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