What, You Haven't Heard of Shoshana Shababo?

There is nothing more ignorant and pretentious, arrogant and racist than claiming that the Mizrahim don’t have poets or writers 'outstanding' enough to be depicted on the State of Israel’s paper currency.

Headshot of Haaretz columnist and literary supplement editor Benny Ziffer, who is artistic director of the poetry festival to be held in Metula.
Benny Ziffer
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Headshot of Haaretz columnist and literary supplement editor Benny Ziffer, who is artistic director of the poetry festival to be held in Metula.
Benny Ziffer

There is nothing more ignorant and pretentious, arrogant and racist than claiming that the Mizrahim – Jews with origins in Muslim countries – don’t have poets or writers “outstanding” enough to have their portraits appear on the state of Israel’s paper currency.

Clearly the Mizrahim don’t have outstanding creative artists of the generation of Natan Alterman and Lea Goldberg, quite simply because the Mizrahim of that generation were considered barely worthy of human attention. They might have cut exotic figures of stevedores, people who sat around on street corners or colorful tradesman in the works of Alterman or Goldberg. And those among them who did raise their heads up and wrote books very quickly lowered their heads and put them in the corner, precisely in order not to “stand out.”

Incidentally, the Eastern European clique that dominated Hebrew literature during the period of the Yishuv (pre-state-Jewish community in Palestine) and crowned its own kings also excluded people from other Ashkenazi communities, such as German Jewry.

In other words, there is no need to go back to the Middle Ages (the way Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has) to find worthy Hebrew writers who are not Ashkenazi. Yehuda Burla definitely fits the criterion of a Hebrew writer worthy of a portrait on and Israeli bill, as does Mordecai Tabib, who in his day was called “the Yemenite Shalom Aleichem.”

And have you heard of Shoshana Shababo, your ignoramuses? She was a wonderful, extraordinarily daring writer. The daughter of the Old Yishuv (from Ottoman times), if she didn’t stand out enough it was because as a non-Asheknazi she was automatically catalogued with Burla and Tabib as low-brow literature. And I almost forgot the writer Yitzhak Shami, a son of the Old Yishuv in Hebron. If all these artists aren’t being studied in the schools, the problem lies not with them but in the ignorance and narrow horizons of the people who set the curriculum.

The blood rushes to my head – in part because I am a hot-headed Levantine – when I think about Jacqueline Kahanoff, for example, an Egyptian Jewish writer and intellectual who immigrated to Israel and was a leading figure and decisive influence on Israeli culture through articles she wrote about Levantineness. The whole world worshipped Jacqueline Kahanoff. A book of a selection of her articles was published at Princeton. Kahanoff definitely runs circles around all the pseudo-educated functionaries deciding who is “outstanding” in this country.

I haven’t the strength to argue with you people who imagine yourselves to be cultivated. And on second thought, maybe it is better that the writers I truly admire not appear on the legal tender of my uncultured country. I will safeguard them deep in my heart, these pearls, so they won’t be scattered before swine. And you go ahead with your Alterman, your Goldberg and all your other obvious choices.

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