How Israel’s poor minority was turned into “white racists” by Israel’s “left” in order to excuse it’s own racism
By SETH J. FRANTZMAN
After the recent Israeli elections the country’s self-defined “left” has erupted in a cacophony of name-calling and scapegoating directed at the country’s “Mizrahi” minority. The concept is to blame them for the Zionist Union’s inability to do as well as Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud.
Every country needs a scapegoat. Every form of nationalism needs an “other” to blame and push the country’s problems onto. In Israel the center-left form of nationalism has targeted “Mizrahi” Jews as to blame for almost all of the country’s problems. One professor went on a morning show and said that had they not come to Israel and been “left to rot” the country would be better off.
A more interesting narrative is being created that defines “Ashkenazi” as “left” in Israel, as “democratic” and “progressive” and posits that the “Mizrahi” Jews, whose origins are in the Middle East (i.e they are the native inhabitants of the region, compared to the self-defined “European” Jewish immigrants on the “left”); are the “racists” who have harmed Israel.
Larry Derfern’s +972 column was emblematic of this. He asserts “Israeli leftists, who are disproportionately Ashkenazi” and creates a mythological division of Israel between this “Ashkenazi Left” and “under-educated segments of the Mizrahi population…the latter tend to hate Israeli leftists. They also hate the ‘weakened’ classes who are not Jewish: Arabs and African refugees.” For him “the overwhelming majority of the Mizrahi poor hate weakness, even worse than the average Israeli does”; and he claims that “if we want to treat the poor Mizrahim as equals, we should whack them upside the head in return, shouldn’t we, Ashkenazi leftists?”
This is how a section of Israeli society thinks. It invents a definition for itself as “white Ashkenazi European left” and then defines Jews from the Middle East as “racists.” Derfner elaborates, “so why are poor Mizrahim right wing and often racist? For the same reason poor whites all over the world are right wing and very often racist.”
Carlo Strenger, another European-origin Jewish “left” intellectual who writes for Haaretz, also re-defines Mizrahim as poor and white. He claims their voting patterns “have reflected a phenomenon known for much of the second half of the twentieth century, in which socioeconomically lower classes tend to vote for the far right…This holds true for many of Likud’s voters (including some Ashkenazim) no less than those who vote for Marine le Pen in France or Geert Wilders in the Netherlands.” Thus “Mizrahim” are re-defined as poor whites in Europe. He compares them to “disgruntled white men in the American south will not vote for Democrats.”
He concludes that “We cannot undo the mistakes of Mapai towards Mizrahim from the 1950s to the 1980s, and apologizing for them, as Ehud Barak did in 1999, won’t win over those who do not believe in liberal principles.” Therefore, “We believe, for good reason, that it is in Israel’s existential, moral and political interest to remain a Western country…No amount of political correctness will cover up the fact that we are now fighting a political and cultural war for Israel’s identity.”
Making Mizrahim “white” while castigating the struggle with them as a “Western war for Israel’s identity”
Unpacking the ideology in the Strenger and Derfner pieces allows us a peek behind the curtain of a large segment of a self-defined imagined community of “Western European Liberal progressives.” The concept is to “stop apologizing” (a similar ideology to Naftali Bennet’s own slogan) to Mizrahi Jews and instead stand up for “our values.” This isn’t a hidden value, it is openly declared as “Ashkenazi leftist.” In no other country is “left” part of a racial and ethnic or religious identity. The very nature of what was meant to be progressive and liberal values in the West was supposed to transcend religion and race and national origin.
But some Israelis has done something interesting with this concept. Authors self-define to be “left” as to be “Ashkenazi” and then define “Mizrahi” as to be “racist and poor.” There is no shame in the newspapers publishing articles that claim “Mizrahim hate the weak.”
What is particularly interesting is the new narrative to define Mizrahim as “poor whites” as in the West. What’s interesting is it forgets that the phenomenon of racism among poorer groups in Europe or the US is that those groups are part of the majority. Thus one finds “poor whites” who vote extreme right, poor whites who vote for Labor or left parties and wealthy whites who also break along ideological lines. There are rich white communists and rich white racists.
In Israel the mentality takes a minority and poorer group, defines them as “Mizrahim” and then defines itself as “Ashkenazi.” It doesn’t say “some poor Jews vote radical right,” as in looking at Jews as a majority; instead it turns the poor into their own racial category. It would be like turning Hispanic Americans into “poor whites” and claiming they are “racist against black people” and that “we leftwing white people know better and want to preserve our Western identity.” The narrative of Israel is to take a minority group, heap the country’s problems on it, define that group as racist and then define the “good” group of European-origin as “Western” and preserving “western values.”
Preserving a sense of European superiority
The imagined community of “Ashkenazi left” in Israel and positing that it is fighting a battle for “Western values” connects it to its early 20th century origins. It adopts a eugenics-based approach to values, namely seeing ideology as flowing from ethnicity. “Mizrahim” are “racist” and “they hate the weak.” It’s not a question, it is just a definition. It is like how Gideon Levy wrote that Russians have “crime in their blood.” The view among a certain group in Israel is to see racism, crime, and other qualities as blood-borne, namely as intrinsic values to various groups. A person who is poor and whose family came from Morocco cannot be liberal. Richard Cohen in his Is Israel Good For the Jews accepted this strange view by claiming Jews in the US cannot identify with an Israel where many Jews are from the Middle East. “ “What will happen when Jews from Islamic lands, already nearly 50% of the population, become a healthy majority and change the face that Israel presents to the world, particularly America?” Thus the very fact that a Jew has origins in the Middle East makes that Jew impossible to identify with. It isn’t about values, it is about place of origin. Daniel Gordis in an article at Bloomberg accepted this view. He claims that “The refined, Western, soft-spoken [Zionist Union leader Isaac] Herzog feels foreign to them [Mizrahim]; Netanyahu’s pugnaciousness seems better suited to this part of the world.” Avi Issacharoff followed this narrative when he titled an article “Natanyahu speaks fluent Mizrahi.”
Gordis writes: “Mizrachim now account for half of Israel’s population, and that percentage is slowly growing. Thus, values that are important to many American Jews — openness to non-Orthodox varieties of Judaism,giving women greater access to places of religious worship, softening Israel’s footprint in the West Bank — will matter much less to an increasing number of Israelis.”
This creates a self-fulfilling prophecy of “no apologies.” The concept is to not apologize or make amends for the treatment of Mizrahi immigrations by the government in the 1950s, because they are seen as essentially irredeemable. This excuses the reason for Israel’s widespread use of acceptance committees and divided schooling for different groups and the widespread support for acceptance committees on the left in Israel.
The “Ashkenazi left” claims that acceptance committees must “preserve” their “unique culture.” As one member of Kibbutz Gevim told Haaretz, “new blood must match what is already there.” Thus Mizrahim or Arabs cannot move to kibbutz, because the concept is that the kibbutz is a “minority.” In Israel the wealthier groups have turned themselves into a “minority” community of “Ashkenazi western leftists” and re-defined the actual minority who were suppressed, the Mizrahim, into “poor white racists.”
‘Fauda’ as a model of the real racism
The irony of the whole narrative is that no matter how much the “Ashkenazi left” burnishes its “Western” credentials, it may insulate itself from Mizrahim and define them as unacceptable and “racist”; but it cannot confront the Palestinian narrative which it implicitly plays into accepts. For Palestinians the view of those who say they are “European” and “Western” is simply stating a fact; namely that Zionism is a foreign movement that took Israel from its native inhabitants. Thus the irony is that what seems like a “left” view is not accepted by the mainstream left abroad which accepts the Palestinian view.
The Palestinian view is that no matter how much these people talk about being “Western” they are in fact the real racists, because their worldview is anti-Arab and anti-Palestinians. We can see this manifested in the new hit TV series Fauda which glorifies nice upper middle class Israelis from the “good” Israel that “isn’t racist”, but who work as undercover soldiers, or “mista’arvim” in the West Bank. Killing Palestinians by night, voting Meretz by day? That is what is called “shooting and crying” in Israel. It is the ultimate Israeli fantasy. Live in a bucolic kibbutz or moshav, as depicted in the show, and then dress up like Arabs at night and “penetrate” and Arab neighborhood. Is it a surprise the show was developed by Avi Issacharoff, formerly of Haaretz, who claimed in a column that “Netanyahu won because he speaks fluent Mizrahi.” He claimed that Netanyahu won because “of the fear of ‘them’ of the others, the Arabs.” Netanyahu “latched onto the most primordial fear, that of the Arabs.”
Issacharoff, who created a show glorifying Israel’s security agents killing Arabs and dressing “as Arabs”, writes that “Unfortunately, for many people of Mizrahi origin and mainly from the development towns, xenophobia, particularly toward Arabs, has only grown stronger with the years, while the center-left camp’s election advertisements focused on the economic situation.” But really, what is racist? The show Fauda stereotypes Arabs and glorifies those who administer Israel’s military occupation. It is all about the greatness of the Ashkenazim who defeat Arabs, and yet we are told that it is Mizrahim who hate Arabs.
The main perpetuator of stereotypes against Arabs are those who claim to be the most European and vote “left.” And the show Fauda acknowledges that, it says that the only time a person should get to know Arabs, is at the barrel of a gun, is when “penetrating” their society undercover. And it teaches a generation of Israelis to think this way. And then the same elites that produce a show like this say that those who watch it are racist and the viewers have a “primordial” fear, a fear inculcated by the same people accusing others of it.
Who really fears Arabs the most? People in Ramle or Lod that live with Arabs and also vote right wing? Or is it people in North Tel Aviv who have never met an Arab and see them only on shows like Fauda?
Israel has created a self-fulfilling prophecy of “the racist Mizrahim” as a way to cleanse the non-Mizrahi “left” of its actual racism and foist that racism onto others. It says that the poor “fear the other”, but it doesn’t point a critical lens at its own society. You will never see an Israeli commentator of the Issacharaoff-Derfner-Strenger kind dare to shine a light on their own society and community. In Israel “racism” has been defined as “a problem of the development towns” and implicitly “we in Tel Aviv cannot be racist.” In fact the term “racism” is used to other Mizrahim. Without any evidence, it is just part of he litany of insults cast upon them “they are racist/we are not racist.”
The truth about Israeli society is that the entire society has racist views and those who claim to be the least racist often are the more racist with the most Eurocentric “white” fantasy about themselves and their place in a “dark” and “primitive” Middle East; they have the most Orientalist views, and they have a white fantasy of “purity” of the “their” part of the country from the “others.” This manifests itself in acceptance committees and segregated education designed to separate society for separate development. The same person who puts in place the divided education and places Arabs in one school and Jews in another, are the ones who say “Mizrahim are racist”, the same people who put Mizrahim in camps in the 1950s and forcibly put them in development towns, are those who say they are “racist.” To call others racist is to anesthetize themselves. But it won’t work. Because no matter how much the castigate and segregate and try to keep Mizrahim and Arabs away and preserve a “European” fantasy, they become more racist. Insulation is racism. Acceptance committees are racism. Segregated education is racism. Only when Israeli society begins to confront the real deep racism throughout and banish hatred of Mizrahim and hatred of Arabs, and dare to confront everyone and fight against racism everywhere, will it be liberated from this problem. So long as those controlling the “who is racist” megaphone remain those claiming that only a person born “Ashkenazi” can be non-racist, and claiming European-Jews are superior to others, then racism will not be banished but become more entrenched.