Friday, February 13, 2009

'Not the enemy': Rachel Shabi on the 'ethnic divide'

I have not yet read Rachel Shabi's new book, Not the enemy: Israel's Jews from Arab lands. ( I have since writing this, and everything that follows has been corroborated - and then some). But from the two book reviews I have seen, one in the Financial Times, and the other in the London Evening Standard, it does not bode well.

The book explores the 'ethnic divide' between Ashkenazi Jews from Europe and Mizrahi Jews from Arab lands. It alleges that any social justice issue is 'stifled at birth', the overriding Arab-Jew conflict masking the cracks in Israeli society.

So far, so true. The Arab-Jewish conflict does paper over Jew-against-Jew social cracks, as it does the religious-secular divide.

There is no denying that in Israel there is discrimination and an ethnic divide. Choice quotes from Israel's leaders in the 1950s do betray contempt or condescension for Jews from Arab lands. They were portrayed as 'weak, dirty, poor, culturally deficient and superstitious."

That's because many immigrants from the Middle East and North Africa WERE poor, badly educated, unwashed and superstitious. But Israel took in the most destitute, the poor, the sick, the elderly and the stateless - because they were Jews with nowhere else to go. Those with education, means and connections mostly went to Western Europe or the Americas.

Those from middle class backgrounds were especially bitterly disappointed at the windswept transit camps which awaited them in 'paradise'. Six hundred thousand Jews flooded into the struggling Jewish state in the 1950s: penniless Jewish refugees housed in leaky tents with insufficient food, looked back wistfully to their comfortable, even luxurious lives in Baghdad.

But the Israel of the 50s, where European and Middle Eastern culture undoubtedly clashed, is not the Israel of today. Shabi's claim that 'Mizrahi ethnic music is banned from public playlists' strains credulity when Mizrahi artistes like Sarit Haddad, David Broza, Dana International, Avinoam Nini and Ofra Haza are all thoroughly mainstream. Chaqshooka, falafel and mujadera are staples of Israeli food. Mizrahim have reached the highest echelons of political life.

Most importantly, intermarriage is running at 25 percent. More and more Israelis are the product of mixed marriages. If this trend continues there will be no such thing as a Mizrahi or an Ashkenazi in the Israeli melting pot.

The book wants to have it both ways. It seems simultaneously to want to dismiss the backward and superstitious character of the Mizrahi immigrants, suggesting that they had something worthwhile to offer - and yet argue that the Mizrahim were even more advanced than what they found in Israel. Mizrahim from the major cities of the Middle East wore sharp suits and boasted newly minted qualifications in four languages from the Alliance Israelite. So these were not backward at all, but thoroughly westernised.

True - Israel initially rejected the immigrants' Middle Eastern culture, mocked their accents and frowned on them speaking Arabic. Marina Benjamin in The Evening Standard puts it rather strongly: Shabi's book pays homage to the ... literary, theatrical and academic traditions Arab Jews would gladly have gifted Israel had their not founding fathers feared their contagion. (Contagion?)

But Israel also rejected the old mitteleuropean culture and the speaking of Yiddish, for equally ethnocentric reasons. Israel has had an ambivalent, even hostile attitude toward the Yiddish language, because of its association with the galut (Diaspora). In the 1950s, for example, state authorities used censorship laws inherited from the British to prohibit or severely limit Yiddish theatre in Israel. Israelis were discouraged from expressing themselves in Yiddish, and even Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion himself reportedly once sneered, “That language grates in my ears.”

At least thousands of Arabic-speaking Jews were able to put their skills to good use working in Israel intelligence, staffing Israel's Arabic broadcasting networks and setting up departments of Arabic studies in freethinking Israeli universities that became the envy of the Middle East.

Let's face it - not all Arabic culture was worth keeping: some aspects of Arabic culture were best jettisoned - the corruption, the extortion, the lack of democracy. But critical thinking, education and transparency were western values which Israel was eager to get Mizrahim to espouse. And rightly so.

Underlying the entire book seems to be a flawed premise - that if only the Ashkenazim had allowed themselves to be guided by the Mizrahim and become more 'Arab', there would be peace.

According to Siona Jenkins in the FT, "Shabi’s conclusion is that Israel’s inability to come to terms with its own connections to the region can only hinder any future peaceful coexistence within it."Marina Benjamin's review begins with the surprising statistic: if you add 'Arab' Jews to Arab Christians and Muslims, 60 percent of Israel's population is Middle Eastern.

But the statistic is misleading. Jews may be Arabised, but they are not Arabs. Even many non-Jews living in the Arab world would reject the epithet 'Arab'. I know Egyptians who recoil at the term, and Iraqis who reject the values of Bedouin culture.

The phrase 'Arab Jew' in the presss reviews betrays a far-left political agenda. Communists and anti-Zionists have long argued on behalf of an “Arab Jewish” identity as a way of repudiating Jewish nationalism and justifying their participation in revolutionary politics. It presupposes that Arabs and Mizrahi Jews are natural allies, and that both are victims of Ashkenazim.
To refer to “Arab Jews” is not only to imply that Zionism tore them away from their true homelands for the false lure of a Jewish state; it is to demean them by denying them their own sense of themselves and their unhappy history in Arab lands.
The elephant in the room is surely this unhappy history in Arab lands, the oppression of the Jews by Arabs and the legacy of bitterness these Jews carry within them - an instinctive mistrust of Arabs, reflected in their tendency to support rightwing parties in Israel. Yet the Evening Standard review refers to 'Arabic-speaking Palestinian Jews living in the Holy Land for centuries and tending the land peacefully alongside their Muslim neighbours'. The picture caption says: "At peace: Jewish boys in Yemen long used to living alongside their Muslim neighbours."

That peaceful coexistence is a huge lie. I shall reserve judgement on Shabi's book until I have read it, but if it claims Israel is guilty of Mizrahi cultural denial, while itself denying their history of oppression in Arab lands, it too would be based on a lie.

More reviews here and here

16 comments:

Caustubh Potdar said...

Well, throughout the topic, one question was clicking 2 me that how many castes of jews are there? There is one caste of jew in India who call themselves as bene israeli jews. I found that they came 2 India before the destruction of second temple. So they was called as bene israeli jews. On what basis these castes were designed? Is that besed on ethnic or race or something like that?

bataween said...

There are no castes of Jews, but the big divide is between western (Ashkenazi)and eastern (Mizrahi/Sephardi) Jews. Ethnically, however, there are genetic similarities between the two groups. The difference is mainly cultural. Until the last century, Sephardim and Ashkenazim in England did not intermarry, each thinking the other was not authentically Jewish - but all this is no longer true and intermarriage is high.The Bne Israel are a very ancient community of Jews in India. Because there was quite a lot of intermarriage with the locals, they are indistinguishable from other Indians. To the Baghdadi Jews who settled in India in the 19th century, the Bene Israel were 'black' Jews and they were 'white'. Intermarriage was frowned on. In Israel, however, things are different and the barriers between communities are breaking down.

Caustubh Potdar said...

exactly, its difficult 2 distinguish Indian jews among Indians. I've mentioned it in my blog also. http://caustubh.blogspot.com/2008/12/first-time-in-history-of-2500-years.html
Even i didn't know castes of Jews in India, I got information from a jewish website n wrote. But there are very less jews in India now. Many are settled in Israel. Jews from Mumbai who settled in Israel celebrate Maharashtra Day ( State celebration day). This shows how emotionally they are attached to their nativ place.

Nizo said...

"Let's face it - not all Arabic culture was worth keeping: some aspects of Arabic culture were best jettisoned - the corruption, the extortion, the lack of democracy."


I'll accept the lack of democracy part, but corruption seems to be a universal affliction.. Or perhaps people such as Omri and Olmert are Arabs at heart.

On another note, as a Palestinian, I found Shabi to be even more pro-Palestinian than myself..

bataween said...

Fair point, Nizo. But at least Olmert and Omri Sharon have been accountable for their corruption, unlike in Arab countries.

Jon S. said...

Here's an interesting review of the Shabi book from the Abu Dhabi-based paper The National:

http://www.thenational.ae/article/20090313/REVIEW/178305581/1007

It concludes:

The basic trouble is that Mizrahim, who have voted overwhelmingly Likud from Begin to Netanyahu, actually take a consistently harder line on Israel-Arab relations than the western Ashkenazim who comprise the Israeli left. During the election campaign this February, no Jerusalem neighbourhood featured more Likud signs than Mizrahi-dominated Musrara, birthplace of those angry Black Panthers.

Some of this can be traced to continuing resentment of Labor party actions in the 1950s and 1960s, despite Barak’s belated apology – but only a part. Whether their Arab origins play the decisive role, we must leave for them to say. But it is clear, one way or another, that Mizrahim no longer regard themselves – if they ever did – as the Jewish victims of Zionism; they now rank among its staunchest supporters.

bataween said...

Jon S:
another good reason why Shabi's book is totally out of touch with reality.

Aimée Kligman, née Dassa said...

I am still amazed that you all miss the point. I have finished reading Shabi's book, and find that she's right on the money. Obviously, the Mizrahim are the staunchest supporters of Zionism right now because it's the only way they can be viewed as "real" Israelis. Why isn't anyone reading history books? The Jewish narrative did not begin in 1947.
Aimee Kligman
Women's Lens

Anonymous said...

I'm amazed that you manage to say so much about a book you admit not to have read. I find it so amazing that it makes me wonder whether the rest of your blog is so cavalier. As I am a reader with very little knowledge of this matter, and therefore unable to judge which 'facts' are right on the basis of the evidence alone, I am now immediately suspicious of your claims. I can only assume that you are likely to be an unreliable source.

bataween said...

I have read the book, and reading it has only reinforced my initial misgivings.

Tim Johnston said...

Thankyou for this review. I have just been referred to the book as an interesting read and wondered if, now you have finished reading it and reflected on it, you have anything else to add?

Tim
a friend of Israel.

bataween said...

The book is propaganda for the far left. Whatever the problems were in the 1950s, Israel today has rediscovered its Mizrahi roots, and Mizrahi culture is all the rage. But you would never know it from this willful misrepresentation of what Israel is and has achieved. My advice to you, Tim, is don't waste your cash on Shabi.
Buy the 'Dove Flyer ' by Eli Amir!

Anonymous said...

The point is that these Mizrahi/Sephardic Jews were anti Arab before they arrived in Israel. Those who came to France were and still are. The fact that they have added to Israeli racism is therefore not surprising.

A Palestinian Refugee said...

First of all, the name of your blog is a lie, so I don't think anything you wrote in the blog is true. How can Jews be refugees? Judaism is a religion not an ethnicity so how can they be ethnically cleansed? There are Arab Jews and European Jews American Jews, etc. So there aren't any refugees except for the Jews that fled Europe to get away from the racism and ill-treatment. What Israel is doing starting from Jerusalem is ethnic cleansing? What kind of 'democratic' state would make a state with people only from one religion? What's so democratic about that? Palestinian refugees are in millions and many of them are living in refugee camps, do you have any Jews living in refugee camps?

bataween said...

Hello Palestinian refugee, nice of you to visit.

Of course Jews cannot be refugees, only Palestinians can ! Perhaps you should educate yourself about the true history of the Middle East rather than bandying about empty propagandistic slogans.

Anonymous said...

How can someone make a book review of a book that one has not read yet ?