Relative strangers

Books From the moment of their arrival, the Jews who emigrated to Israel from Arab states have stoked controversy. Benjamin Balint considers a new account of the Mizrahi experience in Israel.

Jewish immigrants build prefabricated houses somewhere in Palestine, in 1948.
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From the moment of their arrival, the Jews who emigrated to Israel from Arab states have stoked controversy. Benjamin Balint considers a new account of the Mizrahi experience in Israel.
Not the Enemy: Israel's Jews from Arab Lands Rachel Shabi Yale University Press Dh96 Those tempted to regard Israel as a country of western colonialists, alien transplants and Jonathans-come-lately to the heart of the Arab world tend to overlook the fact that nearly half of the Jews in Israel have deep roots in the Middle East - their ancestors were native to its soil centuries before the time of Christianity and Islam. These Jews are collectively known as Mizrahim (literally Easterners) to set them apart from the descendants of Jews from central and eastern Europe, called Ashkenazim after the medieval Hebrew term for what is now Germany.

Since antiquity, vibrant Jewish communities flourished in Persia, now Iran; in Babylon, now Iraq; and in Egypt, Morocco, Syria and Yemen - not to mention on the strip of land to which the Romans gave the name Palestine. Later, when Islam came on the scene, a rich Judeo-Islamic tradition flourished - a Jewish culture conducted in Arabic written in Hebrew script. In Old Cairo, Maimonides wrote the Guide for the Perplexed, the great work of medieval Jewish thought, in Arabic. Closer to our own day, Jews formed an educated middle class - doctors, editors, scholars, printers, traders, manufacturers, and civil servants - from Fez to Alexandria to Beirut to Damascus to Tehran.

Consider the case of Iraq, where Jews have lived since the Babylonian captivity of about 800 BCE, before the migration of tribes from the Arabian peninsula. It was in Iraq's academies and seats of learning that the Talmud was compiled and some of the greatest Jewish philosophical works were composed. Even as they preserved a distinctive religious culture, Jews shared the language and culture of their Muslim neighbours, and in the early 20th century even served as members of parliament. Baghdad's markets shut down on the Jewish Sabbath. "I was a perfect Arab," the Iraqi-born Israeli writer Sasson Somekh says of his student days in Baghdad. "I studied Arab history and Iraqi history as an Arab. When I heard that the Arabs were winning over the Persians and the Byzantines, I would be on their side."

This long and fertile coexistence seems now like ancient history, though it crashed to an end only 60 years ago, after the birth of Israel. For the Jews there were two Diasporas: the Christian and the Muslim - and therefore two returns. Some 650,000 Mizrahim emigrated to the fledgling state of Israel. Operation Magic Carpet (1949-1950), for example, airlifted Yemenite Jews to Israel en masse, and Operation Ezra and Nehemiah (1951) evacuated most of Iraq's Jews at a single stroke.

From the very moment of their arrival, the Jews from the lands of Islam stoked fierce controversy in Israel, an echo of which persists in the present day in the form of two diametrically opposed accounts of the Mizrahi experience. The first of these sees their "repatriation" as part of the return to Zion, a rebuilding of their original homeland and the fulfilment of Biblical prophesies of return. Israel understood itself as a refuge not only for those fleeing from Russian pogroms and Nazi extermination camps, but also for Jews suffering from outbreaks of anti-Jewish violence in Islamic lands. This view acknowledges that their absorption was rocky and marked at first by discrimination and ill-treatment, but believes the Mizrahim have since come to full participation in a remarkable cross-pollination of cultures in contemporary Israel.

The dissenting account takes a far dimmer view of the Mizrahi emigration to Israel: amid unrest, caused in some cases by Israeli agents provocateurs in Arab states, the Mizrahim were lured by false promises away from otherwise peaceful homes to an Israel dominated by an Ashkenazi elite who used them for cheap labour - and who are to this day, driven by a disdain for all things Arab, inclined to treat the Mizrahim as a distinct underclass. The Mizrahim, in this view, are Zionism's Jewish victims.

In a new book that joins social history to polemical purpose, Rachel Shabi, a British-educated Iraqi-Jewish journalist living in Tel Aviv, advances the second view. Drawing from both her own reportage and the scholarship of Mizrahi intellectuals like Ella Shohat, Yehuda Shenhav, Sami Chetrit and Sammy Smooha, Shabi describes how Mizrahi immigrants were met on arrival with deplorable paternalism, condescension, prejudice and discrimination. They were sent to transit camps, and then to low-quality housing in grim development towns, where they remain to this day. (One such town, Sderot - recently in the news as the target of more than a thousand Hamas rockets - remains 70 per cent Mizrahi.) It has even been alleged that hundreds of Yemenite infants were taken from their families to be raised by less "backward" parents (though several commissions have found no evidence of criminal wrong-doing).

Shabi persuasively demonstrates that the Ashkenazi elite stigmatised the newcomers as culturally inferior. An editorial on the subject in 1949 from the Israeli newspaper Ha'aretz serves to illustrate the point: "With such a population, what character and qualities will the State of Israel have? These poor, illiterate, primitive masses will absorb us, rather than we absorb them." Mizrahim felt neglected, marginalised and culturally repressed. Their Hebrew accents were met with mockery.

The ugly effects on Mizrahi immigrants were not hard to see: Mizrahim made up disproportionate numbers of welfare dependents and prisoners. And they bore a heavy sense of alienation. "I plummeted from the status of an Iraqi citizen with 2,500 years of seniority into a world whose language, customs and culture were all strange to me," the Baghdad-born Israeli writer Sami Michael said. Once in a while, ethnic resentment flared into the open, as in the Wadi Salib riots in Haifa in 1959, and in the Mizrahi Black Panther movement in the neglected Musrara neighbourhood of Jerusalem in 1971. But change came only in 1977, in the unlikely guise of Menachem Begin, whom Mizrahim overwhelmingly supported in his bid to become the first prime minister from the Likud, overthrowing decades of Ashkenazi-dominated Labor party hegemony.

Much of this history is now uncontroversial: in a bid for votes in 1997, Ehud Barak went so far as to deliver a public apology to the Mizrahim for the treatment they received under Labor rule before 1977. But the persistence of this racial divide today is a more contentious subject, and as Shabi's account nears the present, its polemical tone sharpens. "The West is in the minority in Israel," she writes, noting that the Mizrahim and the Palestinian citizens of Israel combine to make a majority of the state's population. But this demographic plurality, she says, has not been matched by cultural influence. Shabi argues that the "ethnic demon" still rears its head, furiously as ever, in layers of cultural, economic and political discrimination, and contends that that dominant culture still rejects "inferior" Mizrahi accents and music.

Shabi suggests that Israel's continuing disdain for its Mizrahim reflects a wider Israeli rejection of the Middle East. If only Israel could integrate its Mizrahim, she says, the country could one day integrate itself in the Arab world. If only Israel were "more embracing of its own Oriental population", Shabi writes, "it might then have an entirely different take on relations with its Oriental neighbours". Since Mizrahim are "so close in culture to the Arab world", she concludes, the flowering of a more Mizrahi-inflected culture in Israel would open new channels for peaceful coexistence.

What are we to make of this account? One wishes, to begin with, for a finer sense of nuance. When she looks back, Shabi overrates the serenity of Jewish life in Arab lands before 1948, perhaps the central point of dispute in the argument about Mizrahi emigration to Israel. While it is true that the Jews of Islam generally had an easier time of it than the Jews of Christendom, it's surprisingly easy to draw up a list of less-than-serene moments in the history of that coexistence, starting with the expulsion of two Jewish tribes from Medina, and continuing to the oppression of Jews in Yemen under the Shiite Zaydi clan in the 10th century; the Almohad persecutions of Jews in North Africa and Spain in the 12th century; the pogroms in 1465 in Fez; the blood libel riots in Damascus in 1840.

When Shabi writes about the present, the simplifications of victimology set in, for she vastly overrates the extent to which ethnic prejudices still permeate Israeli society. Class inequalities have not vanished, of course, but mixed marriages, increasing social mobility and assimilation to the national culture have by now considerably blurred ethnic boundaries and created a sense of common belonging. Subsequent waves of immigration to Israel - from Ethiopia and Russia especially - indirectly helped Mizrahim by replacing images of Sabra homogeneity with an acceptance of multicultural pluralism. It's no surprise that there is no Mizrahi protest movement today.

Of course, Mizrahim weren't the only ones caught in the Zionist drive to overcome ethnicity, to "negate the Diaspora", and to create a new Jew; Yiddish culture came under equal scorn. Upon wading ashore, you were expected to leave your Diaspora baggage behind, wherever you may have dragged it from. But contrary to Shabi's complaint of "a lack of a significant Mizrahi cultural presence in Israel", some of the country's brightest pop stars - Achinoam Nini, Sarit Haddad, Ninette Tayib - are Mizrahi, as are its movie stars, like Moshe Ivgi, Alon Abutbul, and Ronit Alkabetz. More interestingly, Mizrahi writers are today lauded for their unabashed love of Arabic literature. These Mizrahim have forged a proud identity that is both Israeli and Arab. "I remain in constant colloquy with the Arab environment," the Iraqi-Israeli writer Shimon Ballas says.

Nor are Mizrahim these days under-represented in Israeli politics: they serve as ministers, army chiefs of staff, and as president. Yitzchak Navon, a fluent Arabic speaker who served as president from 1978 to 1983, comes from a line of Mizrahim who have lived in Jerusalem since the year 1670. Moshe Katzav, born in Iran, was president from 2000 to 2007. Morocco-born Amir Peretz served as head of the Labor party and as defence minister. Tehran-born Shaul Mofaz, a former defence minister, today holds the number two position in Kadima, Israel's largest party. Thirty-four members - or 28 per cent - of the current Knesset are Mizrahi, including 11 members of Shas, a religious Mizrahi party.

But Shabi's most telling misstep is the failure to understand her subjects as they understand themselves. This is brought into highest relief by her vision of the Mizrahi future. The problem is not only that it is by now impossible to distinguish "Israel" from its Mizrahim, as if they are acted upon but not actors who help plot the country's course. The more basic trouble is that Mizrahim, who have voted overwhelmingly Likud from Begin to Netanyahu, actually take a consistently harder line on Israel-Arab relations than the western Ashkenazim who comprise the Israeli left. During the election campaign this February, no Jerusalem neighbourhood featured more Likud signs than Mizrahi-dominated Musrara, birthplace of those angry Black Panthers.

Some of this can be traced to continuing resentment of Labor party actions in the 1950s and 1960s, despite Barak's belated apology - but only a part. Whether their Arab origins play the decisive role, we must leave for them to say. But it is clear, one way or another, that Mizrahim no longer regard themselves - if they ever did - as the Jewish victims of Zionism; they now rank among its staunchest supporters.

Benjamin Balint is a writer living in Jerusalem.