The dangerous ethnic demon

The invention of Israeli ethnicism

08/20/2013 20:44

THE GREAT SYNAGOGUE in Tunis. Many Jews from Arab countries faced discrimination when they came.

THE GREAT SYNAGOGUE in Tunis. Many Jews from Arab countries faced discrimination when they came. (Photo: Seth J. Frantzman)
In June 1981 an Israeli entertainer and Labor party supporter, Dudu Topaz, gave a speech to a massive pre-election rally in Tel Aviv. “Those chakchachim [racist slur for Jews from Arab countries] over there in Metzudat Ze’ev [the Likud headquarters], those guys barely serve in the guard booths in the army, and that’s if they serve at all…. Here are the fighters and the commanders. Here is the beautiful Israel.”

The next day Menachem Begin, the Likud party leader, appeared before a large crowd, including many Mizrahim who had been so insulted the day before to rousing applause from the Israeli Left.

“In the days of the underground [before 1948] we had among our Mizrahi brothers many heroes… we had Feinstein, what they call ‘Ashkenazi,’ and Moshe Barazani, a Sephardi from Iraq… [together] Ashkenazi, Iraqim, Yehudim, brothers, fighters!” It was his most famous speech, but its significance is lost today. Writing on the 30th anniversary of the speech, critic Gideon Levy claimed that, “Borne on the wings of hatred for Ashkenazim and Mapainikim…. That speech not only determined the results of the election; it also let the so-called ‘ethnic genie’ out of its bottle.”

The notion of Israel’s “ethnic demon,” as the legacy of anti-Sephardi racism is termed, has been the subject of a four-part documentary on Channel 10 by Amnon Levy. Many intellectuals continue to debate this issue, generally concluding that the “ethnic demon” either is exaggerated, is the fault of the Mizrahim themselves (or of the politicians that mention it).

Avi Shilon notes that Zionism “believed in equality among Jews” and that “few Zionist leaders and thinkers have opposed equality”; Mizrahim, he claims, were not “the other” and focusing on this issue is a “waste of energy.”

In contrast, Yehuda Shenhav argues that “there is a myth that segregation and discrimination of Arab Jews [Mizrahim] took place only in the past. But up-to-date research shows that disparities are larger today than 30 years ago.”

If the issue is a mere waste of energy, one might wonder why it pops up so often. A story in Haaretz last week described how Yael Tothany, a lawyer, posted on Facebook accusations that Education Minister Shai Piron discriminated against Sephardim at a school he was principal of, writing that “the girls were segregated on the basis of their ethnic background.” Similar stories about the community of Emmanuel and schools in Petah Tikvah have also come to light.

On August 12 it was revealed that test scores on psychometric exams varied greatly according to ethnicity and geography. Journalist Lior Dattel concluded that “the disparities between schools in the center of the country and those in the periphery are enormous, and they begin as early as elementary school.” The “periphery” schools at Sderot, Beit Shean and Ofakim were among the worst performers.

THE MUTLI-LAYERED prism of lies through which Israelis view the “ethnic demon” contributes to our misunderstanding of its importance.

The first lie is political: the discrimination doesn’t actually exist. Because Mizrahim overwhelmingly vote to the Right the Left dismisses claims of discrimination as “political.” Thus Yizhar Smilansky wrote in 1981: “The real battlefront is the deployment of the non-Ashkenazim against the Ashkenazim. The upcoming elections are fanning the flames on dying coals.” However, in the 1949 elections Yemenite voters overwhelmingly voted for Begin’s party; Labor secretary-general Zalman Aran claimed, “On this the future of the state hangs… if we fail a cancer will grow in this country that will endanger its existence.” The cancer was the “ethnic problem.” Far from the flames behind fanned, the flames had been there from the start.

The second lie is economic: the 1950s were a utopia. Especially on the Left, historians claim this utopia was ruined after 1967. For example, at a recent Limmud conference in South Africa professor Aviva Halamish argued Israel was “one of the most egalitarian” countries in those days. In fact the country was deeply divided in the 1950s, and Mizrahi Jews were segregated and forced to live in “development towns” in the “periphery” as part of socialist policy. That Israeli historians still view the ‘50s as a utopia is due to their political devotion to the Labor party and inability to mature as other Western democracies have and critique their past.

Anita Shapira’s new award-winning book, Israel: A History illustrates the problem. She claims that Mizrahi Jews “were compelled to get used to physical work, which in their countries of origin was considered demeaning… they had no inclination toward agriculture” and their “level of education was very low.”

In fact the Mizrahi Jews were as diverse as European Jewish immigrants. Theodore Herzl, in Der Judenstat, had noted that “our unskilled laborers will come from Russia and Romania.” In his time the stereotype was that the ostjuden (Jews of the east) were unskilled masses. By 1950, and in fact still today, the stereotype is that Mizrahi Jews had no skills.

As quoted in Shapira’s book, one Labor party doctor, named Erich Nassau, claimed Mizrahim had virulent diseases that “would spread from the transit camps to kibbutzim.” In a report, girls returning from a camp claimed “it is a foreign country, full of people naked from the waste down.” They were “a motley crew of human dust lacking language, education, roots, tradition and national dreams,” claimed another.

A government official said that “the immigrants were like putty in our hands… we didn’t ask them what they wanted, and it worked.” In a similar vein, during the Yemenite baby affair, in which almost 800 Yemenite babies disappeared during immigration, one nurse claimed, “maybe we did them a favor” by taking away their children.

Educated Iraqi Jews recall being placed in camps surrounded by barbed wire where Jewish Agency clerks who spoke Yiddish directed them to live in places like Beit Shean, rather than kibbutzim where “the right human material,” i.e. Jews from Europe, were sent. Sami Michael recalled: “They [Maki party communists] regarded us as primitives… most of the Zionist leftist movements have regarded us as an unnecessary surplus.”

THE ROOT of this racism lay in European socialist notions of a “perfect” ordering of society through planning. Planners sought to “disperse migrants to the periphery.” Beit Shean became “a large transit camp, sunk in hopelessness,” writes Ilan Troen, while Kiryat Malachi could not support “doctors, mechanics or merchants.” Almost every community in Israel in the 1950s became segregated based on country of origin or perceived “Ashkenazi” and “Mizrahi” difference: Moroccans to one place, Poles to another, Arabs in a third.

Those who think this planning was benign might consider the oddly similar to a plan embarked on in South Africa in 1940s. “Residents could not put their own stamp on their houses, since the state built nearly 90 percent of them. This leverage gave the state the opportunity to construct new townships in a way that placed specific ethnic groups together along a spoked, wagon-wheel pattern,” writes historian Hermann Giliomee.

If it was wrong in South Africa to designate “group areas” for different ethnicities, it was certainly wrong to pretend to do it in the name of Zionism. In fact it was not in line with Herzl’s views, it was simply the racism of some Labor elites who ran the planning offices and who thought Mizrahim were “human dust.”

A massive amount of evidence points to racist views toward Mizrahim. For instance journalist Amos Elon wrote in 1953 that Mizrahim live “in stench, degeneracy, disease and perversity” and pondered what effect their “uncontrolled fertility would have on the Jewish people’s genetic robustness.”

This attitude didn’t evolve, either. Israel Prize winner Yuval Tamarkin claimed Moroccans were “descended from a nation of primitive parasites,” and Nathan Zack claimed Mizrahim “come from the caves.”

The discrimination by kibbutzim never ended, either. When Ofir and Danalee Kalfa from Sderot applied to live on nearby Kibbutz Gevim in 2011, a kibbutz representative noted “we are trying to introduce new blood into the community, but new blood needs to match what is already there, otherwise we would die.”

Claims that a society that so clearly segregated people into communities based on country of origin and perceived “ethnic” difference was, or is, “egalitarian” simply cannot be taken seriously.

THE LAST lie is that Israelis today refuse to accept that racism against Jews has been a deep and embarrassing part of the country’s history. Michael Handelzalts in a recent article notes that “being of Ashkenazi origin… blamed for the discrimination – I recuse myself from public discourse on the merit of the [Levy] series.”

This is akin to a white person in the US deciding the best way to deal with a history of racism would be to “recuse” themselves. Handelzalts speaks of a “conflicted story of the ethnic Mizrahi-Ashkenazi debate” and how Begin “channeled Mizrahi- Israelis’ frustration…. [W]ill we ever manage to get rid of the [ethnic genie] bottle and possibly the devil with it?” Similarly Shapira writes that Ethiopian Jews “developed rancorous feelings that they were being discriminated against.” Too many Israelis view everyone who complains of racism as manufacturing discontent. Thus, despite widespread slurs against Ethiopians and discriminatory housing arrangements, it is they who have “rancorous feelings,” as if the problem resides in their feelings, rather than the racism that gave rise to them.

It’s like complaining about African-Americans “harboring frustration,” rather than dealing with their legitimate complaints. Few Israeli voices admit that discrimination was rampant and continues to be rampant; the Left refuses to because they were in charge in the 1950s, and many on the Right refuse because they think it hurts Israel’s image. This is why the racism is described as an “ethnic demon”; the complaints about it are the problem, as Shaul Zidkiyah claimed in Davar in 1981: Begin “released” the demon.

Racist history is not a “demon.” The massive legacy of housing discrimination evidenced in the “development towns” and the “periphery” leaves a lasting black mark on the ability of half the country, including Arabs, to make scholastic achievements and thus to succeed professionally. The very invention of the concept of the “development town” being “where Mizrahim belong” illustrates how the ethnic differences were manufactured in the 1950s. We know that the actual educational and occupational differences between many Mizrahi and Eastern European Jewish communities were meager in the 1940s (in some places the two groups lived side by side, such as in Greece). Only in Israel was an attempt made to segregate them as if their religious tradition, stemming from Spain or Central Europe, was also “ethnic.” Those Mizrahim that chose to immigrate to the US instead of Israel achieved similar educational and financial success as their fellow Jews; yet in Israel a tragic attempt made to segregate them and then pretend that their poverty was their fault.

In that way an “ethnic demon” was manufactured. The denial of this racist tendency by some elites and consequent romanticization of the 1950s is one of Israel’s greatest tragedies. Far from a waste of time to study, it is something that every Israeli should learn about so as to correct the mistake. Society cannot simply “recuse” itself and blame the “rancor” on the victims.

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