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.

 

A 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 question of "Mizrahi refugees" was already on the agenda, at least since Ben Gurion’s "one million plan" that he presented in 1941. In research work that I conducted (published in Ha’aretz Apr. 4, ’98 as "The Perfect Robbery") I showed how the property of the Palestinian refugees was regarded as being tied to that of the Iraqi Jews. This was well known by the time that Benny Morris published his book, The Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem. Yet Morris did not see fit to mention a word about the connection that existed between these two population groups in the political theory of the Israeli government.

 

On 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 Mission in Yemen"). Meir writes that the attempt to capture the job market with Hebrew labour was the primary incentive behind bringing the Jews from Yemen to Palestine. The mission was to bring Jews who were considered "natural workers", or who worked like Arabs. Though it is obvious that this was all a part of the Zionist nationalist conquest of Palestine, there is not a word in this book about the Palestinian national movement. That is to say that even in the supposedly open world of academic knowledge there are barriers preventing the connection between the Mizrahi and Palestinian questions.

 

When 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 Palestine in 1941 as a merchant, and he remained. My mother came from Baghdad to Palestine in the 1950’s in what was called "Aliyat Ezra and Nehemia". I can speak for hours about ambivalence surrounding my identity, creating dilemmas in my childhood between my Israeli identity and my MizrahiArab identity. When I brought friends home my mother made it clear to me who were my good friends and who were my bad friends. It was not in anything she said directly. But when I brought home an Ashkenazi friend I received compliments, and when I brought home a Mizrahi friend my mother made a face. After a while you get the message and begin to adopt Ashkenazi ways of thinking.

 

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.

 

For 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 the United States where I lived comfortably for several years. Upon my return to Israel in 1995, the issue exploded. I was part of a group of second generation Mizrahim who founded "Hakeshet Hademokratit Hamizrahit" ("The Mizrahi Democratic Spectrum") and I began to research the Mizrahi issue. The issue did not interest me in the context of a Zionist paradigm. I was not interested in discussing whether or not there is discrimination or a melting pot etc. I wanted to reach the root of the discussion, and I began with Iraqi Jewry. Many books have been written about Iraqi Jewry, but those that address the connection between the Palestinian and Mizrahi issues have not been translated to Hebrew. Abbas Shiblak, a Palestinian who wrote about Iraq, made this connection in his book The Lure of Zion. This is one example of a book that was never translated to Hebrew. Tough gatekeepers stand at the entrance deciding which literature on the Mizrahim can be introduced to the Hebrew reader and which literature will remain outside. Other examples of untranslated work that makes the Mizrahi - Palestinian connection are Na’im Giladi’s book Ben Gurion’s Scandals, and Shlomo Svirsky’s book The Seeds of Inequality.

 

I began to dig in the archives in order to get a better understanding of the story of the bombs in the Baghdad synagogue. This is a story that many people speak about but no one really knows. In the course of research I came across a fascinating story that ties in to the property of Iraqi Jews. The Zionist movement began to pay attention to Mizrahi Jewry in the years 1941 – ’42. It was then that Ben Gurion introduced his "one million plan". Anticipating that many Jews will be annihilated by Nazi persecution causing demographic problems for the Zionist movement, Ben Gurion decided that a plan must be introduced based on Jews from Arab lands. In 1950 an agreement was reached with Iraq’s Prime Minister Nuri Sa’id, as a result of which a law was passed allowing Jews to forfeit their Iraqi citizenship and leave the country without their property. Of the 120,000 Jews in Iraq, approximately 1,500 registered to leave the country. Around this time, working undercover as representatives of Solel Boneh, Israeli Mossad agents began underground activities in Iraq. All of the sudden there was an explosion in the Mas’uda Shem Tov Synagogue and immediately afterwards 24,000 Jews registered to leave the country. Abbas Shiblak describes in his book how each time there was a fall in registration, another bomb went off followed by another mass exodus. Five of these bombs did the job. In March 1951 the Iraqi parliament decided to expropriate the property of the Iraqi Jews. Shortly thereafter, most of those Jews who had still remained in Iraq left the country in an organized operation and were brought to Tel-Aviv.

 

What 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 Iraq since the latter expropriated the property of its Jewish subjects. The government of Israel allows itself to balance the value of the property that the Palestinians left with the value of the property that was taken from Jews in Arab lands. The connection is made by a political logic, however the basic assumptions behind this interesting linkage are not very clear. What is the connection between Iraqi Jews and Palestinians? How can the State of Israel use the property of Iraqi Jews, which is not even in its hands, to settle the account of another problem that it created?

 

In 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 Israel is a struggle over memory. For example the memory of the holocaust has been taken from the Jews for the benefit of the State of Israel. We see it everywhere. The "marches of life" or the trips of death in which children are sent to visit concentration camps in Poland is a case of the State expropriating memory. This reached the height of absurdity three years ago when General Yosi Ben Hanan suggested that the IDF (Israel Defence Forces) use Auschwitz as a place to conduct initiation ceremonies for its elite units.

 

Pardon 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 Israel conducted a discussion on the proposition of establishing Yad Vashem. In the course of this discussion Ben Gurion suggested granting Israeli citizenship, or a "citizenship of memory" to all Jews who died in the holocaust. What is the story behind this idea of automatic and virtual Israeli citizenship? Naturally there is the element of our identifying with those who suffered from the holocaust. But the point here is how the holocaust is used for political ends. We could speak about how memorial sites paradoxically isolate memory. Memorial sites are certainly not about individual memories and in fact they are not about memory at all. Driven by an external logic that isolates and constantly reproduces a particular memory, these sites are ultimately more concerned with forgetting then with remembering.

 

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.

 

In 1941 there was a pogrom in Baghdad. In this pogrom, known as the farhud, 160 Jews and 70 Muslims were killed. On the basis of evidence we have today it is known that the British were interested in entering the city, and that British soldiers were involved in provoking the violence. They waited 48 hours allowing a degree of anarchy to reign before making their move. It was classic colonial practice. Apropos memory, it would be interesting to see how Iraqi Jews who were there see this event in retrospect. The Babylonian Jewry Heritage Center is now publishing a book entitled Sin’at Hayehudim Ufra’ot Be’iraq ("Hatred of the Jews, and the Pogroms in Iraq"). In this book the farhud is described as part of the events of the holocaust. The centre even sent a letter to the Ministry of Education asking why the holocaust in Baghdad is not a major part of the State history program. All of this is part of the Mizrahi aspiration to be included in the Jewish national collective by taking part in the civil religion called the holocaust.

 

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 Mizrahims 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 Mizrahims 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.

 

Finally 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 settled in Israel? The negation of the East and the crystallization of western culture within Zionism is a powerful driving force. As Edward Said expressed it, the East serves as a wall, or as "the other" which the West uses in order to define itself. What kind of peace will bring the European Ashkenazi Jew to suddenly like the East?

 

When Matan Vilnai became the Minister of Cultural Affairs he asked Professor Zohar Shavit to prepare a report about policies regarding cultural matters 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 Israeli culture. Bialik was born in Odessa, Darwish was born in Birweh (Palestine), and Michael was born in Baghdad, but Bialik is considered more Israeli than the other two. By placing Darwish and Michael together, Shavit, with a slip of the tongue, exposed what Zionism constantly tries to hide i.e. the connection between the Zionist movement’s attitude towards the Mizrahim and towards the Arabs.

 

 

First published in Neve Shalom Site