The Enemy is Us: Rachel Shabi

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November 3, 2009

While the history of Jews can be traced back a few thousand years, it would appear as though Oriental Jewry only came into being sometime around the early twentieth century. With the birth of Israel in 1948, a narrative began taking shape to exclude all those who did not originate in Europe. In fact, Mizrahim, Jews from Arab lands, were not even considered an asset to the new nation, nor were they viewed as being a desirable demographic. Theirs was portrayed as a backwards, barbaric culture, that would pollute the state founded by brilliant, accomplished, heroic Germans and Poles. The separation between these European and Sephardi Jews is rooted in the formation of Israel.

In pre-Holocaust Europe, Jews were described as stooped, despondent and living in filth. Theodore Herzl dreamed of establishing a civilized, European society, where the Jew could finally become a “real German”. While Herzl wanted German to be Israel’s official language, and others proposed Yiddish, good sense seems to have prevailed. The European settlers that came to Israel behaved as if there had been no native population, and did not want to learn from the Sephardi. It was determined that giving the state a ‘Levantine’ character would propel the new nation backward. Thus it was to be avoided at all costs.

The plight of Mizrahi Jews who migrated to Israel is disgraceful, ill-fitting of a nation that calls itself a democracy. Those who, like my family, chose Europe, South America or the United States as a destination after expulsion from their homeland, escaped that frightful discrimination. And for those who did not, writes Shabi, their loss of identity was almost complete, save for those aspects of their native culture tolerated by the Ashkenazim. Ashkenazi Jews will accept the foods, or the music from Mizrahi Jews, but not their Arabness. However, even if the music is making its way into the mainstream, it is still accompanied by the qualifier “Mizrahi”. Why not just call it “music”? Or Israeli music?

Racism is so embedded in Israel’s social fabric that it resists any rationalization. In We Look Like the Enemy, Guardian contributor Rachel Shabi presents this picture without rose-colored glasses. Time and again, we learn from her of accounts of Ashkenazi reports that the Arab Jew is primitive, opportunistic, lowly, weird and scary (the latter was in the case of the Yemenite Jews), totally ignorant, incapable of being spiritual, savage with primitive instincts. Mizrahi Jews were considered a blemish. The Mizrahim, it was feared, could lead Israel to be viewed as non-white, as un-European.

What exactly happened to Jews from Arab lands who went to Israel, whose motivation was purely spiritual? Shabi explains how Mizrahi Jews were taken to transit camps when they were brought to Israel. Their hosts ensured that they would be driven to their new homes during the night so as not to see the conditions in which they were to live. They felt confused, disoriented and disappointed. They were housed on borders shared with Arab countries, in development towns in Israel’s south:

“Sderot is one of twenty-seven officially termed ‘development towns’, founded between 1952 and 1964 to absorb migrants during that period. Those towns are nearly always peripheral; Sderot and Ofakim in the Negev desert in the South; Kiryat Shmona bordering Lebanon to the north; Bet She’an located close to the eastern border of the West Bank. They were created as part of a government policy of population dispersal. Just after 1948, most Israelis were based in the big cities of Haifa, Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, which left vast stretches of empty land in the new state. By the early fifties, there was mounting international concern, voiced through the United Nations, that Israel do something about the 711,000 (UN figure) Palestinians made refugees during the 1948 war. Israel sought to settle its newly won ground. Perhaps also a factor was a post-World War II consciousness over not centralizing populations too much. With the Jews of North Africa in mind, the Israeli government launched Operation from the Boat to the Town, whereby immigrants would be taken straight from the transporting vessels to the areas marked as development-towns-to-be. They wouldn’t be given a choice of where to go; that decision had already been made for them by the Jewish Agency”.

Without knowing perhaps, the new immigrants acted as a buffer between the ‘savage’ Arabs, and the ‘civilized’ European Jews. Another element which distinguished them from the Ashkenazim was that they were viewed as refugees rather than pioneers.

Mizrahis were poorer and by default, trained to fail. They did not attend the same schools as the Ashkenazim. ‘Making it’ was tantamount to graduating into a vocational school of some sort. Diaspora Jews were referred to as ‘hunchbacks’, and it was the Ashkenazi’s duty to straighten their backs with honest to goodness labor. In the superior Ashkenazi mind, the new Oriental Jews were good enough to take the place of the Arabs. When one is constantly and consistently separate, shunned as an equal, it is natural that one will begin to internalize the negative stereotyping of him/herself and begin to share it. Why is it that the majority of people in Israeli prisons are either Arab or Mizrahi?

Thus, we hear from Shabi of a Sephardi woman who portrayed herself for many years as an Ashkenazi, only to break down in her later years and bemoan the culture she had lost.

“Tzadok, for instance, remembers that in her youth, she perfected a modern Hebrew accent: ‘I went to a school with many Ashkenazis and I felt very strange talking the way I used to talk,’ she says. ‘I felt like I had to hide my gutturals’. Tzadok just wanted to speak like everyone else did. ‘And I guess it was a process that took months or years,’ she says. ‘Until one day my father said to me, ‘Why do you speak without the het and ayin?’. Tzadok reverted to her original Oriental accent after completing university, reclaiming the pronunciation that she had previously tried to obscure.”

This is not unfamiliar to me. I have, unfortunately, come across a great number of Sephardi Israelis who hold more conservative, typically Ashkenazi political views than their European Jewish counterparts. In their eyes, this is a victory. Their politics are a ‘we made it’ moment, and they proudly wear their hatred of Arabs on their sleeves.

Getting to this point took time. Israel reconstituted the alienation Sephardim felt, living in Islamic states, similarly rendering the Oriental Jew an anomaly. Jews from Arab lands were effectively cleansed of their culture. “Oriental Jews have no trace of Jewish or human education,” observed David Ben Gurion.

For example, on the one hand Israelis eliminated the guttural sounds of real Hebrew so that it did not sound like Arabic. On the other, we have the Bourekas films of the 1970s, which cast Mizrahim as Oriental caricatures, as a means of commercially capturing a particular kind of Jewish ethnicity.

Shabi devotes an entire chapter in the book titled “ Babylon calling” where she describes the Israeli rewriting of Babylonian history to suit Zionist ideological objectives. She talks about Yehuda, a predominantly Iraqi Jewish peripheral town which has managed to recreate the smells, tastes and sounds to which she and her fellow Iraqi Jews found so addicting in Baghdad. Yehuda is also the place where one can locate the ‘Babylonian Jewry Heritage Center’, which is a narrative of historical Jewish community life in Iraq. The reader will sense the outrage in Shabi when she recounts her experience of visiting the Center.

The placards that welcome the visitor at the Center boast of Iraqi Jews lost in the diaspora for more than two and a half millennia, apparently in search of Zion for all of these years. And of course, after 3,000 years of wandering, they finally reach home and become integrated in all spheres of life in Eretz Israel. Certainly, there were Iraqi Zionists, but they were in the minority, and as Shabi indicates, they helped Iraqi Jews migrate “at first dangerously, illegally, and then en masse to Israel”. When she asks fellow Iraqi Jews if this describes their history, they shout back:

“No. Lies, damned lies!”

Where is the justification in skewing the history of all Iraqi Jews just to perhaps honor a handful of protagonists of Iraqi Zionism?

Shabi proudly points to the fact that Iraq is the seat of the longest record of Jewish residence anywhere. She also reminds us that when the Jewish community was in decline in Palestine due to Imperial Roman intervention, Babylon took the spotlight around 300 CE. This will also be the time when the Babylonian Talmud would be produced by a Mesopotamian Jewish Center; and that this Talmud ‘is second only to the Bible in the Jewish holy book charts’. While the writing of it took 130 years, Jewish communities worldwide were busy escaping Roman persecution and depended heavily on the Talmud for guidance.

When Islam conquered Babylon, Muslim rulers created the ‘People of the Book’ category, which referred to their Christian and Jewish subjects. Dhimmitude had just been born. But rather than interpret it as a measure of suffering, many welcomed it as a means of protection.

Inasmuch as Jews from North Africa view Arabic as an integral part of their culture, the language is glaringly missing from Israeli pop culture; street and shop signs are in English, Hebrew and Russian. Shabi discusses the omnipresent bias against Mizrahis when, perhaps two years ago or so, Israeli radio refused to play a certain song on the airwaves because it was presented by Mizrahi artist Liran Tal. The song was called ‘Love Has No End’ and rejected by Reshet Gimmel and Glagalatz, the country’s two mainstream radio stations.

When the piece was renamed and repackaged without the ‘scent’ of Mizrahi, it reached the top of the charts. Shabi tells us that Tal removed his photo from the CD cover (if you click on the above link for Tal, you’ll see what we mean), renamed the song “Always”, and changed his name to Sharon Keinan (Ashkenazi surname), and even went as far as crediting the songwriting to an Ashkenazi singer. The song immediately found itself regular receiving airplay.

Israel never perceived an advantage in learning Arabic; yet how ridiculous when an Israeli head of state or an MK goes to an Arab country and requires a translator. The author recounts an incident when Shimon Peres was visiting an Arab country and completely fumbled when addressed in Arabic. This attitude still prevails today, as if Israelis have absolutely no clue that they live in the Middle East, where Arabic is the default language.

And yet, belonging in Israel, as Shabi has learned, is packed with conditions: reject Zionist ideology (no matter how much Zionism and Judaism are argued to be synonyms), and you shall be deemed a traitor and an enemy.

Many Zionists have deluded themselves into thinking that they saved Sephardi Jews from the harsh rule of Arab captors. They also purposely fail to make the connection between the creation of the State of Israel, and the response to the Palestinian refugee crisis which ensued as a result. Had Arab countries not felt the need to avenge the Palestinians by punishing their Jews, how many Jews from Northern Africa, Iraq and Iran would have made their way to Israel? The author documents that in Algeria, when it was time for Jews to pick up and leave, 95% headed to France, not Israel.

Of course, statistics of this sort do not support the theory of the valiant rescue of Arab Jews from their oppressors by Israel. There are well-documented cases, and they appear in the book as well, of Israeli acts of terrorism (such as planting bombs in synagogues, or other venues frequented by Jews) to instill fear and force Iraqi Jews to migrate to Israel. When they formed an underground movement in Iraq, Zionists received very little support from Baghdadi Jews. The fact was that 20th century Iraqi Jews were wealthy and considered themselves Arab by nationality and Jewish by religion. Shabi expresses indignation when she points to the fact that Babylonian Jews had been living in Iraq for 2600 years, and now they were being asked to move, and to become hostile to a culture that they had adopted as their own. This paradigm would be replicated in other places, such as Egypt, the land I had to leave.

Israelis did the same in Yemen, where they pushed for the eviction of Yemeni Jews from their homeland. Shabi writes that their property was stolen, including historical writings and bibles that were centuries old. As they had previously done with the Babylonian heritage, Israelis took that heritage as their own. Tom Segev similarly recorded the kidnapping of Yemeni children who ended up being raised by Ashkenazi families. To wit, the practice has not ended; last year, I reported on a similar case

What Israel also missed was that the Jewish Middle East had adopted French-inspired education. I cannot help but mention that those of us who were multilingual regarded Israelis, especially those who had arrived from Poland, Russia and Germany, as backwards as they embraced the lifestyle and language we associated with Nazis. It is interesting that in our pop culture, an individual (and Jewish woman) such as Roseanne Barr should say, albeit somewhat inaccurately, “it is the Sephardic Jew who has lived in peace for thousands of years with his Arab neighbors” and he is underrepresented in the government of Israel. “Not one Sephardic Jew was killed by Hitler, because he considered them to be ‘real Jews’ and the German Jew as a bastard German.

We need to acknowledge, of course, that Sephardim were killed in the Holocaust, despite what Ms. Barr claims. However, in her exaggeration, there are volumes of truth.

Rachel Shabi gets it. She has understood that the so called ‘elite’ in Israel programmed the Mizrahi Jew to fail in society, and despite assurances by the Israeli Sephardim that “all of this has changed”, most of the realists understand that the only thing that has changed is that those Sephardim have taken all their self-loathing and re-directed it to the Arabs. And like children who want to so much please their parents, they stand proudly next to their European counterparts, and say: ‘see, we now hate them too’, ‘see, we are so grateful that you have made it possible for us to cleanse ourselves from this horrible Arabic culture we knew’, so they can now feel worthy.

Shabi also realized at one point that those biases were beginning to play with her own head and dictate her own behavior. Thus, she herself became a victim of the ‘system’. However, only through this revealing experience could she begin to understand what had happened to those who came and stayed.

Ironically, what they call “the left” in Israel are erudite Ashkenazi Jews, rather than Sephardim. Like a good journalist, Shabi talked about the preferential treatment still given to Polish and Russian migrants in terms of housing, education, integration in politics. On a more personal note, I reconnected with my first cousin, who emigrated from Venezuela to Israel about five years ago. At first, I could not understand why he kept referring to his new home as the state of “Russia”. He recounted a visit from his daughter, who lives in Miami, a couple of years ago and said she could not stay with him. He was overwhelmed by the Russian character of Israel, and kept questioning me, rhetorically, about the so-called Jewish state.

It cannot be said enough times that Israel is smack in the middle of a vast and populous Arab world. Elie Eliachar, a prominent Palestinian Jew, stated that the resident Palestinian Jews possessed the default Jewish culture from which European Jews had strayed. The word ‘default’ is key. So long as Israel is engaged in wars and hostilities, it will never have to address its internal problems, as it will continue to use conflict to count on unity of the populace, regardless of their roots. But some of us are not fooled; the ‘them and us’ mentality still exists. And they will tell you: “don’t touch our Holocaust”.

As Avraham Burg stated so eloquently in his recent book, it is time for Israel to rise above the ashes of the Holocaust and look forward. And forward would be for Israel to adopt the Levantine Option.

For further reading, check out the interview with Rachel Shabi in this week’s edition of the Forward

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