The Silenced History of the IDF's 'Mizrahi Problem'

In 1951, a British-born officer wrote a report about the treatment of Mizrahi Jews in the Israeli army. It shows that there were already voices within the establishment warning against racism – but they were silenced immediately.

Israeli soldiers, May 1948.
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“A cursory examination of the social structure in Israel shows that for economic and other reasons, this group [members of the Mizrahi communities: Jews of Middle Eastern and North African origin is underprivileged. This applies to ‘old inhabitants’ as well as new immigrants, as a glance at lists of senior officers and officials, etc., will demonstrate. From general conversations and from newspaper articles, as well as from social surveys carried out by the Institute of Applied Social Research, Jerusalem, it is evident that there is a country-wide trend to treat Oriental Jews with contempt; less frequently, among German and other Central European Jews, there is also a feeling of superiority vis-à-vis ‘blacks.’” – From a “top secret” study by Maj. Ezra Aaronson for Maj. Gen. Laskov, 1951

It’s rare to find a document from 64 years ago that reads as though it were written yesterday. In 1951, when Maj. Ezra (William) Aaronson wrote a report about Mizrahim, no one thought in terms of multiculturalism or political correctness. From Prime Minister and Defense Minister David Ben-Gurion to the higher echelons of the Israel Defense Forces and down to brigade and company commanders, hardly anyone was ashamed of the approach taken toward Mizrahim. The archives are studded with on-the-record comments about the supposed inferiority of the “members of the oriental communities” – in the parlance of that era – as compared with their European brethren.

Aaronson was exceptional in his ability to see things from outside the spirit of his time. It’s not surprising, then, that the report he wrote on Mizrahim in the military was immediately shelved, though not before senior IDF officers picked it apart. Fortunately, a copy of the subversive report survived in the IDF Archives.

Aaronson’s was a lone voice. The new Israeli elite – composed almost entirely of European-born Jews – firmly held on to the view that Mizrahim were inferior. Like many of Zionism’s founding fathers, Ben-Gurion too looked down on them, and the example he set was then adopted by the IDF’s entire officer corps.

Peretz Cohen / GPO

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In April 1950, in a meeting of the IDF high command, Ben-Gurion described the transformation that officers must bring about in the new recruits. “The ingathering of the exiles is bringing us a rabble,” he stated. “Putting that rabble through a melting pot, reconstructing it in a human, Jewish, Israeli and afterward military way – that is the basis of soldiering.” Even before military training, “the young person from those countries has to be educated to sit on the toilet like a person, to wash, not to steal, not to grab an Arab girl and rape her and murder her – all this precedes the other things. Without it, the military training and education they receive is worthless.” Ben-Gurion told Look magazine in 1965, “[Jews] from Morocco had no education. Their customs are those of Arabs. They love their wives, but they beat them Maybe in the third generation something will appear from the Oriental Jew that is a little different. But I don’t see it yet. The Moroccan Jew took a lot from the Moroccan Arab, and I don’t see much we can learn from the Moroccan Arabs. The culture of Morocco I would not like to have here.”

Dangerous potential

IDF statistics in the 1950s noted a very high percentage of desertion by Mizrahi Jews, who accounted for only 15 percent of the army’s soldiers. They were also found to loathe the state’s institutions. An internal IDF study conducted in a unit where Mizrahi soldiers constituted a majority found, “The characteristic traits of most of them are: 1. Apathy. 2. Lack of ideas. 3. An extreme tendency to engage in egotistical calculations and satisfy personal needs.”

According to a study by historian Sagi Turgan in 1950 – the same year in which Ben-Gurion spoke to the high command – the chief of staff, Yigael Yadin, ordered research to be undertaken in order to uncover the reasons for the behavioral problems among soldiers from the Middle East and North Africa, and how to solve them. The officer in charge of the study was Maj. Gen. Haim Laskov, the head of the IDF’s instruction branch. He set about examining how “100 Iraqis and 100 Yemenites,” all of them illiterate, responded to various aspects of army life: “Depth jumps, rotation duty and anything else that generates peculiar reactions among them, and possible solutions in order to habituate them to their special role as soldiers in the IDF.”

In July 1951, Laskov received a response from Lt. Col. Dov Yirmiya, the commander of a training base and later a well-known left-wing activist. Yirmiya, who apologized for not being able to conduct a full-fledged study, offered instead his personal observations concerning “primitive people exclusively,” according to origin. He devoted his harshest comments to new recruits of Iraqi origin: “Weak comprehension. Very weak thinking level. They don’t think. They learn only by eye and by touch. They don’t grasp things from explanations They are convinced only by what they see with the eye.” Punishment is the only way to teach them discipline, he added, and similarly with cleanliness: “They do not react positively to hygiene initially, but become accustomed to it by means of strictness and inspection.”

Yirmiya added that the military fitness of the Mizrahim was substandard and their behavior childish. “At first they treat a weapon like a child treats a toy, after a time they get tired of it They do not accept physical effort willingly and barely get used to it after much practice. They are afraid of jumping, crawling and anything else that can cause injury.” Their attitude toward Arabs was also a matter of concern. “Their feelings of fear of Arabs are quite developed,” he wrote, though “they get over this by getting to know our military might and heightening their confidence in weaponry.” There was also a dangerous potential in these recruits, Yirmiya noted, as they harbor “feelings of inferiority toward more developed people” and are “easily influenced by instigators and agitators who level negative criticism at them.”

He had a higher opinion of the Turks, Moroccans, Egyptians and Tripolitanians among the recruits. Although they “are afraid of the night and don’t understand it,” they possess “an acceptable thinking level.” As for the Yemenites, though their “comprehension ability is weak” and their “thinking level is inferior,” they are “very industrious and accept everything with love.”

Similarly, German-born Col. Yehuda Wallach, a brigade commander in the 1950s and afterward a military historian, had a positive view of the Yemenite soldiers in the IDF, who quickly became effective soldiers. A 1952 report he wrote shows he was less impressed by members of the Moroccan community. “I have met three major types of Moroccans,” Wallach wrote. “For example, the educated urban Moroccan who was schooled in France and digested certain cultural values. There’s the urban Moroccan who came into contact with culture but did not digest it – he’s the Levantine type whom we know from the Beirut, Damascus or Jaffa Arab. And the Moroccan who comes from rural areas, who is ignorant and is at least a thousand years behind in terms of civilization.”

Israeli academics did not resort to such crude language, but their conclusions about the immigrants from the “oriental” communities were substantively identical. Shmuel Noah Eisenstadt, the father of Israeli sociology, was deeply troubled by the possibility that the immigrants from Islamic lands would undermine Israel’s supposedly Western orientation. In a 1948 study, he noted that “members of these [Mizrahi] families, and particularly the males, having been cut off from their full communal life, are powerfully attracted to some of the delights that exist in every urban setting (including oriental ones): playing cards for money, spending hours in dubious cafés, visiting brothels, smoking hashish and more.”

Eisenstadt developed a process for the socialization of the Mizrahim, which he termed “desocialization” and “resocialization.” First, the state must divest the immigrants of the oriental cultural baggage with which they arrived in Israel; in the second stage they would be refashioned according to European cultural values. The experts argued about whether the immigrants from the Orient suffered from genuine mental retardation or from primitivism, which could be uprooted. As scholars such as Henriette Dahan Kalev, Etan Bloom and Sami Shalom Chetrit have shown in recent years, these ideas were not much different from the theory of civilizing colonialism espoused by the European empires. In the eyes of the Ashkenazi elite, Israel, too, had shouldered “the white man’s burden.”

Like the Orientalists who wrote about the natives in the European colonies in Africa and Asia, Karl Frankenstein, an Israeli professor of pedagogy and the founder of the Szold Institute for research in the behavioral sciences, maintained in 1947 that “the Jews of the Orient are backward, they are no longer capable of understanding the contents and values of Western civilization except through imitation and passive reception and they are not yet able to productively join the direction in which the majority of the Jewish population tries to make its life” (from Sami Shalom Chetrit, “Intra-Jewish Conflict in Israel: White Jews, Black Jews,” 2010; translated by Oz Shelach).

Different perspective

In response to Laskov’s instructions, the IDF’s Manpower Branch drew up an operative plan, based on Eisenstadt and Frankenstein’s models. However, for reasons unknown, Laskov also asked another officer – Maj. Aaronson, from the training department – to examine the “problem” of the Mizrahim in the IDF. He would take a very different approach.

Ezra (William) Aaronson, known by all as “Bill,” fought anti-Mizrahi racism despite the ridicule of fellow officers. His unconventional attitude might have been due to his distinctive background and prolonged exposure to indigenous populations in North Africa and South Asia.

Born in London in 1920 to an affluent family, Aaronson immigrated to Palestine when he was 17, after suffering from anti-Semitism in Britain, and joined the Notrim police force in the Jezreel Valley. For unclear reasons, he was arrested by the British and spent 18 months in Acre Prison before joining the British Army during World War II, in return for his release.

He served in North Africa and later took part in the war against the Japanese army in Burma. After the war he was posted to India, which was then on the cusp of independence; he and his troops were in charge of keeping Hindus and Muslims apart. His son, Itai Aaronson, explained – in a phone interview from the town of Phoenix, Oregon – that one of the events that had a profound effect on his father occurred in Kashmir, during the violence that rocked India before its partition and independence in 1947.

Aaronson commanded a unit that organized the evacuation of Muslims from a small village before they could be attacked and massacred by large forces of Hindus. Aaronson was seriously wounded in Kashmir and spent more than a year recovering in London hospitals. In 1949, he returned to Israel and joined the career army with the rank of major, serving as a company commander in the Golani infantry brigade.

To compile his report on the Mizrahim in the IDF, Aaronson spent six weeks visiting training bases and courses where the majority of the soldiers were of Middle Eastern origin, such as those for drivers and cooks. He then interviewed experts and wrote a detailed 12-page, “top secret” report that aimed “to investigate the existence of discrimination against members of the Oriental Communities (Jewish) ... recruited to the Israel Defense Army.” The research question might sound standard today, but back then simply raising the issue of possible discrimination was considered bold.

Noting at the outset that most of the officers and noncoms were of Ashkenazi background and knew next to nothing “about Jewish communities of North Africa and Asia,” Aaronson began with a brief history of each of the communities from those regions. He then reported on the most common slanders he heard among Ashkenazi soldiers regarding their Mizrahi counterparts: One common insult was “these Basutos” – a reference to the people of the African nation Basutoland, then a British colony. Other slanders used against Mizrahi soldiers were “those Negroes,” “they are too primitive to learn” and “their intelligence is much lower than that of white men.”

Aaronson rejected the notion, common among field commanders and soldiers with whom he talked, that all immigrants from the Middle East and North Africa could be described with a single word – “Oriental” – and insisted there were more differences than similarities between the different groups. He also observed that “most psychologists state that there is no satisfactory evidence of backwardness amongst Oriental Jews.”

In contrast to his IDF colleagues, Aaronson chose to cite foreign researchers who had studied indigenous populations and arrived at the opposite conclusions of Israeli academics. In his view, the problem lay not in any supposed cultural inferiority, but in the fact that the IDF’s classification tests were suited to individuals who had gone through the European or American school systems. Because the tests were inappropriate, the Mizrahi soldiers suffered from discrimination in training and in promotion.

Education first

Aaronson’s motives were not necessarily altruistic. He was angry at the humiliation endured by Mizrahim, but he was also concerned that they might unite into an opposition force. Indeed, this was a fear shared by many of Zionism’s founding fathers (though unlike them, Aaronson was worried not by the threat of Israel’s “Levantinization” but by alienation between the different segments of the nation). He suggested a series of reforms in the IDF in order “to stop the coalescence of [Mizrahi recruits] into a separate and alien body within the army.” He recommended that Ashkenazi officers be taught the history of the Mizrahi communities, so that they would stop viewing them as inferior. If that proved ineffective, anyone of any rank who expressed a racist approach toward Mizrahi soldiers should face “strictest disciplinary measures.”

In regard to the Mizrahi soldiers themselves, Aaronson called for the introduction of what later came to be known as affirmative action, in the form of a special program of training and promotion. It was crucial, he wrote, not to compare the results achieved on army tests by Mizrahi and Ashkenazi soldiers. Instead, “the results should be determined within each specific group,” according to country of origin. The most highly qualified would be sent to courses for officers and NCOs, while the others would be grouped into special training units to be commanded by officers “experienced in training and sympathetic toward the Orient.”

The soldiers placed in these units would learn Hebrew and undergo basic military training before being assigned as a group to a combat unit for two months. In the end, they would be integrated into the various corps. Aaronson emphasized that these groups, which would start off under Ashkenazi officers, “will be invaluable as a liaison between the European mentality of most officers in the depots and the Oriental mentality.” This approach would produce model soldiers from the oriental communities, “who will put the lie to current rumors about the lack of fitness among these communities.”

Most officers in the Manpower Branch did not appreciate Aaronson’s report, but Laskov mandated that the department hold a discussion on its conclusions. Of the 16 officers who took part in the meeting, one thought that Mizrahim did indeed suffer from discrimination in the IDF, while another suggested the introduction of an accelerated training program to produce a cadre of Mizrahi officers and disperse them throughout the army. (He also advocated a similar move in civilian life, “in order to introduce these people into the governmental institutions.”)

However, these were exceptional opinions. The deputy commander of the Manpower Branch, Col. Gideon Schocken, objected to Aaronson’s report. In his view, it would be “extremely dangerous” to combat discrimination, and he added, “Nor does it appear that very serious discrimination exists [in the IDF], or more than exists outside the army, or more than existed here before the state’s establishment.” Effectively, Schocken was apprehensive that the IDF would turn into a Mizrahi army: “The skeleton of the army derives from Western cultural values, whereas this framework is [now] filling up largely with people who are alien to it and to those values.”

Broom at the top

The official response to Aaronson’s report was a three-page document drawn up in the Manpower Branch, which rejected his analysis outright and instead adopted the main findings of Eisenstadt, Frankenstein and others, who viewed primitivism, not discrimination, as the primary reason for the situation of the Mizrahim. “Many members of the oriental communities would not be integrated into the army even if there were no prejudices against them,” the authors wrote. The reason? “The ostensible prejudices and discrimination stem from the absence of a solution to a problem that was created by the mass immigration of people from lands where a lower level of civilization existed. Most of these people find it difficult to adjust to the culture in Israel, because hundreds of years of development and tradition separate them from Israel’s inhabitants. Every solution that tries to solve the problem solely by administrative means, such as a ban on insulting remarks, is fundamentally wrong.” The authors also disputed the contention that there was no proof of the mental retardation of Mizrahi soldiers.

The authors of the response did not reject the recommendation that Ashkenazi soldiers and officers learn about the history of the Mizrahi Jews – but only if this would help reshape the personality of the Mizrahim, in the sense that they would feel someone was taking an interest in them and they would not object to the attempt to erase their former identity. The idea of establishing “separate ‘racial’ units” – as the authors of the response wrote – was ruled out, on the grounds that this would only aggravate their isolation and endanger the army’s unity. Finally, the idea of affirmative action was also rejected. “The only way to solve the problem,” the response concluded, “lies in a deep understanding of the cultural background, personality, modes of thought, aspirations, feelings and social inclinations of these people. We need to know how they are motivated and [what they] feel, how they learn, how they think and how they absorb material, including army material.”

Although Itai Aaronson is not familiar with his father’s 1951 report, it does not surprise him, he says. “My father swam against the current,” he recalls. “If he were asked to write a report, he would be loyal to the subject, not the system.” Aaronson’s unconventional views often brought him into conflict with the army authorities. Not long after the discussion of Aaronson’s report, the Manpower Branch decided to shelve it and to conduct a new study, this time under the supervision of Eisenstadt and Frankenstein.

The new research proposal noted that integration difficulties existed among the Mizrahim, in the form of “non-identification with cultural values and non-cooperation, instances of aggression, insularity, a low level of efficiency and work, poor health, etc.” As a result, the Ashkenazi soldiers in charge of integrating them feel “an undermining of the existing values” and “social insecurity.” This generates “prejudices against the group being integrated.” The senior officer corps was concerned that “failure to deal with the problem is liable to bring about the creation in the IDF of a large, permanently deprived group possessing low morale, unutilized and unorganized.”

However, the new study was never conducted, apparently due to budget shortfalls. In the years that followed, a few attempts were made to adapt the IDF’s classification tests to those who did not have a European-style education, in the hope that this would make it possible to classify the Mizrahim more accurately and eventually better integrate them into the IDF. However, the basic racism and discrimination against Mizrahim, in both the army and civilian society, did not disappear.

After retiring from the army in 1960, Aaronson worked in the phosphates industry. He served in the reserves in the Six-Day War and was seriously wounded in Jerusalem. He died in 2012, aged 92.

In July 1959, not long before Aaronson left the army, an Ashkenazi policeman shot and wounded a Moroccan porter who was involved in a fight in a poor Haifa neighborhood. Serious consequences ensued, first in Haifa and afterward throughout Israel. Thousands of Mizrahim took to the streets to protest the Ashkenazi hegemony in Israel, and the protest cries resonated within the IDF as well. The “Wadi Salib rebellion,” as the events are known, placed the question of discrimination and racism at the top of Israeli society’s order of priorities. Eisenstadt was asked to serve on the commission of inquiry that investigated the events. No one asked Aaronson.

The writer is a PhD candidate in history and Hebrew and Judaic studies at New York University.