As a Mizrahi, I know identity politics is not enough

I was supposed to be floating above the Dubai Marina looking on as my dream of regional peace came true. But these deals serve the elites, not the people.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyau and his wife Sara attend the Jewish Moroccan Mimouna celebrations, Or Akiva, April 21, 2014. (Avishag Shaar Yashuv/Flash90)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyau and his wife Sara attend the Jewish Moroccan Mimouna celebrations, Or Akiva, April 21, 2014. (Avishag Shaar Yashuv/Flash90)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu coined the term “sour pickles” some years ago to describe his political opponents, the same ones who he claims routinely ignore the positive aspects — and accomplishments — of his decade-long rule. This, in his mind, includes an economic boom, closing the socio-economic gaps, stable diplomacy and foreign relations, and enhancing Israel’s security. All those things, the “sour pickles” refuse to recognize and praise him for.

The term became a popular refrain in Israel overnight. Personally, I never saw myself as one of these sour pickles, simply because I always viewed the entirety of Israel’s political discourse as nothing more than a battle between two nationalist, Zionist political elites who were too similar to one another for me to identify with either.

At a certain point I even found the sour pickles meme comical, as if Netanyahu at once exposed every form of opposition to his rule as irrational. As if standing up to him has nothing to do with ideals or well-reasoned political arguments, even if it means the upper middle class would be undermining its own political interests. After all, if things are going so well for Israel, then the pickles’ stubborn insistence on souring the party must be rooted in emotion rather than ideology.

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That’s not necessarily too far from the truth. There are very few fundamental differences between the Zionist right and the Zionist left when it comes to matters of policy and security. Sociologically speaking, if we recognize that Israel’s secular-liberal upper class votes for Israel’s so-called “left-wing” parties, it becomes clear that they are actually voting against their class interests. The ruling classes never have it better than under a neoliberal system that rewards the rich while eliminating social, public, and welfare services.

That’s precisely why it is so hard to find oneself identifying with either side in this unjust system, in which “right” and “left” are aesthetic choices rather than concepts undergirded by actual ideology. In Israel, right and left are little more than markers of one’s identity and tribe. A form of identity politics that knowingly undermines itself and does not aspire to real radical change, particularly when it comes to class justice.

And then, all of a sudden, I was surprised to discover that I, too, had turned into a sour pickle. But at least I have a good excuse.

As a DJ and writer, I have for years been active in the Mizrahi struggle and its various cultural manifestations in an attempt to try and understand the relationship between Mizrahi Jews (who come from Arab and Muslim countries) and the rest of the cultures and nations in the region. I wanted to learn about our past, try to say something about the present, and hopefully change something in the future. I always insisted that the cultural connection that Mizrahim have to the Middle East and North Africa — in language, customs, music, cinema, etc. — is far deeper than the kind of peace forged among well-funded peace organizations or diplomats.

U.S. Chief of Protocol Cam Henderson assists President Donald Trump, Minister of Foreign Affairs of Bahrain Dr. Abdullatif bin Rashid Al-Zayani, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Minister of Foreign Affairs for the United Arab Emirates Abdullah bin Zayed Al Nahyan with the documents during the signing of the Abraham Accords Tuesday, Sept. 15, 2020, on the South Lawn of the White House. (Official White House photo by Andrea Hanks)
U.S. Chief of Protocol Cam Henderson assists President Donald Trump, Minister of Foreign Affairs of Bahrain Dr. Abdullatif bin Rashid Al-Zayani, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Minister of Foreign Affairs for the United Arab Emirates Abdullah bin Zayed Al Nahyan with the documents during the signing of the Abraham Accords Tuesday, Sept. 15, 2020, on the South Lawn of the White House. (Official White House photo by Andrea Hanks)

Yet over the last few years — and due to the class-based and cultural shifts taking place in Israel — it has become clear that mere cultural connections are not enough for real change. The struggle for equality and to remedy the injustices of the past requires us to formulate a more reasoned position than our love for knafeh or the fact that our grandmothers listened to Abdel Halim Hafez.

After all, the existing structure offers only relative material improvement for those who are willing to fully buy into the idea of the Jewish state. This is true despite the fact that resources are still unequally distributed among various Jewish populations, such as between the more affluent Tel Aviv area and the geographical periphery — which has historically been populated by Mizrahim, Ethiopians, Jews from the former Soviet Union, and Palestinians.

And yet, Israel offers far better conditions to Israeli Jews than to non-Jewish groups in Israel. Over the past several decades, this hierarchy has created a new Mizrahi middle and upper class, despite the unfavorable starting point and the economic obstacles that Mizrahim continue to face. As with any other capitalist hierarchical structure, if you are willing to devour those weaker than you, you are welcome to play the game.

Thus, the recent normalization agreements between Israel and Morocco, Bahrain, and the United Arab Emirates have revealed not only the sheer weakness of identity politics in bringing about actual change — including equal economic opportunities, a fair division of resources, democracy and civic equality for all regardless of religion or nationality — but also just how limited a lens they are through which we can understand how the world works.

Israeli politician Miri Regev attends the Jewish Moroccan Mimouna celebration held at the end of Passover, on April 27, 2019. (Flash90)
Israeli politician Miri Regev attends the Jewish Moroccan Mimouna celebration held at the end of Passover, on April 27, 2019. (Flash90)

On its face, I should be elated about what’s currently happening in Dubai, where Israeli celebrities are walking around dressed in traditional jalabiyas, and famous Mizrahi artists are slated to perform. As someone who only a few years ago clamored for every popular image of the Khaliji nouveau riche lifestyle and dreamt of the day she would visit Burj Al Arab, I was supposed to be floating above the Dubai Marina looking on as my dream came true. But then reality slapped me in the face.

The normalization agreements and the droves of Mizrahi singers flying to the UAE have only strengthened the conclusion that I came to long ago: that without radical change in Israel’s political and economic structures, no performance by Israeli singers Sarit Haddad or Eyal Golan in an Arab country will bring about change.

Because in reality, it’s business as usual and the cash keeps flowing. There is nothing about these recent developments that can truly destabilize the current structure, under which a term like “racism” is emptied of its very meaning as Israel signs weapons and real estate deals while tossing its working class and the poor under the bus.

After all, the world constantly portrays a façade of progress when it comes to culture, identity, and representation. You wanted Mizrahi music on Israeli radio? You got it. You wanted Arabs and Jews dancing together in Dubai? You got it. You wanted a non-white vice president? You got it. A Black president? You don’t have to ask twice. But in practice, none of these accomplishments have done much to change power relations, rearrange distribution of resources, or transform our society into a truly just and equitable one.

Those who have fully bought into the discourse of identity politics are making every effort to view developments such as the selling of Israel’s most overtly anti-Arab football club to an Emirati sheikh as some kind of positive step. But those steeped knee-deep in identity politics are nourished by this kind of aesthetic. They are doubling down on an outdated understanding of identity and nationality, just as those very concepts are being slowly crushed under the bulldozer of hyper-capitalism. Those who believe this is a harbinger of change should remember that the Israelis and Emiratis striking deals on weapons, land, and football clubs are the ones with the power to determine how our future — the future of ordinary working people — will look.

These deals will cement a caste system of rich versus poor in Israel, while making it hard for people to wash off the very marks of their caste. The powerful will deem anyone who opposes them enemies of the state, dangers to democracy, or a threat to religion and personal security — all in order to keep them away from the levers of power and ensure the structure remains untouched. They will do everything to ensure that there will always be people who sacrifice their lives and become enslaved for the personal benefit of the few.

As long as there is no understanding of how these mechanisms work or how they encourage us to take part in them, identity politics will remain little more than an unrealized threat against the powerful. As long as we refuse to understand how racism works as a tool in the service of capitalism, we shouldn’t be surprised that there will be people who consider Israeli singer Omer Adam dressed in a jalabiya as some kind of victory of the oppressed over the forces of oppression. 

I am the sour pickle who has come to tell you that this is no victory — only more of the same.

In the end we have two options — either we demand a bigger slice of the pie, or we bake a brand new one. But first we must decide what our goal is. And that, rather than cheap aesthetics, will determine what kind of society we will live in.