A never-ending struggle

Author, poet and Mizrahi activist Almog Behara says real shift in policy for Mizrahim has never happened.

Almog Behar (photo credit: COURTESY / NOA BREZNER)
Almog Behar
(photo credit: COURTESY / NOA BREZNER)
STRUGGLES TO carry out a Mizrahi discourse, as author, poet and Mizrahi activist Almog Behar remarks, and as the Biton Report emphasizes, have never really ceased to exist.
Best known are the violent uprising in Haifa’s Wadi Salib in 1959; the radical protest movement of Jerusalem’s Black Panthers in 1971-1972; the armed barricading of Rabbi Uzi Meshulam and his followers in Yehud in 1994, demanding to investigate the disappearance of Yemenite babies in Israeli hospitals during the country’s early years; and the judicial and public-opinion-based campaign of the social justice organization, The Mizrahi Democratic Rainbow Coalition, led by the late Mizrahi feminist activist Vicky Shiran from the late 1990s and early 2000s.
In most cases, Behar, whose literary work is an in-depth investigation of Arab Lands Jewry’s heritage and of his own Jewish-Arabic identity says, the establishment mitigated the protest’s impact by co-opting moderate Mizrahi figures into the existing system while branding the more radical protesters as criminals, and by accepting some of the protesters’ specific demands to a limited extent, without generating a substantial, extensive change.
Thus, for instance, the Black Panthers’ struggle yielded some relevant welfare legislation and a governmental report that admitted there is discrimination in resource allocation.
But a real shift in policy has never happened. Neither culturally – where, as the report shows, the Mizrahi voice has remained absent from the country’s hegemonic discourse, nor economically, where, as Biton tells The Report, “a schoolchild in Yerocham (a southern development town) is allocated 1/6th of the budget allocated to a child in Israel’s central areas.”
Behar also points out that even when the discourse was translated into the particular parliamentary representation that Shas ‒ the men-only, ultra-Orthodox party established in the early 1980s ‒ has formed, the infrastructural economic and cultural incapacitating of Mizrahim in Israel has continued.
“It’s a repression to which both the left-wing and the right-wing governments have been responsible,” says Behar. “And Shas’s policy” – despite having sat in most governments since its foundation – “was to settle for crumbs.”
As for the use of the term “ethnic genie,” Behar says, “The particular choice of a term from the realm of fantasies to describe the Mizrahi discourse is language laundering. It implies that the Mizrahi claim is not a matter of facts, but of feelings. The ‘ethnic genie’ is, in this regard, an Ashkenazi demon.”
Behar is supportive of the Biton Report’s conclusions but he’s also aware of Naftali Bennett’s agenda of Jewish exclusivity.
“It’s not that Bennett has really become responsive to the notion of multi-narratives, not to mention contradicting ones,” says Behar. “After all, Bennett’s slogan for the Biton endeavor was ‘One People, One Story.’” In the long run, Behar believes, “a mend for Mizrahi Jews will also turn out to be significant for the Arab public in Israel and for our relations with the Palestinians and the wider Arab world.”