Even When Mizrahim Win, Ashkenazim Are the Victors

On a never-ending ping-pong game and the ethnic divide.

Headshot of Haaretz columnist and literary supplement editor Benny Ziffer, who is artistic director of the poetry festival to be held in Metula.
Benny Ziffer
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Illustration by Eran Wolkowski
Illustration by Eran Wolkowski
Headshot of Haaretz columnist and literary supplement editor Benny Ziffer, who is artistic director of the poetry festival to be held in Metula.
Benny Ziffer

The weekly ethnic ping-pong tournament, which began with a stormy confrontation broadcast on the Channel 2 morning talk show, ended this time with a crushing defeat of the Ashkenazim and a victory for the Mizrahim. But there was a catch: the victory of the Mizrahim (Jews whose origins lie in Islamic lands) was gained without any effort on their part, due to internal wrangling in the Ashkenazi camp.

A long-haired Ashkenazi provocateur who answers to the name of Amir Hetsroni flagrantly breached the rules of etiquette in the show’s ultra-“Polish” salon, and was ejected by the Ashkenazi host, Yoav Limor. Displaying Polish chivalry, Limor came to the defense of his guest, Amira Bouzaglo, after the provocateur bated her with a series of insulting, ethnic-based comments.

>> The Mizrahi Revival: A Special Project

Being myself of half-Sephardi blood (though my Viennese father was actually more hot-headed than my Turkish mother), I watched the unfolding events in the TV studio in which the Polish rules of politeness were infringed upon. What I noticed mainly was that Bouzaglo, the actual victim of Hetzroni’s tirade, did not seem to be suffering much amid the tempest that developed, and didn’t look as though she needed the massive protection afforded her so chivalrously by Limor and his cohost, Galia Gutman. Bouzaglo, I thought, had – how to put it? – a big enough mouth to answer her rival, and then some.

As if this weren’t enough, another Ashkenazi knight, Ran Carmi, joined the army of Bouzaglo’s protectors. Carmi betook himself to the Population Registry Bureau in Ashdod this week and requested that the name Bouzaglo be added to his already Hebraized surname – a remnant of the distant days in which Ashkenazim and Mizrahim alike deluded themselves into thinking that by changing their surnames to Hebrew ones, they would erase ethnic differences.

However, the template is not changing and shows no signs of doing so anytime soon. The Ashkenazim are effectively the ones who set the rules of the game and of behavior, and they are the ones who move the pieces on the ethnic chessboard. Contrite when they want to be, at other times they are admonishing, telling others, “That’s no way to talk about Mizrahim.”

When will they allow the Mizrahim to win on their own, without an Ashkenazi crutch? Maybe on the day that someone named Bouzaglo asks the Population Registry Bureau to change his name to Hetsroni, in protest at the never-ending, disproportionate protection that generous knights grant to Mizrahim – who, I say, are already quite capable of protecting themselves on their own.

As a half-Sephardi, then, whose family has taken numberless below-the-belt insulting remarks (I remember the north Tel Aviv patients of my late mother, who was an esteemed doctor at a Clalit HMO, asking her, “What, Doctor, did you really go to med school in Turkey? They have a university there?”) – I already feel that the Hetsroni episode, which ended in a giant hug for the Mizrahim, is a diversionary tactic ahead of the next looming brouhaha: a campaign against Arye Dery’s appointment as a minister in the new government. I envision swords being polished, the Movement for Quality Government in Israel rolling up its sleeves, articles in the newspapers.

Some will say that this is not an ethnic story at all but a matter of principle, and that with all due respect to Dery’s charisma and political acumen, a convicted criminal (not to say a lout) is unworthy of serving as a cabinet minister. With my acute ethnic senses, I have a gut feeling that the Dery story is going to be the main course in the holiday meal, following the appetizer in the form of the Hetsroni episode.

That’s because Dery, no matter which way we look at him, front and back, or past, present and future, is a walking ethnic issue. His biography embodies the ethnic dilemma, as he is, effectively, the creation of Ashkenazim. They raised him on high, lowered him way down, and again raised him up again – only to bring him way down once more in the name of principles of governmental morality – and, with the same blow, to remind the members of his ethnic group who pinned their hopes on him that they consider him no more than a lout. At least, so it seems to one who is watching Dery’s career through half-Sephardi eyes.

That the looming Dery controversy is quintessentially ethnic, whether we like it or not, is attested to by the fact that the Sephardi public that voted for the man never considered him a criminal. That’s because the Sephardi approach to law and morality was always a lot more flexible and a lot less zealous than that of the Ashkenazim. Suffice it to recall that, in the Middle Ages, when Jews in Spain accepted Christianity outwardly, in order to survive, the Ashkenazi Jews preferred to slaughter their children and to be slaughtered themselves rather than convert. In our era, too, tolerance and flexibility vs. zealousness and totality are clearly identifying features that distinguish Sephardim and Ashkenazim.

As a half-Sephardi who really doesn’t know which orientation is preferable, all I can do is sit in the stands and follow the ping-pong ball with my eyes, once to the left and once to the right, once eastward and once westward. And once heavenward, with a prayer to the Master of the Universe of “may it never end,” because perhaps this ball, which flies back and forth between the two sides of the ping-pong table, is also, paradoxically, what is holding us all together.

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