Eye to eye: Palestinian-Mizrahi dialogue

In the video for his first song in Hebrew, To be an Arab, released last summer, Palestinian singer Jowan Safadi shows us a bearded Mizrahi Jew putting on a t-shirt bearing the Lehava logo — a far-right, anti-miscegenation group in Israel — followed by his skullcap and a chain with a Star of David pendant as he readies himself to beat up a Palestinian, who’s sitting in his car surrounded by women and the smoke of a hookah. The Palestinian sings:

Hardcore homophobes

Are the most gay on the inside

Mizrahi Arabophobes

Are Arabs themselves

Who are just afraid

And prefer to stay in the closet

Because they know, they know best

That to be an Arab is not that great

It’s hard to be an Arab

It’s really hard, ask me

The extremist Jew and his friends, armed with sticks, reach the beach as the Palestinian’s car arrives. The Palestinian sings:

It’s hard to be an Arab

How much can one be black

Under the rule of the rich and white

In the racist state

The two face off on the beach, the Palestinian and the Mizrahi Jew. Looking the Jew in the eye, the Palestinian tells him, in Arabic now:

Listen to me, dude

You need to know where you came from

And where you’re going to

And what you’re gonna find

Standing in the streets chanting:

Death to Arabs and such shit

You’re an Arab man,

More fucked than I am

Then the two begin to dance, the stick that was meant to administer a beating now a prop in the dance. A couple of Ashkenazi Jews jog by, the epitome of a healthy, athletic lifestyle, and pause to shake their heads at the crazy fighters-cum-dancers before continuing their run. Safadi closes his song, addressing the Mizrahi Jew in Hebrew:

Hey you imported Arab,

Take it from a local Arab

You were dragged here

To take my place

It’s hard to be an Arab

It’s really hard, ask me

It’s hard to be an Arab

How much can one be black

Under the rule of the rich and white

In the land…

Of Palestine

That last word — Palestine — stops the dance cold. The air crackles with tension and tempers flare. The Palestinian raises his hands, seemingly in apology.


In recent weeks, several Mizrahi Jewish intellectuals and artists in Israel — Jews largely from the Arab Middle East, typically seen as inferior to Ashkenazim, Jews of European origin — launched the Sharqiya al-Mushtaraka (Eastern Commonness) initiative. The initiative began with an appeal to all communities oppressed in, or by, Israel, searching for an inclusive framework for the many struggles being waged there today. The framers of the initiative met recently with Palestinian members of the Israeli Knesset, specifically the Joint List (a political alliance of Arab-dominated parties in Israel: Hadash, the United Arab List, Balad, and Ta’al). Arab Israeli lawyer and politician Ayman Odeh leads the list.

The Joint List is virtually unprecedented in its attempt to unite struggles of Mizrahis and Palestinians. The Eastern Commonness appeal recognizes this as follows:

For years we have struggled to change Israeli society without necessarily having a prominent party home. Quite often we have had to choose between parties claiming a cohesive leftist ideology without any Palestinian or Mizrahi participation worth mentioning, and a Mizrahi vote, which makes do with symbolic representation and supports the oppression of Palestinians. Often this choice has led us to cast a solidarity vote for Palestinian parties, even when they are disinterested in the Mizrahi struggle. We find a historical opportunity in the Joint List’s establishment of a whole, genuine partnership.


I once wrote that Judaism and Islam seem like “two folks who speak the same mother tongue, hold similar beliefs, have a lot of common friends and shared knowledge, then suddenly find themselves living in a foreign land. They grow envious, competitive and bitter; success of one is perceived as the failure of the other. It is the kind of bitterness that doesn’t exist between, say, Egyptian and Japanese expats living in a foreign land, but is present between two distant cousins who have come from the same hometown, speak the same language and have the same lineage.” The Egyptian vernacular offers a linguistic solution to this complex love-hate relationship. Egyptians say “someone focuses with someone else,” implying not only interest in the other person, but competitiveness and a touch of envy as well. Unlike focusing on something, which signifies a purely objective relationship, “focusing with” implies a jealous togetherness, an idiom unique to Egyptian Arabic. In recent years, I’ve come to believe that this applies not only to Judaism and Islam, but to Arabs and Mizrahi Jews as well.

A few years before the revolution, Egyptian Jews became a focus of intense interest by the Egyptian elite. This was demonstrated in the translation into Arabic of books like Joel Beinin’s The Dispersion of Egyptian Jewry, Jacques Hassoun’s Histoire des Juifs du Nil, and Lucette Lagnado’s The Man in the White Sharkskin Suit, as well the publication of a number of novels that finally gave us positive Jewish characters. In cinema, we had Nadia Kamel’s film Egyptian Mixed Salad, and Amir Ramsis’ On the Jews of Egypt. The interest recently went beyond the elite to regular Egyptian households, after the television serial, The Jewish Alley, was aired last Ramadan.

But this focus on Jews, in the positive sense, was mostly cultural, a nostalgic look backwards to the pluralism of 1930s-40s Egypt. With the exception of Kamel’s film, which speaks to and about Egyptian Jews living in Israel today, none of these works spoke about the present, let alone the future.


“Focusing with” is the opposite of the indifference with which the Ashkenazi joggers in Safadi’s video look at the dancing/fighting Palestinian and Mizrahi Jew. It’s also different from looking someone in the eye. Focusing with another person is typically furtive, involving neither direct speech nor a friendly look in the eye. But what Safadi does in his video, and what the Eastern Commonness initiative does with its appeal to oppressed groups in Israel, is direct, one-on-one speech, speech with the goal of saying something new about the current moment.

The Eastern Commonness appeal, written alternately in the feminine and masculine first-person plural, is extremely interesting for several reasons. Firstly, it clearly explains the hierarchy of oppression in Israel. The Palestinian natives are oppressed by everyone, followed by Mizrahi Jews, who are oppressed by Ashkenazi Jews, in addition to other oppressed groups, such as Ethiopian and Russian Jews, as well as women and children of course. The appeal is not romantic — it doesn’t pretend everyone can just get along. In fact, it affirms that Mizrahi Jews are often complicit in the oppression of Palestinians, and it shows us how the Zionist order works to divide and rule, turning victims against victims.

Like the moment in Safadi’s video when the Palestinian speaks the word “Palestine,” the appeal also has charged passages in which it articulates what usually goes unsaid. In what I believe is a first, the appeal affirms the signatories’ conviction that there can be no resolution for the atrocities perpetrated by Zionism except with the return of Palestinians:

We are aware of the fact that for the last 68 years, and despite the atrocities visited by Zionism on Mizrahi Jews in Israel, the Mizrahi public has been tied to the Zionist enterprise and most of it has become an active participant in it. We are therefore unable today to stand before our Palestinian brothers and sisters and claim that we are not complicit. We recognize that remedying these atrocities is linked to the right of the return of Palestinian refugee women and men and the recognition of Israel’s responsibility for expelling the refugees, and this without uprooting more people, based on the rule that two wrongs do not make a right.


Looking someone in the eye, unlike focusing with them, requires a certain strength; a look in the eye is often followed by a look at the self. Coinciding with the publication of the Eastern Commonness initiative, Mati Shemoelof, a poet of Iraqi origin and one of the signatories of the appeal, wrote a blog post responding to the Zionist claim that the Palestinian refugees are the equivalent of the Arab Jews kicked out of Arab lands and that the properties they left behind in Egypt, Iraq and Yemen are of equal value to the properties Palestinians left behind them — so even-steven, according to this Zionist logic. Shemoelof responds forcefully to this argument with 22 points, including:

  • Many Arab Jews see themselves as having come to Israel as Zionist immigrants, just like their Ashkenazi brothers and sisters. They don’t see themselves as refugees.
  • Any honest person, Zionist or non-Zionist, must admit that the comparison between Palestinians and Mizrahi Jews is tenuous.
  • Palestinian refugees did not ask to leave Palestine. In 1948, numerous Palestinian communities were destroyed and some 750,000 Palestinians were expelled or fled from historic Palestine. Those who fled did not leave their homes of their own free will.
  • The Jews of Iraq were Iraqi citizens when the nakba [Arab defeat in the 1948 war with Israel] happened, so it’s also not correct to pit them against Palestinians and their property.
  • The ideological impetus for the displacement of Arab Jews was part of the Zionist movement and the state of Israel, not of immigrant Jewish communities themselves.
  • In Israel, we [Mizrahi Jews] live between one exile and another, generation after generation. The state still refuses to recognize its responsibility for various issues related to the integration of immigrants from the East … It refuses to recognize its role in the poverty thrust on them, it refuses to ensure a fair division of land and resources, it continues to administer an unfair budget and neglect the suburbs (those to which primarily immigrants from Arab countries and Iran were sent, as part of a specific policy) in all possible dimensions.


Talking one-on-one cannot be conducted through governments because, quite simply, the balance is skewed. There can be no generosity of feeling between Palestinians and Israeli governments, for example, when the latter could crush and expel tens of thousands of Palestinians if it wishes, as it has in the past. But there is nothing to stop individuals from energetically talking to one another, especially given the communications revolution and the self-confidence of the lone individual armed only with the knowledge he gains from social media. It’s no accident that the official media in Israel paid no attention to the initiative, which was publicized through blogs, websites, and personal Facebook pages. This is one of the promises of the internet for the contemporary world. This right to speak, one individual to another, runs against the drive of Arab security apparatuses to monopolize knowledge of Hebrew on one hand, and the Israeli security apparatus to monopolize knowledge of Arabic on the other hand.

Poet and writer Almog Behar, also of Iraqi origin and a signatory to the appeal, responds to Shemoelof’s blog post. Behar doesn’t demand that Jews abandon their claims to property they left in the Arab world, but he also doesn’t trust Israel to achieve justice:

Our claims against Arab states that we left must be based on our role in their history, culture, and memory, which contain a Jewish part that deserves recognition. Our claims to property we left must be individual or community-based, but they should not pass through the state of Israel or a system of redress that works against Palestinians. The atrocities committed against us do not justify the atrocities perpetrated against Palestinians; stealing from us does not justify stealing from the Palestinians.


The occasion of Land Day this year, a commemoration of the Rabin government’s confiscation of thousands of dunams of land on March 30, 1976 from Palestinian citizens of Israel, provided the opportunity to ponder two questions. Is it possible to unite these various struggles, each with its own agenda and sometimes competing claims against the Zionist state? And can this be done with each party retaining its individual voice, armed only with its convictions and standing apart from a state with a drive to control all other players and champion its own narrative? These two questions lay at the heart of the tentative rapprochement between individual Mizrahi Jews and Palestinians.

Only time will tell. Until then, the experience of thousands of individual Arab and Jews testify to their desire to look in the eye of the other, motivated at times by conviction and others by curiosity, evading and circumventing the hegemony of the security establishment.


This article has been translated and edited for clarity. You can read the original Arabic here.

Nael El Toukhy 

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