The Mizrahi – Palestinian Connection, Part I
Author: Sharon Komash
Originally published at Peace and Conflict Monitor on 08/18/2005
This is the first part of a three-part study.
Scholarly analysis of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has depicted it as a conflict between two homogenous entities, namely Israel and the Palestinians. However, scholars largely ignore the impact of the “inner-Israeli” conflict between Mizrahim and Ashkenazim on the “external” conflict between Israelis and Palestinians. Not only are the Mizrahim excluded from the peace process itself, but academics also fail to research the role they play in the conflict, while their occasional public role is that of extremely right-wing “Arab-haters” who prevent the Ashkenazi-dominated “liberal peace camp” from reaching a solution– hence they are portrayed as an obstacle to peace.
Yet during my years facilitating dialogue groups between Israeli and Palestinian youth, this assertion was shattered. I have noticed time and again how Mizrahi participants connected with Palestinians and created friendships, despite the fact that they usually held more right-wing views than those of the Ashkenazi participants. The Ashkenazi, on the other hand, often acted in a patronizing and distant manner towards Palestinians. Being a half-Mizrahi myself, my interest in the subject has increased.
This paper embodies some of the realizations I have reached in a process of becoming aware of the oppression that has been exerted on my own family and myself. In this journey, I have been exposed to writings of others who shared the same experiences and whose work has been acknowledged only recently. Even today it is marginalized in the mainstream academic curriculum.
First I will describe the historical relationship between the Mizrahim and Zionism, and the concomitant uses of structural, cultural and direct violence toward the Mizrahim. Then I will analyze what comprises the various Mizrahi identities as a reaction to that encounter and illustrate the relevance of those two themes to the linkage between the two groups. Finally, I will demonstrate how those issues are reflected in the public discourse surrounding the struggle of Tali Fahima. For this study I have used scholarly literature, as well as articles published on the internet and electronic feedback to those articles.
The topic, the methodology and the inclusion of many quotes are in accordance with the aims I hope to achieve: First, to “give voice to the voiceless”– to bring the Mizrahim to the stage’s front as active actors. Second, to give voice to erased histories, silenced contingencies of Mizrahi-Palestinian cooperation and marginalized struggles. Third, to provide critical approach to the understanding of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict by showing the common denominator between the Mizrahim and the Palestinians– coping with the same Euro-Zionist super-narrative– and by looking at it through a lens that has often been obscured. I maintain this perspective adds an important dimension to the understanding of the conflict and hence impacts the way the conflict should be managed.
The Relationship between Arab-Jews and Zionism
“I was disillusioned at what I found in the Promised Land, disillusioned at the institutionalized racism. The principal interest Israel had in Jews from Islamic countries was as a supply of cheap labor. Ben Gurion needed the “Oriental” Jews to farm the thousands of acres of land left by Palestinians who were driven out by Israeli forces in 1948”
Jews have been living for thousands of years in Arab countries in relative peace. By and large, they have been well integrated into Muslim society. Jews held senior public positions in various Arab countries; in Palestine too, the Sephardic community lived peacefully with Muslims. The advent of Zionism caused a dramatic change in the lives of Arab-Jews living in their homelands. Many of them were not supportive of Zionism and regarded it – as their Muslim compatriots did – as a European colonialist movement. Some even joined the Arab nationalist and anti-imperialist movements. Even two decades later, while the tension in Palestine intensified, the Sephardic Jewish leader Elyachar, using “our shared land” language, still offered the British Phil committee a bi-national state with a joint parliament and mutual learning of the languages, encouraging inclusion of Arab students in Jewish schools and vice versa. The more the Zionist movement strengthened, the more difficult the Arab-Jews’ situation because. Eventually, the good relationship between Jewish and Muslim communities shattered. The Arab nationalists identified all Jews as Zionist – hence a fifth column – and ironically adopted the Zionist discourse in which Arabness and Jewishness were perceived as mutually exclusive. In the words of Ella Shohat: “The rigidity of both paradigms has produced the particular Arab Jewish tragedy, since neither paradigm could contain crossed or multiple identities”.
Structural and cultural violence
The “Aliya” of the Arab-Jews to Israel was a traumatic decent13. The encounter with the Euro-Zionists was a clash of civilizations, in which the colonialists had the might. At once, the Arab-Jews were stripped of every aspect in their previous lives and underwent a metamorphosis: they changed names, accents, food, garment, livelihood and more. Their arrival to Israel marked the beginning of a process of destruction of age-old pride, well-being and collective creation14. A vicious power-relations structure developed, wherein the ArabJews became the subordinates of the dominant colonizing power – the Ashkenazim of East Europe15. The Ashkenazi establishment employed violence on a massive scale in preserving these power relations.
Galtung offers a typology of violence wherein “cultural violence makes direct and structural violence look, even feel, right – or at least not wrong…the act of direct violence and the fact of structural violence are legitimized (by cultural violence) and thus rendered acceptable in society”16. All these types of violence have been employed on the Mizrahim.
One of the strongest tools of cultural violence is ideology. The Zionist ideology was embedded in a Eurocentric-colonialist thought, one of whose main traits was Orientalism. As Said states, Orientalist thought is based on ontological and epistemological differentiation between “us”, the Europeans, as opposed to “them”, the non-Europeans17. It describes the West as rational, developed, humane, and superior, while representing the Orient as deviant, undeveloped, inferior, and threatening; hence the Orient must be controlled18.
The Zionist founders of Israel expressed their contempt and racist attitudes towards the Arab-Jews often. Ben Gurion stated: “It is our duty to fight the spirit of the Levant, that corrupts individuals and societies”19. Prominent intellectuals expressed the same Orientalist perceptions: “The primitive mentality of many of the immigrants from backward countries…equals primitive expressions of children or the mentally retarded or mentally disordered”20. Journalists spread the stereotypes further:
“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”21.
The debasing of the Mizrahim was accompanied with exalting the “enlightened”, “civilized” culture of the Ashkenazim, hence inflating their self-value.
As Galtung stresses, science is another tool that is used for cultural violence. Thus, the Ashkenazi academy supplied pseudo-scientific reinforcement to these racist perceptions. One of the theories was based on the sociology school of “modernization and development”22. The modernization approach argued that the Jews from Arab countries are a pre-modern population and that their culture prevents them from integrating well into the Israeli “Modern” society23. Therefore, they must be trained in a special development trajectory to elevate themselves from their backward culture24. The Mizrahim accordingly underwent a process of de-socialization, casting remnants of their Arabness, and resocialization, acquiring “modern” affiliations and assimilating to the “Israeli” – EuroAshkenazi – way of life25. Thus science paved the way to de-socialization and resocialization, both constituting forms of direct violence. The state led this process through an “Absorption through modernization” policy that guided the planning of “development towns”, population distribution and more – which led to marginalization, a form of structural violence.
This policy has been efficiently employed through the education system. The Mizrahim have been channeled to separate trajectories in school, with a lower teaching quality and more emphasis on professional studies (e.g. carpentry) than on theoretical studies26. They have been officially hailed as “requiring special care”, and hence teachers and parents have been encouraged to lower their expectations for Mizrahi students27.
The education system has been the agent of another form of structural violence: The official history textbooks have been telling almost exclusively the narrative of the European Jewry, thus exerting on the Mizrahim inclusion and exclusion at the same time. The Mizrahim have not learned about the history of their parents, and have been indoctrinated with the history of the Ashkenazim as the super-narrative of all Jews. The Mizrahi artist Gal Meir illustrates it visually in his work “Nine out of Four Hundred” where he holds the only nine pages that discuss non-European Jewish history in a history textbook28.
The forced disremembering has been coupled by distortion of the history. The Zionist historiography has painted the histories of the Jews in Arab countries in the same colors as the persecution against the Jews in Europe. It has been written through what Shohat terms “morbid tracing” of atrocities, highlighting and amplifying each case of hostility (sometimes hundreds of years apart), ignoring coexistence, and using terms that are taken from the vocabulary of the European Jewish experience, such as “Pogrom” and “concentration camps”29. In this regard the constructed belief that “Arabs are anti-Semitic” and have always hated Jews lies at the heart of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
The massive repression – albeit extremely sophisticated and hidden – of the Mizrahim (and the Palestinian citizens of Israel) has been manifested in every field: education, housing, land distribution, labor market, political representation and others30. In a letter to Jean-Paul Sartre when the latter showed interest in the Palestinian refugees, Elyachar urges him to visit the “towns that were built in the state for the Jews of Arab countries”, and to see that “despite the super-human efforts that the state has put forward to receive thousands of our brethren the refugees, their suffering is not lesser than that of the Arab refugees”31.
The severe consequences of these forms of violence were soon in coming. Those policies laid the infrastructure for the ongoing oppression of the Mizrahim that continues even today. Statistics show that inequalities still exist and in some areas have even deepened32. For example, The Mizrahim constitute most of the lower-class (with the Arab citizens of Israel further below). A Mizrahi earns on average 31% less than an Ashkenazi, and the gap in higher education has increased33.
Erasure of indentity
Shenhav argues that the talks about modernization and progress were but a pretext to enable the real goal behind those policies: namely, de-Arabization of the Mizrahim. The pronounced Arab culture of the Arab-Jews threatened Zionism by blurring the dichotomous ethnic divide between Arabs and Jews, a divide which underlines Zionism as a national ideology. At the same time, Zionism needed the Arab Jews as the ones who preserved the same “primitivity” and “tradition” that it despised, to “prove” the primordial element in it34.
Thus the relationship between the Ashkenazi-Zionist establishment and the Mizrahim is one of inclusion and exclusion simultaneously. They are both “the other” and “belonging”35. Their Jewishness provided them with an entrance card to the national enterprise, but with the prerequisite of abandoning their culture.
In addition, the Zionists perceived themselves as an extension of Europe into the Middle East, bringing the tidings of industry, enlightenment and modernity to the desert. Herzl, the inventor of Zionism, advocated the idea of a Jewish state to the Western Powers as “an outpost of civilization against barbarism”36. The Eurocentric character of the state compelled cleaning it of undesired elements – people in the case of Palestinians, and cultural manifestations in the case of Arab-Jews.
Therefore, the success of the national-Jewish project and the Eurocentric affiliation were two key principals that necessitated the Arab-Jews to erase any traces of their Arab culture and to become “Israelis”. Zionism could not accept a hyphenated identity. It would have questioned the clear-cut boundaries between “us” and “them”. The term once commonly used, Arab-Jew, has become an oxymoron37.
The Mizrahim encounter with Euro-Zionism has had devastating repercussions on their identity (as in other cases of cultural colonialism). It led “to a profound and visceral schizophrenia, since for the first time in our history Arabness and Jewishness have been imposed as antonyms”38. The Mizrahim have consequently adopted a few methods of coping with the conflicted situation that was imposed on them, among those casting off their Arabness and attempting to assimilate into the “Israeli culture” dominated by the values of the Ashkenazi hegemony39. The Mizrahim have launched a process of suppression of their music, poetry, language and body language, to name but a few, whereby the Israeli-born Mizrahim have become their parents’ agents of socialization40. The Mizrahi youth were embarrassed in the culture of their parents. Trying to turn off the radio so that the parents could not listen to their favorite Arab music was a recurring theme in every Mizrahi house, including my own.
This process has evolved into self-hatred, and internalization of the perception that “the Ashkenazim are better”41. As Elyachar observed:
“We have caused an inferiority complex in the hearts of the descendants of the Eastern communities…The more …(the Mizrahi youth) “merges” as it were–the more they…belittle themselves and wish to prove to their brothers-friends from the ruling elite (the Ashkenazim, S.K) …to what extent they have become “Western European”; to what extent they are no longer “Mizrahi”42.
The following words of a Mizrahi man are indicative of the internalization of inferiority: “We must not have a Sephardi as a Prime Minister”43.
The de-Arabization scheme, alas, has finally succeeded. As Chetrit puts it: “Today the Mizrahi no longer needs to hate his Arabness, because it is gone. Our Arabness is gone! It was destroyed by Zionism. There are no more Arab-Jews in the world”44.
 In Israel, the distinction between political left and political right is perceived to be the propensity to accept a peace settlement with the Palestinians.
 Giladi. N, p.4. Giladi is an Iraqi Jew who immigrated to Israel in the 40s.
 For instance, the finance ministers of Iraq and of Egypt, Ishak Sasson and Jamas Sanua respectively, were both Jews. See Shohat 1999.
 For example, the Sephardic community established schools where Jews, Muslims and Christians all attended. See Tamari.
 In Palestine, Jews from prominent Sephardic families cooperated with their Muslim and Christian fellow citizens in trying to mobilize the Ottoman Palestinians against the Western allies. Tamari points out the distinction between native Arab-Jews and European Jews who immigrated to Palestine in the beginning of the 20th century. In Lebanon, for example, while the former blended into the society and took a prominent place in Arab nationalist and anti-imperialist intellectual circles, the latter were enthusiastically Zionist, “hardly spoke any Arabic, and viewed their host environment with suspicion”. See Tamari.
 Elyachar, p. 59-60.
 Segev, p. 96. In Palestine, both Jewish and Arab leaders complained that the entrance of the Zionist Ashkenazim to the center of the politics under the auspices of the British colonialism badly damaged the relationship between the communities.
 Shohat 2003.
9. The initial exclusion of the Arab-Jews is due to an ambivalent approach to their “primitive” culture, a point that I will develop further below. The words of Elyachar at a speech in the Knesset (the Israeli Parliament), illustrate this reluctance: “I apologize for being frank. I haven’t found the same interest that
there is in…our Jewish brethren in the Westerner Diaspora, towards the Diaspora of Yishmael (the diaspora in the Middle East)”. Elyachar, p. 187.
10. The instrumental change of approach towards the inclusion of Arab-Jews in the Zionist enterprise followed the holocaust and the extermination of the “natural pool” of European Jews.
11. Giladi, p.8. Five bombs were used between 1950-1. Each time there was a decrease in registration of Jews to leave the country, another bomb was set off. The theory that Zionist activists were behind the bombs is widely accepted among the Iraqi Jews, though it has never been proven. See Shenhav 2001.
12. Shohat calls it “The fantasy of Rescue”. See Shohat 2001. p.167.
13. Shohat 1999.
14. Shohat 2001, p. 160. In this regard, Giladi, an Iraqi Jew who helped the Zionists in the exodus to Israel, recounts how later, when he bumped into Iraqi Jews in Israel, they often expressed the sentiment
that they wanted to kill him for what he had done. See Giladi p.10.
15. This structure was created already in the 20s, as the British colonialized Palestine and hailed the Zionist Ashkenazim as the representatives of the Jewish community, thereby taking away the leadership from the veteran Sephardic Jews. See Segev, p.96.
16. Galtung, p. 196.
17. Said, p. 16.
18. Said, p. 263.
19. Shohat 2001, p.145.
20. Karl Frankenstein, in Shohat 2001, p.146.
21. Glodblum Arie, quoted in Chetrit 2004. p. 62. An extreme example of Ashkenazi racism toward Mizrahim is Kalman Katznelson’s book “The Ashkenazi Revolution”, in which he warns the superior Ashkenazi race from contamination by the Mizrahi inferior race and argues against mixed marriage. See
Shohat 2003, p.64
22. The prominent advocate of this school in Israel was S.N. Eisenstadt.
23. It is important to point out that many Mizrahim that came from modern cities such as Baghdad, Aleksandria, Cairo, Casablanca, Beirut etc, were astonished at the inferior technology and economy in Israel. See Chetrit, p. 47.
24. Shenhav 2003, p. 152.
25. Chetrit 2004, p. 67
26. Shohat 2001, p.179.
27. A note to the first grade teacher demonstrates the pseudo-scientific explanation for the inferiority of the Mizrahi student and hence the need for “specially designed education”: “You’ve received students that come from a backward cultural environment. Let’s examine the causes of the difficulties: Lack of motivation for reading; lack of basic educational habits; incomplete physiological development in the
areas of motor control, hearing and sight; intellectual age lower than the chronological age; incompetence to follow simple instructions”. See Chetrit 2004, p. 78.
28. See Meir Gal’s artwork in: http://www.kedma.co.il/KedmaGallery/MeirGal/MiroGalleryImage2.htm. It should be stressed that those pages that did discuss the Arab-Jews, represented them as helpless in the face of Arab cruelty, sunk in spiritual coma, poor, ignorant, superstitious, and rescued by their brave European brothers. See Chetrit 2004, p. 64.
29. Shohat 2001, p.154. The Mizrahim themselves have internalized the socialization, as an attempt to be
part of the Jewish collective, with the holocaust being its strongest recruiting symbol. See for example Elyachar’s use of “Ghettos” and “concentration camps” in the context of the Jews in Arab countries. Elyachar, p. 111.
30. The Mizrahim settled in agricultural villages, for instance, and were given less land, of worse in quality in comparison with the lands distributed to Ashkenazi. Shohat 2001, p.175. This included passing the gaps to the next generations, with the inheritance laws.
31 Elyachar, p. 222.
32. This data refutes the “modernization” theory which blames the Arab background of the Mizrahim in
their failure to integrate, in that not only do Israeli-born Mizrahim still suffer from inequalities, but the
inequalities in many fields has increased.
33. Peled, p. 276-7. These are but a few examples. There is extensive research on ethnic inequality in
34. Shenhav 2003, p. 151.
35. Shenhav 2003, p. 17. The Palestinians are, of course, “the Other” too, but they are perceived as the
“far Other”, whereas the Arab-Jews are the “close Other”.
36. Morris, p. 23.
38. Shohat 1999.
39. Shenhav 2003, p. 153. Another way to be accepted into the Israeli club was through the religion. Some Mizrahim chose that path and emphasized their religious identity, at times even wearing a yarmulke so as not to be perceived as Arabs. See Shenhav 2003, p. 115
40. However the Israeli-born Mizrahim have received mixed messages and were schizophrenic as well. On the one hand they appreciated their home and social environment, on the other hand the school pushed them away from it.
41. As Shenhav recounts: “When I brought friends home my mother made it clear to me who were my good friends and who were my bad friends. It was not in anything she said directly. But when I brought home an Ashkenazi friend I received compliments, and when I brought home a Mizrahi friend my mother made a face. After a while you get the message and begin to adopt Ashkenazi ways of thinking”. See Shenhav 2001.
42. Elyachar, p. 227-8. Notice Elyachar’s subtle language. He uses “we” even though he himself was not part of this oppression as a Sephardic Jew who struggled for the equality for Mizrahim. In most of his writing he refrains from pointing accusations directly at the Ashkenazi elite.
43. Chetrit. 1999, p. 166.
44. Chetrit, 2001, p. 294.
Bio: Sharon Komash holds a Master’s in International Peace Studies from the University of Peace.