Theorizing Modernities article

Palestinian Protest: The Palestinian Question and the Global Israeli South (Part 2)

Ethiopian protestors at a rally in Tel Aviv (2015). Public Domain. Via Wikimedia Commons. CC BY-SA 2.0
The summer of 2021 marked the 50th anniversary of the Mizrahi Black Panther movement. Those months in the aftermath of the May events followed a remarkable decade during which Mizrahim succeeded in amplifying their struggle in the Israeli mainstream, even if only for its representatives, and as a kind of lip service and bon ton. Despite this progress, the anger and the pain remained: If previously it was the Mizrahi protesters who were “not nice” (the way they were referred to by American-born Prime Minister Golda Meir), today it is Ethiopians. Like the ultra-Orthodox, the Ethiopians burned tires and blocked roads. However, in frightening similarity to recent events, they also burned and overturned cars, thus becoming the enemies of  Israelis that usually perceived the community as unthreatening and docile. The most chilling moment was revealed in a video which captured several Ethiopians at the Kiryat Ata junction chanting cries in Palestinian Arabic from the First Intifada: “Allah akbar”; “Free Palestine!”; “idbah al yahud”; “With blood and spirit we will redeem Palestine”; “Everybody hates you, 5 billion people hate you”; “Only money and greed interest you!” And finally – “You brought us so that we would fight for you, what do you think, that we are like the Moroccan chakh’chakhim (thugs). We are not!”

In this video, the Ethiopians identify with the Muslim population, thereby branding the “Jews” (certainly the new Jews of Zionism and of the luxury towers in Tel Aviv) as a symbol of the Global North. On the one hand, they removed themselves from the imagined collective that tolerates them only when they are “nice,” and at the same time they identified themselves—albeit forming a more radical critique vis-à-vis vis the state—with the Moroccan chakh’chakhim, illustrating their familiarity with the Israeli history of the 1981 election campaign. The demonstrators identified with a critical post- or even anti-Zionist view that rejected the myth of “return to a forgotten homeland” as its purpose was to bolster the Jewish population in the struggle against native Muslim Palestinians. The Ethiopian protesters recalled the Mizrahi struggle of the 1970s rather than trends of Mizrahi domestication into the new Israeli middle class in more recent decades. In their very name, the Israeli Black Panthers defined themselves as part of a globalized solidarity movement (Meir was terrified of any analogy being drawn between them and the American Panthers). They further underscored their global interconnectedness in how they appealed to other Blacks throughout the world, including Palestinians. The Ethiopian video reveals how potentially close the alliance is between suppressed identities in Israel. It creates an almost uncanny effect (in the Freudian sense) in which the warm and the familiar (the Ethiopian) is juxtaposed with the alien and most threatening of all (Palestinian resistance, including Hamas). Recalling this truly remarkable video of 2019 during the May 2021 crisis, I realized that someone was trying to remove it from the web, as I was only able to track it down again in an article by Salmach Salima published in “Siḥa Mekomit” web magazine (the Hebrew version of +972 magazine) in July 2019. There, Salima offers a ground-breaking criticism of the Palestinian struggle’s failure to forge alliances with other suppressed identities:

I nevertheless wish to help the suppressed populations in the society that I aspire to live in. And for me, as the weakest link in this chain of suppression—national, racial, and gender—I have a part to play in the liberation of others, even if these ‘others’ were exploited, willingly or unwillingly, and coerced into suppressing me and my people. This is the strongest position I can take at the moment as a Palestinian.

In the second part of this two-part post, I examine the ongoing ways in which Ashkenazi hegemony is perpetuated in Israel/Palestine and the necessity for the Left to recognize protests against that hegemony as legitimate. Salima’s words above indicate the kind of solidarity between marginalized groups that is necessary in the current moment.

Palestinians, Mizrahim, and…the Israeli (Ashkenazi) Left

The Palestinian struggle is also captive to the equation of “Jews-Arabs.” Recently, Palestinian intellectuals Haneen Maikey and Lana Tatour criticized Israeli human rights organizations for, in effect, preventing the Palestinians from telling their own story. They mocked B’Tselem’s definition of Israel as an apartheid state several decades after it had been so classified in Palestinian historiography. A similar discussion took place recently after editor-in-chief of Haaretz, Aluf Benn, expressed support for the narrative of the Nakba, 73 years after it happened. Maikey and Tatour had no compunction in claiming that “the Ashkenazi-Israeli human rights sector suffers from a problem of supremacy.” During the May crisis, all the organizations who have high visibility in times of Intifada, when the fabric of “co-existing” is jeopardized, speak about symmetry between Arabic and Hebrew and between Jews and Arabs. Not one of them alluded to Jewish-Israeli-Ashkenazi responsibility.

The fact that many people have a keen interest in maintaining the status quo cannot be overstated. In an article which appeared in Haaretz 25 years ago under the heading “The Bond of Silence,” sociologist Yehuda Shenhav-Shahrabani highlighted the Ashkenazi non-recognition of the oppression of Mizrahim. This same silence is passed down through generations and is bound up with Ashkenazi attitudes toward the Palestinian issue. While admitting the injustices done to Mizrahim threatens Ashkenazi hegemony, acknowledging those endured by the Palestinians does not. Furthermore, turning a blind eye to Mizrahim—or in other words, trying to avoid linking the colonialism within Israel with the colonialism in the occupied territories—was always a precondition for the existence of the “Left” (even before the 1967 expansion and occupation beyond the “Green Line”).

At issue here is the European secularization process that was enabled by the negation of religion (the Jewish, the Black, the non-European). Indeed, as Mahmood Mamdani wrote recently, “Zionism is both a product of the oppression of Jews under European modernity and a zealous enactment of European modernity under colonial conditions” (250). The brand of Zionism that Israel markets in North America and in Europe is only the enactment of European modernity. It should therefore come as no surprise that all the liberal media in Israel, as well as the English edition of Haaretz, continue to foster this separation, the significance of which is no less than the denial of the Mizrahi cause, which is what stands behind the false “religious” division between all “Jews” and “Arabs.” The crucial point is that Zionism’s colonization of the Jew himself, a notion at the core of early Zionist discourse, is now enabled by its focus on the distinction between “Jews” and “Arabs,” a binary which makes (Ashkenazi) Jews seem modern and secular. Nonetheless, when the focus turns to Mizrahi Jews, (Ashkenazi) Jews are reminded of their own “non-Europeaness,” and thus their failure to fully assimilate to White European identity.
While admitting the injustices done to Mizrahim threatens Ashkenazi hegemony, acknowledging those endured by the Palestinians does not. Furthermore, turning a blind eye to Mizrahim—or in other words, trying to avoid linking the colonialism within Israel with the colonialism in the occupied territories—was always a precondition for the existence of the “Left” (even before the 1967 expansion and occupation beyond the “Green Line”).

Because Mizrahim are unequivocally Jewish, unaffected by the complex political-theological discourse surrounding immigration from Ethiopia and the former Soviet Union, they serve as a painful reminder that Jews (including those of European descent) are themselves not European. Mizrahim remind Ashkenazim of their own Mizrahiness and that their assimilation into Whiteness and a modernist civilizational discourse came at a price, not just of losing their oriental heritage but in fact of losing their own Jewishness as a socio-political mark. It is interesting to note that since the defeat of the crime families—Alperon, Abergil, but also Rosenstein—the state has “nurtured” the crime scene in Arab towns. The much-discussed documentary series “Jerusalem District” (the Israeli broadcast channel, 2019) follows the capitol’s police force and their interactions with the city’s Palestinian population (like in the case of Sheikh Jarrah). The Jerusalem police often confront drug-related and other socio-economic crimes, those which are not connected to citizens’ ethnic or national identities. Because Mizrahi is not a category recognized by the State of Israel (unlike Ultra-Orthodox, Arabs [recognized as bnei mi’utim, minorities, and not as Palestinians], or Ethiopians), as a people they are often difficult to trace. However, in “Jerusalem District” the policemen’s surnames are so clearly Mizrahi that they border almost on the stereotypical: Obadia, Hazan, Gueta, Ohayon, Amsalem, etc. If the occupier is visualized as a fearless Ashkenazi from the Palmach and afterwards the Israeli Air Force, then policing in Israel is a Mizrahi performance: what was once the Minister of Police and then the Minister of the Public Security is now a job reserved for Mizrahim, starting with the first Minister of Police Bechor Sheetrit (the only indigenous Palestinian-Jew who signed the Declaration of Independence), and going on to Moshe Shahal and then Shlomo Ben-Ami. The picture that emerges is quite damning: the more blatantly evident it is, the greater its invisibility to us. Only this mesmerizing mixture of presence and absence—the entire domain of “internal security” is kept for Mizrahim who only police the Arab population—enables the perpetuation of this project of Jewish-Ashkenazi supremacy (and recall: the Oslo Accords granted Palestinians the right to police themselves; what is the PLO if not a police force?). In Israel, the victims become the executioners, and in this process the Israeli ethos is emptied of all hope for real political protest. It is also clear from this why Mizrahim themselves will go to any lengths to deny this.

In 1996, Amira Hass published her monumental book on Gaza, Drinking the Sea at Gaza, which in my opinion is one of the most important works of Israeli prose. Even during the era of the peace accords and the consolidation of the separation regime, Hass, in her role as a collector of testimonies, understood the legitimate and popular origin of the Hamas movement and recognized it as a multi-faceted and human entity which has both moderate and less moderate streams. The phrase “my friend the Hamas activist” appears many times in the book. The Muslim Brothers, who helped found Hamas, are a popular movement in the Muslim arena. They are “popular” both in the sense of their wide reach and also in their connection to the people, that is, in their stand against the colonial elites and their emissaries from the early twentieth century. In many ways, the Brothers are reminiscent of the consolidation of the steadfast “Jewish bloc” in the Knesset during Netanyahu’s last governments (this bloc, based on the “Likud” party and the two Ultra-Orthodox parties, also presents itself as fighting the elites, which are often perceived to be under Western influence). This movement is conservative in the same way that Germany, for example, has been ruled for many years by a conservative Christian-Democratic-Union movement. Hamas was established in 1987 as a direct result of an earlier period of Israeli violence. In 1948, Israel was responsible for both ethnic cleansing in the south of the country and the bombing of new refugee areas, one which included the hospital in Majdal, now Ashkelon, where many future leaders of Hamas originated.

In an interview following the last war, Tareq Baconi explained that there was no consensus within Hamas regarding the use of violence. During “The March of Return” protests of 2018, for instance, it was apparent that non-violent protest attracts much less attention from the international community and from Israel itself, for which only the firing of rockets represents an act of war. The continuing siege is not perceived as violence that demands a response, and the “right to self-defense” is reserved for Israel alone. Hamas’ use of violence has a long history in the anti-colonial struggle: suffice it to recall the famous scene in Gillo Pontecorvo’s film The Battle of Algiers (1966), in which the native Algerians plant bombs in the fashionable handbags of the ladies of Algiers who innocently place them in the heart of the city’s Parisian cafes. And here, in the same classic book about Gaza, back in the 1990s when the hopes for peace were mixed with the distress surrounding segregation and closures, A’s testimony teaches us something about alienation and closeness in the colonial oppression of the global age: 

There is no longer light you know, when I reach the Palestinian front [the checkpoint – OBY], the closest to the Israeli side where they thoroughly check all the documents, sometimes there is some Bedouin black as night posted there, who comes from Egypt or Yemen, so black that I cannot see him in the dark, and he does not know one word of Hebrew and he takes my work permit, shines his torch on it, holds it upside down because he has never seen a Hebrew letter, and he has to decide whether the permit is fake or not. Afterwards we advance with the car and reach the Israeli checkpoint, and we meet there an Israeli soldier, a new immigrant from Ethiopia, black as night and I do not recognize him in the dark, and he looks at the permit and reads it for half an hour, very slowly because he does not yet read Hebrew very well, reads and glances at me and again reads and looks at the photo and again looks at me, and I feel as if I’m the biggest criminal in the world who is about to be caught.

A certain guilt accompanies this blindness towards one another (“I don’t recognize him in the dark”) which is the lot of all subalterns who live under this regime, especially during times of violence. The Left remains indifferent to the state-sanctioned violence practiced by Israel as a matter of course against the large majority of its inhabitants who are not part of the European settlement project in the Middle East. The word “settlement” here is the same as “colonization,” which is used until this day in French, and was previously not differentiated from “settlement” in both German and English. For this “sane majority” (which is not a majority), many of whom are left-wing liberals, Hamas is an extremist movement and not one that raises the flag of protest against a siege that has lasted in various forms since the late 1980s and against many decades of racism and varying degrees of ethnic cleansing.

Hamas shooting missiles can be compared to a child in a refugee camp who throws stones, an expression of rage with which I, as a Queer Mizrahi, and thus as a victim of Israel’s degrading and humiliating system, can identify. A Left that just quells the flames is not Left, but hegemony; a true Left protests injustice. Perhaps a change will signal its coming when the Left will be able to declare, unequivocally: “Palestinian protest is just.”

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.

One thought on “Palestinian Protest: The Palestinian Question and the Global Israeli South (Part 2)

  1. חנה שלום מצאת חן בעיני מאוד בשיחה שלך בבית עגנון. אני קוראת בשקיקה את שני הספרים שפרסמת על עגנון קפקא ועוד. ונהנית מהראייה הרעננה שלך.

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