In the Name of Mizrahi Nationalism

Culture Minister Miri Regev is doing a good job representing the legitimate right of the Mizrahi periphery to give cultural expression to its pride, and that scares the Ashkenazi elite.

Culture Minister Miri Regev speaking at the Haaretz Culture Conference, March 6, 2016.
Moti Milrod

It seems as if Culture Minister Miri Regev is providing a challenge for the existing discourse on Mizrahim. Her image in the media provides an exception to the dichotomy this debate is based on. On one hand, she has no feelings of inferiority for not being versed in the classics of European culture; on the contrary, she is proud she has never read Chekov. On the other hand, she does not glorify classical Arab culture either, and she avoids creating an oppositional stance to Western culture typical of the school of rank-and-file Mizrahi intellectuals.

Members of the local cultural elite indeed tried to insert Regev into the same old equation with provocations. They called her uncivilized, the minister of culture without any culture, in hopes she would respond, in her own defense, the way post-colonial Mizrahi intellectuals do by positioning Arab civilization against Western civilization, and by continuing to show equal value between the two civilizations within Israel through financial support from the government.

However, Regev responded unexpectedly. Instead of setting Arab culture against Western culture, she announced the Culture Minister’s Prize for art in “the Zionist spirit,” and declared she would develop culture in the periphery. In doing so, she positioned herself outside the paradigm that for years has perpetuated the existing cultural hierarchy.

She announced the relocation of the battlefield from the universal cultural space to the national one, and provided a competing dichotomy between Israeli and Zionist national culture and the non-nationalist of the Tel Aviv “tight asses.”

It seems Regev has brought a sociocultural process to fruition whose roots go back to Israel’s early days. Until the 1970s, Israeli sociologists saw Mizrahim as only a socioeconomic class, whose members did not have shared cultural codes, since it included individuals from different cultures. They defined them using what they seemed to be missing compared to Ashkenazim: proper incomes, social status, education, modernity. But in the 1980s, sociologist Shlomo Svirsky predicted Mizrahim would develop in the end a unifying culture and become an ethno-cultural group, because of their living together in the periphery and their exclusion from centers of power.

In the 1990s it seemed as if this prophecy were coming true. A Mizrahi culture began forming, as Mizrahi poetry, cinema, literature and music blossomed.

But this was mostly a culture of anti-Western, ant-capitalist protest, which identified with third-world culture. It declared itself in advance as marginal, and did not have any aspirations to become an alternative to the hegemonic culture, so it was a culture the Ashkenazi elites could live with.

Regev, in contrast, despite her provocations, represents a different Mizrahi culture, which is not one of protest. In adhering to Israeli and Zionist national images, she actually threatens to position a competitive culture against the hegemonic culture. As Svirsky predicted, this is a culture whose roots are not in Arab culture, but one that developed in Israel, in places where Mizrahim lived, where immigrants from Morocco mixed with those from Iraq, Libya and Iran.

This culture developed in the periphery, where Mizrahi immigrants received an Israeli education that disconnected them from their history and motivated them, without choice, to draw on the only values that were viewed as positive in the narrow world forced upon them, from which they aspired to receive legitimacy: the state, Israeli nationalism, and the amazing success of the Zionist enterprise.

How is it that the Mizrahi immigrants embraced nationalism, while the elites who formulated Jewish nationalism retreated from it? At first there were nationalist elites, too, but because they appropriated a European identity as a means of establishing their authority, they started a process which ultimately led them to a cosmopolitan stance.

As long as harmony existed between Israel and Europe, there was no problem. But when Europe began to distance itself from Israel and expose its anti-Semitic side, it created a dissonance among the elite’s children between Israeli nationalism and European identity. The decision had to be made - and it fell on the side of Europe. The elites abandoned nationalism in favor of cosmopolitan liberalism.

At the same time, the Mizrahim, who were excluded from Europeanism, and whose European assets they brought with them became irrelevant in Israel, were pushed toward Arabism. And because the Ashkenazi elites appropriated for themselves in shrewd and twisted fashion all of Judaism’s positive attributes to the exclusion of Mizrahim, the only positive item left for MIzrahim to identify with was Israeli nationalism.

So the Zionist project and the state became the pride of the Mizrahi periphery. Now the periphery wants to give proper cultural expression to this pride. It is their right. Regev represents this legitimate right quite well, which is why she is so frightening.

The writer teaches in the School of Mass Communication at Ariel University.