The roots of anti-Mizrahi racism in Israel

The founders of the state, Jews of Ashkenazi origin raised on European ideas, viewed ‘Oriental Jews’ as backward and primitive from the moment they began arriving en masse on Israel’s shores.

Jewish immigrants from Yemen at a camp near Rosh Ha’ayin. (Photo: GPO)
Jewish immigrants from Yemen at a camp near Rosh Ha’ayin. (Photo: GPO)

“An Ashkenazi gangster, thief, pimp or murderer will not gain the sympathy of the Ashkenazi community (if there is such a thing), nor will he expect it. But in such a primate community as the Moroccans’ — such a thing is possible.” – David Ben-Gurion, Israel’s first prime minister, 1959

Israel’s media was abuzz Monday following the release of an overtly racist commercial targeting Mizrahi Jews.

The commercial for the upscale housing development of “Karmei Gat,” planned to be be built in the middle of Kiryat Gat, a working class town largely populated by Mizrahim (Jews from Arab and/or Muslim countries), features a religious Ashkenazi family (Jews of eastern European origin) lighting Hanukkah candles together. All of a sudden they are disrupted by two neighbors — unabashedly portrayed as Mizrahi — who barge in to ruin Hanukkah with their vulgarity and ignorance of authentic Jewish practice.

עדכון לפוסט הקודם: הסרטון הוסר בעקבות המחאה, וטוב שכךכדי שלא נחזה בקמפיינים מהסוג הבזוי הזה בהמשך, הוא מצורף כאן

Posted by Elyashiv Raichner on Monday, November 30, 2015

The message? By moving to Karmei Gat, you can live among other real, white Jews without having to worry about those pesky, benighted brown people.

The video, produced by “Be’emuna,” a real estate company that specializes in building “quality housing for the religious public,” was widely panned in the media, and was taken down almost as quickly as it went up. But the bitter taste couldn’t be wiped out, especially since the video was released on the very same day that official Israel commemorates the expulsion of Jews from Arab and Muslim lands.

In 2014, the Knesset passed a bill to commemorate the flight and expulsion of Jews from Arab Lands and Iran. For many Mizrahim, “Jewish Refugee Day” is a form of recognition for their expulsion from Muslim countries, as well as recognition for their second-class status in Israeli society. “This story touches half the residents of Israel, but is almost unknown,” Moroccan-born MK Shimon Ohayon said in February 2014 as the Knesset was getting ready to vote on the bill. “If the story of these communities had been told from the founding of the state, we wouldn’t need this bill today.”

Critics of the memorial day argue that it is part of a cynical attempt by the government to use Mizrahi claims to their properties in countries such as Iraq and Morocco as a means to offset those of Palestinian refugees to the lands from which they were expelled in 1948 — what Professor Yehouda Shenhav refers to as “spineless bookkeeping.”

Those who may be shocked by the blatant bigotry in the Karmei Gat video must remember that racist attitudes toward Mizrahim are part and parcel of Israel’s DNA. The founders of the state, Jews of Ashkenazi origin who were raised on European ideas of nationalism and socialism, viewed “Oriental Jews” as backward and primitive from the moment they began arriving en masse on Israel’s shores, shortly after the founding of the state.

Famed Israeli Foreign Minister Abba Eban described in 1957 how Mizrahi Jews were, in the plainest sense, a direct threat to the nascent State of Israel: “The goal must be to instill in them a Western spirit, and not let them drag us into an unnatural Orient. One of the biggest fears… is the danger that the large amount of immigrants of Mizrahi origin will force Israel to compare how cultured we are to our neighbors.”

Nurses and mothers taking care of Yemenite children, Rosh Ha'ayin, 1949. (photo: GPO)
Nurses and mothers taking care of Yemenite children, Rosh Ha’ayin, 1949. (photo: GPO)

Those same racist sentiments laid the groundwork for racist policies. During the early years of the state, Mizrahi Jews were subject to ghettoization, cultural theft, and medical experimentation. Most disturbing of all was the alleged kidnapping of hundreds of Yemenite babies during the years 1948-1956. Although Yemenite Jews were viewed by the Zionist establishment as being the most “authentic” Jews, they were still seen through the prism of the East, infected with a disease that could only be cured through a dosage of Western acculturation. “Why destroy the diaspora in Yemen and bring these people who will harm us more than help?” asked Yitzhak Grinboim, Israel’s first interior minister. “By bringing 70 percent of ill Yemenite Jews we will harm both us and them.”

To understand the scorn, and at times detestation of Jews from Arab countries in Israel, we must go to the source. I have picked out a number of remarks made by Israeli leaders during the founding years of the state (all of which can be found in Tom Segev’s remarkable book, “1949: The First Israelis”) to demonstrate how deeply-rooted these attitudes really were:

“Even the immigrant from North Africa, who looks like a savage, who has never read a book in his life, not even a religious one, and doesn’t even know how to say his prayers, either wittingly or unwittingly has behind him a spiritual heritage of thousands of years…” – David Ben-Gurion.

“The ancient spirit left the Jews of the East and their role in the Jewish nation receded or disappeared entirely. In the past few hundred of years the Jews of Europe have led the nation, in both quantity and quality.” – David Ben-Gurion.

“This tribe is in some ways more easily absorbed, both culturally and economically, than any other. It is hardworking, it is not attracted by city life, it has — or at least, the male part has — a good grounding in Hebrew and the Jewish heritage. Yet in other ways it may be the most problematic of all. It is two thousand years behind us, perhaps even more. It lacks the most basic and primary concepts of civilization (as distinct from culture). Its attitude toward women and children is primate. Its physical condition is poor. For thousands of years it lived in one of the most benighted and impoverished lands, under a rule even more backward than an ordinary feudal and theocratic regime. The passage from there to Israel has been a profound human revolution, not a superficial, political one. All its human values need to be changed from the ground up.” David Ben-Gurion, on the new Yemenite immigrants to Israel.

“This is a race unlike any we have seen before. They say there are differences between people from Tripolitania, Morocco, Tunisia and Algeria, but I can’t say I have learned what those inferences are, if they do, in fact, exist. They say, for example, that the Tripolitanians and Tunisians are “better” than the Moroccans and Algerians, but it’s the same problem with them all… The primitiveness of these people is unsurpassable. As a rule, they are only slightly more advanced than the Arabs, Negroes and Berbers in their countries… The [North] Africans bring their ways with them wherever they settle. It is not surprising that the crime rate in the country is rising… above all there is one equally grave fact and that is their total inability to adjust to the life in this country, and primarily their chronic laziness and hatred for any kind of work.” Arye Gelblum, Haaretz, April 22, 1949.

“They are handsome as far as their physique and outward appearance are concerned, but I found it very difficult to tell them apart from the good quality Arab type.” H. Tsivleli, the Jewish Agency emissary in Libya.

“In our opinion, the Sephardi and Yemenite Jews will play a considerable part in building our country. We have to bring them over in order to save them, but also to obtain the human material needed for building the country.” – Berl Locker, Chairman of the Jewish Agency executive, speaking to the Jewish American politician Henry Morgenthau, October 1948.

“I must say that the human material in Germany is better than I had thought, especially after having visited the North Africans in Marseilles” – Itzhak Refael, member of Jewish Agency Executive, following a visit to a camp for immigrants preparing to move to Israel.

“You are familiar with the immigrants from those places… you know that we do not have a common language with them. Our cultural level is not theirs. Their way of life is medieval.” – Shoshana Parsits, MK for the General Zionists Party.

– – –

It would be unfair, however, to portray Mizrahi history in Israel as one of sole victimhood. From the very beginning, newly-arrived Mizrahi immigrants led uprisings against the ghastly conditions in ma’abarot — Israel’s refugee absorption camps — and Israel’s inner cities, where they were often sent to live in the homes of Palestinians who were expelled or had fled just years prior. The most noteworthy of these uprisings came during the 1970s by a group of young Moroccans in Jerusalem who called themselves the Israeli Black Panthers and led a series of mass protests, posing the first real threat to the Ashekanzi establishment by its Mizrahi subjects.

Reuven Abergel, co-founder of the Black Panthers Movement in Israel, speaking to more than 10,000 African asylum seekers gathered in Levinsky Park showing support in their struggle, in south Tel Aviv, Israel, January 7, 2014. (photo: Oren Ziv/
Reuven Abergel, co-founder of the Black Panthers Movement in Israel, speaking to more than 10,000 African asylum seekers gathered in Levinsky Park, showing support in their struggle, south Tel Aviv, Israel, January 7, 2014. (photo: Oren Ziv/

Today there is a flourishing of Mizrahi cultural and political activism, which seeks not only to expose the crimes of the Ashkenazi founders, but to draw a direct line from the abuses of the 1950s to the racism we see in Israeli society today. But the mere fact that there are people who seemingly have no problem with actively promoting an apartheid vision by which Mizrahim are actively kept out of particular neighborhoods means that non-Mizrahim (such as myself) must take an active role in combating these forms of bigotry.

First and foremost we must listen. Listen to the stories of Yemeni Jews who talk about how their children were taken from them and given up for adoption without brushing them off as old wives’ tales. We must listen to the stories of the brutal suppression of nearly every attempted Mizrahi uprising in a country that was never really made for them. We must learn to view the story of the Mizrahi tragedy as one that needs to be told — over and over again — to anyone who believes that Israelis are all racist, colonialist Europeans who came here with the express purpose of usurping Palestinian land. We must tell it to anyone who still believes Israel is the only place on earth where the rights, histories, and safety of Jews can be guaranteed and protected. But most of all, we must tell it for the simple fact that it remains an open wound that cannot heal on its own.

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