An assertive Group Flexes its Mizrachi Muscles

Mazal Moalem

 

From left: Dr. Yitzhak Saporta, Dr. Yossi Yona, Professor Yehuda Shenhav. The discourse that they have purposely adopted in relation to themselves rejects almost any element of inferiority or whining.  (Guy Ravitz)

From left: Dr. Yitzhak Saporta, Dr. Yossi Yona, Professor Yehuda Shenhav. The discourse that they have purposely adopted in relation to themselves rejects almost any element of inferiority or whining.  (Guy Ravitz)



"For the first time, a Mizrahi is standing up and speaking fluently, and positioning himself as an equal in a dialogue with an Ashkenazic [Jews of European origin] Zionist entity. For the first time the Mizrahi is speaking as a hero rather than a victim. He is putting up a fight. He sees himself as the ba'al habayit [owner], he is entering the center of the discourse and challenging the established ethos, and winning.

"Now I can almost feel the smile my parents are sending me, from an entirely spiritual place. I did it for them. It's a kind of pleasure."

Thus spoke Shlomo Wazana, an actor and one of the founders of the Mizrahi Democratic Rainbow, last Friday, after the High Court of Justice handed down its ruling on the issue of the lands belonging to kibbutzim and moshavim.

The High Court abolished in its ruling the decision of the director of the Israel Lands Administration [ILA] to rezone agricultural land belonging to kibbutzim and moshavim, and to allow the land to be used for other purposes. The High Court ruled that the future of the lands requires a just social distribution. The appeal was made by the Mizrahi Democratic Rainbow.

Now, after the great achievement, the movement is finally free to deal with other matters. And since they always argue in the Democratic Mizrahi Rainbow, now there is a renewed debate about whether to turn the movement into a political body.

Dr. Yossi Yona, one of the founders, is opposed. "The moment we become political, in the sense of political identification," he says,"we are giving up the privilege of sticking to universal principles of action. We lose our power. We have no ways nor means of enlisting the masses. It's a shame to waste resources on these attempts, because they are doomed to failure."

Moshe Karif, also one of the founders, has already translated words into actions and established a political movement called The Movement for Social Change and Equality. "We can't allow ourselves to remain outside of politics," he says. "I don't mean to convince the members of the Democratic Rainbow, but its achievements are academic and declarative. The strategic-political change will not come about by writing articles. In order to complete the achievement, we need a political act."

But at the same time, they have not yet left their achievement in the High Court behind, and they are reveling in their success. Some of them are convinced that the High Court ruling will be a formative event in the shaping of a new social discourse within Israeli society. For them, this is a discourse that rejects the classic Zionist ethos and proposes a new social agenda, which can be summed up in the term "social justice." This is the term which the Democratic Rainbow used during its five years of struggle over the lands, and even managed to have it inserted into the heart of the High Court ruling.

Like Wazana, media person Shosh Gabai, one of the founders of the movement, says that at the moment of victor, of the High Court ruling, she experienced the strongest and most basic emotions. "I was filled with a sense of power," she says. "I became personally empowered. I and my friends rose and challenged what was self-understood, the Ashkenazi Zionist ethos. We fought from a position of knowledge, strength and influence. From a position as ba'alei habayit [owners]." Gabai says that the achievement came at a high personal cost. "The Rainbow often brought me to the point of exhaustion. I sacrificed a great deal personally and financially. I endured the emotional burden of a struggle that knew no hours."

A support group as well

The limited group from which the Mizrahi Democratic Rainbow was born, was formed during the second half of 1995, in the post-Oslo era. The group, which numbered eight Mizrahi intellectuals, using the method of "a friend brings a friend," began to meet every Shabbat. Among the members of the group was sociologist Prof. Yehuda Shenhav, educator Sami Shalom Chetrit (who eventually left the movement), criminologist Dr. Vicki Shiran, as well as Dr. Yona and media people Shosh Gabai and Karif.

Prof. Shenhav, in retrospect, analyzes the motivation that guided the meetings. He says that the Rainbow was a clear product of the Oslo paradigm: "We had a feeling that the political issue had been solved, and that the Mizrahi-social issue, which had been pushed to the sidelines, needed a face-lift."

But beyond those feelings, the meetings were characterized by the sense of a great challenge, and a belief that the combined forces of a group of successful people of Mizrahi origin could bring about achievements. Prof. Shenhav defines the feeling as "the Mizrahi experience of the generation of native-born Israelis." He adds, "For me the Rainbow was finding people with a similar life experience. I received tremendous support in solving my identity conflicts. We are also a support group."

For months they tried to clarify to themselves questions dealing with the issue of Mizrahi identity, and discussed the status of the Mizrahi through social theories. The discussions had not yet focused on a specific goal, but the arrangements made during that period with the kibbutzim and the moshavim on the issue of rezoning the lands, helped to define the struggle.

Wazana: "It was a meeting of people each one of whom in his own way had found a contradiction between his personal ability and the ability to express it. In other words, people who identified themselves as successful in their field somehow didn't succeed in expressing themselves fully. That's why it was a powerful encounter. I had a great urge to lead a struggle. I noted the exploitation of the lands, and it was clear to me that something huge was being done here that could easily be solved."

Eventually the group grew to 40 members, who were present at the founding convention of the movement in Shefayim in April 1996. Then, in August 1997, the basic platform of the movement was approved, and after stormy debates the movement was named the "Mizrahi Democratic Rainbow."

The debates revolved mainly about the need to include the title "Mizrahi" in the name. Dr. Yona, who suggested the name, explained that including the word "Mizrahi," which has a negative connotation, would be of value as an image and a label that would have positive implications for the movement.

The basic principles stated that this was a "broad movement of activists, without ruling out the future possibility of mass popular enlistment. A social political movement, a Mizrahi movement in its goals, and a universal one in its values, and open to all." The goals of the movement were formulated after lengthy debates; among other things it was decided that "the movement is fighting for overall change in the centers of power in public organizations, and the empowerment of the civic society, in order to guarantee equal and meaningful political participation of the Mizrahi community, as well as of other groups which suffer repression in public life." And the struggle was further defined: "A struggle against economic inequality, which is expressed in the marginalization of the Mizrahi community, and against the continuing damage to the [deprived] neighborhoods, the development towns and the periphery." Other principles included an equal number of women and men in the movement's institutions, and refraining from creating positions that were likely to create a hierarchy.

Five years later, the principles have remained in place. The movement has grown, but has remained small: There are 500 registered members, of which 150 pay dues. A few outstanding activists have joined: philosopher Dr. Yossi Dahan, Dr. Yitzhak Saporta (business administration), philosopher Dr. Meir Buzaglo, physicist Dr. Avi Cohen, Dr. Gal Levy (political science), actress Hanna Azulai Hasfari, Dr. Henriette Dahan (political science), and literary researcher Dr. Doli Ben Haviv. Although the movement is "open to all," the number of non-Mizrahi members is small, and include Dr. Sandy Kedar, one of the leaders of the battle in the High Court.

The group is educated, established, its members have reached key positions in the universities, a Mizrahi intellectual elite that wanted to bring about a change "from top to bottom," i.e. from its positions of influence. And in fact, the main complaint against it is that the movement is cut off from the grass roots.

Ironically, the Democratic Rainbow is not familiar to the broad Mizrahi community in whose name it has been fighting for over five years. Although it has a considerable achievement to its credit - the law for public housing that was passed in the Knesset in 1998 - the movement has purposely kept a low profile, especially in the early stages.

Dr. Yona says that he is understanding of the accusation that they are a closed Mizrahi elite that does not represent the broad Mizrahi public. "We are certainly not a popular movement - out of choice. I work for a public that doesn't always understand exactly what we do, and we really don't want anything. I lovingly accept the ingratitude of the community that I serve, and am not seeking a reward." In this content, Dr. Saporta says that "it often happens that I come to development towns, and they accuse me, saying `okay, you're an intellectual, you're a doctor.' That may keep people away, but I have no intention of apologizing for it."

Yona says, "This is an assertive and self-confident group, not at all apologetic about its identity, which is proposing an alternative, non-sectoral social agenda, one that is as universal as possible."

Universal principles are important to the Democratic Rainbow, and all along they have been trying to escape the sectoral label; that's the reason why they didn't encourage bringing in traditional religious features into their discourse, a policy that led to the departure of several members. The universal rhetoric to which they try to adhere all the time actually expresses the central idea as well: The distribution of resources must follow universal principles, translated into the here and now in Israel: This land belongs to everyone.

Although it is in fact an apolitical movement, inevitably its members are leftist in outlook. Therefore, it's no wonder that the movement has a leftist image - a type of Mizrahi Meretz - a definition that its members reject out of hand. The assistance they received from Meretz in their fight for the public housing law probably contributed to that. In any case, it's a gentler left. In this context an example would be the departure of Nabia Bashir, the only Arab who was a member of the movement, as a result of the non-inclusion of Arabs as partners in the distribution of lands. "This land is mine, too - may my friends the members of the movement excuse me, but I am incapable of becoming even for a moment a pioneer, a settler or a Zionist," as he wrote to his friends when he left.

In general, since the Al Aqsa Intifada began, there have been tensions within the movement. As opposed to the desire of Yona and Shenhav to come out with clear statements against the occupation, there are members whose nationalist feelings have become stronger. "Since October 2000, Yossi Yona and I have removed ourselves from activity, because of the Rainbow's inability to accept an unequivocal and clear decision to condemn the occupation and the killing of the 13 Israeli Arabs," says Shenhav. "It bothers me that the Rainbow did not issue clear statements." For him this is a basic issue; while Ashkenazi members of the movement can act to promote their leftist opinions in other places, he would like to do so in the context of the movement, as part of its worldview.

The discourse that they have purposely adopted in relation to themselves rejects almost any element of inferiority or whining. Dr. Yona: "The idea is to express that we have abandoned the position of the victim. To transmit an innovative message perhaps, that we are the owners, without apologies, because apologetics doom the Mizrahim to remain on the margins." The new conception they brought to the discourse influenced the way they conducted the fight over the land as well. Wazana: "We asked already at the start why there is a `kibbutz arrangement,' as compared to `neighborhood rehabilitation.' This is a language that hid manipulation."

A few days ago the members of the secretariat of the Mizrahi Democratic Rainbow met in order to discuss the continuation of the struggle. Meanwhile they haven't made any decisions, but it's clear to everyone that the fight over the lands is not yet over, and implementation of the court decision must be monitored.

Among other things, there was fear of an attempt to pass a law bypassing the High Court. A suggestion was made to bring the mayors of the development towns into the fight now over implementation of the ruling. Specific decisions on this issue will be made at the next meeting of the movement's council. And what after the lands?

There are several projects in the field of education on the agenda, and of course the movement will continue to look for additional specific goals that fit into the category of a struggle of a universal nature.

 

First published at "Haaretz" newspaper, 5.9.2002