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by Lyn Julius


The term 'Jewish Arabs' ignores the truth of Middle Eastern Jews' unhappy history in Arab lands

There is no denying that in Israel there is discrimination and an ethnic divide. Choice quotes from Israel's leaders in the 1950s do betray contempt for Mizrahim — the 40% of Jewish Israelis who hail from Arab lands. As Rachel Shabi writes in Not The Enemy,[1] they were portrayed as 'weak, dirty, poor, culturally deficient and superstitious".

That's because many immigrants from the Middle East and North Africa were poor, badly educated, unwashed and superstitious. Israel took in the most destitute, the poor, the sick, the elderly and the stateless — because they were Jews with nowhere else to go. Those with education, means and connections mostly went to western Europe or the Americas.

Who would not be bitterly disappointed at the windswept transit camps (ma'abarot)[2] which awaited the Mizrahim in "paradise"? Six hundred thousand Jews flooded into the struggling Jewish state in the 1950s: penniless Jewish refugees housed in leaky tents with insufficient food.

But the Israel of the 50s, where European and Middle Eastern culture undoubtedly clashed, is not the Israel of today. Shabi's claim that "Mizrahi ethnic music is banned from public playlists" strains credulity when Mizrahi artists such as Sarit Haddad, David Broza, Dana International, Avinoam Nini and Ofra Haza are all thoroughly mainstream. Chaqshooka,[3] falafel and mujadera[4] are staples of Israeli food. Mizrahim have reached the highest echelons of political life. Israel has had Mizrahi ministers, a president, and senior military figures.

Most importantly, intermarriage is running at 25%. More and more Israelis are the product of mixed marriages. If this trend continues there will be no such thing as a Mizrahi or an Ashkenazi in the Israeli melting pot.

True — Israel initially rejected the immigrants' Middle Eastern culture, mocked their accents and frowned on them speaking Arabic. But Israel also rejected the old mitteleuropean culture and the speaking of Yiddish, for equally ethnocentric reasons. At least thousands of Arabic-speaking Jews were able to put their skills to good use working in Israel intelligence, staffing Israel's Arabic broadcasting networks and setting up departments of Arabic studies in free-thinking Israeli universities that became the envy of the Middle East.

Let's face it — not all Arabic culture was worth keeping. Some aspects of Arabic culture were best jettisoned: the corruption, the extortion, the lack of democracy. But critical thinking, education and transparency were western values that Israel was eager to get Mizrahim to espouse. And rightly so.

Underlying Rachel Shabi's book seems to be a flawed premise — that if only the Ashkenazim had allowed themselves to be guided by the Mizrahim and become more "Arab", there would be peace.

If you add "Arab" Jews to Arab Christians and Muslims, 60% of Israel's population is Middle Eastern. But the statistic is misleading. Jews may be Arabised, but they are not Arabs. Even many non-Jews living in the Arab world would reject the epithet "Arab". I know Egyptians who recoil at the term, and Iraqis who reject the values of Bedouin culture.

Communists and anti-Zionists have long argued on behalf of an "Arab Jewish" identity as a way of repudiating Jewish nationalism and justifying their participation in revolutionary politics. It presupposes that Arabs and Mizrahi Jews are natural allies, and that both are victims of Ashkenazim.

To refer to "Jewish Arabs"[5] is not only to imply that Zionism tore them away from their true homelands for the false lure of a Jewish state, it is to demean them by denying them their own sense of themselves and their unhappy history in Arab lands.

The elephant in the room is surely this unhappy history in Arab lands, the oppression of the Jews by Arabs and the legacy of bitterness these Jews carry within them — an instinctive mistrust of Arabs, reflected in their tendency to support right-wing parties in Israel.

Books such as Rachel Shabi's Not The Enemy are based on the lie that Jews and Muslims coexisted peacefully for centuries until Jews living in Arab lands became victims of an "understandable" backlash to the establishment of the state of Israel in 1948. They deny any Arab responsibility for the oppression, mass dispossession and expulsion of Middle Eastern and North African Jews and the destruction of their ancient, pre-Islamic communities. Mizrahi Jews can be a bridge to reconciliation with Arabs — but only if reconciliation is based on truth.  




[3] About Israel/Israeli Cuisine/
SHAKSHOUKA -Eggs in Tomato Sauce-


[5] middle-east-israel-mizrahi

Lyn Julius is a journalist and co-founder of Harif (, a UK association of Jews from the Middle East and N. Africa.

This article appeared April 3, 2009 in the Guardian


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