Longing for a place they never saw: The sad saga of Mizrahi Jews
“The streets of Jerusalem mourn those who have not come to celebrate. The gates of Jerusalem have fallen, its rabbis sigh, its virgins heartbroken and it’s dressed in grief.”
(From a song by Fairouz and Rahbani Brothers, inspired by the “Fall of Jerusalem” in the Book of Lamentations of Jeremiah the Prophet.)
In the Jewish calendar, the ninth of Av commemorates the destruction of Jerusalem’s second Jewish Temple in the year 70 A.D. The day marks the end of Jewish life there and the beginning of the years of wandering in the “diaspora.” The Lamentations of Jeremiah are recited in temples on the eve of the ninth of Av every year. It is one of the Miqra’s (Hebrew bible) saddest and most lyrical chapters. Its author begins by mourning Jerusalem: “How lonely sits the city that was full of people. She has become like a widow who was once great among the nations.”
Ever since the dispersal of the Jews, they have never ceased to long for Eratz Israel/Palestine, especially the city of Al-Quds/Yerushalaym (Jerusalem). This unceasing longing for a place they have not known first hand, or seen personally and have only read about in books, has continued throughout the past 2000 years. And while we, Arabs, consider this nostalgic state that does not stem from direct lived experience to be mere madness, we do also experience it.
We are all too familiar with the goose bumps one gets while reading about Al-Hamra (Alhambra) palaces of Granada and the city of Qurtuba (Cordoba). Some of our Islamists also long to return to Andalusia and revive the glory of the Umayyad dynasty. Like the Jewish longing, we are also nostalgic for a past and a place we have not seen or experienced first hand. This is, however, not the nostalgia I am interested in discussing here, but I want to talk about another wistful longing for the songs of Um Kulthum and Farid al-Atrash, for places like Cairo and Baghdad, and for the Arabic language.
Judaism was born in an Eastern environment, while Zionism was born in the West. When Zionism migrated to the Middle East, it clashed with the Palestinians, the inhabitants of the land, and the conflict climaxed in 1948. A few years later, in the early 1950s, another conflict took place, this time involving Arab Jews who had immigrated to Israel.
The story of Israel is an intriguing tale of how multiple identities that were meant to fuse into a melting point did not achieve harmony. This attempt rather produced an unstable state of incongruity, as the various identities remain unable to fully embrace or reject this fusion.
Middle Eastern Jews or Mizrahis arrived in Israel following its victory in the 1948 war. They arrived after their collective communities (kibbutzim) and cities were built and after Palestinian towns and villages were destroyed. Mizrahi Jews arrived when the sermons were being held in a Hebrew language that was revived in an Eastern European Ashkenazi accent. And because they pronounced the letters ha and ‘ayn and some of them wore their traditional garments, they were the target of mockery by the Ashkenazi media from the moment of their arrival and for decades afterwards.
In 1949, David Ben-Gurion had this to say about Yemeni Jews arriving in Israel: “They are behind us by more than 2000 years. They have no understanding of the basic civilizational (not cultural) principles. Their relationship to children and women is primitive.”
From the perspective of Mizrahi Jews, the story differed. They mostly came from urban secular elite backgrounds, and were considered to be “khawagat” (of Western outlook) in their Arab countries. Upon their arrival to Israel, they were sprayed by pesticides, housed in camps that had no electricity and then moved to the outskirts of Israeli cities, all while their Arabic tongues were mocked. This was at the hands of blinkered, over-zealous, Zionist Ashkenazi Jews, who often came from rural religious Eastern European families.
Eyal Sagi Bizzawi, the Israeli journalist of Egyptian origins, conducted an interesting interview with Natacha Atlas (the famous Belgian singer of Arab origins) in 2004. They talked about Jacqueline Kahanov. She was a Jewish writer (also of Egyptian origins), who was the first writer to proudly define herself as a Middle Eastern Jew: “I am from the Levant” were her words. This was at a time when “the Levant” was an attribute used to describe a subordinate Middle Eastern Jewish culture. According to Bizzawi, the culture of the “Levant” leans towards moderation, reconciliation and hedging. While Ashkenazi culture has inclinations for confrontation, sternness and war. This is exactly the opposite of the widespread misconception in Israeli society, however, that attributes radicalism to Mizrahi Jews, and moderation, toleration and enlightenment to the Ashkenazis.
In the early years after their arrival in Israel, Mizrahi Jews used to listen to famous Arab singers, such as Um Kulthum and Farid al-Atrash, at their homes in secret. They were scared of being accused of failure to “Israelize” (be Israeli). Children were ashamed of their parent’s Arabic accents and their pronunciation of the letters ha and ‘ayn. They have, however, established a non-politicized communal cultural nostalgia for the Arab world they came from. It was a nostalgia that had nothing to say against the State of Israel.
Jews of Middle Eastern origins had internalized the imposed dichotomies that led to their subordination. They began to believe that they have indeed descended from primitive backward, and dogmatic origins, as opposed to Ashkenazi Jews who were perceived as more civilized, and leftist Ashkenazis as peace loving. In order to prove that they are patriotic and “Zionist enough,” second generation Mizrahis have often voted for right-wing religious parties, such as Likud and Shas, known for their hatred to Arabs. The Mizrahi electorate was responsible for voting Menachem Begin’s Likud government to office in the 1970s. That is according to a study by Shoshana Gabay titled, “The emotional us: Mizrahi struggle in the service of neoliberal media.”
After translating Gabay’s study into Arabic, I became interested in the affairs of Mizrahi Jews. My interest stems not from their Arabic-speaking past, but I am rather intrigued by how this group, whose members were mostly among the elite in their original Arab countries, have now been marginalized by Ashkenazi Jews in Israel. The group has accordingly resorted to over-emphasizing their own marginalization in order to prove their allegiance to Israel. It is a story of how the marginalized becomes hostile to the left; a saga of the human fear of stigma, which drives people to adopt positions that oppose their own beliefs and intuition.
The story of the Mizrahi Jews continued to puzzle me until I witnessed the Egyptian revolution. I saw with a heavy heart how groups from the marginalized segments of society harassed protestors, accusing them of treason. I began to understand how the hysterical mainstream rhetoric could ferociously dominate the truth. I have also learned how those initially adopting critical views can be overpowered and led to fall under the domination of mainstream media. Third generation Mizrahis (of Middle Eastern decent) who call for peace and human rights in Israel today are accused of “being Ashkenazis” (of Westernizing). Similarly, protestors in Egypt have been accused of allegiance to the West, as if there is something that is essentially against humans and their rights in anything Middle Eastern.
In addition to the powerful mainstream discourse, there was a popular fear of chaos and a desire for stability among the Egyptian populace in the midst of the revolution. What does a desire for stability mean for Middle Eastern Jews? Middle Eastern Jews have left their Arab countries to the unknown in Israel, and there was no returning. Iraqi Jews had their Iraqi citizenship revoked, and Egyptian Jews were granted one-way travel documents to leave to Israel. Both the Zionists and Arab states had by then articulated a dominant rhetoric that “Arabism” and “Judaism” are inherently in contradiction. And thus, Mizrahis chose to “be Zionists” in order to adapt to their new reality and seek stability. They have accordingly internalized — even more so than Ashkenazis — the dominant discourse that they were the opposing “other” to Arabs. But, this of course is a blanket statement.
In fact, there were exceptions to this generalization among first generation Arab Jews, who documented their own subordination at the hand of the Ashkenazi elite. This includes writers such as Sami Michael, Shimon Ballas, and Samir Naqqash. Some Arab Jewish writers have additionally chosen to write in Arabic in Israel. Samir Naqqash wrote in Arabic and was probably the first to define himself as an “Arab Jew” inside Israel. Additionally, a protest movement of second-generation Mizrahis, the Black Panthers, have risen up against the Ashkenazis domination of resources. This was in the 1970s in Jerusalem.
Today, however, there is a new generation of Mizrahi academics, cultural figures, artists and political activists who are reclaiming their Arab Jewish identity. They write back at the Ashkenazi narrative and ask, “are we the radical ones, really?”
Are we the radical ones, or the founders of the Zionist state who have kicked the Palestinians out of their homes? Is it us, or those who forced us to radicalize to live up to their Zionism? After you have burned down Palestinian villages and established a Zionist state, you accuse us of being enemies of peace and disparage us for voting for Shas?
This new generation of Mizrahi Jews has not laid eyes on the Arab countries they have descended from. It is like we have not laid eyes on Andalusia, and like the Western Jews had not seen Yerushalem, but longed for it still. The new Mizrahis’ longing differs, however. They have no desire to return back to the place they long for. Their longing is different. It manifests in countering the Zionist narrative, and in speaking against the inherent contradiction between “Arabs” and “Jews.” Unlike the first-generation Mizrahis, their longing is political and not merely cultural this time around. Today’s Mizrahi generation’s aim is to change the society they live in. Their aim is to change Israel.
When they speak against the Zionist narrative, they are often told to go back to live with the Arabs. It reminds me of how whenever an Egyptian today is critical of the government, they are told to go join the Islamic State. But Mizrahis cannot go back, they no longer speak Arabic. It is also unreasonable to ask someone to leave the place they were born in. And Arab societies will not welcome them back.
I am reminded now of the staunch criticism by “seculars” and “revolutionaries” directed against the Muslim Brotherhood leader, Essam al-Erian, for calling for the return of Egyptian Jews. He was accused of “Israelizing”!
A few years ago, a book titled “Echoes of an identity: A third-generation who writes Mizrahi,” was published in Israel. It is a collection of accounts of third generation Israelis of Middle Eastern descent, expressing their sense of identities. The book speaks of the failure of Israel to become a melting pot where all Jewish sects completely fuse together. In a sense, that such a book exists at all demonstrates how Mizrahi identity was able to leave a mark on the Israeli cultural scene.
Nevertheless, we cannot speak of a centralized Mizrahi cultural movement that impacts the community or Israeli society in general. The “movement” is still confined to Israeli intellectuals of Middle Eastern origins. In a Haertz article, poet Mati Shmuelof meticulously describes the contradictions within the Mizrahi identity. He speaks of how the same Mizrahi Jew who adopt a weekly routine of watching Arabic movies on Saturday nights, admiring Arab artists like Fouad al-Mohandes and Farid al-Atrash, would then shout “death to the Arabs” and vote for right-wing parties like Shas and Likud — only because he despises the Ashkenazis who vote for labour: the well groomed “European” leftist party.
The majority of Mizrahis are still under the influence of mainstream Ashkenazi rhetoric broadcast on Israeli talk shows. In this mediated discourse, Mizrahis are perceived as merely “amusing.” This subordination of the Mizrahi identity is best reflected in the title of Gabay’s study mentioned above: “The emotional us.” In other words, the Mizrahi community has internalized the Ashkenazi media’s portrayal of themselves as “emotional.” Gabay tells us, however, that this might be the situation today, but the story was different in the past. Coming from their Arab countries, Mizrahis were historically the “rational” conservative urban elite. That was at a time when Ashkenazi Jews mostly embraced dogmatic views. The camps they experienced and resided in upon arriving in Israel has forever changed them. It was a traumatizing experience that erased their Arab Jewish memory, only to replace it by an “opposing” history. Many of the novels by Iraqi Jews narrate the psychological trauma upon their arrival to Israel.
The first season of the Israeli drama “Zaguri Empire,” broadcast on Israeli cable TV last year, tells a Mizrahi story. Created by Maor Zaguri, the hit drama revolves around the life of an Israeli family of Moroccan origins — The Zaguri family — comprised of a mother, a father and eight children. One of the children, Aviel begins his service in the army, where he adopts Ashkenazi norms, lifestyle and accent. He discards his family’s Moroccan-Jewish heritage. Like many Mizrahis, he makes fun of this heritage and claims to have assimilated into Israeli society. He says that he is a secular Israeli Jew and not just a “Moroccan Jew.” In the course of the drama, however, we can discern the opposite of what Aviel claims. The drama is so meticulous and well crafted; it exposes the nuances of the Mizrahi identity, while tackling contentious issues in Israeli society. In addition to the domination of the Ashkenazi identity, we are exposed to tales of love between Arabs and Jews, conversions to Christianity, among other issues, presented in a thrilling comic drama series. The “Zaguri Empire” was popular among Mizrahis and Ashkenazis alike.
It is possible that this series has changed something in the minds of Israelis with regards to the Eastern vs. Western Jewish debate. It is after all most likely the first drama to present the Mizrahi-Ashkenazi issue in mainstream media. It has entered Israeli homes and “allured” families through comedy and thrill to follow it and accept its harsh appraisal of Israeli society.
Before embarking on translating Gabay’s study on Mizrahis, I had just finished translating Almog Behar’s latest novel, “Rachel and Ezekiel.” Behar is a Mizrahi writer of Iraqi-Turkish origins. I first learned about Behar from Mohamed Aboud’s translation of his book, “I am one of the Jews.” His spirit, which embraces human and Jewish virtues of tolerance and justice, touched me. In the course of two years — the time it took me to finish translating Behar’s novel — I understood a lot about the East vs. West dilemma of Mizrahi Jews; about Zionism and Judaism. More importantly, however, I was fascinated by his query on the whereabouts of “exile.” “Where is exile for an Iraqi Jew,” asks Behar; “Is it Baghdad or Yerushalem; Babylon or Eratz Israel?”
At the end of this personal and not-so-personal series of articles, I would like to speak of my longing for Jerusalem. I, too, long for a place I have not visited, or seen, and only learned about from books and songs. I long for al-Quds that is Yerushalem; and to Yerushalem that is al-Quds. I do not wish for its gates to close on me when I head there to pray. I do not wish for the city that was full of people to sit lonely like a widow that was once great among the nations.
In Mourid Barghouti’s memoir, “I Saw Ramallah,” he tells us that our empathy with Palestine will forever remain lacking if we only confine it to a longing for Jerusalem, and the Dome of the Rock in particular. Barghouti tells us that Palestine will never become a nation-state until we begin complaining about its weather, its transportation system and its crowdedness. I know too well what it means to love cities with horrible transportation. I know what it means to see distinction in a city’s ordinariness, and normalcy in its greatness. I know how to love Cairo. Palestinian friends told me that the Muez Street in Cairo’s Fatimid quarter is a replica of the old city of Jerusalem. And oh, how I love to see Jerusalem with it is jam-packed busses and heat; and through it glimpse on Salah al-Din, Prophet Jeremiah and others. This is what longing does: it slightly obscures your vision, but warms your heart. And this is what seeing does: it demystifies the air so that you can see clearly, which makes it hard to sing. Forever, this remains the dilemma between longing and seeing.
What I can say for sure now is that I firmly believe in the necessity to liberate Palestine. By liberation, I mean the establishment of one single democratic secular state for both Arabs and Jews to live in as equals. In this state, everyone prays to their gods however they make like, each building their own memory according to their beliefs. It is a state with no Zionist domination of Arabs, or Arab oppression of Jews. This is, however, a political motto that many in our societies have called for, but is yet to be translated into an effective movement. It is also a personal motto of mine. I have always wished to move freely between Arabs and Jews. I have heard what each side has to say about itself, and tried to weave the narratives together through what I know of Arabic and Hebrew. I will never, however, be comfortable passing over a violent path where one group dominates the other, or one narrative trumps.
This is the last article in a five-part series.