Theorizing Modernities article

Abolishing the Jewish-Arab Divide (Part 1)

Protest in Tahrir Square (2011). Photo by Flickr User Hossam el-Hamalaway. CC BY-SA 2.0

Jews, Arabs, and… Ashkenzim

One of the most viral videos to emanate from the last Gaza war and the violence within Israel in May 2021 was of Amit Segal, Israel’s most popular political commentator. On May 13, Segal appeared on a prime-time news broadcast on Keshet 12. For several minutes, Segal, acquainted with the Right, laid out his grievances against the media for their symmetrical coverage of the Jewish-Arab violence when, in his opinion, the Jewish side was most often the victim. Close to four minutes into Segal’s monologue, which he subsequently posted on his popular Facebook page, a kind of dialogue began with his interlocutor, one of Israel’s star journalists, the non-partisan (i.e. in today’s Israeli media the Center-Left) Ilana Dayan. Dayan presented the discursive symmetry in Jewish-Arab relations, wherein the “other” is no more than a reflection of the “I” or “we” and its desires (“they are our doctors,” “I have an Arabic teacher,” “we live together”). At the 17:12 mark, Segal—for whom this “other” is an opponent and as such enjoys a modicum of independence from the “I” (always a Jewish “I”)—blurted out a word that was out of place in the context and was probably an unintentional slip of the tongue. When Dayan argued, “We must address the lynching in Bat Yam (where Jews are perpetrators) because we have a role to play here,” Segal asked, “Who is ‘we’? Who is ‘us’? Journalists? the Ashkenazi Jews?” Dayan replied “We the Jews.” Segal branded this “we” as an imaginary and narcissistic collective oblivious to internal pluralities of the Jewish communities in Israel. The Ashkenazim, at the height of the battle and on prime time TV, triggered those sitting around the “tribal bonfire” in the midst of the May 2021 escalation. They suddenly spoke about the “ethnic demon” (ha-shed ha-‘adati), always a Mizrahi demon. Segal made it clear, briefly, that the “we” that bears responsibility and which Dayan presumed so easily is not simply Jewish but unequivocally Ashkenazi. It was a moment, however fleeting, of admitting responsibility for the implications of Ashkenazi hegemony which has targeted Palestinians and Mizrahi differently but in interconnected ways.

Amit Segal (left) and Ilana Dayan (right). CC BY-SA 3.0

This was not the only time during the conversation that Segal took issue with Keshet’s official line, which it has held since its establishment in the 1990s—the prime-days of Israeli neo-liberalism—as the first commercial channel in the country. Unlike his liberal peers, Segal’s overall point of view amalgamates “the Arabs from Gaza and East Jerusalem with the rioters in Lod” (at 18:04), thereby eliminating any distinction between them. In his opinion, they all “do not want us here.” Although, naturally, this extreme point of view is incompatible with the position of any liberal media outlet, Keshet 12 has made every effort to accommodate it. Indeed, Segal subscribes to the pre-state Zionist ethos of victimhood in which the “Arabs” are perceived as an entity hostile to “Jews” (then in a minority)—an entity which was dismantled and fragmented by the liberal Left after the Oslo accords (around the same time as establishment of the commercial channel). Also in the 1990s, acclaimed Haaretz journalist Amira Hass (1996) showed that the Oslo Accords formed a division between “Israeli Arabs” (or Palestinian Israelis) and “Palestinians.” This acknowledgment came, of course, without recognizing the terrible split that the Zionist project has imposed on Palestinians since its very beginnings. This split ruptured ties between Palestinians of 1948 (who possess a blue identity card), Palestinian residents of occupied East Jerusalem, Palestinians in the West Bank, Palestinians in Gaza, Palestinians in the refugee camps in Lebanon, Syria and Jordan, and of course Palestinians in the diaspora around the world. Segal’s words thus carry great subversive potential because he regards the region of historic Palestine/Eretz Yisrael as a single entity. In the first part of this two part post, I will therefore grapple here with the way the liberal Left—for which Dayan serves a prominent example—normally frames Arab-Jewish relations in the region; namely, in a way that erases both the legitimacy of violence by subalterns and the entire Mizrahi question. While the Palestinian question, or case, is somewhat recognized outside the very provincial scope of the Israeli Left, the Mizrahi case has gained currency only recently and among a handful of Palestinian activists who insist on uttering, like Segal, a known harbinger of the Right, the word “Ashkenzim.”

Gaza as an Israeli Space

Much has been said about the suitcases filled with dollars that were transferred from Qatar to Hamas with the approval of former Prime Minister Netanyahu, but no mention has been made of the currency —the Israeli lira and the shekel—used by Gazans to buy vegetables or pay for services, at least since its occupation in 1967. With the changeover to the new banknotes in Israel in 2013, I wrote in Haaretz about the feeling of alienation that a Jewish immigrant from Tunis must feel, never mind a native-born Palestinian, when waiting at the bank where images of statesmen and poets such as Moshe Sharet, Natan Alterman, and Shaul Tchernichowsky gaze out at her from plasma screens. Imagine how the residents of the most bombed buildings of the Gaza War of 2014 (Operation Protective Edge), for example, must feel when, while fleeing for their lives, they hang on to these notes as a kind of security. Of course, Gaza is part of Israel in many other respects, some civil (like area dialing codes and electricity infrastructure) and some under the umbrella known in Israel as “foreign and security affairs.” The latter has been under the control of the Israeli army since the establishment of the Palestinian Authority and certainly since Israel’s disengagement from Gaza in 2005 and the rise of Hamas a decade and a half ago. This reality is in complete contrast to the picture painted in times of war by Keshet 12 and all other mainstream Israeli media outlets. They talk of “Israel under fire” by an external agent with which Israel shares only a border. For this reason, it is legitimate for Israelis to claim that against such incoming fire, Israel, like “every country has the right to defend itself and its citizens.”

However, if Israel has sovereignty in Gaza over all matters relating to foreign affairs and security, is it really under fire from an external force when Hamas fires rockets on its citizens? What protection is being referred to if residents of Gaza, including members of Hamas, and residents of East Jerusalem, resort to violence against citizens of the same sovereign entity? Why do the media, and also a large part of Israeli academia, firmly refuse to refer to Palestinian violence, both internal and external, as a “protest”? As “Palestinian protest”? This protest is linked to the Mizrahi struggle in Israel, the Wadi Salib protest in the fifties, the current protest on the Asi Strem in the Kibbutz of Nir David, the social justice protests of 2011, the recurrent protests of persons with disabilities (who get minimal aid from the government), the Balfour demonstrations during the coronavirus pandemic against Netanyahu’s legal affairs, right-wing protests especially against the disengagement plan from Gaza in 2005, and the Ethiopian protests over the years. The protests of Palestinians with Israeli citizenship in October 2000, which many people called to mind last May, are defined as “events,” in line with pre-state Zionist historiography that defines the Palestinian uprisings against the colonial apparatus (Turkish, British, and particularly Jewish) as events (1921, 1929, and now 2021 as well). 

The “Palestinian cause/question” (al qadiyyah) and the “Jewish question” are both expressions of European modernity, whether in the form of their currency of nationalism or genocidal practices, neither of which are acknowledged in Israel.

In Arabic, just as in the context of the Arab Spring, these events are described via the language of revolts/uprisings. In Hebrew, the words meora’ot (events) and meḥaah (protest) are reserved for Jews, while pra’ot (revolts) or meora’ot (events) relate to the Jewish-Arab conflict. Mainstream historiography in Hebrew also uses the word “Palestina,” which was imported from German and Yiddish in order to foster the illusion that Palestina existed only before 1948, while Palestine is something which relates to theory alone. Another striking example of how the Israeli Center Left imagines the country’s reality can be seen in Avi Nesher’s spectacular film Portrait of Victory (Israel, 2021) that depicts the battle over Kibbutz Nitzanim in 1948. Because the narrator is Egyptian, half of the film is in Arabic with Hebrew subtitles, and while Palestinians and Egyptians refer to Nitzanim as a settlement (mustautanah), the translation refers to the foreign word “kolonia” (colony) and not to the Hebrew word hitnaḥalut (settlement). The latter is reserved only for the settlements beyond the green line, thus continuing the false legitimacy of the pre state colonization of the country by dubbing it with a foreign, and hence neutral, word. The “Palestinian cause/question” (al qadiyyah) and the “Jewish question” are both expressions of European modernity, whether in the form of its currency of nationalism or genocidal practices, neither of which are acknowledged in Israel.

This leaves the Israeli Orientalists mainly with Arabs who want to integrate into society or those, like members of the Joint List party, who are “troublemakers” or “terrorists.” It is convenient for Israelis to think that Israeli Arabs are not really interested in “Palestinians,” those on the other side of the “walls” whose protection gave its name to the May assault. The current Israeli discourse refers to “rounds” (sevavim) of violent skirmishes between the Israeli government and Hamas. The last major round was Operation Protective Edge in 2014, during which 70 Israelis—almost all of them soldiers, a terrible loss that is hardly ever mentioned in Israeli media—and more than 2000 Gazans lost their lives. And although Operation Protective Edge hovers in the background together with the endless rounds that prove that the process is at a standstill, there were several unprecedented factors during the 2021 round, most notably Hamas’ response to the events inside Israel and the responsibility it took for the fate of East Jerusalemites that resonated as well in an internal Israeli intifada.

The Protest of the Global South

When the May events began, we—that is, the Israeli media and academics—reignited a dialogue about Hamas itself and about Gaza, consolidating Protective Edge of 2014 as the central point of reference. But then the rebellion broke out within Israel, an uprising (intifada) in Jaffa, Lod, in Jerusalem and the North, as well as other places, which reminded some commentators of the October 2000 protests that ended with the death of 13 Palestinians with Israeli citizenship. I suggest that the rebellion of 2021 and the imaginary “coexistence” that was projected by Israeli liberals, should not be separated from Israel’s war against Hamas. In my historiography of the events last May, there are two points of reference far more pertinent than Operation Protective Edge. First is the Intifada of the Individuals from 2015–2016, which broke out in the aftermath of Protective Edge, and was an assemblage of suicide missions during which Palestinians attacked security personnel with scissors or other ridiculous weapons with the sole purpose of bringing about their own death. Second are the Ethiopian protests in 2019 following the murder of Solomon Tekah. These protests, and not Protective Edge, uncover the seething venom that exists in all areas of the Greater Eretz Yisrael/Palestine, a venom of pain mixed with justified anger rather than the brittle “fragility” of coexistence.  They teach us that, unlike what was formulated by Dayan and Keshet 12, the issue is not Jews against Arabs, but rather Israeli-Ashkenazi Jews against the Global South, which in Israel is represented by non-Europeans: Palestinians, Mizrahim, Ethiopians, and migrant laborers (almost all from the Global South).

In a state of emergency, every Mizrahi has to internalize (what Dayan nonchalantly parroted) that she is nothing more than a “Jew,” an imaginative signifier that also represents the adjectives “Israeli,” “liberal,” a “champion of progress.” In one stroke, Mizrahi identity is totally erased: the non-European Israeli Jew is no longer “Black” (whether ultra-Orthodox or Ethiopian), or as liberals in Israel tend to condemn Mizrahim today, a “Bibist” (a follower of Bibi Netanyahu). She has to suspend the knowledge that there is only one Mizrahi party leader in the Knesset, Aryeh Deri (who recently had to resign the Knesset and rule the party from the outside as part of a plea deal related to minor misdemeanours), that Israel has never had a Mizrahi prime minister, and that the new administration (that was inaugurated a month after the May crisis) is almost entirely Ashkenazi. In times of escalation, the Mizrahi will have Dayan and her colleagues to remind them that in the equation of Jews and Arabs, they are definitely not part of the latter. In the Israeli discourse, both in Hebrew and Arabic, Jews and Arabs are dubbed as two migzarim (sectors), each entirely homogeneous and distinct from one another. Thus, whenever the discourse becomes demographic, people repeat a fact that has become an axiom, namely that 20 percent Palestinians are also citizens. But that is a biased perspective that upholds the liberal discourse of a Jewish majority and an oriental minority. A different perspective, one which emphasizes those who inhabit the thoroughly oriental vicinity in the imagined Jewish nation state, will either address those who live between the sea and the Jordan River (thus capturing Mizrahim and Palestinians together as descendants of those who are indigenous to the Middle East) or will focus on those who are Jewish according to the Jewish Law and not to the State’s Law of Return. In the latter case, Mizrahim will also be the majority among the Jews, while the category “Jews” as a non-oriental signifier (with the help of such Jews as those who immigrated from Russia, who adhere to the Law of Return but not necessarily to the Jewish Halakha) will be abolished and instead undergird this signifier—“Jews”—with its lost oriental undertones. Remarkably, just recently this de facto approach to understanding Jews as non-Orientals became official with the census’ abolition of the generalized term “Jews and Others,” a designation which encompassed “those who are undefined” (meaning descended from the USSR) as well as “non-Arab Christians” for either “ukhlusia yehudit murḥevet (expanded Jewish population)” or “Jews and their family members” (the words of Prof. Danny Pfeffermann, director of the census). For my argument, it is sufficient to pay attention to the “non-Arab Christians” label, which evinces the politization of the non-Oriental.

In part 2 of this series, I argue that a more emboldened left-wing movement is required if Ashkenazi hegemony is to be addressed and overcome in Israel/Palestine. This overcoming will require that Ashkenazi Jews relinquish their attachment to European white indentity formations and re-engage their “oriental” identity in solidarity with Mizrahi and other marginalized Jews.

The author wishes to thank Dr. Sigal Nagar-Ron of Sapir Academic College.

Omri Ben Yehuda
Omri (Hannah) Ben Yehuda (he/she) is a scholar of comparative Jewish literatures in EUME, Forum Transregionale Studien, Berlin. She has published two books, 25 scientific articles and essays, and more than 80 essays and op-eds for the general public. Currently, she is working on a co-edited volume with Dotan HaLevi on Gaza as an Israeli heterotopia to be publish in 2022.

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