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Israel's Nation-State Law also discriminates against Mizrahi Jews

Mizrahi academics and activists demand Israel’s High Court strike down the Jewish Nation-State Law, saying it erases their cultural legacy and perpetuates injustices against both them and Palestinian citizens of Israel.

The Kadoori, Hamias, and Ashram families sit near an improvised Shabat dinner table set near their demolished houses in Givat Amal neighbourhood, Tel Aviv, Israel, September 19, 2014. Two days passed since the third eviction of families in the neighbourhood which left 20 residents homeless without proper compensation or alternative housing solution. By: Shiraz Grinbaum/Activestills.org

The Kadoori, Hamias, and Ashram families sit near an improvised Shabbat dinner table set near their demolished houses in Givat Amal neighborhood, Tel Aviv, Israel, September 19, 2014. (Shiraz Grinbaum/Activestills.org)

Over 50 prominent Israeli Jews of Mizrahi origin filed a petition to the High Court of Justice on Tuesday demanding it strike down the Jewish Nation-State Law, saying it discriminates against both Palestinian citizens and Jewish Mizrahi citizens of Israel.

According to the petition, the law, which demotes Arabic from an official language to one with “special status,” is “anti-Jewish” for excluding the history and culture of Jews from Arab and Muslim countries, “while strengthening the impression that Jewish-Arab culture is inferior…and anchoring the identity of the State of Israel as anti-Arab.”

The petition, which was written and submitted by Attorney Netta Amar-Shiff, also refers to a clause in the law that establishes Jewish settlement “as a national value.” According to the petitioners, every time Israel takes it upon itself to demographically “re-engineer” the land, it harms Mizrahim by pushing them into the country’s underserved geographical periphery. This process hinders their access to highly-valued land through admissions committees, which allow communities across the country to reject housing applicants based on their “social suitability.”

Among the signatories are renowned author Sami Michael, Professor Yehuda Shenhav, Professor Henriette Dahan-Kalev, Israeli Black Panther and social justice activist Reuven Abergil, among others. (Full disclosure: the writer is one of the signatories of the petition). According to the petitioners, Mizrahim were largely excluded from the law’s formulation, despite the fact that it would affect their community’s right to preserve its heritage, and that its blatant anti-Arab bias would adversely affect Jews from Arab countries.

Following Israel’s establishment, authorities did everything they could to suppress Arab identity and culture among immigrants from Arab and Muslim countries through a forced “melting pot” doctrine, leaving them both materially and culturally disenfranchised. More than six decades ago, Israeli diplomat and Arabic scholar Abba Eban said: “The goal must be to instill in them a Western spirit, and not let them drag us into an unnatural Orient. One of the biggest fears… is the danger that the large number of immigrants of Mizrahi origin will force Israel to compare how cultured we are to our neighbors.”

Mizrahim walk around the Mamila neighborhood in West Jerusalem, 1957. Mamila, like countless other neighborhoods and communities, was empied of its Palestinian residents in the 1948 war. (GPO)

Mizrahim walk around the Mamila neighborhood in West Jerusalem, 1957. (GPO)

For 70 years, this worldview formed the basis for how Israel viewed Mizrahim. The political establishment demanded Mizrahi Jews renounce their Arab identity, while driving a wedge between them and their cultural histories. And yet, despite the establishment’s attempts at cultural erasure, expert opinions and affidavits attached to the petition show that many Mizrahim — including younger generations — continue to view Arabic as both culturally and linguistically relevant to their personal lives.

The expert opinions also seek to lay out the complex histories of Jews from Arab countries, in order to explain why the law, akin to a constitutional amendment, would be both harmful to the cultural legacy of Mizrahim and would continue to negatively affect them. According to Professor Elitzur Bar-Asher, a linguist and expert on the Hebrew language, the goal of the law is not to “strengthen Hebrew [at the expense of Arabic], but to lower its Arabic counterpart.”

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In his expert opinion, Dr. Moshe Behar demonstrated how Arabic was an inseparable part the Jewish intellectual world in the Middle East during the Ottoman and British Mandate periods, respectively. According to Behar, Jewish intellectuals considered knowledge of Arabic as a necessity for all Jews in the region.

Cultural researcher Shira Ohayon described the influence of the Arabic language and its connection to the revival of the Hebrew language, poetry and Jewish liturgy, while cultural scholar and film director Eyal Sagui Bizawe noted how Jews living in Arab countries took an active part in the creation of Arab culture, and how that very culture became part of their own heritage.

The petition is an important, and perhaps revolutionary milestone in the Mizrahi struggle in Israel. Among the signatories are women and men, religious, secular and traditional, those who define themselves as Zionists and others who do not. The petitioners seek to anchor Mizrahi identity in its deepest sense by demanding our cultural and historical rights, while using all legal, academic, and moral tools to reject any attempt to isolate Mizrahi Jews from our natural environment — all for the benefit of Israel’s “melting pot” ideology.

A version of this article was first published in Hebrew on Local Call. Read it here.

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    COMMENTS

    1. itshak Gordine

      As a Sephardic Jew, the only thing I want from the Arab countries is that they apologize for all the harm they have done to their Jews by calling them second-class citizens (dhimmis), stripping them and expelling them. As for Arabic music, I appreciate it 5 minutes when I eat a kebab.

      Reply to Comment
        • itshak Gordine

          Between 700,000 and one million Oriental Jews were dispossessed and expelled from Arab countries in the 1950s and 1960s. This is a fact. They have never been compensated or helped by any organization.

          Reply to Comment
          • john

            and lying about coming from ‘the orient’ helps how?

            Reply to Comment
          • Ben

            “They have never been compensated or helped by any organization.”

            That’s an interesting admission, Itshak G. Halevy. Consider the implications. The Israeli state and its organizations never mustered any help during the Aliyah for Jews out of Egypt, Syria, Yemen….?* Hmmmm. Maybe you might draw the necessary conclusions and start to look at things from a leftist perspective for a change? And ask yourself on just what side your bread is really buttered? Rather than taking that about-to-be-indicted, used car salesman Netanyahu’s word for it?

            Reply to Comment
          • Ben

            * To place what you write in some kind of context, consider also this basic good sense from a non-partisan site. Push/pull, Halevy, push/pull:

            “The reasons for the exodus included push factors, such as persecution, antisemitism, political instability,[15] poverty[15] and expulsion, together with pull factors, such as the desire to fulfill Zionist yearnings or find a better economic status and a secure home in Europe or the Americas. The history of the exodus has been politicized, given its proposed relevance to the historical narrative of the Arab–Israeli conflict.[16] When presenting the history, those who view the Jewish exodus as analogous to the 1948 Palestinian exodus generally emphasize the push factors and consider those who left as refugees, while those who do not, emphasize the pull factors and consider them willing immigrants.[17]“
            https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jewish_exodus_from_Arab_and_Muslim_countries

            Reply to Comment
          • David

            More reality:
            Yehouda Shenhav, of Iraqi Jewish heritage & professor of sociology and & anthropology at Tel Aviv University: “Any reasonable person, Zionist or non-Zionist, must acknowledge that the analogy drawn between Palestinians & Mizrahi [Arab] Jews is unfounded. Palestinian refugees did not want to leave Palestine….Those who left did not do so of their own volition. In contrast, Jews from Arab lands came to this country under the initiative of the State of Israel and Jewish organizations.” (Ha’aretz, 8 October 2004.)

            Historian, Avi Shlaim, born into an affluent & influential Baghdad Jewish family. “We are not refugees, nobody expelled us from Iraq, nobody told us that we were unwanted. But we are the victims of the Israeli-Arab conflict.”

            The late Yisrael Yeshayahu, speaker of the Knesset: “We are not refugees…. We had messianic aspirations.”

            Shlomo Hillel, former minister & speaker of the Knesset: “I don’t regard the departure of Jews from Arab lands as that of refugees. They came here because they wanted to, as Zionists.”

            During a Knesset hearing into the matter, Ran Cohen, Knesset member:”I am not a refugee….I came at the behest of Zionism, due to the pull that this land exerts, & due to the idea of redemption. Nobody is going to define me as a refugee.” (Ha’aretz, October 8, 2004)

            While Palestinians were expelled from their homeland by Jewish militias & the IDF, they played no role whatsoever in the emigration of or any ill treatment & or loss of assets that Arab Jews may have experienced in their former homelands. The two cases are separate & distinct, i.e., apples & oranges.

            Reply to Comment
          • itshak Gordine

            Lies and leftist propaganda. My family is Jewish from Egypt. We were harassed, robbed, deprived of work and forced to leave. We have been traumatized. However, we took our destiny in hand and worked without the help of anyone. No UNWRA to help us.

            Reply to Comment
      • Ben

        “As for Arabic music, I appreciate it 5 minutes when I eat a kebab.”

        Is that right? What music do you appreciate, Halevy, when you eat a Palestinian person’s land, livelihood and freedom? Wagner? On a long playing record…for fifty years (26,280,000 minutes)?

        Reply to Comment
      • David

        Reality:

        THE JEWISH CHRONICLE ONLINE, May 24, 2012.
        Audio of lecture: http://www.soas.ac.uk/religions/events/jordan-lectures-in-comparative-religion/14may2012-opening-lecture-how-islam-saved-the-jews.html
        http://www.soas.ac.uk/religions-and-philosophies/events/jordan-lectures-in-comparative-religion/14may2012-opening-lecture-how-islam-saved-the-jews.html
        https://www.soas.ac.uk/religions-and-philosophies/events/jordan-lectures-in-comparative-religion/14may2012-opening-lecture-how-islam-saved-the-jews.html

        “So, what did the Muslims do for the Jews? – How Islam Saved the Jews.”
        Professor David J. Wasserstein.

        David J. Wasserstein is the Eugene Greener Jr. Professor of Jewish Studies at Vanderbilt University. This article is adapted from last week’s [May, 2012] Jordan Lectures in Comparative Religion at the School of Oriental and African Studies.

        Excerpt:
        “Islam saved Jewry. This is an unpopular, discomforting claim in the modern world. But it is a historical truth. The argument for it is double. First, in 570 CE, when the Prophet Mohammad was born, the Jews and Judaism were on the way to oblivion. And second, the coming of Islam saved them, providing a new context in which they not only survived, but flourished, laying foundations for subsequent Jewish cultural prosperity – also in Christendom – through the medieval period into the modern world.”

        Reply to Comment
      • David

        “So, what did the Muslims do for the Jews? – How Islam Saved the Jews.”
        Lecture by Professor David J Wasserstein.

        “David J Wasserstein is the Eugene Greener Jr. Professor of Jewish Studies at Vanderbilt University. This article is adapted from last week’s [May, 2012] Jordan Lectures in Comparative Religion at the School of Oriental and African Studies.”

        Excerpt:
        “Islam saved Jewry. This is an unpopular, discomforting claim in the modern world. But it is a historical truth. The argument for it is double. First, in 570 CE, when the Prophet Mohammad was born, the Jews and Judaism were on the way to oblivion. And second, the coming of Islam saved them, providing a new context in which they not only survived, but flourished, laying foundations for subsequent Jewish cultural prosperity – also in Christendom – through the medieval period into the modern world.”

        Reply to Comment
    2. Bruce Gould

      In my opinion people are missing the issue. The article opens with “Mizrahi academics and activists demand Israel’s High Court strike down the Jewish Nation-State Law, saying it erases their cultural legacy and perpetuates injustices against both them and Palestinian citizens of Israel.”

      So why would a country want to alienate a substantial portion of its citizens – what sane politician would want this? To what end, what does Israel really gain from this? Sure, other countries might have a single official language but given the history of Israel what’s the upside? You’d have to conclude either that the Israeli government doesn’t care about social unity, or it actually believes that Israel is inhabited by first, second and third class citizens.

      Reply to Comment
      • Tal.C

        You’re under the impression that those left-wing academics and activists, including the lawyer who submitted the petition, represent the Israeli Mizrahi Jewish population in general. This couldn’t be further from the truth. Also the law doesn’t erase any cultural legacy or outlaws the Arabic language and it most definitely not class based or anything similar. Nothing is actually going to change and Arabic will continue to be used in road signs, government institutes, schools, etc. This is a symbolic move by a right wing government to cement the notion of Israel being a Jewish country, similar to many other countries with a single official language.

        Reply to Comment
        • Ben

          Tal C, it’s certainly “a symbolic move” but also very much a non-symbolic move, or the right wing would not be so passionate about it. There are no such things as purely “symbolic” moves in nation-state politics.
          And your phrasing “to cement the notion of Israel being a Jewish country, similar to many other countries with a single official language” is also symbolism, of a meretricious Orwellian kind, for something else. It contains three misleading or contentious components: “Israel being a Jewish country,” “similar to many other countries,” and “with a single official language.”
          All one would have to do is reverse categories and apply your blithe “nothing to worry about” language to Jews, and you would go into indignation overdrive.
          In my view, what Bruce says deserves underlining all the more and could be re-purposed here: “You’d have to conclude either that Tal C. doesn’t care about social unity, or actually believes that Israel is inhabited by first, second and third class citizens.”

          Reply to Comment
      • Ben

        Exactly right.

        Reply to Comment
    3. Lewis from Afula

      Re: “Over 50 Prominent Israeli Jews of Mizrachi origin….”

      Is this article supposed to be significant ?
      There are at least 2 Million Israeli Jews with Mizrachi origin in existence. Yet this great initiative only got 50 people to sign to it. A typical 972 magazine non-story.

      Reply to Comment
      • john

        “In 2016, Israel’s chief Sephardic Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef declared publicly that non-Jews should not be permitted to live in Israel except as servants to Jews. In March 2018, the same chief rabbi compared black people with monkeys and later defended this racism as being supported by the Talmud.”
        mizrahim get the light end of the racism stick – yemenite children affair notwithstanding. (& it is a ‘big stick’, colonial style)

        Reply to Comment
        • Lewis from Afula

          John:
          The Yemenite children affair is another non-story. In the new state in 1950, Israel was like a 3rd World Country. Lots of people died in hospitals and no proper records were taken. This was particularly the case in the periphery of the country where most Yemenite immigrants lived.

          Reply to Comment
          • Bruce Gould

            @Lewis: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Yemenite_Children_Affair

            “In 2016 after having re-examined evidence given to a commission of inquiry in the late 1990s, Cabinet Minister Tzachi Hanegbi told Israeli TV: “They took the children and gave them away. I don’t know where.” The minister admitted that at least “hundreds” of children were taken without their parent’s consent, marking the first time such a public admission had been made by a government official.[25][26]”

            But of course all the questionable things that happen in Israel are associated with the past.

            Reply to Comment
          • john

            acts of genocide are always a non-story to you.

            Reply to Comment
          • Lewis from Afula

            The only genocide is the one that exists in your f*cked up progressive Leftist Excuse of a brain.

            Reply to Comment
          • john

            great epithets, keep up the good work

            Reply to Comment
          • Lewis from Afula

            Don’t mention it, John.
            I just point out the obvious.

            Reply to Comment
        • Ben

          Ah, Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef, apparently one of Halevy’s Heroes. (“Our great rabbis tell us….”) After all, what is the difference between “non-Jews should not be permitted to live in Israel except as servants to Jews” (Yosef) and “the foreigners can stay if they obey our laws and submit to our sovereignty” (Halevy)?

          Reply to Comment
    4. itshak Gordine

      According to the channel I24 news, Israel could finally ask $ 250 billion to compensate the hundreds of thousands of Jews expelled from the Arab countries in the 50s and 60s (information released today).

      Reply to Comment
      • john

        finally, mizrahim won’t have to feel like second class citizens.

        Reply to Comment
      • Ben

        I. G. Halevy, post-Zionist! [*chortle*]

        “Past Israeli governments had refrained from issuing declarations of this sort. First, there has been concern that any such proclamation will underscore what Israel has tried to repress and forget: the Palestinians’ demand for return. Second, there has been anxiety that such a declaration would encourage property claims submitted by Jews against Arab states and, in response, Palestinian counter-claims to lost property. Third, such declarations would require Israel to update its schoolbooks and history, and devise a new narrative by which the Mizrahi Jews journeyed to the country under duress, without being fueled by Zionist aspirations. That would be a post-Zionist narrative….
        The unfounded, immoral analogy between Palestinian refugees and Mizrahi immigrants needlessly embroils members of these two groups in a dispute, degrades the dignity of many Mizrahi Jews, and harms prospects for genuine Jewish-Arab reconciliation.”
        https://www.haaretz.com/1.5361803

        But harming prospects for genuine Jewish-Arab reconciliation has always been your aim, Halevy, hasn’t it? Genuine reconciliation would be your worst nightmare. You’d have to share. And live a 21st Century not an 18th Century life. I mean, who wants to reconcile with the servants, the ‘foreigners,” the un-sovereign, the untermenschen? At best, you want them living outside the main house, out back in the servants’ quarters, and you’ll control the car keys and the gates to the “community.”

        At this point, if I were a Palestinian Arab I’d adopt as my theme song: “I ain’t gonna work on Maggie’s farm no more.” Just change out the name “Maggie.”

        Reply to Comment
        • itshak Gordine

          You are in a dream. We Sephardic Jews are not ready to forgive the Arab States for all the harm they have done to us. We were persecuted, stolen, hunted. The State of Israel has become our shelter. We cherish it and serve it with all our soul and with all our heart. It is the object of our pride. You will certainly find in Israel some old ladies who look with pleasure some old and ridiculous Egyptian or Iraqi films or who listen to the often racist songs of Oum Kalsoum but the new generation does not care. We do not wish any contact with the Arabs of Eretz Israel. Personally, I am opposed to giving work permits to Arab workers, because that only serves to artificially survive the Ramallah entity led by an old denialist and to facilitate terrorism. We vote mainly for the right which knows how to defend our interests and protect the Israeli population. Eventually, the Arab population of Eretz Israel will have to either accept our sovereignty and our laws, or leave.
          In fact, this is the case in all countries of the world: to respect the laws of the majority or to leave.

          Reply to Comment
          • Ben

            (1) “However, we took our destiny in hand and worked without the help of anyone. No UNWRA to help us.”

            The self-delusion of this is evident. First you went to Switzerland, which took you in and aided you in a thousand ways direct and indirect. Switzerland! As far as I know, this was not Egyptian-occupied territory or anything like the stranglehold of the conditions the Palestinian refugees face under Israeli occupation to this day. Then you made aliyah. No one forced you. You came willingly. No, UNRWA did not help you but the various agencies and resources of the sovereign, non-occupied state of Isarel surely helped you. A lot. (Or do you want to revert to the post-Zionist narrative I mentioned?) And you were, neither in Switzerland nor in Israel, ever a refugee in Egyptian-occupied territory. So your post-exile Israeli apples do not compare to the post-exile Palestinian oranges. It is fakery to say so, fakery and self-delusion that ignores glaring things, such as the occupation.

            (2) “We do not wish any contact with the Arabs of Eretz Israel. Personally, I am opposed to giving work permits to Arab workers, because that only serves to artificially survive the Ramallah entity….”

            The self-righteous, angry, rejectionist victim role you inhabit is that of a Jewish jihadi. You and Lewis from Afula are Jewish jihadis no different from the Arab jihadis you disdain. (Do you think your equivalents on the other side are not as angry, as aggrieved, have not suffered as much?) Your extremism, anger, resentment and hate brook no compromise, no reconciliation, and are not the future, they foreclose a viable future. Of one thing I am sure—you and Lewis are not representatives of any livable future. You are agents of disaster.

            Reply to Comment
    5. vahid pooya

      no comment

      Reply to Comment
    6. In Tel-Aviv the chants and placards of the Right say’; “Arabs Out!”, “Kill the Arabs” as does the graffito in Jerusalem and the West Bank, they are rarely, if ever, ‘Kill Muslims’, Christians Out’.

      I see, understand what these, Mizrahi, Jews are doing as fine and wonderful, there-by the good of Judaism, A, M or S. It would benefit israel if only it were Jewish. We cannot help but see what and who are anti-Semitic, who mean harm even destruction on Jew and Arab and who would protect and nurture.

      Reply to Comment
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