Top Billing? No Thanks

There is nothing that represents the true Israeli consciousness like the decision to totally exclude Mizrahim from appearing in the future on our currency.

There's nothing more serious or legitimate than the demand that our country's Sephardi or Mizrahi communities be represented in the portraits featured on banknotes. So why did this issue turn into the joke of the week the moment Deputy Prime Minister Silvan Shalom brought it up for discussion recently in the Knesset?

The answer is simple: Anti-Mizrahi racism is so deeply rooted among the public that even many Mizrahim themselves have adopted it. Furthermore, people will automatically choose not to relate seriously to Mizrahi protest voiced by a Mizrahi politician, and will prefer that such criticism come from an Ashkenazi personality because there is a feeling that only comments made by someone of that ilk will have any real validity.

Eran Wolkowski

Indeed, there is almost no political personality of Mizrahi descent, as charismatic as he may be, who hasn't at some point or another become a clown in the eyes of the public. From Shas spiritual leader Rabbi Ovadia Yosef of the "Go into the outside" [sic] comment, to Labor MK Amir Peretz looking through binoculars with the lens cap still on, to skirt-chasing former President Moshe Katsav, to Silvan Shalom himself, who in the public imagination has long been seen as the folkloristic embodiment of the henpecked husband.

Thus it turns out that paradoxically, there is nothing that represents the true Israeli consciousness - perhaps even its subconscious - like the (conscious or subconscious ) decision to totally exclude Mizrahim from appearing in the future on our currency. Because every Israeli, whether Ashkenazi or Mizrahi, wants the banknote that he worked so hard to earn to be identified with prestige, dignity and value, and to be adorned with figures who represent the nation's high culture and genius, rather than the folks in the servants' quarters or the kitchen.

Who are the Mizrahim who deserve to be commemorated on the notes? Suggestions were flying around this week, on the radio and the Internet, and in talkbacks reacting to Shalom's protestations: among them were medieval Spanish poet and philosopher Solomon Ibn Gvirol, Yemenite poet Rabbi Shalom ben Yosef Shabbazi, Yemenite-Israeli singer Shoshana Damari, Moroccan Rabbi Yisrael Abuhatzeira (the Baba Sali ). Ha! Ibn Gvirol forgot to have his picture taken, and so did Shabbazi. What a laugh! In any event, we could have anticipated the process of delegitimization that is taking place because, as mentioned, many people - including those who are themselves Mizrahi - consider the idea of turning a Mizrahi personality into a canonical figure a joke, or at least disrespectful or in bad taste. Like pushing your way into a party to which you weren't invited.

Therefore, being half-Mizrahi myself, I believe that the only way to preserve the dignity of those Mizrahi personalities whom I would like to honor is to continue to keep them in the shadows, rather than illuminating them in the overly strong light of national canonization, which in any case is pretty vulgar. After all, Ibn Gvirol, as well as Shabbazi, would turn over in their graves were they to find out that their portraits will not only be pawed over by the impure hands of members of the nation whose behavior is barely reminiscent of what they knew in their day as "the Jewish people," but that their names will also become a subject of mirth.

We can learn just how vulgar and ignorant this nation is from the fact that when the question arises regarding outstanding Mizrahi Jews through history of whom everyone should be proud, and whose pictures should appear on the banknotes, there isn't a single person capable of suggesting a truly worthy name. All we get are absurd suggestions such as for people for whom we have no photograph.

Nobody even mentioned Jacqueline Kahanoff, for example, a Jewish writer of tremendous importance, who emigrated from Egypt and had a profound influence on the culture of Israel, where she came in 1954. One can't be sure that anyone around the government table even knows who she is. And it would also be preferable not to ask if they ever heard of writer Yehuda Burla, the scion of an old Sephardi family, who wrote several wonderful novels such as "The Adventures of Akaviah" or "Without a Star."

Therefore, in the land where ignorance flourishes, it is no longer such a great honor - neither for poet Shaul Tchernichovsky, for poet Natan Alterman, for writer Lea Goldberg or poet Rachel Bluwstein, whose portraits were chosen ultimately to appear on its banknotes. One begins to suspect that the same Bank of Israel committee that made the suggestions originally confused the canonical with the self-evident, and chose the people it did without any cultural sensitivity - a sin that is sometimes more serious than racism.

If I were a relative of either Rachel, Alterman, Tchernichovsky or Goldberg - and most of them have living relatives - I would be angry at the dubious honor they received. I'm almost certain that at least one of them would have considered it an abomination to appear on a banknote of the State of Israel as it looks today. I'm referring to the poet Rachel, who in spite of the fact that she died before the establishment of the state, managed to clearly express her repugnance for the idea that the redemption of Israel would be achieved in a violent or inhumane way. She did so in her wonderful work "Yom Besora" ("A Day of Good Tidings" ) , which is based on the biblical story about the four lepers who inform the inhabitants of Samaria, then under siege by the Arameans, that their salvation has arrived and the siege has been lifted. Rachel writes as follows: "Like besieged Samaria, the entire land is impoverished / And the famine is unbearable. / But I do not want to receive news of redemption / From the lips of a leper."