Another Act in the Mizrahi-Palestinian Tragedy

Israeli Defense Minister Amir Peretz (C) visits Israelis in a bomb shelter in the Israeli northern coastal town of Nahariya 17 July 2006. Peretz, born in Boujad, Morocco in 1952 four years before his family emigrated to Israel, is currently the most prominent Mizrahi politician and the first to lead the Labor Party. (MaanImages/Moti Milrod)

On January 25, 2006, Hamas won a landslide victory in the democratic Palestinian legislative elections. The elections were conducted under tight U.S. supervision. Immediately thereafter, Israel’s general attorney, Menny Mazouz, started exploring the legal procedures to jail the movement’s leadership. Soon the IDF started executing the Gazan leadership of the movement by air strikes. Several dozen innocent Palestinian civilians were casualties in the process. On June 24 the IDF land forces entered the Gaza strip and kidnapped two Hamas men. As a response, on June 25 Hamas captured Gilad Shalit, an IDF soldier. The IDF immediately launched “Operation Summer Rains,” to inflict large-scale destruction and to press for Shalit’s release. On 12 July, Hizbollah captured two more Israeli soldiers—Eldad Regev and Ehud Goldwasser—in the Lebanese border zone. From then on, IDF’s “Operation Just Reward” has been inflicting heinous carnage and destruction all over Lebanon.

And now here we are, in front of the Israeli TV screen, bombarded by the discourse of experts. The channels are broadcasting live from studios and battlefields. Commercial interludes are part of the show. By default the majority of experts are Ashkenazi (European Jewish) males. They are flanked by a handful of Mizrahi men (Oriental Jews who immigrated to Israel mainly from the Arab World). These men climbed the public service ladder within the nationalist hegemonic confines. Together, they are Israel’s knowledge mercenaries. Through the tube - Israel’s tribal campfire — they dictate the national agenda. The viewers are convinced it must be humanistic, because it is calmly narrated by handsome necktied men. They use professional lingo and have the standardized, de-Semitized Hebrew accent. These talking heads say this war is not only for our own good, but is also for the civic betterment of Palestinians and Lebanese. Their sober discourse facilitates public compliance with IDF’s shift of tactics—from warplane “surgical killings” to a combination of marine, air and land forces, to destroy the Hizbollah using the massive weaponry that the U.S. allocates to the IDF.

The three Israeli TV channels bombard us with metaphors like “crushing Hizbollah,” “the return of Israeli deterrence,” and “the rehabilitation of the Israeli soldier’s fighter image.” Such imagery enables us to peer into the blood, smoke and devastation the IDF sows. Veiled by the fuss over Lebanon, Israel concurrently continues to plan and execute the socio-cide of both public and intimate spheres of the West Bank and Gaza. The present results: reaping the temporary unity of the Jewish victim-turned-warrior nation-state.

When the cannons roar, the Mizrahi communities fall silent. Like servants before the master, the Mizrahim habitually comply. They are the generations flowing from the Jews who were in Palestine from time immemorial, as well as descendants of those brought here from the Arab World and other non-European countries during the previous century. They are the local hosts for those fleeing the New European anti-Semitism. Mizrahim provide the demographic majority on whose civic docility the Eurocentric Israeli regime rests. Mizrahim have been the Jewish labor turning the cogs of the European-Zionist colonial project ever since its inception, with the Yemeni-Jewish labor migration of 1882. Mizrahim freed Zionism from its total dependency on indigenous Palestinian labor. Mizrahim were the Zionists’ “natural laborers,” employed in near-slavery conditions. In order for Mizrahim to work with efficacy, the Zionist hegemonic patriarchy ruptured Mizrahi extended families. For themselves, they used the appellation “ideological laborers,” and went on to found Israel’s socialist-liberal Left. It is this very Left that is now fighting yet another self-righteous Israeli war. The Zionist movement’s leadership has always conducted itself, in front of the Mizrahim, the Palestinians, and the citizens of the Arab World, through the tools of occupation, oppression and humiliation. Yet Mizrahi communities keep silent. Along the way, the US-European minority has co-opted the Mizrahi moral, economic and cultural power to resist.

Israel has always compartmentalized its occupation into different categories, as if Gaza, the West Bank, the Palestinian citizens of Israel, and the Palestinian Diaspora were not all consequences of the 1948 Nakba and 1967 Naqsa. Yet even such a divisive strategy has failed to diminish the legitimacy of the Palestinian struggle for a homeland. Despite the peace agreements with Egypt and Jordan, this strategy has nevertheless resulted in an almost across-the-board refusal of the Arab body of citizenry to normalize Israel into the region. The Ashkenazi leadership has repeatedly evoked the image that Israel is a European villa, planted in the midst of the regional jungle, from Bible times to the present day.

Mizrahi communities are intricately positioned along the Israel/Palestine divide as a result of the hegemonic sophistication of the Ashkenazim. Historically, under Menachem Begin, it was the Right who offered the Mizrahim a political home of sorts by not forcing them to secularize in imitation of the Labor party regime. Mizrahim are situated between the rock of economic-cultural oppression caused by the US-European capitalist Israeli rule, and the hard place of Palestine’s war of independence. Zionism was superimposed on Mizrahi communities, yet they welcomed it with open arms. Many still believe in its deceitful vision of an integrationalist inter-racial utopia, even though they are systematically excluded from the centers of power due to Zionism’s intra-Jewish racism. Those few who succeeded in securing high-ranking positions in the Ashkenazi regime have long since erased their own past, as they adopted their masters’ worldview. Rebuilding the ruptured Mizrahi families was difficult, because they were denied access to the financial and cultural resources necessary to facilitate an equal participation in the Zionist patriarchy. Mizrahi men’s feminism is epitomized in their struggle to mimic handsomely crested Sabra masculinity, hoping it might provide them with equal opportunities. Even with the arrival of South Asian maids in the 1990s, Mizrahi women continue to occupy the lowest-paying scale of the Israeli job market. Having lost their production line and house cleaning jobs to Filipinas, they work as lower level secretaries and service providers, and they constitute the majority of the unemployed.

Most of the Palestinian suicide attacks have occurred in the public spaces of the economically deprived and legally disenfranchised Mizrahi communities: bus rides taken by people who can’t afford to have a private car, markets frequented by those who can’t afford to shop in air conditioned malls and supermarkets, and ‘hoods too poor to afford to purchase the patrol services of private security companies, and where the police avoid entering except during drug raids. The majority of the dead and wounded have been Mizrahim, destitute immigrants from the former Soviet Union, and foreign guest workers.

The majority IDF casualties of the al-Aqsa intifada since October 2000 have been Mizrahim, Druze, Russian immigrants, and Ethiopians - the marginal groups that comprise the majority of Israel’s social fabric. Since the 1982 Lebanon war, frontline military service is out of fashion among the Ashkenazi elite, who no longer find it necessary for upward mobility. Due to the historical conjunction of ethnicity and poverty typical of Mizrahi communities, young Mizrahi men are excluded from avenues of upward mobility that would require a major capital investment. Alas, combat zone service is one of the few routes for socio-economic mobility — an integrationist phantom of sorts.

Sderot, a borderzone Mizrahi town often bombarded by Qassam missiles, has a high percentage of Ethiopian and Russian immigrants, and high unemployment rates. It is the Israeli town closest to Gaza. The same demography is true of the development towns and agricultural co-ops on the Lebanese border, and even of some of the Haifa ‘hoods hit by the Hizbollah Katiushas.

Mizrahi communities were pushed into the West Bank and Gaza post-1967 settlements through the back door. Both the Right and Left wing Israeli governments prevented any reasonably priced housing solutions for residents of Mizrahi slums. The mass Soviet immigration of the 1990s transformed Israel’s center, the source of most decently paying jobs, into a real estate bubble. This prohibited Mizrahi families from leaving the ghettos, unless for subsidized houses in the settlements. These were built by the housing ministry on the pristine West Bank hills and virgin Gaza beaches. They made the Israeli dream of a single-family dwelling come true. The superior public school system was an additional benefit. The Judaization of the Galilee project was designed for Ashkenazim who could not afford single-family dwellings in central Israel - gated communities with strict admission committees, whose majestic mansions overlook Palestinian villages situated within the 1949 Rhodes armistice agreement.

In the mid 1980s, when the welfare state disappeared from Mizrahi communities’ lives (if it had ever been there), ultra-orthodox Sephardic Judaism entered the scene in the form of the SHAS party. At its height, during the 1999 elections, SHAS won 17 seats in the Knesset. Four of them were ministers of influential government offices, and four were deputy ministers. SHAS offered an apparatus of education and food to rehab Mizrahi honor, either by preaching the return to the forefathers’ pious morality or by exposing the racism in the disenfranchisement and poverty. Eventually, such an intrusion was destructive. In fact, the ultra-orthodox Mizrahi new sages adopted the old Ashkenazi method of discipline: a controlled dispensation of charity so that the very act of dispensing becomes a shock absorber against any possible social upheaval. Since SHAS’s entry into the public sphere, even the feeble resistance of Mizrahi ghettos has ceased to exist.

The centrist walls of the Arab nation-state cracked during the Infitah with Anwar Saadat’s Opening-to-the-West policy. Multinational cultural and market globalization forces entered the Arab World’s civic sphere. Forming alternative societal institutions, the Islamist movements started substituting for the state. Like SHAS, these institutions were constructed on the premise of injecting pious morality into the civic sphere. The communalist power of both SHAS and the Islamist movements rested in part on a reformulation of strict religious familial patriarchy as a liberating feminist praxis. Concurrently, the Islamist movements, as in the cases of Egypt and the Occupied Territories, have integrated women into all spheres of their public activism but fighting.

We do not wish here to judge Arab society. Yet to the best of our understanding, the impact of Islamist movements in the Arab public sphere has been diametrically opposite to that of SHAS in the Mizrahi ghettos. With a middle class professional core, the Islamists presented the Arab world with a new agenda. All the while, the Mizrahi ultra-orthodoxy imposed the forefathers’ morality as yet another strategy for integrating the Mizrahim into the bosom of the Zionist lived reality. But how could they not? SHAS sensed it had no other option. Its middle class emerged from the rank and file of party apparatchiks. The Question of Palestine was one of the unifying themes of the Islamist movements. During the 1980s, Sabra and Shatila reverberated into the First Intifada. Palestinian nationalism gathered constituencies in the West. Hoping to counter Palestine’s secular nationalism, the worried Israeli regime nurtured the Islamist movements in Lebanon and the Occupied Territories. Assuming that these movements would be nothing but SHAS-style charities, the Israeli regime hoped they might also serve as its tools to deny yet again the Question of Palestine. As the PLO welfare apparatus relocated from Lebanon to Tunis, the Islamist movements patched the cracks and flowered forth. The 2006 democratic elections in the Palestinian authority ended in a sweeping Hamas victory, which of course disappointed Israel’s expectations. This time around, the Zionist regime preferred the necktied and conventionally handsome Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen) over hennaed and long-bearded Muhammad abu-Tir. Henceforth Israel, backed by the US, sweepingly refused to recognize and negotiate with the legitimate government of the Palestinian people.

These days the Mizrahim are the ones who pay the high price required to join Israel’s “family of blood,” a key concept in the Zionist discourse of national honor. They fall like ripe fruit into Ashkenazi-Zionist militant adventurism. The Western pro-Israeli lobby, with its Israeli branches, does not pay the price. On the contrary, it shares the profits with the G-8 superpowers. This axis of evil will come to an end only if Mizrahi communities are able to conjoin the memories of their Arab past with a vision for a future that will be shared with the people of this region—not just the Palestinians, but the rest of the Arab World as well.

As long as the Arab World’s public discourse does not differentiate between Yahud (Jews), Sahyoniyin (Zionists), and Yahud-Arab (Arab Jews), and as long as all Israelis are considered Yahud-wa-bas (just Jews), such a process is impossible. As long as the Western peace discourse does not designate separate categories for Mizrahi Jewry, the majority of Israel’s Jewry, for the Ashkenazi peace movements, and for Zionism, Mizrahi communities’ processual reworking into the region will lack the transnational aura necessary to render it possible. As long as the Arab leadership, not to mention the Palestinians, prefers talking peace with the ruling Ashkenazi minority — be it Zionists, post-Zionists, even anti-Zionists - Mizrahi communities will continue to view the peace discourse as part of the repertoire of exotic antics that the Ashkenazi cosmopolitan elite perform for the West. At the same time, they will continue to conceive of the Arabs, particularly Palestinians, only as lethal enemies.

Those who present themselves as seekers of peace — Shimon Peres and Yossi Beilin — are actually supporting the present destruction of civil society in Lebanon, the West Bank and Gaza. They are the spokesmen explaining the necessity for the atrocious measures taken by the Israeli government. Mizrahim remember them mainly as those who started the move to privatize and outsource labor from their community into the globalized economic wonderland that the peace dons termed “the New Middle East.” For Mizrahi communities, unemployment and debt were the most immediate results of the Oslo agreement’s peace festival. These days the peace dons also brandish a Moroccan defense minister, Amir Peretz, to execute their policies, even though they are the ones who publicly dissed him and failed him along his political career. No wonder this discourse of peace is so alien to Mizrahi communities.

The experts on TV tell us that the purpose of the present destruction is to secure the release of the “kidnapped” soldiers. If this were indeed the purpose of operations “Summer Rains” and “Adequate Pay,” the release of all Palestinian and Lebanese political prisoners from Israeli jails would be far more cost effective, whether in blood or money. But, alas, when the canons stop roaring, when we finish counting our dead and cleaning up our ruins, we are likely to return to point zero—1882. The Mizrahim, Palestinians and foreign guest workers will resurrect Lebanon, Palestine and Israel from under the rubble, at near-slavery wages and with no social benefits. The US will provide the funding. As long as Mizrahi communities fail to understand that these wars commemorate their disenfranchised poverty, as long as there is no insistence on organized, popular Mizrahi resistance, no just peace will be achieved in our region.

Reuven Abarjel is co-founder of the Israeli Black Panthers; Smadar Lavie is a Professor of Anthropology and Mizrahi Feminist Activist.