What if Judeo-Arabs Had Built the Institutions of the State of Israel?

Where would the Ashkenazim be if the two communities had switched their historical places, and what does that say about the myths that so many Israelis believe in?

The year is 1951. Jews from Western and Eastern Europe arrive en masse to the newly constituted State of Israel, which was created through 50 years of long and patient diplomatic negotiations between the wealthy Jews of Arabic countries and the Ottoman Empire. Ashkenazim arrive in a country whose leaders have created a coalition with the local Sephardic Jews and have peaceful relations with their Arab neighbors. Most people speak a variety of Sephardic dialects, but the leaders speak Judeo-Arabic or Arabic. These leaders are religiously observant, and hold in contempt most Europeans, viewing them as barbaric creatures who do not fear God, have enslaved much of the African and Asian continents, and have fought too many murderous wars.

The newly arrived European Jews are placed in remote settlements to work in fields and factories created by the Judeo-Arabic population. The Judeo-Arabs create religious schools for the training of rabbis and hazanim ‏(cantors‏). For others, they set up midrahot, schools for ordinary people, where the treasures of Judeo-Arabic culture, prayers and piyutim ‏(Hebrew poetry‏) are taught.

Eva Illouz - Central Zionist Archives - March 16, 2012
Central Zionist Archives

The Judeo-Arabs keep the best teachers and the best schools close to the urban centers where they live. The schools they create in the remote settlements are weak, and the Ashkenazim attending these schools do not do well, are often mocked for their lack of skill in paitanut ‏(composition and performance of religious verse‏) and Torah learning. Having arrived and having remained secular, they cannot compete with the criteria of excellence they find in the new country, which are based on knowledge of religion and Judeo-Arabic culture. In contrast, the Arab population, even if formally excluded from the Jewish definition of the state, is very well integrated into Israeli society and culture.

Sixty years later, the Ashkenazim have created a separatist party called Shomrei Tarbut Ashkenaz − Shta − which has managed to squeeze out of the religious Judeo-Arabic establishment many rights and privileges for their secular education system. They have painstakingly entered the army, business and politics, but are still spectacularly absent from religious institutions of higher learning created by the Judeo-Arabs, the sole institutions that confer status and influence.

How to explain this? To me, it is obvious: They were not less worthy or less intelligent than the local Judeo-Arabs who created the Jewish yishuv. But being stigmatized as primitive Europeans, not being the first to arrive, not having set the rules of the game, they did not possess the language and culture of those who shaped the institutions of the country. They were excluded from the leading institutions not by any clear design or explicit intention, but as a result of the locals’ sense of cultural superiority and policies of resource allocation.

Yet, looking at some of the reactions I received to my article, “Enough of ethnicity,” a large number of people in this country would assume that such a failure on the part of Ashkenazim would have been due to their lack of intelligence and talent.
Deep down, many people cling to the comfortable belief that individuals and groups get what they deserve; that success or failure, happiness or misery, are the hidden rewards or punishments for talent or stupidity. This is why, to the imaginary scenario I offer above, many would say, as evidence that their vision of merit is the correct one: “Look at the Ashkenazim who went to the U.S. If they did so well there, that’s because they were better and more talented Ashkenazim than those who arrived in Israel.”

Using existing facts as proofs for some antecedent virtue or flaw, these people would argue that the fact that Ashkenazim did so spectacularly well in the U.S. constitutes proof that Israeli Ashkenazim were backward, not that the Israeli environment was condescending and hostile. This is in fact the myth that has given many Israelis a clear conscience about the bewildering difference between French and Israeli Mizrahim − namely, that the Mizrahim who came to Israel were the “poor” and uneducated ones, and those who went to France were the educated and wealthy ones. While this may be partly true, it is far from being the only or the most important explanation. The myth that the Mizrahim who arrived in France and Israel were qualitatively different is just that: a myth.

The Mizrahi Jews who immigrated to France in the 1950s, and those who went there from Morocco and Tunisia in the 1960s, belonged to social groups that ranged from unskilled workers to the middle class. They were small shopkeepers, craftsmen, low-ranking clerks, businessmen and accountants; less frequently, they were doctors, writers or lawyers. Most of these North African Jews did not have a university education, did not possess significant wealth, did not know the French system. Moreover, French North African Jews, unlike their Ashkenazi French counterparts but very much like their Israeli counterparts, went to live in the periphery of poor suburbs of Paris ‏(Sarcelles, Ivry, Pantin, Garges-les-Gonesse, Creteil‏).
Sarcelles, which once had the largest Jewish population in Europe, was a working class suburb; it had a very high concentration of Jews of North African origin, mainly from the working to the middle classes, rarely any higher. These Jews had children who were able, in one or at most two generations, to move to the top ranks of French cultural institutions. Obviously, not all of them moved upward, but enough did to indicate that as a group, Jews were integrated into French society.

As early as 1984 ‏(only one generation after the immigration from North Africa‏), a study conducted in France by Prof. Doris Bensimon and Prof. Sergio DellaPergola showed that 23 percent of Moroccan- and Tunisian-born Jews obtained academic degrees. These figures are significantly higher than those for Algerian-born Jews and for Jews of Eastern European origin, and incommensurably higher than that attained by North African Jews in Israel. In other words, many North African Jews who went to France found their place in French cultural institutions much faster than Mizrahim here, and this despite phenomenal obstacles. They were foreigners twice, as Jews and as North-Africans; they were ‏(in relative and absolute numbers‏) much fewer numerically than their Israeli counterparts; French elites were much older and much better organized than Ashkenazi Israeli elites; the population of France was 10 times greater than that of Israel. Still, despite these obstacles, Mizrahi Jews integrated successfully.

The second part of the myth is that the Mizrahi Jews who arrived in Israel were all of the lower class, which in turn explains the fact they performed poorly. I have no doubt that those who were illiterate were more likely to come to Israel. But even without statistical charts, I am amazed that people would believe that all 600,000 or so Jews who arrived here from Muslim countries were illiterate and unskilled. Among these 600,000 who arrived from the countries of Islam and who made up 56 percent of all immigrants to Israel by the 1960s, couldn’t there have been 20 percent or even 10 percent who were small shopkeepers, craftsmen, minor clerks, businessmen similar in every way to their French counterparts? Can one reasonably assume that there was no partial socioeconomic overlap between the two communities, and that there were no cases whatsoever where people of similar backgrounds immigrated to the two different countries? How then can we explain such astounding differences between two similar groups?

The explanation is fairly simple: French society was far more egalitarian in its culture and in its institutions. It was more egalitarian toward the North African Jews than Israeli Ashkenazis were, because it had a universal model of citizenship ‏(Leon Blum, a Jew, was elected prime minister of France three times in the 1930s and 1940s, despite rampant anti-Semitism‏). In contrast, Ashkenazi elites ignored the culture of the groups that arrived in Israel, did not build a strong common curriculum, and provided very little educational resources for Mizrahim to achieve what sociologists call educational capital. This in turn blocked Mizrahim from entering the key institutions Ashkenazis controlled and continue to control.

Schooling played a crucial role in helping Mizrahi Jews integrate into French society, and it also played a crucial role in keeping Israeli Mizrahim outside the main centers of power. A bad school system is bad for everyone, but it is much worse for the weaker sectors because their families cannot help them overcome the poverty of their schooling. A bad school system is not only bad, it is also fundamentally not egalitarian, because it makes it very difficult for children to overcome a weak family background.

The French social model was more egalitarian because France put a vast amount of resources into integrating different populations in a single, homogeneous, universalist school system.

Of course, this system demands that cultural differences be erased from the public sphere and be expressed only in the private sphere, but this is the price to pay for greater equality. Mizrahim in Israel encountered the same European hegemonic culture as in France, but in contrast to France they were not given the teachers, the infrastructure, the very strong curriculum, to cope with, integrate, and criticize that culture. “Real” culture ‏(Ashkenazi-European culture‏) was left to the Ashkenazim, entertainment to the Mizrahim. No wonder then that the educational vacuum was filled by the Shas education system.

But now let us imagine for a moment that all the Mizrahi aliya came from the “dark” Atlas mountains; that there was not a single person who was literate, who knew mathematics, languages, painting, poetry, and music; that they were all, without exception, as illiterate as the masses of poor, uneducated, and heavily traumatized Jews who came from the Polish ghettos. It is, in my opinion, preposterous for an egalitarian society to accept this as an explanation for the fact that Mizrahim are nowhere to be seen among the ranks of the Israeli cultural elites 60 years after they arrived.

The simple fact that so many Israelis consider their supposed lower-class origins an adequate reason shows a worrisome lack of basic understanding of what equality means. To provide equality of opportunity means to provide the children of disadvantaged families the educational resources to improve their socioeconomic position. In social democracies or even free-market societies, 60 years is long enough to start seeing a disadvantaged group achieve leadership in culture, academia and the arts. Just to give one example: African-Americans who suffered the horror of slavery − an oppression infinitely greater than that of the Mizrahim − less than 50 years after the civil rights movement could see, for example, a black woman become rector of one of the top American universities, Stanford University ‏(Condoleezza Rice‏); a black woman receive the Nobel Prize for Literature ‏(Toni Morrison‏); eminent black philosophers occupy endowed chairs at Princeton and Harvard University ‏(Cornel West, Henry Louis Gates, Anthony Appiah‏); receive the prestigious Pulitzer Prize ‏(for example, the writer Alex Haley‏), become president of the American Sociological Association ‏(Julius Wilson‏) and president of the United States ‏(Barack Obama‏).

This is not enough, and discrimination is still largely prevalent, but it is a sign that in less than 50 years, American society has made considerable progress toward making the African-American community part of its cultural leadership. ‏(An egalitarian country is better measured by looking at its leaders than at averages, because averages can hide a glass ceiling.‏) An egalitarian society enables even a minority that constitutes not more than 10 percent of the population to reach the top of all its institutions. But in Israel, the majority of the population ‏(if we combine Mizrahim and Arabs‏) cannot reach the top or even be near the top, because, bereft of instruments of educational mobility, the top has been and continues to be controlled by an ethnic elite, Jewish and Ashkenazi.

But now let me add this: The obvious case of the Mizrahim has not been heard enough by the many Ashkenazim who are genuinely willing to fight discrimination. Why? Because a victim who fights for justice must fight for other victims as well. When victims fight only for themselves, they seem to want only power, not justice, and end up replacing those who oppressed them. The many Mizrahi intellectuals, academics and activists of this country ‏(Meir Buzaglo, Yehouda Shenhav, Yossi Yona, Yossi Dahan, Haviva Pedaya, Henrietta Dahan, Ronit Matalon, Momi Dahan, Itsik Saporta, Pnina Mutzafi, Shula Keshet, Shaul Mishal and many others‏) have an urgent and important mission: to overcome the past and its injustices and to focus on a future in which the fate of all minorities are connected to each other in a broad vision of social justice.

Intellectuals can create solidarity where others see only differences; they can give courage when others are discouraged; they can use anger productively where others feel hatred. A politics of resentment must be replaced by a politics of hope. Mizrahim have a key role to play in imagining such politics of hope. It is now high time to outgrow the antidemocratic Shas party and create forms of Mizrahi politics that are unapologetically democratic and egalitarian. The time has come for progressive Arabs, Mizrahim, Russians, Ashkenazim and Ethiopians who want to create an egalitarian society to join forces and declare that real solidarity is not the one found on battlefields, but one that makes us feel responsible for the common good. The time has come.