seen an airplane. Any Jew with education, resources and connections went to the Americas or Western Europe rather than endure years in a leaky ma’abara or tent camp in Israel. Although then a struggling developing country, Israel took in the stateless, the destitute, the least educated -- simply because they were Jews.

There is still much progress to be made, if only because, scandalously, one in four Israeli children remains below the poverty line, but a curmudgeonly focus on discrimination obscures just how far Israel has come. No other country – not even the US - has had to integrate people from 130 different countries. Today Mizrahim are not some repressed minority: they are generals and doctors and property developers and bank managers, and have held every government post except prime minister. Most importantly – a fact Shabi glosses over – intermarriage is running at 25 percent and the mixed Israeli family is fast becoming the norm. Soon there will be no such thing as Mizrahi or Ashkenazi in the Israeli melting pot.

Jews, Arab Jews and Arabs: Yet Shabi insists on pigeonholing Jews from Arab countries as Arabs. Shabi aligns herself with anti-Zionists who have long argued on behalf of an “Arab Jewish” identity as a way of repudiating Jewish nationalism. It presupposes that Arabs and Mizrahi Jews are natural allies, and that both are victims of Ashkenazim, who lured Mizrahim to Israel under false pretenses.

The author speculates with the conviction that: “if Israel could find a way to reconnect with its own Middle-Eastern self, the chances are that this would result in the country having entirely different relations with the region. Because long before they were apparent arch enemies, Arabs and Jews were culture collaborators, good neighbors — and friends."

“We got along and how. Believe me, it was a pleasure,” gushes Naima (who left Iraq at 17). “They would come and make tea for us on the Shabbat!”

But Shabi’s nostalgia trip is leading us up a blind alley. She does what many activists do, confusing the personal with the political. The old Sephardi notable and politician Elie Eliachar spent his life pleading for New Settlement Zionists from Europe to show greater sensitivity toward the Arabs in Palestine by deferring to the experience of Old Settlement Jews who had coexisted with Arabs for generations. But the Old Settlement could not prevent the Arab massacre of 67 of its members in Hebron in 1929.

Neither did Arabs making tea for Jews prevent the Iraqi government from dismissing Jewish civil servants, instituting quotas, banning travel and higher education, practicing extortion, arresting Jews at random and executing them as spies. It did not prevent the wholesale dispossession of Mizrahi Jewry to the point where under 5,000 Jews still live in Arab countries out of a 1948 population of one million.

Rachel Shabi is a journalist specializing in social issues. She is not a historian. In this book, history is selective and decontextualized. A person who writes, “there are no Oriental Jewish names on a list of key Zionist thinkers precisely because there was at the time no nationalism and no murderous antisemitism in the Middle East,” is either mindlessly naïve or in denial. This denies, for example, Sephardi Rabbi Yehudah Alkalay, whose Zionism was a response to the 1840 Damascus blood libel, and is said to have inspired Herzl himself.

Shabi presents the persecution of Mizrahi Jews in Arab countries largely as a backlash to Zionism. The pro-Nazi pogrom in Iraq of 1941 in which 130 – some say up to 600 -- Jews were murdered (seven years before Israel was established) is portrayed as a mere hiccup in Arab-Jewish coexistence. On the other hand, the refugees being sprayed with disinfectant on arrival in Israel is a “visceral memory.”

Secure in her conviction in the idyll of pluralistic coexistence in Arab countries, predating the State of Israel, Shabi is at a loss as to why the vast majority of Mizrahim have “hard-right, Arab-hating opinions.” Her explanation is a Marxist-style false consciousness, nurtured by Zionist social forces: “After so many years of learning to hate their own rejected Arab features and having to hide them, the Mizrahis simply projected all that revulsion on to the neighboring Arab community.”

What makes Not the enemy so maddeningly wrongheaded is Shabi’s refusal to recognize that most Oriental Jews suffered under Arab rule to the point where they could see no future in their ancient communities. Israel, for all its faults, is the place where they regained dignity, freedom, rights and a sense of personal security. If Shabi wants to promote peace and reconciliation, ignoring Arab responsibility for Jewish suffering and idealizing the Jewish-Arab past is not the way to do it.

Meretz USA Israel Horizons magazine

More on Rachel Shabi's book here, here, here and here


Anonymous said...

Iraq minority rights fears grow


not about Jews in Iraq but maybe interesting to readers nonetheless


bataween said...

Thanks for this, bh. Will include in my monthly newsletter To be added to the mailing list please email me at bataween@gmail.com

Eliyahu m'Tsiyon said...

Shabi's claims remind me of a personal story that seems relevant to Shabi's book.

My wife, who is American-born to American-born parents, was living in Israel ca. 1970. One of her friends was the daughter of a prominent Sefardi family in Jerusalem. Through her, she got to know some of her relatives in Tel Aviv. Now my wife had a certain problem with her eyes which had never been properly diagnosed while living in the USA by any physician there, including eye specialists.

She was referred through her friend's family in Tel Aviv to a prominent physician there, Dr Qor`in, Iraqi-born. He had an office across from the Mann Auditorium-HaBimah Theater complex, which you may know was and is one of the most prestigious addresses in Tel Aviv. His spacious apartment was there too. When she came to his office, he immediately diagnosed her eye condition, although he was an ENT specialist, not an ophthalmologist. As I said, no American physician, including eye specialists, had been able to diagnose it.

Dr Qor`in then had her meet him at his office at the Tel HaShomer Hospital where he asked Professor Nissim, an eye specialist, also an Iraqi, to look at her. He agreed with the diagnosis and then asked Professor Stein, a big eye specialist, to look at her eyes. Professor Stein concurred with the original diagnosis. And the three physicians happily went off into a discussion of the finer points of this condition.

I see this as a comic scene actually, that Ephraim Kishon could develop to perfection. Imagine the physicians, all in jacket, tie and white shirt --de rigueur for that generation-- discussing this rather uncommon condition in abstruse medical terminology, while a young woman sits by, rather non-plussed but happy. Indeed, my wife to be was pleased to finally be diagnosed and especially happy that they told her that her condition could be treated.

Now, it seems that Rachel Shabi put a number of anecdotes into her book. Could an anecdote like this have found a place in the book? Or was she sent on a mission by persons guiding her to seek out and publish material to make Israel look bad?

bataween said...

I'm delighted that Iraqi doctors helped diagnose your wife's condition. Your example only serves to show how you can argue anything you like based on anecdotal evidence. Beware too, of generalisations. Another criticism one can also make of Shabi's book is that she does not differentiate between different Sephardi/Mizrahi communities. The Egyptians and Iraqis were well-educated and have been particularly successful.
I don't know if Shabi was put up to write her Israel-bashing book by others - myself, I think she has a personal axe to grind. But what is scandalous is that such is the anti-Israel zeitgeist that not one, but two publishers were ready to take it on, thus giving legitimacy to the most marginal of views. This also applies to the anti-Zionist Shlomo Sand, currently peddling his wacky and malicious rubbish around around the world.

Independent Observer said...

A superb review by Lyn Julius!

It is questionable how well Shabi knows either the Iraqi-Jewish or the Iraqi-Israeli experience. Few Iraqi Jews (other than Shabi and Shlaim) long for Iraq, while few Israelis think the Ashkenazi-Sehardi split of much importance anymore.

Moreover, even in the days in which Sephardi demonstrators taunted Meir, that very fact was a Sephardi victory, since Sephardim/Mizrahim were never in a postion to publicly taunt the leadership in their "home" countries.

Unlike Shabi, most Sephardi actvists recognise that the major obstacle of the moment is the struggle to have the world (including Israel) give more prominence to the rights of Sephardim to financial and moral compensation from the Arab world for 1400 years of dhimmitude.

bataween said...

good point that the Sephardim discovered their political muscle for the first time in Israel. On the other hand, it has taken this long for a Sephardi party (Shas) to introduce a bill in the Knesset to safeguard Jewish refugee rights. Too many Israelis are still ignorant of the Jewish history of suffering in the Arab world.