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'But you're not really Mizrahi': Rewriting an erased identity

In the face of repeated sexual harassment and offhand racist comments by friends and acquaintances, one writer turns her anger into a reformulation of her identity. The awakening of sorts follows Amnon Levy’s Hebrew-language TV documentary series, “The Ethnic Demon.”

By Naama Katiee (Translated from Hebrew by Rachel Beitarie)

I’m about to finish high school, and I’m taking the bus. A guy sits himself besides me, places his hat between us and starts playing with it. Five minutes pass and I begin to suspect he is stroking my thigh. I’m not sure though. My heart is pounding but I stay mute, and later, I get angry with myself.

I am now towards the end of my military service, participating in a routine meeting. We are about 15 officers and I am the only woman in the room. One of the men casually says to me: “You would’ve probably been hot if you weren’t so skinny.” The others are silent, the younger among them shuffle uncomfortably in their chairs. I am stunned and silent. Later, I get angry with myself.

A few more years pass, and I’m hanging out with two couple friends of mine. They are properly leftists, intelligent, well-educated. The conversation flows until we start discussing politics. We talk about Tommy Lapid [1]. I say something about him being a racist and one of my friends responds: “So what, I am a racist as well.” I ask what she means by that, she answers:

“I don’t have any Mizrahi friends.”

I try to throw her a rope. “Well you don’t have to like Mizrahi music but what do you mean you don’t have any Mizrahi friends?” I ask.

“No,” she insists, “Mizrahi people have no culture – it’s a primitive and chauvinistic culture.”

I check again to make sure I heard her right.“You know I am Mizrahi, right?”

“You’re not really Mizrahi” she retorts, writing me off in a split second. I am stunned into silence. The others are silent as well. Quickly I mumble that I have to get going. Later, I get angry with myself.

Those were all clear moments of remarkably similar experience, but it took me many years to understand the similarity, and why they all arose in me the same feeling. That may be because, as Amnon Levy [2] realized from his own experience, anger and shame are mixed together in those moments, creating an impossible moment of embarrassment where you cannot stay, but also cannot not stay. A moment in which you are captive. A moment when you want to stand up for your right to be a woman in whatever version you feel like, while also wanting to cover yourself, cut your hair, cut off your breasts. The moment when you want to speak in your guttural Mizrahi accent with the Ayin and Khet [3], while at the same time also want to be invisible, unmarked, not a representative of any group – the same as everyone else.

I think the moment in which all of this came together was also the moment I realized I’ve gone Ashkenazi. I am half-Ashkenazi anyway so the possibility was always there, though for as far back as I can remember, I saw myself as “Yemenite.” Even during my long and jubilant years in Tel Aviv I was always “Yemenite.” However, that identity which I bore had been reduced to a sort of caricature with which everyone – myself included – felt a lot more comfortable. That moment, when my friend pointed at me and said “But you are not Mizrahi” was when I realized that my game had served the aggressor, first and foremost. Like every victim of sexual harassment, I was angry with myself for not doing anything. I later imagined what I would have said had I responded, and I was ashamed of myself for writing myself off until that moment, for erasing myself and for allowing her to cross me off.

That crystallized moment made clear to me the long period of erasing my own identity, of erasing myself. I had worked hard on distancing myself from my family, reducing contact to monthly visits. I had tried to adopt a new identity, adopt random families, I blamed myself and I discovered that I too don’t actually have any Mizrahi friends, and that those who were Mizrahi have shrunken themselves almost as much as I have. I went through the process of getting angry with the whole world, and again blaming myself, and secretly searching for the few Mizrahi students at the Gilman humanities building in Tel Aviv University, of embarrassing them and of being embarrassed. That was also when I started hearing that “this is all in your head” and “enough with this inferiority complex already.”

It is all your fault really. Why do you walk around showing so much cleavage? Why do you walk around with this ethnic distinction on you? Work harder and you’ll succeed, why the hell do you have to talk about it?

So, from now on, I write, and do not erase.

Naama Katiee is an MA student in The Cohn Institute for the History and Philosophy of Science at Tel Aviv University.

[1] Anti-religious and Eurocentric former leader of the Shinui party, and late father of current Finance Minister Yair Lapid.

[2] Creator of a TV documentary series about the experience of Mizrahi Jews in Israel, and on structural gaps between Mizrahi and Ashkenazi Jews in Israel.

[3] Guttural consonants that distinguish the accent in Hebrew of those who came from Arab countries.

Read more:
Mizrahi culture was suppressed, Ashkenazi culture is simply forgotten
Spineless bookkeeping: The use of Mizrahi Jews as pawns against Palestinian refugees

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    1. Michael W.

      What’s the difference between Mizrachi culture and Israeli culture?

      Reply to Comment
      • Palestinian

        I didnt know there is Israeli culture! The so-called Mizrahi culture is technically the Arab culture from Al Maghreb , Iraq and Yemen.

        Reply to Comment
        • Nikki

          You know you’re actually correct. An Ashkenazi Israeli guy I used to teach English to told me the exact same thing once.

          Reply to Comment
          • Kolumn9

            Because you know that what Ashkenazi Israeli guys say about Mizrahim is generally actually correct.

            Reply to Comment
        • Mara Cohen

          My Grandmother was an Abu Daouda from Hebron, before her family was massacred in 1929, and the survivors refugeed to Jerusalem. My Family remembers when Abu Bakr’s Arab Armies invaded. So, given that Arabs are conquering colonialists, who appropriated from those they conquered, given that Mizrahi Communities throughout the Levant and the MENA Region in toto long predated the Arab’s arriving, you may wish to rethink your perception on “Culture”, Hejaz boy…

          Reply to Comment
    2. alizarin

      If you’re part of the army, you’re also part of the problem too you know.

      You can’t harass Palestinians by day and then complain of anti-Mizrahi racism by night and expect people to take you seriously.

      Reply to Comment
      • Laurent Szyster

        Thank Alizarin for those kind words of compassion, all that warm fuzzy feeling …

        See Naama, maybe you’re not Mizrahi, maybe you are, the jury is still out. But as far as Alizarin is concerned you sure are a “zionist”.

        Reply to Comment
        • Kolumn9

          Given that she is now a feminist Mizrahi ideologue the usual correlations would suggest that she *was* a Zionist, and on an unrelated note and with only a slightly lower rate of correlation she is also probably a vegan.

          Reply to Comment
    3. Richard

      Another “divide and conquer” piece from +972. Similar experiences and crises of identity, while regrettable, occur in many countries populated by immigrants from different parts of the world, who immigrated at different times, and whose descendants have achieve less political, cultural, or economic power in their adopted nations than have the descendants of other immigrant groups. While +972’s editors makes an effort to consolidate Negev Bedouin and city-dwelling Nabulsi Palestinians, largely of Samaritan lineage, into one nation, they do their utmost to distinguish the author here from her classmates and friends. There is a pattern here worth noticing.

      Reply to Comment
      • “[the editors] do their utmost to distinguish the author here from her classmates and friends.” : Actually, the author wrote this, and I doubt the editors had nothing to do with its content. The author, on the evidence of the piece, does not want to be silenced. The pattern I see here is the hearing of a voice.

        Reply to Comment
        • Richard

          I meant by their selection of what pieces to publish, not by any editing of the actual pieces. Your last sentence is priceless btw.

          Reply to Comment
          • 972 is a cooperative magazine of the vast Israeli left, not a newspaper, let alone an unbiased newspaper, which someone somewhere will always tell you doesn’t exist. I actually think 972 should present stories on violence against Jews, especially those in directly contested areas. But there are no reporters to be assigned anywhere. Cooperative members decide their own stories. You will be hard pressed, however, to find another outlet providing coverage to, say, recent court cases incompatible with right nationalism. You may call this divide and conquer; I call it fighting for the rule of law.

            Reply to Comment
          • Kolumn9

            There is no ‘vast Israeli left’ of which 972 is representative. 972 is a representative and mouthpiece of the extreme left that lives almost exclusively in the blogosphere and in the halls of the various NGOs sponsored by European governments and extreme left-wing organizations. Pretty much every profile of a person or organization you see on these pages is funded by that same list of organizations and governments. Outside of the pages of 972mag and occasionally Haaretz these people are marginal ideological pets of the European and international far-left. It is an entire industry of make belief created for external consumption as is this site given that it is in English. There is enough support for their views to elect maybe a single MK, but oh boy do they make noise.

            Reply to Comment
          • “vast Israeli left”: Hello K9–I was being sarcastic. Actually, 972 journalists are not “European pets” but masochists willing to harm their career paths to live in fantasy–sort of like a religious calling. Hello K9–I’m being sarcastic–again.

            Reply to Comment
    4. The Trespasser

      >972 is a cooperative magazine of the vast Israeli left

      A cooperative magazine of handful of dishonest individuals would be a better description.

      Unless, of course, 972 staff would be able to produce some proof that Ahmad Al-Jabari had ever sent a peace proposal. Mwahaha.

      Reply to Comment