What is there between the Mizrahi
issue and Palestinian Nationalism
Prof. Yehouda Shenhav
For years there has been in Israeli society an enterprise of coexistence meetings supported by the establishment and financed by liberal organizations trying to advance what they call a "civil society". Around this enterprise developed an ideology based in social psychology. These meetings have taken on the character of workshops on interpersonal relations, stemming from the premise that interaction between individuals diminishes mutual hatred and stereotypes (known in social psychology as the "contact hypothesis"). This is, to say the least, a strange ideology. National conflicts cannot be solved by workshops addressing stereotypes. A national conflict is a political phenomenon, the solution to which is to be found in the political arena and not in the individual or interpersonal arena. To say that the conflict is between individuals would be like saying that Yigal Amir assassinated Yitzhak Rabin because of a personal conflict between them.
From here I would also like to cast doubt on the relevance of personal opinions regarding political conflicts - particularly in the way they are expressed in opinion polls. Such polls cannot reflect the depth of ethnic or national conflict. They are subject to momentary whims of the public or to manipulations by political leaders, and they erase the history of the conflict. Herbert Marcusa once said that the attempt to understand our reality as it is does not necessarily mean learning "the facts".
This theoretical and philosophical position has implications regarding our discussion today i.e. the connection between the Mizrahi and Palestinian questions. I would like to propose that if the positions of the Mizrahim toward the Arabs are more militant, this is at least partially the result of years of European Zionist ideology which regards Arab culture with contempt. Having internalised this ideology, the Mizrahim learned to reject their own Eastern, or Arab roots in order to get closer to the centre of the Israeli collective. Rejection of their Arab roots is expressed in at least two ways. The Mizrahim, whose identity is split between their Jewish religion and their Arab cultural roots, may choose to stress their religious identity at the expense of their cultural identity. The religious path offers the Mizrahim a way to enter Israeli society while rejecting their connection to Arab culture. Another form of rejection is to adopt an Israeli identity and to deny the relevance of their Mizrahi identity.
Here I would like to look, through the Mizrahi issue, at the complex question of Palestinian nationalism. The Israeli left, which for the most part remains Zionist, Ashkenazi, and secular, has developed a standpoint that on one hand recognizes the Palestinian question in all its complexity, and on the other hand denies the social and ethnic issues of the Mizrahi question. I will present a few examples of this standpoint and try to put them in a theoretical, historical, cultural and political context. I ask your forgiveness ahead of time if the examples and commentary are not as organized as they might be.
few years ago I wrote an article entitled "Kesher
Hashtika" ("A Conspiracy of Silence") that was
published in the "Ha’aretz" newspaper (Dec.
27, ’96). Here
I tried to describe the blind spots of the Ashkenazi left. I tried to understand how it is
that the Ashkenazi Left recognizes the Palestinian problem. The Left, appearing as an
enlightened and progressive force in the country, was prepared for a Palestinian state long
before the present government agreed to it. On the other hand the same Left took the lead in
denying the Mizrahi question. This is an anomaly. How can we explain the
same group’s different attitudes
toward "the East"? Perhaps part of the explanation lies in the fact that the proposed
solution to the Palestinian question is separation. We can solve the Palestinian problem by drawing a
border between them and us. This is not an option with the Mizrahim. It is this
difference that enables the
Ashkenazi Left to recognize the Palestinian, but not the Mizrahi question. Here lies
something that we must look into further. Zionism is a political theory built on a very clear
distinction between the
Mizrahi and the Palestinian questions. The
converging of these two questions is one of the most threatening prospects for Zionist nationalism.
This could be seen in the
1970’s when the Panthers and Matspen movements joined
forces. I think that these
efforts are sabotaged not only by the government agents planted for that purpose, but by a
cultural structure central to the Israeli political system. For example even in the academic
world there is a very clear distinction between the historians that deal with the
Palestinians and the sociologists that deal with the Mizrahim. There is no attempt to integrate
the two issues. This is
particularly unusual when they address the phenomenon called "population exchange in the
Middle East," or the "refugee question".
In 1948 the
"Mizrahi refugees" was already on the agenda,
at least since
Ben Gurion’s "one million plan" that he
the other hand there are those who write about the Mizrahim from a very critical
viewpoint, such as Yosef Meir
in his book Shlichut Yavnieli Leteman ("Yavnieli’s
I look at my own biography I find nothing in the formation of my identity more influential than the ethnic
issue. My parents are Iraqi. My father was not a Zionist. He came to
My mother is a woman who knows how to enjoy herself. Arab culture is in her blood. My parents had their circle of friends who would get together every Friday and have a party. They had music playing from the Arabic radio station and the whole neighbourhood could hear it. I would die from embarrassment. I would plea with her, "What are you doing?!”
“What’s the matter," she would ask, "this isn’t ‘culture?’ We don’t have doctors and lawyers? We don’t have music?"
She forgets that during the week she has been sorting out my friends and establishing my own place in the social structure. Almost every Mizrahi of my generation tells a similar story of how, on the first Thursday of every month, Um Kul Thum would begin to sing and I would begin to tense up. As the Oriental tones filled the house my mother would gradually make the radio louder and louder and I wouldn’t know where to bury myself. I would try to turn the radio off and she would turn it back on and make it even louder. I had become a foreign agent in my own house. This is a result of external socialization that works very effectively. We internalise a very particular kind of logic that I am now trying to understand.
many years I tried to escape my Mizrahi identity and to deny the existence of a Mizrahi issue. I adopted the
position of the Ashkenazi
Left that identifies with the Palestinian issue and rejects the Mizrahim. I went to
began to dig in the archives in order to get a better understanding of the story of the bombs in
does the State of Israel do with the story of the expropriated Jewish property? In March
1951, Moshe Sharet informed the Knesset that the State of Israel now has an
account to settle with
order to clarify this issue, I would like to tell you how systems of memory create the Mizrahi understanding of the
conflict. As I mentioned
before, what one or another person thinks is a product of a long history. These systems of memory are
mobilized and used to form the insight and positions of people. People’s standpoints do not take
shape on their own as an
individual and rational process. What kind of memory do Mizrahim consume regarding the Palestinian issue? We go to
many memory sites such as memorials, museums
etc. and we consume logic that shapes our viewpoints. I think that a large part of the
struggle over multi-culturalism in
me for dwelling on examples of the holocaust, but here the examples are so obvious that they work
best in making my point. In 1952 the government of
Regarding the Mizrahi issue, which is connected to the Palestinian issue, it is important to understand how memory works. The Mizrahim, as opposed to the Palestinians, have a very ambivalent attitude towards Zionist nationalism. And Zionist nationalism has a very ambivalent attitude towards the Mizrahim. There is tension between processes of inclusion and exclusion in relations between Jewish nationalism and Mizrahim. It is as if we are told, "You are one of us, but a distant relative." That is to say you are almost like the Ashkenazim - but not exactly. As opposed to the Palestinians, you are a part of the collective. However within the Zionist nationalist movement you are marginal and have become ethicised.
In a letter to the German philosopher Karl Jaspers, Hanna Arendt once wrote (paraphrased) "I’m worried. Adenauer has decided to regard 1945 as the ‘Zero Hour’. That means that at the moment the war ended all of the Germans have become normal. Seventy million Germans have become normal and the only remaining Nazi is the Mufti of Jerusalem." Looking at Zionist historiography we can see how nationalist logic creates memory to its convenience. Seventy million Germans have in fact been exonerated while the Mufti still remains a Nazi.
1941 there was a pogrom in
In my opinion the connection of the Mizrahim to the political right is circumstantial and not essentialist. Mizrahim are not by nature any more right wing, nationalist, or excitable than the Ashkenazim. The historical pact between the Right and the Mizrahim is generally attributed to Menahem Begin’s climb to power in 1977. Though this was in fact a significant change, the more important turning point was in 1967. This is the Mizrahim’s formative year. They missed out on the war of 1948 since most of them had not yet arrived in the country. The 1967 War was the Mizrahim’s first opportunity to prove their loyalty to the State of Israel. Because of the intensity of the conflict the Mizrahim had to prove that they were holier than the Pope. We are all familiar with the efforts that Mizrahim make in order to avoid being mistaken for Arabs. How many wear a Jewish Star or a "Hai" around their neck, and how many wear a kipa on their head for national rather than religious motives? Internalised oppression is at least partially responsible for the very nationalist positions that Mizrahim have adopted. I can find nothing else that might explain why Mizrahim are more nationalist than Ashkenazim.
I would like to say that there is something misleading in the Zionist Left’s attempt to end the
conflict by separation from the Palestinians. Sami Samoha expressed this well in his call to adopt the Swiss model, ending the
struggle over total territorial domination. Zionism, after all, is a
colonialist movement built on concepts of Orientalism, negating the
East. The question is whether these concepts will disappear once there is peace. Will Arab
culture and identity suddenly gain respect in the eyes of the European Jews who have
Matan Vilnai became the
Minister of Cultural Affairs he asked Professor Zohar Shavit to prepare a report about policies regarding
for the year 2002.
We interviewed her about the decision by Yosi Sarid
to add poetry by Mahmoud
Darwish to the educational program. Sarid
had said that the poetry
chosen was lyrical, or light poetry. This
reflects the attempt to depoliticise every subject. Zohar
Shavit added that before introducing Mahmoud Darwish and Sami Michael, students must learn Bialik
and Amichai – in other words the canonized assets of
Bialik was born in
First published in Neve Shalom Site