Review: Not the Enemy: Israel’s Jews from Arab Lands

A new study claims that the Israeli establishment has deliberately denied Mizrahis an equal place in society

By Miriam Halahmy, March 19, 2009
 A Jewish family in Baghdad in 1912.

A Jewish family in Baghdad in 1912.

By Rachel Shabi
Yale University Press, £18.99

Rachel Shabi was born in Israel to Iraqi parents and grew up in England. She is a journalist who explores in this book the experience of Jews from Arab and Muslim lands who entered Israel after 1948. Using eye witness accounts, Shabi lays down the full spectrum of experience of the Oriental/Mizrahi Jews in modern Israel. Much of it echoes the viewpoints of my husband’s Iraqi family and friends, related to me over our 30-year marriage.

There is almost universal agreement amongst Mizrahis, from Communist and atheist to right-wing religious, that the cultures they brought with them from Arab lands were looked down upon by the dominant Ashkenazi group in Israel, certainly in the early days. As a result, the Mizrahi Jewish experience has largely been that of second-class citizens. The Mizrahis were indeed “not the enemy” but were silenced if they spoke Arabic. Their culture was ignored in the media and schools and they were markedly absent from government.

Shabi writes: “Being Arab was a way of being Jewish” for nearly 800,000 Jews across the Middle East — and had been for thousands of years. But, once in Israel, this rich heritage became a badge of shame.

Mizrahi Jews had lived largely unmolested in their homelands (as demonstrated in the range of Iraqi-Jewish memoirs reviewed in the JC in 2008)yet the view prevailed in Israel that the Mizrahi Jews were oppressed and glad to escape.

Shabi contends that the need to show a united front against the common enemy has meant that Israel has taken a long time to confront this discrimination and develop the equal opportunities so familiar to us in modern Britain. What is more, she argues, consigning the Mizrahi Jews to a lower status than Ashkenazi Jews has resulted in a huge missed opportunity for improving Israel’s relations with its neighbours.

But instead of roles in the foreign office, Mizrahis were forced into labouring jobs unreflective of their abilities and education and consigned to development towns such as Sderot and Qyriat Shemona along the volatile borders. Shabi cites many individual accounts of discrimination at work, in education and in local government. The Mizrahi accent has been marked out as “inferior, low class, comedic, common”, and misrepresented as such in the media, perpetuating the discrimination. The culture that Mizrahis brought with them was largely ignored or derided until recent times, which have seen breakthroughs in, for example, popular music.

Happily, the suppression or burial of Mizrahi culture that Shabi describes is not always the case. My husband’s family speak Arabic to this day, listen to Arabic music --- and have taught me to belly-dance!

Israel has changed radically since the days of its Ashkenazi founding fathers and mothers but Shabi’s important book is nonetheless a wake-up call to modern Israeli society. For a nation to be able to call itself a true democracy, all of its citizens must feel equally enabled and valued.

Miriam Halahmy is a writer and teacher

Last updated: 3:16pm, February 18 2011