A Few Lessons About Mizrahi Poets Won't Solve Anything

The proposal to teach Mizrahi culture in Israel's schools won't fix the bigger problem of how Jews of Middle Eastern origin have been pushed to the margins of Israeli society.

Yitzhak Laor
Yitzhak Laor
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Naftali Bennett speaks at the Knesset, May 30, 2016.
Naftali Bennett speaks at the Knesset, May 30, 2016.Credit: Isaac Harari, Knesset Spokesperson's Office
Yitzhak Laor
Yitzhak Laor

In truth, the state and the Zionist movements that established it related to the Jews from Arab countries in a utilitarian fashion. At first, the workers from Yemen replaced “Arab labor.” But after the scope of the Holocaust became known and the Palestinians were successfully expelled, they were used mainly to “settle the wilderness.” No Israeli educational system is going to teach that.

The replication of Zionism in its Mizrahi form, which is currently taking place, is a bonus for a few intellectuals, and for this purpose the Mizrahim (Jews of Middle Eastern origin) are being used once again to breathe some fire into a dying flame. “Pioneering”; “Pillar of Fire”; “We were the first” – all helping write the master’s story. The establishment has once again found a vote contractor, with the strengthening of the National Religious Party (now Habayit Hayehudi) at Shas’ expense.

And the heart of the alienation can never be uprooted: The state added communities from Islamic countries to the nation by forcing them to migrate twice. First they were told, “Be Mizrahim” (they were not “Mizrahim” in Iraq, and nor were they in Morocco), “because you were brought here, to the ‘West.’” But at the same time, the immigrants were forced to deny their new label and become “Israelis” (to curb the “ethnic demon”). This was a hysterical identity production – denial, and the denial of the denial, all at once. It still continues: Miri Regev is its embodiment.

No identity exists on its own, without a finger pointing and saying, “This is your identity, reduce your multiplicity on its behalf.” Education Minister Naftali Bennett’s spin will end the same way; Moroccans will teach those from Tripoli and Aleppo to be Mizrahim and, together with the Persians, they will have memorial days for the children of the Yemenites. How many positions will there be? Very few. And with the help of that most vague genre – poetry. But what does this have to do with improving the lot of the Mizrahim?

As always during these media storms, Ashkenazi racism erupts. Whoever doesn’t understand the alienation that has been imposed on three generations in this labeling society has probably only met those who succeeded in easily evading the finger saying “Be Mizrahim.” And sometimes, even they hear how the picture of the Baba Sali is ridiculed, or remember the “Blacky” slur, and follow the leaders promoting “identity.” The symbols and pride stop here.

Where did we come from? Rotten drops from Galicia or Djerba. But where will we go? To real estate hell. Because in addition to the humiliation, most Mizrahim must cope with the population dispersion that was imposed on them without asking or checking where they wanted to live. And the more real estate became a major component in the welfare of the lower classes, the further those living in outlying areas get from any chance at equality.

This joint identity – that of the imposed periphery, which is primarily Mizrahi – could change the political landscape. There is no other population of this size with such a conflict between it and the state, which denies equality to those stuck in the margins. The radical left celebrated when poet and social activist Shlomi Hatuka wrote, “Don’t enlist/This is the rebellion/You won’t achieve anything anyway/All the promises/Are saved for the whites/And all the dispensations/Are promised to their children.” But don’t worry, Maj. Bennett. The desire to be taught in school is greater than the desire for sedition. Who knows this better than you? The NRP has hired tens of thousands of Mizrahi teachers since 1948. As the Talmud says, “Flax makes the mouth smell and the lips swell.”

The Mizrahi protest is becoming a tool of the right, which is replicating the state (who else hands out money?): “Coming to us because we’re Zionists,” not because we’re citizens. If you are demanding just distributions for citizens, you are talking about the Arab minority. Ah, that’s when excuses are raised “not to be with the arrogant leftists.” But with the humble Bennett, yes.

And the height of the farce is that they’re promising to teach Edmond Jabès (an Egyptian Jew who wrote in French) and Elias Canetti (a Nobel Prize-winning Bulgarian Jew who wrote in German). But there is no educational system anymore, and schools long ago became storage stores for the workers’ children. All that’s left for us from the cultural ruins are the occupation and capital that isn’t invested in our children. Mathematicians will be chosen by “excellence.” Poetry in Bennett’s hands is a club, a scrawl. Anything goes.

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