Israel's Mizrahi Jews could have been, and can still be, a bridge between Israel and the Arab world. But the harsh treatment, "de-Arabisation", and prejudice towards Mizrahim are a symbol of this wasted opportunity fifty years into occupation.
In the reams of articles marking the 50th anniversary of the occupation of the West Bank and East Jerusalem, there has been little focus on Israel's population of Jews from Arab lands.
This is no great surprise, nor a great failing: Israel's half-century-long occupation of those Palestinian territories clearly has far-ranging repercussions that do not relate to Israel's Jewish ethnic composition. And yet still, this group of Jews coming from Muslim and Jewish lands – described in Israel as "Mizrahim" – do have a different narrative, and one that was impacted and influenced by the Israeli occupation.
Once the majority population in Israel, Mizrahi Jews have long suffered discrimination in a country run by European communities who viewed those from Arab countries as being somehow inferior.
Jews from countries such as Iraq, Iran, Egypt, Morocco and Tunisia were, when they arrived in Israel mostly after it's creation in 1948, greeted with ignorance and prejudice. Their Eastern European co-nationalists were shocked to discover that, yes, there were toilets, cars and Communism in Baghdad and Cairo. Unfortunately, such preconceptions filtered into policy-making and distribution of resources, resulting in a correlation between social status, class and ethnicity in Israel, across sectors such as education, housing and professional attainment.
Mizrahi culture was assumed to be something of an oxymoron, and was disparaged and dismissed, while use of Arabic – an official language in Israel – was frowned upon in public. Israel essentially "de-Arabised" its Mizrahi Jews – stunting not just this population itself, but also the potential for them to act as a bridge between Israel and its neighbouring Arab nations.
The occupation put some 900,000 Palestinians living in the West Bank and around 66,000 Palestinians in Jerusalem under Israeli control. But it also made this population an available workforce for Israel – and that changed the social order for Mizrahi Jews, who were more often, until then, on the bottom rung.
Many Mizrahi Jews then spoke Arabic, an advantage in this situation and one of the factors that allowed a move into positions in Israeli society where they could run small businesses or manage small teams of Palestinian workers.
Moshe Behar, senior lecturer in Israel studies at Manchester university, says the occupation meant Mizrahi Israelis were able "to upgrade financially and economically – suddenly other people, with less protection and less rights, could do the work they did before 1967."
But if the employment status of Mizrahi Jews changed, post-occupation, so, too, did their visibility in Israeli society.
In the days before the second Palestinian intifada and the construction of Israel's separation wall, Palestinians from the occupied territories could move more freely than today. This almost certainly had an effect on the constant filtering process that occurs inside Israeli society: over who is "one of us" and who is not.
For Mizrahi Jews, the problem was always the fact that they came from "enemy" lands, sharing the same cultural heritage, language and features; they looked like the enemy. So in the areas that border the occupied territories, Mizrahi Israelis are often stopped, ID cards and Hebrew accents checked, their Jewishness, or not, scanned for.
When I researched my book on Israel's Jews from Arab Lands, the half-Mizrahi Israeli writer Almog Behar told me: "It's a kind of Jerusalem experience, to be considered Arab. It happens to me lots of times, like I'm standing in the bus station and military police stop and ask me for an ID card, and so on."
But while Mizrahi Jews are subject to these ID checks they also have disproportionately ended up serving the army in Israel's border areas, on the frontline of enforcing the occupation in Palestinian territories. This idea was explored by photojournalist Mati Milstein in the project "Black labour" which focused on the soldiers of Israel's border police. Mizrahi-Jewish activist Tom Mehager argues that deploying Mizrahi – or Ethiopian-Israeli soldiers in this way isn't just about assignment of low-status roles within the army, but also about offloading the violent and conflict-heavy aspects of the occupation onto non-whites.
Israel's Mizrahi population is, inside the country, often disparaged for supporting the militaristic right-wing. It's a myopic analysis, that fails to understand what might be behind such voting patterns, not least the fact that Israel's left wing is associated with the Ashkenazi hegemony that for decades dished out a sneery and devastating discrimination towards the Mizrahi population. And there have always been undercurrents running counter to this dominant narrative – some of these emerging in the post-67 period.
One prominent example is the Israeli Black Panthers, who in the early 1970s began to organise against the levels of social inequality between Mizrahi and Ashkenazi. The group fast became a coherent movement with thousands of supporters – and, notably, was the first Israeli group to make contact with the Palestinian Liberation Organisation, consciously linking the Palestinian fight for self-determination to the Mizrahi cause.
This approach, finding common cause between Mizrahi Jews and Palestinians, is clearly not mainstream, but it still continues in Israel today. One example is the open letter penned in solidarity, from second and third generation Mizrahis to their Arab peers during the uprisings of 2011.
Saluting the spirit of the revolutions across the Middle East, the Young Mizrahis wrote: "We now express the hope that our generation - throughout the Arab, Muslim, and Jewish world – will be a generation of renewed bridges that will leap over the walls and hostility created by previous generations...We draw on our shared past in order to look forward hopefully towards a shared future."
This sentiment has always been against the odds, seemingly impossible in the face of the ever-worsening Israeli-Palestinian conflict. But global events in the past few years have shown that sometimes things can turn in an instant, long-held political assumptions can crumble overnight. Today it sounds impossibly naive – but we may yet see a time when this Mizrahi population acts as a bridge between two peoples, forging a path of peace and justice for Palestinians and Israelis.
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