Think about it: Can anything be done about the ‘ethnic demon’?

"Ethnic demon" is the Israeli term for the divide between Mizrachi and Ashkenazi Jews.

By
April 26, 2015 21:03
Chief rabbis of Jerusalem, Rabbi Shlomo Amar and Rabbi Arye Stern

Chief rabbis of Jerusalem, Rabbi Shlomo Amar and Rabbi Arye Stern . (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)

Every once in a while something happens that awakens the slumbering ‘ethnic demon,’ the Israeli slang term for the divide between Mizrachi and Ashkenazi Jews. In the course of the election campaign and since, outrageous, haughty and some would say foolish statements were made by an Ashkenazi artist and an Ashkenazi actress – both identified with the Left.

Yair Garbuz, a distinguished painter, was the first to ignite the fire, when in the course of a rally of the Left in Tel Aviv on March 7, he included the “kissing of amulets” and the “prostration over the graves of holy men” in a list of objectionable conduct, together with the activities of the price-tag hoodlums, those who take bribes, xenophobic racists, and rapists – all of whom are supposedly “a negligible handful” of the Israeli population.

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“So how have they turned into a majority?” he asked.

Since those who kiss amulets and prostrate over graves are usually Mizrahim, Garbuz was immediately declared a racist, and his words are believed by some to have cost the Zionist Union several Knesset seats.

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Anat Waxman, an acclaimed actress, made her faux pas in an interview she gave Danny Kushmaro from Channel 2 TV in April, for his documentary Two States, One People. In the interview, she expressed her frustration at the election results, alluding to Mizrahim as “those who yell ‘only Bibi! only Bibi!’” “And when he said to them, ‘Arabs’ [she was referring to Netanyahu’s unfortunate call to traditional Likud voters on election day, to come out to vote because the Arabs were flowing ‘in large quantities’ to the polling stations], they emerge from their holes,” she continued.

She added insult to injury when she identified the vulgar Mizrahi women on a flight to Bulgaria (as recently seen in a You- Tube video) who boisterously insisted on being sold chocolate after the steward had declared the duty-free shop closed, with the Likud. Incidentally, Waxman’s mother is of Iraqi origin.

It is, of course, perfectly legitimate to feel disdain for people who believe in self-proclaimed holy men (and Indian gurus, for that matter), and to feel anger against underprivileged voters, who are captivated by someone who doesn’t seem to care about their economic welfare, and who doesn’t have any qualms about using racist incitement if this serves his political ambitions.

However, one must also remember that in a pluralistic society we all live in glass houses, and what each of us does or believes in can be viewed disapprovingly by someone else. Consequently, certain things are better left unsaid, or if they are said, should be said with care.

But the two unfortunate statements described above are not the problem, just a reflection of it, and one doesn’t have to look far to find equally outrageous statements about Ashkenazim coming from Mizrahi quarters of various sorts. For example accusations that Ashkenazim are “cold fish”, who prepare bland food and have nothing in their minds besides a desire to subjugate and humiliate Mizrahim.

There is no doubt that the origin of the problem is that Mizrahim were almost totally absent from the Zionist endeavor in the first 50 formative years of the future state – 1897 to 1948, when its basic values, norms and institutions were laid down and crystallized.

The fact that the Zionist Labor movement was the dominant force in Zionist and later Israeli politics from 1935 to 1977 meant that when the Mizrahim did turn into a factor to be reckoned with, it was the Mapai establishment that turned into the focus of all Mizrahi rage and frustration.

There is also no doubt that the manifestly secular Mapai establishment was determined to denude the new immigrants, who had arrived from Muslim states, of their traditions and heritage, just as it was determined to extract all remnants of the Diaspora from the Jews who arrived from Europe.

Zionism, in its eyes, was designed to bring about a new start for the Jewish people, and create a new Jew.

To the present day many Mizrahim still identify the Labor Party with Mapai, and despite the fact that it is the Likud that has been in power for most of the past 38 years, their anti-Ashkenazi feelings are directed primarily against the Israeli Left. Nevertheless, it should not be forgotten that though the Likud was always much more welcoming to the Mizrahim than Labor, the Mizrahim in the Likud face a glass ceiling, which has so far prevented any Mizrahi from reaching the top (Labor, on the other hand, had two Mizrahi chairmen). It is also no secret that the predominantly Ashkenazi national religious movement (the Mafdal in the past and Bayit Yehudi today) and the Ashkenazi haredim (ultra-Orthodox) have traditionally viewed Mizrahim as inferior. The establishment of Tami in 1981 (by Aharon Abuhatzeira, who broke away from the Mafdal) and of Shas in 1984 were the result.

There is no doubt that the Mizrahim, especially those who have chosen not to adopt marked Ashkenazi traits in order to try to integrate, have good reason to feel enraged and frustrated with their treatment at the hands of the Ashkenazi establishment in the early days of the state, and the continued latent discrimination against Mizrahim in many spheres to the present day.

Most of the Mizrahim I am acquainted with who “made it” did so with much greater difficulty, and having had to overcome many more obstacles than their Ashkenazi counterparts encountered. I am not in the least surprised that many of them have adopted radical and militant anti-Ashkenazi positions along the way, though I am delighted to encounter others who have taken the reality in stride, and are happy to climb the ladder to success without all the bravado and battle cries, simply serving as living evidence that things can be different.

Among those who have failed, and have remained at the bottom of the pyramid, there are many who blame the Ashkenazim, and especially the leftists among them, for their plight. However, those who are willing to take responsibility for their situation, irrespective of who is to blame for its creation, are much more likely to pull themselves up than the former.

What disturbs me most is that the radical ideas and solutions offered by the various Mizrahi parties and extra-parliamentary groups – be they Shas and Eli Yishai’s Yahad from the religious side, or the secular Hakeshet Hademokratit Hamizrahit and Ahoti – are ostentatiously sectarian, without viewing the Israeli society as a whole. And I am not even sure whether they really offer the Mizrahim as individuals prospects for a better, less frustrating future, rather than a momentary sense of revenge. The danger is, in my opinion, that well-intentioned Ashkenazim who understand that a wrong was committed and that a change of attitude is necessary, will simply become antagonized, and clam up.

All this brings me back to Moshe Kahlon, a Mizrahi who made it to the top and who does not hide his origins (his family came from Libya), and carries his culture and heritage with pride, but at the same time keeps ethnicity out of his politics. He never apologized for including the Ashkenazi Yoav Galant and Michael Oren high up in his party’s list, for example.

In fact, should Kahlon, as finance minister, succeed in his crusade for lowering the cost of living in general, and that of housing in particular, he might be well on his way to offering a third-way formula between Mizrahim who emulate the Ashkenazim and those who declare war against them. Such an approach could help take the sting out of the negative mutual perceptions of Mizrahim and Ashkenazim in Israel today, and bring about a welcome change.

The writer is a retired Knesset employee.


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