The young, secular-looking woman got on the train in Jerusalem, a small dog trailing behind her on a leash. “You’re supposed to muzzle the dog when you’re on a train,” I remarked as the dog approached my leg. “A dog just like this bit me,” I added, apologetically daring to speak up. Instead of pulling her dog closer or picking it up, the woman muttered with a half-smile: “These dogs appear to have an issue with Ashkenazi Jews.” I was stunned. “You’re right,” I snapped back, “just like their owners. It’s known that dogs resemble their owners. The thing is, I’m not Ashkenazi.”
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The outburst of hatred spewing from the woman’s mouth shocked me. It took me back several decades, to the days when I lived in a popular part of Jerusalem, studying in a school where students didn’t acquire their status in class according to their origins but by their conduct. Names such as Kaufman, Fischbein and Lazarovitch blended in naturally with others such as Amar, Halasji or Nakar. The only discrimination I remember was based not on one’s ethnicity, but on whether or not you were a native-born “sabra.”
Almost all of us were new immigrants, whether from Egypt (like I was), Morocco, Poland or Romania. We were all required to shed our Diaspora mantle and emulate the heroes of the popular Hasamba gang – that book series loved by sabra children. We were all ashamed of the Mizrahi or Ashkenazi accents of our parents or grandparents (those who still had any); we were embarrassed when they spoke Yiddish, Arabic, French or Ladino in the presence of our friends; and we were envious of the kids who were born with names such as Zehavi or Tamari.
The blurring of our Diaspora identity was ostensibly designed to unite the ingathering tribes into one nation – brave, just and egalitarian. That was the message we got. Being part of the Hasamba gang was like a national ethos, in the light of which we were raised, going to youth movements and volunteering, eventually joining the army. In this spirit, Kaufmans married Nakars and we started coalescing into a homogenous society, with all its advantages and disadvantages. This worked pretty well for a generation.
But then someone discovered the potential of the sectarian demon as an electoral asset, depicting (now-defunct) parties such as the ruling Mapai (the forerunner of the Labor Party), Mapam, Ratz – what is known here as the left – as the Ashkenazi enemy of all Israeli Jews of Middle Eastern or North African origin.
The first Israeli politician to recognize this electoral potential may have been Menachem Begin, who, in the 1981 election campaign, unleashed his voters against “kibbutzniks acting like millionaires lolling around their swimming pools” – the same people without whose courage and devotion to the Zionist idea we probably wouldn’t have a state.
The next to jump on the inflammatory bandwagon was Benjamin Netanyahu, who whispered in the ears of kabbalist Rabbi Kaduri in 1997 that left-wing Israelis “had forgotten what it means to be Jewish.” Subsequently, Shas party members claimed that a cabinet minister convicted of a felony was the subject of sectarian discrimination, lashing out at the Supreme Court for “twisting the knife that’s been stuck in the back of Mizrahi Jews for the last 52 years.”
Although I’ve never been the target of such discrimination myself (nobody’s perfect), I have no intention here to absolve Mapai for its insensitivity, arrogance, neglect and discrimination against tens of thousands of immigrants who hailed mainly, but not exclusively, from Arab countries. Some of these arrived with no property, profession, education or command of Hebrew. Mapai sinned in sending these people to transit camps and development towns without giving them or their children the tools required for acclimatization, for acquiring a sense of belonging, and a dignified and appropriate standing in the nascent state.
However, in the life of a nation, as in the life of an individual, there comes a time when a choice must be made between clinging to injustices of the past or putting them behind us and moving on.
Mapai – associated, rightly or wrongly, with the Ashkenazi founders of the state – has been out of power for 40 years, aside from two short interludes (when Labor was in power). Yet despite this, instead of receding, hostility toward the party and its voters is only increasing.
This is no coincidence. It’s the fruit of a purposeful and consistent political campaign to nurture the sectarian demon, with an artificial division of the population into secular, exploitative Ashkenazi Jews on the left, and deprived, religiously traditional Mizrahi Jews on the right.
Likud governments have been in power for decades, but instead of doing what governments worthy of the name should do – namely, try and bridge gaps, defuse resentments and form a healthy society that isn’t at odds with itself – its politicians prefer to perpetuate racial hatred and undermine the fragile social fabric.
Every cabinet member who wishes to make political capital waves the Ashkenazi bogeyman, fanning the flames of hatred on the street and in social media. They’ve succeeded so well in their purpose that, today, even dogs on trains have “an issue with Ashkenazi Jews.”