The Flawed Narrative of Israel's Mizrahi Deprivation Activists

The Mizrahi thought police of Bennett's great cultural revolution will harm all of us, particularly the Mizrahim.

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Poet Erez Biton presents Education Minister Naftali Bennett with the committee's report.
Poet Erez Biton presents Education Minister Naftali Bennett with the committee's report.Credit: Moti Milrod

Most of the Middle Eastern and North African Jews in Israel, other than the small number who lived here before the state was established, immigrated to the country in the 1950s and ‘60s. According to the narrative woven by Mizrahi deprivation activists, most of the immigrants from Morocco and the Maghreb had their glorious Mizrahi-Arabic culture stolen from them by the left-wing Ashkenazi regime, which forced them into a Zionist, secular, European “melting pot.”

The Mizrahim, they say, were discriminated against economically, socially, culturally and in their dealings with the government. Jewish and Zionist history focused on Ashkenazi Jewry and ignored the Jews of the east. The conclusion: The Mizrahim were discriminated against and there must now be economic and social affirmative action to make both parts of the nation equal.

The facts are different. The Jewish people are not divided in half; there’s a huge Ashkenazi majority and a small Mizrahi minority. Before the Holocaust there were 16.5 million Jews in the world, only a million of them Mizrahim, of whom only 200,000 lived in Morocco. After the Holocaust there remained nearly 11 million Jews, of whom 250,000 lived in Morocco. That is the proper ethnic representation in both history and culturel.

By comparison, there were three million Jews in Poland in 1938 and a comparable number in the Soviet Union, meaning that each country had 15 times more Jews than Morocco. In the United States, there were some five million Jews, 25 times the number in Morocco. The demographic data refutes the allegations of discrimination.

And to what extent were Moroccan Jews Mizrahi-Arabic? Colonialist France seized Algeria in 1830, Tunisia in 1881, and Morocco in 1912. Even before that, France’s Ashkenazi Jewish community had integrated into secular society in France and into its colonialist French culture. It declared itself the patrons of the Jews of the east, and set up the French-Jewish Alliance school network, which operated hundreds of schools between Baghdad and Casablanca.

From 1860, Alliance established dozens of schools in Morocco, with 80 percent of the Jewish children studying in them. Avraham became Albert, Moshe became Moise, Sarah turned into Jacqueline and Miriam to Claudine. The pupils memorized Moliere, learned algebra and aspired to do well on “le bac,” the French matriculation exams, so they could study in French universities.

While the Muslims in these countries dreamed of independence, the Jews supported the French colonial regime, which advanced them in the economy and the civil service and which generously funded the Alliance network.

The Francophile melting pot was a tremendous success; three Jews of Moroccan origin have won the Nobel Prize: Baruj Benacerraf (Medicine, 1980); Claude Cohen-Tannoudji (Physics, 1997) and Serge Haroche (Physics, 2012). Moroccan Jews are thus the group with the highest rate of Nobel Prize winners in the world.

The deprivation activists complain about the repression of Mizrahi music in Israel, even though most Jews of the Maghreb preferred French chansons to Mizrahi music, and here many of them are fans of Gaston Ghrenassia, the talented Algerian-born French-Jewish singer and songwriter better known as Enrico Macias.

The deprivation activists never boast about Macias or the Nobel Prize winners because it would mess up their narrative of how their “authentic Moroccanism” – mufleta, clapping and Arabic songs – was stolen from them. That’s as insulting as arguing that the main legacy of Polish Jewry is gefilte fish, Hasidic dances and Polish songs. There’s a Hungarian saying that roughly translates as “Whoever comes from a distant land says that there he was a king.” Indeed, whoever had a cabin in his native land says he lived in a palace, and if his father taught little children the son says he was a famous rabbi.

In contrast to the false narrative, no one stole pure Mizrahi-Arab culture from the Jews of the Maghreb, because most of them had lost it long before they came here. In Israel, all they did was move them from the Francophile melting pot to the Zionist-Hebrew one, which combined those who spoke Yiddish, Romanian, Arabic, Ladino and French, and gave them a language and crucial tools they needed to integrate and advance in secular, Western Israel.

Migration is a difficult and painful process, but the difficulty would have been intensified had these immigrants been left to seclude themselves in their Franco-Maghreb Mizrahism. If they were deprived, it was for the opposite reason – many of them were sent to distressed towns and neighborhoods and to homogenous immigrant communal settlements where they didn’t meet enough Israelis or other types of immigrants. This undermined their integration and delayed their advancement.

Is there still an ethnic gap? There is, and the deprivation activists blame the Ashkenazim, Mapai, “the left,” the kibbutzim, everyone. This is despite the fact that by the 1970s, after decades of left-wing, Ashkenazi rule, Israel was a leader in socioeconomic equality, while today, after decades of right-wing rule, it’s a world leader in socioeconomic gaps. Because the ratio of Mizrahim in the lower deciles is high, the obvious conclusion is that the left actually advanced the Mizrahim and it’s the right that impoverished them.

Momi Dahan, a Morocco native and a professor of public policy at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, claims that in 1996 the income gap between Ashkenazim and Mizrahim was 40 percent, while in 2011 it was 26 percent, meaning that it is closing at a fast pace, one percent a year. Interethnic marriages are accelerating the closing of this gap and are blurring the boundaries; when one asks how to define a Mizrahi or what percentage of the population is Mizrahi it’s hard nowadays to find an answer. The Mizrahi thought police now being established following the great cultural revolution of Naftali Bennett, Miri Regev and Erez Biton will only perpetuate the false Mizrahi narrative.

The initiators might benefit. Bennett will try to pick off Mizrahi voters from the Likud, Regev will solidify her position, and for the matriculation exam in literature pupils may learn more Biton than Bialik. But the tough commissars that will be taking over the educational, cultural and media institutions to condemn, denounce and punish those who will deviate from the official Mizrahi narrative, and the tough kashrut inspectors who will purge the Ashkenazi hametz from the textbooks will do all of us harm, particularly the Mizrahim among us.

You cannot solve a real problem by using a false narrative. What’s urgently needed is a reliable Mizrahi narrative that will define the real reasons for the ethnic gap and work to erase it. This is the only way we can bury the fabricated and divisive ethnic demon that is nurtured and exploited by the deprivation activists and right-wing governments. They continue to enrich tycoons and oppress the weak, including many Mizrahim, who are still misled and continue to vote for those who are screwing them.

The writer is a former journalist and a founder of Kibbutz Nir Oz.