Dry twigs

Israelis and Palestinians protest against the evacuation of Kfar Shalem, 7 July 2007. (Oren Ziv/ActiveStills)

The following is a translation of a speech delivered in Hebrew at a rally against the demolition of 30 families’ homes in Kfar Shalem, Israel, 7 July 2007:

If we want to try comprehending the recent events in Kfar Shalem, we need to delve into the wounds of our past. [1] Exploring these wounds can help us strengthen ourselves in the present, so we can plan for our future, and for our communities’ healing. Such healing might give us the stamina we will need to struggle together.

In 1882, “’E’eleh ba-Tamar” [the Hebrew phrase is borrowed from Song of Songs 7:9], the first organized Yemenite labor migration wave, or “‘aliya,” the value-laden Hebrew term meaning “ascendance,” arrived in Palestine. Considered “natural laborers,” they were expected to live frugally and thus lighten the burden of the Yiddish-speaking “ideological laborers” who were colonizing Palestine. The Ashkenazim in the colonies (moshavot) refused to allow the “natural laborers” to dwell among them. These workers were forced to live in the fields, the cowsheds or the stables. When they rebelled, they were permitted to live in segregated ghettos in wooden huts and tin shacks.

I want to tell you about the dry twigs.

At the end of the workday, Yemeni women agricultural laborers used to gather dry twigs from the vineyards and orchards for cooking or heating water. The colonies’ farmers thought of these twigs as still their private property, but the Yemeni women laborers thought collecting this firewood was one of the very few benefits their agricultural labor entitled them to. When farmers caught the women gathering branches, they punished them with fines taken from their paltry weekly pay.

One February dusk in 1913, a plantation owner came to supervise his workers so that they would work until the very last minute of daylight, and noticed three women gathering twigs. Not only did he beat them up — he also tried to tie them up. The women resisted, ran away, and hid in the vineyard. One of their coworkers, a Palestinian man, chased and caught them for the master. The master ordered him to rope their wrists and ankles tightly together, tie the rope to the tail of his donkey, and lead them thusly into the Rehovot colony (moshava) center. The master ordered the Palestinian laborer to walk behind the women so they would not pull back. The women were unable to follow the donkey’s fast pace, and so were dragged on the ground.

This incident led to the unionization of Yemeni laborers, yet no evidence can be found that women were members of the union. The Yemeni union had to struggle for around a decade before it was recognized by Ashkenazi labor movement.

Nothing has changed much in the relationship between Mizrahim and the master, from that time to this. True, we now have some poodles of our own: Mazuz, Itzik, Fuad, Mofaz — even Katsav, the poodle who overlooked the master’s choke chain. But as a community, we have remained dispossessed from economic stability or land ownership rights within the Hadera-Gedera confines — the two cities that chart the north and south margins of Israel’s center. We’ve been the precarious tenants in Israel’s gainful employment zone.

These days, as a community, we are the demographic majority of citizens, and on us rests Israel’s regime. But we do not get much in return.

Only scantily are we represented in the ruling elite: the courts, the universities, the specialty physicians and senior administrators. Most of us still believe that if we work real hard, we, too, can make it and become part of the elite. But aside from the handful of Mizrahim splendidly and repeatedly PRed by the public media, we are the majority in the long welfare lines, the long NGO food-for-the-hungry lines, and the long lines at the forced employment agencies. Likewise, we are always the majority in the occasional marches, sit-ins and demonstrations of the homeless.

The struggle for Kfar Shalem is the struggle for us all. A straight line stretches from the Kinneret colony’s expulsion of Yemenis in 1930 to the demolition orders on Kfar Shalem’s Mizrahi homes today. From the “‘E’eleh ba-Tamar” migration wave even to this very hour, the master consistently subjects us to his policy of “use ‘em up and throw ‘em away.”

No one has ever forced the kibbutzniks or the residents of the spiffy neighborhoods erected on the ruins of Palestine’s Nakba villages to keep on living in the precarious indeterminacy typical of Kfar Shalem. Mizrahim were forced to make Kfar Shalem their home from 1948 on, so that the Palestinians would have no place to return to, and for 60 years. Now the Mizrahim too are forced to vacate this land, their homes, in favor of the Ashkenazi real estate barons.

Actually, it is the residents of the spiffy neighborhoods and the kibbutzniks themselves who have turned into the real estate barons profiteering from the land-plots of Palestine.

Nobody has ever denied the sons and daughters of these kibbutzim and Ashkenazi neighborhoods the right to proper education. Nobody has ever denied them the right to gainful employment. Nobody has ever dismantled their families, kidnapped their infants, or conducted radiation experiments on them under the guise of medical care. No one has ever forced their kids into government boarding schools. No one has ever demolished their homes.

There are around a million Israeli citizens these days, mostly Ashkenazim, who brandish an EU passport. But we, Mizrahim, have nowhere to go. We were brought here as their “natural laborers,” and from the early 1950s on, were stuffed by the master into the spacious Nakba villages, but in crowded conditions, to eliminate any possibility for the Palestinians to enact their right of return.

Today, these are our homes. This is why we have to do our homework: delve into the history of our mothers’ and fathers’ Jewish homes: Yemeni homes. Persian homes. Iraqi homes. Syrian homes. Turkish homes. In short, Mizrahi homes. These are the homes that our master has forced us to unlearn and hate from 1882 on.

We must continue to struggle to heal ourselves from the wounds the master has inflicted upon us. We need to heal not only through our day-to-day survival, but also with a long-term get-well plan — one with a future vision.

We must demand a true partnership and equality in one state for all of us, Mizrahim and Palestinian alike, a state that will be our permanent home.

Here and now, we must unite so that we are able to infuse with meaning, and to put into action, the very fact that it is we who are the demographic majority citizenry of the state of Israel. As a majority, we should work together to generate an upheaval that will liberate the entire region from the real estate shenanigans inflicted upon us by the European real estate barons from 1882 until this very day.

Smadar Lavie is an anthropologist and a Mizrahi feminist activist.

[1] For more information on Kfar Shalem, visit http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kfar_Shalem.