If Sephardic Jews Want to End Their Discrimination, They Must Become Proud Arabs

Ashkenazi Zionism, which established the country in an ongoing confrontation with the Arab world, created a serious emotional crisis for Jews from Arab countries.

Salaman Masalha
Salman Masalha
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Aryeh Deri (L), party leader of Shas, speaks with Ayman Odeh, head of the Joint Arab List, during the swearing-in ceremony of the 20th Knesset, in Jerusalem March 31, 2015.
Aryeh Deri (L), party leader of Shas, speaks with Ayman Odeh, head of the Joint Arab List, during the swearing-in ceremony of the 20th Knesset, in Jerusalem March 31, 2015.Credit: Reuters
Salaman Masalha
Salman Masalha

There was an uproar over remarks made by Prof. Amir Hetsroni against those who voted for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud, including Hetsroni’s suggestion that it would not have been so awful if Moroccan Jews had been “left to rot” in North Africa rather than coming to Israel. But if we translate his statement into the more nuanced official language of the Prime Minister’s Residence in Jerusalem, it sounds very familiar.

“We are Europeans. We are refined [and] don’t eat as much as you Moroccans do.” This comment was reportedly directed by First Lady Sara Netanyahu at one particular Moroccan, Meni Naftali, former chief caretaker of the Prime Minister’s Residence, who is suing the Netanyahus. Nevertheless, a lot of Meni Naftalis showed their support for the First Family by going to the polls on Election Day to fill the ballot boxes with Likud ballots.

Another anecdote in the news: During last summer’s war in Gaza, following remarks by former Sderot mayor Eli Moyal that were seen as criticism of the prime minister, Mrs. Netanyahu allegedly took pains to call Moyal’s wife late at night to take her to task: “Your man doesn’t come up to my husband’s ankles. [My husband] reads book after book. He understands economics. He understands defense. He has university degrees. He understands literature. Who is your Eli Moyal? Has he ever done anything?”

And what followed? A decisive turnout of 43 percent of the Eli Moyals in Sderot who cast their ballots for Likud. Netanyahu’s major competition, the Zionist Union, got just 8 percent of the vote in town.

How does it happen that despite the blows delivered by Netanyahu’s voracious capitalism upon these population groups, and despite the arrogant and dismissive attitude of the denizens of the Prime Minister’s Residence towards the various Meni Nafalis and Eli Moyals, they continue to cast their votes for Likud?

Israeli elections are a subject for the psychologists. It’s not an Ashkenazi vs. Sephardi demon, but rather a demon that is both religious and ethnic. It’s the Arab demon that Netanyahu has always known how to trot out when he’s under pressure. This demon was used against late Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin on the argument that “he has no Jewish majority” in the Knesset for concessions in peace negotiations, ultimately leading to his murder over “tribal honor.”

One should remember that Zionism is a white European national movement. This Ashkenazi Zionism, which established the country in an ongoing confrontation with the Arab world, created a serious emotional crisis for Jews from Arab countries. The more the Arab-Israeli conflict intensified, so did the complexity of the situation faced by Jews from Arab lands.

The people with the political, economic, social and cultural clout have no problem declaring proudly, “We are Europeans. We are refined, not like you Moroccans.” On the other hand, what are Jews whose entire existence is Arab supposed to do? In the intensifying national confrontation between European Zionism and the Arab world, Jews from Arab countries were pushed aside. They therefore began referring to themselves as Mizrahim (literally “Easterners”) among other things. Anything to escape the term “Arab,” which connotes national enmity. A few years ago such emotional pressures pushed a Jewish Likud Knesset member at the time, Carmel Shama, to ask the Interior Ministry to add “Hacohen” to the end of his name because he was sick of people always thinking that he was Druze, in other words, Arab.

The flight from Arabism, even the wearing of Eastern European shtetl clothing (as one sees in Shas) will not lead Mizrahim, meaning Arabs of the Jewish faith, anywhere. Netanyahu and the white right wing in general will continue to fan hatred towards Arabs. This hate will ensure the continued flight of Arab Jews from their Arabness and the right’s continued manipulation of Jews who are estranged from it.

As a result, it is only when the descendants of Jewish Arabs proudly and confidently proclaim to the refined, arrogant European Israelis that they are Arab, and proud of it, that perhaps there will be an end to their tribulations. This could also constitute a first step on the road to a historic reconciliation with the Palestinians.

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