What Ashkenazi Jews Still Don't Get About the Mizrahim

After 100 years of Zionism we’re all Jews of Middle Eastern origin now - even those elites who remain unaware of their condescending ways.

Hapoel Be'er Sheva celebrates its victory after defeating Bnei Sakhnin, Turner Stadium, Be'er Sheva, Israel, May 21, 2016.
Sharon Bokov

The growing debate around the status and culture of Mizrahim (Jews of Middle Eastern or North African descent) straddles two areas: one deals with examining the historical treatment of Mizrahi Jews by the old establishment, and their inferior status nowadays due to the effects of the Zionist enterprise. The second offers the Mizrahi option as the basis for resolving the conflict with the Palestinians. This is based on the assumption that if the leadership and prevailing culture were wrested from the hands of the Ashkenazi hegemony, it would be easier to find a common path with Arabs, based on their common culture with Mizrahi Jews.

An important underlying question is lost in this debate. What is the significance of being of Mizrahi origin today? Does it consist of people who share a common geographical and ethnic origin, and a cultural preference for "Middle East-sounding" music? Or is it something deeper – perhaps a worldview or approach to life that draws upon historical roots in the East, which could perhaps characterize Mizrahi Jews as well as those who are not Mizrahi?

Hapoel Be'er Sheva's recent success in winning the Israeli soccer championship might contribute to this discussion. If we compare the southern team's fans to those of Beitar Jerusalem, for instance, we find that, generally speaking, they both consist of the same Mizrahi population, with the same right-wing political preferences prevailing in both cities. Nevertheless, the Be'er Sheva team includes players from African countries and its fans don’t chant racist songs. If we regard being Mizrahi as possessing an attitude that embraces inclusion and a tolerance toward others, then Hapoel Be'er Sheva is the more Mizrahi team – and therefore perhaps more successful.

In the film “A Song of Loves,” about poet Rabbi David Buzaglo, his son Meir defines his father’s approach to his art as “Mizrahi” in its essence. Even though David Buzaglo was devoted to poetry, he saw it as a pleasurable activity and a means of livelihood – one form of self-expression among many – not as something that lies beyond life or as something that comes at the expense of daily life. That’s why he didn’t feel any urgency to publish his liturgical poems for posterity, as is common in Western culture. That’s a nice example of Mizrahi uniqueness.

Against this backdrop, there is something quite jarring in the attempts of well-intentioned, liberal Ashkenazi Jews to almost automatically side with the Mizrahim. For example, Kobi Niv chose to describe Prof. (Emeritus) Maya Bar-Hillel’s revulsion at a man who rudely cursed her as typical Ashkenazi condescension (Haaretz Hebrew, May 20). Similarly, Yuval Elbashan defended embattled real estate developer Inbal Or, believing that people’s reservations about her stemmed from a concealed contempt for her extroverted Mizrahi ways – as allegedly manifested by her purchasing jewelry for millions of shekels (Haaretz Hebrew, May 8).

The result is that they see Mizrahi behavior as extravagant, flashy and loud – in contrast to Mizrahi culture, which espouses modesty and respect for one’s elders.

In order to promote the Mizrahi option, one doesn’t have to defend everyone of Mizrahi origin. What’s needed is to let go of Mizrahi politics and imagery. After 100 years of Zionism in the Middle East, we’re all Mizrahi – including arrogant Ashkenazi Jews who remain unaware of their attitude.