In Favor of a More Mizrahi Israel

Although the Ashkenazi culture and institutions are part of our dwindling interface with the West, they are also barriers between us and our neighbors, near and far.

Avraham Burg
Avraham Burg
Send in e-mailSend in e-mail
New immigrants studying Hebrew in Tel Aviv, in 1941.
New immigrants studying Hebrew in Tel Aviv, in 1941.Credit: Zoltan Kluger / GPO
Avraham Burg
Avraham Burg

When the dust finally settles from the fervor and stupidity surrounding Erez Biton and Gidi Orsher, when the exploiters and the inciters fall silent, it will be clear that Israeli society is indeed undergoing a deep and profound change that is moving us from west to east.

Israel in 1948 was established using frameworks that were imported from Jewish and other, general communities of Central and Eastern Europe. The institutions, the personalities, the culture, the heritage and the customs all came from there. But once the state was founded it emerged, alas, that most of the masses that were expected to populate it had been annihilated. Thus the Zionist revolution made a sharp turn toward the Jews from Islamic countries. It was not what had been planned, but a post factum constraint; human replacement parts for the new state that needed Jews to populate it.

In contrast to the founders sour expression while they watched the land being flooded with unfamiliar human material with strange customs and languages, those who arrived here could barely contain their joy. This initial encounter was also the seminal point of division. While Ashkenazi Zionism had been a defiant rebellion against Judaism, for nearly all the Jews of the Islamic lands Israel was a fulfillment of their prayers and of their yearning for Zion. It pitted the Zionism of revolution against the Judaism of evolution.

To mediate between the two, the fiery melting pot became the heart of Israeli identity. The system did its best to melt everyone together and reform them into a Hebrew, all-Israeli mold. Over time it became clear that this furnace didnt work; identities were neither melted nor erased.

Israel is now dealing with the resulting burns, and its interethnic struggles are an effort to find a balance between its identities.

This is the larger context in which we periodically have outbursts of "tribal" expressions and vitriol, whether from the late Ovadia Yosef and Dudu Topaz, or from Shlomo Benizri and Gidi Orsher, may they live long lives. Oblivious to the racism embedded in their comments, each is trying swing the pendulum of Israeliness in their direction. For many years Israel was substantially Ashkenazi, and its power relations were tainted by racism and ethnic-based rewards. After years of distortion, there are those who seek to push society in the opposite direction. This is not a bad thing; it may even be good.

But amid the inherent tension between the founders and the joiners who were hurt, Israel is losing its way. We have become a disconnected place; we have distanced ourselves from both ports of departure – in the Christian countries and the Islamic ones – but weve never reached our destination port. Our society and our state are democratic in character but are also a natural part of the geographic and cultural fabric that surrounds us. Our obsession with definitions is not just a security need, but an ongoing effort to perpetuate the separation from the Middle Eastern port at which we refuse to dock.

Part of the responsibility for this rests with our neighbors, but a substantial part of it rests heavily on our national shoulders. The founders, who spoke Yiddish and Russian, never succeeded in really connect to the Jews from Arab lands, and certainly not to the surrounding Arab environment. Although the Ashkenazi culture and institutions are part of our dwindling interface with the West, they are also barriers between us and our near and more distant neighbors. The time has come to dismantle some of them, to rebuild some of them, and to establish different frames of reference, both internal and external.

A more Mizrahi Israel has a lot to gain. I believe that yielding the hegemony of societys Ashkenazi component and recognizing the injustices toward the immigrants from Islamic countries will facilitate a crucial airing out of outdated and tainted foundations, and eliminate a few of the privileges that never should have developed at all.

In an Israel of both eastern and western Jews, there will be new social orders that equalize and cherish both. Israel will respect all the Israeli traditions and legacies, including the eastern and Arabic ones. This revamped Israel will be unable to avoid a crucial conversation with the Muslim societies from whence many of us came.

The Ashkenazim, along with their pioneering and entrepreneurial spirit, brought with them Western democracy, the parliamentary system, academia and socioeconomic thought – but also ideological extremism, both religious and political. These are the sources of our contemporary failures. Without a bridge to the rest of the region, we have no sustainable future here. Such an external bridge cannot be built without the heritage of eastern Jewry, and this heritage cannot be sustained without limiting and eliminating parts of the outdated Ashkenazi hegemony.

The Israel of the future will be a synthesis between Western heritage and Eastern traditions – a traditional democracy. I dont think we will ever have a majority here that will favor giving up basic Western values like democracy, rights, skepticism and literacy. Reality, however, will be a lot less secular and more traditional in defining identity and behavior. Arabic will be a real social language, a shared linguistic space, not just the language of a despised minority and of members of the Shin Bet security service.

Israelis roots in the countries of this region will be as respected as those in Poland and Russia. Religious customs, no matter how strange they seem, will not be grounds for arrogance or contempt (the grave in Uman is no less problematic from a theological perspective than the grave in Netivot). This model, of an interethnic conversation and an interreligious dialogue both here and abroad, could turn Israel from a place that is chronically ill with conflict to a global model of dialogue between the different and the rival.