Israel Is Sliding Into a Nondemocratic Abyss, and We Know Who Will Be Blamed

The prevailing association of Mizrahim with Netanyahu isn't just cynical and opportunistic – it's also dangerous

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Benjamin Netanyahu with supporters shortly before the March 2020 election.
Benjamin Netanyahu with supporters shortly before the March 2020 election. Credit: Moti Milrod
Ronit Peleg, Raphael Zagury-Orly and Itzhak Benyamini
Ronit Peleg, Raphael Zagury-Orly and Itzhak Benyamini

Israel is increasingly in thrall to an evil spirit, one that appropriates to itself the “truth” about the complex situation of the Mizrahim – Jews of Middle Eastern and North African descent. This is happening along with efforts by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his allies to bring about the final destruction of Israeli democracy and to consolidate the country as an authoritarian, ethno-nationalist, religious state.

This evil spirit makes use of the Mizrahim of the “Second Israel” – to use a term coined by writer Avishay Ben Haim to denote the country’s social periphery – to burn Mizrahiness into Israeli consciousness as being responsible for the current collapse of democratic culture and institutions. Once more the Mizrahim, along with the politicians who purport to represent them, are being recruited to play their historical role as “hewers of wood and drawers of water” – this time not in the physical construction of the state, but in the contemporary project of building a post-democratic Israel, one that cultivates the cult of a near-absolute ruler, however heavy-handed, personally corrupt and destructive he may be.

Many Mizrahim perceive this populist leadership as a central instrument in fomenting a “Mizrahi revolution,” even though it is promoting a political agenda that will, at the end of the day, bring about the collapse of that same revolution. There is, after all, no guarantee that there will be a central place in this new agenda – which above all serves the authoritarian leader himself, as well as settler society, secular-nationalist society and the ultra-Orthodox community – for Mizrahim and Mizrahiness.

Anti-democratic processes in Israel are currently gaining support, whether implicit or explicit, from these same diverse publics, which for the most part do not include Mizrahim. Yet, all these processes are perceived in a blur, and what is engraved instead upon the collective consciousness is only the “noise” and the “shouts” of those “raucous” Mizrahim who back “Bibi.”

The thrust of the present-day evil spirit is toward reducing the Mizrahim to a single stereotype with one particular political, social and religious identity.

This conception receives resounding support as well, regrettably, from such Mizrahim as the prominent sociologist Nissim Mizrachi and journalist Ben Haim. It seems to us that other Mizrahi intellectuals, who have frequently sounded a clear voice concerning the historical oppression of their own community, also find themselves trapped now in a place that doesn’t allow them to express a critical counter-voice in the face of the political exploitation of the oppression faced by Mizrahim historically.

At this moment, when Israeli society is torn over innumerable urgent, identity-related, political-theological and socioeconomic issues, and when the country’s leader constantly invokes democratic rhetoric about the “will of the people” in the furtherance of antidemocratic moves, with the conspicuous support of Mizrahi cabinet ministers – we wish to focus on the phenomenon that is making all this possible: the essentialist and one-dimensional construct of “the Mizrahi.” In light of these attempts to entrench the “Mizrahi identity” in a suffocating manner, we aim precisely to open up the discussion to allow in light and air, not only on the basis of critical and historical thought, but also with the help of our own personal experiences. We seek to raise questions and issues, perhaps in the name of our dream of a different Israel, one that contains a different Mizrahi revolution.

Amid this morass, there must also be steadfast opposition to the cynical attempt to link the legal trial of a defendant accused of serious crimes with a figurative trial of the Mizrahim as a group. The articulation of that outrageous parallel by Ben Haim, who has repeatedly made the claim, on a prime-time news shows on TV Channel 13, that the trial of Netanyahu is also the trial of the “second Israel,” are part of the modus operandi of the new evil spirit. Its purpose is to divide Israel’s citizens by turning all public and judicial discourse into a pseudo-discourse hinging on distinctions between ethnic subcultures. In practice, this process serves to entrench one form of ethnocentricity: nationalist-Jewish.

“Mizrahi” culture is today understood only in ethno-national-religious terms, while the totality of the cultural sources – including those of the Western world – that also contributed to shaping Mizrahi identity are ignored. The inability to discern that the culture defined as “Mizrahi” is connected umbilically to Western culture – and not only by way of colonialism – is personified, for example, by Miri Regev, in her former role as culture minister. She took the tendency of seeing Mizrahi culture in reductive and monolithic terms to a crass peak: In the name of an attempt to do justice by the Mizrahi cultures, she locked them into one specific and undifferentiated subculture, on the one hand folkloristic and insular, and on the other, nationalistic-antagonistic.

Miri Regev looks up at Benjamin Netanyahu during a campaign stop at Mahane Yehuda Market in Jerusalem, February 2020.Credit: Emil Salman

The evil spirit also incites and excoriates different communities by means of essentialist, generalized distinctions, above all between the “Ashkenazim” and the “Mizrahim.” If it had seemed, over the years, that partial social mobility and the rise of a Mizrahi bourgeoisie, particularly since the period of the political upheaval of 1977, when Likud first came to power, and rise in inter-communal marriages, would put an end to that rigid division, and in particular if it had seemed that the third generation of Mizrahi immigrants, who grew up here, was abandoning such distinctions – they are now being revived. Concurrently, anyone who refuses to make use of this oppositional terminology, be he Mizrahi or Ashkenazi, is attacked for naivete or for being a hegemon “who speaks Ashkenazi.”

In our perception, however, if this identity division were not geared to political purposes, those who promote it would also need to clarify the question of whether Israeli Arabs belong to this mizrahi (Eastern) space. In this connection, one cannot help but wonder: Why do analysts like Avishay Ben Haim and Nissim Mizrachi stop when it comes to the Mizrahiness of the Palestinians? Similarly, doubt must be cast on the sincerity and intellectual rigor of no few Mizrahi intellectuals when they make a distinction between the “first Israel” and the “second Israel,” and of the way they blur differences in socioeconomic class and identity when doing so. It is wrong to focus on identity questions alone and diminish the importance of the social-economic element: as though the Mizrahi eats the flag for breakfast, the national anthem for lunch and the tallit (prayer shawl) for supper, and as though the Mizrahi’s unique stomach can digest only questions of identity.

The reduction of the political discussion to questions of ethnic identity, while urgent socioeconomic issues are neutralized, serves and encourages general Israeli indifference to those questions and supports the disassociation of Israeli neoliberalism – as conceived by the right-wing school of thought – from all institutions of social responsibility. All responsible thought should also have considered in depth the implications of Likud’s liberal-economic approach vis-a-vis the current situation of some Mizrahim, especially those who are classified as “second Israel,” and above all regarding the collapse of social-welfare safety nets since the political upheaval of 1977.

Beyond this, though, instead of conducting research into the history of social responsibility as demonstrated by the Israeli left as well, and the changes that occurred in it before and after that upheaval, what is taking root today is a demagogic manipulation according to which nothing happened in the left since the period of the historic Mapai, forerunner of the Labor Party.

The same evil and toxic spirit, which is also based on the jargon of authenticity, is generating and cultivating the discourse of subcultures and the folkloric. This is taking place on the basis of a politics of supposedly “authentic” emotions, charged and recharged with hostility toward the polar opposite. The whole identity definition of these subgroups is constructed upon rejection of and hostility toward the other. Thus, for example, a Mizrahi identity is being built and carefully nurtured in terms of hostility toward the entire center-left camp, whose members are perceived, in a manner both reductive and generalized, as having an identity that is hegemonic, white and privileged.

Thus, the same evil spirit, which is being relentlessly nurtured by the politicians and intellectuals, is making use of incitement. On the one hand, it is binding segments of the Mizrahi public to resentment, while on the other it is weakening sections of the progressive public, Mizrahi and Ashkenazi alike, by lashing them to guilt feelings.

In such a populist climate, one that is hostile to liberal discourse, the Ashkenazi is identified as a Westerner and a liberal more than as a Jew, while the Mizrahi is identified (infuriatingly) as an authentic traditionalist Jew whose sole concern is the Jewish-national identify of this place. As though the question of democracy and of Israel’s future does not occupy him, and as though there is one authentic Jewish tradition whose faithful representatives are the Mizrahim and whose political affiliation is monolithic. Any other possibility is perceived by the “Mizrahiness police” as treason against Judaism, against the Mizrahi ethos and also against the nation.

According to this perspective, it is not enough to be of Mizrahi origin in order to be considered Mizrahi. Within the framework of social coding, only those possessing a particular Mizrahi consciousness and culture will be considered truly Mizrahi. As such, Mizrahiness becomes ideological “Mizrahi-ism.” And within that ideological framework, the opposite is signified as comprising one cohesive package: Ashkenazi, universalist, secularist, liberal and democratic. The mobilization order calls for battle to be waged against that entire package, in order to foment the “Mizrahi revolution.”

The Mizrahim are thus associated with the role of preserving the “authentic ethno-national Judaism,” certainly against those “who have forgotten what it is to be Jews” or, alternately, to be “Mizrahim.” In light of the historic social and political hardships they experienced as part of the Zionist enterprise, many traditionalist Mizrahim are being seduced into intensifying their affiliation with an extreme Jewish-religious narrative, in order to preserve their acceptance into the current power alignment.

A Likud rally, February 2020.

In practice, there is no one Judaism. There is no single, pure cultural influence, and no single, authentic representation, of any identity. There is no greater or lesser proximity to the source of either Judaism or Mizrahiness, for the simple reason that there is no one source that does not immediately break down into a multiplicity of influences and affinities, whether in the past or the present. The character of the “Mizrahi” – exactly like that of the “Ashkenazi” or of the “Arab” or of the “Palestinian” – is complex, forged by a diversity of languages and cultural influences, Western and Eastern, which are often in conflict with one another. It is this multiplicity that more precisely defines the character of so-called Mizrahim.

Accordingly, any viewpoint that links “Mizrahim” in perpetuum with an ingrained passion for one traditional form of Judaism, without internal contradictions or other external influences, flattens the abundant types of Mizrahiness into one type: Judeo-traditionalist. Such a reduction denies that Mizrahiness also contains within it also elements of secularity, cultural openness and religious and halakhic flexibility. The narrow-minded identification of Mizrahim with the “authentic” identity of traditional, ethno-national Jews has been seared into historical memory and glued to the term “Mizrahi.” The media sirens heralding this identity bondage create the mindset that “Bibist” = Mizrahi. All other Mizrahi possibilities are silenced.

We do not deny the existence of continuous oppression that permeates the self-perception of members of the “elites,” Ashkenazi or Mizrahi, who see themselves as being exclusively in charge of shaping the symbolic and cultural identity of Israeli society. They take umbrage (often in silent fury) at the “invasion” of the “Mizrahi masses” into the public and cultural domain, where the latter are not supposed to encroach and wield influence.

This is indeed a painful malady, all of whose manifestations need to be identified and dealt with responsibly and cautiously. At the same time, we deny the tacit justification of “Bibism” (the cult-like following of Netanyahu) by some Mizrahi intellectuals, who perceive it only as a symptom of the real problem: the prolonged historical suppression of the Mizrahim. “Bibism” is not only a symptom of the disease; it is also its cause and catalyst. Mizrahi intellectuals who stop at seeing it as the symptom are unwilling to free themselves of the absolute and frozen paradigm of the ongoing suppression of historic Mapai. They avoid thinking about the present deceptive metamorphoses of this problem and its implications for the future of Israeli society.

Regrettably, in the current discourse, we are not hearing enough from the Mizrahi intellectuals who reject the populist interpretation of the term “democracy” as meaning solely an expression of the “will of the people” in its narrowest sense, while omitting its other essential components – namely, a separation of powers, and the presence of mechanisms of checks and balances. By being silent, they risk becoming partners to democracy’s dismantlement in the guise of its defense. More to the point, they are enabling the grouping together of Mizrahim as a single mass of people who are indifferent to the essence of life in a democracy. Instead, the Mizrahim are perceived as seemingly driven by a politics of love/hate feelings for the leader.

Our writing at this moment reflects deep concern and the fear that if Israel does finally deteriorate into an ethno-national, theocratic state, blame for this chapter in its history will be attributed to the Mizrahim perhaps more than to any other stream or group.

The question we ask is: Are Mizrahim fated to morph from having been a tool in building the founding generation’s “First Israel,” into a tool of Netanyahu’s new hegemonic version of a “First Israel” that is paving the way to a nondemocratic country? And will they become the ultimate victims of anyone looking for a scapegoat in the wake of the collapse, while the latter avoid critical examination of the responsibility of additional communities for that situation?

Dr. Ronit Peleg is a lecturer in political philosophy at Tel Aviv University and the Hebrew University of Jerusalem; Dr. Raphael Zagury-Orly is a lecturer in philosophy at Sciences Po Paris; Dr. Itzhak Benyamini is an editor at Resling publishing house and a lecturer in critical thought and psychoanalysis at Bar-Ilan University and at the Bezalel Academy of Art and Design.

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