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Eastern Exposure

A new book examines the world of Israel’s ‘Arab Jews’

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That the State of Israel has an ethnicity problem is the opposite of news: hardly a day goes by without some report on the hostilities between Jews and Arabs. But We Look Like the Enemy, the impassioned, often self-righteous new book by Rachel Shabi, draws the reader’s attention to an easily overlooked dimension of that old conflict. What if you are an Israeli Jew who is also, in some ways, an Arab? What if, like Shabi’s own family, you came from Iraq, where your ancestors had lived for centuries; if you speak Arabic fluently, and pronounce Hebrew words with an unmistakable accent; if you watch TV shows from Dubai and listen to music from Egypt; if your complexion resembles a Palestinian’s more than a Pole’s? In short, what if you belong to the significant percentage of Israeli Jews who are referred to as Mizrahi, or Easterners?

Shabi makes one thing clear: if you are one of those Jews, you adamantly refuse to call yourself an Arab, or even an Arab Jew. In her last chapter, titled “We Are Not Arabs!”, Shabi recalls riding an early-morning bus to Kiryat Shmona, a majority-Mizrahi town near the Lebanon border. She gets into a conversation with three women who, like her, come from Iraqi Jewish families. They are pleasantly surprised to find that she can speak Arabic, and they share their enthusiasm for Arab culture: one woman “lives in central Tel Aviv and speaks Arabic constantly, listens to the music, adores the great singers like Fairuz and Farid al-Atrash. She has all the Arabic channels on TV an declares herself to be in love with the language. . . . She relates that she is happy in Israel, of course, but that she was happy in Iraq too.”

book cover

But then she goes on to say things the left-leaning Shabi—who was born in Israel but spent most of her life in England, where she works as a journalist—does not like so much. All of her glorious hybridity does not stop the woman from thinking that “the Arabs themselves, they are killers. They like to die, she says; you see their mothers on TV, wishing for their son’s death if it means they also kill Jews.” Struck by the irony that she is saying all this in Arabic, Shabi demands, “Aren’t you also an Arab?” This sends the friendly conversation “screeching into a dark alley. ‘Of course I’m not Arab!’ she fires back. ‘I’m Jewish! Of course we are different!’”

Shabi reports this encounter honestly, even though it presents a rather large obstacle to her book’s thesis. For Shabi believes that reclaiming the Arab-Jewish identity of so many of Israel’s citizens—40 percent of Israeli Jews are Mizrahi, down from an actual majority in the 1970s—is the only way to save the country’s soul. Writing with a combination of grievance and idealism familiar on the Western left, but not as often heard from Israelis themselves, Shabi decries the marginalization of Mizrahi culture and the economic injustice that keeps Mizrahis poorer and more likely to end up in jail. She attacks the founders of Israel, the European Zionists, who failed to integrate Arab Jewish immigrants into the new society. She quotes the most disaffected Mizrahis she can find, like Shlomi from Ofakim, who greets an Independence Day display of flags by saying, “My children will never raise the Israeli flag, never!” Shlomi goes on to add that the Ashkenazis brought the Holocaust on themselves: “anti-Semitism doesn’t come from nowhere, something causes it.”

This is obviously a fringe viewpoint, not to say a lunatic one, and Shabi is a little too eager to make voices like Shlomi’s sound legitimate. She looks fondly, for instance, on Israel’s Black Panthers, an extremist Mizrahi-rights organization that incited a major riot in 1971. (Golda Meir famously dismissed its members as “not very nice boys.”) This tendentiousness is a pity, because the actual facts Shabi gathers are sobering enough. It becomes easier to understand why some Mizrahis would look to Eldridge Cleaver for inspiration when you learn that, “in 1970, 78 percent of all adult Jewish and 93 percent of all juvenile Jewish offenders were Mizrahi.” Even today, Shabi writes, “the majority of university professors and students, TV presenters, Supreme Court justices (all but one, in fact) have Ashkenazi surnames; the glaring majority of university cleaners, market stall traders, TV buffoon characters, and blue-collar criminals are Mizrahi in origin.”

So are most residents of Israel’s “development towns,” impoverished places on the periphery of the country. These towns were created to house Arab-Jewish immigrants in the 1950s by an Ashkenazi Labor establishment that did not consult them about where they wanted to go. As is the nature of things, these towns have only become more disadvantaged as time goes on. Shabi writes penetratingly about the way kibbutzes—the pioneer settlements of European Jews, which enjoy great prestige in Israel—control the best agricultural land, to the detriment of development towns that have no place left to develop. In the 1990s, when kibbutzes were allowed to rezone their land for commercial purposes, they reaped a huge private windfall, even though almost all the land in Israel is technically owned by the state.

This ethnic cleavage can have major repercussions in other ways, as well. Especially since the invasion of Gaza, there has been much coverage of the town of Sderot in the American press; close to the Gaza border, it is a constant target of Hamas rockets. But I do not remember having read that Sderot is a development town with a population that is 70 percent Moroccan. Shabi quotes a Sderot storekeeper named Haim who believes that this is why the government sees the town as expendable: “Polish people, they wouldn’t let it pass in silence. They are Ashkenazi, so they are strong and they are connected to the country, to our government.”

All of this material will be eye-opening for many American Jews, though it is common knowledge in Israel itself. Indeed, “the ethnic demon,” as it is called in shorthand, is a frequently debated subject in the press and in politics. Yet Shabi tends to play down the evidence that Israel’s ethnic divisions are gradually improving. The state has now had a Mizrahi president, Moshe Katzav, and even a Mizrahi head of the arch-Ashkenazi Labor Party, Amir Peretz. Culturally, the current generation of Israelis is much more open to Middle Eastern influences than the pioneers, who tended to look down their noses at Jews who looked and talked too much like Arabs. (Shabi collects many damning quotes to this effect from the heroes of early Israel, including David Ben-Gurion, who said that the Middle Eastern immigrants arrived in Israel “without a trace of Jewish or human education.”)

Where We Look Like the Enemy falters is in its rose-colored vision of the distant past and the potential future. Like many a child of immigrants who grew up on tales of the old country, Shabi tends to see her ancestors’ lives as a lost paradise, ignoring the reasons why they might have wanted to leave it behind. But it is one thing to wax rhapsodic about Basra date syrup—“brown, thickly sweet,” eaten drizzled on fried eggs—and another to suggest that Jews, like dates, can only flourish in Iraqi soil: “Now they, just like the smuggled palms, were sowed into the alien, new soils of Israel. And this land, they say, seemed unaccountably hostile to Middle Eastern and North African Jews—so they didn’t grow right, either.”

The suggestion that the Jews were better off in Babylon ignores the fact that, whatever might have been the case in the time of Cyrus the Great, in 1948 they voted with their feet—nearly the entire Iraqi Jewish community left the country after Israel was founded. Nor is it a good argument against the Jewish state that, as one Iraqi Jew quoted by Shabi has it, “If Israel had not been established, nothing would have happened to the Iraqi Jews.” Just ask the Kurds and the Shiites whether they think Iraq has been an oasis of diversity in the last 50 years.

Nor does Shabi seem justified in hoping that Mizrahi Jews, once reawakened to their Arab cultural identity, will finally be able to make peace with the Palestinians and the Arab world. Shabi quotes a Moroccan-born Likud party official to this effect: “We the Sephardis, if they had placed it in our hands to make peace with the Arabs, we would have done it, we would have succeeded better than the Ashkenazis because they don’t have the mentality to speak with the Arabs.” Not only does this talk of an Arab mentality sound like just the kind of thing Shabi would despise, coming from an Ashkenazi politician, and not only does it represent an obvious case of wishful thinking. Most important, it ignores the fact that it is precisely the Mizrahis who have flocked to the most hard-line political parties in Israel, Likud and Shas. Sadly, coexistence does not always lead to amity—a fact that We Look Like the Enemy demonstrates, but would prefer to forget.

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Eastern Exposure

A new book examines the world of Israel’s ‘Arab Jews’

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