Time to meet the Mizrahim?

Shiki Behar, Sunday 14 May 2023

In reply to a recent article in Al-Ahram Weekly by Fawzi Mansour, Shiko Behar* speaks out on behalf of the "uncommon sense" of the Middle East's own Jews



From Al-Ahram Weekly archives: Fifty years of dispossession 1948-1998*

Issue: 15 October 1998


In an essay entitled "Culture and Conflict" (Al-Ahram Weekly, 386, 16-22 July), professor emeritus Fawzi Mansour responded to five articles by Edward Said that had appeared in the Weekly between 9 April and 25 June. His argument rested on the following contention: "There is running through Said's articles a constant refrain that jars and it jars because I find it demobilising at a time when we need to gather all our strength."

One of the first issues Mansour raised was Said's suggestion that possible links should be explored between Arabs and Middle Eastern Jews in Palestine/Israel. (These Jews, incidentally, call themselves "Mizrahi", plural Mizrahim, meaning Eastern Jews, not "Sephardic Jews"). Mansour wrote: "I must admit to being surprised at hearing that those Sephardic Jews who emigrated to Israel could be counted among those seeking justice for all. [...] As far as I know, those Sephardic Jews who opposed the creation of a Zionist state in Palestine, or objected to the more extreme practices of that state, either stayed where they belonged or left for Europe. [...] More to the point: aren't Israel's Sephardic Jews the section which most heavily tips the electoral balance in favour of the ultra-chauvinist, ultra-Zionist Likud?"

What first strikes me on reading Mansour's remarks is the diametrical resemblance between such arguments and those advanced daily by the Ashkenazi (European) Zionist "left" in Israel. It would be hard to imagine a statement which better mirrors the confusion, whether conscious or unconscious, that suffuses academic and political perceptions, in Israel and the Arab World alike, of the history of the Mizrahim, both pre- and in-Israel. Since Mansour's statements can be elucidated only within the overall academic/political context of these perceptions, I shall discuss this context first, then provide eight counter-arguments to Mansour's statements. Finally, I shall conclude by my own interpretation of Said's argument.

PALESTINIANS AND MIDDLE EASTERN Jews did not encounter each other in any significant political manner prior to the 1950s for two reasons. First, the indigenous Palestinian Jews were inconsequential when counted vis-a-vis the number of non-Palestinian Middle Eastern Jews. Second, the vast majority of Middle Eastern Jews who ended up in Palestine/Israel were brought there during the 1950s after the Ashkenazi Zionists had completed their 1948 destruction. Hence, any discussion of the pre-1950s deals principally with non-Palestinian Arabs and Jews.

Most academic and political discussions about Middle Eastern Jews address their "pre-Israel" or "in-Israel" history. "Both" histories are rarely discussed conjointly and the reason, as suggested below, is not so mysterious. Within the prevailing trend of "two histories" the academic/political division of labour in the region has long remained as follows.

As far as the "pre-Israel" history of Middle Eastern Jews is concerned, Zionists present it as a history of oppression and religious prejudice within the Arab world from time immemorial. After establishing this ludicrous (a)historical fable, Zionists usually move on to stress the (alleged) ideological commitment of Middle Eastern-Jews to Zionism.

Writers with an Arab orientation, on the other hand, tend to present this period somewhat idealistically, as nearly flawless in terms of inter-religious relationships. They therefore conceptualise the (politically engineered) emigration of Middle Eastern Jews as the exclusive end result of Zionist activities and propaganda.

Zionists present this as a component of the "happy ingathering of the exiles." On those rare occasions when they discuss the sharp divisions in Israeli society along ethnic and class lines, their terminology is duplicitous. Thus one finds that Middle Eastern Jews "suffer" from an "inferiority complex" and "culture shock", or that they "came" from "primitive" Arab societies, which thus explains "the gap". In short, Zionists never employ any of the terms needed to account for the Jewish ethnic split, namely: racism, orientalism, oppression, exploitation, internal colonialism and Ashkenazi anti-Semitic tendencies.

A further glance across the regional continuum reveals that Arab writers outside academia (Palestinian journalists excluded) tend to disregard "in-Israel" issues. Nevertheless, a few Arab-oriented scholars have been able to express some sympathy for the Middle Eastern Jews as far as their "in-Israel" history is concerned. 

Take, for example, Abdel-Wahab Elmessiri's The Land of Promise (1980) or Roger Garaudy's The Case of Israel (1985). Both these authors devote paragraphs to the oppression of Middle Eastern Jews under Ashkenazi-Zionism. They feel a little sorry for them, hint at their "false-consciousness" and imply that their interests lie in allying themselves with the Palestinians. Rest assured: nothing is too drastically wrong, according to such studies. But the situation of the Mizrahim as presented in these works is, in fact, a serious problem for the internal consistency of their anti-Zionism.

If these assessments do not originate in purely instrumental considerations -- that is, do not seek simply to use the Jewish split to vindicate their authors' undoubtedly justified opposition to Zionism -- but instead are the result of a genuinely universal, consistent anti-Zionist/anti-racist position, then, one wonders, why is it that even these few Arab scholars almost always restrict their analyses to the "in-Israel" history of Middle Eastern Jews under Ashkenazi Zionism, and never express the slightest concern or solidarity with their "pre-Israel" history? I should like to suggest that the answer is to be found in the deeply dichotomous political/academic context within which these discussions are currently held.

Given the apparent partiality of virtually all the voluminous literature surrounding the modern state of Israel, it is hardly surprising that countless obstacles are placed in the way of those critical Arabs and Mizrahim who actually initiate unorthodox alliances and, in so doing, also come to talk about Middle Eastern Jews in a manner that rejects the primordial/nationalist assumptions generally governing discussion of their "two" histories. Thus, for example, a person who chooses to address the racist policies to which the Mizrahim have been subjected under Ashkenazi Zionism may sometimes be approved of by certain Arab circles and is always disapproved of in Zionist circles. 

The Arabs approve because this person demonstrates that Zionist Israel -- in addition to being utterly racist against non-Jews generally and Palestinians in particular -- is also racist against non-Europeans even if they are Jews. The Zionists, for their part, proceed in one of two ways: if this person is not a Jew, s/he is automatically defined as an "anti-Semite"; while if this person is a Jew, s/he is immediately defined as a "self-hating Jew", a "traitor" or a "knife in the back of the nation".

This picture changes slightly when instead of concentrating on the "in-Israel" cultural and educational massacre of the Mizrahim, the very same person chooses to focus on the politics pursued towards their Jewish communities in the 1940s and 1950s by certain Arab regimes and/or groups such as the Egyptian Muslim Brothers, Misr al-Fatat, the Iraqi Istiqlal, and their pseudo-secular or religious analogues in seven other states.

In this case, this very same person will be approved of by the Zionist circles that had just now turned against him or her, and will usually be disapproved of by a majority of the Arab circles who would previously have been supportive. The Zionists approve, because s/he has now chosen to investigate the xenophobic trend within Arab nationalism. The Arabs for their part will express their disapproval in two ways: if this person happens to be an Arab and proclaims his or her solidarity with the situation of these non-Zionist Jews publicly and loudly, then s/he may be defined as "playing into the hands of Zionists" or "a breaker of the united front". If this person is a Jew, however, s/he will instantly be defined as too "hesitant" "confused" non-Zionist Jew or, worse, as really having "hidden" Zionist motives.

FIVE DISTINCT AND INDEPENDENT arguments may be marshalled against Mansour's contention that "Sephardic Jews who opposed the creation of a Zionist state in Palestine, or objected to the more extreme practices of that state, either stayed where they belonged or left for Europe." They are as follows:

1. Focusing exclusively on individual choices which were allegedly wide open to members of the Jewish minorities, Mansour omits one pivotal factor: that the conflict between Ashkenazi Zionists and Arabs in Palestine unleashed religiously-informed feelings which altered the domestic context and created constraints within which "choices" had to be made. This is why Mansour does not consider the political push-and-pull factors behind what are still euphemistically described as "population movements". This vision of "emigration" has been cleansed of all the relevant domestic politics.

2. For the sake of argument, let us freeze these political variables. As an economist, Mansour must know that, even then, the most decisive constituent element determining the destination of Jews had little to do with the ideological, super-structural realm, and was instead primarily rooted in the material infrastructure. Most Middle Eastern Jews who could afford to emigrated to countries other than Israel.

3. Compared to Western states and their "immigration" policies, Israel posed fewer obstacles. The newborn Zionist entity had to import the "black" manpower it needed to kick start its undeveloped economy. As Ben Gurion explained with typical Ashkenazi clarity: "Hitler, more than he hurt the Jewish people,... hurt the Jewish state... He destroyed the substance, the essential building force of the state. The state arose and did not find the nation which had waited for it." Only then were the Arabised Jews suddenly needed.

Middle Eastern Jews were pushed into -- and undoubtedly pulled towards -- Ashkenazi Israel thanks to the coincidence of three political forces far more powerful than themselves. The first was the deliberate "assistance" they received from Israel and its Ashkenazi emissaries throughout the region, who worked hard to consolidate separations between Jews and non-Jews, as their European Zionism dictated. 

The second was the equally deliberate "assistance" they received from such regimes as those of Nuri al-Sid or Zaydi Imam Ahmed, which were well-remunerated for delivering their Jewish subjects by air to the promised land. The third was the unintentional "assistance" given to Ashkenazi Zionism by the Arab groups mentioned above. On top of this triple force, the "enlightened" Western states were as ever reluctant to absorb "third world" people, "third world" Jews included. On more than a few occasions, they even refused to take in the Ashkenazi victims of their European-Nazi creation. In so doing, they extended their sins to include the Palestinians, who thus became indirect victims of Nazism, as well as the direct victims of Zionism.

4. Contrary to the prevailing belief among some Arabs, the overwhelming majority of Middle Eastern Jews -- the majority of Egyptian-Jews included -- neither held a foreign citizenship that could enable them easily to emigrate to Europe, nor had they ever benefited from the imperialist legal system of capitulations. In addition, all these Arab Jewish communities were composed of many different classes. With the exception of the ethnically diverse Egyptian community, most mirrored their societies exactly in terms of their relationship to the means of production. 

Ergo, "Middle Eastern Jews" and "capitalist compradors" are not, and must never be used as, synonyms. Even in Egypt, no more than 23 per cent of Jews could ever plausibly have been categorised in this way. Moreover, the term itself is a popular neologism which has no recognised place in neo-Marxist economists.

Granted, there were Middle Eastern Jews who were Zionists. Like others around them, during the 1940s and 1950s, some of these Zionists were undoubtedly involved in horrendous acts. Nonetheless, the overwhelming majority of Middle Eastern Jews were non-Zionists -- not "traitors", "collaborators", "capitalist compradors" or a "fifth column" -- and a significant portion of them were anti-Zionists, whether on Marxist, liberal or religious grounds (his Eminence, the Egyptian Grand Rabbi Haim Nahoum, included). This is simply fact, even though it remains "beneficial" for the two nationalistic academic versions of this people's history to argue that most were fully-fledged Zionists by their own free choice.

Critical Jews and Arabs who wish to account properly for the departure of 800,000 Jews from their countries of origin would do well to shift the focus of their research away from the micro-study of the inner, super-structural or ideological, workings of these nine mini-minorities, and towards the colossal interactions going on above their heads between Ashkenazi Zionism and Arab nationalism. It is there that they can find the answers to their questions. This approach would also have the advantage of sparing us the exhausting and tedious nationalistic fervour which sadly governs most existing accounts of the subject.

5. One should also recall here the successful campaign against the participation of Arab Jews in the Théâtre de Beyrouth symposium to commemorate the 1948 Nakba -- a campaign which was, once again, implemented exclusively by Ashkenazi Zionists. On these issues, Mansour knows more than he was prepared to say in these columns. 

But it is counterproductive for universal anti-racist Arabs and Jews to cut round these thorny corners. Even for anti-Zionist Arab Jews such as Ibrahim Sarfati, Salim Nssib, Edmond Malih and others, it does not always matter whether they "opposed the creation of a Zionist state" or "objected to its practices" or "left for Europe" (Malih and others) or "stayed where they belonged" (Nassib, or Sarfati, the Marxist, in jail). Mansour knows that it is not only several Lebanese newspapers and the Syrian National Party (backed by the Syrian second bureau) who consistently contradict his contentions. He knows that there are other establishments which still manage to have so-called "problems" with (even non-Israeli) anti-Zionist Jews. Why is this so?

Because, as one of the Arab organisers of the Beirut symposium wrote, "we are being accused of collaborating with Israel because ... we discuss with Jews from the Arab world and voice a critique as much against Zionism as against repressive Arab regimes and Arab nationalism." I am familiar with other universal anti-Zionist Arabs who think like this gentleman, and like myself. 

Their work has another, crucial contribution to make, beyond its own intrinsic value: it is of primary importance for the non-Zionist consolidation of young, and otherwise "fearful" Jews, whose lives are largely dictated from above by a European, non-Middle Eastern Zionist-Jewish memory. True, this function may be secondary. But is it bad for anyone other than Zionists -- and, perhaps, their diametrical mirror images?

There are three additional arguments I should like to make, with respect to Mansour's surprise that "those Sephardic Jews could be counted among those seeking justice for all" and to his (Ashkenazi) question "aren't Sephardic Jews those who most heavily tip the electoral balance in favour of the ultra-chauvinist Likud?".

First, there is one key issue which divides pro- and anti-normalisation Egyptians. While the small pro-normalisation group believes that it is important to engage "left" Zionism -- meaning sub-sections of the affluent Ashkenazi elite, such as Peace Now and Meretz -- the anti-normalisation camp believes that this is counterproductive. It follows that the anti-normalisation majority-- quite justly -- does not distinguish seriously between the right and left Zionist fists, since it is the same head that decides when to use them, just as it is the same head which they strike against.

But if this is the case, then one wonders why is it that Mansour, as an anti-normalisation intellectual, should suddenly choose to distinguish between right and left Zionism where "Sephardic" Jews are concerned? Anti-Zionism needs to be consistent on this point: it should distinguish always, or never, between right and left. There should be no "Mizrahi exceptionalism".

Second, rereading Mansour, it is depressing to realise how Zionist fallacies can be recycled in the most unusual places. Ashkenazi-controlled Israeli scholarship, newspapers, television and "left" groups have been remarkably successful in their tireless attempts (beginning in around 1977, when the authoritarian "Labour" party lost power) to demonise and scapegoat the Mizrahim for all the ills and contradictions that are an integral part of their creation (i.e. Zionism and Israel). There is no space to g into this issue in depth here. 

I can only refer the reader to the writings of one (Iraqi-Jewish) Mizrahi: Ella Habiba Shohat. Her 1988 study of how the Zionist "left" generated this fallacious image of the Mizrahim is available in English, Hebrew and Arabic (in the Palestinian Journal Kan'an), thanks to the long-standing collaboration that exists between Palestinians, critical Mizrahim and others. This Ashkenazi fallacy is responsible for the common and unfounded identification of post-1977 Mizrahim and "ultra-chauvinist Zionism".

Lastly, I must be consistent myself. Critical Mizrahim do not, must not and, unfortunately, cannot argue that there are no Mizrahi Jews who vote for right (and "left") Zionist parties (as do 40% of the oppressed Palestinian "citizens" of Israel, be they Muslims, Christians, Druze, Bedouin or Circassian). Therefore I neither offer here, nor ask for, a primordial apologetic "discount" on their behalf. But circular restatements of well-known Zionist problems do not get anyone anywhere, unless one merely wants to help consolidate the current socio-political impasse and play (again) into the hands of the divide-and-rule camp. This is why critical Mizrahim prefer to invest their precious time in finding solutions to these problems with and within the community.

Such critical Mizrahim do not ask for help or admiration from anyone. Unlike the Ashkenazim and all too many others, they know perfectly well why and how the colossal transformations of the 1940s and 1950s shattered the already heterogeneous Mizrahi community beyond all recognition. Critical Mizrahim also know that because post-1950s Mizrahi Jews were born into Israel's apartheid system of citizenship, they have serious obligations to the victims of Zionism, the Palestinians. They therefore support unconditionally and unequivocally the right of the exiled Palestinians to return to their land, a right which must stand inalienable regardless of whether the Mizrahim themselves wish to remain in this land where they now find themselves or not.

But critical Mizrahim, whose ancestors have a long continuous history across the entire region and are in no sense merely "guests", do retain one right: the right to remain sensitive to the often condescending and moralising tone in which they are addressed by both Ashkenazi Jews and non-Palestinian Arabs. 

For the sake of a better future for this remarkable region, perhaps it would be politically advantageous if Ashkenazi Jews and non-Palestinian Arabs would first apply their lucid analytical skills either to their own history, or to each other's, instead of fabricating convenient simplifications of the "pre-Israel" Middle Eastern Jews or the "in-Israel" Mizrahim. Likewise, critical Mizrahim should perhaps devote more time both to the radical political reformation of the disordered Mizrahi block and to the dual de-nationalisation of its current historical representation.

More fundamentally, any truly rigorous analysis of the Jewish collectivity would target socio-political processes without necessarily equating them with voting patterns. These processes affect the Palestinians whether one likes it or not. One thing, in any case, is clear: Mizrahi Jews constitute the only critical mass within the Jewish collectivity that possesses the reservoirs of historical, political, cultural and class-based experience from which a sufficiently large question mark can be extracted and placed at the end of every Zionist, or racist, proposition. I hold this truth to be self-evident, even if Mizrahi Jews -- perhaps like their Arab counterparts across the nine countries from which they originated -- have thus far proved quite incapable of the political unity to which their destiny calls them.

BACK TO EDWARD SAID, who like other Palestinians before him was generous enough to mention the "Sephardic topic". I, for one, was unable to find in his articles that demobilising "constant refrain that jars". All that my (outsider's?) eyes could see was a committed Palestinian who stated firmly what at least some other Arabs, Mizrahim and others can only whisper, because they are less well-known: that the old ways formulated for us by previous generations have failed, first and foremost in terms of the objectives set for them by their inventors.

The previous generation failed to deliver the goods it had promised. Zionism still prevails, and is perhaps "kicking even more strongly than before", as the Mizrahi regional universalist Mordechai Va'anunu wrote from his Israeli jail. In the post-Oslo period, genuine democracy, political and economic equality throughout the region, and, consequently, the possibility of a just peace for the Middle East, are perhaps more remote prospects than ever before.

Hence, in conclusion, I would like to suggest the possibility of exploring certain original, horizontal alliances on the basis of shared political values. These are cross-national, regional alliances which should attempt to transcend truly, not artificially, yet with mutual respect, those religious identities that even Marxist groups throughout the region have ultimately failed to come to terms with. If one happens to wish that some elements of the new South African model is to have even some small chance of influencing the Middle East over the course of the next millennium, then one absolute prerequisite is to institute a new type of society-based political communication, right here, right now.

This means communication between critical human beings across the entire region -- between all Palestinians, all kinds of anti-, non- and post-Zionist Jews, and also progressive Arab nationalists -- because the conflict is regional, and has been at least since the intifada of 1936-39. 

This communication should be pursued even if the opening positions of the various parties are far from identical (especially given that non-critical people in the region do not wait for anyone and do communicate with each other). As long as one does not intend to move to heaven soon, or to exchange opinions only with one's own shadow, these positions will most likely never be entirely identical. If I recall right, this is the definition of democracy, anti-Zionist democracy included. I may be wrong but this is my Mizrahi reading of Said.

Permit a final word to some of the most committed readers of the Weekly, the personnel of Israeli authorities. Neither myself, nor other critical Mizrahim have anything personal against Zionists or Ashkenazim as human beings. As many pre-Zionist Ashkenazi knew well, democracy can never be divided along religious, ethnic or racial lines. So please loosen your grip: this is the main reason why we are where we are politically.

* Shiko Behar is the first member of an extended, lower-Middle-class Egyptian Jewish family to be born in Palestine/Israel


This article was first published in Al-Ahram Weekly’s special pages commemorating 50 years of Al-Nakba, the Palestinian catastrophe when Israel was created on 15 May 1948. These pages, published in 1998, were part of a year-long series of articles documenting the history and nature of the Arab-Israeli struggle, as well as that of Palestinian dispossession and exile.

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