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(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
It is no secret that Israel’s founders – the majority of whom were Eastern European Jews – held negative views about their Mizrahi Jewish brothers and sisters.
And the echoes of their prejudices are felt to this day.
In part, anti-Mizrahi sentiments were tightly connected to secular Zionism’s rebellion against the Jewish religion as it developed in the Diaspora. The vast majority of Ashkenazi Zionists abandoned the traditional lifestyle of the Eastern European shtetl and embraced various forms of secular nationalism, from the socialist Zionism of thinkers such as Ber Borochov and Berl Katzenelson to the Revisionist ideology promulgated by Ze’ev Jabotinsky.
Indeed, Zionism’s success depended on it making a violent break with traditional Judaism’s virulent opposition to Jewish nationalism that called for a return to the Land of Israel. Mizrahi Jews, who were traditional, were said to need “re-education.” The IDF was utilized as a catalyst for the secular Zionist melting pot.
Echoes of this disdain for Mizrahi religious culture were evident in the diatribe launched Saturday on Facebook by Army Radio’s film critic, Gidi Orsher, which has aroused much controversy, including calls by Culture and Sports Minister Miri Regev, herself a Mizrahi Jew, to fire Orsher.
Addressing Mizrahi Jews, Orsher wrote: “Next time you have a heart attack, skip catheterization and use your grandmother’s remedy of putting a chicken leg on your head instead.” The next time there is a rocket attack, Mizrahi Jews should “ignore the Iron Dome and recite Psalms or perhaps wait for the matriarch Rachel to protect you.”
Mizrahim who have difficulty conceiving should, “continue the practice of praying for fertility at the graves of dead rabbis in the Galilee.”
The prejudiced views held by the Ashkenazi elite against their Mizrahi brothers and sisters is not just the result of a secular revolt against rabbinic Judaism. It is also tied to Labor Zionism’s rejection of liberalism and lack of respect for individuality and its insistence on the creation of a homogeneous Israeli society in its own image: European, socialist and secular.
The 1977 political upheaval by the Likud headed by Menachem Begin revealed the deep bitterness felt by Mizrahi Israelis. It was no coincidence that Jews who immigrated to Israel from Muslim lands were attracted to the Likud. It wasn’t just Begin’s demagoguery. Mizrahim were rejecting Labor Zionism’s paternalism in favor of liberalism and respect for individual identity.
Nearly 40 years after the Likud’s political upset, however, the roots of Ashkenazi prejudices against Mizrahim remain with us. To this day we feel the effects of whole towns that were segregated in the 1950s along ethnic lines: Moroccans to one place, Poles to another. Thousands of communities across the nation maintain “acceptance committees,” a throwback to the Zionist socialist kibbutzim and moshavim, that are charged with keeping out “undesirables.”
Our school system is split between “periphery” – a PC term for predominantly Mizrahi (and Ethiopian) towns – and “center,” which is dominated by Ashkenazim and Mizrahim who have undergone a process of so-called “Ashkenization.”
It is the obligation of our political leaders to combat this painful legacy of the 1950s and 1960s. One important step that has been taken is to make a conscious effort to teach Sephardi and Mizrahi culture in our school systems.
The Biton Committee, headed by poet Erez Biton, has recently submitted a 350-page report that offers detailed recommendations for all educational institutions – from kindergartens to colleges and universities. History and literature curricula should be updated to include the contributions of Jews from Muslim countries. A week a year should be set aside to deal specifically with the culture of the Jews of the East and of Spain. The Education Ministry should be praised for its openness to this endeavor.
But it is also important to confront the root causes of the State of Israel’s institutionalized prejudices against Mizrahim. For too long the Israeli Left was in denial, because it was responsible for the discrimination. Meanwhile, the Right was reluctant to confront this prejudice, because it reflected badly on the State of Israel.
We have a duty to champion liberalism and a respect for individuality and reject the paternalism and melting pot culture of the early years of the State of Israel. Our diversity should be celebrated, not denigrated.
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