Mizrahi Jews Arabs (a Googlesearch after a Facebookshare, & some reflections)

The day before yesterday I Facebookshared an article from +972 magazine titled “Why Mizrahim don’t vote for the Left”. Later I remembered something N had said, that really the Mizrahim are Arabs, & the sooner they accept that the sooner all the strife in Israel in Palestine will be over. Two thoughts suddenly struck me:

1. As Israel’s second-class Jewish citizens, you’d expect them to be more left than right, more for egalitarianism & democracy. What a force for peace that would be if that were so, & if there really was a real “left” among the Jewish parties in Israel (even Meretz is more Zionist & predominantly Ashkenazi than left).

2. Perhaps the reason the Mizrahim vote for the right is not only the fact that they were discriminated against much more by the Ashkenazi governments of the Mapai “left”, but also because most of them are in xenophobic denial of their “Arabness”, their origins in Arab & Muslim countries, have an inherent hatred for Arabs stemming from centuries of being a minority (sometimes persecuted, sometimes tolerated) in Arab countries, & feel they have much to gain in a continuation of policies & practices that place them in a higher category than Israel’s third-class citizens, the Arab Palestinian Israelis, & than all the Arab Palestinians outside Israel’s expanding borders, &, ultimately, all non-Jewish Arabs.

The xenophobia underlying this psychological need for a “superior” group identity is itself “a pretty primal psychological human characteristic until consciousness evolves to a level that makes a multi-ethnic society possible” (from my intro to a Facebookpost on Xenophobia.

Then I googled three words: Mizrahi Jews Arabs.

But before what I wrote yesterday during my Googlesearch, I want to insert these pars that I wrote today:

I’m not a Mizrahi. I didn’t even know this word when I migrated (made aliyah, “ascent”, we called it then) to “Israel” in 1959, & I think it must have been decades later that I started hearing or reading it being used the way it is nowadays. Then, & thru the ’60s, Jews from Muslim countries were generally called Sephardis, or Frenks, & sometimes also kehim or shexhorim, “darkies” or “blacks”. But I didn’t meet many on a one-to-one level in my first years there.

I’m an Ashkenazi. & the 150-odd population of the kibbutz I joined & lived in for three years was predominantly Ashkenazi, even though a considerable portion of them were sabras, born in Palestine before the State of Israel was proclaimed. Among the Ashkenazis there are hierarchies too, with pecking orders sometimes disputed among those hailing from Germany, Poland, Lithuania, Austria, Romania, etc., etc. Although I was born in Poland, I came to Israel from Australia, where I’d lived from age 10 to age 23, & so was labelled as belonging to the “Anglo-Saxons” — not a particularly highly-honored grouping in that kibbutz at that time, but one I found did have some high value in Tel Aviv, where I was able to get a fairly well-paid job teaching English to adults, & later supplement my income by translating modern classics of Hebrew poetry into English for a cultural institute.

In the kibbutz my first real contact with Mizrahis was when the kibbutz absorbed a group of “Youth Aliyah” young teenagers from North Africa & the Middle East, & I volunteered to be the madrikh (“guide”, “counselor”) of their youth movement group. Officially it was not compulsory for all the kids to participate in this group of Hashomer Hatzairbut in practice (because of fears I couldn’t fathom, & perhaps peer pressure) all of them did. I didn’t learn much about them, their stories, what life they had come from, what their hopes were, how they felt. My task (which at the time I totally identified with) was not to listen to them, but to imbue them with the spirit, the ideology, the values & the history of this proud & revolutionary Socialist Zionist youth movement, to tell them stories of the heroic struggle of our movement’s members & allies for the creation & survival of the State, to let them feel & absorb the spirit of comradeship & membership through games, singing, dancing, campfires, excursions. I can see now what I could not see then, that I, the Ashkenazi madrikh, was basically doing what the Ashkenazi establishment had been doing for some time: affirming (though not explicitly) that we, the Ashkenazis, had done all this, & we were the ones who knew the way, & could teach it to the later-arrived & implicitly racially-inferior Mizrahis.

My most extensive contact with Mizrahis was during the times I was called up for reserves service, to do one of a variety of menial jobs (I never served in the regular IDF, was exempted because I was the only child of an ailing mother, who had come to live int the kibbutz too, so I’d had no combat or other training), often with a bunch of Mizrahi reservists. With them too, as with other Ashkenazis, I mostly kept aloof, I’m that kind of person. I did become friends with one of them, a fellow-Shekemist (canteen-worker) during a stint at Refidim in the wake of the Yom Kippur War (October 1973), but all I remember about him now is his smile, his warmth & good humor, & that he played football for Beer Sheva. I also had good & warm contacts with several Mizrahi colleagues when I was a lecturer (on English & American Literature) at Tel Aviv University (mainly during the ’80s), but I understand that Mizrahis who are on a faculty level are already in a different place than most Mizrahis.

But when we lived in Ramat Gan, opposite “Napoleon Hill”, many of our neighbors, & many of the kids our kids went to school with, were Mizrahis, the majority of them from Iraq. & our kids made friends with them without any sense of superiority. On the contrary, after tasting some of the foods in their friends’ homes, the things they’d say would come close to making us feel inferior. But we didn’t intermix as the kids did. & in our more intimate circle there were no Mizrahis.

In the apartment house where we lived in Tel Aviv after that, we had three neighbors who would today be called Mizrahi, though one of them, a single divorcee, was from Morocco & would be termed a Maghrebi (“Westerner”) rather than a Mizrahi (“Easterner”), & the couple from Turkey would certainly not be considered “Arab” though they could today be called Mizrahi. M, from Morocco, lived below us, on the middle floor, & often invited me to sit & talk, offering me something to drink & to eat, & I sometimes acceded. He was a warm, sweet man at these times, & had a good sense of humor. Yet he’d had a difficult life, had been messed about (as he recounted to me in colorful detail)  by his ex-wife, by Ashkenazis in Israel, & by Arabs in Morocco before that. & he had a profound & unshakable hatred & distrust of Arabs in particular.

Apart from that my one-on-one contacts with Mizrahis was limited to a few sentences perhaps exchanged with tradesmen, stall-keepers, shop salespeople, taxi-drivers, hairdressers, & my general impression is indeed that most of them (as distinct from my ex-colleagues) favor the right rather than the “left”.

Now, back to the Googlesearch, as I accompanied it in writing.
First I read a fine survey:
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mizrahi_Jews, & copy several relevant pars.

Mizrahi Jews or Mizrahim (Hebrew: מזרחים‎) or Mashriqiyyun (Arabic: الشرقيين‎), also referred to as Adot HaMizrach (עֲדוֹת-הַמִּזְרָח; Communities of the East; Mizrahi Hebrew: ʿAdot(h) Ha(m)Mizraḥ), are Jews descended from local Jewish communities of the Middle East (as opposed to those from Europe, Africa and other places). The term Mizrahi is most commonly used in Israel to refer to Jews who trace their roots back to Muslim-majority countries. […]

In the past the word “Mizrahim,” corresponding to the Arabic word Mashriqiyyun (Easterners), referred to the natives of Syria, Iraq and other Asian countries, as distinct from those of North Africa (Maghribiyyun)…  many object to the use of “Mizrahi” to include Moroccan and other North African Jews.

After the establishment of the State of Israel and subsequent 1948 Arab-Israeli War, most Mizrahi Jews were either expelled by their Arab rulers or chose to leave and emigrated to Israel. According to the 2009 Statistical Abstract of Israel, 50.2% of Israeli Jews are of Mizrahi or Sephardic origin.

Anti-Jewish actions by Arab governments in the 1950s and 1960s, in the context of the founding of the State of Israel […] led to the overwhelming majority of Mizrahim leaving Arab countries. They became refugees. Most went to Israel. Many Moroccan and Algerian Jews went to France. Thousands of Lebanese, Syrian and Egyptian Jews emigrated to the United States and to Brazil.

Refuge in Israel was not without its tragedies: “in a generation or two, millennia of rooted Oriental civilization, unified even in its diversity,” had been wiped out, writes Mizrahi scholar Ella Shohat. The trauma of rupture from their countries of origin was further complicated by the difficulty of the transition upon arrival in Israel; Mizrahi immigrants and refugees were placed in rudimentary and hastily erected tent cities (Ma’abarot) often in development towns on the peripheries of Israel. Settlement in Moshavim (cooperative farming villages) was only partially successful, because Mizrahim had historically filled a niche as craftsmen and merchants and most did not traditionally engage in farmwork. As the majority left their property behind in their home countries as they journeyed to Israel, many suffered a severe decrease in their socio-economic status aggravated by their cultural and political differences with the dominant Ashkenazi community. Furthermore, a policy of austerity was enforced at that time due to economic hardships.

Although social integration is constantly improving, disparities persist. A study conducted by the Israeli Central Bureau of Statistics (ICBS), Mizrahi Jews are less likely to pursue academic studies than Ashkenazi Jews. Israeli-born Ashkenazim are up to twice more likely to study in a university than Israeli-born Mizrahim. Furthermore, the percentage of Mizrahim who seek a university education remains low compared to second-generation immigrant groups of Ashkenazi origin, such as Russians. According to a survey by the Adva Center, the average income of Ashkenazim was 36 percent higher than that of Mizrahim in 2004.

Then, in a Haaretz report on a Tel Aviv University conference on integration and culture of Iraqi Jews who immigrated to Israel, I find another interesting perspective, on the special position of Iraqi Jews among the Mizrahim:

“I asked myself,” recalls Meir-Glitzenstein, “what sort of explanation can be found for the unique positioning of Iraqi Jews in the middle class during the first decade of Israel’s existence, whereas other Sephardi Jews were channeled into lower social strata. Gradually, it became clear to me that Iraqi Jews, although they were discriminated against and were victims of racial prejudice, had the human capital needed to make the transition successfully.

“In Iraq, they received a modern education in schools established by the Jewish community in the second half of the 19th century. In Israel, the young Zionist Communist leaders of the Iraqi Jewish community organized demonstrations during the early 1950s to demand housing rights and better treatment for their community. The Iraqi Jews were not prepared to move to the periphery, and instead insisted on living in the greater Tel Aviv area.”

She adds that Iraqi Jews attained their goal “because in the 1950s, the Israeli establishment was not yet sufficiently organized. However, only a few years later, when Jews immigrated to Israel from Morocco and Yemen, the regime sent them to found development towns, and the establishment was stronger than the immigrants. The immigrants who arrived after the Iraqi Jews were pushed to the periphery because they were not strong enough to resist.”

Then I find, also in Haaretzan interview with Nathan Weinstock, whose 1969 book Zionism False Messiah I’ve been reading on & off & have found some important information in; turns out he’s written a “study about Jews of Arab lands, who were displaced just like Palestine’s Arabs”. I quote at some length some significant gleanings (the emphases in bold are mine):

“The story I knew,” Weinstock relates in a Skype interview from his home in Nice, in the south of France, “was that the Jews were happy to leave the Arab countries the moment they were given the opportunity to do so. We were not told anything about the Jews’ deep connection with Arab culture, for example. It was only later that I learned that Jewish writers were the foundation of Iraqi literature. And that in mid-19th-century Egypt, the man who invented the nationalist slogan ‘Egypt for the Egyptians,’ and was known as ‘the Egyptian Molière,’ was a Jew named Jacob Sanua.

“In the course of my research,” he continues, “I found out that the story we had been told – that the Jews left the Arab countries because they were Zionists – was for the most part wrong. True, they had an affinity for the Land of Israel – that is certainly correct – but the organized Zionist movement was very weak in the Arab countries. The great mass of Jews left under duress. They were expelled. They were subjected to such enormous pressure that they had no choice but to leave.”

“This book is the story of a tragedy,” he writes in a special introduction to the Hebrew edition, “of the uprooting of hundreds of thousands of Mizrahi Jews, who were torn cruelly from their homes and homelands. Whole communities of Jews, who had always resided in the heart of the Arab-Muslim world, underwent expulsion, persecution and malicious liquidations… Nevertheless, this drama remains unknown and it has been denied for a lengthy period.”

In 1945, Weinstock notes, almost one million Jews lived in the Arab world, whereas today there are about 4,500, the great majority of them in Morocco. According to Weinstock, there is no precedent for such a dramatic termination of Jewish communities anywhere in the world, including during the Holocaust. What, then, brought about the massive departure of Jews from the Arab countries? It was not Zionism that disconnected the Jews from their surroundings, he says. On the contrary: In most cases, the Zionist movement had a hard time mustering supporters. Jews also tried to become part of the Arab national-liberation movements. For example, the chief rabbi of Egypt during the mid-20th century, Chaim Nahum, often spoke out against Zionism; in Iraq, Jewish communists founded the Anti-Zionist League. Activist Jewish communists in North Africa expressed solidarity with the Maghreb peoples and were in the forefront of the demand for national liberation.

Weinstock cites a large number of attacks and pogroms against Jewish communities that are rarely mentioned in history curricula in Israel. In 1912, 12 Jews were killed in Shiraz, Iran, and 51 were killed that year in Fez, Morocco. In 1934, 25 Jews were killed in the Algerian city of Constantine.In Iraq, 150 Jews were murdered in the Farhud of 1941, a three-day pogrom. Seven years later, upon Israel’s establishment, Iraq declared martial law and launched a wave of anti-Jewish persecutions. Many Jews were arrested, tried and convicted, some were sentenced to death, others were given jail terms or slapped with large fines. At this stage, the Jews were forbidden to leave the country, but in March 1950 Iraq allowed the Jews to emigrate, provided they gave up their citizenship and their property.

“The ongoing deterioration in the Jews’ situation and the atmosphere of hate surrounding them led to a mass flight from the country,” Weinstock writes. The majority of the Jewish population (90 percent of the community of 150,000) left that year, amid a massive plundering of their property by the authorities.

In Egypt, anti-Jewish disturbances broke out in November 1945, on the anniversary of the Balfour Declaration, but the declaration of the State of Israel three years later triggered serious persecution. Hundreds of Jews were arrested, accused of involvement in Zionist or communist plots and had their property confiscated. Continuous attacks on Jews began that June. Bombs were planted in the Jewish quarter of Cairo, and it and the Jewish section of Alexandria were set ablaze. Half the country’s Jewish community left at that time, with the remainder being expelled during the Sinai War of 1956. The Jews who were driven out were not allowed to take with or sell their property. “The police arrived and pulled grocers, carpenters, woodworkers and glaziers – but also well-known lawyers – from their beds,” Weinstock writes.

Is there anything in common among the different communities?

“Yes, in terms of the legal and social status that the Jews shared under Islamic rule. They possessed dhimmi status, meaning ‘protected person.’ It afforded the Jews the authorities’ protection, but at the same time placed them in an inferior position, humiliated and scorned. Jews were not allowed to bear arms in these countries, in which carrying a weapon was considered a salient sign of manhood. In some cases, as in early-19th-century Morocco, Jews were made to go about barefoot, or to wear humiliating clothes.”

In return for protection by the government, the Jews had to pay a special tax. “Nothing better describes the contempt entailed in the status of dhimmitude,” Weinstock writes, “than the ritual of humiliation that accompanied the annual payment of the subjugation tax in Morocco, as recently as the end of the 19th century. Every year, on a fixed date, the head of each Jewish community had to turn over the money to the sultan’s representative, who for his part had to slap [the Jew] or hit him with a stick in order to hammer home the inequality between giver and recipient, by nature of their birth.”

In Yemen, the “Latrines Ordinance,” introduced in the same spirit, obliged the Jewish community periodically to clean out cesspools and clear away animal carcasses that blocked public roads. (The law remained in force until 1950.)

Weinstock describes a very different state of affairs from the oft-voiced myth about the harmonious relations between Jews and Arabs under Islamic rule. Less than 100 years after the Ottoman sultan invited the exiles from Spain to settle throughout his empire, for example, one of his descendants, Murat III, ordered “the liquidation of all the Jews.” The sultan’s Jewish physician persuaded his mother to intercede, and the order was rescinded.

Over the years, numerous laws were enacted that discriminated against the Jews – from a prohibition against horseback riding to the necessity of wearing particular clothing, and from a ban on giving testimony in court to a prohibition against building homes over a certain height. At the same time, Weinstock notes, the laws were not enforced identically in every place and in every period. For example, a study of the Cairo Geniza documents, which date back to the ninth century, shows that the clothing regulations were not observed at all.

“There were periods in which the Jews succeeded very well in the Muslim world,” Weinstock says. “At times they were part of the elite. The dhimmi regulations and the scale of humiliation also differed from place to place and from one period to another. But the central axis that dictated the attitude toward the Jews was their dhimmi status, which meant subjugation to the ruling Muslim group.”

Weinstock also examines the situation in the Holy Land through the dhimmi prism. The Jewish minority that lived under Ottoman rule experienced humiliation and subordination, he says. Anti-Jewish riots were fomented time and again in the 18th and 19th centuries. He quotes the British consul in Palestine as writing in 1831 that the extortion and acts of suppression against the Jews were so numerous that it was said “that the Jews have to pay even for the air they breathe.”

In the twilight of Ottoman rule, a century ago, the first “Hebrew city” was founded (present-day Tel Aviv), a revival of the Hebrew language began to be felt, and Jewish cooperative farming settlements were established. The local Arab population, Weinstock says, felt that the ground was being pulled from under it, as the dhimmi Jews, who were supposed to possess inferior status, were now striving for more – even for independence.

According to Weinstock, underlying the growing hostility toward the Jewish population in Palestine was the realization that the dhimmi Jews were shaking off their traditional legal status of humiliation and submission. In retrospect, the writer maintains, dhimmi status, on the one hand, and the declared attempt by the Zionist movement to be free of it, on the other, led ultimately to the Arabs’ rejection of the United Nations partition plan in 1947 and to the War of Independence the following year.

Local Palestinians and the Arab world refused to grant the Jews of the country a status different from dhimmi, and they were even less likely to recognize the Jews’ national rights. Zionism, for its part, could not accept Arab sovereignty over all of Palestine, a situation in which the Jewish minority would again find itself under dhimmi status. “Historically, then,” Weinstock says, “dhimmi status is the root of the conflict.”

What impact does this relationship have today?

“It continues to affect Israeli-Arab relations even today, because in Arab eyes the Jew who now lives in Israel is the same Jew whom they customarily saw as humiliated – and who is now taking his revenge. The Arabs experience Israel’s establishment and existence to this day as very painful revenge and as the reversal of dhimmitude. This is a very meaningful and deep aspect of the current political problem, which we cannot allow ourselves to ignore. Without understanding this, it is impossible to understand the conflict.”

Then why is it not dealt with more by academics and the press?

“For the Jewish world, the reason is that Ashkenazi Jews, in Israel and elsewhere, continue to be indifferent to and even disdainful of the Mizrahi Jews. For the Arab world, this should come as no surprise, as self-criticism is not popular among Arab journalists, intellectuals and public-opinion leaders. With the exception of a very short incidental note by [the late Prof.] Edward Said in one of his books, it is hard to find serious references to the massive emigration of Jews from the Arab countries and its causes.

“The left tends to avoid the subject, because they don’t consider it ‘kosher.’ The left has become extraordinarily dogmatic and lacks the ability of self-criticism today. People define themselves as identifying with ‘the Palestinian cause,’ and that’s all: There is no thought behind it. This subject might upset their one-sided worldview, so they simply avoid it.”

And then (surprise surprise?) the “interview” concludes with a totally different viewpoint, a perspective not to be ignored:

“Weinstock is a classic servant of the erasure of my history and of the history of the Jews in the Islamic lands,” says Dr. Sami Shalom Chetrit, a Moroccan-born Israeli intellectual who deals extensively with relations between Ashkenazim (European-born Jews) and Mizrahi (Jews of Middle Eastern or North African origin). He teaches Hebrew culture and Middle Eastern studies at Queens College, in New York.

“Like the textbooks in Israel, Weinstock focuses primarily on the Zionist, national era, in which Jewish nationalism developed in Europe in parallel to Arab nationalism from the Maghreb to the Mashriq [i.e., from the West to the East]. There he finds ‘pogroms,’ which are an Eastern European Jewish issue. He ignores the role played by the Zionist movement in undermining the relations between Jews and Muslims in the Arab countries. He talks about ‘anti-Semitism’ in the Arab countries and about expulsion, after much has been written about the ties between the Zionist leadership and the corrupt leaders of Iraq and Yemen, which lead to the decision to deport the Jews from those countries – without a passport and with only a laissez-passer – to Israel only.

“Let’s assume that things were very bad and stressful – why didn’t they get a passport allowing them to choose any destination? Or the Jews of Morocco, who were not allowed to leave after Morocco became independent. No one was allowed to leave Morocco in those years unless he was close to and well connected with the authorities. The Zionists had to use the Jews of the United States and the administration in Washington to bring pressure to bear on the palace in Morocco to allow the Jews to leave after 1956. Why not talk about the years before Moroccan independence, when [Prime Minister David] Ben-Gurion could have brought all the Jews of Morocco to Israel, but took fright and chose to conduct a racist selection in which the strength of their muscles and the width of their shoulders were measured!

Let us not forget, also, that in the background, the Mossad was running Zionist ‘undergrounds’ that incited the Muslims against the Jews, including throwing a grenade into a Baghdad synagogue, painting anti-Jewish slogans in French on Jewish stores, and spreading harsh rumors about the Jews in order to hasten their departure. This was all done by good Zionists, and I am not saying anything new here.

“Indeed, the life of the Jews in the Islamic lands was no paradise, but neither was the life of the Muslims a paradise in the Islamic lands, unless they were close to the government. And above all, the life of the Jews in the Islamic countries was never the hell of the Jews of Europe. Never at any point in history. The Jews from the Islamic lands came to Israel out of love. Not because of hatred, not because of persecution and not for revenge. Only for love of the Land of Israel.”

I don’t know, but I imagine that there is truth in Chetrit’s claims that Zionists did play more of a role in the expulsion of Jews from the Arab countries than Weinstock admits. I haven’t researched the facts. But at this stage, what happened then matters less than what is happening now & what can happen next.

& next I discovered, on +972mag, this article titled I am an Arab Jew, by Lihi Yona, who tells the story of her realization of her identity very movingly, and also mentions that her “book for the road was Tel Aviv University sociologist Yehouda Shenhav’s: The Arab Jews: A Postcolonial Reading of Nationalism, Religion, and Ethnicity,” a title that implies a much more positive approach. About herself, she writes:

“I first heard the term “Arab Jews” in my freshman year of university. A friend of mine told me a certain professor used it to describe Mizrahi Jews (Israelis whose origins are in Arab and Muslim countries), and I remember I was deeply offended. I remember thinking that the use of the term “Arab Jews” was racist and exclusive. I felt that the word “Arab” was used as a collective insult against Jews of “Oriental origin” such as myself.

A long time has since passed, during the course of which I have dedicated much effort to dealing with my own racism towards Arabs. This was also a period of time during which I realized that the word “Arab” is not an insult and does not symbolize, as I had learned from Israeli societal norms, a barbaric and culture-less mass.

During that time, with the help of initiatives like Ruch Jedida, and bands like Mashrou3 Leila, I realized that the language that was spoken in the homes of my grandparents (who are of both Moroccan and Iraqi origin) was Arabic. The music they played was Arab music, and the food I ate as a child in their homes was Arab food. (Obviously, there are many types of Arab Jewish foods, and there are excellent articles discussing the great culinary variations within Mizrahi culture. But for the purposes of this post, I maintain that there is greater similarity between various Arab Jewish dishes than there is between Mizrahi cuisine and traditional Ashkenazi cuisine.)

My discovery of  Arab culture was, in fact, a movement in two directions. With every new box I opened in my studies, an old box that rested inside of me was revealed. Unveiling the “other” – the Arab – allowed me to discover the parts of my identity from which I had up until then been alienated. Later, this process allowed me to embrace the Arab Jew with a renewed pride.”

Her relevatory moment came on a bus to (or from) Amman:

“I went to see a concert given by the Lebanese band Mashrou3 Leila in the only Middle Eastern Arab country still open for Israeli Jews to freely visit. The best way to get from Israel to Amman is by bus from Nazareth. The passengers were mostly elderly Arabs going to travel in Jordan and the rest were a bunch of fellow concertgoers. […]

On the bus to Amman, the other passengers spoke to me in Arabic – a language that I do not understand. Shenhav says that the only way for Arab Jews to earn their “ticket” into Israeli society is via denying all that is Arab inside them.

Trapped inside the false dichotomy of Jewish-versus-Arab that was created artificially by  Israel, the Mizrahi Jews had to suppress their Arab characteristics and stress their Jewish characteristics. (Which makes it hardly surprising that major parts of the Mizrahi community in Israel are today both religious and politically right wing).

Getting too close to Arab culture or too far from Judaism symbolizes for the Arab Jews the blurring of the boundaries between “us” and “them” – “them” being the Arab “enemy” – which is the dominant narrative authored and imposed by the Zionist movement.

Back to the bus. An elderly Arab woman told jokes in Arabic that I did not understand to the other Arab women around her. At some point she took out some sefihe – an Arab bread topped with meat – and offered it to us. When we first politely refused she said in Hebrew, “You can eat it. It’s kosher. I’m religious.” She was a Syrian Jew that came to Israel years ago. Unlike me, however, she had not turned her back on her Arab origins, but rather preserved them in a way that made it difficult for me, and for others in the bus, to fit her into any preconceived category or stereotype.

And it was in this unsettling moment of confusion that I suddenly understood myself clearer than ever. One of the major assumptions in the heart of the primary existing paradigm of the Arab-Israeli conflict is that there are two different populations in conflict – “us” and “them” – and that each has distinctive, opposing interests. I believe that the re-connection of Mizrahi Jews to our Arab origins has a huge potential to alter the paradigm of the conflict.”

& then comes a conclusion I cannot but feel in sympathy with:

One of the key and best-founded arguments against the two-state solution – the most accepted mainstream liberal interpretation of that separation – is that it neglects to consider the ’48 Palestinians (those who remained in what is now the State of Israel following the 1948 Middle East war), and leaves them in a Jewish state with no representation of their heritage, history, language and culture. What I understand today is that the division of land into two separate Palestinian Arab and Jewish, non-Arab countries also ignores my interests, heritage and culture as an Arab Jew, and would impose on me once again this artificial dichotomy of Arab vs. Jew.

“Free Palestine!” called the lead singer of Mashrou3 Leila from the stage in the middle of the concert, and all of us – Palestinians from Ramallah, Palestinian-Israelis from Jaffa, I, an Arab Jew from Haifa and Ashkenazi Jews from Tel Aviv, cheered. I felt that there was no “us’ and ‘them’ at that moment, partly because there were too many possible ‘us’s and ‘them’s into which we could be divided.

For me, just then, a new entity was created, one that does not perceive Arabs and Arabness in contrast or opposition to anything, but that rather sees “Arab” as an integral, essential and totally natural component of our own identity.

Lihi Yona is an Israeli feminist activist and blogger. Her Hebrew blog is Reuma.

& then I find a thorough analytical article that opens a perspective I can feel myself agreeing with & supporting. But this is a fairly long article, & needs to be read as a whole, not in excerpts. So I leave the link for those who want to follow this fascinating theme further.

& a day later (today) I discover Rachel Shabi’s book
Not the Enemy by Rachel Shabi
& a review of it in The Guardian, & another on a blogsite, & a relevant article by Rachel Shabi herself in today’s Haaretz!

I leave these links for readers who might want to follow my explorations on this subject & to understand my tentative conclusions – that the left (perhaps by first analyzing the situation & then seeking ways to interact with the psychological & other factors involved) could encourage Mizrahi Jews to connect positively with their Arab (or Persian, or Turkish, etc.) identity. But I think there would first need to be a real non-ethnocentric left to want to engage in such an extensive if ultimately rewarding effort…

Anat Rimon-Or Responds to Attacks After Her Status on ISIL

John Brown is the pseudonym of an Israeli academic and blogger. Many of his articles have appeared in English in +972 Magazine & elsewhere. I read this article in the Hebrew original in Local Call, was very moved by it, & I identify with its spirit, but didn’t find any English translation in +972. I messaged John Brown on Facebook, told him I felt it was important that it should also be published in English, asked him if I could translate it, & received his permission to do so. So here it is:

Anat Rimon-Or Responds to Attacks After Her Status on ISIL

by John Brown |  Published in Hebrew in Local Call | 20.10.2014
Translated by Richard Flantz | 23.10.14
Is there a difference between bombing thousands of innocent Gazans or Iraqis and the beheading of a Western person? Dr. Rimon-Or became the object of a media offensive after publishing a status in which she called for a halt to the demonization of ISIL, and for thinking about other ways of acting. Now she responds.

A week ago, on October 12, “Columbus Day” was celebrated in the USA. In other parts of the continent it was celebrated as the “Day of the Race” and in Spain it’s called the “Day of Hispanicity”. It marks the day in 1492 when Columbus arrived at the shores of the Bahamas, as every child who went to school on the American continent knows very well.What is less known is that the day when the “West” “discovered” America was the first day of methodical genocide carried out on the natives of the continent. The murder and subjugation of millions, trade in women, mass rape, wholesale killing of children for amusement, or merely to test the sharpness of the Spaniards’ knives. This does not prevent the states that arose on the ruins of this oppression to annually force their native inhabitants to celebrate the day on which their holocaust began. The conquistadores who headed the campaigns of murder were and still are heroes of Western culture.

Today it’s already possible to carry out mass killings while the person executing it sits safely, very far from his victims. The rigid departmentalized and hierarchical structures of modern armies make it possible for the direct executioners to evade responsibility with the excuse that they were carrying out orders, and that this is the only way to conduct matters in an army. True, to bomb a house in which there are 20 people, even if it’s known that 11 of them are children, is one thing, while to murder them with your own hand is a different matter altogether. It turns out that it’s also a very different matter to bomb thousands of innocent Gazans, Iraqis and Afghans than to behead a Western person. It’s almost madness to imagine that the occupation of the West Bank of the Jordan could have continued since 1967 had its inhabitants been decent Europeans. It’s hard to think that the State of Israel could have come into existence in such a situation.

Actually, it almost a trivial argument to say that killing, no matter how it is done, is morally unconscionable and is not very different from one case to another. And if we are shocked to the depths of our souls by killing of one kind, like the shocking killings executed by the Islamic State, and not by other killings that are executed on a much larger scale, and with means that are more violent (in my opinion) – we should at least examine well why this is so, and if this is a desirable situation & not a two-edged sword that condemns us to cycles of bloodshed.

"Prayer". Photo: Islamic State

“Prayer”. Photo: Islamic State

Dr. Anat Rimon-Or recently expressed an argument along these lines on her Facebook page. This argument was pounced on by the right as if they’d found a great haul. Most was made of it by Sharon Gal, a talkbacker of the lowest kind, when he broadcast an interview with her that even by the standards of the Israeli media may be called shameful, and deliberately didn’t allow her to explain her thoughts because his only aim was to revile her in the ugliest way possible. Gal was of course afraid that Dr. Rimon-Or might ruin his fun with her explanations, so it seems to me reasonable to give her the opportunity to explain what she meant.

I’m glad she has chosen to do so despite the media slander she has experience, and here are her words:

A little before Yom Kippur I published a post which presented ISIL in a somewhat favorable human way, and suggested that Obama might do better to replace his bombing plans with an apology, an offer of compensation, and an attempt to arrive at a political arrangement. Responses claiming this was insanity and loss of moral direction were not late in coming, and aroused further responses in the printed media, on the web, and on television. Since then, threats that reflect (so it seems to me) on everything that is dear to me today and will be in the future, have been flooding all the channels that connect me to the net.

The verbally-violent responders aren’t responsible for their situation. For many years now the norm that has been dominant in the media states that any expression of support for anyone whom ‘we’ have defined as ‘our enemy’ is a sign of the speaker’s mental deficiency. This leaves only one mode of expression open to critical speakers: they must prove that they are sane. What has completely disappeared from the discourse is the possibility of discussing arguments, and of presenting a complex world picture. The ‘we’ is merely a public that has developed a form of behavior that meets any criterion for definitions of herd culture, and for those of a fascist public. This phenomenon in itself should have shaken the foundations of academia and especially those of the colleges of education, but like processes that preceded it, regrettably, it continues through their criminal silence. This is the very bottom of a moral abyss that numbs the senses of an entire public, and allows the denial of rights and the indiscriminate murder of anyone who is defined as an ‘enemy’. This abyss also makes it possible for the government to have total control over the people, and there is no way out of it, except the one that leads to collapse. There are people who are guilty for this path: intellectuals and members of the society who remain silent and journalists who speak the diseased discourse and nothing else.

ISIL has been defined as an enemy with demonic qualities that have nothing behind them but the drive to kill and murder. Like Hamas before it, in July-August of this year. This image of the murderous demon should be exploded, because it never has any connection with the people or the organizations that it is stuck onto. Its sole function is to legitimize unjustified murder. It’s possible that the people or the organization referred to are very cruel, but what creates the demonic image is not the cruelty, but the intention to exterminate. This can apply to Jews, to Hamas, or to ISIL. That is why we need to reject the image of the murderous demon. We have to find, behind it, the human statement, which is always there (even if the organization, for its own reasons, conceals it well), and to point it out as a basis for an arrangement that will stop the bloodshed.

People ask me: “Do you justify the beheaders? The traders in women? The enslavers of children?”. I’ll come to each of these further on. In the meantime I’ll just say that when someone seeks revenge and murder he positions himself as a judge. When someone seeks peace, he positions himself as a listener.

When ISIL becomes a murderous demon, with no motive other than murder in the name of Islam, every Muslim in the world becomes potentially guilty, and the discourse that remains open to him is the one that deals with the question: ‘Is this Islam, or is not this Islam?’ This is again a dangerous discourse, which encourages more young people to join extreme groups, and not because murderous imperatives are inherent in Islam, but because this is a discourse that does injustice to Islam.

What, actually, did I say in that post that became so provocative? I said that there was something captivating in the way an organization armed with butchers’ knives, vans, and advanced editing programs to turn the power relations and to remonstrate towards the entire West. It’s true, regrettably. If it weren’t true ISIL would not have attracted young people from all over Europe. And precisely because it is true, we need to understand it. We need to understand it by understanding the cruelty of how the Third World is exploited by the West every day, and every hour, and by understanding the West’s patronizing attitude, which demands gratitude, towards migrants to it from the Third World.

The prevalent view is that those who join ISIL are ‘mad’. That’s correct, if you insist on identifying the organization as a murderous demon and nothing more. That is a position that leads those who take it to no place other than the one that leads to more bloodshed.

As for the public beheadings: it is indeed terrible and horrible because it is the murder of innocent people committed in order to frighten. But  on that basis, it’s evident that that the bombing of neighborhoods and villages from the air is much more terrible, because many more innocent people die, because its purpose is to spread terror, and because the media act to conceal this, instead of exposing it. And we haven’t yet counted the number of starved people in various parts of the world in the process of producing airplanes in comparison to those in the processes of producing knives. This is true, regrettably, also with regard to murders by means of rifle bullets.

The trade in women for purposes of sex: I personally am for the bombing from the air of everyone who trades in sex, and of each of its consumers. The realization of my fantasy would lead to the murder of half of the men in Israel. We don’t have to go as far as ISIL.

Slavery: I’m definitely against it. At the same time I refuse to see the slave trade of ISIS as a pretext for war. I know lots of smartphone owners who know that that the horrible and terrible slavery of children, which takes many victims in Africa and Asia, is the basis for their mobile phones. This doesn’t prevent them from complaining that the phone is ‘too flexible’ (yes!), and it doesn’t prevent them from confusing the refugees from Africa with the phone makers, from claiming that the refugees are migrant workers and demanding their expulsion. Here we have a much graver form of slavery, and a much graver attitude to laborpower: work for me for a dollar a day, throughout your entire childhood, and all your children too if you reach adulthood, and then get out of my territory for which your enslavement produces its wealth. This attitude is shared by all consumers in the West. I’m against child labor, and against slavery altogether, but bombing ISIL is not the solution to this problem.

What this means is that we shouldn’t confuse the different use that ISIL makes of cruelty with its degree of cruelty. And anyone who bombs people in the name of humane ideas would do better to take a good look at himself before sending weapons to exterminate masses of people in the name of those ideas. This message aroused the impression that I’d gone out of my mind: after all, the norm is that anyone who deviates from the rules of the discourse that glorifies ‘us’ and freely permits shedding the blood of the ‘enemy’ us not sane. This is a very sick discourse that is a symptom of a dangerous reality.

Babbling on from Babylon 101

A fragment of an ancient Babylonian "star calendar"

A fragment of an ancient Babylonian “star calendar”

how much we owe to Babylon
we hardly ever own
how little we think of Babylon
together or alone
so much that is of value
so much that we confuse
so much we never think of
when we view our daily news

I’ll start today with one thing
still real in East & West,
for Muslims & for Jews
be they secular or religious,
& all who relate to the cycles
of the moon above our skies:
the Babylonian lunar calendar,
with its Sabbath day of rest.

I need add no more than the following link
which is a real eye-opener
(& is why I’ve added the 101 to my title)
In English: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Babylonian_calendar
In Hebrew: http://he.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/הלוח_הבבלי

With best wishes to all for the coming full moon of Tishrei/Muharram/Libra
two nights from now, & also as a follow-up to my earlier post
For a good year, spaces, scabs, forgiveness & healing

Composed & published today, 13 Tishrei 5775 / 13 Muharram 1436

A Gay Response to More Terror News

You could call me an atheist, or call me agnostic —
I certainly don’t “believe in” or “follow”
any so-called “religion”
that has sacred texts, holy days, rites & laws,
ordained priests, preceptors or  interpreters
who tell “believers” what’s right & what’s wrong
& how to treat themselves & others
& what they should teach their children

Yet I can respect all who do so in the spirit of
the goodness or lovingkindness
that I believe we’re all born with & into
(tho regrettably it’s so soon suppressed in so many)
& I can see this spirit too written, sometimes
so poetically & wisely, pithily or memorably
or symbolized lovingly in the sanctified scriptures
& prescribed practices of all these text-based religions.

I’m a translator, by profession, by practice, by love
of language as such & of a few particular languages,
Hebrew among them, the language in which the first
of the sacred texts sanctified by all the three great
monotheistic religions in our divided world was written,
& I know for a fact that there can be no true or trustworthy
accurate translation into any language ancient or modern
of the original “meaning” of any word or phrasing in any text.

& this is my response to a news item I read this morning
that now Austria is calling for “standardised German-language
translations” of the Koran, a sacred book I believe many
radical “Islamists” misinterpret in the original Arabic,
just as many “religious” “ultra” or not Jews misinterpret
the Hebrew of their Tanach, the so-called “Old Testament”
& as many Christians, “fundamentalist” or not, misread
their various translations of their “Holy Bible”.

I see this as yet another double triumph,  both
for the fearmongers who gain more power & profit
from laws that restrict freedoms & civil rights
& legitimize intolerance, to justify the growth of
policing & armament industries, & for the radical
Islamists too,  for such a law will surely radicalize
many more Muslims, & not only in Austria
if the rest of the world accepts this & stays silent.

There can be no true “war on terror” or on “terrorism”,
(as Gore Vidal once wrote) : the only true & just “war”
(or jihad) we humans can “wage” is on our own terror
of the terror that the “anti-terror” lawmakers,
powerbrokers & mediashakers, even more than
all the “terrorists” in the world, are spreading among us.
“All things fall and are built again,” wrote Yeats,”
“And those that build them again are gay.”