What is Mizrahiness? Seeking answers through questions

What does it mean to be Mizrahi in Israel of 2013? And why is it that Mizrahiness is better expressed in questions than in answers? An exploration following Amnon Levy’s Hebrew-language TV documentary series, ‘The Ethnic Demon.’

By Almog Behar (Translated from Hebrew by Rachel Beitarie‏)

What is Mizrahiness? What does it mean to be Mizrahi in Israel of 2013? Does it have to do with shared origins and identities of Jews who from “eastern” countries? (One of those countries, Morocco, bears the Arabic name Al-Magreb, which means “west”) Or is Mizrahiness the product of the economic and cultural oppression of Eastern Jews in Israel and a product of the Zionist melting pot that has melted them together?

Is being Mizrahi a manifestation of a cultural and communal essence, in a way that a Mizrahi Jew is someone who holds on to this essence, created either in Israel or back in the eastern countries of origin, or is it someone from whom this essence has been robbed? Or is Mizrahiness an ideology, a worldview and a struggle in which those who aren’t ethnically Mizrahi can also take part?

And what is the context in which Israeli Mizrahiness should be read? Is it the opposite of Ashkenaziness or is it the negative of Israeliness with its negation of the Diaspora and Judaism with it, and its imagined ideal of the native “sabra?”

Is Mizrahiness the contrast to that Israeliness which has left no room in it for Mizrahiness, and – even though it was created by privileged Ashkenazim  – hasn’t left much room for Ashkenaziness either? (No room for the Yiddish language or for the stories of those Ashkenazi Jews who were latecomers to the Zionist project, for example, survivors of the Holocaust who immigrated here).

Or is Mizrahiness actually the opposite of Persian, Djerban, Sephardic, Kurdish or Moroccan uniqueness? Or maybe it means a synthesis of all of those cultures (though not necessarily an equal mix), reflecting their mixing together after coming to Israel and a shared experiences and interests?

Is Mizrahiness the opposite of Westernness in its’ Eurocentric and Orientalist Israeli context? Can it partner with third world countries and share their experience of colonialism? Or is it a product of a multiculturalism that was born in the West? Is Mizrahiness an expression of regional identity that Mizrahi people share with others in the Arab and Muslim worlds? Or is it really an identity that separates Jews from that world while trying to eliminate the Arab roots of many Mizrahi people?

Was Mizrahiness created by Mizrahim themselves, as in the religious context of Sephardic law? Or was it projected on them as a slur of sorts, as an attempt to place them outside of the Israeli collective identity and to brand them as non-Ashkenazi, abnormal Israelis? And once a person adopts the slur thrown at his face by those negating him and makes it his self-definition, what then? By doing so is he rebeling against the oppressor or submitting to them? Did adopting Mizrahiness as a self-identity succeed in making Mizrahiness a positive term? Has it it empowered communities? Or maybe it was a process of giving up the multitude of Eastern (Jewish) cultures, of giving up the synagogue and the Arab language? Perhaps is was a process that has left the Mizrahi community with an empty title that only expresses defiance and opposition but is devoid of positive content?

And what about a Mizrahi political agenda? Does it have to be particular (”ethnic”), or could it carry meaning for those who are not from that same ethnicity? Can it produce a partnership with other communities? Is a universal viewpoint even possible? Or in reality, do political views always emphasize a unique feature of some human group or another, be it a nationality, gender, ethnicity, religion, class, age or something else – because this is the only way any group can express its political agenda?

Is there political advantage to be gained by the radicalization of Mizrahi identity within a small and dedicated group of intellectuals? For example, by re-establishing a Jewish-Arab identity and bluntly pointing out the repression of both Mizrahi and Palestinians by Zionism? Or maybe a moderation of Mizrahiness by focusing on its Jewish origins, or by focusing on the economic and class aspect of this discussion while ignoring the state of the Palestinians, or could the cultural question have a greater potential for inducing change by triggering a Mizrahi mass movement based on the Shas[1] model?

And at the end, isn’t emphasizing the Jewish aspect of Mizrahiness more radical in its critique of Zionism than a leftist agenda inspired by Western academic circles? Is it even possible to change the cultural-economic-political situation in Israel through any other means than a political party? Or maybe it is the other way around – it’s impossible to establish a Mizrahi political party without blurring the definition and giving up the core of the Mizrahi agenda?

Would the creation of a multicultural society be enough of a solution for the repression of the Mizrahim as a group and of their culture? Or would that – without economic corrections – only mean weakening social solidarity and compliance with a capitalist agenda?

And is the preferable inclusive option for Mizrahi culture in Israel integration with existing culture, or after long years of cultural repression is it essential to separate, and go back to Arabic music rather than create a combined Eastern-Western pop music?

What can Mizrahiness mean when so many Mizrahi people are actually of mixed identity – if not the product of a mixed-marriage then a product of the Israeli education system – identifying themselves with Zionist and Eurocentric points of view that make them ambivalent about themselves and their culture? Is it at all possible to renew Mizrahi culture, history and community after they have already been broken and dissolved? And isn’t one of the reasons for this feeling of irreparable breach the romantic belief that in the past there existed an unbroken continuity?

Is it possible to even talk about a next generation of Mizrahi culture when schools and youth movements all teach its’ negation? When our shared social ideals are TV, the computer and the shopping mall? But on the other hand, can we really talk about the disappearance of Mizrahi culture when the use of Mizrahim stereotypes gets ever stronger and widespread, and while conflict with the Palestinians continues to bring out racist attitudes towards Arab culture and the East?

Is it still possible to talk about Mizrahiness when the correlation between ethnicity, socio-economic status and geography – that still exists in Israel today – has been made more complicated with the arrival of Russian and Ethiopian immigrants and later with migrant workers[2]? When essential aspects of Mizrahi culture are still in focus in our synagogues, in religious rule, in music and language?

What is the outcome when the media raises a mirror of “authenticity” to Mizrahiness? It is a manipulation through which, for example, most members of Kedem[3] are reflected in the media as unauthentic, because in the views of the Israel leftist and academia, became the opposite of being Mizrahi, whereas the Ashkenazi Yehuda Barkan and Tzvika Hadar[4] easily manage to create “authentic” Mizrahi characters by using few stereotypes and making Mizrahiness merely comical? Where does that leave us?

And, after all, maybe the time for Mizrahiness has already passed; hasn’t the subject gotten old and beaten after being discussed for so long? Or perhaps the real discussion has yet to start?

Do we need to wish for a third, fourth and fifth generation and for a continuity of Mizrahi culture inside Israel? Do we need to wish for it because of the relevance and beauty of Mizrahi cultural content, out of loyalty to our parents’ heritage and our resistance to erasing this heritage? Or because of its inherent potential for a connection to the Arab world? Or simply because it is a part of us that we have no reason to give up on?

On the other hand, perhaps the fact that there are still more generations of Mizrahim is evident of an unhealed wound, of a void that we shouldn’t wish to pass on to them? Maybe we should settle for a change in Israeliness so that it becomes a compromise between Mizrahi, Ashkenazi, Palestinians, Russians, Ethiopians, etc?

And why is it that Mizrahiness is better expressed in questions than in answers? Why is it more a dialogue than a monologue? Is this good or bad?

Almog Behar is a Hebrew novelist and poet. For translations of his works into English see: almogbehar.wordpress.com/english/

This post originally appeared in Hebrew on Haokets.

‘But you’re not really Mizrahi’: Rewriting an erased identity
Mizrahi culture was suppressed, Ashkenazi culture is simply forgotten


[1] Shas – Israeli Mizrahi Political Party. It is always led by Mizrahi Orthodox (or Ultra-orthodox) and Rabbis but its voters are often more traditional Mizrahi than strictly religious.

[2] Meaning that, with recent immigrations and their respective hardships, it has become more difficult to uphold the Ashkenazi-Mizrahi dichotomy, and that recent comers like Russians, Ethiopians and migrant workers don’t fit into those two categories.

[3] The Mizrahi Democratic Rainbow. A social movement for social justice and for revival of Mizrahi culture, led by Mizrahi intellectuals and activists.

[4] Two Israeli comedians who, both Ashkenazi who got their fame by portraying “Simple” and “Down to Earth” Mizrahi characters.