Like an abscess that cannot heal, periodically discharging its pus, the ethnic conflict in Israel returns to the headlines every few months, more or less regularly. In spring it cropped up with the controversy surrounding the new Bank of Israel currency notes from which public figures of Mizrahi (Middle Eastern or North African) origin were excluded; now it has resurfaced with the broadcast of journalist Amnon Levi’s much-discussed television series, “True Colors.”
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Why won’t the wound heal? Sometimes popular intuition provides an explanation. Calling the conflict the ethnic “devil,” as it is popularly known in Israel, emphasizes the phenomenon’s ominous aspect, with which Israeli reality is unable to cope, but, no less, it emphasizes a kind of supernatural, imaginary element. It seems that the ethnic conflict as it appears in the Zionist-Israeli discourse relies on unrealistic elements and is based on disinformation which leads it in irrational directions.
This could be seen in the previous outburst of the “devil,” in the dispute over the new bills, whose design supposedly excluded Mizrahi figures. Two contrary positions were heard in that dispute. The first stated that there are not enough non-European Jewish figures with a significant contribution to Jewish and general culture, that the existing Ashkenazi-Mizrahi distribution on currency notes expresses the reality, and that in general, Mizrahi Jews receive more prominence than is their due for their (few) scientific and cultural accomplishments in the Israeli cultural sphere.
On the other side were those claiming there were plenty of Mizrahim that had contributed to Jewish and general culture, and that the ratio between Ashkenazi and Mizrahi figures on the notes is discriminatory and intended to justify the privileges accorded to Ashkenazi Jews, and based on a Europocentric outlook that a priori lends more weight to whatever originates in European culture.
It seems that what both positions have in common is that neither questions the basic dichotomy in the ethnic discourse in Israel, according to which non-Ashkenazi Jews are seen as “Eastern,” that is, carriers of Arabic culture and representative of Arabic culture in Israel, whereas Ashkenazi Jews are seen as “Western,” that is, carriers of European-Western culture and its representatives in Israel. The internalization of this dichotomy creates many conventions in the Israeli discourse, all of which helped shape Amnon Levi’s program and the media controversy surrounding it.
For example, people tend to ignore the fact that the group called “Mizrahim” is made up of a diverse array of non-Ashkenazis, including Turkish or Ethiopian Jews, most of whom had no intimate contact with Arabic culture in recent generations, and are unable to represent it. Levi went as far as Ofakim in order to interview the descendants of Moroccan immigrants, but avoided going to Borgata in Hefer Valley, whose founders, Turkish Jews, are no less Eastern than the residents of Ofakim, at least in terms of their alienation from Ashkenazi elites.
Similarly, there is a tendency to overlook the fact that many of the “Mizrahi” Jews – for example those from Alexandria or Algiers – came from large colonial metropolises, where they came in contact with Western-European culture, while many Ashkenazi Jews lived in rural regions in Eastern Europe and did not come in contact with Western European culture. When Levi speaks of “Ashkenazation” he’s actually talking about Westernization – the adoption of European cultural characteristics that are attributed exclusively to Ashkenazi Jews, as if Mizrahi Jews encountered European culture only upon arriving in Israel, and through Ashkenazi mediation.
The dichotomous division makes us forget that North African Jews lived for the most part, at least in the last century, under French colonial rule, which set itself an objective of turning the residents of North Africa, with their Arabic culture, into Frenchmen. French, rather than Arabic, was the cultural tongue of the Jews of North Africa who came here. They contributed and continue to contribute to Western culture in France through such figures as philosopher Jacques Derrida or poet Edmond Jabes, and in Israel through figures such as Jacqueline Kahanoff, a “Mizrahi” Cairo-born author who wrote in English. Levi does not mention Kahanoff and her ilk in his televised essay on Mizrahi Jews.
One must question the legitimacy of the dichotomy that automatically attributes Arabic culture to Mizrahi Jews and European culture to Ashkenazi Jews. Any public dispute that presents an imaginary reality as real cannot be resolved. At most it will continue to resound with the uniqueness of the ethnic conflict by differentiating it from other conflicts, in the same way that the devil is differentiated from human beings.
Dr. Kimchi teaches at the School of Mass Communication at Ariel University.