New book examines Israel’s ‘Arab Jews’
By Adam Kirsch
New York (JTA) — That the State of Israel has a Jews vs. Arabs ethnicity problem is not news.
But “We Look Like the Enemy,” the impassioned, often self-righteous new book by Rachel Shabi, draws the reader’s attention to an easily overlooked dimension of that conflict: What if you are an Israeli Jew who is also, in some ways, an Arab?
What if, like Shabi’s family, you came from Iraq, where your ancestors had lived for centuries; you speak Arabic fluently and pronounce Hebrew with an accent; you watch TV shows from Dubai and listen to music from Egypt; and your complexion resembles a Palestinian’s more than a Pole’s?
In short, what if you belong to the significant percentage of Israeli Jews referred to as Mizrahi, or Easterners?
Shabi makes one thing clear: If you are one of those Jews, you refuse to call yourself an Arab, or even an Arab Jew.
In her last chapter, Shabi recalls riding a bus to Kiryat Shmona, a majority Mizrahi town near the Lebanon border.
She gets into a conversation with three women who, like her, come from Iraqi Jewish families. One of them “lives in central Tel Aviv and speaks Arabic constantly... She relates that she is happy in Israel, of course, but that she was happy in Iraq, too.”
But then the woman says things the left-leaning Shabi — who was born in Israel but spent most of her life in England, where she works as a journalist — does not like, such as, “[T]he Arabs themselves, they are killers.”
Struck that the woman is saying this in Arabic, Shabi demands, “Aren’t you also an Arab?”
“Of course I’m not Arab!” the woman replies. “I’m Jewish! Of course we are different!”
Grievance and idealism
Shabi reports this encounter honestly, though it presents a large obstacle to her book’s thesis. Shabi believes that reclaiming the Arab-Jewish identity of so many of Israel’s citizens — 40 percent of Israeli Jews are Mizrahi, down from a majority in the 1970s — is the only way to save the country’s soul.
Shabi decries the marginalization of Mizrahi culture and the economic injustice that keeps Mizrahis poorer and more likely to end up in jail.
She attacks Israel’s founders, the European Zionists, who failed to integrate Arab Jewish immigrants into the new society. She quotes the most disaffected Mizrahis she can find, like one who asserts, “My children will never raise the Israeli flag, never!”
Shlomi also contends that Ashkenazis brought the Holocaust on: “Anti-Semitism doesn’t come from nowhere, something causes it.”
This is obviously a fringe viewpoint, and Shabi is too eager to make such voices sound legitimate.
This tendentiousness is a pity because the facts Shabi gathers are sobering enough. It becomes easier to understand why some Mizrahis feel alienated when you learn that “in 1970, 78 percent of all adult Jewish and 93 percent of all juvenile Jewish offenders were Mizrahi.”
Even today, “the majority of university professors and students, TV presenters, Supreme Court justices (all but one, in fact) have Ashkenazi surnames; the glaring majority of university cleaners, market stall traders, TV buffoon characters, and blue-collar criminals are Mizrahi in origin.”
So are most residents of Israel’s “development towns,” impoverished places on the periphery of the country. These towns were created to house Arab-Jewish immigrants in the 1950s by an Ashkenazi Labor establishment that did not consult them about where they wanted to go. As is the nature of things, these towns have become more disadvantaged as time goes on.
All this will be eye-opening for many American Jews, though it is common knowledge in Israel.
Yet Shabi tends to play down evidence that Israel’s ethnic divisions are gradually declining. The state has had a Mizrahi president, Moshe Katzav, and even a Mizrahi head of the arch-Ashkenazi Labor Party, Amir Peretz.
Culturally, the current generation of Israelis is more open to Middle Eastern influences than were the pioneers.
“We Look Like the Enemy” has a rose-colored vision of the past and potential future. Like many an immigrants’ child who grew up on tales of the old country, Shabi tends to see her ancestors’ lives as a lost paradise, ignoring the reasons why they might have wanted to flee.
Nor does Shabi seem justified in hoping that Mizrahi Jews, once reawakened to their Arab cultural identity, will be able to make peace with the Arab world. This represents an obvious case of wishful thinking.
Most important, she ignores the fact that Mizrahis have flocked to hard-line political parties in Israel, Likud and Shas.
Sadly, coexistence does not always lead to amity — a fact that “We Look Like the Enemy” demonstrates but would prefer to forget.
Adam Kirsch is the author of “Benjamin Disraeli,” a new biography in Nextbook’s Jewish Encounters series. Reprinted from Nextbook.org, a new read on Jewish culture.