The revolt of the Mizrahim

If you want coexistence, you have to devise a strategy that will lead in that direction. There can be no coexistence if one or both sides are bitter, revenge-seeking, uncompromising extremists.

Silvan Shalom
Several years ago a friend of mine was standing in a queue at a bank in Jerusalem when a young Mizrahi fellow barged in, jumped line and went straight to one of the bank tellers. My friend pointed out to him that there were quite a number of people waiting patiently for their turn, who had come before him, to which he replied “You people [i.e. the Ashkenazim] no longer call the shots – the rules have changed.”
In many respects this incident exemplifies the message that emerges from the new TV mini-series Arsim Vefrehot (two untranslatable derogatory terms in Hebrew, which refer to male and female persons of Mizrahi origin and imply vulgarity both in dress and behavior). The series deals with a state of mind among more educated, secular, intellectual Mizrahim in Israel today, who are sick and tired of what they view as a persistent condescending attitude on the side of the Ashkenazim toward anyone of Mizrahi origin, and continued discrimination – both tacit and implicit – against Mizrahim in most spheres of Israeli society.
What the new Mizrahim seem to be seeking is not a more equal and fair society in which no one is discriminated against on the basis of social, ethnic or religious origin, and in which everyone can be considered part of the Israeli mainstream without being an Ashkenazi, or acting like one. What they seem to be seeking is rather revenge against the Ashkenazim, which involves mocking and humiliating them, and their western culture, and manifesting an attitude of defiance which proclaims: “we are proud arsim and frehot,” even if they neither look nor act as such.
It is therefore very difficult for any Ashkenazi – including those who recognize that the way the Mizrahim were treated from the early days of the state (the breaking up of family structures, cutting off the sidelocks of Yemenite children, etc.) was not only the result of objective circumstances, but also of deep-seated prejudice and contempt for those who came from Muslim countries – to empathize or even sympathize with the new Mizrahim portrayed in the mini-series.
Even though I decided to watch the series with an open mind, I admit that I was repulsed, and found very little I could connect with intellectually or emotionally.
But then again, the series was not designed to elicit my support, but rather to make me feel uncomfortable, or as the creator of the series, Ron Kahlili, said in a recent interview: to impress the concept of “crime and punishment” on the likes of me.
Kahlili, a left-winger and former “mit’ashknez” (a term used in Hebrew for Mizrahim who have assumed Ashkenazi attitudes and manners, and have turned their backs on the Eastern culture), does not necessarily sympathize with all the outward manifestations of the new rebellious wave, but he does sympathize with the causes of these manifestations.
Thus, he strongly objects to young Mizrahim yelling “death to the Arabs” and “death to the left-wingers,” but finds it important to give a rational explanation for why they do it – as an expression of their own “Israeliness,” which defies that of left-wing Ashkenazi feinschmeckers, and not out of racism, or unbridled violence directed against “the other.”
I think that this is a very dangerous line of argumentation.
With all the historical differences, I believe that this is equivalent to a German who tries to rationalize why so many Germans sympathized with the Nazis in the 1930s (the Versailles Treaty humiliation, the economic crisis etc.), rather than condemning the prejudices, the feelings of racial superiority, and the underlying criminal instincts that were let loose.
What I also found disturbing was the fact that in his interview Kahlili said that he finds himself defending all sorts of corrupt Mizrahim, like Bat Yam Mayor Shlomi Lahiani and Ashdod Workers Committee chairman Alon Hassan, for no other reason than that they are Mizrahim, and that if they were Ashkenazim, he believes that they would probably be left alone. He is even willing to doubt whether former President Moshe Katzav was really guilty of rape, and even if he was, whether he would have received the same treatment if he were an Ashkenazi.
If you feel that the law is more lenient with Ashkenazim than with Mizrahim, then fight for the treatment of corrupt Ashkenazim in the same manner that corrupt Mizrahim are treated – but don’t defend corruption.
There is no doubt that the Mizrahim have many reasons to feel bitter, and for many to want “their pound of flesh.” But if anyone believes that mocking considerate behavior as “Ashkenazi and passé,” yelling “death to the Arabs” and “death to the left-wingers” or deliberately humiliating Ashkenazim are useful or effective means for changing the situation – they ought to realize that the results are most likely to be the exact opposite, and that such conduct merely strengthens the prejudices against the Mizrahim and serves as justification for continued discrimination.
Over the years I have associated with several members of Hakeshet Hademocratit Hamizrahit – a radical, apolitical extra-parliamentary movement of Mizrahi intellectuals, whose main goal is to do away with Ashkenazi dominance, and gain for the Mizrahim what is due to them. Unfortunately, all this goes hand in hand with expressions of contempt for anything Ashkenazi – whether food, manners, cultural tastes, etc.
These relations with members of Keshet have been mostly of a professional nature, since it is almost impossible for an Ashkenazi individual to establish a relationship based on sincere friendship and mutual respect with them. Even if one can get used to expressions of general contempt for anything Ashkenazi, it is impossible to get used to such expressions being translated into personal insults, as they frequently are.
I remember once being called a “kruchia metzavahat” (a screaming crane, which I believe is an insult of Talmudic origin) by one of my Keshet acquaintances for simply wondering out loud why the likes of her made no effort to offer the Mizrahi community an alternative leadership to Shas, holy quacks or mit’ashkenzim, and their insistence on remaining apolitical and extra-parliamentary.
At the time I swallowed my pride, and did not react to the insult. I tried to understand “where it all came from.”
Today I have less patience with such behavior, whether coming from radical Mizrahim, the extreme Right or anyone else who despises secular, liberal Ashkenazim. You either believe in pluralism or you do not, and if you do you have to behave accordingly.
But back to Ron Kahlili, who said in his interview that in the last resort he still believes in coexistence between Mizrahim and Ashkenazim. Good for him, because the alternative is either domination of one over the other, or civil war. These are actually the same options that face Israel and the Palestinians: coexistence, domination of one over the other, or war.
However, if you want coexistence, you have to devise a strategy that will lead in that direction. There can be no coexistence if one or both sides are bitter, revenge-seeking, uncompromising extremists. The haughty, self-righteous attitude expressed in Arsim Vefrehot avoids offering such a strategy.
I also suspect that while most Mizrahim are pleased with what the pseudo-arsim and frehot say in Kahlili’s series (though some Mizrahi intellectuals have expressed reservations), few of them would follow the new Mizrahim if they were to try to take political action, which is probably also the reply I would have received from my Keshet acquaintance, had she bothered to give me a straight, honest answer to my question, rather than call me names.
The writer is a retired Knesset employee.