By SETH J. FRANTZMAN
One of the common refrains among the Israeli intellectual elites, who self-identify as “left” is that the “others” in Israeli society are racist. Shani Gershi wrote on December 2 in Haaretz “how can anti-Arab Israelis complain about Ashkenazi racism?” She patronizingly addressed the “Mizrahi brothers and sisters” and claimed that “only if you denounce the disdain against Arabs within your own community will you have the moral right to protest against racism.”
In doing so she stereotyped all Mizrahim as “racist”, and stripped them of the individual rights, the agency to ever discuss racism against them. Almost two years ago Gideon Levy made a similar argument about African migrants in Israel. Ostensibly he was addressing racism against them, but then he launched into a tirade against Israel’s Russian origin minority. “A million immigrants from Russia, a third of them non-Jews, some of whom were also found to have a degree of alcohol and crime in their blood were not a problem.” When Russians expressed outrage, he responded, not with an apology, but with renewed attacks on “Russians.” In another oped, at +972, Larry Derfner also wrote about “what’s an Ashkenazi leftist to do” and asked “why are poor Mizrahim right wing and often racist?” In a tweet in July of 2014 Meir Javadanfar claimed he had been at a rally and “during pro-cease fire demo, huge Ashkenazi majority in pro-left demo, almost complete Sefaradi majority in pro-right counter demo.”
Creating an illusion of Ashkenazi “left” superiority
In Israel there is an imagined community that identifies itself as “Ashkenazi”. Within that definition is almost always the concept of being “Ashkenazi secular left”, what many Israelis call the “white tribe.” The concept argues that “Ashkenazi” is an ethnic category and that European-origin Jews are a group that are culturally superior and less racist than “others.” This is the ultimate Israeli form of white privilege, that only the “white” group can be anti-racist and determine who is allowed to struggle against racism.
This is a very interesting concept because it runs counter to the general trend of left wing thought abroad which is to support multi-culturalism, diversity and not to stereotype minorities and people of color as inferior, or naturally inferior. But when you read how Israelis discuss “Mizrahim”, what you find is a notion of natural inferiority and natural racism. Mizrahim are “often racist.” How do we know that? There is no survey, no data, no semblance of even interviewing or discussing this issue with “Mizrahim.”
Labeling Mizrahim as “racist” or Russians or others is part of the othering process in Israeli society. Ashkenazi or non-Mizrahi authors ascribe to themselves individual choices. Thus an Ashkenazi is allowed to confront racism or speak out about racism. No one says “only if you denounce the disdain against Arabs within your own Ashkenazi community will you have the moral right to protest against racism.” Of course not, because to be “Ashkenazi” is to be an individual. Mizrahim are a group, a monolith, and it is posited that every member of the group thinks the same. They are all “poor” and “right wing” and “racist.”
This is a traditional colonial mindset, which views the “savages” as a dark group force, and the whites as a “civilizing mission.” In the 19th century Europeans were seen as cultured and individual, whereas non-Europeans were portrayed as having animalistic-like desires and being masses. “The yellow peril” or “darkest Africa.”
At the heart of this Israeli mindset is a notion that the “left” is the light unto the nations, the white tribe of secular humanity whose manifest destiny it is to rule over the “others.” Ari Shavit wrote on Nov. 17, 2011 that “Israel would be a backward country without the left wing.” When asked in a 2004 interview about Israel’s descent into “primitiveness”, Amos Elon, an Israeli stalwart of the “left” claimed “we know where it comes from, either from the Arab countries or from Eastern Europe.” Elon had been speaking that was for more than 50 years, in 1953 he had spoken of Moroccan Jews living in “stench, degeneracy, disease and perversity” and he was worried what their “uncontrolled fertility would have on the Jewish people’s genetic robustness.” Genetics? Degeneracy? Where were those words common? In Germany in the 1930s where there was “degenerate art” and a fear of the “genetic” threat to the volk. And yet, Elon was called “left” in Israel. Left in quotes, because in fact he was a radical right wing thinker in the classic European tradition of the inter-war years. We still hear the refrain “demographic” threat and “fertility” threat. Ari Shavit speaks of there being too many Arabs in the school system in Jerusalem.
The myth of the “primitives” in Israeli society has a long “left” wing pedigree. Israel artist and prize winter Yigal Tamarkin claimed Moroccans were “descended from a nation of primitive parasites” and Natan Zach, another celebrated Israeli poet, claimed they “come from the caves.” Shulamit Aloni claimed in 1983 that voters for the right in Israel were “barbarous tribal forces…driven like a flock…like a roll of tom-toms in a savage tribe.” And this is “left” in Israel? The same exact concepts expressed today when the right is called “racist” and then the most racist stereotypes are conjured up about it. “tribal”, “savage”, “primitive”, “barbarous.” Villa in the jungle, is what some Israelis of the “white tribe” call Israel, and by that they mean truthfully, a colonial villa, in a dark jungle. Who are the other: Mizrahim, Russians, Ethiopians, Arabs, everyone who is not a member of the self-defined “Ashkenazi” group.
Creating a balkanized society to ‘other’ non-Europeans
The origins of this bifurcation and stereotypes go back to the origins of the state. After the Second Aliyah brought large numbers of Jews from central Europe to Palestine, they also brought with them modern notions of nationalism and socialism. As a small minority, there were only 83,000 Jews among 600,000 Arabs, this Aliyah sought to insulate the Jewish community in communal “intentional” agricultural settlements. They wanted double-insulation, first from the Arab labor force, second from the traditional Jewish community. The old Jewish community in Palestine tended to speak Turkish and Arabic, it had its own elite structures, it was diverse and cultured. It was primarily urban and large amounts of it were religious. The new pioneering nationalism of this reinvented Zionism of the 1920s needed total insulation from this “old Yishuv”, lest “levantizinization” occur. Arthur Ruppin and the leading Labor Zionist sociologists explained this as an attempt to “purify” their self-defined “Jewish race” so that only the “desirable and racially pure come to the land.” He argued for a racial-ladder, similar to those then in vogue in Europe, that would mean Yemenite Jews should only be used for “menial” labor. Ethiopian Jews should not come to the land they “had no blood connection” to his “pure” Jews.
Labor was divided between Jew and Arab and between the “pure” Jews from Europe and others. Education was segregated. An entirely segregated landscape was conjured up. Kibbutzim for Ruppin’s “pioneers” and for the “others”, a life in an urban area. Some 200 or more “pure” settlements were created. Strict acceptance rules and committees were establish to police the perfection of the correct human material, in their concept, for these new “intentional” communities.
When the 1948 war came, around 800,000 Arabs fled or were expelled from the land. This gave the new state an entire blank slate to force their new concepts on. They used new planning theories to create a “pure” settlement map. Arabs would be in Arab “villages”, Jews from Europe in kibbutzim or moshavim, and Jews from Arab and Muslim countries, the “Mizrahim” would mostly be settled in “towns” to be used as “menial” labor. There was no choice in the matter often. People were processed and sent where they belong. Hannah Arendt fully embraced this in a 1960 letter commenting on Israeli society during the Eichmann trial: “On top, the judges, the best of German Jewry. Below them, the prosecuting attorneys, Galicians, but still Europeans. Everything is organized by a police force that gives me the creeps, speaks only Hebrew and looks Arabic, they would obey any order. And outside the doors, the oriental mob, as if one were in Istanbul or some other half-Asiatic country.”
These concepts of race-land-class-politics still inhabit Israel without shame. At one kibbutz a family from Sderot, a “development town” which is where “non-Europeans” were sent, a member of the acceptance committee told those wanting to move there that “we are trying to introduce new blood into the community, but new blood needs to match what is already there.” Blood. Race. Genetics. Community. Writing recently, one kibbutz member asked why her community was accused of being “ethnic.” It was unfair. “The kibbutzim were tolerant, liberal, anti-racist communities striving for peace and justice. The fact that members were mostly Jewish doesn’t make it an ethnic community, if you meant that in the excluding sense. Just as it makes sense for a family to aspire to be part of the same culture, heritage, and language, it also makes sense for an intentional community.”
“Mostly Jewish”, in fact they were entirely Jewish. And why could only this European-origin group exclude others as part of an “intentional” community? Could Moroccan Jews have an intentional community? How about Arabs? Ethiopians? The “intentional” community model was reserved only for one group. Separate development was the notion. Separate segregated education, housing, communities. Total separation. Apartness. The watchwords were “heritage” and “culture” and the myth was “tolerant, liberal, anti-racist.” This was racism in the name of anti-racism. One culture, one volk, one race, one political view, and everyone else in Israel was “racist” because this model was self-defined as “social justice”, “egalitarian” and “anti-racist.”
Once total separation was complete, with Arabs in villages, European-origin secular Jewish pioneers in another and Jews from Arab and Muslim lands settled in a third, with ultra-Orthodox Jews in a fourth area, then the separate development could begin. The elite group was self-defined as an invented “Ashkenazi” and superior group. Other groups were seen as “primitive”, “savage” and “racist.”
It is interesting how “racist” became over time the new stereotype of those who had suffered the most racism at the hands of Israeli society. They were accused of “complaining” or raising the “ethnic demon” if they discussed it. By 2015 they were being told that mentioning racism was in fact “immoral” because they had not confronted it in “their own” society. The concept of “they are racist” is a way to enshrine and preserve the primarily white privilege of the elites in Israel, particularly this self-defined cultured secular “Ashkenazi” elite. Everyone else is either “racist” or a demographic threat. Why shouldn’t haredi Jews be allowed to move into secular bastions? They are “racist” or “ignorant.”
The way in which the other are portrayed as racist would be almost akin to post-Apartheid South African whites claiming that the newly enfranchised black electorate was “racist”, or like listening to the old southern gentry complain that African-Americans and Hispanics are “racist”. Like hearing from the old nobility of Europe that the lower classes are “racist”, when it is they who pioneered racism.
“Ashkenormativity” and the creation of “racists”
The one thing that frightens the legions of writers who always excuse elite racism by claiming that those who suffered institutionalized racism are “racist”, is a joint struggle against racism.
First of all it means labeling and defining institutionalized Ashkenazi racism and reducing the acceptance of Ashkenormativity (see for instance Jonathan P. Katz on this term). Since the foundation of Israel a small group of European secular immigrants have defined themselves as “Israeli” and “sabra” and defined everyone else as a foreign interloper. How did Amos Elon, for instance, in 1953 get to decide that Moroccan Jews were not wanted whereas “his group” were the normative group? He was an immigrant also. But European secular Zionists created a concept of “veteran” in Israel, in Hebrew “vatikim”. This was reserved for secular Europeans who had come “first”. When one reads Aviva Halamish or Anita Shapira or other institutional authors about Israeli history, they quickly see how Haredim, Mizrahim, Russians and Arabs are seen as outsiders, as not “Israeli” as “immigrants”. Ironically the Arab minority, who were from the country that became Israel, were seen as outsiders. Orthodox Jews, who greeted the first Zionists who came off the boats at Jaffa, were “outsiders”. Mizrahim, who were far more Middle Eastern, far more local, than someone from Germany, were outsiders. This genius restructuring of narratives and history allowed for the concept that to be Ashkenazi was “normal” whereas if you listen to music from the region of Egypt, Lebanon or Syria, then it is “Mizrahi” music. European music is just “music.” The Oud is a “foreign” instrument, whereas the piano is “native Israeli”. A suit is an “Israeli” outfit, a fez or a Yemenite dress is “foreign” or “traditional”.
For the same reason whenever hate-crimes are committed by Ashkenazi Jews the entire Ashkenazi community is not blamed as “racist.” The settlement movement over the Green Line is almost entirely Ashkenazi. The Jewish underground of the 1980s that bombed Palestinians was mostly Ashkenazi origin. Baruch Goldstein, Meir Kahane, and basically all those arrested for hate crimes against Arabs are often of European origin. Who bulldozed the Arab villages of Amwas, Yalo and Beit Nuba in 1967 near highway 1? Who was it that expelled the people of the Golan? Who expelled the Bedouin from their lands, nationalized them all and perpetuated dispossession? Who created a segregated education system?
And yet it is Mizrahim who are “racist”? They must confront racism in “their own community”, but somehow the mass of European-origin-perpetuated racist incidents, hate crimes, depopulation, is not something the “community” must address before it can “morally” discuss racism? How is that possible? Why is Mizrahi racism assumed, but Ashkenazi racism is “individual”?
What frightens the “Ashkenazi” Israeli dialectic? A joint struggle against racism
What this self-defined “left” and “liberal” elite fears most is a joint struggle against racism. Each group in Israeli society is always asked to struggle separately against racism and in so doing they can each be addressed separately and divided against eachother. In each case excuses can be brought forward, some crumbs thrown from the table and the community told that in fact they are the problem. Ethiopians who struggle against black face on TV are told they are just “complaining” and don’t have a sense of humor. Mizrahim are “racist” so they can’t discuss racism. Arabs are a demographic threat. Daily racism stereotypes Arabs, newspapers even describe Arab women who don’t cover their hair as “not looking Arabic” or “talking like a Jew”. An Arab who doesn’t wear hijab thus doesn’t “dress like an Arab”, and this is the daily racist abuse accepted on the “left” in Israel, a traditional European neo-colonial mentality.
A joint struggle against racism is needed among the groups who have been othered by Israeli society. Arabs, Mizrahim, Russians, Ethiopians, Haredim and those Ashkenazi Jews who do not accept the elite structure and false liberalism, are partners. They have more in common with eachother than they do with those who maintain the segregated education, segregated housing and acceptance committees.
Israelis are told that a Jew from Kiryat Yam must be against an Arab from Shfa’amr, and that between them will be a kibbutz who runs a “coexistence” program. But the Arab in Shfa’amr and the Jew in Kiryat Yam suffer more together. They pay higher taxes and more for water. Their Arnona goes to support small “intentional” communities. They lack land and have to live like sardines in large apartments, whereas those with the racist acceptance committee have all the land. They are encouraged to be balkanized and have numerous political parties so that they cannot unite. Poverty-stricken Russians are told that Arabs are the enemy by the same people who laugh at them and claim they have “crime in their blood”. But they are victims of the same system as the people in Majd al-Krum.
What those who claim “you are racist and can’t judge us” fear the most is a united struggle against the traditional institutionalized racism. The concept of Bedouin as having land rights to the Negev is not a threat to the people in Beersheba, who also lack land rights, but is a threat to the elites. Give the Bedouin land rights, and give the poor access to land. Take away land from the 1 percent who were given it by the government and who were allowed to aggrandize it and then call everyone else “racist”.
There must be a joint struggle in Israel against terms of abuse like “savages”, “barbarous”, “primitive” and “blood” and “genetics” as a way to degrade and make people into second class citizens. Europeans are not superior. They are not naturally “liberal” and “tolerant” and they must be judged similarly as a group as they have judged others.
At the very least it’s time to confront this concept that no one in Israel can fight against racism except the elite structure that itself perpetuates racism and excuses it. Until the acceptance committees are torn down, the little “Orania” within dismantled, and until the segregated education system is challenged and those pretending to be “anti-racist” are finally confronted on their rampant racism and stereotyping and offensive use of terms like “primitive,” we cannot begin to discuss a non-racist society in Israel. Those struggling against racism don’t need an “Ashkenazi” permission, that only if they come with a certain last name or a certain background are they part of the “anti-racist elite”, when that elite is up to its neck in traditional European racism.