The following is the translation of a speech delivered by prominent Israeli author Sami Michael at a conference in Haifa in June 2012. It is a ‘cri de coeur’ that is full of love and grief.
Born and raised in Iraq, Mr. Michael was a political activist and member of the Communist party; when a warrant for his arrest was issued in 1948, he fled to neighboring Iran. Unable to return to Iraq, he immigrated to Israel in 1949. After working as an engineer and as a journalist for the Haifa-based Arabic newspaper Al Itihad, he became an acclaimed novelist who has been nominated for the Nobel Prize in literature. He is still a human rights activist and is today the president of ACRI – the Association for Civil Rights in Israel.
For many years Mr. Michael described himself as not a Zionist, but a patriotic Israeli. He identifies proudly as an Arab Jew and an Iraqi.
In his controversial speech last month, he said he was too old to emigrate but envied those who could. Although he insists he is still a patriotic citizen, he no longer feels that Israel can be his spiritual homeland: It has turned its back on “humanistic values and the rights of mankind.” Racism, fanatical religiosity and the occupation are destroying the state, he says. We are liable to lose it all.
I first met Mr. Michael at his Haifa apartment in the summer of 2006, during what Israel calls the Second Lebanon War and Lebanon calls the July War, when I accompanied a European journalist as a translator. That interview was interrupted a couple of times by the siren announcing incoming rockets. In my blog post about the meeting I embedded a brief video clip of Mr. Michael speaking Arabic. Looking at it now, I feel as though six years is a very, very long time. A lifetime. It’s a strange thing to say about a meeting that took place in wartime, but I think he was more optimistic then. I am pretty sure I was.
Israel is the most racist state in the industrialized world
By Sami Michael
I was born in 1926 into a generation that is gradually fading away. Very few remember the fall and catastrophic collapse of the second largest empire in the world. France, the great world power that had built the Maginot Line, the most perfectly designed defense line in history, that had at its disposal a mighty army, air force and navy, was vanquished within the course of only three weeks before our astonished eyes. Not only was this a shock, but ever since then my world has become more fractured. Concepts such as permanence, a reality that is self-understood, and a stable life have been discarded from my personal dictionary yet they have acquired a central place in the sacred Israeli lexicon, and serve as a virtual Maginot Line. Perhaps the things I am about to say are harsh, but for me they are a warning bell for my countrymen, and this is why I have chosen to say them in the mother tongue of my children and grandchildren.
Israel is the only state established after the Second World War that from the very dawn of its existence became an astounding success story. It could be set up as a model for the scores of countries that emerged from colonial subjection and have not yet achieved their dreams. How is it that this same Israel finds itself, after only a few decades, externally submerged in an insoluble dispute and internally ruptured almost to a state of paralysis? I think that the answer lies in the fact that Israel has never dared to confront itself directly with three basic problems that have accompanied it from the day of its existence: the place of Israel within the Arab world, the social and racial gaps, and the secular-religious divide.
The dominant culture in Israel has always directed its eyes towards the West. But this West, as always, weighs the existence of Israel as well as other countries in terms of economic profit and strategic value. The European settlers in Algiers, Zimbabwe and South Africa lasted longer than Zionist settlement in Israel. The hold that white men had over South Africa developed into an impressive power, but when the order of priorities changed in the world, it seems that the wall of Western support was a passing illusion, treacherous and deceptive. The State of Israel is in fact the product of traditional Jewish intercession. When the fathers of Zionism in Europe garnered sympathy for the establishment of a Jewish state they made use of the argument that the entity to be created would spread a wave of advanced European culture into the Middle East. This approach took root in Israeli consciousness, and until today Europe is the spiritual Mecca for a large section of the Israeli intelligentsia, especially for those writers considered as the shapers of public opinion. In my view, this is one of the deep internal conflicts in the Zionist idea. Zionist ideology emerged against the background of European anti-Semitism, yet the fathers of Zionism volunteered to serve as the agents of that very culture which nurtured a hatred of the Jews. It thus transpires that those upholding this approach regard the generations of anti-Semitism, the expulsion from Spain, the atrocities of Nazi Germany as if they had occurred on another planet, in some imaginary era.
As a result of continual brainwashing of themselves, Europe is upheld in the minds of many Israelis as a cultural lighthouse and a source of inspiration for an enlightened society. Proudly, we portray ourselves in our own eyes and in those of our sympathizers in Europe as the firm bridgehead for European culture in a backward and hostile world. In extreme historical ignorance, the fathers of Zionism were unaware of the horrors of European conquest in the Arab world, from the Persian Gulf to the Atlantic Ocean. I do not believe that by ingratiating ourselves with European culture we have won the admiration of Europe, but we have certainly acquired the bitter hatred of the Arab peoples both as agents serving a dangerous enemy and as perpetuators of occupation by that same enemy. The Arab peoples have paid a very heavy price to eliminate European occupation. Their struggle cost them many victims, but in the formal sense they have achieved independence. Therefore they may forgive the wrongs of the past caused by European conquest, but so long as Israel exists they cannot declare their final victory over European occupation.
The State of Israel, from the day it was established, has proved how well based and logical are the Arab suspicions of us, from the identification of Israel in the 1950s with the sins of the French in Algiers, through Israeli participation with the armies of Britain and France in 1956 against Egypt for nationalizing the Suez Canal, and ending with our active enthusiasm at the conquest of Iraq, not to mention our direct conquest and settlement in Gaza and the West Bank. Israel, a tiny island, has become a mark of shame on the proud forehead of the Arab peoples. These are the peoples who obliterated every foreign element that tried to acquire a stake in the region and who overcame the Mongols, the Crusaders and European occupation.
The historical background of the region and the present situation of Israel as a lonely island arouse anxiety in the heart and pessimistic thoughts. I shall refer to the most significant problems, those that keep me awake.
Racism and deep social gaps are serious problems that have existed in Israel from its earliest days until now. Herzl, the visionary of the state, grew up in Austria and became a great world figure. As a journalist he came into contact with various cultures. By contrast, those who realized his vision were mostly influenced by an East European ghetto mentality. The Jews in Eastern Europe were for the most part centered upon themselves and suffered from oppression, isolation and pogroms. Possibly for that reason the Jew related to his neighbor and to those different from him as a source of danger. Unlike the language spoken by the Jews of Arab and Islamic countries, the language of East European Jews was completely different from the one spoken in the surrounding society. Yiddish was the accepted form of communication among the various exiled communities in Eastern Europe. Moreover, the Jews there did not know very much about the Arab East and Arab Jews. But the Jews in Arab countries were open to Arab culture during its golden age as well as in its decline, from a flourishing Andalusia and the glorious Abbasid Empire until the dark ages under Ottoman rule. There was no contact between ghetto Jewry and the Jews of Arab countries. In the view of the ghetto-dweller, the Jew spoke the Mamma-Loshen, Yiddish. On the other hand, the Arab Jew enjoyed a freedom of movement, and was aware that other Jews existed in the world who differed from him in language and customs, although he had no knowledge of the isolated ghetto Jews.
The encounter between the Jews of Arab countries and those of Eastern Europe occurred in the Land of Israel and was a traumatic one filled with suspicion. East European Jews were the first to settle in Palestine and left their mark on the spiritual, cultural and political character of the new state, even though they were few in number at the time when the state was established. I arrived in Israel in 1949 and the identity card number I received was 733440, which means that the state had less than three quarters of a million Jews at that time. There had been some expectation that after the Holocaust and the founding of the state, great waves of migration from that Jewry which had suffered from the abominable crimes of Europe would flood into it. The disappointment was bitter among the veteran members of the ‘Old Yishuv‘ (The body of the Jewish residents in Palestine until 1948). European Jewry did not knock at the gates of the Jewish state. At the same time, in 1948, a wave of repression swept over the Jews in Arab countries in revenge for the defeat of their armies. Until then the Jews had enjoyed an impressive and flourishing presence in the Arab world. They took advantage of their contacts with the outside world and enriched their Arab countries on economic and cultural levels. They were concentrated in the larger cities and therefore had a prominent influence in countries that were mainly agricultural. For example, more than 20 percent of the residents in the Iraqi capital, Baghdad, were Jews. This was a rare situation in the world. But after the establishment of the State of Israel was declared, the existence of Jews in Iraq, as in other Arab countries, became impossible. Almost all the Jews in those countries streamed into the new state as refugees. In the view of the ‘Old Yishuv‘, these Jews were not very different from the defeated Arab enemy. They spoke its language, they had adopted their customs, they were dark-skinned like them, and they even gave their children Arabic names. The ‘Old Yishuv‘ regarded them as primitive and inferior, similar to the enemy they had overcome on the battlefield. The shock was enormous. An ‘Old Yishuv‘ leader expressed the frustration felt then by saying: The state was founded for one people, and another people came to settle in it.
Until today, more than sixty years after the State of Israel was established, this rift has not been mended. Mentally, it takes the form of racism, and socially it expresses the gap in status. How strange it is that these two population groups, so different from one another to the point of estrangement in their orientation, should have so carefully nurtured this rift. The salon leftists – and in Israel, it is worth noting, the leftists have never left the salon – repudiated Eastern Jewry as expendable “raw material”, or in the Communist jargon of that time: the “lumpen-proletariat”. This was in spite of the fact that immigrants from Egypt, Lebanon and Bulgaria, and especially from Iraq, held an impressive Communist record from their countries of origin. The Communist establishment in Israel treated these immigrants with blatant arrogance. At the beginning of the 1950s there were immigrant camps in which 20 percent of their dwellers voted for the Communist Party in the Knesset. Not one of them was promoted to a position of any value in the party. The central committee of the Communist Party was and still remains today more “purified” of Mizrahi Jews than any other establishment in the state. The suspicion and arrogance towards the Mizrahi communities was a solid impenetrable barrier in the ranks of the Communist Party.
The racism seeped into many other spheres, and shamefully increased the social gaps. Until today, in most of the important state institutions and especially in the academic and cultural ones, we witness an under-representation of those who came from Arab countries. The Israeli left have adopted this approach and continues in its racist policy, amounting actually to a political symbolic suicide on its part, rendering itself an insignificant elitist cult in Israeli society. The other stronghold of racism is the ultraorthodox Jewish community in Israel.
Thus, if the Israeli left displays its racism with circumspection and uses denial tactics to hide it, the Ashkenazi Haredi (ultra-orthodox) bloc displays its version of racism openly and unabashedly. In the eyes of the Haredim, Mizrahi Jews were nothing but an existential danger to them. Mizrahi Jewry was not extremist in its faith. Their religious practice developed within the context of Islam as a pragmatic one, and created a broad network of cultural and economic ties with the Islamic political establishment. The fierce competition among the authoritative admorim (religious leaders) and rival extremist sects did not exist in the East. In Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, and Egypt, the Jewish religious establishment showed leniency towards those who preached change and progress within the Jewish community.
Moreover, this establishment did not become ossified but initiated Halachic (Jewish religious laws) regulations that reflected changes in time, place and new conditions. The Ashkenazi Haredim regarded this as endangering their existence and therefore treated pragmatic Mizrahi Jewry as proscribed and unclean. For generations they adopted a violent and aggressive sectarian faith, and from within their isolationist fortresses they aimed their racist darts at the Mizrahi communities without restraint or shame. Even those Mizrahi Jews who gave up their pragmatic traditions to join the Ashkenazi ultra-orthodox and adopted their strict codes, were kept in racist isolation within their enclaves in Israel. Two years ago I was personally forced to conduct a one-man demonstration in Tel Aviv against the horrifying display of racism in the Emmanuel School where a separation fence was set up in the school’s courtyard to prevent contact between the ‘pure’ Ashkenazi girls and the ‘impure’ Mizrahi girls. That same school enforced the wearing of a uniform, but the color chosen for the Ashkenazi pupils was different from that of the Mizrahi ones.
On my way to school in Baghdad, during the days when Nazi Germany was in power, I came across a graffiti inscription on the walls: “The Jew is of an inferior race,” and “Hitler is destroying the germs.” These slogans came to Iraq directly from Berlin. After seventy years, these words still harrow my soul. According to the racist Haredi doctrine here in Israel, my children and grandchildren, who have a mixed Iraqi-Russian-French-Polish-Dutch heritage, must also stand behind the fence together with hundreds of thousands of other children. I shall not deny that this strange fence has invaded my nightmares. I devoted my youth to a war against the influences of European racism and especially racism based on religion, color or origin. A third of my people perished because of this. In distant Baghdad, my friends – both Jews and non-Jews – and some of them dearly loved ones, paid with their lives in the struggle against this cursed racism.
How did we drag this racist disease into our homes here? How horrifying it is to find that a people who had paid a terrible blood price in the previous century because a racist fence had been drawn around it, could allow such a contemptible fence be constructed within its homeland?
We know very well when this abomination occurred and where. We remember well what price our people have paid for the fences and separation according to color. In my view this is a sacrilege that took place in a Jewish school which claims to be teaching the Holy Torah. If any other country had set up such an offensive fence we would, as Jews, have loudly protested against it. And here, in Israel, the left has for the most part kept silent. The ruling establishment did not lift a finger. The Supreme Court decreed that the fence should be removed. But those who set up the fence loudly announced that they would continue their policy even if this entailed sitting in jail.
Now, with the collapse of the phony left in Israel and the rise to power of the right in general, and of the Haredi right in particular, the racist divide has become an almost acceptable fact. Racism is gradually becoming entrenched in Israeli society with the political strengthening of the religious right. Racism is directed at Jews from Arab and Islamic countries, immigrants from Ethiopia and Russia, Arab citizens of Israel, Palestinians in the occupied territories, refugees and working migrants, gays, and the list goes on. The rising tide of racism continues to mount with the encouragement of Knesset and government members, both through infamous public statements and by legislating draconian anti-democratic laws against outsiders, foreigners, and against human rights organizations. In any case, Israel can pride itself on having the dubious title – the most racist state in the developed world.
Religion and State
The individual – or the state – that adopt a religious text as a spiritual guideline and certified document that grants ownership rights cannot remain secular for long. With the empowering of the electoral strength of Haredi Jewry, both Ashkenazi and Mizrahi, the socio-political structure has become extremely complicated. The Haredi empowerment, like the empowerment of the settlers, emerged from the hothouse of secular Zionism. Ben-Gurion sanctioned religious parties when he preached obsessively about Jewish consciousness. The Bible was given central importance even for teachers of literature. Over the years, from one election to another, the Likud party increased the sway of extremism, since it was ready to pay more and more in order to gain government control. The Haredim could not resist the great temptation and extended their hands to take their share of the pie without respecting the secular institutions of the state such as the courts of law, the army, and democratic values in general. Israel was thus a pioneer by international standards in encouraging religious factions to become active in the framework of political parties. By doing so, it brought destruction both on religion and on the norms of democratic and political life.
The religious bloc has gained power and influence not because of its vitality and conceptual originality, but merely thanks to the corrupting political bribery that is granted to it in order to be part of dubious coalition governments. The estrangement of the leftists to the rank and file of the people as well as its arrogance, play no negligent role in this deterioration. The instability of the security situation and the shattering of the impossible dream to achieve peace concurrently with occupation, has also led more and more people to believe that only a miracle or the mercy of heaven can save us from catastrophe. It should be remembered that in spite of its military supremacy, for the past forty-five years Israel has not won a decisive victory on the battlefield, not even against ordinary militias. After every confrontation, investigative committees were set up to examine where we had failed. When a tank or a plain are an insufficient response, then the tendency towards messianic belief flourishes. The nationalistic conflict between Israel and the Arab world has gradually turned into a religious confrontation between Judaism and Islam. We are living in a glorious age of Jewish halacha (religious law), like the Islamic shari’a law. Year after year the ramparts of democracy and secular rule are disintegrating before our eyes under the persistent pressure of religious nationalism.
Several years ago Salman Rushdie wrote that there are two theocratic states in the world – Iran and Israel. In the meantime the list has grown longer as a result of the disappointing ‘Arab spring’ that had been the hope of young secularists and had backfired against them. In his book The Satanic Verses, Rushdie writes: “Something is not right in the spiritual world of this planet … there are too many demons within human beings who claim that they believe in God”. My friend, A. B. Yehoshua claims that the Jews can be normal only in Israel. But I think that the secular visionary of the state is turning in his grave to see the state that is willingly abandoning its fate to the hands of abnormal demons. Bibi Netanyahu was raised to the seat of government on the wings of a Haredi slogan: “Bibi is good for the Jews”, meaning good for the Haredim, the intention being the destruction of secular democracy and the establishment of a repressive theological state. The triumphant march of religious nationalism is both impressive and terrifying. Thousands of higher education graduates are fleeing from Israel every year and prefer to conduct abnormal lives, in the terms of A. B. Yehoshua, in distant but more normal countries. I envy them, but I am too old to experience once again the trauma of the migrant, and therefore prefer to remain as a stranger in my own land.
The occupation is a veritable catastrophe for Israel. Greater Israel, the enthusiasm for conquest, to control and settle in the very heart of the dense Palestinian population, are a sweeping tide that strikes at the core of Zionism which sees itself as enlightened, secular and socialist. The term ‘Greater Israel’ did not emerge in the Likud party or in the yeshiva of national religious Judaism, but was coined in Kibbutz Ein-Harod by poets, writers and intellectuals, almost by the purest stream of moderate secularism. The Israeli-Palestinian dispute is the main factor in shaping the image of Israel in its various political, cultural and economic aspects. Over the years, the left and right polarized their positions until they created two opposing illusions that have only a fragile hold on reality. The left describes the Arabs and innocent angels, victims of brutal Israeli aggression. The right nurtures a burning hatred for the Arabs, as if they were unbridled monsters. It is commonly known that in every prolonged conflict, both sides become brutal. A prominent poet once declared: Ehud Barak is contemptible. He should send tanks against them and finish them off with machine guns. This poet belongs to the sane camp that is seemingly in search of a peaceful solution. He knows, of course, that our machine guns have already fired billions of bullets of every kind in the decades that have passed without any effect. We have turned the Sinai three times into a cemetery for Egyptian soldiers. We have razed Beirut to the ground and conquered it. We ravaged the Jordanian army. We threw nearly all resisting Palestinian intelligentsia into prison during the past forty-five years. For every Jew that was killed in the past three generations, at least ten Palestinians lost their lives. Our armaments nearly gave out in 1973 from all the killings we made in the Egyptian army, and without the American air lifts we would have been left with empty rifle barrels. A young boy in the refugee camps living in dire poverty is ready to die a hero’s death. He has nothing to lose. How many sons can we proffer who would be prepared to commit suicide and win the death of heroes?
Quite a few people have condemned the appalling declarations of Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman in Israel and outside it. But Lieberman is right in claiming that he is expressing aloud what others really think. Let us not deceive ourselves, the culture in Israel has already become no less poisoned than the extreme trends in Islam. From kindergarten until old age we have saddled the souls of our children with the heavy load of hatred, suspicion and aversion towards the alien and the dissimilar, especially towards the Arabs. The sane voice of culture is fading away. The authors of the fascist book “Torat HaMelech” (“The King’s Torah”), which advocates the murder of Arabs, were spared criminal charges for incitement to racism and violence. The Attorney General closed the file against them and thus allowed for the sale of this odious book. In the Israel of today the early buds of spiritual and cultural fascism are gradually sprouting. A vociferous writer recruited by the establishment demands that in the study of literature only those books that promote the Zionist ethos will be chosen. Ironically, there are humorous episodes even while we plunge into the depths. In a small town near Haifa, the head of the religious council instructed the public library to lock up all the secular works in a closed room that would not be accessible to the curious reader, but only by previous arrangement and for a limited period of time. In this spiritual prison-house the mouth of the poet who wanted to use a machine gun to murder Arabs has been sealed, and the books written by the writers of the establishment are also being covered over with dust. My own books as well.
I still define myself as an Israeli patriot, but the Israel that is gradually deteriorating, turning its back to humanistic values and the rights of mankind, cannot be my spiritual homeland.
Forever is an Illusion
Almost two thirds of the territory of Israel is desert land unfit for traditional agriculture. It is a country poor in natural resources. Nevertheless, it is one of the few states founded after the Second World War that quickly rose upwards to the status of a flourishing country. Thanks to the diligence of its inhabitants and their resourcefulness, a sophisticated agriculture has developed, high technology, and renowned medical expertise. Israel is placed among the leading countries in the world in many fields. Not by chance has it won a number of Nobel prizes in various disciplines. In spite of all these achievements, we still remain in a difficult period of time. Throughout history, not always in dramatic events such as total defeat in war or colossal natural disasters, one culture or another was destined for annihilation. Banal factors led to the decline and death of giant entities such as Ancient Greece, early Egyptian civilization, the Roman Empire, the Ottoman Empire; white supremacy in South Africa; and French settlement in Algiers. Only those lacking in foresight and profound thought brandish high-sounding words such as forever, eternally, and generations without end.
I think that Judaism is also in a state of deep conceptual and spiritual crisis after the shattering of all ideologies. From a spiritual viewpoint, religion in Israel has deteriorated to the level of cemeteries, idol worship and dark extremism. It seems as if religious leadership has retreated a few centuries backward to the world of superstition and blatant ignorance. The religion that had known how to flow together with developing life through brilliant figures such as Maimonides is desperately in need now for a leadership that will conduct fundamental reforms. The same crisis is also affecting the political leadership. Dwarf-sized opportunists are floating to the surface and it is heartbreaking to see how the people condone and even forgive a corrupt and deceitful leadership that bars the way to enlightened leaders of the stature of Abba Eban and Moshe Sharett.
Israel is threatened with severe existential dangers if the existing leadership does not have the wisdom to understand that Israel is not located in the peaceful northern regions of Europe but in the turbulent center of a tormented Middle East. We have no place in the Middle East in the future since we made ourselves detestable to it, after we have stressed day and night that it is detestable to us. So very detestable. If we do not find a solution besides the machine gun and the tank – which we have already seen to be helpless against a barefoot child with a stone in his hand – we may lose it all. The State of Israel is liable to become a passing phenomenon like the First Temple and the Second Temple.
The terrible tragedy is that our neighbors are in the same rotten situation; they have no Gandhi and we do not even have a mini-Roosevelt.