We Look like the Enemy
By Rachel Shabi | Walker and Company | 272 pages; $25
The idea for Rachel Shabi's book grew from thoughts about a fundamental disconnect: "My parents migrated from Israel to Britain in the 1970s, when I was really little," she explains when we meet in a Tel Aviv cafe. "But I grew up in an Iraqi Jewish household, where the language, food, music and customs of the Mizrahi people were something to be admired and respected..." Returning to Israel as an adult, Shabi was confronted with a different perspective. "What interested me... was that it was obvious that mainstream Israeli society did not perceive Mizrahi culture the same way. I wanted to find out how this came to be, and the book is the result of my curiosity..."
Published earlier this year in the United States by Walker & Company, the book, We Look Like the Enemy: The Hidden Story of Israel's Jews from Arab Lands, is an impassioned argument for the restoration of Mizrahi culture to its proper place as an integral aspect of Israel's diverse heritage. Praised as a "revealing examination of Mizrahi culture" and as "paying homage to the musical, literary, theatrical and academic traditions of Arab Jews," it is a pointed evaluation of the origins of divisions within Israeli society between Jews of Ashkenazi descent and their Mizrahi brethren, ranging from the blatant - and well documented - discrimination evident in first days of the modern State of Israel, to what Shabi suggests are more subtle manifestations today.
While the book does not shy away from recalling some of the more painful episodes of fraternal friction in the nation's history, it is more than merely a litany of woe, a regurgitation of 60 years of hurt. Shabi, a freelance journalist who has written for The Guardian, The Times of London and Salon.com, was alert to the possibility of her book being misunderstood, of being interpreted as polemic rather than sober consideration of the potent issue. "I was certainly aware of this worry, of the subject being manipulated, used for propaganda purposes," she says. "But I do think that it would be obvious to anyone who reads the book that it does not come from this perspective at all. I see it as a celebration of an aspect of Israel, one that one doesn't ordinarily see. It's an invitation, to come in and look, to explore..."
The underlying premise of the book is that Mizrahi culture - and by extension the Mizrahi population of Israel - is marginalized, relegated to a secondary position by the majority population. The word "Mizrahi," Shabi argues, is generally employed in the negative sense, even by some of those directly affected by this dichotomy. "I think that much of Israeli society - including the Mizrahi population - have internalized this narrative, of Mizrahi culture as something negative," she suggests. "The prevailing social message is that one needs to ditch Mizrahi culture and customs in order to 'fit' within the prevailing modern Western program."
The Mizrahi Israel that Shabi experienced over the two years that she spent researching and writing the book is one very much at odds with the notion of a second-class culture. What she finds instead is a rich tapestry of art, music and literature, a history and culture far removed from the pejorative stereotypes often attached to the culture of the Orient. Shabi observes that this culture flourished, and continues to do so, in the face of institutional and social obstacles.
"While researching my book, I met lots of people who challenged this prejudice actively, who would say, 'Who are you to judge? Who are you to say that your culture is superior to mine?' One privilege of researching this book was to discover this richness of Mizrahi culture, much of it in defiance of the norms, even if it is struggling to be labeled as authentically Israeli."
But why the need for her book today, I ask. One could argue that, irrespective of past history, Mizrahi Jews have been successfully integrated into every sphere of public life in Israel. Is there still a need for books like hers? "It is very telling that people tend to use the word 'integration' to describe this process," Shabi observes. "It suggests that one is referring to a lower-status group, one that somehow needs to be assimilated into the better, normative group."
Even though Mizrahi Jews have attained the most iconic symbols of the state - president, chief of General Staff, minister of defense - the reality on the ground paints a different picture. "Mizrahi campaigners argue that if things were genuinely equal in society, then there would be balanced representation across the board."
The book points out significant areas where the imbalance remains manifest, and argues that only with the active employment of social engineering tools like affirmative action will it become possible to bridge this gap. "Cultural budgets would be allocated in proportion to population distribution, educational budgets would be directed to redress the imbalance in educational attainment between Mizrahi and Ashkenazi children."
But isn't this advocating a broad-brush solution to a much more subtle and delicate problem? "There is some truth in this. What is needed, I think, is a two-pronged approach, something more nuanced."
But she reiterates the need for immediate action. "Many of the problems are institutional, the overwhelming majority of state budgetary allocations to support culture, for instance, go to Ashkenazi-themed activities. In this context at least, affirmative action is necessary; how else otherwise can one eliminate it? We have to find a way for Israel to become genuinely harmonious and integrated society."
It seems perhaps curious that the cultural signifiers of a distinct group of people - a group which, as Shabi reminds me, was a numerical majority for much of the 1960s and 1970s - should be marginalized, its identity scarcely acknowledged as authentically Israeli. Shabi argues that the reasons for this lie in the historical narrative that led to the creation of the state. She describes a period where the Zionist-directed society was keen, desperate even, to identify itself with Europe; immigrants who spoke Arabic, who followed - ironically - native Middle Eastern customs and traditions were relegated to a secondary position. They were a reminder of everything that the Jewish state sought to distance itself from; in a sense, being Israeli meant as much not being Arab as it did anything else.
"The Israeli take on history is not terribly accommodating to different narratives, ones that suggest shades of gray rather than this stark polarity," she says. "A basic feature of Israeli history as told is that all the Arab countries hate Israel and have historically persecuted Jews."
In the book, she writes about visiting a Jerusalem school with a predominantly working-class and Mizrahi student body. Many of the students, children and grandchildren of immigrants from North Africa and elsewhere in the Middle East, subscribed to stereotypically negative opinions concerning Israel's relationship with its Arab neighbors. Their principal suggested that they speak to their parents and grandparents about their actual experiences of living in Libya, Yemen, Morocco, Iraq.
"They'd come back and report that their parents had said that actually, it wasn't that bad at all, that the Jews had maintained harmonious relationships with their Muslim neighbors in the Arab world. Once the students realized this, their questions would shift: Now, they'd ask, 'If this was the case before, so why are they so against us today?' It becomes possible to shift the conversation to another place."
Shabi hypothesizes that the conflict between Israel and its Arab neighbors is as much cultural as it is territorial; developing the capacity to embrace that which it has shunned could yield surprising dividends. "Israelis are very ignorant of the Arab world. More than that, many have little interest in the history and culture of the Arab world surrounding them."
She has an intriguing suggestion: "Israeli society holds the treasures of the Arab world within its Mizrahi community, and if only it could find a way to reconnect with its own Middle Eastern self, to realize that it has this extraordinary Judeo-Arabic heritage that it should be embracing rather than shunning, then I think it might have a different take on relations with its Arab neighbors."
While the book has attracted some pointed criticism, perhaps unsurprisingly given its controversial premise, Shabi is on the whole gratified by the response. "People have told me, 'We had no idea about the Mizrahi Jews, that there was this huge population that we knew nothing about."
But writing the book was as much a personal journey as public education. "I'm luckyâ€¦ that it has taught me a lot of things about Iraqi culture, my own culture as well, and I can now have conversations with my parents that are a lot more involved and informed, that take things to a different level of engagement. It has been a privilege, writing and researching the book."