Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Who Will Look After The Mizrachi?

One thing burbling in the background, but not quite at the forefront, is the degree to which Israeli domestic political considerations provoked its response in Gaza. Israeli citizens, not seeing any definitive increases in either short-term security or long-term peace from the ruling Kadima Party, began looking closely at more right-wing options (such as Likud). Kadima decides it needs to do something to look tough, and away we go in Gaza. I'm not saying that the rocket fire isn't itself a warrant for the attack. But I think domestic considerations explain why this particular flurry of rocket fire caused Israel to lash out, rather than any or every other particular rocket and mortar assault.

But something I should have caught, but missed, is the way in which domestic Israeli cleavages also are playing a huge role here. Consider this passage from an overall stellar post by Lisa Goldman which collects the perspectives of as many people affected by the Gaza operation as possible:
Nor is life terribly pleasant for children living in the Sderot/western Negev area these days. Then again, it’s been pretty bad for the past 8 years - with Qassams falling several times per day and sirens and safe rooms a part of life. No-one could figure out how to stop the Qassams, but the people of Sderot thought that the government was not really trying - that they were indifferent to the suffering of Mizrachim living on the country’s periphery. “Do something!” they cried out to the government, as elections approached and Bibi Netanyahu seemed positioned to win.

For those of you who don't know, Mizrachi Jews are Jews who hail originally from the Middle East. Already, this might surprise some folks, who are used to thinking of all Jews (and the Zionist movement as a whole) as White-European. But the only really unambiguously European group of Jews are Ashkenazim, which are not the majority in Israel. I'm an Ashkenazi Jew, as are the majority of American Jews (and obviously the majority of European Jews), so in the Western vision Ashkenazi = Jew. But that isn't true in Israel, though plenty of Ashkenazim live there too. Israel has plenty of Mizrachi Jews, and a large Sephardic (Spainish descent, including expelled communities resettled in Turkey and Morocco) population as well.

But alas, not all Jews are created equal in Israel. The Ashkenazi community is considerably more wealthy and powerful than either their Sephardic or Mizrachi counterparts. I don't want to overstate this point -- Israeli society has done a very good job of reducing inequality and unequal opportunity and integrating its (Jewish) population as simply Israeli. But obstacles, and more importantly mistrust, remain.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Mizrachi and Sephardic Jews are considerably more likely to live on Israel's periphery -- in places like Sderot, the Israeli town a mile from the Gaza border that is a perpetual target for rocket fire. This is one of the problems with viewing Israel -- or at least its Jewish population -- as an undifferentiated mass. The Mizrachi community doesn't fundamentally believe that the Israeli government is as interested in protecting them as it would be if the victims of the attacks were Ashkenazim -- a function of lingering Ashkenazi racism and privilege. And the Mizrachi community is, I believe, significantly more skeptical of peace prospects with the Palestinians -- a function of the fact that the root oppression they fled from in coming to Israel was Arab, not European, violence and domination.

Of course, this creates problems. Insofar as many of the Israeli victims of rocket fire are Jewish Arabs who still are not considered the equals of the dominant Ashkenazi class, there are issues of privilege that come into account with regards to Israel ignoring the rockets as well. The Arab background of many of these residents also helps complicate the picture we're looking it -- this violence is in some sense internecine. Regardless of what one thinks of the Ashkenazi move to Israel, there is no disputing the victimized status of Mizrachi Jews -- in terms of their historical mistreatment at the hands of the ruling Muslim classes, their eventual expulsion from other Arab countries (contemporaneous with the creation of Israel), and their subordinated status today -- much in the same way Gazans are.

Obviously folks know I find the privilege dynamics in the Israeli/Arab conflict difficult to begin with. Noting the particular pressure point within Israel that is producing the Gaza operation makes things even more complicated.

I'm not sure exactly what the upshot is of it. But it felt like useful information to know.

1 comment:

PG said...

I wonder if it would help those folks who see Israel purely as a Western oppressor to the Palestinians to see more images of the Mizrachim. I personally haven't seen many images of dark-skinned Israeli Jews, I suppose because I generally see pictures from Jerusalem and other central parts of Israel.

It is of course politically infantile to frame the world as pale (oppressor!) versus dark (oppressed!), but sometimes you have to meet people where they live.