Sami Michael, the True Zionist

At a conference in Haifa, author Sami Michael was silenced by the long-standing racism that the establishment class does not want to admit still exists

Sami Michael's important place in Israeli culture is hardly disputable. Michael, a prolific, award-winning writer and playwright, is a knowledgeable man deeply involved in his community. He influences, and is also influenced by, the intercultural tension and dialogue that take place there.

Like many other writers, Iraqi-born novelist Michael expresses a complex and well-reasoned position about the condition of the country he lives in. By voicing controversial opinions, as he did in a speech during a late-June Haifa University conference (“Israeli culture is no less poisoned than radical Islam,” “the left persists in its racist policies to the point of self-destruction”), he performs an important democratic act of exercising freedom of expression and the right to criticize. It is one that Israeli prime ministers over the years have admired and highlighted in response to those who call Israeli policy racist.

But public discourse in Israel is mostly a cosmetic tool reinforcing general, vague ideas of equal rights. It blurs institutional discrimination based on ethno-cultural differences and pushes away criticism and complaints about local democracy's inadequate functioning. In this way, it preserves the power of the establishment and repeatedly bolsters the inferiority of others.

If for a moment we stop persecuting everything that does not smell blue-and-white and listen to Michael, we will discover that his statements contain a great deal of practical Zionism. The Zionism they contain poses no threat to the country and is therefore not “anti-Israeli,” as Nitza Ben-Dov, the Haifa University professor of Hebrew and comparative literature, put it. Rather it accepts the presence of the Jewish population in its territory – the State of Israel – as an established fact, even as it strives to normalize its existence and become an inseparable part of the region where it lives. This position does not contradict, in his view, the necessity of discussing and halting racism and class hierarchy in Israeli society. It reinforces that necessity.

What, then, did Michael say at the conference that shocked his admirers so much?

He said that for hundreds and thousands of years a substantial part of Israel’s Jewish and Arab populations have belonged to the same territorial and cultural continuum that lies between North Africa and the northern Middle East, with all its many differences. Then, he continued, a group from a different cultural space pushed aside the cultures and ways of life existing there by force of arms, money and ideology. That group justified its acts by saying that they were part of an enterprise of “progress” and “enlightenment” and, waving the flag of cultural revival, promoted attitudes that went against the character of the local inhabitants.

Were those who opposed Michael’s statements incapable of concluding that oppression and re-education – like silencing his criticism – are tantamount to invalidating millions of people who lived, and still live, in this region? Such silencing is even more callous at a time when there is an authentic and mighty yearning among a young generation of Mizrahi Jews who are renewing and reimaging their Arab-Jewish cultural roots. It becomes clear that it's no longer about about “feelings of deprivation whose time to pass from the world has come.”

He was honored so that he would stand or sit quietly by, enjoy the refreshments and rest on his Western laurels. That would neutralize his critical thought and whitewash the control of the establishment on those who are attached to them by their Jewishness, co-opting the latter into Israeli-Zionist-Ashkenazi unity in a new identity that professes a strong attachment to territory while pushing aside the possibility to criticize and to appeal against the dominant elite's racist division of resources.

Saying that they accorded him honor is just an ugly, politically correct way of making excuses. It is based on the same racist generalization that describes all Mizrahim as professional victims whose distress deserves no hearing because it is a pathological complex that has nothing to do with the Israeli social reality. Therefore, even those who were granted honor – Sami Michael is a good example – will never be able to shed the victim's persona become equals. This is even more infuriating when we consider the enthusiastic support that the occasional critical statements of Michael’s colleagues in the literary canon whose culture is close to that of the elites, David Grossman and Amos Oz, get from the media, academia and the business community. We can conclude that blocking the critical discourse begun by Michael stemmed from the need to establish the critical speaker's identity and that the critic's role is also that of a senior shaper of society.

But in Israel’s defensive democracy, criticism and debate are not legitimized when they endanger and subvert the ruling forces. As Prof. Sammy Smooha, the noted Haifa University sociologist, said about the conference at which Michael expressed his views, “The audience comprised secular Ashkenazim. They have a very tough time with the subject because it isn’t talked about, even though racism exists and many of them think that it does not.”

I would like to add this to Smooha's statement: In Israel, people talk about racism. They do so endlessly, from first-grade social-studies classes to public debates in the press. But in most cases the character of the discourse is shaped by historical events that occurred in Europe, World War II, the Zionist struggle to establish the state, Israel’s wars and the narrow, racist way in which the Arab world is regarded.

There is no reason to suspect that Michael's strong feelings about the racism that he himself has experienced and has seen in Israeli society are invalid merely because he is leading, successful Israeli writer. He attained his current position through hard work and a great deal of talent, recognized by a large readership and the literary establishment alike.

Prof. Ben-Dov diminished Michael’s personal qualities and marked him as a fig leaf while dismissing the complicated psychology of oppression from which so many men and women suffer in Israeli society. But Sami Michael’s success has come despite the odds, not because of them. A human being, even when he is successful, cannot and should not remove the scars from his body as though the events that caused them never happened.

Director-screenwriter Rafael Balulu lives in Afula and specializes in short feature and documentary films.