An Israeli film critic’s rant and the legacy of 1950s Israeli racism

By SETH J. FRANTZMAN

On July 9 an Israeli film critic named Gidi Oshrer wrote on Facebook:

“To all the Zubaidas and Khalils, the Shasnikim [Shas political party] and eastern rainbow and members of the community from the east and Hillels, and dwellers of the east:
Next time you have a heart attack, skip the procedure and put a chicken foot on the head, your folk remedy. The next time you are in your security room and missiles falling on your head, ignore Iron Dome and say Psalms [prayers], or wait for Rachel, the matriarch to protect you. Next time you want to have a child and you are infertile, skip the advanced fertility service at hospitals and just go seven times to the tomb of the Baba Kussamo. The next time you want to publish an article, leave the computer and software applications developed in advanced startups in Israel and return to writing on parchment, signaling with bonfires, and screaming in the media (which you do anyway). The next time you sign a letter or advertising of any kind, don’t insist on putting a doctoral degree which you don’t believe in anyway and the university whose values you despise.
The next time the western civilization you hate so much which brought us development, success and whose founders created this country, the next time you call to destroy all that and go back, next time you make fun of the millions of Mizrahi people that are becoming Ashkenazified, and the need for progress, modern conception of their life in the country, which over time improve their situation and situation of the country, the people who do no rely on welfare and rely on themselves to make progress and not wailing, next time you react to an expression of a different opinion by saying it is “arrogant” and racist, and inflames the passions for a few measly profits of political and economic profits for your rabbi’s foot or a baby’s foreskin you can put on your head and wait for a miracle.”
I’ve translated the entire post (see screenshot at bottom) because it’s worth analyzing it to understand the tragic and deep-rooted intolerance that still exists in Israel.  Even though the critic was suspended from speaking at Army Radio, a lesson has not been fully learned throughout Israel.
   Every time there is some discussion in Israel about including more “Mizrahi” Jewish history, the history of Jews from the Middle East, and traditions in society there is a reaction among self-defined “Ashkenazi” Jews who view themselves as “cultured” and “western”, against the “Mizrahi” culture.  While in most of the western world people have embraced multi-culturalism and the idea that elite dominant cultures need to be balanced against minority cultures, Israel remains rooted in a 1950s mentality.  What is fascinating about this is that those most defending the need for a 1950s style “only western” Israel are those who define themselves as “left”.
   But they don’t speak the way the left speaks in the US or Europe, in terms of tolerance and embracing other cultures and respect for non-western civilizations.  Instead they tend to speak the language that would have been normal in South Africa in the 1950s or the Old South of the US in the 1950s.
   In this view the west is “civilization” and “progress” and the east is “superstitious”, and “primitive”.   This is a legacy of the 1950s when some leading Zionists such as Arthur Ruppin, Giora Yoseftal and journalists such as Amos Elon, inculcated a view that European Jews were superior to “eastern” Jews, and invented a concept of an Ashkenazi ethnicity, and a Mizrahi one that was the “other”.  These leaders claimed Jews from the Middle East were “primitive” and suggested settling them in segregated areas, producing long term affects on society.
   The recent round of controversy began with a suggestion that Israeli students might learn about the holy graves of Jewish saints.  These are similar graves that many religious Ashkenazi Jews already revere, such as at Meron.  But for some reason the latest controversy became about Mizrahim somehow foisting their history onto Israel’s hegemonic history, which tends to view Jewish history as primarily European in origin.

   A similar thing happened during the elections in 2015 when artist Yair Gerboz attacked “those who think democracy is tyranny of the majority…amulet kissers, idol-worshippers and bowers at the graves of saints.” That was followed by an inflammatory statement by academic Amir Hetsroni on Channel 2 last year in which he told a Jewish woman “nothing bad would have happened if your parents had stayed in Morocco and rotted there.”

Hetsroni said: “If we didn’t open our legs without selection to all kinds of Jews, questionable Jews and half-Jews from third-rate countries, whose uniting characteristics are to kiss amulets, eat hummus, drink borscht, take government handouts and get an orgasm from arguing with the world — Boujie [Zionist Union leader Isaac Herzog] would have taken it in a cake walk…The Israeli left is paying the Zionist price, and no one other than the professor [Hetsroni himself]…is willing to say it.”

The stunning regularity of these kinds of comments in media points to a disturbing wide-spread presence of them just under the surface. In 2010 Israeli poet Natan Zach was on channel 10 when he claimed that Israel had taken in the wrong sort of immigrants. “The idea of taking people who have nothing in common arose. He one lot comes from the highest culture there is – western European culture- and the other lot comes from the caves.” He was referencing the immigration of Jews from Arab countries in the 1950s. Hetsroni had also referenced it, as had Gerboz.

Here are a few reactions to this:

Why are such statements made by people who are educated and claim to be speaking in the name of “culture” and the “left”?  Hatred of the “east” and stereotypes against people from the Middle East are not supposed to be propagated by the open minded “left”, but rather by the racist right. The fact is that part of Israeli society has cultivated a kind of European western supremacism in its attempt to keep transmitting European culture over the years.  It has embraced a 1950s Western cultural value of “the west is superior”, and kept it in a kind of time warp, trapped in ice.  It doesn’t want to move forward and accept that other cultures should have equal space in society.

The idea that only western civilization brought “progress” and that only in the West is there a “modern conception of life”, is an idea taken from the 1950s and the colonial and imperialist cultures. There are multiple modernities and there is no such thing as only western “progress” and eastern “superstition.”

Is Israeli academic culture so backward and ignorant and uneducated and trapped in the past that it has not left the 1950s behind?  Apparently it is.  When academics, poets, artists, film critics and the “educated” society expresses views that would have been normal in the 1930s about “the east”, it is because the academic circles have not educated people.

The view that the west is “superior” and that the east is an “inferior” culture is one of the many reasons anti-Israel activists view Israel as a European outpost in the Middle East, a false and colonial entity.  It is ironic that those who pretend to be on the “left” in Israel and claim to be “cultured” actually embrace this view without shame, as if be shameless colonizers.  But when they go to Europe and tell Europeans “we westerners are superior in Israel,” one wonders how they are received.  Perhaps the truth is that these kinds of Israelis cannot go abroad and express themselves this way and so they are trapped in an Israeli bubble, trying desperately to transmit to the next generation views that have disappeared in the West.  The only groups who embrace an unreserved hatred of non-European culture in Europe today are the radical right.  So does that mean that Israel’s “cultured left” is actually a radical European right?  Perhaps.

There is a tendency to not only disregard Jewish history that is rooted in the Middle East, but to be dismissive of it and hateful towards its adherents.  But one wonders why the same Israelis who have such a visceral dislike for Jews who make up a large portion of Israeli society, keep asking those Jews to go to the army and defend their state.  If you disregard them so much, then stop asking them to defend you?  How would Israel do if it was just made up of a small “villa in the jungle” as Ehud Barak called it, a few westerners and no one else, a “European-Jewish only” state?  It would have suffered the fate of South Africa pre-1994 or Algeria.  So what is strange is that the same anti-Mizrahi and anti-eastern racists who think their country country should be so pure, also have lived on the backs of those they dislike.  Their state would be viewed as entirely a European colonial construct, were it not for its diversity.  What’s interesting is they claim that the “easterners” are living off their Iron Dome and “start ups”.

Iron Dome and the start ups are partly Israeli, but they are funded by Western, and particularly American money.  This Israelocentric arrogance that “we built it”, ignores the fact that it is a collaborative effort of foreigners as well.  There is a ridiculous view in Israel that “we western Israelis did everything, you did nothing,” but they themselves would not have Iron Dome without America’s ample funding.  Who pays for all these goodies in Israel?

A new anti-semitism that repeats stereotypes directed at Jews in Europe exists in Israel among those who continually bash Jews from the Middle East.  The same stereotypes used against Jews in Europe in the 1930s have returned in Israel to be used against Jews who are seen as an “other.”  For instance the idea that Jews do “strange” ceremonies with foreskin, is borrowed from the similar anti-circumcision views in Europe. It’s interesting that the same European immigrant Jews in Israel repeat these views of other Jews, but it is because they have internalized anti-semitism in order to ape Europe. Such is their adoration for a 1950s mentality, they embraced not only anti-Arab racism but some stereotypes related to anti-semitism.

There is something interesting in the fact that the insults hurled at Jews from Muslim countries are the same stereotypes that people have against Arabs and Muslims.  Thus the racism and contempt for Mizrahi Jewish culture is related to a larger racism against Arabs.  When people say “we invented thing and you didn’t”, it is directed also at Arab culture.  When people are mocked for praying, it mocks Muslims also. So why is this called “left” and not seen as anti-Arab?

There is no shortage of support for anti-Mizrahi views based on absolute ignorance.  On Oshrer’s Facebook the following names “liked” the post: Bar-Tal, Tzohar, Lapidot, Nir, Ginsberg, Varoner, Litwitz, Shuval, Shustov, Feigin, Orr, Parnes, Kessary, Ashkenazi, Herman, Ron, Kauf, Shachar, Gazit, Waxman, Shamir, Linik-Levi, Regev, Mashiah, Harris, Pragler, Oren, Singer, Shem-Tov, Bar,, Kaplan, Goldman, Joseph Aldor, Giladi, Achai, Weksler, Rorman, Gimpel, Zlayit, Rosenberg, Gal-Rveie, Shamgar, Modai, Matia, Steinberg, Winkler, Schatz, Orsher,, Tzach, Itzcar, Bashan, Beloosesky, Ringer, Fainstein, Tzechrov, Etinger, Katzir

This is a kind of whose-who of European last names in Israel, many connected to well-known families. These are educated people judging by their own Facebooks.  And they expressed support for a 1950s style rant?  That points to a tragedy in Israel, a kind of cult of western Eurocentric superiority, that celebrates brutish and bullying posts against the ‘other’.

There is something wrong in Israel.  Leading newspapers publish opeds claiming Russians have “crime in the blood” and that black people are “stained with evil.”  Leading commentators, artists, poets and academics have a vile unreconstructed 1950s view of Africa, the Middle East and non-whites.  They think that only progress can come from Europe.

 

They are out of step with how the world works.  With millions of African and Middle Eastern immigrants moving to Europe, one wonders if their “Europe” is what they think it is.  In fact perhaps the only bubble they can still express themselves with such outrageous views about “the easterners” is in Israel, one of the only countries that still accepts this ignorant, nonsense.

Unfortunately this group that expresses itself this way has some power left and works to inculcate a new generation with these views. Many “educated” and “cultured” and “left” people support this view and have an anger towards Mizrahim.  They use terms like “ethnic demon” to describe it and call themselves a “white tribe”, as ways to self-identify with an imagined European Ashkenazi community.  There was a real Ashkenazi religious community in Europe, but the new view that it is a racial category of “progress” is mistaken.  European Jews are not a monolith.  Jews from Romania were not the same as those from Germany.  Unfortunately a narrow-minded and ahistorical view crept into Israel and allowed this view to perpetuate.

In affect what is happening is that hatred of Arabs is being transferred onto Mizrahi Jews because in Israeli society for some reason it is considered racist to hate Arabs, but hating Mizrahi Jews for the same thing is less racist and Mizrahi Jews are accused of “complaining” about racism.  Arabs are seen as less threatening to Israeli culture because Mizrahi Jewish culture is demanding a place at the table.  So the views of Arab culture as “primitive” is transferred onto a fear and loathing of Mizrahi Jewish history.

Why does the wealthy “cultured” group fear this Mizrahi group so much? If someone wants to visit Rachel’s tomb to beg for children, why is that a threat?  Why does it bother people so much if a person kisses a mezuzah or prays?  Why is there so much hatred for what is basically a private thing that some people do, such as consulting a rabbi or being superstitious.  To be threatened and have such hatred for people praying shows deep intolerance and bigoted tendencies.  It’s gross, and yet it’s called “cultured.”  But it’s not cultured to be a bigot, it’s uncultured.  To see a person fumbling with prayer beads and hate them, is to be a xenophobe.  Anyone who hates people for such petty things has no place in cultured society.

What can be done? 

Jews went through many persecutions in history, it is unfortunate that in Israel there is so much hatred for poorer Jews from a Middle Eastern background.  In almost no other country do the “cultured” elites have such a disdain for the poor, mocking their religiousness or prayers. So why in Israel is there so much pride in being not only elite, but in constantly saying “we brought progress” and “we are superior.”  Why is there so little space for a rich and diverse Jewish history?

It is a sad commentary on the failure of Israeli education that such views persist.  An inclusive society should prize every group, but instead an insular ideology has dominated.  Intolerance for the ‘other’ is almost greeted with the view that the intolerant person is a “victim” of being called racism. They even plan for this eventuality by claiming that Mizrahim “whine” about racism.  This reminds me of those in the US mocking Black Lives Matter by claiming black people should “get over slavery”.  There is a similar mentality in Israel that says to Jews from poorer Mizrahi backgrounds to “get over complaining.”

Perhaps they could “get over” some complaining if there were not acceptance committees that still discriminate or an education system that is still segregated, or if there wasn’t such racism against them, or a view of them with stereotypes or people telling them that being born in the Middle East makes them inferior or that their parents are from an inferior culture.

In order for Israel to “get over” the “ethnic demon” it needs to not have a bunch of self-defined “cultured” people saying hateful, racist, intolerant things, and instead have a left that represents a modern left of 2016, not the 1950s, and wants an inclusive society.  Instead of saying high-tech was developed by “Ashkenazim” or Iron Dome was, it’s time to have equal opportunity and diversity.

Hatred of Jews from the Middle East, who are indigenous to this region, and hatred of Arabs is not a 2016 value.  It’s time for the Israeli left to stop coddling these views.  Those who talk this way obviously do it at cocktail parties and do it with their peers, not just online.  So the next time someone says “Western civilization is superior and brought us everything and they would be living in caves without us,” it’s time to remind Israelis this isn’t 1950, and the world thinks differently today.  No, Europe didn’t build everything.  Europe built gas chambers.  But Europe didn’t invent everything. And Europe did invent racism, but we don’t want racism in Israel.  A person of color in Israel is not “inferior”, and a person who is white is not “superior” just by virtue of their background or place of birth.

Israel was supposed to be a Jewish state, not a European-only state.  If they wanted that they could have tried out South Africa or the Old South.  Jews, who suffered so much anti-semitism, should not be anti-semitic to other Jews.  They should embrace diversity and different cultures and a history for everyone, not just European history in Israel.

Those who embrace only Europe do it at their own peril.  Europe is not the Europe of 1950s.  It has moved on.  If people in Israel think they can say “we westerners bring progress”, they will find a changed face of Europe.  Europe is becoming more diverse, just like Israel. The time of “we brought progress to the world,” is ending.  The time of looking at people from the Middle East and mocking them for using “signal bonfires” and being superstitious, is ending.

Those European Jewish immigrants who came to Israel and sought to preserve a 1950s mentality must be confronted and told that this is not the place for them.  They don’t get to abuse people anymore.  Europe changed.  Israel will change.  The “east” will win. The “west” and it’s view of “only we have progress” will not win with an insular view and hatred for others.  If it embraces them and includes everyone it has a chance to have a future for Israel.  If it keeps attacking Arabs and Jews from the Middle East as inferior, it will find that this won’t work forever.  It didn’t work forever in the Old South or South Africa, eventually the 1950s was abolished.

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3 responses to “An Israeli film critic’s rant and the legacy of 1950s Israeli racism

  1. Actually, Seth, these attitude?s go back to the 18th century in European culture, particularly in Germany, according to the article at the link. These attitudes that you rightly deplore go back long before the 1950s or 1930s.
    http://www.acpr.org.il/English-Nativ/10-issue/green-10.htm

    By the way, do you think Orsher and his friends care at all for the traditional culture of the Ashkenazim which was of course very religious, focussed on studying Bible and Talmud and Rashi, etc, and in that way was not so different from the culture of Jews in the East? Do you think they want or would tolerate more than barely any revival of Yiddish language and the associated music, not really all that “Western,” and so on?

  2. Funny you attribute this hatred to “Israeli society”, when it’s really from the small segment of the population that has the most negative attitude towards Israeli society, and many of whose members go on to leave Israel entirely.

  3. Pingback: Dear Haaretz, the 1950s called and they want their opeds back | Seth J. Frantzman·

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