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Being a Mizrahi woman in the Left

My leftism is beyond the establishment, and it stems first and foremost from my experiences as an outsider.

By Netta Amar-Shiff

My community did not include brothers of, parents of, or children of celebrities or political activists who went out to change the world. I was just another Mizrahi girl in the heart of the consensus. (Illustrative photo by Activestills.org)

My community did not include brothers of, parents of, or children of celebrities or political activists who went out to change the world. I was just another Mizrahi girl in the heart of the consensus. (Illustrative photo by Activestills.org)

I grew up in a house that was mostly involved in maintaining family unity and keeping the mitzvot, all within the geographical radius of my home, my synagogue, and my school. Although I never knew who or what Arabs were, I knew a little bit of Arabic, since I lived with my grandmother, may her memory be a blessing, for several years. When I was young knowledge of the language did not serve as a bridge for anyone in my neighborhood, since I lived in a Mizrahi ghetto, for all its beauty and hardships.

My leftism did not come from Marx, Stalin, World War II, or the Holocaust, though I read many books about the latter as I grew up. My leftism stemmed neither from theories of universalism, humanism or pacifism nor from years-long knowledge of the occupation, or the public debate about the tension between Jewish and democratic. I read and learned about all these over the years.

My leftism is not committed to parties or organizations, although I do have political preferences and I have worked and volunteered with human rights organizations over the years. My leftism is not defiantly secular, although I have drifted away from religion while holding on to family traditions.

My leftism is beyond the establishment, and it stems first and foremost from my experiences as an outsider, even when I was deep in the Israeli-religious-Mizrahi experience. My leftism mainly stems from my very personal experiences of mourning, of my father whose life came to an end in a helicopter accident in the army. My leftist stems from a spring of Mizrahiness, with all its pain and humanity, but also with respect — respect for myself and others. All of these things became a part of me without ever knowing — whether from the home or from the community that surrounded me. My community did not include brothers of, parents of, or children of celebrities or political activists who went out to change the world. I was just another Mizrahi girl in the heart of the consensus.

I came to understand the Left only after I happened to meet others who identified, more or less, as leftists. I saw their pain and humanity, along with their Ashkenazi arrogance. But once I got to know them, I couldn’t go back. I couldn’t go back because getting to know them was conditioned on reading, learning, and always asking critical questions. I entered paradise and was struck with its wisdom. It wasn’t like I hadn’t read or found meaning in religious texts beforehand. It wasn’t like I hadn’t read Zionist texts that filled me with pride and a sense of purpose. This time was different — I was independent, reading the text like the outsider I was. The goal was to develop my own insights, while at the same time refusing to disconnect myself from my home. The goal was to open a door in my own world to words and concepts that helped explain my past experiences, places I had visited, pictures I had seen, and mostly why people like me could be both on the inside and the outside.

My community did not include brothers of, parents of, or children of celebrities or political activists who went out to change the world. I was just another Mizrahi girl in the heart of the consensus. (Illustrative photo by Activestills.org)

My community did not include brothers of, parents of, or children of celebrities or political activists who went out to change the world. I was just another Mizrahi girl in the heart of the consensus. (Illustrative photo by Activestills.org)

This language, made up of terms like “hierarchy of power,” “equal opportunities,” ” the denial and internalization of oppression,” “social justice,” and also — “end the occupation” and the right to self-determination for the “other”— could not be found anywhere but in the history of the Left. I don’t need the Right to love myself, my homeland, for the right to defend myself or oppose terrorism. These concepts are well-imbued in every human being.

Seeing the truth for what it is

As I read more and more I also met and listened to other women and men, those who I suddenly saw as standing with me, on the margins. All of a sudden we became a loving home for one another, even when we shed tears over differences of opinions. When we realized the meaning of power together, including those who have it and those who don’t. And this loving home cannot be forgotten. It cannot be abandoned. We must protect it from those who attack it.

I found myself demanding respect for other women, men, and myself. I understood that there are those who are respected more, and those who are respected less. And there, in this otherness I understood that this loving home was called the Left. This home did not belong to anyone specifically. This was my Left. I remembered those who I had met until then, those who were put behind a fence and became, like myself, outsiders. Because I had to see the humanity in those who were called subhuman by everyone. Beyond the slogans there are people who belong to a nation — and we cannot simply decide to see only some, and dismiss or forget the others.

It’s not like I don’t have firm opinions on how I would like this country to look, and it’s not like the answers are always easy. God may rest the soul but religions are also the source of misery for many, and Mizrahi identity is important but can also be used against Arabs. I am the outsider Left, the one that still believes in the ability of human beings to belong without ever losing our independent thinking or our understanding of power relations. Ever.

I believe that the greatest challenge for every 18-year-old in this divided country is to look seriously at all the political options and decide which one suits him or her to achieve a better future. Not only by hugging those who are already on the inside, but to go out and listen to the outsiders, a much more difficult act to take. By crossing the lines and not be those who mark them and name others the outsiders. There are those amazing people who do this within the home, and others who dare to do it outside of it, with their neighbors, beyond the home, school, and synagogue We must give our respect to all of them.

Those who made big changes in this world and in this country were either those who carried the sword or those who carried the banner of peace. Together or apart and sometimes by switching sides. I made a choice not innocently but looking straight forward the complex reality – the hopeful yet threatening one. I believe that we can change reality, not all at once, but only if there will be enough people willing to look that reality, and the people who make it, in the face and create a new one. Being a leftist in Israel today is not an easy choice, and it’s certainly far from joining the masses. Every leftist who is labeled an Israel-hater has a name. I do, so do you.

Netta Amar-Shiff is a human rights attorney. This article was first published in Hebrew on Local Call. Read it here.

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