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The price Mizrahim pay for serving in the Israeli army

Mizrahim are forced to carry out the dirty work of the occupation, coming face to face with their Palestinian subjects in the West Bank. It doesn’t have to be this way.

Palestinians clash with Israeli troops during in the West Bank city of Hebron, February 9, 2018. (Wisam Hashlamoun/Flash90)

Palestinians clash with Israeli troops in the West Bank city of Hebron, February 9, 2018. (Wisam Hashlamoun/Flash90)

It is hard to know for sure what kind of considerations are at the heart of the growing crisis between Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Avigdor Liberman, which may result in snap elections, should they not be able to form a coalition together.

But there is something almost ludicrous about the fact that they are unable to agree upon an issue that, in all respects, is one of the biggest collective frauds in our public discourse: forced conscription for ultra-Orthodox Israelis.

The fraud starts with the notion that one could ever deign to designate the Israeli army as a “people’s army” through forced conscription of all its citizens. The “people,” of course, refers to Israel’s Jewish citizens alone; Palestinian citizens of Israel have no part in this story, anyway.

But even among Jewish Israelis, forced conscription is far from being a consensus issue. Professor Yagil Levy, who researches the relationship between the army, politics, and Israeli society says that the struggle to enlist the ultra-Orthodox, the majority of whom refuse to serve in the IDF, represents the downfall of the notion of the “people’s army.” And while that term has been emptied of all real meaning, the unrelenting demand to conscript all Jewish Israelis has made the career of a number of cynical and opportunistic politicians.

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There is no reason, then, why we should not broaden the conversation on forced conscription to other groups in Israeli society, including Mizrahim (Jews from Arab and/or Muslim countries).

Alongside the lie of a “people’s army,” Israel’s militaristic ethos has helped bolster the deception of the role of the military as the great equalizer of Israeli society — the admission ticket to Israeliness itself. But the tracking of Mizrahim — which begins in the neglected neighborhoods and development towns of the country’s periphery and continues with the sending of many Mizrahi teenagers to vocational schools — continues in the IDF.

There, they are sent to take part in policing and fighting against Palestinians in the occupied territories, while middle and upper-class Israelis tend to serve in special units. As with educational opportunities, in the army, Mizrahim are sent to the periphery to serve as the black labor at the bottom of the hierarchy. This has only intensified with the organized blitz by the national-religious community on high-ranking positions in the army.

It is true that while in the IDF, as opposed to Israel’s legal or political establishment, Mizrahim have greater social mobility that allows them to reach the top of the pyramid. But this is the flip side of the same tragedy: it is a system in which the option of rising in the ranks is inextricably tied with de-Arabizing Mizrahi identity, while adopting the image of a mista’arev (undercover soldiers who pass as Arabs) as a model. That, in a nutshell, has been the Mizrahi story vis-a-vis Zionism for the past seven decades: oppression and discrimination because of the Arab component in Mizrahi identity, while promising that if Mizrahim simply do away with any signs of Arabness all while developing a burning hatred toward Arabs, their chances of joining the club will increase.

This destructive dynamic was a significant part of the process by which wide swaths of the Mizrahi public adopted hawkish right-wing politics (alongside sins committed by the left). But in the army, this dynamic takes an even more tragic turn: enlisting Mizrahi identity as a weapon of self-destruction. This can be seen, for instance, in the form of the Mizrahi mista’arevim, who are sent to the occupied territories and use their Arab appearance to go to war against other Arabs — and thus against their own Arabness.

Israeli soldiers arrest a Palestinian youth during clashes in the West Bank city of Hebron, during a raid on the city, June 16, 2014. (Activestills.org)

Israeli soldiers arrest a Palestinian youth during clashes in the West Bank city of Hebron, during a raid on the city, June 16, 2014. (Activestills.org)

This tendency can also be seen in the use of the Arabic language in the army. As Dr. Yoni Mendel pointed out in a petition by Mizrahi Israelis against the Jewish Nation-State Law, Arabic in Israel has undergone a “securitization;” as the language was stripped of its cultural legitimacy, Arabic was taken away from Mizrahi Jews who wished to distinguish themselves from the negative connotations that were forced upon them. Meanwhile, Arabic was given legitimacy only in the context of “national security” — issues that revolved around intelligence or hasbara. In other words, Mizrahim destroy their own Arab identity by enlisting Arabic for the purpose of fighting the “other Arab.”

The attack on Mizrahi identity within the army cannot be undone inside that very system. The attempt to try and effect change within the military itself means working to ensure that Mizrahi soldiers can climb the ladder and sit in air-conditioned rooms while sending others below them in the pyramid to do the dirty work. The ultra-Orthodox understand that enlistment will corrupt the central identity and values of their community, and thus are waging a fierce ideological battle against it. There is no reason why Mizrahim should not think similarly about what conscription does to our community.

This article was first published in Hebrew on Local Call. Read it here.

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    COMMENTS

    1. Amichai Segal

      I served in the waste bank. I’m an ashkenazi jew. Our platoon had roughly equal amounts of Mizrachim and Ashkenazim.
      Not saying society here is great, fair or equal, but please don’t paint a picture that just isn’t true.

      Reply to Comment
    2. Ned Jacobson

      A very silly article trying to create discord in IDF society. Arab language skills are necessary and who better to have those skills than mizrah jews

      Reply to Comment
      • Ofek Ravid

        Druze you dumbass!

        Reply to Comment
    3. Lewis from Afula

      These are the 2 good reasons why Orly Noy’s piece is absurdly out of date

      1. Currently, Israeli Jewish Men normally serve in the IDF for 2 years 8 months.
      However, starting by 2022 (at the latest) that will go down to 2 years and 6 months.
      In the following decade, there will be a gradual changeover to a professional army.

      2. 35% of all young Israelis are of mixed sephardi-ashkenazi-mizrachi descent. This percentage is growing all the time.

      Reply to Comment
    4. Dave

      Mizrahim from Iran, Azerbaijan, Armenia, Georgia & Central Asia as well as Kurdish, Berber & Bukharan Jews have no ‘Arabness’ to lose

      Reply to Comment
    5. Amir

      This month is the Lag b’omer pilgrim in Djerba island, Tunisia. Some 600 tunisian israelis traveled to Tunisia.

      One of them was recording the whole trip. I was surprised to hear that she spoke good Tunisian Arabic and some guests who never lived in Tunisia could also speak good Tunisian Arabic. They also knew recent Tunisian songs

      That means their parents/grand parents never stopped talking in Arabic. The same applied to Moroccan jews

      Reply to Comment
      • itshak Gordine

        You are wrong. We Jews from the countries of North Africa and Egypt spoke only French at home or between us. Arabic was used only at the market and with the servants. It would have been inappropriate to speak anything other than French between us, even if some of us appreciated Egyptian cinema or music. To return to this article, to say that Eastern Jews serve in the lower echelons of the army is ridiculous. We had Sephardi chiefs of staff.

        Reply to Comment
        • Amir

          You donno anything about North African jews it seems, their mother tongue was Judeo-Arabic, Judeo-Berber or Italian (for those of Livorno origin).

          French has never been the mother tongue of Tunisian or Moroccan jews.

          Jews from Morocco and Tunisia who migrated to israel from 1948 to 1956 were mainly from villages not urban jews. They didn’t knew any other language than Arabic, not even hebrew

          Reply to Comment
          • itshak Gordine

            I am from Livorno and have several Maroccan Jews in my family. Their mother tongue in Marocco and Tunisia was French. Those who did not make aliyah went to France because they were speaking French.

            Reply to Comment
    6. Miki

      Fake news, they’re forced to do army, like every citizen, they’re not forced to do the “dirty” work.

      Reply to Comment
    7. Firentis

      It is Thursday and here I am in an office full of people (well to be fair most of them already went home) that don’t know that they are Arabs. They think they are Israeli Jews. How do I inform them of the error of their self-identity? Any tips? That guy whose grandparents are from Tunisia and Yemen. Should I just like walk up to him and tell him – you are an Arab? And the other guy who is half Moroccan and half Polish. Should I inform him that he is Arab as well but in like a whisper or something? What about that French guy on the phone whose parents are probably from North Africa who then moved to Israel? Should I inform him that he is an Arab, but in French?

      What is considered a sensitive way to inform people that don’t know that they are Arabs? I don’t want to offend anyone, but this article clearly convinces me that they need to know this critical piece of information about themselves.

      Reply to Comment
      • Ben

        Well, you asked, so you could put it like this: “Bonjour mon petit ami arabe-mizrahi! Salaam-Shalom, bro! Hey I know there is this Arab component in your Mizrahi identity that you are trying your best to distance yourself from because of the racism of Israeli society and the state is giving you a lot of help with that at every level, but I promise you that if you simply do away, totalement!, with any signs of Arabness all while developing a burning hatred toward Arabs, your chances of joining the club will increase. Très simple! Some of my best friends are Mizrahi-Arab, nothing wrong with that.” That will go over swell and will endear you to all your co-workers.

        Reply to Comment
        • itshak Gordine

          It must be admitted that when we lived in Arab countries, the natives hated us in their majority while on our side we despised them, even if, that and there was respect for and friendships. Everyone thought of the other community what he wanted, but always with a smile of facade. Talking about the Arab identity of the Mizrahi Jews (do not forget their Spanish origin) is ridiculous. Apart from maybe the food (excellent) and the music (in my opinion corny), we have nothing in common. On the other hand, we understand their way of thinking very well and we act accordingly when it is necessary.

          Reply to Comment
          • Ben

            Your locked in, deep racism is beyond repair. And you generalize from your single, apparently quite traumatized and hate-bearing family to “we” and “they” as if your family and you are the center of the world and “the Arabs” and “the Jews” are each their own hive of identical-minded people. But I also think that it is too generous to attribute your way of thinking to trauma, because what comes across irrespective of any trauma you suffered (you think others including Palestinians have not been traumatized? What narcissism is that?) is the cold narcissism of your Jewish royal triumphalism, your royalist “Ha-Levy” entitlement to lord it over others simply because of your ethnicity and religion (what you euphemistically call your “heritage”) and for no other reason and your lack of feeling for others. I am always impressed by your obliviousness to the atavism and the ugliness of this. I do not imagine for a moment that anyone will unclench the tight cramp that is your mind, I hope that other forces will stay you, stay you from the destructiveness that cults cause.

            Reply to Comment
    8. Ovi

      This piece of crap article is so misleading and biased.. I actually wonder if one can sue under such circumstances. You have trashed the reputation of not only the most humanitarian army but of an entire ethnic group. Bravo.

      Reply to Comment
    9. Omri Halavi

      The author is an Iranian Jew so I question what “Arabness” she claims to have been made to lose. Now, of course it’s true that many Mizrahim feel oppressed by the Ashkenazi elite. That’s why most of us vote for Likud which cares about us, instead of the racist left-wing parties that put our parents and grandparents in ma’abarot and development towns.

      Reply to Comment
    10. Joel

      Americans who want to find something negative to say about Israel often dip into their own American experience to find something. In this case, it’s race relations. The US has largely failed in race relations, and remains one of the most bigoted racist countries in the Western World. So what better angle to bash Israel with?

      The only problem is that Israel has mostly worked out it’s Mizrachi-Ashkenazi issues. So they are harping on something that was a major problem in the past, but is rapidly becoming a unpleasant distant memory. One can only wish that the US would work out its social problems as well.

      This site would do better if it would limit itself to factual criticism of Israel, and cut out the more ridiculous anti-Israel bigotry.

      Reply to Comment
      • john

        in israel, the intrajewish relations are settled, but the west bank is also settled, the state is defined by this colonization.

        Reply to Comment
      • Rivka Koen

        Many Americans also sincerely believe our problem with so-called “race relations” (a term that creates the false appearance of balance) are solved, and these same people, right-wing white Christians, who tend to be the most unapologeticaly racist people in America, are Israel’s main supporters here. And Bibi’s biggest fans.

        In fact, the Zionist lobby is so aware of how far Israel falls from the ethical principles of non-Israeli Jews that its messaging primarily targets far-right, racist goyim in places like the U.S., Hungary, Poland, and elsewhere, knowing getting Jews to support them (at least to the extent they would like, i.e. unconditionally) is a losing battle.

        It’s a bit odd that Zionist lobbyists have to look to reactionary, racist, often overtly-antisemitic people in the countries who you are condemning in order to find support, isn’t it? When Israel is such a progressive liberal democracy that has solved all of its race problems, made the desert bloom, invented cellphones, cured cancer and created a new Garden of Eden, etc.. I mean you just admit that in America, race is still a problem, so why wouldn’t Israel be allying with the people who are fighting racism?

        Perhaps, like American racists, you’re just ignoring all the people who are telling you, from experience, that things aren’t as good as you’re asserting them to be.

        Reply to Comment
        • Rivka Koen

          Or maybe the Israeli shotrim are teaching American police to stop being racist?

          Reply to Comment
        • john

          it’s a basic misunderstanding on joel’s part – that america was founded more or less ‘against’ natives & african slaves, as isreal was founded ‘against’ native & non-jewish palestinians – he’d rather assume it’s purely about skin tone and hence the black-white american discourse is analogous to the ashkenazi-mizrahi israeli discourse, when clearly that’s false. this isn’t the first time he’s shown his ignorance of american culture & israeli history.

          Reply to Comment
          • Joel

            John, as a former American now living in Israel, I am not completely ignorant of what is happening in each country. I see American Progressives projecting American problems onto a very different situation in Israel.

            The “Mizrachim vs. Ashkenazim” narrative, where the Ashkenazim are the privileged ones (i.e. “white”- and I am not referring to skin tone) and the Mizrachim are the weak exploited ones (i.e. “black”- and I do not mean by skin tone) is seen by some as a parallel to race relations in the US (where light skin tone happens to match privilege). Israeli Ashkenazim MUST be guilty of the same sin of racism as American Whites. But reality is that the situations are very different, and have developed very differently. Israel has come a long way since the anti-Mizrachi bigotry of the 50’s and 60’s. A very long way indeed.

            These articles about how Israeli Ashkenazim are exploiting Mizrachiim are based on a complete, and to my mind, deliberate misunderstanding of what is going on in Israel. It is so far off the mark, that it looks very much like a desperate search to find something, anything, negative to say about Israel. Attempts to link the Mizrachiim to the Palestinians are simply absurd- yet I see that brought up in articles as well.

            I wonder what Herzl Biton (note the first name) would think of this article.

            Reply to Comment
          • john

            i’ve never seen anyone make this comparison, besides you.

            & it’s not too difficult to find negative things about israel: it was founded on ethnic cleansing and sustained by violent segregation. there are two sets of rights inside the green line and two legal systems in the west bank, while palestinians in gaza are killed for no reason at all.

            palestinians have more in common with mista’arev soldiers than other soldiers, this fact is used against palestinians more often than mizrahim.

            Reply to Comment
          • john

            joel, last year you – or another joel with a similar fixation – were the one making stupid comparisons between jewish residents of afula (protesting to keep their town segregated) & the navajo & amish in america. so i’m curious what changed your mind about making simplistic analogies, & what do you make of the fact that an israeli family can’t move to another israeli city because they have no national rights?

            Reply to Comment
        • Lewis from Afula

          It is a bit of a big laugh hearuing about Rivka’s great ethical principles.
          Let me guess. These consist of supporting the mass influx of Muslim migrants into the USA.
          How has that worked out in Europe ?

          Thousands of French soldiers are patrolling the streets of Paris for the 1st time since WW2.
          Something like half a million British white (& Hindu/ Sikh) girls have been raped by Muslim grooming gangs in the last 20 years.
          Large parts of Western Europe have turned into “Sharia Law No-Go Zones” where even the police fears to tread. Hence, the need for armed troops !

          Reply to Comment
      • Ben

        I agree with Rivka. And John. To the extent that Israel has “worked out it’s Mizrachi-Ashkenazi issues” it’s done that at the expense of its Arab citizens, in the classic divisive U.S. race-baiting fashion used with whites of lower socioeconomic status, by pitting Mizrachim against Arabs and saying “you Jews are better than the Arabs, don’t let them usurp your place.”

        Reply to Comment
        • Joel

          Once again, projecting American race relations on Israeli society is simply wrong. Why is this so hard to grasp?

          Reply to Comment
          • Ben

            No one is “projecting American race relations” in the simple-minded, concrete, black and white (literally) way you are construing we are. It’s more complicated and with local context and Orly Noy understands it far more deeply than do you. The Likud and Mr. Netanyahu constantly exploit the cultural-ethnic-socioeconomic divisions, wounds, historical memories and festering resentments. It’s their bread and butter. They have a whole arsenal of memes, code words and slogans to exploit it and they do it every time. These things are very much alive and Netayahu and their ilk treasure them, nurture them, stoke them; and the Left for that matter has been inept in taking back this political territory, and Orly Noy speaks to that failure in a sophisticated way.

            Reply to Comment
          • Joel

            Somebody is drawing that comparison: “To the extent that Israel has “worked out it’s Mizrachi-Ashkenazi issues” it’s done that at the expense of its Arab citizens, in the classic divisive U.S. race-baiting fashion used with whites of lower socioeconomic status”

            Ben, have you actually been to Israel? I mean a private normal visit, not one with a political agenda and the associated bias confirmation? Your view of Israeli society has very little to do with what goes on here on a day to day basis.

            Reply to Comment
          • Ben

            Of course I have been to Israel and on a private normal visit too. And not just to Tel Aviv. The right has been constantly exploiting Mizrachi resentments against Ashkenazi elites and issues of their social status relative to Arabs from Begin through Netanyahu. You, Joel, sound like someone who has never listened to a Netanyahu or Likud campaign speech.

            Reply to Comment
          • Lewis from Afula

            Loony leftists like Ben need to grasp that amongst Israeli millenials, the Ashkenasi-Mizrachi divide has virtually disappeared. Statistically, a Mizrachi family that arrived in the country in 1950 is more likely to be more finacially established than an ex-Russian family that arrived in 1995. Additionally, alomost half the marriages are across the divide.
            As is often the case, the libtards are living in a bygone era.

            Reply to Comment
          • Ben

            “bygone era,” this from the born-too-late fanatic of 19th century neo-colonialism and 20th century apartheid, who clearly would have been a happier person–for about ten years and then a disappointed person–had he been born a Gentile in neo-imperial fascist Germany or neo-imperial fascist Japan a hundred years ago.

            Reply to Comment
          • Lewis from Afula

            No Ben.
            I am AGAINST Apartheid.
            That is why I want to REPATRIATE the arabs squatting in Judea & Samaria !

            Reply to Comment
          • Ben

            We know. Your quixotic mission in life is to come on +972 Magazine and rail against the fact, a deep mystery to you, that it will not endorse ethnic cleansing and genocidal industrial death techniques. An utter mystery to you, it overwhelms your cognitive faculties and emotionally dysregulates you. I can’t help you with this.

            Reply to Comment
          • Lewis from Afula

            Ben:
            Please keep your own deep psychological grief complexes to yourself.

            Reply to Comment
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