“You're So Pretty – You Don't Look Moroccan”
Dr. Henriette Dahan Kalev
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"You are so
pretty--you don't look Moroccan." I grew up hearing this sentence from the
time my parents brought me from
I continued to hear the sentence from the
neighbors and their children, and throughout my adolescence when, upon meeting
people for the first time, special attention was always given to my looks.
Today, as an adult, when wrinkles have begun to carve my face, the sentence has
been replaced by "Really? You don't look it." My so-called nonMoroccan appearance helped me more than once to turn
into something like
Already at the age of four, hearing the
sentence provoked in me vague, incomprehensible feelings related to the tension
between the green color of my eyes, my relatively light complexion, and my
origin. Only later on did I understand that these feelings were the conscious
side of the unconscious subtext of "I am lucky that I don't look
Moroccan." But as a young child, I understood very early that there was an
apparent conflict between aesthetic value and being Moroccan. This experience
was exemplified when my mother came to my teacher to complain about the
hostility shown toward me by other children in the class. The response of the
teacher was that my mother was behaving like a pushy
At this time in my life, I felt what I later realized was a deep sense of alienation. The axle around which my sense of alienation turned was the dissonance between the knowledge of who I am and what people took me to be: I don't look Moroccan and this is why I am "lucky," but I am "very lucky" that I look just like an Ashkenazi. Trapped between who I was--a Moroccan girl--and who people thought I was--an Ashkenazi girl--my worldview crystallized according to a clear dichotomy of what was good and what was bad which derived ultimately from notions of where people came from.
At the age of ten, my parents moved again,
this time to
All of this I incorporated into the identity that I was constructing for myself and to which I added additional biographical details that were meant to insure my acceptance amongst the children in my class. For example, I claimed that I went to fine arts classes after school. Later, I added that I also studied dance. People believed what I said, since I possessed some natural ability in these areas. I even survived the tests I was put to; for example, once, during a youth training course, I was asked to perform a "piece." I made something up--which later I found out was called "improvisation"--and it went over great.
As the reality gap faced by the child I was at home and the child I was at school grew wider, my tales developed and became more involved. This was difficult to do, so I also cushioned my world with soft, fluffy, and happy imaginative thoughts. I out-did myself when I bragged to my teacher in the vocational high school that I attended that I had been chosen to participate in the Habima Youth (Habima is the Israeli National Theater Company). Habima Youth was an organization that existed only in my imagination. I added to this tale that this organization was meant to promote talented young actors. The teacher believed me, and even permitted me to leave class early every Tuesday. It is apparent that the denominator common to all of my tales, whether or not I was conscious of it at the time, was Ashkenazi, Western Culture. This was not a problem for my friends, and was only of benefit to my self-image.
Only of benefit? To whom? To my self? Which self was my self? The self of that imaginative girl? The real me I hated, that me I tried to wish out of existence; the Moroccan me--the non-French, the immigrant, who did not participate in extra-curricular enrichment programs like the other kids, who did no more than her very annoying school work. At school I had to read and memorize entire books about me and the Jewish people throughout the world (meaning Eastern Europe); about my ancestors in the Shtetl [East European Jewish villages]; the "Family of Fighters" who broke through to besieged Jerusalem, and who took part in the Choma u Migdal (building the walls and towers of new kibbutzim). In vain I searched, but never found the real me, nor my father, in these books. In despair I stopped studying, and became more certain that I should hold on to the identity of that imaginative French girl. Mikra'ot Yisrael and Historia shel Am Yisrael (obligatory elementary school texts on Israeli literature and history) provided background for the invented European girl, and only reinforced my belief that the other girl--the real me--did not deserve to exist.
Once, when I finally found something on the
real me, I discovered that I was a Mizrakhi
[Oriental], the term, which was used in
Once I found myself leafing through a children's book--Rumiah, The Little Nanny.4 The author of this book, Levin Kipnis, received the Israel Prize for his life's work and contribution to children's literature. The book tells the story of a twelve-year-old Yemenite girl, "a dirty and starving new immigrant."5 She was brought to a veteran settler's house by her father, who wanted to hire her out as a nanny for the settler's son. At the settler's house, she goes through a metamorphosis. First, they change her name to the more Hebraicized "Moriah." Then they bathe her, clean her, and comb her hair. They believe, Kipnis tells us, that in a very short time she will become a real human being ready to learn some manners. Rumiah had two very important attributes in the eyes of the veterans: one, her father did not ask for much money in exchange for her work; and, two, she was considered better than an Ashkenazi girl, for she ate little and worked a lot. When selling Rumiah to the child's mother, the "matchmaker" or "go-between" (a woman herself) explains that all Rumiah requires is a stick and a belt "without which one cannot get her moving."6
I found this book in 1991 at the National Book
My Ashkenazi-action was quite successful. I
knew about Shtockhausen's avant-guarde
music as well as about the a cappella. I was familiar with Mozart and his
biography long before the movie Amadeus
came out. And I could identify many of Bach's pieces by their Kuchel List number. I was also familiar with the
Spiritually breathless, I continued to chase after this body of knowledge. I discovered that Kipnis and Shmuely were "mere" [stum] teachers. The foundations, upon which they based their work were laid for them by the intellectual leaders of their generation. My failure in school was but proof of the elaborate theses regarding my backwardness--theses that flourished in the ivory towers of The Hebrew University of Jerusalem. The frameworks for the research of Israeli society were established by the intellectual elite who constructed a picture of the desirable Israeli, a picture that matched the parameters set by the ideology of the Labor Zionist movement. It was only later that I realized that my conceptions of what was desirable and detestable were based on these "scientific" cornerstones.
These philosophers inspected and scrutinized
me like a scientific object--a mere lab rat--and postulated the following:
"the results these youth have reached during systematic examination, point
to intellectual development retardation. Various non-verbal examinations
conducted prove retardation of one to two years, and very often even more, in
comparison with youth of similar age in
I also found that the authors decided that, not only was I retarded, but that I lacked curiosity. What is more, no one around me was capable of arousing my curiosity, that I showed no interest in observation, and that I was unable to differentiate between the real and the imaginary, as well as between the natural and the supernatural.9 They did not bother to ask me whether I lived in an imaginary world of my own choosing; they simply decided that I was incapable of doing otherwise. They entered the innards of my consciousness. Without consulting me, Fuerstein and Richel decided on the following instructions for my teachers: teachers should avoid showing disrespect for my traditions and beliefs, even though they are superstitions. Teachers would face resistance because I was incapable of grasping abstract explanations.10 Moreover, beneath "the religious problem" lay my problematic relationship with the father figure.11 My educators were forewarned that my presence in a group of children could be dangerous due to my lax sexual morality, as informed by my North African way of life, and would require the professional opinion of a psychologist.
As opposed to Fuerstein, Karl Frankenstein was busy addressing the question of what should be done in order to change the ethnic character of my parents.12 As the ethnic character of my father and mother was rooted in their unconscious, Frankenstein asserted that it could not be changed by conscious instruction.13 "Only forces directed at the unconscious are likely to change [their] ethnic character."14 Therefore, my parents and I were to struggle actively with our ethnic character.15
My parents believed him, and so did I. I actively struggled, even at the tender age of six, both on the individual and the collective level, just as he recommended.16 I invented the French girl from scraps of information taken from my mother, because that girl's chances of acceptance by the Frankenstein's of my new country were greater. My world was tailored according to his measurements--but all in vain. For despite his recommendations, Frankenstein declared himself skeptical of my ability to change, and, like Fuerstein and Richel, he, thought that my intelligence and ability to think abstractly were deficient. Thus, I was not blessed with the ability to think causally, to understand the ways of the world, to distinguish between the essential and the non-essential, to relate to situations that "require comprehending reasons, rules, and the essence of things, and to adapt to new conditions which require quick observation of the common and the different."17 In his article "On the Concept of Primitivism," Frankenstein analyzes the different kinds of primitivism known to him--that of the child, that of the retarded, that of the mentally ill, and that of the backward primitive and [his/her] deficient self-consciousness."18 All these ". . . constitute only an introduction to our main subject--the analysis of the primitive mentality of the Mizrakhi Jews who come to us from culturally backward regions."19 ". . . [W]e said that the primitive person lacks a 'self' and that his world is beyond the personal. . ."; to which he added that, in this world, what indicates degenerate primitivism is "an inflated self [narcissism], . . . narrow egotism, and a lack of understanding of extra-individual values."20 From my educators who hungrily consumed his writings, I learned that my self lacked all functional content (whatever that means). He also claimed that I was incapable of abstractly conceptualizing the "other" as having a "self" of his/her own!21
What all this meant for me as an individual was of no concern to either to Frankenstein or his colleagues. What mattered to them was "the big picture"--they were concerned with "the fate of the People of Israel." Frankenstein's opinions infuriated Akiva Ernest Simon, another member of the club, who was the one to explicitly etch the term "primitivism" into this body of work.22 From here on, the debate became increasingly detached from reality and entirely scholastic. My parents and I became abstract entities in this discourse; we were looked upon as guinea pigs on which the argument was to be tested. ". . . the anthropocentric position [as opposed to religious, social, or national positions] calls for extreme caution and moderate pacing, if any possible changes are to take place in the social lives of those same immigrants [meaning my social life and that of my parents]."23 ". . . [W[e have found that there are two fronts: the absorbers and the absorbed, the directors and the directed, the culturally developed and the culturally more primitive . . ."24 This claim caused Nathan Rotenstreich (yet another member of the club) to angrily state that there is a basic methodological problem regarding the question "to what extent is it possible and/or permissible to draw a line distinguishing between the different sides . . . [of the pair of terms used in the previous sentence]."25 Rotenstreich's words did not fall on deaf ears. They influenced leading figures such as David Ben-Gurion, who claimed that the unity of Israeli society was dependent upon common conceptions of collective objectives and the means for achieving them. Rotenstreich asked the rhetorical question: "Is there hope that such unity can be reached upon the background of the present reality of the veteran settlers? . . . [a return to fundamentals is necessary] in order to merge into the lifestyle founded on the ideas of Israeli society."26
Who was I to doubt these truths? In a sense, I did not exist, whereas these fictitious truths did exist--they had been propounded by the members of the intellectual elite of society. How could I not believe that these philosophers knew what they were talking about? I conformed. Over the years I have come to see that this discourse functioned as a massive system of exclusion, filtering out those of us who failed the Ashkenazi-action test. A system essentially fertilized by philosophical, literary, ethical, and educational authorities. This discourse stimulated the minds of subsequent thinkers, all of whom, in turn, nurtured the myth of primitivity versus modernity. Astonished, I watched them fuel the fire of this discourse, and tried with all my might to digest the perverted ideas they had cooked up for me.
Once that generation's leading thinkers had established their polemical positions and documented them in public lectures, at conferences, in books, and in journals, a solid infrastructure existed upon which Ben-Gurion could base his characterization of me as morally deficient. The educational system, in which my brother, my sister, and myself were processed, was based entirely upon these judgments, not unlike the superstructure of Israeli sociology, a sociology whose primary purpose was, during its first years, to serve the governmental authorities in absorbing the mass immigration of "Oriental" Jews.27 The ideological and emotional proximity of the founders of Israeli sociology to the Zionist project blurred the difference between the academic and the political.28 Even in instances of ideological disagreement, the aggressive Zionist belief in the establishment and subsequent fortification of the state forged a common emotional and conceptual consensus among politicians and sociologists.
In all of his research, Eisenstadt
preserved the distinction between pioneers and Olim [immigrants]. My parents, who
had arrived after the establishment of the state, could not be considered
pioneers by his definition. Moreover, in his view, they possessed no national
identity, since they were neither secular nor modern enough to his liking. They
were the antithesis of pioneers, and even a danger to the Zionist enterprise,
for they were traditionally religious.29 According to him, my parents were incapable of
consciously transforming their economic/employment patterns and their social
and cultural lives.30 My father, who had been a senior bank officer in
According to Eisenstadt's
classification my father was uneducated, despite his professional experience in
banking, and my mother, a cum laude
graduate of the Alliance Israelite, was but "another one of the illiterate
Mizrakhi immigrants." The fact that both of them
had experienced Western culture in the colonial city of
The story of our absorption was no more than an abstract analysis in Eisenstadt's terms of pioneers versus immigrants--two groups, two worlds, the former positive, the latter a danger to the former. In his evaluation of absorption policy, Eisenstadt deemed it mostly appropriate, and saw the mistakes made along the way as a reasonable price for Israeli society to pay to learn a lesson.34 He put it this way in general terms, as if the whole Israeli society paid the price for this lesson. But in fact it was I, Eisenstadt's object of research, who was the one who paid, and is still paying, this price. Not he, or Ben-Gurion, or their families, or the honorable liberator of Jerusalem Yitzhak Rabin, or the members of Knesset Naomi Hazan, Yael Dayan, Amnon Rubinstein, and Dan Meridor.
The Wadi Salib riots of 1959 were the outcome of a steadily growing correlation between low socio-economic status and Middle Eastern origin. The oppression had reached such a critical point, it could not but backfire in the faces of the hegemonic Ashkenazi elite. Who, among others, was appointed to the governmental committee to investigate the cause for the riots?--Shmuel Noah Eisenstadt, who concluded that the entire affair was no more than an outburst by a gang of thugs, whom he assumed did not represent either my parents or me.35
The scientific conceptualization and description of all our defects in the spirit of structural-functional theory not only constituted the basis of official policy, it formed the contours of Israeli sociology, as well. The Education and Social-Work departments in Israeli universities based all their research and definitions of backwardness, social gaps, and disadvantaged communities on these scientific conceptualizations. Programs were written introducing me and my parents to my Ashkenazi friends upon this base. The pioneer's child, whom I envied, was defined as "an ancient Hebrew who has already shed his Diaspora qualities and has renewed himself in his land."36
After which, the story goes, my parents and I arrived, bringing with us our negative values--a dislike for physical labor, conservatism, and an inclination to violence, all of which constituted a threat to Zionism. Than again, their Arabized way of living was seen to be a threat to the Zionist project and so had to be disposed of by all means possible.
My own experiences made it clear to me that it did not matter what I did or did not do--my Ashkenazi friends had to reject me. So, I Ashkenazi-sized. This Ashkenazi-ation still runs through my veins to this day--an Ashkenazi skeleton in my closet.
Today, at the new millennium I hear people saying that the Mizrakhi-Ashkenazi tension does not exist anymore; instead there are Power Rangers, Coca Cola, and other such cultural diseases that have Americanized us all. Than again, a student of mine of Arab-Jewish origin expressed his being fed up with the issue: "Hey . . . look at me--I reached university, and have never experienced discrimination. Whoever wants to--can make it. I don't want to deal with your problems, your parent's problems, and not even my own parents problems--all of that is irrelevant to me." It is I, and maybe one or two others like me, who spoil reality for this student and hang a dark cloud over the Israeli consensus that, in the year 2000, is prepared, at most, to admit that once upon time there was an ethnic problem in Israel (". . . and anyway, mixed marriages are on the rise"). A number of years ago, Dorit Rabinian, a second generation Iranian Israeli, defined herself as a "Nouveau Frank" (Frank being the pejorative term used to describe Moroccan Jews). She wrote:
Any good Ashkenazi boy knows that--"love shmove"--its still better to marry "one of ours" [an Ashkenazi] . . . [as opposed to the Ashkenazi-sized Mizrakhi boy who "jokes" with "the real thing" and asserts. . .], "I don't have a gold chain [a Moroccan signifier], I don't curse in Arabic, and my Benneton shirt is buttoned all the way up!" Any minute, he thinks, his face will pale in identification with the other side.37
What are the Ashkenazi-sized Mizrakhim supposed to do? Return to the past? Romanticize
the culture in nostalgia? What culture? That of
Today, I wonder whether Frankenstein himself was not too primitive to be able to recognize me as the "other"--that is, in terms other than negative, and as having a "self of my own." Were I to send Fuerstein to the Tudra Dunes (a village in the Atlas Mountains where the geology, weather, and dangerous conditions of the wild world make physical life very difficult) with no knowledge of the language and with no skills for contending with such a way of life, would he have survived the intellectual and physical tests of such a situation? What did those researchers know about me as an "other'" anyway? Why did they find it necessary to project on to me all of this psychologism? I, the research object, ask today as a subject who became a researcher.
In her book, A Critique of Postcolonial Reason,39 Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak suggests that I re-examine the Freudian fiction, based on the Oedipal story, according to which my identity was constructed--the fiction upon which my educators leaned. Postcolonial women, in her opinion, do not necessarily have a European story versus a traditional one. She provides me with the explanation that I am caught between two worlds. I feel that my story is one primarily of oppression: traditional European oppression, colonial oppression, Western oppression, and Zionist oppression. Inside all of this lies a shattered, confused identity that is fighting a Sisyphian struggle for control over my consciousness, my values, my feelings, my passions, and my will. I am trapped in a world of mirrors.
This is a process whose nature and power I am still largely unable to comprehend. It is not a return to my roots, nor a rehabilitation or reconstruction of identity. These are suspicious and dangerous words to my ears. One thing though is clear to me--whether I am conscious of it or not, I am a product of an educational, intellectual, and economic steam roller that squashed everything and left no room for any self- development outside of that of a distorting Ashkenazi, Zionist, Israeli, and European hegemony.
*This paper started life as a lecture I gave in Hebrew a long time ago. Rachel Jones translated it into English, and the translation was edited by Haim Marantz, who adopted several suggestions made by Natan Aridan. I would like to thank Haim Marantz for convincing me to publish it in a journal devoted to Israeli Studies rather than in the international journal to which I had first submitted it.
1. See p.
2. Eliezer Shmuely, Toldot Amenu BaZman HaChadash [The History of Our People in the Modern Era], v7 (Tel-Aviv, 1970) 268 [Hebrew].
3. Ibid., 414.
4. Levin Kipnis, Rumiah, The Little Nanny (Tel-Aviv, 1981) 12 [Hebrew].
7. Karl Fuerstein and
M. Richel, The Children of the Melah--The Cultural
Retardation among Moroccan Children and Its Meaning in Education,
published by the Henrietta Szold Institute and the
Jewish Agency (
9. Ibid., 17, 101, 185.
10. Ibid., 194.
11. Ibid., 195.
12. Karl Frankenstein, "On Ethnic Differences," Megamot, B3 (1951) 261-76 [Hebrew].
13. Ibid., 270.
15. Ibid., 272.
16. Ibid., 292.
18. Karl Frankenstein, "On the Concept of Primitivity," Megamot, B4 (1951) 342, 344, 347 [Hebrew].
19. Ibid., 352.
20. Ibid., 353.
21. Ibid., 352.
22. Akiva Ernest Simon, "On the Meaning of the Concept Primitivity," Megamot, B3 (1951) 227 [Hebrew].
25. Ibid., 335.
26. Ibid., 338.
27. Henriette Dahan Kalev, Self Organizing Systems: Wadi Salib and The Black Panthers--Implications for Israeli Society, Ph.D. Thesis, Department of Political Science, The Hebrew University of Jerusalem (Jerusalem, 1992) 37-42 [Hebrew]; also see Uri Ram, The Changing Agenda of Israeli Sociology (New York, 1995) esp. Ch. 3, 23-46.
28. Shmuel Noah Eisenstadt, Immigration
Absorption, M.A. Thesis, Department of Sociology, The
29. Shmuel Noah Eisenstadt,
31. For further discussion, see my thesis, Self Organizing Systems: Wadi Salib and The Black Panthers, esp. 37-40, 73-96.
32. Shmuel Noah Eisenstadt, "Leadership Problems among the 'Olim'." Megamot, 32 (1953) 182-91[Hebrew].
33. Ibid., 44.
34. Ibid., 152.
35. Ibid., 263. For an extended account of the Wadi Salib Riots and an analysis of the responses to it, see my Ph.D. Thesis, Self Organizing Systems: Wadi Salib and The Black Panthers.
36. Firer, "The Image of the Mizrakhi Edot," 25, 28-9.
37. Dorit Rabinian, "Nuvo Frenkit," Ha'Ir, 29 September 1993, 43.
38. That these ideas are still current can be seen in the fact that they are still repeated today by Israeli educational experts. See, e.g., the article by Shoshana Keiny, "Response to 'Human Rights in History and Civic Text Books: The Case of Israel'," Curriculum Inquiry, 29(4) (1999) 513-21, esp. 518-19. See also Ruth Firer, "Human Rights in History and Civic Text Books: The Case of Israel," Curriculum Inquiry, 28(2) (1998) 195-208
39. Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, A Critique of Postcolonial Reason (New Haven, CT, 1990).