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Stop blaming Mizrahim for everything wrong in Israel

Despite what many commentators would have you think, Israeli elections were not decided by racism among Israel’s Mizrahi population.

By Leeor Ohayon

Jewish nationalist activists from anti-miscegenation group Lehava protest in Rishon Lezion, August 17, 2014. (Activestills.org)

Jewish nationalist activists from anti-miscegenation group Lehava protest in Rishon Lezion, August 17, 2014. (Activestills.org)

Benjamin Netanyahu’s re-election is largely credited to votes from the Mizrahi periphery, but to credit the Mizrahi periphery alone would be naïve. The Likud party, after all, is an Ashkenazi one at heart, with Ashkenazi supporters. The magnitude of Netanyahu’s win, as a result of his “gevalt campaign,” (a desperation blitz) actually came from the Ashkenazi Right — Jewish Home voters sacrificed their party to save Netanyahu.

In a recent article, Larry Derfner condemned “poor” Mizrahi Israelis for Netanyahu’s victory. Did “poor” refer to the working class? If so, does working class equate being “poor?” Is poor synonymous with being uneducated? Can one be educated and poor? When an Ashkenazi Israeli voted for Likud or Jewish Home, did that mean he was “poor” and thus uneducated? Or just uneducated? While Derfner sought to present a post-race, post-classist argument for ending the “infantilization” of the Mizrahi working class, it effectively perpetuated the very idea that the Ashkenazi Left is aloof and alienating.

Asserting that “the Mizrahi poor hate weakness, worse than the average Israeli,” is akin to the rightist statement that the “Arabs only understand dictatorships.” The idea that poor Mizrahi Jews worship fearless leaders is orientalist at its core; it plays on an age-old concept of oriental populations as an uncivilized, hot tempered and dangerous lot in need of iron-fisted rule. The idea that this hate is worse than that of the average Israeli, further implies that the poor Mizrahi is not really Israeli. For if hatred for the weak is an exclusively “poor Mizrahi” feature, where does that place Naftali Bennett and his election slogan of “not apologizing?”

Assigning Mizrahim collective features is dangerous, not least because stereotypes breed intolerance. It is dangerous because we are talking about an umbrella identity patched together by a 67-year-old shared narrative in Israel as the Jewish “ethnic other.” Mizrahim come from a geographically, culturally and linguistic diverse area that spans from Morocco to Iran.

The Ashkenazi Left’s wasted opportunity for new governance continues to snap at the Mizrahim of the geographic periphery, as the unruly apes that ruined the party for everyone in Tel Aviv. It is that exact historical psyche that guides the Ashkenazi Left in assuming the role of the “chosen” people for the chosen people, which views the Mizrahi savage in need of re-education and guidance. It is the same patronizing racism that provided a historical pretext for the cultural suppression of Mizrahi Jews, the wide-scale theft of Yemenite new-borns and infants, the segregation of housing, discrimination in employment, the erasure of cultural identity, the theft of goods and historical relics.

Mizrahi distrust of the Left runs a lot deeper than hatred of weakness. It also runs deeper than just the transit camps of the 1950s; to simplify it to that one event in history, as Derfner does, is to disregard the Mizrahi story in its entirety. The transit camp serves as a collective symbol no different to the historic symbols of slavery for African-Americans and the Holocaust for Ashkenazi Jews. The transit camp stands testimony to the lasting inequalities vis-a-vis Mizrahi representation in academia, politics and income.

Jewish immigrants from Yemen at a camp near Rosh Ha’ayin. (Photo: GPO)

Derfner further argues that working class Mizrahim hate African asylum seekers and Arabs. And yes, like any other socio-ethnic group, Mizrahim do have a racism issue, and like any sector of society, those issues should be tackled by members of that group — not by those who make up Israel’s de-facto privileged caste. Just like a white feminist cannot speak on behalf of the issues that black women face, Ashkenazi leftists cannot dictate the need to fix the racism of the poor Mizrahim.

Any hatred of African refugees and asylum seekers cannot be confined to the poor Mizrahi Israelis. No race or class is exempt when the mainstream Israeli media continues to refer to the refugees as “infiltrators,” drawing a (sub)conscious connection to the Palestinian fedayeen fighters of the 1950s. It is that imagery which creates nationwide hostility, borne of government policy and media coverage that casts the refugees as yet another threat to Jewish statehood. Racism toward African refugees isn’t a Mizrahi problem — it’s an Israeli problem, full stop.

Likewise, to lay racism toward Arabs on the shoulders of Mizrahim is to ignore the history of Israel. Ben-Gurion long emphasized the need to fight the “Levantine spirit” of the Mizrahi Jews, a mentality he believed was beneath the Ashkenazi foundations of the new Israeli identity. It was the Left that ensured Mizrahim became ashamed of their roots, that “Arabness” would leave a bad taste in their mouths. To deplore poor Mizrahim as being full of hate for those below them is to dismiss all the elements of the Mizrahi story.

If the poor Mizrahim hate Arabs, it is in also in part due to their own historical baggage with the Arab world as the indigenous sons of this region, having been punished for the Nakba, the Ashkenazi Left’s expulsion of the Palestinians in 1948. If the Mizrahim hate Arabs, it is because of the segregated housing policies that put poor Mizrahim on the Israeli-Arab front lines, absorbing the brunt of the Ashkenazi Left’s historical conflict with the Arabs. Poor Mizrahim worry that an Ashkenazi left-wing government will destroy any progress that they have made within Israeli society.

If Israeli society wasn’t built on a complex ethnic racial hierarchy, then perhaps the Ashkenazi Left could denounce the working class Mizrahi voter and his racist tendencies. But the reality remains that Mizrahi Jews, both rich and poor, remain inferior to the Ashkenazi population, socially, economically and historically. As long as racist inequality remains, then there is no need for the Ashkenazi Left to re-educate a subordinate, indigenous part of the population.

When the day after tomorrow comes, when the party ends and white flight causes the privileged to exit en masse with their EU passports, it will be the Mizrahim, rich and poor, with nowhere to go, who will clean up the mess alongside the Palestinians. Because only they will know how to live alongside their Arab counterparts, as they have done for two millennia.

Leeor Ohayon is a documentary photographer from London currently in Israel focusing his photographic work on Mizrahi Jewry.

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    1. Bruce Gould

      Legal question: we all know that the International Community gave The Jews rights to their Ancestral Homeland in 1922.

      Can the International Community change its mind? After all, the Supreme Court sometimes reverses itself…?

      Reply to Comment
      • Kareem Jeans

        Do you really spend your days thinking of preposterous shit like this?

        Reply to Comment
      • Bryan

        Of course we can – simply because over the course of time ancestral homelands change. The Anglo-Saxons came from North Germany and the Low Countries which was once their homeland, but then they adopted England as their homeland, Same with Americans, Australians, Turks and many others. Same with Jews, some of whom once lived in Palestine, but moved to many other lands and many now spurn the free air-tickets, jobs, homes and social benefits which are freely offered to them to “return” to a “putative homeland” whilst genuine residents of the land, previously expelled are refused a right to return.

        But please go back and read the Balfour Declaration and the Mandate of 1922. You will find there no mention of granting national rights to a Jewish state in its homeland. You will find a requirement to “facilitate Jewish immigration under suitable conditions” (and of course conditions change). You will find a requirement to “to facilitate the acquisition of Palestinian citizenship by Jews who take up their permanent residence in Palestine.” But you will also find that “No discrimination of any kind shall be made between the inhabitants of Palestine on the ground of race, religion or language. No person shall be excluded from Palestine on the sole ground of his religious belief.” So – a place where Jews were free to settle as Palestinians, but not to set up their own state or to harm the existing communities in any way.

        Reply to Comment
        • Kareem Jeans

          Bryan, there is nothing in your reply that makes Mr. Gould’s response any less nonsensical. Mr. Gould is asking if the international community can rescind the rights to their “ancestral homeland”. Your babble says nothing to support an affirmative answer to that question.

          Reply to Comment
      • Yeah, Right

        BG: “Legal question: we all know that the International Community gave The Jews rights to their Ancestral Homeland in 1922.”

        Indeed true, and that “giving” can be found in the plain text of the articles of the Mandate for Palestine.

        BG: “Can the International Community change its mind?”

        Sure, it can, and the legal mechanism by which that change can take place was written into the plain text of the articles of the Mandate for Palestine.

        In this article, in fact:
        Article 27: The consent of the Council of the League of Nations is required for any modification of the terms of this mandate.

        So LEGALLY the question is this: can we find any instance where the Mandatory Power went to its supervising body (which was the LoN pre-1945, but became the UNGA post-1945) and request that the terms of this mandate be altered to remove “Jewish rights” from at least some of this “ancestral homeland”?

        Yeah, we can.

        It’s the special request that start with these words:
        “The General Assembly, Having met in special session at the request of the mandatory Power”…..

        Reply to Comment
        • Jordana

          The right to take back? Let’s see do Native Americans have the right to take back America? How about a inhabitants that were expelled from there homeland before modern history, to be flung out unto other nations that become other nations only to be put under the thumb of those nations, never treated as if they were natives of those nations but treated as “others” and now we have European Assholes, (if you can excuse my tongue but I simply cannot hold it)! debating on whether nations can take it away. Again make the Jew under its thumb. Well all I have to say to the West is something to which the colonial mind seems to grasp fully except of course when it pertains to a certain obscure minority faith & people, DIVINE INTERVENTION got us here, wrap your minds on trying to take it away from a people that feel they can finally come home & not be under the thumb of a hateful foreign power. I am Mizrahim & very proud of my culture my people but I also see how the European mindset becomes the only mindset & so far it’s ravaged more of this world then the Romans ever could based & due to only a socio class, how fair your skin is & what G*d you believe in. All the trappings of bullshit, but much like pagans of long past have shown us time & time again, that’s a hard but to crack. Thank for the article Mr. Gould.

          Reply to Comment
    2. Kraylon

      Yes, thanks to the author for pointing out some of the racism in Derfner’s previous post. Still, what’s missing in the article is the connection that the left in principle is the best political orientation for the disenfranchised and underrepresented in society, Mizrahim included. The left in Israel has done a poor job of protecting the interests of the Mizrahim, and this must be urgently addressed.

      Also, are there any references supporting these statements? – “If the Mizrahim hate Arabs, it is because of the segregated housing policies that put poor Mizrahim on the Israeli-Arab front lines, absorbing the brunt of the Ashkenazi Left’s historical conflict with the Arabs. Poor Mizrahim worry that an Ashkenazi left-wing government will destroy any progress that they have made within Israeli society.” Is this just opinion? Why should anybody be expected to believe these sorts of statements unless they are really supported by at least some kind of study/survey? It’s quite dangerous to present these sorts of views to such a favorable audience, as they will typically read it uncritically. As the author is unlikely to respond to this comment, could any of the other readers provide some reference?

      Reply to Comment
    3. Jello

      Jesus. Derfner versus some weird English dude. Get ready for the supreme battle of intellectual midgets.

      Reply to Comment
      • Gray

        My money’s on Dwarfner, not the midget with the camera!
        Sorry Mr. Derfner, only joking!

        Reply to Comment
    4. Gray

      The author sure comes up with a lot of excuses for the racism that he claims not to exist! Anyway, instead of leaving the reader in the uncomfortable position to decide whose prejudices are more convincing, those of the UK photographer or the ones of the Israeli columnist, can’t we have some facts instead? Isn’t there a study anywhere about the prevailing attitudes and the party preferences of the Mizrahim? That may be more helpful than a shouting battle between pro and contra sides.

      Reply to Comment