‘Our Boys’ exposes the Mizrahi-Palestinian fault line

‘Our Boys’ shows that Mizrahi racism has transformed into a real and deadly threat. As the younger generation of Mizrahim, we must accept accountability for and develop a new understanding of Mizrahi-Palestinian relations.

By Moran Habaz

Lehava activists protest outside the wedding hall where Mahmoud Mansour, a Palestinian Israeli, and Morel Malcha, a Jewish-born Israeli, got married on August 17, 2014 in Rishon Letzion. (Oren Ziv/Activestills.org)
Lehava activists protest outside the wedding hall where Mahmoud Mansour, a Palestinian Israeli, and Morel Malcha, a Jewish-born Israeli, got married on August 17, 2014 in Rishon Letzion. (Oren Ziv/Activestills.org)

As someone who grew up in Jerusalem and experienced its bloodied streets as a teenager during the Second Intifada, HBO’s “Our Boys” shook my world. It made me reflect not only on that awful time in 2014, but also on the city’s very specific internal makeup. The series manages to capture Jerusalem’s explosive tensions, revealing both the divisions and connections along national, generational and ethnic lines, showing how a point of friction in one area inevitably causes a collapse in another.

The murder of Palestinian teenager Mohammed Abu Khdeir by Israelis that summer was exceptional for its brutality and for the graphic details published in Israeli media, but especially because of the identity of the perpetrators — Mizrahi ultra-Orthodox boys from Jerusalem and its surrounding settlements, some of whom were yeshiva students. Their background was, and remains, surprising.

Mizrahim — Jews whose families immigrated from Arab and Muslim countries — are perceived as the more racist group in Israeli society. But Mizrahi intellectuals and activists will point you to the acute analysis by Palestinian member of Knesset Jamal Zahalka, who makes a distinction between the vocal racism of those who cry “Death to Arabs,” and those who are more “enlightened” in their discourse but in effect oversee the occupation and the expulsion of Palestinians from their homeland — who are predominantly of Ashkenazi (European) origin.

Zahalka’s assessment is all the more thought-provoking for having come from a victim of that oppression. It is especially important within the clichéd discourse on racism in Israel, which invariably relies on the loud Mizrahi right-winger as its poster child.

In “Our Boys,” Shimon or Simon, the Shin Bet operative who led the investigation into the murder of Abu Khdeir, seems to understand Zahalka’s insight. Recognizing that the focus on Mizrahim is a distraction from the true engine of racism in Israel, Simon allocates most of his time and resources toward investigating the terrorism of the mostly-Ashkenazi religious-Zionist settlers. Simon pursues a singular assumption that Abu Khdeir’s killers are to be found among the predominantly Ashkenazi hilltop youth, who burn olive trees and carry out “price tag” attacks.

The repetitive cry of “Death to Arabs” leaves Simon unmoved. Even when he sits down, undercover, for a Shabbat meal with the murderers and listens to their hateful and racist talk, he still tells his Ashkenazi colleague that, “Anyone from my family could have said that. Should we arrest them all?” From Simon’s point of view, he cannot be wrong. Yet as far as the investigation is concerned, this is precisely the tragedy — and where the “Zahalka concept” of Israeli racism collapses.

The murder of Abu Khdeir teaches us that we are past the point of no return, and that we need to change our tune on Mizrahi racism. Saying “Death to Arabs” and “Burn their villages” can no longer be ascribed to internalized oppression that resulted from the erasure of Mizrahi Arabness — rather, it has become a concrete imperative.

Perhaps it comes down to a generational divide — our parents, and certainly our grandparents, might have embraced the fearful discourse of the “Arab enemy,” but they also understood this “other” because their lives were completely interwoven. The children of the 1980s and ‘90s, by contrast, do not know any Arabs — and, for the most part, are not interested in knowing them — despite having grown up in “mixed” Jewish-Arab communities.

Mizrahi activists can talk all they want about being “Arab Jews,” but the fact is that the younger generations did not ask their parents to teach them Arabic. The label of “Arab Jew,” pioneered by the likes of the sociologist Yehouda Shenhav, was perhaps relevant to my grandfather, and even, to a certain degree, my father. For me, though and for most of the Mizrahim I know, this label is meaningless, except as a point of defiance against Ashkenazim.

In the end, the leftist Mizrahi discourse around the “Arab Jew” is broken. On the one hand, its proponents — like Simon — sit at Friday night dinners where right-wing, messianic hate speech unfolds around them, understanding and reciting all the historical and class reasons for Mizrahi identification with the right. On the other hand, they have no interest in subjecting their families to the kind of patronizing education Mizrahim received in the “melting pot” years of the early state. After all, they are all descendants of a glorious Jewish-Arab dynasty, and in any case, those racist words are meaningless — just ask Jamal Zahalka.

An Israeli police officer stands alongside Shin Bet officer Simon in a scene from HBO’s ‘Our Boys’ (HBO)
An Israeli police officer stands alongside Shin Bet officer Simon in a scene from HBO’s ‘Our Boys’ (HBO)

It is on precisely this point that the series — and perhaps Israeli history itself — calls upon its viewers to take responsibility for and develop a new understanding of the power relations between Mizrahim and Palestinians, whose most extreme points of friction are embodied in Jerusalem. We need a new Mizrahi discourse that is unafraid to address this stigma, that also recognizes the specific historical factors that led to it; we need a discourse that is able to say, “Jerusalem, we have a problem.”

This is one of the most important tasks facing any Mizrahi activist. If we fail to take it on, we risk becoming not just the designated proxy for Arab-hatred, but its actual executors — a whole generation carrying out the apartheid vision of the messianic right.

To a large extent, this terrible future has already arrived, in the form of army and police units made up almost entirely of young Mizrahim and Ethiopians. But it is likely to worsen and spread beyond the security apparatus if we do not create a new, generational Mizrahi identity that stands up to the danger of unthinkingly embracing racist and hateful slogans.

Moran Habaz is a doctoral student in Jewish history. A version of this article was first published in Hebrew on Haokets. Read it here.