Israel's Culture Minister Is No Defender of the Downtrodden

It’s wrong to call Miri Regev a fighter for Israeli Jews with roots in Muslim countries. She's a spokeswoman for the colonialists who have controlled the Palestinian natives.

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Culture and Sports Minister Miri Regev holding a press conference.
Culture and Sports Minister Miri Regev holding a press conference. Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

In the history of Zionism, the first Mizrahim – Jews with roots in Muslim countries – were in a sense the Jews of Eastern Europe. Their peers in the center and west of the continent painted them with the highly disdainful Oriental imagery that the Eastern Europeans would later associate with the Jews from Muslim countries.

Few of these Eastern European Zionists, at the start, were aware of the humiliating brand they bore in the West. Some for a moment even saw the “East” as a battle cry relevant to Jewish nationalism among the peoples of the “East” fighting for freedom against Western colonialism.

It might seem hard to believe today, but these were, for instance, the views of the young David Ben-Gurion before Ottoman Turkey entered World War I. In his long-forgotten 1914 article “On the Eastern Question,” Ben-Gurion expressed deep concerns about the future of the peoples of the East – including the Jews in prestate Israel – if the Allies won.

But his fears were allayed and the Zionist movement reaped the fruits of the Western victory in the form of the Balfour Declaration and the British Mandate. So he shifted to Eastern tunes that after the establishment of Israel – were integrated into the orchestra of white European hegemony in Israel.

We may assume that like young Ben-Gurion, who was critical of Western condescension toward the East, Culture Minister Miri Regev, before entering politics, was far from racist perceptions of the “other.” She still clung to remnants of the moderation that characterized the Jews of the East before they reached Israel.

But once she became a spokeswoman for the state’s national hegemonic and colonialist establishment that has controlled the Oriental-Palestinian natives for half a century now, no association between her and the East is thinkable. It’s the same with Ben-Gurion. Nothing appears common between the first prime minister of the “Ashkenazi nation” and the young Zionist from Plonsk who, at the time, saw Zionism as part of the awakening and liberation of the peoples of the East.

Just as the “left” isn’t an identity but an idea, “East” isn’t (just) an origin, it’s above all a worldview. It’s an anti-colonial worldview that incessantly undermines the false Orientalist dichotomy of the “enlightened rational” West that was born to rule, and the “dark barbaric” East that needs guidance and direction.

Accordingly, the main partners in oppressing the Palestinian Arab people – and Orientals – cannot be counted among the Orientals as a political category, even if their names are Mizrahi Jewish like Miri Siboni, Arye Dery or Moshe Kahlon.

It’s therefore sad to read Merav Alush Levron’s op-ed seeking to crown Regev the fighter for Oriental equality against the Eurocentric hegemony on behalf of the oppressed and marginalized in the country’s outskirts, which suffers from Orientalist discrimination. Does Alush Levron not understand that as a fervent supporter of policy negating the civil and national rights of Palestinian Orientals, Regev is making a significant contribution – albeit an indirect one – to strengthening the internal Israeli mechanisms of negating Jewish Oriental “otherness”?

How, in her opinion, in Regev’s nation, where the muezzins have been muzzled, can Jewish-Arab culture flourish? Doesn’t she see that Regev’s racist rhetoric – as far back as her “cancer” speech against Sudanese refugees about four years ago – is an exact copy of European racism, in an Israeli incarnation, and has nothing in common with the Judeo-Arab world of concepts?

Anti-colonialist democratic Orientalism is a long-established political concept in Israel. Its roots lie deep in the modern history of the Jews of the Land of Israel, from the Arab Zionists Shimon Moyal (1866-1915) and Nissim Malul (1892-1959), who believed in national equality among all the peoples of the Ottoman Empire, to the Oriental Jerusalemite activist and intellectual Eliahu Elisher (1899-1981).

Elisher was a pioneer of cultural pluralism in Israel and was among the first supporters of equality between the Jews and Palestinians. He supported Israel’s Black Panthers, who advocated rebellion against discrimination against Mizrahi Jews.

The idea of democratic Orientalism doesn’t need ersatz Orientals supportive of Israeli colonialism, even if they’re top Israeli politicians. On the contrary, the democratic Orientals should shake off the fakers and seriously think about independent political organization.

In any case, Regev, Dery and a long list of colonialist Jewish nationalists of Eastern extraction may have no truck with the humanist Oriental discourse, but they sometimes need legitimization from the intellectual elite of democratic Orientals. That way, they can depict themselves as fighters against the “elites” and for equality, even though they have been holding the reins of government for years.

They can rope in more and more voters from the country’s outskirts in order to maintain the racist, ethnocentric privileges of government in Israel/Palestine. It’s a pity that a few Oriental democratic intellectuals are willing to supply the goods to these ersatz Orientals.