‘But you’re not really Mizrahi’: Rewriting an erased identity

In the face of repeated sexual harassment and offhand racist comments by friends and acquaintances, one writer turns her anger into a reformulation of her identity. The awakening of sorts follows Amnon Levy’s Hebrew-language TV documentary series, “The Ethnic Demon.”

By Naama Katiee (Translated from Hebrew by Rachel Beitarie)

I’m about to finish high school, and I’m taking the bus. A guy sits himself besides me, places his hat between us and starts playing with it. Five minutes pass and I begin to suspect he is stroking my thigh. I’m not sure though. My heart is pounding but I stay mute, and later, I get angry with myself.

I am now towards the end of my military service, participating in a routine meeting. We are about 15 officers and I am the only woman in the room. One of the men casually says to me: “You would’ve probably been hot if you weren’t so skinny.” The others are silent, the younger among them shuffle uncomfortably in their chairs. I am stunned and silent. Later, I get angry with myself.

A few more years pass, and I’m hanging out with two couple friends of mine. They are properly leftists, intelligent, well-educated. The conversation flows until we start discussing politics. We talk about Tommy Lapid [1]. I say something about him being a racist and one of my friends responds: “So what, I am a racist as well.” I ask what she means by that, she answers:

“I don’t have any Mizrahi friends.”

I try to throw her a rope. “Well you don’t have to like Mizrahi music but what do you mean you don’t have any Mizrahi friends?” I ask.

“No,” she insists, “Mizrahi people have no culture – it’s a primitive and chauvinistic culture.”

I check again to make sure I heard her right.“You know I am Mizrahi, right?”

“You’re not really Mizrahi” she retorts, writing me off in a split second. I am stunned into silence. The others are silent as well. Quickly I mumble that I have to get going. Later, I get angry with myself.

Those were all clear moments of remarkably similar experience, but it took me many years to understand the similarity, and why they all arose in me the same feeling. That may be because, as Amnon Levy [2] realized from his own experience, anger and shame are mixed together in those moments, creating an impossible moment of embarrassment where you cannot stay, but also cannot not stay. A moment in which you are captive. A moment when you want to stand up for your right to be a woman in whatever version you feel like, while also wanting to cover yourself, cut your hair, cut off your breasts. The moment when you want to speak in your guttural Mizrahi accent with the Ayin and Khet [3], while at the same time also want to be invisible, unmarked, not a representative of any group – the same as everyone else.

I think the moment in which all of this came together was also the moment I realized I’ve gone Ashkenazi. I am half-Ashkenazi anyway so the possibility was always there, though for as far back as I can remember, I saw myself as “Yemenite.” Even during my long and jubilant years in Tel Aviv I was always “Yemenite.” However, that identity which I bore had been reduced to a sort of caricature with which everyone – myself included – felt a lot more comfortable. That moment, when my friend pointed at me and said “But you are not Mizrahi” was when I realized that my game had served the aggressor, first and foremost. Like every victim of sexual harassment, I was angry with myself for not doing anything. I later imagined what I would have said had I responded, and I was ashamed of myself for writing myself off until that moment, for erasing myself and for allowing her to cross me off.

That crystallized moment made clear to me the long period of erasing my own identity, of erasing myself. I had worked hard on distancing myself from my family, reducing contact to monthly visits. I had tried to adopt a new identity, adopt random families, I blamed myself and I discovered that I too don’t actually have any Mizrahi friends, and that those who were Mizrahi have shrunken themselves almost as much as I have. I went through the process of getting angry with the whole world, and again blaming myself, and secretly searching for the few Mizrahi students at the Gilman humanities building in Tel Aviv University, of embarrassing them and of being embarrassed. That was also when I started hearing that “this is all in your head” and “enough with this inferiority complex already.”

It is all your fault really. Why do you walk around showing so much cleavage? Why do you walk around with this ethnic distinction on you? Work harder and you’ll succeed, why the hell do you have to talk about it?

So, from now on, I write, and do not erase.

Naama Katiee is an MA student in The Cohn Institute for the History and Philosophy of Science at Tel Aviv University.

[1] Anti-religious and Eurocentric former leader of the Shinui party, and late father of current Finance Minister Yair Lapid.

[2] Creator of a TV documentary series about the experience of Mizrahi Jews in Israel, and on structural gaps between Mizrahi and Ashkenazi Jews in Israel.

[3] Guttural consonants that distinguish the accent in Hebrew of those who came from Arab countries.

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Mizrahi culture was suppressed, Ashkenazi culture is simply forgotten
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