Mizrahim Who Forgot Their Roots

Iris Leal
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Members of the Israeli Black Panthers carrying placards against high cost of living in Tel Aviv, Israel, 1974. Credit: Ya'akov Sa'ar/ GPO
Iris Leal

On October 25, 1952, Razal Gadasi left the Emek Hefer immigrant transit camp to gather weeds. Anyone who read the fascinating article by Shay Fogelman (Haaretz, January 21, 2010) about the first Mizrahi uprising learns that the transit camp housed mainly immigrants from Yemen and was located south of Hadera, and that according to some of its residents, Yitzhak Ben-Aharon told them that the camp had been built near his kibbutz, Givat Haim, to provide it with laborers.

The camp was “a fenced-in pen of hundreds of hungry people, while all around were orchards with oranges and tangerines and fields of vegetables. In that situation you could not realistically expect people not to steal,” said Zadok Malihi, who was 10 at the time.

To prevent stealing, a guard was hired: “A fearless guard riding a horse and armed with a pistol, always accompanied by his dog, Menorah,” Fogelman writes.

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When one of the camp residents was caught, whether elderly or child, the guard would give him a sound beating. That’s how Gadasi came to encounter him while she was collecting weeds to feed her goat. Suspecting her of stealing, he used his stick to scatter her bundles of greens, and sicced his dog on her. Gadasi came back to the camp crying and bruised, her flesh torn by dog bites.

Her son, a soldier, “charismatic, sturdy and brave,” went with a few of his friends to take revenge. The clash between them ended with the death of the dog, the abduction of the horse and the injuring of the guard. All the rest – the clash between police and dozens of camp residents, the officers’ testimony that they felt threatened and therefore beat the residents with clubs, the stone throwing and the arrests – is familiar to us from the past few days. So are the protests that spread through all the transit camps in the country at the time, Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion’s efforts to stamp them out and the claim that Maki, the Israel Communist Party, and Herut, the forerunner of Likud, organized the riots and added fuel to the fire.

This time, the very day after the Ethiopian community’s protests in the wake of the killing of Solomon Teka by an off-duty policeman, the government mouthpieces were quick to declare that activists of extreme leftist organizations funded by the New Israel Fund and George Soros were behind the riots, encouraging and enflaming the demonstrators.

The distinction between the way the government loyalists and the liberal left, the scion of Ben-Gurion’s Mapai party, addressed the protests could not have been sharper. Everyone agreed that Teka’s death was regrettable and the rage over it was understandable. But here, more or less, the consensus stopped.

The ongoing rage and frustration of the Ethiopian community can be seen as a later echo of the ongoing hunger and humiliation of the residents of the transit camps, the Yemenite community, or the outpouring of rage that ignited the Wadi Salib riots in Haifa after a police officer shot a neighborhood resident – and the government tactics are identical. The opposition, say Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s supporters, are riding on the backs of the demonstrators, inflaming their anger and using them to goad the government in an election season.

All of this is nauseating, both because of the cynical propaganda that wipes out the autonomy of the demonstrators and their demand to own their cause and portrays them again as a sub-standard cultural group lacking independent opinions. Moreover, the fact that this time many of the Mizrahim of the riots of 1952, 1959 and 1971 are Netanyahu’s supporters, playing the role of the Mapainiks of those days, is maddening. The fact that the blood brothers of the Israeli Black Panthers are the ones depicting the Ethiopian protest as subversion and foment by extreme leftists blows the mind. How can the spirits of the Emek Hefer residents, who were afraid to go out and gather herbs for fear of a beatdown, not surface? How have they forgotten the affront of the discrimination against their parents, or against them, and how do they find themselves spreading the lie of the new Mapai master?