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'Our Boys' exposes the Mizrahi-Palestinian fault line

‘Our Boys’ shows that Mizrahi racism has transformed into a real and deadly threat. As the younger generation of Mizrahim, we must accept accountability for and develop a new understanding of Mizrahi-Palestinian relations.

By Moran Habaz

Right-wing Lehava activists shout slogans as they protest outside the wedding hall where Mahmoud Mansour, a Palestinian Israeli, and Morel Malcha, a Jewish Israeli, got married on August 17, 2014 in Rishon Letzion. Police arrested at least 7 right wing protesters, out of over 300 who were protesting against the wedding. (Oren Ziv/Activestills.org)

Lehava activists protest outside the wedding hall where Mahmoud Mansour, a Palestinian Israeli, and Morel Malcha, a Jewish-born Israeli, got married on August 17, 2014 in Rishon Letzion. (Oren Ziv/Activestills.org)

As someone who grew up in Jerusalem and experienced its bloodied streets as a teenager during the Second Intifada, HBO’s “Our Boys” shook my world. It made me reflect not only on that awful time in 2014, but also on the city’s very specific internal makeup. The series manages to capture Jerusalem’s explosive tensions, revealing both the divisions and connections along national, generational and ethnic lines, showing how a point of friction in one area inevitably causes a collapse in another.

The murder of Palestinian teenager Mohammed Abu Khdeir by Israelis that summer was exceptional for its brutality and for the graphic details published in Israeli media, but especially because of the identity of the perpetrators — Mizrahi ultra-Orthodox boys from Jerusalem and its surrounding settlements, some of whom were yeshiva students. Their background was, and remains, surprising.

Mizrahim — Jews whose families immigrated from Arab and Muslim countries — are perceived as the more racist group in Israeli society. But Mizrahi intellectuals and activists will point you to the acute analysis by Palestinian member of Knesset Jamal Zahalka, who makes a distinction between the vocal racism of those who cry “Death to Arabs,” and those who are more “enlightened” in their discourse but in effect oversee the occupation and the expulsion of Palestinians from their homeland — who are predominantly of Ashkenazi (European) origin.

Zahalka’s assessment is all the more thought-provoking for having come from a victim of that oppression. It is especially important within the clichéd discourse on racism in Israel, which invariably relies on the loud Mizrahi right-winger as its poster child.

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In “Our Boys,” Shimon or Simon, the Shin Bet operative who led the investigation into the murder of Abu Khdeir, seems to understand Zahalka’s insight. Recognizing that the focus on Mizrahim is a distraction from the true engine of racism in Israel, Simon allocates most of his time and resources toward investigating the terrorism of the mostly-Ashkenazi religious-Zionist settlers. Simon pursues a singular assumption that Abu Khdeir’s killers are to be found among the predominantly Ashkenazi hilltop youth, who burn olive trees and carry out “price tag” attacks.

The repetitive cry of “Death to Arabs” leaves Simon unmoved. Even when he sits down, undercover, for a Shabbat meal with the murderers and listens to their hateful and racist talk, he still tells his Ashkenazi colleague that, “Anyone from my family could have said that. Should we arrest them all?” From Simon’s point of view, he cannot be wrong. Yet as far as the investigation is concerned, this is precisely the tragedy — and where the “Zahalka concept” of Israeli racism collapses.

The murder of Abu Khdeir teaches us that we are past the point of no return, and that we need to change our tune on Mizrahi racism. Saying “Death to Arabs” and “Burn their villages” can no longer be ascribed to internalized oppression that resulted from the erasure of Mizrahi Arabness — rather, it has become a concrete imperative.

Perhaps it comes down to a generational divide — our parents, and certainly our grandparents, might have embraced the fearful discourse of the “Arab enemy,” but they also understood this “other” because their lives were completely interwoven. The children of the 1980s and ‘90s, by contrast, do not know any Arabs — and, for the most part, are not interested in knowing them — despite having grown up in “mixed” Jewish-Arab communities.

Mizrahi activists can talk all they want about being “Arab Jews,” but the fact is that the younger generations did not ask their parents to teach them Arabic. The label of “Arab Jew,” pioneered by the likes of the sociologist Yehouda Shenhav, was perhaps relevant to my grandfather, and even, to a certain degree, my father. For me, though and for most of the Mizrahim I know, this label is meaningless, except as a point of defiance against Ashkenazim.

In the end, the leftist Mizrahi discourse around the “Arab Jew” is broken. On the one hand, its proponents — like Simon — sit at Friday night dinners where right-wing, messianic hate speech unfolds around them, understanding and reciting all the historical and class reasons for Mizrahi identification with the right. On the other hand, they have no interest in subjecting their families to the kind of patronizing education Mizrahim received in the “melting pot” years of the early state. After all, they are all descendants of a glorious Jewish-Arab dynasty, and in any case, those racist words are meaningless — just ask Jamal Zahalka.

An Israeli police officer stands alongside a Shin Bet officer in a scene from HBO's 'Our Boys' (HBO)

An Israeli police officer stands alongside Shin Bet officer Simon in a scene from HBO’s ‘Our Boys’ (HBO)

It is on precisely this point that the series — and perhaps Israeli history itself — calls upon its viewers to take responsibility for and develop a new understanding of the power relations between Mizrahim and Palestinians, whose most extreme points of friction are embodied in Jerusalem. We need a new Mizrahi discourse that is unafraid to address this stigma, that also recognizes the specific historical factors that led to it; we need a discourse that is able to say, “Jerusalem, we have a problem.”

This is one of the most important tasks facing any Mizrahi activist. If we fail to take it on, we risk becoming not just the designated proxy for Arab-hatred, but its actual executors — a whole generation carrying out the apartheid vision of the messianic right.

To a large extent, this terrible future has already arrived, in the form of army and police units made up almost entirely of young Mizrahim and Ethiopians. But it is likely to worsen and spread beyond the security apparatus if we do not create a new, generational Mizrahi identity that stands up to the danger of unthinkingly embracing racist and hateful slogans.

Moran Habaz is a doctoral student in Jewish history. A version of this article was first published in Hebrew on Haokets. Read it here.

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    COMMENTS

    1. Micah

      “The younger generations did not ask their parents to teach them Arabic.”

      Why would we want to learn this foreign language brought to our homeland by invading muslims? Our language is Ivrit and even when we had to speak their language it was infused with Hebrew and our alphabet was Hebrew not Arabic.

      We are Jews not Arabs and we were at best second class citizens under them, not equal “Arabs” in their eyes at anytime and we were never “Arab” in our own eyes. It’s why they without any hesitation exiled the Jews of Yemen to the desert to die, forcibly converted their children to islam or massacred us in Safed and Hebron in the 1500s with the clear distinction that we were Jews not Arabs.

      “Their background was, and remains, surprising.”

      Why? It is a fact that we have the least trust and most dislike of the Arabs called “Palestinians” because we know exactly what their end goal is as we are more than familiar with being a minority under islamic rule. We will never allow this to happen again now that we have re-established control over our own homeland.

      “…who are predominantly of Ashkenazi (European) origin.”

      You really shouldn’t throw the Ashkenazim under the bus like this because without them, there would be no buffer for us to exact our justified revenge against the Arab world for being nothing but their dogs for centuries. Also, your “oppressor/oppressed” language might work in front of ignorant western left wing people but for us, we know that the “Palestinian” cause is just a made up proxy to invert the reality that this is an Arab and islamic war vs the Jew minority into a smaller “Palestinian” faction which assumed the role of the “underdog”. They are really nothing but the front line for what has always been a pan Arab war against us filthy Jews.

      Mizrahim are the ones that will ensure the survival of Israel as the rightful Jewish state, the Arabs have the rest of the Middle East and there are no Jews there anymore, they should be happy now without us polluting their lands.

      Reply to Comment
      • Bruce Gould

        @Micah: “…massacred us in Safed and Hebron in the 1500s…”

        So if you keep demolishing Palestinian homes for the next 500 years ( https://www.btselem.org/topic/punitive_demolitions ) will that even the score?
        Just trying to get some sense of what you think justice consists of…

        Reply to Comment
        • Micah

          Sorry but I don’t particularly care about btselem and their propaganda nor do I care about what happens to “palestinians” and it that is the worst that happens to them because of their belligerence, then they’re lucky as they deserve more.

          In the 1920s they had no problem in burning down my great grandfather’s farm for example and his animals alive during one of their riots, not because my family were “Zionist” (they weren’t) or had anything to do with any Zionist movement, but because they were Jews. We were local Jews from the Galilee, not “foreign”. They did the same to the Jews of Pekiin who were driven out of their ancestral town by Arabs despite having been living there for thousands of years during another round of their rioting in the 1930s, this well before their “nakba” or “occupation” of West Bank. None of us were “European” or “Zionist” and if anything, the Arabs turned us all by themselves into the biggest Zionists on earth considering all Jews were their targets.

          Now today we have these Arabs like Noura Erakat who in the language of western left wing progressives bleat about being “native” (despite the fact that her family themselves advertise that they’re foreign Hejazis: https://www.facebook.com/notes/arekat-family/%D8%B9%D8%A7%D8%A6%D9%84%D8%A9-%D8%B9%D8%B1%D9%8A%D9%82%D8%A7%D8%AA/255831057552) and invert the entire narrative to present their cause in the terms of western identity politics whilst wiping out the Jews, specifically the Mizrahim from having anything to do with this land other than being some sort of “colonizer” force. In that light, I couldn’t give a shit about anything that happens to “palestinian” arabs, a “people” so ancient that the jet propulsion engine is older than them.

          Reply to Comment
          • Itshak Gordine

            Micah, I understand you very well. In his response to your message, Ben, as usual, gives his thoughts in an avalanche of words from abroad without knowing anything about the situation in Israel. His opinions are based on the reading of texts of some American leftists or Haaretz. I suggested him several times to come here to Israel and to get into politics if the situation in our country does not suit him. He prefers to give ridiculous and suicidal opinions and advice from abroad. I sometimes wonder if he is not paid by the word.

            Reply to Comment
          • Micah

            I found his reply to be comical and full of nothing but meaningless buzzwords and not worthy of response.

            This 972 site is obviously aimed at western left wing people who have already made up their opinion considering they present their arguments using this identity politics/race based garbage which is mostly an American way of thinking and is a foreign concept in the Middle East. I don’t think they will ever change the minds of people who aren’t of their side already so they’re wasting their time but it’s still relevant as a Mizrahi Jew to clear up the garbage they’re vomiting out.

            Yes there was gizanut against Sephardim/Mizrahim in the past, it hardly exists anymore the way these liars present it and people marry each other, like my brother who married a girl from half Ashkenazi, half Lebanese Jewish background. This site found the less than a handful of Mizrahim that are on the left who parrot this ridiculous potential “Mizrahi-Palestinian relations” narrative. There is no chance of “relations” with them. If anything, the Ashkenazim are the only people left who give a shit about their bullshit or about wanting any “peace” with them because we don’t give a shit about them whatsoever.

            It is also very racist on their part to think that we were somehow brainwashed or are just puppets doing the dirty work of the Ashkenazim. Funny how when they make this argument, we turn into dumb Middle Easterners which is patronizing and racist, otherwise the rest of the time we’re just as malevolent and evil.

            We are the most unapologetic Zionists on earth today and gladly defend this country from this enemy population and our Zionism comes almost entirely from the Arab behaviour towards us.

            Reply to Comment
          • Ben

            I answer this below.

            Reply to Comment
          • Bruce Gould

            @Micah: “In the 1920s they had no problem in burning down my great grandfather’s farm for example and his animals alive during one of their riots…”

            By golly, I think we should find those people who burnt down your grandfathers farm and prosecute them to the full extent of the law.

            Reply to Comment
          • Ben

            @Micah: “In that light…” (i.e, “invert the entire narrative to present their cause in the terms of western identity politics whilst wiping out the Jews, specifically the Mizrahim from having anything to do with this land other than being some sort of “colonizer” force.”)

            Yeah, that’s some “light.”

            Invoking some kind of “western progressive bleating” bugaboo as the conspiratorial reason behind Palestinians today opposing your crudely delegitimizing them and burning their farms in 2019—well, this doesn’t convince and it’s no recipe for solving the problem. It is itself a kind of narrative inverting.

            The burning of your great grandfather’s farm in 1920, as bad as that was, does not give you or other Jewish persons you don’t even know the right to burn down Palestinian farms in 2020. Period. (Yes, you can invoke a right to not “care,” but that too is easy to do when you’re the comfortable occupier who farms out the dirty work and looks the other way.) There is nothing “bleating” about resistance to a relentless savage occupation and its relentless depredations.

            Micah, I’m sorry about your great grandfather’s farm but it is not the reason for the occupation. And Zionism was not simply a reaction to local Arab resistance. The causes of riots a hundred years ago are not simple tales. And what happened a hundred years ago is not justification for crimes in the present. Gets back to the original question Bruce asked you, to which you had no response basically except “I don’t care.”

            More to follow.

            Reply to Comment
          • Ben

            The causes of riots a hundred years ago are not simple tales.

            Freitag, Ulrike; Fuccaro, Nelida; Ghrawi, Claudia; Lafi, Nora (30 March 2015). Urban Violence in the Middle East: Changing Cityscapes in the Transition from Empire to Nation State. Berghahn Books. p. 188.
            “While the first half of the procession was passing through the Jaffa Gate, the riot began between Christaki’s pharmacy and the Credit Lyonnais. Available sources do not clarify the exact trigger, and it is arguable that more than one event functioned as a catalyst. In the vicinity of the Arab rally, some Zionists were listening to the speeches. It is likely some belonged to the self-defence force organized by Vladimir Jabotinsky, by this time already enlisting six hundred troops performing military drills on a daily basis.” Already in early March, Jabotinsky was working to inflame the atmosphere, and he began to publicly predict a pogrom. Some evidence suggests that these Jewish spectators were quite provocative. Allegedly, a Jew pushed an Arab carrying a nationalist flag, and he tried to spit on the banner and on the Arab crowd. According to testimony gathered by the French consul, some young Jews standing near Jaffa Gate attacked some Arabs after the speech delivered by Muhammad Darwish of the Arab Club (one of the Christian-Muslim associations). All of these reports suggest only Jewish provocation; however, it is possible, though unreported, that Arab activities also triggered the riots.”

            More to follow.

            Reply to Comment
          • Ben

            You talk about the burning of your great grandfather’s farm as if you had never heard of the settlers rampaging through Palestinian fields and olive groves and setting them on fire, or of settlers killing Palestinian’s livestock, or of the army declaring “closed military zones” as a means of theft of Palestinian owned land. For every story of Jewish grievance there is an equal and opposite tale of Palestinian grievance. Gets back to Bruce’s question, to which you have no response except “I don’t care.”

            Reply to Comment
          • Ben

            The sensibility and the ethical framework you, Micah (and Itshak Gordine almost everywhere in these pages and quite clearly below) express is that of Lord and Master. It is a master-slave relationship you are insisting on and that you don’t “care” about. That master-slave arrangement that is the occupation today is explained with depth and philosophical rigor by Eva Illouz here:

            47 [now 52] Years a Slave: A New Perspective on the Occupation
            Very few struggles in history have centered on how a nation should treat a third group of people, but there are strong parallels between black slavery and Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians.
            Eva Illouz | Feb. 7, 2014 |
            https://www.haaretz.com/.premium-47-years-a-slave-1.5319717

            The excerpt that follows is 200 words in an essay of more than 6000 words. It does not do justice to the whole. Read the entire essay. (Unless, like Itshak Gordine, that is an impossible “avalanche” for you.)

            “As is always the case in history, once a group of people controls economic, human or territorial resources, it justifies its domination over a group with an ideology…
            Without ever intending to, Israelis have become the Lords and Masters of a people, and the only interesting question about this is not how we got there (domination has its own internal incremental and implacable dynamic), but why so many Jews outside and inside of Israel are not more disturbed by this.
            The reason for this is that Israel has its own proslavery lobby, which is now in the corridors of power, shapes Israel’s policy and has successfully managed to make the occupation appear to be a containable casualty of war and nation-building. The settlers’ discourse – which only 20 years ago was marginal in Israeli society –has become mainstream, and one can only be struck by its resemblance to the 19th-century American proslavery ideology.
            The idea that Jews are inherently superior to Arabs is so widespread, deep and unquestioned, that it is hardly worth my time dwelling on it here. The idea of Jewish superiority exists everywhere in Israel, but is most blatant in the territories… These views dictate official policy…”

            Reply to Comment
      • Ben

        @Micah: This propaganda narrative (or your hodgepodge of “everybody in my circle knows” prejudices and lies) with respect to how we Jews were forever treated by “them” versus others across time, what debt that means you are owed, what “exactly” is “their” “end goal,” (we “know!”) and the agitprop about “them” being a “front line” for “a pan Arab war” in 2019 is embarrassing in its obviousness as the hackneyed rejectionist propaganda of the occupier.

        What this kind of post you give us here is useful for is insight into what people of good will and sanity are up against—what tenacious backward, rejectionist forces will stop at nothing to prevent progress or the opening of minds, why no reasonable conversation can be had with this segment, and why outside force will ultimately be necessary. The Branch Davidians at Waco provide the same lesson. And the civilized and civilizing task before us is to prevent the deluded self-styled “ones that will ensure the survival of Israel as the rightful Jewish state” from first blowing up the place with themselves in it.

        Reply to Comment
    2. Tommy Goldberg

      I once lived in a part of the U.S. with a rich coal-mining history. Within a few decades, very distinct waves of immigrants arrived to work in the mines: the Welsh, the Germans, the Irish, the Hungarians, the Poles, the Italians.

      The newest arrivals were always at the border of the pecking order. And no group was ever as invested in maintaining this as the group that JUST moved up to second-lowest rung of the ladder.

      Intersectionality is all nice and well, but it’s never something groups near the bottom think they can “afford” to embrace, because it seems to jeopardize their precarious position just above rock bottom.

      So it’s great that the author says how Mizrahim “must” rethink their racism against Palestinians, but actually doing so would basically be unprecedented, as long as their position vis-a-vis the Ashkenazim remains so lopsided.

      Reply to Comment
      • Lewis from Afula

        Um… No Tommy your talking BS as usual.

        The Ashskenasi- Mizrachi dichotomy is rapidly blurring and disappearing.
        Some 35% of kids have mixed ancestries.
        In another 20 years, it will become very difficult to work out who is who.
        Nice diversionary nonsense though !

        Reply to Comment
    3. Itshak Gordine

      The first thing to do is to compensate the Oriental Jews who were deprived of their property and expelled from the Arab countries. Arabs living in the land of Israel should also learn Hebrew. It is also necessary to fight against the anti-Jewish hatred of Arab children’s schoolbooks.

      Reply to Comment
      • Ben

        “The first thing to do”

        LoL. Some things never change. Really this is a classic settler type diversion. Same old tricks.

        Reply to Comment
      • Amir

        Says the one who lives in a settlement of the WB, built on private Palestinian land…

        Reply to Comment
        • Lewis from Afula

          No such thing as “fakestinyan land”.
          The Land was liberated from JORDAN – when those bastards tried to genocide us in June 1967.

          Reply to Comment
          • Amir

            @lewis, stop smoking marijuana for once

            Reply to Comment
          • Lewis from Afula

            Amir denies that JORDAN tried to genocide Israel in June 1967.
            You ARE the one who is smoking marijuana …..or actually taking LSD more like.

            Reply to Comment
          • Amir

            I am denying you have a brain or you’re an human being…

            Reply to Comment
          • Lewis from Afula

            In Amir’s parallel cosmos, Israel was NOT attacked by JORDAN in June 1967.
            No, it was Israel that attacked “fakestine” !!
            That is an ethereal, mysterious entity that was retroactively imagined several years AFTER the JORDANIANs lost their war.

            Its all possible if you believe in time travel, parallel universes and potent mental delusions influencing historical chronology.
            Amir’s an expert on this nonsense.

            Reply to Comment
          • Amir

            @lewis, time travel is your speciality, since you claim that your ancestors lived in Palestine 3000 years ago, ate hummus that time and the name they had at that time!!!!

            Have you met grandpa and grandma?

            Reply to Comment
          • Lewis from Afula

            More absurd BS from a guy who believes in the “fakestinyan” fake nation theory.
            Do you support Narnians’ right to self-determination too ?

            Reply to Comment
          • Amir

            @lewis, if israelis exist, then narnian do

            Reply to Comment
          • Lewis from Afula

            Israel exists – as shown on every Atlas.
            The fake entities of “fakestine” and “Narnia” do NOT.

            Reply to Comment
    4. itshak Gordine

      Israel’s Arab community is plagued by violence, vengeance and bloodshed. There is not a week without many people in this community being murdered in family conflicts and others. All this is shocking to the Israeli population. One has the impression that some Arabs of Israel are unable to live in a developed and modern society. Not to mention that some of them enjoy the benefits of the Jewish state while plotting against it. So waiting for young Israelis to throw themselves into the arms of the Arab minority is utopian. Especially since Israel’s Arabs make up 20% of the population and 60% of the prison population.

      Reply to Comment
      • Ben

        @Itshak Gordine:

        1. I can’t help it if English is your fourth language or something and what I write appears to you as an avalanche or a tidal wave bearing down on you. Trust me, native English speakers have no trouble negotiating my “avalanches.” But I suspect with you it’s not quantity but quality that bothers you, as in, “Uh oh, I have to digest a complex thought, that bothers my simplistic metal system, I don’t like it, it challenges me too much, I better instead throw a temper tantrum about ‘avalanches.’”

        2. You are putting on display very well in your latest drop off here your intractable low class racism and narcissism about responsibilities, and as I have told you many times I have no illusions about you, any more than I think I’m going to talk Tom Cruise out of Scientology or talk Donald Trump into being a good man. Ain’t gonna happen. Personality is like that.

        3. But you might make your conniving settler-speak just a little less obvious (why am I coaching you?). I mean, “The first thing to do…” LoL. Typical settler trick (but not much of a trick). Somethings never change. You have no idea how dishonest and conniving the settlers like you come across to liberal western Jews elsewhere. You really cannot have any idea. And no, it’s not because we have no idea what is going on. On the contrary. To posit that one must live inside the West Bank as a settler or even in Tel Aviv to properly understand the “situation” is to posit that Noam Sheizaf, Amjad Iraqi, Edo Konrad, Michael Omer-Man, Mairav Zonszein, Dahlia Scheinlin et al. have no idea what is going on. Preposterous! The reason you hate this Magazine is precisely because they know all too well the organized crime that is going on and they say it to “foreigners” in English and to Israelis in Hebrew. They break the silence. Remember, Breaking the Silence is the great scandal in Israeli society that absolutely no right winger can plausibly explain away. I have NEVER heard a plausible explanation for the phenomenon of Breaking the Silence other than the explanation the soldiers of Breaking the Silence claim themselves. Sorry Halevy, you think you are passing something over on us, but there stands Breaking the Silence and +972 Magazine, and they got the scoop and got you outfoxed—waaaaay outfoxed.

        Reply to Comment
      • Bruce Gould

        @Itshak: Consider the Inuit who live in northern Canada:

        https://www.nybooks.com/articles/2019/10/10/inuit-highest-suicide-rate/

        Their society is plagued by suicide, alcoholism, violence and drug abuse. As the article explains, it wasn’t always like this – it only happened after the Canadians basically destroyed their way of life and took their lands.

        Understand?

        Reply to Comment
        • itshak Gordine

          No: Arab society has always been gangrenous with honor killings. It’s like that and we can not do anything. Nothing to do with the Indians of Canada.

          Reply to Comment
          • Ben

            Are you really this concrete and simple-minded?

            Reply to Comment
      • Some-one.

        This is the thing. “Arab Israelis” live under a Shin Bet state and have done since the foundation of the Zionist State. If the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine or the Islamic Jihad in Palestine drop a pin within the Green Line people will get lifted and most likely imprisoned. Zionist jails within the Green Line are full of people jailed on trumped up political charges.The problem here that you let pass is that there are indigenous Palestinian crime families who are running amok and have a large murder rate. Somehow though the Shin Bet is not very concerned about them at all, I wonder why? Could it be because their kids inform on teachers if they dare to go outside of the Zionist narrative in history class and so have them brought before the Shin Bet? These crime families are one of the great friends of Zionism.

        Reply to Comment
        • Ben

          Very good point. A very un-hasbara point.

          Reply to Comment
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