By SETH J. FRANTZMAN
Racism, stereotypes, and discriminatory attitudes are alive and well in Israel. Always just beneath the surface. People try to pretend they aren’t there. They use excuses or “that’s old news” to hide them away. But then it comes to the surface so clearly.
On the popular Israel channel 10 program ‘London and Kirschenbaum’, the well known host Yaron London, who is known as an elder statesman of Israeli journalism, went on a rant about “Ashkenazim”. Discussing the entrance of former Israel Prime Minister Ehud Olmert into prison, he wondered aloud about how it would be for an “Ashkenazi” Israeli to be in prison. Reference former bank chairman Danny Dankner, who also went to prison and is apparently “Ashkenazi,” he asked “what will a conversation be like between him and other prisoners, with Ahmed or Buzaglo.”
Referencing “Ahmed” or “Buzaglo” he used names associated with Arabs or “Mizrahi”, non-European, Jews to stereotype the prison population and prison guards of Israel. “Those are the groups that make up the population of prison guards, accountants don’t become prison guards, Ashkenazim don’t.” Ashkenazi is the term Israelis use for European-origin Jews, it’s equivalent to saying “whites don’t work as prison guards” in the United States. “Ahmed” is the stand-in for all Arabs. This is not on some marginal crazy right wing talk radio, this is on a premier television politics program in Israel. This is on the program that many Israelis in the elite media eulogized when his former colleague on the program Moti Kirschenbaum passed away. This was the program that “thinking people” watch.
Boker tov, Israeli racism.
Israeli racism starts at the top, in the elite society, among the most elite Israelis, the ones who posit themselves as the intellectuals, the commentators, the academics. The racism that appears on the television or radio, or in the Knesset, doesn’t star there. It starts in the conversations people have at home, in the kitchen, the acceptable manner of speaking among people, and there is no self-censorship in media, the racism is openly spread. The stereotypes and discrimination are openly spread. Whereas once in Europe the anti-semites might have used the name “Moshe” to stereotype all Jews as involved in the “white slave trade,” a common refrain during the period before 1940, today in Israel it is “Ahmed” as the stand-in for all Arabs.
Denying racism and crafting superiority complexes
This is really how too many Israelis talk on their most “high brow” political shows. They say things like “Ashkenazim don’t join the prison service guards.” Did they study this? Do they know this for fact? No. They rely on their perception that working in a prison is not “Ashkenazi” work. The same Israelis when confronted with articles about ingrained discrimination in Israeli society and lack of social mobility among Mizrahim (non-Ashkenazim), will then claim that it’s not true, that the “discrimination of the old days.” Well, if the discrimination ended in the old days, then why do Israelis say openly that Ashkenazi Jews don’t work as prison guards? If you said in America that “white people don’t work as dish washers” and then claimed “but racism doesn’t exist and social mobility is there for everyone,” you’d be making a contradictory statement. If there are entire professions in which the “Asheknazi Jews” in Israel, who make up slightly less than half of Israel, don’t work in, then obviously there is continued social disparities.
When Israelis make comments like “what will an Ashkenazi Jew like Olmert discuss with Ahmed or Buzaglo,” what do they mean? They are saying openly that there is no discussion, no commonality, between Ashkenazi and Mizrahi Jews. Just by virtue of what? Birth? Because someone has a different last name, because one person’s grandparents came from Yemen and another from Rumania?
Boker tov, Israeli racism.
There is an Ashkenazi-supremacist narrative among some in Israel that invented a notion of “Ashkenazi” apartness and superiority. These are the people who talk about “us Ashkenazim“. They say openly, as Carlo Strenger does, that “we won’t apologize” for past racism. “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, be they Mizrahi or not.” They openly claim that liberal “European” values are a white preserve in Israel of the “white tribe.” This is actually how Israelis of a certain ilk talk. Open, unabashed, European supremacy. “Ashkenazi” has been invented as an identity in Israel for those who are considered wealthier and see themselves as superior.
Israeli journalist Amnon Dankner once wrote:
“I’m sick of having compassion and understanding. I know all those stories about injustice and disparities and feelings of frustration and the DDT [used on Sephardi new immigrants] and the immigrant transit camps and the [Sephardi immigrant slums of] Wadi Salib and Musrara, and the poverty and humiliation…One way or another, I’m sick of this whole thing. I’m sick of lowering the profile of my cultural heritage, to tiptoe around them and shower emotional praise on them. All of this talk about…OK, don’t get mad, we know that you brought a wonderful heritage here. Yes, ours was Heine and Freud and Einstein and that whole wonderful synthesis between Judaism and Western culture, but you too had beautiful things: hospitality, honoring one’s parents, a marvelous patriarchal tradition…. they pull at my jacket lapel, asking me to engage in conversation with those whom they call my brothers. They place me in the same cage with a baboon run amok and tell me: OK, now you’re together, so get a dialogue going. There’s no alternative.”
Boker tov, Israeli racism.
The invention of the “Ashkenazi” imagined community: Between those labelled “primitive baboons” and a re-creation of European anti-semitism
Israel is a sick society. It’s elites in media are too often over the years un-abashed racists and Mussolini-types propagating ignorance who view the country through a prism, in which there are “low” groups such as Arabs and Mizrahi or Sephardi Jews. Then there are the “high culture” groups that are called “Ashkenazi.” Just by being born one or the other, you are considered to have the “heritage of Heine and Freud and Einstein.” That’s how elite Israelis think. Just because someone’s grandparents came from Iraq they are considered a “baboon” and “primitive.” In fact, Israeli elite media, talks precisely about Sephardi-Mizrahi Jews and Arabs, the way that European anti-semites once talked about Jews. In Europe Jews were considered “Oriental” and parasitical, dirty and eastern.
Now in Israel the precise anti-semitic stereotype once used against Jews has been replicated in Israel against Jews from Muslim country. The invented concept of “Ashkenazi” has become a stand-in for “white European”. Israel’s elite media and academics replicate today the racism of 1950s America, Europe in the colonial period and many other dark societies.
These stereotypes are everywhere in Israel. Amos Elon, another doyen of the elites who was worshipped by those who self-describe as “Ashkenazi”, when asked by Ari Shavit about Israel’s “political primitiveness”, claimed “I’m not surprised when you look at the population. We know where it comes from. Either from the Arab countries or from Eastern Europe.” Population. It was all about the origins of the people. One wonders of course why it is that those like Elon came to Israel then? It’s in the Middle East. Did you forget that? All of these self-described “Ashkenazi” Israelis who claim that their “heritage” of Heine and Einstein is so superior and that people from the Middle East are “primitive,” why did they come to the Middle East rather than stay in Europe? If they feel that the nature of anyone who is Arab or even Eastern European is less then themselves, then why are they in the Middle East and then complain about the kind of people who live in the Middle East?
It’s maddening to have an elite society that at one and the same time says it will not apologize for racism, does not believe racism exists, and then claims that entire sections of society are dominated by one group. For them Olmert or Dankner are “Ashkenazi” first. Everyone is “Ashkenazi”, “Arab” or “Mizrahi”. They see society through an eye of country-of-origin. One cannot be anything but their origin. And origin is expected to determine one’s economic status and even job. It’s truly extraordinary.
There is something deeply wrong with parts of Israeli society, especially those parts the pose as “liberal” and “left”. A society that openly mocks whole groups on television, where it is considered normal to wonder how a former prime minister convicted of crimes “will talk with the prison guards who are Arabs or Mizrahim”. The unstated idea is that by merely being “Ashkenazi” one cannot even relate to an Arab or a Mizrahi. This is the language of a kind of apartheid. That in the “Jewish state” they believe just being born “Ashkenazi” makes one so different than another Israeli. The language of a deep racial chasm.
It is a self-fulfilling chasm as well, because those who stereotype like this are not likely to hire non-Ashkenazim, no associate with them, because they think that one who is “European” cannot even speak to a person who is different. It’s not because the criminal has little in common with the prison guard, it’s because in this logic the criminal, by being “Ashkenazi” is actually far superior to the guard. One has the “heritage of Heine” and the other not.
What kind of sick society produces this concept that just being born with a name “Ahmed” or “Buzaglo” makes one inherently different. One cannot be a scientist or academic, just because of one’s last name? What kind of a country calls itself “Jewish state” if that is the mentality. Why not call it an “Ashkenazi state” a “European state” in the Middle East.
Confronting the self-fulfilling narrative of stereotypes and racism
We need to confront Israel with this mirror. If you think that a person, just because they are born non-Ashkenazi, cannot do most professions, cannot be an accountant for instance, as was inferred in the program, then really what you’ve said is this is an apartheid state, with “Europeans” on top, and everyone else in various segments below.
When we look at Israeli history, sadly, we see an attempt to create this kind of self-fulfilling tragedy of racial othering. European immigrants to Israel were generally house in separate communities than Jews from Muslim countries and Arabs. Education was separate. That means that not only separate for Arabs and Jews, but also the Israeli education minister once suggested even separate for Jews from Muslim countries and those from Europe.
Once the separation was complete in the communities and education, then the stereotypes could take hold. Those from Arab or Mizrahi “development town” communities were provided worse education and then they mostly were conscripted to worse army units. Then Israelis stereotype those from these units due to the origin of those forcibly recruited to them. Gideon Levy wrote of the Border Police, claiming the unit kills innocent Palestinians, “The reasons are sociological and ethnic and are linked to the background of most of its policemen — Russians, Druze, Ethiopians and residents of Israel’s geographic periphery — who are cynically and not coincidentally sent by Israel to be the spearhead of its violent rule over the Palestinians and who, not coincidentally, become extremely brutal.”
Insulated and balkanized by race, religion and country of origin, and geographic area, the army units are stereotyped as being one group or another, then those entering university are stereotypes as being better if they have the “heritage of Heine”, and those who are poorer and work in the prison service are stereotypes as Arab or Mizrahi.
Every society has its different professions which may be dominated by different groups. Jews work in diamonds in Antwerp. Those doing yard work may be mostly of Mexican origin in Arizona. Perhaps plumbing is seen as a “Polish” profession in some places. But Israel has excelled at created these differences, socially engineering them so that they perpetuate and then using popular media to encourage the stereotypes. That is why it is normal in 2016 for a program to mock the prisons service as somehow “less” than a prime minister who is a criminal. “What will he talk about with them?” Perhaps he will talk to them like other criminals? When can I eat? Where is the bathroom?
The origins of balkanization and stereotypes: Engineered from the start
The real divider in any society is class. But Israel has succeeded in turning class and race the same thing. Arabs, no matter their wealth and heritage and culture are seen as “Arabs.” Edward Said or an illiterate construction worker, are “Arabs.” Israeli elite society doesn’t want to see photos of Arab weddings from the 1920s, photos of grandeur and wealth, of people who also read “Heine.” It doesn’t want to confront Sassoon Somekh or Iraqi Jewish communists who were highly educated. They also read “Heine.”
There has been a conscious effort by elites in Israel to turn Jewish immigrants from Arab countries into “human material” as Arthur Ruppin called them. They were expected not to read Heine, but to do construction work. Arabs were deprived of education and rights in the period 1949-1966. Then after 1966 the concept was that Arabs are fit for only low level work. There could be no Dajanis, no Nusseibehs, Saids, Khalidis, Nashashibis, Touqans, or Tajis.
To create a sense of “Ashkenazi” as an invented identity that is superior, one must banish the idea of a rich Middle Eastern cultural heritage. “All they have is hospitality,” is how the elite media describes the Middle East. Food and weddings. “Not Heine.”
But it’s like the last scene in Planet of the Apes, what scares Israel’s elites most, those born in the 1940s like the Israeli presenter who mocked prison guards, is that that the others they stereotype so much were here before them, and that they were superior to them.
We have to be honest here. The Mizrahi and Arab civilization was equal to, just as intellectual and in some cases superior to the invented “Ashkenazi” elite society. It superior in the 19th century. It was purposely destroyed and then it was deprived of many things in order that an ignorant, racist, culture could be planted on top of it. Not everything in Israel was racist. The General Zionists and some parties wanted an open, liberal society, a place of social mobility, where each individual could succeed and not be judged by their skin color or heritage. But they were hijacked by the Second Aliyah and its Arthur Ruppin concepts of “human material” in the 1920s. After the point the concept was to turn Jews from Muslim countries and Arabs into a “proletariat”. Segregation was put in place. Modern concepts of eugenics, borrowed from Europe by those like Ruppin who had been educated in Germany (in the land of Heine, but by racists who had no connection to the real heritage of Heine). Then the colonial concepts in vogue in Europe and race-latter theories were applied to the Jews and Arabs in the Middle East. The tragedy was complete. People were balkanized based on background and ethnicity and religion, in a vast social experiment, the likes of which were already being eroded in America and would later be destroyed in Pretoria.
The invention of “Ashkenazi” identity was begun in the period 1925-1955. Housing policy, planning, education, everything in Israel was involved in creating the balkanized society. It could have been a diverse open minded society, but it did not become one. In 2016 we see the results. On TV programs that are ostensibly devoted to a former Prime Minister going to prison, they wonder how the “Ashkenazi” will be able to discuss things with the prison guards, the “Arabs” and “Mizrahim.”
A fading myth of supremacy out of touch with the world
I have one note for Israelis who think this way. Your world will die. In Europe, your “Heine” heritage, which never existed and which you invented for your barely educated ancestors from central Europe who mostly worked as traveling salesmen and who were considered the dregs of society by upper class Europeans, is vanishing. You invented in Israel a notion of yourself as superior, because in Europe you had been seen as inferior. The creation of Israel allowed for the chance to do to others, what had been done in European anti-semitism. Mizrahi Jews and Arabs became the “semites” and some European Jewish immigrants who came to dominate Israel in the 1950s subjected them to the anti-semitism that had been common in Europe in the 1920s. But the world of Amos Elon and Dankner and others is dying. The myth is dying. But so is the acceptance of white European supremacy. Those who think “Ashkenazi” is superior may be able to continue for a short period their domination of Israel, but the rest of the world doesn’t accept this view. In Europe the large numbers of descendants of migrants are now large minorities or majorities in most cities. An Israeli intellectual who thinks to be white and European is superior and that just being born “Ashkenazi” gives one the “heritage of Heine” will find that there are more Turks in Germany who speak the language of Heine, then there are Jews in Israel familiar with Heine. In London or France they will find Arab and African origin politicians and intellectuals. Their view that people of Arab heritage are only good for working as prison guards will be burst when they see that in America that an Arab can be a doctor, a lawyer, a professor, a politician or a plumber. “Ashkenazi” means nothing. Nothing. Nothing.
Your “Ashkenazi” identity is invented. It doesn’t make you superior. It doesn’t make you better. It may make you different if you actually have some heritage from Hungary or Rumania or wherever your ancestors came from that you still remember. But most “Ashkenazi” Israelis are just Israelis culturally. They don’t speak Hungarian, they can’t read Heine. They created a myth of superiority that no one else accepts in the world. Only in a tiny bubble of a few hundred thousand adherents is “Ashkenazi” considered “better.” The whole of the world is moving one way and “Ashkenazi” meaning “better” is not part of that world.
For a while those who preach the superiority of being “Ashkenazi” can get away with pulling the wool over some eyes in the US Jewish community who still adhere to their concept that they are “liberal.” But its illiberal to view a person being superior just because of the last name they have or their country of origin or who their parents are. “We have the heritage of Heine” is meaningless. You don’t have the heritage of Heine. You never did. Being born with a certain name doesn’t give you heritage. What you do with that name may give you heritage. But when you think “Ahmed” and “Buzaglo” are inferior or have their “place” in society, your worldview will vanish soon. The 1940s worldview is vanishing.
Some in Israel like to spread “hasbara” about how “an Arab can be a doctor” or burnish its society as “diverse”, but the fact is that on a daily basis there is stereotypes and racism among elite media that reinforce concepts of natural-racial selection. You can’t have hasbara on one side and then claim that being “Ashkenazi” is superior and mock non-Ashkenazim as only occupying lower parts of society. When “Ahmed” is the name you give to the average prison guard or prisoner, you are not “liberal”, you have no “heritage of Heine”, you have the heritage of Mussolini.
You’re correct that the Ashkenazi identity in Israeli society is dying, but you use that anticipation here more as a prophetic cudgel than the demographic reality it is. Already the majority of Israelis have Mizrahi ancestry and that will only continue as the descendants of Ashkenazi immigration intermarry further into the broader Jewish community. Already Ashkenazi is a minor identity (as you’ve pointed out before) even among Ashkenazim who, when they aren’t just outright marrying Mizrahim, more and more identify as charedim or religious Zionists whose relationship and claim to the land is indigenous, not European.
I’d be interested in hearing your thoughts as these phenomena relate to the Israeli/Palestinian conflict. On one hand you seem to believe that a more Mizrahi, less Ashkenazi Israel will be better able to relate to the Arab community and will be more pluralistic. Otoh, current Mizrahi politics are even more right-wing than the implicitly racist (but still enlightenment value influenced) Ashkenazi elite. Presumably a Mizrahi Israel is an Israel that is no longer willing to give away land, esp if it’s a Mizrahi Charedi Israel. Maybe that’ll work out for the best though. Palestinians think that the racist Ashkenazim can be bullied into concessions. Maybe once Shas in completely in charge they’ll be ready to just sign onto whatever they can get.
Interesting article. I’m also very interested in how the racial discourse will develop in Israel and segue with/into the religious developments currently happening among Haredim as Milx points out.
Do you have any thoughts about Avraham Burg’s comments prior to the ’15 elections? http://www.ynetnews.com/articles/0,7340,L-4615046,00.html
In regards to The Conflict, I find the recent piece in Haaretz by Ophir Taboul (http://www.haaretz.com/peace/1.687766) to be important as this development moves. Also, the piece in Tablet about intersectionality and how that conversations excludes Mizrahim is part of this too (http://www.tabletmag.com/scroll/197169/an-intersectional-failure-how-both-israels-backers-and-critics-write-mizrahi-jews-out-of-the-story).
Ultimately, it seems that Israel’s political discourse – currently divided and molded by class and racial differences – will change and we’ll have a re-examination of Zionism(?). Not necessarily a change into post-Zionism but an integrated Middle Eastern Israel that will navigate between it’s European founders dreams and ideas, it’s plurality of Mizrahi citizens with their history in the region and a Jewish identity that is deeper but less loud in external trappings. Maybe that will be Zionism, maybe it will just be Israel as Israel.