Your email is not valid
Recipient's email is not valid
Submit Close

Your email has been sent.

Click here to send another


On Fire

A tragedy in Israel lets the ‘ethnic genie’ out of the bottle

Print Email
(Len Small/Tablet Magazine)

Israelispeak is the way Israelis and the Israeli media use Hebrew. Behind the literal meaning, there’s an additional web of suggestion, doublespeak, and cultural innuendo that too often gets lost in translation. Every Friday, we reveal what is really being said. To view all the entries in this series, click here.

Last week’s wildfire in northern Israel caused the deaths of more than 40 people and destroyed thousands of acres of forest. It also let the shed ha’adati—the ethnic genie—out of the bottle.

You might think the ethnic genie (which is probably best thought of, in English, as playing the race card) is a reference to the Arab-Jewish divide. But actually it concerns the rift—stoked by political rhetoric—between Ashkenazim and Mizrahim, perhaps best encapsulated by the way European Jews are venerated as the pioneers who tamed the swamps and desert, while Jews of Middle Eastern or North African origin were dumped in ma’abarot, a kind of refugee camp for new immigrants.

The fire did bring some other ethnic issues to the surface as well. On the coexistence-in-tragedy side, the blaze affected Jewish as well as Arab and Druze towns, and Arabs and Jews alike were killed (almost all of them Israel Prison Service officials on their way to evacuate a jail in the area). On a potentially more divisive note, police suspect the fire was started by a Druze teen who carelessly discarded a lit coal used for smoking a nargila water pipe.

But it was differences among Jews that Interior Minister Eli Yishai invoked when he came, er, under fire in the immediate aftermath of the disaster. Yishai said he was the victim of a media “lynching” that had nothing to do with his ministry’s being responsible for the ill-equipped Israel Fire and Rescue Service and everything to do with his being “Sephardi-Mizrahi, right-wing, and Haredi.” But that’s not just a description of his own ethnicity; Yishai also heads the Sephardi ultra-Orthodox Shas party—a movement that might be said to base its very existence on ethnic resentment, and that has been repeatedly accused of a blinkered focus on getting more government handouts for yeshivas, large (read: Haredi) families, and non-working yeshiva students.

Regardless of the very real basis for any lingering anger or insecurity on the part of regular Mizrahim, no amount of fire retardant is going to put out the still-simmering indignation—whether real or manufactured—that continues to feed Shas leaders like Yishai, who unabashedly elevate their constituents’ narrow interests over those of the country at large.

Shoshana Kordova is an editor and translator at the English edition of Haaretz. She grew up in New Jersey and has lived in Israel since 2001.

Earlier: Cast Lead
On Strike
‘The Peace Process’
No Confidence
‘After the Holidays’

Print Email

Daily rate: $2
Monthly rate: $18
Yearly rate: $180

Tablet is committed to bringing you the best, smartest, most enlightening and entertaining reporting and writing on Jewish life, all free of charge. We take pride in our community of readers, and are thrilled that you choose to engage with us in a way that is both thoughtful and thought-provoking. But the Internet, for all of its wonders, poses challenges to civilized and constructive discussion, allowing vocal—and, often, anonymous—minorities to drag it down with invective (and worse). Starting today, then, we are asking people who'd like to post comments on the site to pay a nominal fee—less a paywall than a gesture of your own commitment to the cause of great conversation. All proceeds go to helping us bring you the ambitious journalism that brought you here in the first place.

Readers can still interact with us free of charge via Facebook, Twitter, and our other social media channels, or write to us at Each week, we’ll select the best letters and publish them in a new letters to the editor feature on the Scroll.

We hope this new largely symbolic measure will help us create a more pleasant and cultivated environment for all of our readers, and, as always, we thank you deeply for your support.

I admire what you have done here. I like the part where you say you are doing this to give back but I would assume by all the comments that this is working for you as well.

Great post. I have learned a lot. I am grateful to my friend who told me to visit your blog. Thanks a lot!

I’ve said that least 3513162 times. The problem this like that is they are just too compilcated for the average bird, if you know what I mean

Hello – really great web site you might have made. I enjoyed reading through this writing. I did wish to issue a brief review to tell you that the design and style of this website is really aesthetically delightful. I used to be a graphic designer, now I’m a copy editor in chief for a marketing firm. I’ve always loved playing with information processing systems and ‘m trying to study computer code in my free time (which there is never enough of lol).


Your comment may be no longer than 2,000 characters, approximately 400 words. HTML tags are not permitted, nor are more than two URLs per comment. We reserve the right to delete inappropriate comments.

Thank You!

Thank you for subscribing to the Tablet Magazine Daily Digest.
Please tell us about you.

On Fire

A tragedy in Israel lets the ‘ethnic genie’ out of the bottle

More on Tablet:

Klinghoffer at the Met

By Paul Berman — John Adams’s masterpiece is about an American Jew murdered by Palestinian terrorists, but the real opera is off stage