Orientalism and the invention of an Ashkenazi identity in Israel

How did “Ashkenazi” in Israel become synonymous with “liberal” and “Left,” and how has being “Ashkenazi” become a marker for being a “victim” of the Israeli Right?

AN ISRAELI flag near the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem’s Old City. (photo credit: REUTERS)
AN ISRAELI flag near the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem’s Old City.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
There is a certain type of commentator in Israel who writes a lot about being “Ashkenazi.” They tend to self-identify as being on the “Left” in Israel and they write about “Ashkenazi liberals and leftists.” They complain often about “Mizrahim,” who they accuse of being “anti-Ashkenazi” and critical of “Ahskenazi hegemony.” Every time they use the word “Left” or “liberal” they put “Ashkenazi” in front of it, as if being leftist and liberal is an ethnic category. The quiet insinuation is that if you are not born Ashkenazi in Israel then you are part of the “racist right-wing Mizrahim.” If you’re born “one of us,” then you’re a good leftist.
You don’t have to search hard to find this mentality. These are the op-ed writers who always attack Jews who come from the Middle East when those Jews succeed. When Amir Peretz was head of the Labor Party these were the voices who said “enough of this emotional blackmail against liberal Ashkenazim” for not voting for Peretz. They are the same ones who complained when Avi Buskila wanted to reach out to Mizrahi voters for the left-leaning Meretz party. They said “Mizrahim are right wing,” and “we shouldn’t waste our time on them.”
This imagined community of “liberal Ashkenazi” Israelis has grown up on a myth of victimhood. They claim to be victims of “Mizrahim hate,” and try to lump themselves in with other suppressed minorities in Israel. A recent article claimed that the Israeli Right is “anti-Palestinians, anti-immigrant, and for good measure, anti-Ashkenazi, anti-North American Jew.” Notice how “Ashkenazi” got put in with Palestinians, African migrants and other groups. It would be like reading in the US that the Right is “anti-black, anti-immigrant, anti-white.”
How did this happen? How did “Ashkenazi” in Israel become synonymous with “liberal” and “Left,” and how has being “Ashkenazi” become a marker for being a “victim” of the Israeli Right?
It is part of a carefully crafted ethnocentric exclusive propaganda campaign designed to perpetuate divisions in Israel by pretending that being born non-Ashkenazi in Israel is some sort of mark of being “right wing” and “racist,” which provides some self-defined “Ashkenazi” Israelis an excuse to then discriminate against Mizrahim by saying they don’t want “racists” in their community.
To understand how this happened we have to go back in history. At its origin Zionism was primarily a European nationalist movement inspired by other nationalist movements of the 19th century, such as the Italian Risorgimento. Jewish nationalists argued that Jews had a right to reconstitute themselves as a state, like every other nation in Europe was doing. The only difference was they wanted to accomplish their dream in the Middle East. This wasn’t so far-fetched. Zionist leaders David Ben-Gurion and Yitzhak Ben-Zvi both studied at Istanbul University at the height of the Turkish nationalist and pan-Turkic awakening taking place under the Committee of Union and Progress and the Young Turks movement. If the Turks could create a modern state while looking back into their ancient past, surely the Jews could as well.
These Jewish nationalists, most of whom later identified as socialists, didn’t speak much about being “Ashkenazi” in the beginning. It wasn’t until European immigrants in the second and third aliyas awoke to the fact that most Jews living in Ottoman and British Palestine were from the Middle East that they created an arbitrary “Ashkenazi-Mizrahi” binary. For them “Ashkenazi” became a stand-in for “European” and “Mizrahi” became a stand in for Middle Eastern, or “Arab.”
The old Hebrew press of the 1930-1950s is full of stories comparing different types of Jews and their genetic and ethnic origins. Much of the writing by European Jewish immigrants is full of the toxic racial theories then in vogue in Europe, which they sought to apply to the Middle East, including to Jews from the Middle East. They took what had been a religious divide between the traditions of Ashkenazi and Sephardi Jews and turned it into an imagined ethnic divide.
This created a Janus-faced Zionism, torn between a longing for a European nationalist state and a state with ancient Jewish roots. This divide overshadows modern politics in Israel. For many Israelis today the country is celebrated as a mosaic of different groups. Jews marry Jews, and theoretically blur the “Ashkenazi- Mizrahi” identity distinction.
But some don’t want this line blurring, they need to perpetuate these categories to make themselves feel part of a group. They think the only good part of the country and the only part they can identify with is what they call “Ashkenazi liberal.” Some of these voices even suggested splitting the country into different cantons, one of which would be dominated by “our kind” of Ashkenazi liberals near the coast, while “settlers, the ultra-Orthodox, Russians, Arabs and Mizrahim” would have other “cantons.” They call themselves the “white tribe,” which sounds vaguely and oddly like apartheid. This sounds colonialist because it is a colonial mentality.
One American author claimed he could only identify with the mythical European Jewish part of Israel, “the fighting intellectual, rifle in one hand and a volume of Kierkegaard in the other.”
Those who speak of “liberal Ashkenazi” communities in Israel have invented an imagined community of people of European origin who they claim have superior values based solely on the community they are born into. Someone who is born Arab or Mizrahi cannot be a member of the “liberal Asheknazi” community. To perpetuate this segregation these groups set up acceptance committees and other forms of discrimination to create barriers to the mixing of groups. To excuse the existence of these barriers they write op-eds about how Mizrahim are “anti-Ashkenazi.”
This narrative has created an intellectual shield against criticism. It poses as both the victim and the superior group at the same time. It poses as both the minority and the hegemonic intellectual majority at the same time. This reminds one of whites in South Africa or the US claiming to be victims of “reverse racism” or of Emiratis in the Gulf complaining they are “minorities in their own country.”
Claiming to be a minority suffering “racism,” this community then uses that as a reason to discriminate against others. They insulate themselves against accusations of racism by claiming that Mizrahim “complain about the past” and accusing non-Ashkenazi Jews of being “racist.”
Some Western immigrants to Israel have adopted this identity. They came to Israel ostensibly to be part of a “Jewish state” but when they got to Israel they immediately began referring to themselves as “Ashkenazi” as a way to separate themselves. This self-identification comes from the desire to be a minority and different.
In the West what drove them to immigrate to Israel was a feeling of being a Jewish minority and wanting to move to a Jewish state. But once in the Jewish state they realized that they were part of the Jewish majority and that’s not as interesting as being a minority under siege by racist hordes. It’s also hard to feel like a victim and also morally superior when you’re just part of the majority. So suddenly they start saying “I’m an Ashkenazi leftist” and “right-wing Israelis are anti-Ashkenazi.”
What evidence is there that the “Right” in Israel is anti-Ashkenazi? Let’s look back at the origins of the right wing in Israel. Almost all of its leaders are also Ashkenazi, whether Menachem Begin or Benjamin Netanyahu.
One of the self-defined “liberal Ashkenazim” wrote recently that settlers are “anti-Ashkenazi.” How is that possible? Most of the settlement movement has traditionally also been of Ashkenazi origin. The assertion that people who claim to be on the political Left are victims of “anti-Ashkenazi” views is a myth invented so these people can present themselves as victims. It is true that there are many populist voices in Israel that are anti-leftist, but those populist voices are almost all also “Ashkenazi” in origin as well.
The real reason these voices pose as supremacist victims is that some Western Jewish immigrants don’t feel comfortable in a Middle Eastern environment. They imagined Israel to be a light unto the nations and therefore the need to maintain Israel as primarily a Western state carrying out a “civilizing mission” in the Middle East, a project that can only be maintained so long as Western immigrants perpetuate a Western cultural hegemony, or create a bubble with a wall around it. One Israeli leader referred to the country as a “villa in the jungle.” In the villa, Mizrahi Jews and Arabs are often portrayed as a “threat” to the villa’s culture.
The more Israel becomes diverse, the more the bittereinders refuse to accept the beauty of the Israeli mosaic. They have a deeply Orientalist view of the Middle East and they don’t feel a part of it. If they lived in Denmark or Norway they would be right-wing voters complaining about how “our European values are under assault by immigration” and claiming “immigrants are anti-Western,” but since they live in Israel they present themselves as being on the Left and claim they are being persecuted.
Those who live in Israel and always sort everyone into categories of “Ashkenazi” and “Mizrahi” cannot imagine an integrated and non-segregated state because secretly they do not want to live in a diverse state. We must not let these voices go unchallenged. When they claim that their ethnic identity makes them superior and a victim, they must be challenged.