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The Missing Mizrahim

Some critics have faulted Rachel Shabi’s We Look Like the Enemy: The Hidden Story of Israel’s Jews from Arab Lands as one-sided. Shabi neglects the animosity that existed between Jews and Muslims long before 1948, the critics say. She exaggerates … Read More

By / August 31, 2009

Some critics have faulted Rachel Shabi’s We Look Like the Enemy: The Hidden Story of Israel’s Jews from Arab Lands as one-sided. Shabi neglects the animosity that existed between Jews and Muslims long before 1948, the critics say. She exaggerates how good things were for the Jews of the Orient, they moan.

But it seems that Shabi’s detractors might have missed the point.

The pivot that Shabi’s work revolves around is, perhaps, easy to miss. It is simple, a delicate foundation for hundreds of pages. Fortunately, Shabi has taken care to illuminate it in an old-fashioned thesis sentence. She writes: “This book is focused on the stifled, small-voice analysis seeking to break this stalemate formula.”  

The impasse is the sharp dichotomy of the “enemy”—the European, the West, pitted against the Oriental, the East. Adhering to this strict narrative allows Israel to depict violence against the state as an attack on the Western world; following this script, the Arab world can align the “European” country as a transplant that must be rooted out. Both sides conveniently ignore the Mizrahim, a group that has been rooted in the region for millennia, veiling the Middle Eastern face of Israel.

Just as Shabi is straightforward about the tight focus of Not the Enemy, she is also honest about her own background. From the first pages, we know that the Guardian contributor is an Iraqi Jew—albeit Israel-born and Britain-bred—and she doesn’t hide the fact that her politics lie on the left. “I visited Israel again as an adult,” she writes, “…by then I knew all about the bad Israel, the bully nation, the land thief and oppressor of Palestinians—no smiling and no mangoes in this version.”

Smiling and mangoes came earlier, during the childhood years spent in the embrace of her large Mizrahi family, exiled from the banks of Babylon to Israel—a land that proved, according to Shabi, much harsher. Long before the state of Israel was established, Mizrahi immigrants were already facing difficulties. Shabi recounts, for instance, the story of Kibbutz Kinneret. The land was initially settled in 1912 by a group of Yemeni families. When Ashkenazim arrived in 1921 and formed a kibbutz on the same property, a handful of the newcomers went to work—not at farming, but at driving the Yemenis away.

Many of the Mizrahim who migrated to Israel after 1948 were stuck in development towns—some, Shabi recounts, were literally dumped there at night. Today, development towns remain mired in trouble. They tend to be poorer and, located on the periphery, they suffer from more security threats—Shabi points to Sderot, economically and emotionally depressed by a rain of rockets from Gaza, as an extreme example.

Not only were the Mizrahim literally ghettoized, Shabi argues, they were culturally ghettoized as well. In a twist of irony, their regional accent was derided as inferior to Ashkenazi intonations. Radio stations refused to give Oriental music any airtime. Though that has changed in recent years, Mizrahi music is referred to as just that. Despite its mainstream acceptance, it bears a label that marks it as something less than Israeli.

Shabi isn’t simply making a laundry list of the historical and contemporary problems of Mizrahim. She is highlighting the ways that Mizrahim, and Israel, have been severed from their Middle Eastern roots. But the Mizrahim—a majority of whom are right-leaning today—also had a hand in the cutting. Shabi writes, “After so many years of learning to hate their own rejected features and having to hide them, the Mizrahis simply projected all that revulsion onto the neighboring Arab community—because self-loathing is hard to maintain and because, there, in the enemy was a perfect outlet for it.”

We have returned to the stalemate, the dichotomy. How to break it? Return to the rejected culture.  The Arab Jew can serve as “a bridge… an embodiment how two seemingly contrary identities can coexist in the same body, in the same space.”

Shabi herself mirrors this return, in a way. Though she seems to identify more as a British-Iraqi and despite her obvious ambivalence about her birthplace, “I go back to Israel to research this book,” she writes, “but also, I just go back there after all."

I had the opportunity to sit down and talk with Rachel about her book in Tel Aviv this summer. The following conversation, full of equally fascinating insights, is what transpired.

ZEEK: So is a memoir next?

RS: (Laughs). No. I’m an old school journalist. I hate the “I.” But when I discussed the book idea with my agent and publishers, they said, ‘OK, you’re a British journalist, but actually you’re Israeli and you have Iraqi parents – so aren’t you a part of the story?’ The “I” that does feature in the book is really the most I could handle without feeling totally self-absorbed. And I do think that my editors were right, that I needed to be present there—the tension in the book is the result of the first person narration versus the journalist.

ZEEK: Why Mizrahim and why now?

RS: This is a fault line in Israeli society that is not being picked up by international media because they’re so focused on the conflict. But as an Iraqi-Jew, I was attuned to it. When I pitched the idea, people would say, “What do you mean? Arab Jews?” There’s a big knowledge gap. The Arab Jews break a binary—they’re not located in a clear area and so they are often overlooked, because they complicate the story and interfere with people’s hard-wired assumptions about what the story is.

ZEEK: By writing this book, were you negotiating your own identity at all?

RS: I grew up with this [Iraqi] culture in my home, and this exposure caused me to understand the culture to be both rich and enriching.  But I was a migrant kid, so I didn’t want any part of it – you know, I just wanted to be British like all the other kids in monotone 1970s England. Ironically, writing a book about how Arab Jews were discriminated against here brought me back to it.

The musician Yair Dalal said that when he teaches a Mizrahi kid an Arabic song and they go home and play it, and their dad sings along and then they start to talk about the dad’s life in Iraq, it’s like this awakening.  Dalal says that at this point, the kid is back on track. And it seems like so many Mizrahim are off track, that they’ve buried their roots and discarded their home cultures because that’s what is socially received as the right thing to do, in order to be accepted and to get ahead.

ZEEK: In the UK, this is published under the title Not the Enemy. It’s a clever title that seems intended to provoke the reader into immediately questioning who the enemy is. Were you playing with this?

RS: Absolutely. Mizrahim have an awareness that they’re being received in a certain way because they look like the enemy. But what is the enemy? The Arab world? The Arab within the Jew? The oriental was made the enemy. And I’m not sure that Israel can handle this supposed “enemy” surrounding its borders, when it doesn’t even know how to deal with this “enemy” within its own country, within its own Jewish people.

ZEEK: Rather than being the enemy, do Mizrahim have the potential to be a bridge?

RS: There’s always that potential, but it’s difficult because the national script holds sway. And the national script is based on differences and perpetual enmity, not on similarities, bridges or hybrid identities. Moroccans in Sderot, in the midst of (Operation) Cast Lead—while they were getting all these nationalistic messages—were reminiscing about the days they visited with their friends in Gaza, years before the borders and the siege on the strip. Gaza City is nearer to them culturally, physically, geographically then the rest of Israel is, in some ways.

ZEEK: How does Not the Enemy contribute to the narratives of Israel and Palestine?

RS: I was trying to break the polarity… The book shows a population, once a majority, whose existence is barely acknowledged outside of Israel. I don’t think you can understand Israel’s relationship to the region, to the Middle East, unless you understand Israel’s internal relationships.

ZEEK: Was this an attempt to deconstruct Zionism?

RS: I’m not really dealing in labels, especially ones that are so loaded! But, that said, Zionism was conceived in Europe and was premised on bringing a European Jewish society to the region. Those European Jews arrive with a set of assumptions about the Middle East, that it was backwards, uncivilized and inferior to the Western world – and they interacted with the Palestinians and Mizrahim on the basis of such assumptions. But many Mizrahim feel that the Europeans didn’t have a clue about what their lived had been like in the Arab world and are still stunned by the levels of prejudice and ignorance. And these assumptions, this ignorance, was what allowed the Europeans to discriminate against them.

ZEEK: Does Israel need to heal its internal rifts first?

RS: Absolutely. Weak societies can’t make peace. And weak societies are the perfect breeding ground for the far right, for ultra-nationalism and racism – of the sort that we see flourishing in Israel today.  I don’t think Israel is capable of making peace with its neighbors until it makes peace with itself. Israel has to make itself genuinely strong, equal and accepting of other cultures before it can integrate into the region.

ZEEK: In your opinion, how aware is the Israeli public of the issues of discrimination—historical and contemporary—against Mizrahi Jews?

RS: I think Israelis want to put it behind them. When it is acknowledged, it is only acknowledged historically, not as something that continues to happen today. Israelis want to believe that they are an integrated society. But injustice happened, it continues, and it goes unacknowledged and unnoticed—it’s a head in the sand approach. I understand it, but I think Israel needs to look at its painful past to move forward.

ZEEK: In recent years, Mizrahi culture has been incorporated into the mainstream, to some extent, via pop culture. Does this represent integration or fetishization?

RS: Why is it that so much Mizrahi music is put into an ethnic ghetto – why does it even have this sub-label of “Mizrahi” music rather than just being “Israeli”? It says so much about what Israel wants its identity to be. We’ll give the Mizrahim pop culture, we’ll give them their music – which we’ll deem is cheap, populist and low quality. But high culture is left to the Europeans – classical music, quality music, that’s European. So while, yes, things have come a long way, what shape have they taken? Mizrahim are on TV, but they’re hosting cookery programs, they’re advertising the national lottery…

Things should look better by now. If the Mizrahim were truly integrated, they would make up 50% of the supreme court, rather than the tiny percent than they do. They would be presenting intelligent TV programs, reading the news, they would comprise half the Jewish population at Israeli universities…They are not reaching the same levels of professional and educational attainment as Ashkenazim do. But people want to believe that there is equality.

ZEEK: Did your views change as you were working on this book?

RS: When I started researching the book and talking with campaigners and academics I did often wonder if it was really as bad as they described. But you only have to look around you in Israel to see that it is bad. And when I went to the slums and development towns that are home to majority Mizrahi populations, I was shocked by how much people still feel like they’re discriminated against. I was shocked by how much this script still holds sway.  It’s so obviously still an issue – and the fact that it continues to be ignored and swept away just makes it worse.

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