Convincing portrait of a Jewish group discriminated against within Israel


BOOK OF THE DAY: RICHARD CROWLEYreviews Not The Enemy: Israel’s Jews From Arab LandsBy Rachel Shabi, Yale University Press. pp320, £18.99

WHO ARE the Mizrahi Jews? Even the book’s subtitle “Israel’s Jews from Arab Lands” does not adequately describe them. Along with Egypt, Syria, Sudan, Yemen, Iraq, Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia and Libya, the Mizrahi also came from Iran and Turkey. Jews from the Arab and Muslim countries would be more accurate.

Rachel Shabi’s central point is that these people have been marginalised because they are not white Europeans. Shabi, a newspaper journalist born in Israel but raised in England to Iraqi parents, carefully builds a convincing and readable narrative of how a section of Israeli society has been discriminated against since the formation of the state.

When the Mizrahi came to Israel, they still spoke Arabic. But even when they learned Hebrew, they spoke it as Arabs would, stressing the guttural sounds. Their clothes, their cooking, their music, all were “middle eastern” in the eyes of the European or Ashkenazi elite. Europeans saw the new tribe as “chah chahim” or “wild and uneducated”. In short, the Mizrahi were a bit too similar to the Arab “enemy” to be liked or trusted. Hence the book’s title.

The Mizrahi story illustrates how you don’t have to be in a minority to suffer discrimination. Between 1948 and the early 1950s, some 800,000 Jews migrated from the Mizrahi countries to Israel. Up until the arrival of more than a million people from the countries of the former Soviet Union in the early 1990s, the Mizrahi were the majority in Israel but were still treated very much as second-class citizens.

Zionism was a political idea born in Europe. Those Europeans who led the charge into what was then Palestine and began building the new state took for themselves the levers of power. To a large extent they still have that advantage. Shabi quotes numerous examples showing that even today the Mizrahi hold disproportionately fewer top jobs in politics, the judiciary, in education or in the financial world that their Ashkenazi cousins. This is not to say that the Mizrahi cannot penetrate these areas. They can and they have done so but Shabi argues these are the exceptions that prove the rule.

A majority of the Mizrahi live in the dusty inland “development towns” or in the poorer quarters of Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. There, they suffer all the effects of systematic neglect such as poor housing, schools and hospitals, high unemployment.

If what they get from the state is less than they deserve, what they give back is not appreciated. Shabi contends that the Mizrahi have been practically written out of the recent history of the Jewish state and that the story of the Mizrahi in exile has been cynically manipulated by those who wish to exaggerate the enmity between Jews and Arabs.

In Israel, the popular narrative is that the Jews had to flee the Arab lands to escape persecution and that Israel was established to offer them safe haven. What is often eclipsed, Shabi argues, is that many Jews coexisted happily with their Arab neighbours until the fighting over Palestine began. Only when hundreds of thousands of Palestinian Arabs were driven from or fled their homes did the backlash in the Arab states begin.

In her conclusions, Rachel Shabi says many Mizrahi, in an effort to show how “loyal” they are to the state of Israel, have become unrelentingly right-wing. Had things gone differently, she laments, the Mizrahi might have acted as a valuable bridge between Arab and Jew.

Richard Crowley is the author of No Man’s Land: Dispatches from the Middle Eastpublished by Liberties Press.