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Mizrahi struggle 101: A beginner's guide for Ashkenazim

The Mizrahi struggle must widen its ranks, but in order to do so, Ashkenazim must come to the table from a place of solidarity, not victimhood. Orly Noy with a few tips.

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 Shabat dinner table set near their demolished houses in Givat Amal neighborhood, Tel Aviv, Israel, September 19, 2014. By: Shiraz Grinbaum/Activestills.org

This past election cycle saw several high-profile Ashkenazi leftists openly make racist comments about Mizrahim. Whether it was Yair Garbuz, who claimed that Israel is being controlled by “amulet-kissers, idol-worshippers and people who prostrate themselves at the graves of saints,” or actress Anat Waxman who implied that Likud voters were “laborers” from “another nation,” there is simply no way to claim that anti-Mizrahi sentiment is a thing of the past. So without further ado, here are a few tips for Ashkenazim who want to understand the meaning of solidarity with Mizrahim.

Before you declare your stance, tell me where you stand

I first heard this said by Palestinian MK Jamal Zakalka, when he spoke about Jews who tend to either give advice to Palestinians or criticize their political positions. The principle is rather basic: as a person outside the oppressed community, you are allowed to take part in its internal discourse only if your most basic stance is solidarity with that community. Therefore, if you are an Ashkenazi who has neither spoken out nor recognized Mizrahi oppression, if you do not understand your own privileges or if you are joining the discussion only to criticize Mizrahim and/or tell them how to lead their struggle — your position is neither interesting, relevant nor legitimate.

You’re a quarter Iraqi? Great.

The claim: “I can’t be racist since I have an Iraqi grandmother/I am a quarter-Iraqi” works about as well as “I can’t be a chauvinist since my mom is a woman.” Mizrahi genes do not make you immune from racism, even the anti-Mizrahi kind. If you have an Iraqi grandmother or an aunt who is a quarter-Syrian, take advantage of the situation and speak with them. Ask them about their immigration and absorption process in Israel, about their lives in their countries of origin or about the history of this side of the family. You will probably learn something.

Try to remember: This isn’t about you

At some point in nearly almost every public discussion between Mizrahim and Ashkenazim, an enlightened, left-wing Ashkenazi will join the conversation and demand collective recognition. He, of course, is special: he is either a kibbutznik who supports land reform, or perhaps his grandfather was also sprayed with DDT when he came to Israel from Eastern Europe. Let’s get one thing straight: no one ever claimed that all Ashkenazim are racists, or that all of them own an apartment in the fancy neighborhoods of north Tel Aviv. But these political discussions look at issues on a systematic level, even if, in reality, there are always exceptions. Just as I won’t dismiss the Palestinian claim that Israelis are oblivious to the occupation just because I am not oblivious to it, your personal experiences do not invalidate oppression against Mizrahim, which is backed up by a multitude of facts and statistics. The assumption that you can turn a political conversation into one that deals with your personal experiences is overplayed, not to mention narcissistic. Worst of all, it depoliticizes an inherently political discourse.

Colorblindness is a problem, not a virtue

Another sentence well-intentioned Ashkenazim often say during these conversations is: “I don’t differentiate between Ashkenazim and Mizrahim — I’m colorblind.” But in a society where one’s fate is directly tied to his/her skin color and ethnic or national background, this kind of remark reflects the privileges of someone who will never face systematic discrimination for the color of his/her skin. Those who are determined to not understand just how critical ethnic origin is in the social, economic, political and cultural hierarchy in Israel — solely because they do not believe it has any significance — will fall into the same apolitical, narcissistic trap that prevents them from understanding how power structures of oppression work. In a world where skin color has consequences for the future of your children, colorblindness is not a virtue, it’s a serious problem.

Remember: We are not offended, we are struggling

One of the most disturbing aspects of these discussions is the tendency that many Ashkenazim have to talk about the Mizrahi discourse in terms of feelings and insults. “The Mizrahim are always offended.” Actually, we aren’t offended — we are struggling. Our emotional world is no one’s business, and if we want to deal with our emotions, we have our own safe spaces to do so. But in the public realm, our struggle is a political one. We struggle for recognition of our culture and history, we struggle against our oppression, against our ridiculing, against exploitative and unfair resource distribution, against the fact that our children are sent to vocational schools, against our erasure. We are not interested in your psychological treatment. We are interested in our piece of the cake.

Stop feigning innocence

Yes, when you say arsim (a derogatory slang term for the Israeli stereotype of a low-class young man), you’re talking about Mizrahim. When you say frehot, you’re referring to the person’s ethnic background. Since we have all internalized the rules of political correctness, we no longer refer to them as frenkim or shvartza chayas (although frankly, I have had the pleasure of hearing these terms in my lifetime). But let’s not feign innocence here: we all know what is meant when people say “salt of the earth,” and we all know who is being spoken about when people talk about amulet-kissers, idol-worshippers and people who prostrate themselves at the graves of saints.” In political discourse, innocence is simply immoral, since it attempts to hide the most basic truths by use of clever wordplay.

These suggestions are written without the slightest bit of cynicism. They are written out of a deep belief that the Mizrahi discourse must open its ranks and include non-Mizrahi allies. Unfortunately, however, from my many years of experience, I can attest that most people will fall into one of the aforementioned traps, which usually ends in mutual anguish: the Mizrahim feel exhausted, the Ashkenazim feel attacked. We must work to change this dynamic. Perhaps this list can start leading us in the right direction.

A version of this post was first published on +972’s sister-site, Local Call. Read it here.

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    1. Bruce Gould

      BDS news: ” As many as 20 South African companies, including manufacturers and chain stores, have ended their security contracts with G4S in protest at the company’s links to Israeli prisons and detention centres. The news was announced by the Palestinian Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement…Speaking at a meeting at the Embassy of Palestine in Pretoria on Thursday, a spokesperson for the BDS movement said that the move comes as the Palestinians are commemorating Prisoner Day and Israel escalates its crimes against prisoners and detainees in its jails. The spokesperson pointed out that G4S has ignored repeated calls to stop providing Israeli prisons with security technology and services.”


      Reply to Comment
    2. Masha Donikova

      Dear Orly Nir, with all due respect, and I do respect you and your struggle, dialogue cannot be built with one side dictating to the other what to feel, think, say or do. Your tone is just as condescending and arrogant as that of any “white” Ashkenazi with “privilege talking “down” to someone Mizrahi. And dime-store psychoanalysis doesn’t really do much good, either–better to leave the diagnosis of “Narcissism” to the professionals. Either people are willing to hear what others have to say or not. Having worked for years with Palestinians and Israelis in dialogue groups, there, too, many times the Israelis felt defensive and attacked and the Palestinians exhausted. But that’s the reality of it, and that’s the starting point.

      Reply to Comment
    3. Jello

      What is a Mizrahi again? Persians Jews? Bukharan Jews? Afghani Jews? Indian Jews? Turkish Jews? Bulgarian Sephardi Jews? French Jews of Moroccan origin? This entire artificial made-up category of people is so hard to keep straight. And then there is the weird quarter this and quarter that children running around. Do they need to be cut up down the middle or what? Or into quarters?

      I think it is cute that the communists are still sticking to their script of trying to create artificial divisions among Israeli Jews in the hope that some group will side with the Arabs against us. Despite going on 50 years of failure they are still at it. One has to admire the tenacity in the face of such abject failure. The only thing cuter is that the ‘racists’ like Garbuz and Waxman are Leftists, and not just leftists, but ancient leftists that are increasingly marginalized. So, marginalized leftists that wish to create a fake ‘Mizrahi’ identity are fighting against other marginalized leftists that are obsessed with their ‘Europeanness’, while the overwhelming majority of Israelis ignore both.

      Reply to Comment
      • Ben

        Is that right, Jello? Israelis overwhelmingly ignore both? Everything’s great. Hmmmm…seems to me like there’s trouble in paradise:




        “…I want someone who can lie to Obama…”

        Reply to Comment
        • Jello

          You posted an article about someone being upset that ‘Mizrahi’ Jews ignored the artificial distinction and voted for Bibi instead of ‘their guy’? How does that even remotely challenge the idea that Israelis are ignoring the distinction?

          Reply to Comment
      • Bryan

        You’ve got me laughing my socks off again, Jello! For centuries the Jews of the Christian world (esp. North America, Northern Europe and Russia) were isolated from the Jews of the Moslem World (esp. North Africa, the Balkans and Asia). This separate existence led to huge differences in language, dress, culture, music, cuisine, religious practice, history, life-style – in fact in all the components that go to create ethnicity. Even today, decades after the foundation of the state of Israel and the mass post-war immigration there is a huge disparity between these various communities in terms of social status, educational attainment, standard of living, occupation, residential location, and often also political affiliation. Yet no – according to Jello – the wonders of the Israeli melting pot (esp. Zionist education and military conscription) have eliminated all differences and this well-recorded and universally acknowledged dichotomy is merely a conspiracy of unnamed communists, intent on destroying Israel by achieving peace and justice.

        You must be aware that Zionism was a European project, that sought to bring European Jews to Palestine, in what, according to Herzl, entailed building a [European] “outpost of civilization against [Oriental] barbarism”. Similar sentiments were almost universally expressed by the founders of Israel, be they overwhelmingly Ashkenazi politicians, intellectuals, journalists, writers, educationalists or whatever. Ben Gurion spoke of “our duty to fight the spirit of the Levant, that corrupts individuals and societies”; Karl Frankenstein wrote that “the primitive mentality of many of the immigrants from backward countries…equals primitive expressions of children or the mentally retarded or mentally disordered”; Glodblum Arie warned that “we witness a people whose primitiveness is shocking…their level of education borders on complete
        ignorance… incompetent to grasp anything spiritual. Generally they are no better than the Arabs, Negroes and barbarians (in their countries of origin). Their level is even lower than that of the Arabs of Israel. They are totally preoccupied with the play of primitive, savage instincts”.

        Granted Israel, appreciating the PR benefits of making the desert bloom and realizing it had carelessly discarded the Arab cultivators of the land, sought to find replacement “hewers of wood and drawers of water” by driving / luring Jewish Arabs from their ancestral homelands, but this was to be done strictly on the terms of the European colonialist elite, who would attempt (often unsuccessfully) to wipe out all vestiges of their native language, culture and history. (The Mizrahi artist Gal Meir illustrated this visually in his work “Nine out of Four Hundred” where he held the only nine pages that discuss non-European Jewish history in a history textbook 400 pages long.) But no – you have it your way – a shocking communist conspiracy!

        Reply to Comment
        • Jello

          Yemenite Jews were isolated from Persian Jews who were isolated from Moroccan Jews who were isolated from Russian Jews who were isolated from French Jews, etc… The ‘Mizrahi’ grouping and the ‘Ashkenazi’ groupings are entirely artificial. The distinctions are only politically important to the Garbuzes, Waxmans and the communist/socialist Mizrahi Democratic Rainbow of which the author is a member. Why is the distinction important to the Mizrahi Democratic Rainbow? Because for a long time the great hope of the communists and socialists was to create a common front between the Arabs and the ‘Mizrahim’ against Israel and to make that possible they try to nurture and promote an entirely artificial ‘Mizrahi’ identity where no such identity existed. There is nothing in common between the author and Moroccan or Yemenite Jews and still for ideological reasons she insists on grouping them together and speaking for them. It is absurd and it is fundamentally not working.

          Reply to Comment
          • Bryan

            It is utterly irrelevant whether Jewish communities were isolated or not: they were influenced by the wider society within which they lived. Thus Ashkenazi Jews were strongly influenced by European and Christian culture, whether they lived in Russia or France, and Mizrahi Jews were strongly influenced by the Arabic and Moslem culture whether they lived in Morocco, Egypt, Yemen, Syria or even Iran. The ordinary Jew may have lived in relatively isolated communities, but certainly not the rabbis, scholars and merchants who traveled widely within these respective spheres of influence.

            One almost gets the impression sometimes that the backwoodsmen come out to find fault in any way they can with anything expressed in articles on this site out of a mistaken belief that they will thereby somehow undermine it progressive credentials, without understanding that they are thereby revealing their own prejudice, bigotry and ignorance of history.

            Reply to Comment
          • Jello

            There was no such thing as European, Christian, Arabic or Muslim culture. These too are hastily and artificially constructed simplifications and generalizations made for political reasons. There was little in common if anything between Iran, Yemen, Morocco, Russia or France. Only in the global age did the identities you mention come about and even now these are meaningless simplifications. It is also absurd to talk about spheres of influence as if travel or influence was isolated to ‘Europe’ and ‘non-Europe’.

            Thus it is absurd to create artificial Jewish identities on the basis of post-factum constructed identities elsewhere.

            One gets the idea that some people wish to retroactively rewrite history to fit their shallow modern political post-colonial ideology.

            Reply to Comment
          • Ben

            Very odd argument. Nobody is related to anybody except “the Jews” who are all everywhere hugely related but only as one political organism and not in smaller groups inside that organism. This is anthropology and history or propaganda? I think the latter.

            Reply to Comment
          • Jello

            Very good. But I am not arguing with Shlomo Sand here. I am arguing with someone that accepts the existence of the Jews but insists on very artificial politically-constructed ethnic distinctions between Jews in Israel. And he tries to argue that based on some sort of quasi-historical dichotomy between “European” (a generalization of all the cultures from England to Russia) and the “Other” (in this case some sort of sweeping generalization of a “Mizrahi” culture that encompasses all the cultures from Morocco to India). which as an idea is a modern Western European invention. One can of course argue that Jews as an ethnic group is also a political construct, but he doesn’t.

            Reply to Comment
    4. James Ron

      Really well written, and useful for an Ashkenazi like me. Thank you for this!

      Reply to Comment
    5. Ben

      Herzog must seize the day and form alliance with Kahlon
      Parties to the left of Likud won 63 seats in the election. It’s now up to Herzog to offer Kahlon rotation of the premiership, and together form the next government.


      “…Today a group called “the democratic coalition,” which already has a Facebook page, has a calculation at the top of its page showing that there is a clear majority for factions to the left of Likud: “Herzog + Odeh (Joint Arab List) + Lapid + Kahlon + Galon = 63” (in the previous elections the leftist bloc garnered 59 seats). The right-wing camp, together with the ultra-Orthodox, has 57 seats (in the previous elections it received 61 seats)….

      Wake up, Mr. Herzog! You did not lose. The premiership is waiting for you! Because even according to the scenario that predicted your victory, the keys to the prime minister’s residence were in Moshe Kahlon’s pocket. And that’s the way things are now. Nothing has changed since the pollsters’ predictions on election eve – except the internal division of the seats within the right-wing bloc.

      And so, if you want the government, Mr. Herzog, work to establish an alliance with Moshe Kahlon. And if you propose that he be prime minister for half the years of the term (and even better if it is the first half), you will shock the system to the core – politically, socially and ideologically. And not only in Israel, but in the Middle East as a whole. You won’t be just the next prime minister, your name will go down in history inscribed in golden letters.

      It will be thanks to you that for the first time, a Mizrahi will be prime minister, a person who has not forgotten what it means to be Mizrahi; a Mizrahi who lives the experience of the have-nots in Israel, a Mizrahi who refuses to resemble the ignorant racists like Eli Yishai….”

      Reply to Comment
      • New Relic

        Brian, that you continually post the paid content of others underlies your narcissism.

        And what happened to your dislike of Herzog? It seems like you are greatly influenced by the last article you read.

        That you decided to repost this article shows that you have zero understanding of the political scene in Israel. First of all, the joint list announced that they are not going to join a coalition. Even if they would; the politics of Lapid and Kulanu are nowhere near those of Meretz and Joint List. The voters would revolt. And too many MKs (including from Herzog’s party) would split off making the 63 seats closer to 35.

        It is apparent that you merely,copy and paste without understanding. How much do you get paid for this?

        Pea brain.

        Reply to Comment
    6. Aaron Gross

      Dear Mizrahit,
      Thank you so much for lecturing me about this! There’s nothing people love more than being lectured to by their moral superiors (and as we all know, brown people are morally superior to white people).

      For those of us not fortunate enough to be marginalized and therefore righteous, it’s a true learning experience. Your privilege – oops, I didn’t mean that word! – your function is to teach, our duty is to learn at your feet.

      Yours grovelingly,
      An Ashkenazi

      Reply to Comment
    7. Joel Cantor

      The article is pure rubbish. 33% of Israel’s population is of mixed heritage. The Asjenazi- Sephardi divide is a relic of the 70s and 80s of the last century.

      Reply to Comment
    8. Dutch Oven

      Wow. I’ll say it again. Wow

      Reply to Comment
    9. BOOZ

      Dear Orly,

      There’s no way I would allow you to cause a civil war in my couple ( Yes, I am a ” Romani-ganav” boy happily married to a “Marrokko-sakin” girl).

      Sod off.

      Reply to Comment
    10. michal

      since the ‘forward’ stopped including a comments section in its articles, I have been missing this aspect of web journalism.
      but the above comments to this article have changed my mind. popalinsky: vague. schwartz: scary. martillo: “non-Slavo-Turk invaders” wtf? gottesman: confused wh/ article he just read.
      ms noy posted a thoughtful piece wh/ contributes to a dialogue wh/ has bogged down in many ways. I don’t agree w/ all her points but value her articulate and sincere stand. as an israeli, sderot resident and student at sapir college, I live this dialogue. I wish the commenters would take it more seriously.

      Reply to Comment
      • andrew

        April 28, 2015 I agree with you…. on Ms Noy. I don’t know how old you people are but you all would have been appalled 40 years ago….,Israel, thanks God, changed tremendously since then. This is so despite ‘Bibi” – whom I personally like….There are still differences amongst ‘some’ Askenazy and Sephardi/Mizrahim but fortunately ‘we’ ‘all’ are marching ahead. Hopefully, we will not make the mistake of early America in dealing with each other since we can ill afford to do so!… My aunt was darker skinned and one of my cousins lighter skinned and I never forgot the 70’s when it was sometimes not acceptable between the two sides to intermarry as much despite similarities and some looked down on each other’s side. Hogwash I say! Should not let these things disturb Israel’s future agenda. Poverty, education and sometimes prejudice are the problem but such exists in all societies. We must fight and vanquish all odds for our future together regardless of national or ‘racial’ creed/origin.

        Reply to Comment
    11. andrew

      Must say that I do like and enjoy many of your articles and some I can even identify with.You refer in your article or end of it – by By Orly Noy |Published April 20, 2015
      Mizrahi struggle 101: A beginner’s guide for Ashkenazim…. to a sister publication which originally published a more detailed ( I suppose) article on the struggles between the Ashkenazim and Sefardi/Mizrahi cultures…Unfortunately that article is only in Hebrew when I clicked to it… Am I right? Is there a translation of it or is the article wholely dedicated for your internal consumption – and not ‘foreigners’ like me that do not speak either Hebrew or Arabic well but am nevertheless interested in my mixed background…? Or if there’s an English, French, Spanish, Italian or even perhaps Farsi version, I may be able to descifer it. Sorry, it is not my fault I grew up in so called ‘colonial’ settings – as they used to say… Think we can all learn from each other though..and we are far from where Israel was 40 years ago…Besides I always saw Israel’s long term mission as to integrate among the realm of the nations of the Mid-East to contribute much more than militarily; let’s face it: we belong there – not in Europe or elsewhere…if ‘color’ matters, for our sakes, we must accomodate not search ways to destroy ourselves …everyone should matter and we should all work in that direction especially if we want Israel to survive. Thanks!

      Reply to Comment
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