Mizrahi struggle 101: A beginner’s guide for Ashkenazim

The Mizrahi struggle must widen its ranks, but in order to do so, Ashkenazim must come to the table from a place of solidarity, not victimhood. Orly Noy with a few tips.

The Kadoori, Hamias and Ashram families sit near an improvised Shabat dinner table set near their demolished houses in Givat Amal neighborhood, Tel Aviv, Israel, September 19, 2014. By: Shiraz Grinbaum/Activestills.org
The Kadoori, Hamias and Ashram families sit near an improvised Shabat dinner table set near their demolished houses in Givat Amal neighborhood, Tel Aviv, Israel, September 19, 2014. By: Shiraz Grinbaum/Activestills.org

This past election cycle saw several high-profile Ashkenazi leftists openly make racist comments about Mizrahim. Whether it was Yair Garbuz, who claimed that Israel is being controlled by “amulet-kissers, idol-worshippers and people who prostrate themselves at the graves of saints,” or actress Anat Waxman who implied that Likud voters were “laborers” from “another nation,” there is simply no way to claim that anti-Mizrahi sentiment is a thing of the past. So without further ado, here are a few tips for Ashkenazim who want to understand the meaning of solidarity with Mizrahim.

Before you declare your stance, tell me where you stand

I first heard this said by Palestinian MK Jamal Zakalka, when he spoke about Jews who tend to either give advice to Palestinians or criticize their political positions. The principle is rather basic: as a person outside the oppressed community, you are allowed to take part in its internal discourse only if your most basic stance is solidarity with that community. Therefore, if you are an Ashkenazi who has neither spoken out nor recognized Mizrahi oppression, if you do not understand your own privileges or if you are joining the discussion only to criticize Mizrahim and/or tell them how to lead their struggle — your position is neither interesting, relevant nor legitimate.

You’re a quarter Iraqi? Great.

The claim: “I can’t be racist since I have an Iraqi grandmother/I am a quarter-Iraqi” works about as well as “I can’t be a chauvinist since my mom is a woman.” Mizrahi genes do not make you immune from racism, even the anti-Mizrahi kind. If you have an Iraqi grandmother or an aunt who is a quarter-Syrian, take advantage of the situation and speak with them. Ask them about their immigration and absorption process in Israel, about their lives in their countries of origin or about the history of this side of the family. You will probably learn something.

Try to remember: This isn’t about you

At some point in nearly almost every public discussion between Mizrahim and Ashkenazim, an enlightened, left-wing Ashkenazi will join the conversation and demand collective recognition. He, of course, is special: he is either a kibbutznik who supports land reform, or perhaps his grandfather was also sprayed with DDT when he came to Israel from Eastern Europe. Let’s get one thing straight: no one ever claimed that all Ashkenazim are racists, or that all of them own an apartment in the fancy neighborhoods of north Tel Aviv. But these political discussions look at issues on a systematic level, even if, in reality, there are always exceptions. Just as I won’t dismiss the Palestinian claim that Israelis are oblivious to the occupation just because I am not oblivious to it, your personal experiences do not invalidate oppression against Mizrahim, which is backed up by a multitude of facts and statistics. The assumption that you can turn a political conversation into one that deals with your personal experiences is overplayed, not to mention narcissistic. Worst of all, it depoliticizes an inherently political discourse.

Colorblindness is a problem, not a virtue

Another sentence well-intentioned Ashkenazim often say during these conversations is: “I don’t differentiate between Ashkenazim and Mizrahim — I’m colorblind.” But in a society where one’s fate is directly tied to his/her skin color and ethnic or national background, this kind of remark reflects the privileges of someone who will never face systematic discrimination for the color of his/her skin. Those who are determined to not understand just how critical ethnic origin is in the social, economic, political and cultural hierarchy in Israel — solely because they do not believe it has any significance — will fall into the same apolitical, narcissistic trap that prevents them from understanding how power structures of oppression work. In a world where skin color has consequences for the future of your children, colorblindness is not a virtue, it’s a serious problem.

Remember: We are not offended, we are struggling

One of the most disturbing aspects of these discussions is the tendency that many Ashkenazim have to talk about the Mizrahi discourse in terms of feelings and insults. “The Mizrahim are always offended.” Actually, we aren’t offended — we are struggling. Our emotional world is no one’s business, and if we want to deal with our emotions, we have our own safe spaces to do so. But in the public realm, our struggle is a political one. We struggle for recognition of our culture and history, we struggle against our oppression, against our ridiculing, against exploitative and unfair resource distribution, against the fact that our children are sent to vocational schools, against our erasure. We are not interested in your psychological treatment. We are interested in our piece of the cake.

Stop feigning innocence

Yes, when you say arsim (a derogatory slang term for the Israeli stereotype of a low-class young man), you’re talking about Mizrahim. When you say frehot, you’re referring to the person’s ethnic background. Since we have all internalized the rules of political correctness, we no longer refer to them as frenkim or shvartza chayas (although frankly, I have had the pleasure of hearing these terms in my lifetime). But let’s not feign innocence here: we all know what is meant when people say “salt of the earth,” and we all know who is being spoken about when people talk about amulet-kissers, idol-worshippers and people who prostrate themselves at the graves of saints.” In political discourse, innocence is simply immoral, since it attempts to hide the most basic truths by use of clever wordplay.

These suggestions are written without the slightest bit of cynicism. They are written out of a deep belief that the Mizrahi discourse must open its ranks and include non-Mizrahi allies. Unfortunately, however, from my many years of experience, I can attest that most people will fall into one of the aforementioned traps, which usually ends in mutual anguish: the Mizrahim feel exhausted, the Ashkenazim feel attacked. We must work to change this dynamic. Perhaps this list can start leading us in the right direction.

A version of this post was first published on +972’s sister-site, Local Call. Read it here.

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