The Rise and Fall of Our Divided, Miserable Israel

Only Likud succeeded in containing the new patriotism by turning Mizrahim into part of the 'warrior tribe.'

Yitzhak Laor
Yitzhak Laor
Diehard Likud supporters may not be happy with the Central Election Committee's decision to  ban the content of some of the party's municipal election advertizing campaigns.
Diehard Likud supporters may not be happy with the Central Election Committee's decision to ban the content of some of the party's municipal election advertizing campaigns. Credit: Reuters
Yitzhak Laor
Yitzhak Laor

When Moshe Dayan schemed to escalate tensions with Egypt into war, the Israel Defense Forces carried out an attack across the border near Nitzana on November 2, 1955. Dayan’s military secretary, Mordechai Bar-On, described a meeting: “Dayan wanted the Golani Brigade for the first trial by fire of Mizrahim [Jews of Middle Eastern descent]. Ben-Gurion feared the new immigrants would not stand up to the military tests the way native-born Israelis did in the War of Independence, and then suddenly, as he was wont to do, recalled Hannibal’s army: ‘A rabble of African tribes, and they did wonderful things, there was never a rebellion in that army.’”

There was a straight line from the idea, which paralleled the state’s settling of large numbers of new immigrants in remote areas, to Motta Gur’s telling Mizrahi Likud supporters at an election rally in 1981, “We’ll screw you the way we screwed the Arabs.” It was the same election season during which Menachem Begin, channeling the great actress Hanna Rovina in “The Dybbuk,” shouted in response to entertainer Dudu Topaz’s now-famous “Chah-chahim” (“riffraff”) speech denigrating Mizrahim, that the Mizrahim were “f-igh-t-er-s, h-e-r-oes,” and the rest is history. That election campaign spawned the “born Likudniks,” aged 20 to 70, via the first Lebanon war and the days of hyperinflation. “Our crime and their punishment” in a nutshell.

“Security” built the nation. The army soft-soaped the Mizrahim: Come be part of “us,” don’t revolt. “The old elites,” volunteers-fighters-pioneers, recruited the new, mainly Mizrahim. The Labor movement sustained this division through the 1960s: “pioneer” (liberator, a voluntary immigrant or the child of such) versus “refugee” (who must be liberated, who came here out of desperation, or the child of such).

The division was erased from the texts after the Holocaust, but for years the founders and their organizations were saturated with this recognition and saw themselves as responsible for cultivating the masses and settling them arbitrarily. The scattering of the new immigrants was done not only out of a desire to keep the Mizrahim far away, but also in order to settle the land for fear the Palestinian refugees would return. But the forced geographical distribution solidified the marginalism of the Mizrahim, who were dependent on the bodies of the ruling party and on the planned economy. Ashkenazi new immigrants generally had better access to the center.

It is possible that capitalism would have broken the hierarchy between the “pioneers” and the “human material” (a common term for Mizrahim until the end of the 1960s), even without the occupation in 1967, but the occupation accelerated various process: American money, the army’s expansion and cheap Palestinian labor, which enabled Mizrahim to become contractors as well. The middle class and a Mizrahi officer class became a social agent. The old hierarchy collapsed with the aid of the new colonialism. The State of Israel became “the-Land-of-Israel-for-the-people-of-Israel.”

Two major wars, in 1967 and 1973, somewhat belatedly turned the Mizrahim into part of the “warrior tribe.” Only Likud succeeded in containing the new patriotism: No more “pioneership”! We are all Jews, warriors, traditional in our religious observance, Israelis (not-Arabs).

The pilgrimage to Poland is the highest stage of folding all Jews into “our” history of the victim. There were Mizrahim in the Holocaust also. The division between the Israeli as pioneer and the Diaspora Jew as victim has disappeared. The Israeli is both victim and hero.

Is that good? Bad? It is a process, in which the 48-year-old state drowned the state that was founded in 1948. Its remains sunk into the disintegration of the welfare state, into colonialism, into the wave of immigration from Russia, a large part of which lives in the margins. Marginalism and poverty intensified.

Now the enormous amounts of capital flowing into banks from abroad, the huge currency reserves, the giant towers that are built for God knows whom, the exterritoriality of the settlers, the defense exports, the multinational tycoons, the real estate in Eastern Europe, the tabloid wars and powerful television channels, all these make us question whether any voting public can genuinely influence the political system.

Perhaps the “second” state, that of the Likudniks, hatched a third state, an oligarchy whose masses vote for lobbyists in order to gain a few favors, or, even more pitiful, for representatives who “resemble them,” everyone brawling in trivial, impotent “cultural wars” that are trapped in narcissistic nets. What a miserable people.

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