How long can Israel depend on Mizrahi docile loyalty? Smadar Lavie asks in new book

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Smadar Lavie's new book, Wrapped in the Flag of Israel
Smadar Lavie’s new book, Wrapped in the Flag of Israel

Wrapped in the Flag of Israel: Mizrahi Single Mothers and Bureaucratic Torture, by Smadar Lavie. Berghahn Books, April 2014, $39.95

Smadar Lavie’s most recent book, Wrapped in the Flag of Israel: Mizrahi Single Mothers and Bureaucratic Torture, is an anthropological study of a group of marginalized women, written by a member of this marginalized group, and written for Westerners who, for the most part, know nothing about intra-Jewish racism in Israel.

In the short but packed volume, Lavie describes the demographics of Israel, the power structure, classism and sexism. She tells some of the history of political movements involving the ethnic majority in Israel (Mizrahi Jews), showing how the minority elite (Ashkenazi Jews) suppress political demands. She includes anthropological descriptions and statistics, describes reasons that the majority ethnic group leans politically to the right, and quotes from her diary, giving compelling testimony to the truly bureaucratic torture that impoverished single mothers must suffer in Israel.

Mizrahi Jews, or Mizrahim (pl. Hebrew), are 50% of the population of Israeli citizens. Ashkenazim make up 30% and Palestinians are the remaining 20%. Most Mizrahim have roots in Arab countries, such as Iraq, Yemen, Egypt and Morocco. Many Jews from those countries were generally forced to leave during the 1950s after Israel became a state. In some cases this may have been a response by those countries to the new Zionist state, or the emigration may have been precipitated by the Israeli government, or they chose to leave, but the creation of about 600,000 Jewish refugee immigrants served Israel’s purposes. Israel needed to bring in Jews to replace the 750,000 Palestinians it had forcibly removed from their homes, both to justify the removal of the Palestinians and to replace the labor that had been forced out. Mizrahi means Eastern, but it has come to mean a Jew from a country in which the Jewish population did not speak Yiddish. The term therefore includes Ethiopian Jews, Indian and East Asian Jews, and Jews from Spain and some Slavic countries. Ashkenazim originate in Eastern and Central Europe or the Yiddish speaking parts of Europe. They are privileged in terms of education, employment, positions in the armed forces, housing opportunities and they have many other societal advantages.

Prior to reading this book, I was aware of statements like David Ben-Gurion’s “poor human material” , in referring to Jews from Arab countries [see for example War Without End, by Anton La Guardia]. It was evident that if Israel’s founders based their new country on the premise that one ethnicity is superior to others, then it is no stretch to assume that racism will spread to encompass other ethnicities. If Jews are considered superior to non-Jews, it would not be out of character for the privileged class to believe that certain Jews are superior to other kinds of Jews. In fact, it would be a surprise if there was no evidence of the expansion of racism. Racism is hard to contain, always spilling out over the edges and spreading.

Still, the views expressed by some Ashkenazim quoted by Lavie in her book are stunning: the president of Israel in 1951 said that Mizrahim were unfit for education [p. 56], Mizrahi children are openly called “kushi sambo” (sambo nigger) [p. 14]. And, like Palestinians, Mizrahi single mothers are described as “du-ragli” in Hebrew slang. The literal meaning is bipedal but the word implies a sub-human that walks on two legs.

In fact, Europeans were considered so superior to Mizrahi that during the Soviet immigration period Soviet citizens could easily bypass the requirement of having five maternal Jewish generations in order to immigrate to Israel. Many who were not Jewish falsified their documents, as was known to the authorities who let them in anyway. Lavie states, “Perhaps the absorption authorities were less concerned with Jewishness than with increasing Israel’s Whiteness, or ‘eugenic capability’” [p.37].

Mizrahim, who usually arrived in Israel with next to nothing after their former governments confiscated their possessions in the 1950s, were given housing in the homes that Palestinians had been forced out of a few years earlier, or they lived in tent cities on the front lines between Jordan and Israel. Little or no education was given to children as they were considered too primitive to benefit from formal education. Importantly, education of many Mizrahi children did not include foreign languages. Child labor was common, with children being exploited in the homes of Ashkenazim. Children were exposed to medical experimentation [The Ringworm Affair, p. 79], which killed and injured many.

Mizrahi families were often broken apart: many Mizrahi children were forcibly removed from their parents between the 1930s and 1970s, and the babies given to childless Ashkenazi parents. The practice of taking children from parents deemed unsuitable for parenthood continues today for Mizrahi families, especially those led by single women, who have difficulties providing for their children due to the torturous and exploitative bureaucratic system.

Israeli authorities began a policy of dividing and conquering from the moment Mizrahi Jews arrived in Israel. They already had a lot of practice in this strategy: modeling the European colonial powers, Israel divided Palestinians remaining in Israel into Druze, Christians, Bedouins, Muslims, etc., and set one group against each other [see Citizen Strangers: Palestinians and the Birth of Israel’s Settler State, by Shira Robinson]. This same strategy was used on Jews of Arab and North African countries, which drove a wedge between the Mizrahim and the Palestinians, who shared language and culture and should have been natural allies. In the Ashkenazi Zionist mind, an alliance between Mizrahim and Palestinians was a dangerous prospect for the continuation of the Ashkenazi political and economic domination in Israel. A Mizrahi-Palestinian coalition in government would spell the end of Ashkenazi control.

The welfare system, which was to provide a safety net, instead gives bureaucrats, opportunities to sexually exploit the women who are forced to show up in person at multiple agencies for help (Lavie offers documentation for this phenomenon, for instance Esther Hertzog’s research, “Who benefits from the Welfare State?” [in Hebrew.]). Rules prevent welfare recipients from owning cars, putting money into a bank, and earning even a substandard wage, making normal commerce difficult and obtaining a job nearly impossible. In 2003, the already insufficient safety net was further eroded by laws in the Knesset.

After the welfare safety net was nearly eliminated, Vicky Knafo, a Mizrahi single mother, began a protest march. At the time, the author was also a Mizrahi single mother in Israel, and experienced first-hand the state system of bureaucracy and exploitation meant to disenfranchise an already marginalized group. Although Vicky Knafo’s protest was prominent news in Israel, few foreign news media covered it – it was not deemed important enough. Since few Mizrahi spoke English or other foreign languages, it was impossible to get international coverage of this grassroots movement for social change. At the same time, the Israeli regime was able to play sectors against one another to cause infighting and divisions.

After weeks of Knafo’s camping out and protesting, a Palestinian suicide bomber struck in Jerusalem, and the news media immediately abandoned the Knafo protest to cover the suicide bombing. Mizrahi single mothers had gained nothing.

The swing to the right in Israeli politics has been largely due to the Mizrahi voting bloc, who overwhelmingly supported right-wing parties such as Likud and more recently Avigdor Lieberman’s racist Yisrael Beiteinu. This is a puzzle: how is it possible that a marginalized, oppressed group supports a party which clearly marginalizes and oppresses another group of people? Lavie says that it is a reaction to years of abuse and disenfranchisement by the Israeli left. It was the left that forced the Mizrahim into downward mobility, expressed vile racism against them and carried out some of the worst practices against their families. The right-wing parties have been those that actually give something tangible to the Mizrahim, such as community renewal projects in the Mizrahi ghettos within Israel.

The Israeli left are the parties who abuse the Mizrahi Jews, yet speak about peace with the Palestinians. Mizrahim understand this hypocrisy. The Israeli left want a two-state solution, in which Israel would give up some of the land in the West Bank to a Palestinian state. Yet most of the settlers living in the West Bank, according to Lavie, are Mizrahim. A peace on those terms would result in large-scale Mizrahi homelessness and is therefore unacceptable to Mizrahim.

Also obviously hypocritical to Lavie and other Mizrahi women are the Ashkenazi feminists who are so patronizing to women of color. Lavie says, in addressing these women belonging to NGOs and philanthropic organizations, “Your feminism is not liberation. It is containment.” [p.136] These NGOs and organizations, like Women in Black, who record human rights abuses against Palestinians at West Bank checkpoints, are part of the Israeli left who talk about peace and the two-state solution but tend to ignore the racism in front of them. These Ashkenazi women who talk about peace are seen as heroes among Jews in the West – showing the vitality of Israeli freedom of expression. Yet, Lavie asks, “How would progressive diaspora Jews – important contributors to civil rights and anti-apartheid movements – react to the revelation of Israeli intra-Jewish racism?” [p.138]

What does this all mean for those of us in the Palestinian solidarity community? The majority ethnic group, the Mizrahi, are marginalized and oppressed by the minority Ashkenazi, but are fiercely chauvinistic. They seem willing to accept their own oppression to protect the state from those who are culturally and even ethnically similar to them. This leaves very little room for optimism. If the majority of the Jewish population are those who could play a pivotal role in bringing about justice in that country, yet are satisfied to be racist, how could their opinions be changed? An effective Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement targets those with economic and political power, heads of corporations, governmental policy makers, academics – the Ashkenazim. Those in the lower echelons of society – laborers, unemployed people, welfare recipients – the majority who are Mizrahim and Palestinians, might lose a job due to an effective BDS campaign, but the economy does not rise or fall because of them. Few in the West understand the dynamics and demographics of Israeli society, and so do not challenge the Mizrahim to shift their way of thinking. Without this challenge, there is little incentive to change. This is concerning especially in light of such dramatic recent successes of the BDS movement. Is it possible to create change in that society without the Mizrahim?

However, the book’s last sentence, “How long can the regime depend on Mizrahi docile loyalty to the Jewish state?” implies some optimism. A major threat to Ashkenazi domination and perhaps the key to ending Israeli apartheid could be in forging relationships between Mizrahim and Palestinians on the basis of their shared ethnicity, culture, history and oppression. Lavie does not instruct us on how these relationships could be forged, nor does she help us understand our role in this relationship building. But it is essential that we understand the pervasive racism within Israeli culture.

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Thanks for the article.

Mizrahim and Palestinians are natural political allies in One State Israel.

When people fear-monger by saying the “destruction of Israel” in a one state context what they are expressing is a fear of that alliance, nothing more.

Mizrahi Jews, or Mizrahim (pl. Hebrew), are 50% of the population of Israeli

50% of the population or 50% of the ancestry of the population? Israelis of mixed Ashkenazi-Sefardi ancestry are quite common.

I could not agree more with many of the sentiments expressed in this piece – and am looking forward to reading the book. It is about time that the well-meaning people in the west – on all sides, left and right – woke up to the pervasive racism endemic to Jewish society in Israel. I said before that what we have in Israel is not so much a racist society (which it is, to be… Read more »

YES! This general issue has been one of my go-to points for years, much to the consternation of my fellow Americans who can think only of Jewish white people, all descended from Holocaust survivors of course, vs. Muslim Arabs. Add to it the existence of Jewish Arabs who were living there prior to and during any of the drama of the past century, even more invisible to American eyes if that’s possible, and you can… Read more »

This idea of building a Mizrahi-Palestinian alliance in Israel strikes me overly idealistic. Certainly would be a nice development but likely impossible. The experience in the American south might be similar. Basically the enemy of poor whites and blacks was the social class structure. Efforts to integrate those people into a movement failed completely. This began almost a century ago. The one thing that the poor whites had was their superior position over the blacks… Read more »