By SETH J. FRANTZMAN
“There is a huge Ashkenazi majority and a small Mizrahi minority. Before the Holocaust there were 16.5 million Jews in the world, only a million of them Mizrahim, of whom only 200,000 lived in Morocco. After the Holocaust there remained nearly 11 million Jews, of whom 250,000 lived in Morocco. That is the proper ethnic representation in both history and culturel [sic].”
This was the theory presented by Haaretz writer Oded Lifshitz, a founder of Kibbutz Nir Oz.
The offensive opeds published in Haaretz targeting minorities and people of color have been increasing recently. In two days the newspaper had an oped everyday by a non-Mizrahi Jew, attacking Mizrahim. This builds on a long history of inflammatory opeds, such as the one attacking black people as having “his black color looked very shabby, tattered and stained with evil” or claiming that Russians have “crime in their blood.” In recent weeks there has been an avalanche of attacks on Mizrahim by writers, some have claimed there is no racism against them, accusing them of complaining, while others attack Mizrahim for being right wing (Yitzhak Laor, ‘Living on the edge’, July 19), or attack them for creating “false narratives” (Oded Lifshitz, ‘False narratives’, July 20). Perhaps rarely if ever in history have so many European-origin Jews attacked Jews from the Middle East in such a short amount of time in one newspaper. It is part of a perplexing amount of anti-Mizrahi rage in popular and intellectual circles in Israel.
The Lifshitz oped was particularly grotesque considering it’s constant attack on Mizrahim for having a “false narrative.” The article claims that Mizrahi Jews “migrated” to Israel and that “they didn’t meet enough Israelis or other types of immigrants.” It attacks Mizrahi Jews as having a “Mizrahi thought police” and again and again presents strange claims such as noting that “interethnic marriage is accelerating.” He claims that “the left actually advanced Mizrahim.” What does it mean to “advance” people of color who are indigenous to the Middle East?
The shocking concept put forward by Lifshitz that Moroccan Jews and Mizrahim deserve less “cultural representation” because there are fewer of them is an odd concept coming from a Jewish author, considering the fact that Jews are a tiny minority in the world. Does that mean that European and American culture should have less “cultural representation” of Jews, or perhaps black people because there are less of them?
The attacks on “Mizrahim” by one of Israel’s leading newspapers is part of a process of othering and also dehumanizing people who are different. Can anyone imagine a major newspaper in the US publishing an oped claiming that because there are more white people historically in the US, that therefore black people deserve less “representation” in history and culture?
In Israel Haaretz represents a more intellectual and self-defined “left” leaning crowd. In a sense it represents the cultural production of 7 million Jews in Israel. It’s stereotypes against minorities is therefore representative of a racist view among many elites that read it and evidently do not object to these views. As Western societies and democratic societies have come to embrace diversity and multi-culturalism, Israel’s elites tend to become more insular, more obsessed with being white, European, and “Ashkenazi.” There is no other major intellectual newspaper or magazine of the “left” abroad, such as The New Yorker or The Guardian that would run an oped claiming that an entire people have “crime in their blood” or that black people have skin “stained with evil.” None of them would likely claim that Europeans “advanced” Arab people, or claim that minorities deserve less cultural representation or mentions in history because there are less of them.
So why does this Israeli newspaper do it? Part of it stems from being out of step with western concepts of diversity. The real origins lie in an unrepentant 1920s concept of race and eugenics that has never been abolished among the “left” in Israel. In this worldview “Ashkenazi” is a racial category, and it is a superior European one. To be born “Ashkenazi” in this view means one is somehow different than someone born “Mizrahi”, simply due to a last name, and being a different “ethnicity.” It’s not altogether clear what is the difference between an “Ashkenazi” Jew from Bulgaria and an “Mizrahi” Jew from Turkey, but people in Israel believe that these are “ethnic” categories, hence the concept that there is “inter-ethnic” marriage. The obsession with “interethnic” marriage reminds one of the US obsession with miscegenation. The concept that is not openly expressed is that “Ashkenazi” means “white” and that white is different than being “Arab” and dark, perhaps with “skin stained with evil.”
Many of these Israelis who read opeds like this and are not offended will claim to be offended by Donald Trump, but the fact is that too many daily opeds in Haaretz resemble the concepts put forward by Trump supporters. A Trump supporter might claim there is too much “cultural” and “historical representation” of African-Americans or hispanics and might go on yo claim that in 1930 white Americans were the vast majority and therefore US culture should represent Anglo-Saxon culture and history.
Why does Israel’s “left” embrace this? Because it is not left. Israel’s small elite that views itself as a white and European believes openly that European and Western civilization is superior and that the Middle East’s peoples are inferior. They are viewed as inferior not only due to their culture but also their race.
The anger expressed by oped writers attacking Russians, black people or Mizrahim, have the same kind of white rage that has been seen at Trump rallies. It represents a group that feels its hegemony and privilege is threatened. The fact that it has such anger about merely including Jewish culture and history from the Middle East in the education system, shows how angrily it tries to defend its dominance. This is true white rage at the “invasion” of minorities. Jews from Morocco are called “migrants” precisely because they are juxtaposed with “Israelis.” Most “Israelis” came to Israel after 1950, in fact many came after or at the same time that Moroccans came to Israel. Yet Jews from Europe are not “migrants”, but “Israelis.” That is a way to turn Mizrahim into an other, “non-Israelis”, even though they are as Israeli, if not more Israeli than European migrants.
Unfortunately the 1950s are alive and well in Israel, especially on the “left”. This is because of a culture of superiority that refuses to be self-critical and refuses to learn from its western peers about concepts of diversity. Instead of being afraid of “Mizrahi narratives” or cultural representation, it should celebrate them. Mizrahi narratives are rooted in and indigenous to the Middle East, as Jews who are from the Middle East and remained in the Middle East for thousands of years. Why do Israel’s cultural elites, academics, writers and commentators fear to be rooted in the Middle East? Because within this mentality is a classic colonial mentality of European and white supremacism.
Why do they fear people whose “narrative” relates to racism and poverty? Doesn’t the “left” usually support the poor and disenfranchised, doesn’t the left embrace the downtrodden and those suffering racism? The Israeli “left” as embodied by many Haaretz opeds, does not. That is because it is not a modern “left”, it is a 1950s “left”, that might have been like the US Democratic party in the Old South. Left in name, but not in practice. In practice it supports things such as “Ashkenazi-only” communities, segregated education, and awful stereotypes based on absolute ignorance, of minorities and people of color.
It is a great failure of Israeli society that these stereotypes among elites, those educating people and writing books, has not been challenged or pulled up by the roots. There is virtually no pushback against these concepts such as “black skin is stained with evil.” The only pushback comes from the right and is usually expressed in an anti-left argument. But that is not where the pushback should come. There are some enlightened Israelis who represent a diversity-loving and open-minded left. But they do not fight and protest against ignorance. Offensive views such as “Russians have crime in the blood” have no place in newspapers. This is not about “freedom of expression.” People can think and say and write racist things, but leading newspapers should not give them a venue.
When someone pretending to be on the “left” claims that people of color or Middle Eastern people deserve less “cultural representation” or representation in history because there historically were less of them, those views must be challenged. Israel is a country in the Middle East, it is not next to Denmark. It’s history books should represent the diversity of the country and should represent the Middle Eastern fabric of the region. It’s culture should include voices from all communities. The fact that there are fewer black Jews than white Jews should not be a reason to have less, or no representations, of them. Male Ethiopian Jews used to make up 15% of the IDF prison population, despite being 1% of the IDF. Why is it that Israel can find a way to have such over-representation of black people in prison, but in its leading cultural sphere, it says “they are only 1% so they shouldn’t be represented”? It can represent them at checkpoints and in border police, they don’t get out of the country’s draft, but they are under-represented in PhD programs.
This concept that “there are more Ashkenazi Jews historically so we should have more” says that people of non-European origin have less place in Israeli society. Then why does Israeli society demand they serve in the army equally, if it will not give them equal space in the culture? Guard our kibbutz, but you can’t be a member? Guard our schools but you can’t go to them?
Such notions represent scary concepts from other places such as the Old South and South Africa, not the kind of ideas that should be put forward in a Jewish state. To be Ashkenazi is not superior. In many cases Ashkenazi is an invented identity and is used merely to denote “white” and “European” in Israel, by people who want to preserve those ideas, like a “villa in the jungle.” Ari Shavit claims that Mizrahi Jews were “saved from a life of misery and backwardness in the Middle East” in his book.
This is the general tone among a group of people very far out of touch.
In short, the 1950s called and they want their oped writers back.