Begin's Legacy / Enough of Ethnicity

Menachem Begin broke the hegemony of the Ashkenazi elite and turned the Mizrahim into a class aware of its interests. But the Mizrahim proved unable to seize the moment.

Eva Illouz
Eva Illouz
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Eva Illouz
Eva Illouz

I was born in Morocco, where I lived until I was 10-years-old. I spoke French with my parents and teachers, Judeo-Arabic with my grandmother, and Arabic with the people who worked in our household. I went to a private French school, where my best friend was Nathalie Bessieres, a girl whose Catholic parents had come from Bretagne to work for a while in Morocco. At home, when the weather was fine, I played every day in the courtyard of our building with Nadia Benmoussa and her two brothers (I do not remember their names but they may have been Ahmed and Dris ). On Saturday mornings, I used to go with my father to the synagogue, where I played with my cousins in the rear yard, listening to the men's prayers. My grandfather spoke and read three languages - French, Arabic, Hebrew; my mother's closest friends included a pious Jewish woman, as well as one of the few feminist Arab lawyers, Latifa Mahroufi, the first President of the Moroccan League of Women. A large part of our family lived in France, where we spent our summer vacations. We effortlessly straddled different worlds, religions, and languages, without ever having a sense of confusion or boundary-crossing. We contained many groups and languages in one.

In 1971, we immigrated to France. Until my naturalization at the age of 18, I was technically a foreigner, but never felt excluded from French society because of my ethnic and religious origins. On the contrary: France empowered all the nooks and crannies of my private identity because publicly it was interested only in my grades and fluency in ancient Greek, Latin, English, and French literature. As long as I could produce these grades, I was a full citizen in the eyes of others and my own. In 1985, I left for the U.S. to complete a doctorate at the University of Pennsylvania. There I encountered an opposite sense of membership: I was interesting and valuable to others not because I could espouse the "American" model, but because I was different, a French Jew born in Morocco.

Illustration by Yael Bogen.

Wherever I lived, I had never felt diminished by membership in any of the groups I belonged to. Nor did it ever occur to me that the Ashkenazim and Mizrahim were differently ranked. The Sefardim and Ashkenazim I knew in France and the U.S. did not relate to each other with a sense of hierarchy; they were like the right hand and the left hand of one single body, the Jewish people. On our long Friday night dinners at home, my parents conveyed a vague sense of responsibility that we, the Sefardim, bore to the Ashkenazim: we were entrusted with the mission of helping them regain trust in their history because we, the Sefardim, had been spared and privileged by that history.

But my romance with multiple identities ended when I emigrated to Israel, where for the first time I felt compelled to produce ethnic identity papers. Soon after I arrived here, I met the man who would become my husband, an Ashkenazi man. I chose to be married with a traditional Moroccan ceremony, which included a henna party and traditional Moroccan music played on traditional instruments. I wore a caftan dress and ordered traditional Moroccan food, and never felt any contradiction between this and my belonging to the faculty of Tel Aviv University. Being a feminist, like my mother, it did not occur to me to change my Sefardi name for my Ashkenazi husband's last name.

The first puzzling event that fissured this understanding occurred when a friend, a prominent Mizrahi intellectual, told me that I was not "really Mizrahit." For him, being Mizrahi meant to have grown up experiencing the deep sense of humiliation the Mizrahim had felt and grown up with in Israel. I had kept my Mizrahi name, spoke the Judeo-Arabic dialect, had married in traditional Moroccan form, yet I did not qualify for membership in the Mizrahi identity. Mine was only an amateur, luxury identity, which had not paid the price of suffering discrimination. Then came the second small event, when an Ashkenazi woman friend of mine, who bizarrely made the same comment, also telling me that I was not "really Mizrahit." She meant, with astonishing naivete, that someone who loved and felt at home with Proust, Rilke, or Schubert was not a "real Mizrahit." I was twice "disqualified" from being Mizrahit, first by a Mizrahi who defined it as an experience and awareness of exclusion, and then by an Ashkenazi for whom I could not produce any visible sign of inferiority. Mizrahi identity, then, was a powerful one-dimensional marker: you either had to be a victim or you had to signal your cultural incompetence. Between victimhood and cultural smugness, I had been disqualified.

Before I respond to the request of Haaretz to think about the relationship between Ashkenazim and Mizrahim for the last 30 years, let me deal with the less interesting claim of this article: To the question of whether there has been and continues to be discrimination against Mizrahim, the answer seems to me so obvious as to hardly deserve discussion: it is an overwhelming "yes."

I am, of course, aware that Mizrahim and Ashkenazim increasingly marry each other, that there are increasing numbers of high-ranking Mizrahim in the army, in banking, and in politics, that a larger percentage of students are enrolling at universities and colleges. This process is very well documented by my colleague, Prof. Momi Dahan, and is, obviously, very encouraging. But look somewhere else, where the test of discrimination is surest and clearest: look at Israel's cultural elites. Mizrahim have been and continue to be spectacularly absent from the elites that shape the identity of the country. As a member of the Israeli academic system, I am daily astounded by the near-absence of Mizrahim from the ranks of university professors and by their total absence from the positions that signal academic, journalistic and cultural leadership. You would be hard-pressed to find Mizrahim among university presidents, rectors or deans; from endowed university chairs, directors of research institutes, or among the recipients of the Israel, Prize, the Emet Prize, the Rothschild Prize, the Michael Bruno Prize, the Dan David Prize. You would be hard-pressed to find Mizrahim among the members of the Academy of Sciences, among the chief editors of national newspapers, among the recipients of the Sapir Prize and the Sokolov Prize, among theater directors, among conductors, among national museum directors, or among the canonical authors read in school or artists presented in museums. Mizrahim constitute half of the population of this country, and yet are almost entirely absent from any position of cultural leadership.

That a society is unable to promote half its population to social positions that are key to leadership and collective identity is in itself unquestionable proof of a pervasive, deep and systemic discrimination. If one does not assume Mizrahim are biologically inferior, such an astounding disparity between the demography of Mizrahim and their cultural achievements can only be explained by discrimination of uncanny and unparalleled proportions. The question of whether it was intentional or not is irrelevant. Discrimination is the result both of formal state policies (e.g., educational policies, allocation of resources for building infrastructure, geographic concentration of wealth and work opportunities, tax inheritance laws ) and the result of powerful and invisible informal mechanisms (promoting members of one's social networks who always "feel" more right for the job, dismissing the personality of a Mizrahi as "difficult" or unsuitable, viewing one's accent and mode of speech as indication of one's incompetence ).

Not intentions, but effects, and only effects, matter in constituting and defining discrimination. More exactly: the question of intention is relevant to moralists; politically, only effects matter. Consider this: Mizrahi Jews constitute less than 0.5 percent of the overall French population; yet they are far more likely than their Israeli counterparts to be university professors, writers, journalists, artists, and to receive scientific awards than they are in today's Israel.

Two Mizrahi Jews - Jacques Derrida and Bernard-Henri Levy - established themselves as leading French (not Mizrahi and not Jewish ) intellectual figures three decades ago. Countless other Mizrahi Jews are highly prominent intellectual figures located in the key highly competitive French cultural institutions (Armand Abecassis, Pierre Assouline, Jacques Attali, Laurent Bensaid, Gerard Haddad, Bruno Karsenti, Benny Levy, Serge Moati, Marc-Alain Ouaknine, Daniel Sibony, Shmuel Trigano, Philippe Zard and Gilles Zenou, to name a few ). These Mizrahi Jews became dominant figures not because France is richer than Israel and not because the Jews who arrived there were of a superior kind (a common way to excuse the disparity between the two groups ), but because France had, and perhaps still has, a first-rate school system, explicitly oriented to providing equal opportunities to children from different social classes and nationalities.

As I write this, many readers may be tempted to sneer; they will tell themselves that this article is written by yet another embittered and ungrateful Mizrahit, oblivious to the hardships of Ashkenazim. Many countries would have done their best to acknowledge and repair the collective disgrace of discrimination, but in Israel claims like mine are, by and large, met with indifference, incredulity, and even outrage.

"If Mizrahim had such a great culture" - many Ashkenazim say - we would have heard about it." Or: "If my grandfather, who was a poor and hard-working Jew from Poland or Galicia, was able to make his children university professors and heads of hospitals, then why shouldn't Moroccans? Look at the Sheetrits and Shlomo Ben-Ami. They made it, and that is proof the system works for those who want it." Or: "Stop whining. Do not accuse us for your failed culture and mentality; we ourselves worked very hard to build this country. Life was tough for everyone." Or finally: "Come on, I am a nice, well-meaning liberal guy who votes for Meretz, me and my friends don't mean any harm to any human being."

In 20 years spent in Israel, I have almost never felt among Ashkenazim a profound awareness, guilt, or embarrassment at the systematic and pervasive exclusion that Ashkenazim have inflicted upon their Mizrahi brothers and sisters. I have never seen the equivalent of the many white people who fought hard and long with African-Americans in the civil rights movement, for black people's rights and equality. I have never encountered any desire, let alone eagerness, to repair this enormous historical injustice.

But why waste more words denouncing these facts? To each his/her own moral conscience. I find it more interesting to try to explain and understand this pervasive denial and indifference to the discrimination against Mizrahim. I suggest that the obliviousness to the systematic exclusion of Mizrahim is the result of two different but closely connected processes: First, the uniqueness of the relationship of Ashkenazim and Mizrahim in Israel and second, the spectacular failure of Mizrahim to move beyond a politics of victimhood. Like their Ashkenazi counterparts, and at times more than their Ashkenazi counterparts, the Mizrahim have remained stuck in a politics of ethnicity and miserably failed at building a universalist politics of equality and solidarity.

Roy Baumeister, a prominent social psychologist, has shown in a series of experiments that victims and perpetrators are doomed to have different interpretations of reality. Perpetrators always give themselves reasons to mitigate their actions, to be oblivious to the suffering they inflict. In Israel, there were additional powerful sociological reasons explaining why Ashkenazim mitigated and justified the systematic exclusion of Mizrahim.

First, we should compare the discrimination against Mizrahim with the racism against black people or Muslims in Europe - the former against a group of a different skin color, the latter against members of a different religion by people who viewed themselves as natives. When discrimination occurs between two clearly differentiated groups, racism is more likely to be understood and perceived as such, both by perpetrators and victims. In Israel, however, Mizrahim and Ashkenazim belong to a self-designated single people: kibbutz galuyot, the ingathering of the exiles, was the self-conscious motto of the Zionist machine. Mizrahim were of the same race and the same religion as Ashkenazim. More: They belonged to the same new Jewish nation. This implies that this situation was inherently a very confusing one, both for those above and those beneath. Even today, many have difficulties viewing the discrimination as a form of racism, precisely because it was done in the framework of one single religion, one single people, willingly assembled with great effort. The same confusion exists when violence among members of one single family is perpetrated by a family member.

Second, when discrimination is performed by dominant groups, these groups possess land, money, and control institutions. But in Israel, the dominant groups who inflicted the discrimination struggled, like the Mizrahim, with a generalized lack of resources. That is, contrary to the American or French cases, the Ashkenazim discriminated against the Mizrahim at the same time as they were struggling to establish their own privileges. Because they were struggling to acquire these privileges, they felt hard-won, the just reward for their hard work. But the struggle for these privileges was successful because it used many invisible built-in and hidden advantages: Ashkenazim could use institutions they had built and were familiar with, and more importantly, could use powerful social networks. People who use their social networks and their knowledge of the system to achieve positions of privilege do not feel they are using an illegitimate advantage, because these are intangible and the just reward for their efforts.

Third, many Ashkenazim had emerged from pan-European persecution and racism in many countries and in different periods of the 20th century. They had been the uncontested victims of 20th century history, of massacres by Russians, Poles, Germans, Austrians, Croatians and others. Baumeister has shown that perpetrators who were victimized by others develop built-in emotional and cognitive difficulties in seeing themselves as perpetrators. They can only see themselves as victims, and become insensitive to the pain they inflict on others.

Fourth, in their struggle to create a new culture, the Ashkenazim erased the language and culture of the Mizrahim. However, they also rejected and erased their own beautiful Yiddish linguistic and traditional lore. This is why the situation has seemed symmetrical to many Ashkenazim. But there were important differences that gave the erasure of the cultural identity of the two groups very different consequences: Ashkenazim had arrived from Europe already secularized, but they now demanded that the Mizrahim, who had always been traditionalists, become secular like them. The result was an absurdity: Ashkenazim built state institutions deeply intertwined with religion for the purpose of establishing Jewish supremacy; yet on a cultural level, they demanded secularization and turned the observance of religion into an inferior cultural status. A second difference was that even though the Ashkenazim had erased their own Yiddish culture, they remained profoundly connected to European culture, which became the only legitimate public cultural model: Museums, orchestras, universities, literary life were all modeled on Europe. In that sense, Ashkenazim were not dispossessed of their cultural dignity. On the contrary: Using that culture, they could now prove and enact their superiority. More than that: European culture for Ashkenazim was a crucial matter of collective self-definition, of the existential positioning of Israel against the Orient, of retaining linkages to that continent which had given the Jews their highest hour of glory.

This in itself is not a crime, for nations must choose and do choose cultural orientations, and Europe remains an unequalled source of values and cultural identity. The crime was that the Ashkenazim never built schools and educational institutions that could include the Mizrahim in a strong common culture, in which the European, the Jewish, and the Middle Eastern would be intertwined. The result was that Mizrahim experienced a sense of profound cultural dispossession and were left bereft both of their culture and their religion, and of the actual means to reach the culture that Ashkenazim now erected as the only valid model. Ashkenazim not only never built the institutions that would have given Mizrahim a sense of dignity and would have helped them compete with Ashkenazim, but created a group that was far more one-dimensional, impoverished, and culturally dispossessed than the one I grew up in Morocco.

The world I grew up in was cosmopolitan, multilingual, multiethnic. Here, Mizrahim were turned into a culturally isolated and one-dimensional population, thus further justifying, in the eyes of Ashkenazim, the discrimination: Because Mizrahim had been stripped of their cultural anchors, they could now be viewed as more primitive, typified by the "ars" (low class guy ) and the "frecha" (the female version ). Ashkenazim thus successfully turned the rich cultural world of eastern Jewry into a one-dimensional and impoverished one, that of Israeli Mizrahim.

The fifth and final element that helped make Ashkenazim oblivious to the screaming discrimination was the fact that Israel had a powerful myth: that of the egalitarian army. "Israeli society unequal? Ma pitom! My son had a Mizrahi officer!" But only adults serve in the army. No institution can equalize so late in life. Only schools can. In failing to build an adequate education system, the Ashkenazi elites insured that the Mizrahim would remain outside Israeli universities, museums, orchestras, newspapers, academies, for a very long time.

Menachem Begin was the Karl Marx of Israeli politics because he is the one who broke the stupefied hegemony of the Ashkenazi elite and made the Mizrahim into a class aware of its interests. Begin should be praised by any true liberal who cares about equality for having done what the Black Panthers did not succeed in doing in 1971 - namely, to make the Mizrahim an independent voting group, aware of its rights and of its cultural status and dignity. Whether Begin was truly sympathetic to the traditionalist Mizrahi or whether he cynically used them to gain political power is beside my point. The fact remains: Begin broke apart the sweet myth that we were all one big happy family. In appealing so blatantly to the Mizrahim, he exposed what only a few years before Golda Meir had contemptuously dismissed with the Black Panthers: that ethnicity was a powerful organizer of differences and exclusions, and that the elites that had managed the state were more Ashkenazi than they were Jews, more Europeans than Zionists, more worried about their class privileges than about social solidarity. With Begin, ethnicity fissured the collective Jewish-Zionist hegemony, making Mizrahi Jews into a group aware of its class and ethnicity, finally able to make Ashkenazim accountable for the ethnocracy they had created.

Laying bare the deep ethnic structure of this country was a historical moment that Mizrahim could have seized to offer a radical, revolutionary politics to this society. Perhaps Begin himself, who wanted to emulate the liberalism of Western democracies, could have initiated such politics, which might have exposed the absurdities of the Zionist state. In contradistinction to many western democracies, the state built by Ashkenazim had public institutions based on religion, while in the private sphere they made religion into a mark of inferior social status (think about this: all European countries have it the other way around ). The state had created and put a lot of effort into the ingathering of the exiles without creating a strong common culture (European, Jewish, Arabic ). In fact, it increased the cultural gaps between the different social groups that arrived in Israel. It made the army and the military the only source of solidarity, and neglected the only solidarity strong enough to hold people together, namely, that which is born of equality and fraternity.

Mizrahim were in the position of now formulating a radical politics that might have gone beyond the Ashkenazis' narrow understanding of ethnicity and offered an all-inclusive and universalist vision of a social covenant that could have contained not only Ashkenazim and Mizrahim, but Arabs as well. But what might have been a revolutionary moment was seized and captured in 1984 by Shas, a movement that uncreatively mimicked the Ashkenazi Agudat Yisrael. Like Agudat Yisrael, the Shas party was based on a blatantly undemocratic political platform: it a priori banned women, homosexuals and non-Jews from its ranks.

But Shas went a step further than Agudat Yisrael. While the latter was happy to remain an isolated community defending its economic interests, Shas used a broader tactic, made itself into a broad-based social and economic movement and used resentful demagoguery to denounce inequalities. Instead of promoting a truly egalitarian social agenda, it appealed to ethnic pride and revenge, and used state funds to cater to its own electoral sectors. Shas thrived on class divisions, ethnic resentment, alienation, and an empty rejection of Western/secular/democratic culture under the guise of rejecting "Ashkenazi" culture. It became the caricaturized reflection and prolongation of the "ethnic" Mizrahim the Ashkenazim had created - narrowly and fanatically religious, one-dimensional, fearful of cosmopolitanism and of the great European tradition. But Shas even went further: It strengthened and deepened the unholy alliance of state and religion and used state institutions to push forward discriminatory policies against non-Jews such as foreign workers, based on sectarian religious ideology.

In the 1990s, progressive left-wing Mizrahim responded to Shas by doing what intellectuals are best at: They entirely failed to understand what history required from them. So absorbed were they in the new politics of pride and resentment that they engaged in a muddled rehabilitation of tradition and ethnicity and failed to oppose, denounce, condemn the dangerous politics of Shas. They failed to defend the separation of state and religion, a precondition to an egalitarian politics; they failed to go beyond the rigid boundaries of ethnicity that the Ashkenazim had so carefully drawn for them; they failed to ask Ashkenazim to join them in a common struggle for a larger social covenant; they failed to understand that pluri-ethnic postmodernism is the luxury of universalist states. They painfully failed to defend a universalist politics that would have included all excluded groups. African-Americans built the civil rights movement, whose scope and impact went far beyond African-Americans. French Muslims created institutions against racism that are relevant for all victims of racism. But unopposed by a vigorous radical Mizrahi left, Shas built a culture and institutions based on ethnocentric and even racist policies, similar to many far-right movements in Europe. They thus became the aggrandized and distorted caricature of the very institutions that had victimized them.

Roy Baumeister suggests that not only perpetrators, but also victims have built-in cognitive and emotional biases. They attend to the harm being done as absolute evil, and are thus unable to go beyond that harm, to engage in reconciliation, forgiveness, solidarity. A politics based on victimhood is not only narrow, it is dangerous; it legitimizes hatred and resentment, perpetuates a logic of "them versus us" and ultimately fails to transcend the logic of discrimination in a broad social covenant based on equality and fraternity.

I confess that, between cultural smugness and victimhood, I have sometimes found myself longing for less narrow versions of identity, for the (privileged ) cosmopolitan experience of Morocco, for the egalitarian universalism of France, or for the multiple hyphenated identities of the United States, maybe because only an enlarged vision of humanity, and the affirmation of clear and sharp universalist values, can reinspire a nation tired of its ethnicities. W

Prof. Eva Illouz is a member of the Center for the Study of Rationality and holds the Rose Isaacs Chair in Sociology at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.