(Almog Behar, Sheikh Jarrah 2010, translated by Chana Morgentern)
The new hope of the Israeli left, Labor leader Avi Gabbai, reminded Israelis several weeks ago of a very special moment that took place twenty years ago. Benjamin Netanyahu, a man of truly primal instincts for reading the Israeli soul, whispered into the ear of the frail Rabbi Kaduri, “The left has forgotten what it’s like to be Jewish.” This motto aptly sums up Netanyahu’s political enterprise, which rests in fact on playing up a hostility between the Zionism itself and Judaism. Gabbai, a Mizrahi who grew up in a Ma’abara—the word for transit camps known for the neglect they endured at the hands of the Israeli state—not only evoked the days of Oslo and the murder of Yitzhak Rabin, but also declared that Netanyahu was right. The common interpretation of such a political move would be to say that Gabbai, like Yair Lapid, is opportunistically trying to win over conservative voters for the next election by imitating Netanyahu. But to write it off in such a manner would be to overlook—indeed, to dismiss entirely—Netanyahu’s own politics, which reflect a long divide rooted deep in the history of modern Jewry.
But a brief detour into definition. In Israel the term left, or “leftist” refers almost entirely to ethnic and socio-economic origins. A “leftist” is someone from Ashkenazi background who never displays any ethnic or diasporic traits. I once published an op-ed arguing that the “left” in Israel is now a question of identity politics and not of political beliefs. I declared that although I acknowledge the Nakba, advocate Palestinians’ right of return, and have left economic views, I still don’t consider myself a leftist. Left in Israel means what many elsewhere understand by the term “liberal” and moreover reflects the positions of the old Israeli establishment. For that reason, it therefore almost entirely is constituted by the difference between Mizrahim and Ashkenazim.
After publishing her scandalous book about Adolf Eichmann’s Jerusalem trial in 1961, Hannah Arendt entered a correspondence with her friend Gershom Scholem, which became very well-known after the latter accused her of lacking “Ahavat Israel,” love of Israel. Scholem’s critique was aimed at Arendt’s depiction of the Jewish functionaries who helped in the destruction of their own people during the Holocaust. For Scholem, it lacked Herzenstakt, German for “tact of the heart,” a flaw which he identifies in the entire German Jewish left. This tension between the love of the Jews as an ethnic group, as a people, and the more distant attitude to Judaism only as a religion, has taken many forms over the years and relies on a duality in the Jewish religion itself. On the one hand, Judaism is inherited from the mother, a biological relationship; on the other, to be Jewish is tied to the performance of the commandments. It stresses the difference between German Jews, allegedly an assimilative bourgeoisie with universal values, and their brethren from the East, who are purportedly more bound to Jewish particularism and rituals, an outcome of their position as a minority among minorities in the ethnic abundance and violent reality of Eastern Europe. This contrasts with the nation states in the West of the continent where Jews were a tolerated minority, strictly speaking. This view is held, for example by the prominent Jewish mysticism scholar Moshe Idel. Leftist Jews play an important role in this. In Israel the Israeli local leftists are in fact blamed for something almost different, but a mirror stance: the love of Arabs.
This grave accusation is important precisely because it is absurd. Most Israeli leftists do not speak Arabic, rarely, if ever, speak to Arabs, and as a rule, do not maintain friendly—certainly not intimate—relationships with Arabs. Which begs the question: why does the Left stand accused of loving them? True, the accusation is also a way to suggest the Left is disloyal; “loves”, in this case, means “does not hate enough.” But the full answer would address a lacuna, both within Israeli discourse and outside it. There, smoldering coals whisper of a very different kind of love: the love of Mizrahim. That is to say, love of all Jews, wherever they may be.
This is what Netanyahu understood when whispering to Kaduri. He identified precisely the rift of which perhaps millions of words have by now been written. Zionism, which upholds the negation of diaspora, promotes secularization, which is, itself, alien to Judaism. It thus seeks to absolve the Jews of their Jewishness and make them into Europeans (“as all nations.”). In his first campaign in 1996 it was Netanyahu who used the slogan “Netanyahu is Good for the Jews.”
As historians and cultural scholars Amnon Raz-Krakotzkin, Gil Anidjar, and Gil Hochberg have shown, the pattern offered by the European separation of secularization and enlightenment, on the one hand, and religion, on the other, has explicitly referred to Judaism. In Europe at the time Europeans were positing such a separation, Christian culture saw Jews as irrational, dark, and tormented. The distinction between the West and the Orient re-erected and runs parallel with such a distinction. In turn, the dominant “secular” culture began to perceive religion—that is to say, Jewish religion—as part of the non-European world. Emancipated, educated, secular, Zionist, Reform, and (some) Communist Jews have accepted the negation of diaspora in its deepest sense. That is, the negation of everything not encompassed by the progressive secular state, a negation of religion and the Orient, of a religion constructed as part-and-parcel of that same Orient. In many ways it is Judaism—that dark and Oriental religion—that forged Europe’s secularism from the outset.
Zionism’s embrace of Old Testament literature and its rejection of rabbinical texts is perhaps the clearest example of this phenomenon. In fact, such a tendency is emphatically Protestant. It originated with Martin Luther and culminated with the Nazis, for whom the Jewish creed was first and foremost the Talmud (the most important text of Diasporic (meaning non-Israeli) Jewish religious ethos. The choice of the Old Testament was also a choice not to distance oneself too much from Christianity. It is a canonical book against which Judaism and Christianity defined themselves only after its acceptance by rabbinical Judaism and the Church Fathers, respectively. Moreover, the choice of the Old Testament is a classical act of Orientalist displacement, as understood by Edward Said. In this framing, the Ancients, whether Egyptians, Hebrews, Canaanites, Moabites etcetera, are venerated as the ideals of every colonial conquest, while contemporary residents of the same lands—Egyptians, Palestinians—were “invisible,” or even objects of contempt. This kind of psychological displacement is crucially important for appropriation, and it enables rooting the colonial settlers among its subjects. It fits dazzlingly with the idea that the nation is an imagined community, because the past is always the product of imagination, and in the present, the past could be repressed (as the past of the Palestinians is today).
As they arrived in Israel, Jews attempted to shed the Orient—whether the European Orient of Yiddishkeit, which was anyway vastly diminished owing to the Holocaust, or, more frequently, the Orient that spoke Arabic, the enemy tongue. Thus, European (and Jewish) negation of Judaism was displaced in Israel onto negation of the Arabs. This was the situation until 1967, but as the role of Mizrahim became prominent, Israeli Jews were reminded of their Oriental roots—as they were seen in Europe. In turn, and the displacement split into two directions: Arab-hating, and Arab-loving.
And here we arrive to the aforementioned charge—that of love. In his far-too-belated visit to South Tel Aviv in September 2017, Netanyahu allowed himself to be photographed in the company of two older Mizrahi women who were kissing his hands, as if he was a kind of Jesus led by Mother Mary and Mary Magdalene. The Left busied itself by criticizing the sheer cynicism of his visit and insisting on the rights of the wretched African refugees, who reside in the South along the old Mizrahi population. They also reiterated human rights groups’ usual preoccupation with the Occupied Territories. At the same time, the Israeli liberal newspaper Haaretz published a piece on the continuous tracking of children of the development towns, the population of which are almost exclusively Mizrahi, into vocational education. These three directions—Netanyahu’s populism, the organized left’s focus on refugees and Palestinians, and the Mizrahim in development towns being left behind as always—was a concentrated one-week dose of what has driven the Israeli ethos ever since the state began. This can be summed up in the simple truth that the Israeli left is simply not interested in Mizrahim.
This horrifying fact was pointed out by Yehouda Shenhav already in 1996, and I have recently argued that it undermines the Left’s very right to exist. In that same article, I tried to show that organizations like B’Tselem and Breaking the Silence have no right to speak if they would not also engage in protest that acknowledges race, class, the afterlives of colonialism which play out in intra-Jewish prejudice and power disparities among Jews. But this is indeed part of the self-constitution and self-subjectivization of the Israeli left itself. By protesting the situation of the Arab somewhere out there in the “Territories,” the new liberal Jew is enabled. It is a matter of self-determination and affirmation. When Netanyahu provokes these leftists by claiming they have forgotten how to be Jewish, he implicitly blames the Israeli left for forgetting the Mizrahim. And indeed, right until this day the Left in Israel has not come to terms with that traumatic lacuna in its midst.
In this half-centenary of the Occupation, we should articulate the deeper meaning of the Six Day War. The occupation of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip gave geographical depth and meaning to the separation between the Jew and the Arab. It allowed the creation of a legitimate Israel that is effectively de-Arabized—and implicitly, de-Judaized. The Zionist left has always portrayed the first nineteen years of the state as a golden age, free of wars. The Six Day war is also the first war in which Mizrahim took active part in the oppression of Palestinians. Fixating on it allows the Zionist left to indulge the thought that if it was not for Jews and Arabs—Jews who are Arabs, with all of the meanings that go along with the term, such as Mizrahi, religious, militant and ignorant, there wouldn’t have been occupation or violence. The new Zionist Jew, a member of the West, is constituted through the erasure of the Arabs. The 1967 war offers a cleansing of the sins of 1948.
Here I must clarify. I do not argue that prior to 1967 there was no hate for Mizrahim or generally for Arabs by the Israeli establishment. Of course there was. But the six-day war has drawn the divide, on one side of which is the hatred of Arabs, by Mizrahim, and from the other the supposed love of Arabs by leftists. That is the outcome of the war.
The entire process can be articulated thus. With the arrival of the Jews of non-Western countries to Israel, and especially with their participation in the oppression of the Palestinians, the European Jew could complete his Zionist revolution and become a godless Jew. For the first time, the European Jew could both displace and project, psychological terms that explain how environment enables the imagined self. This new Jew could finally realize the national project as articulated by Raz-Krakotzkin, paraphrasing Arendt in her answer to Scholem: “There is no God, but He promised us the Land.”
My earlier published comments have failed to elicit a reaction from my activist friends doing their important but misleading work in the aforementioned human rights organizations. Here, I would seek to articulate the hypocrisy at the heart of the Israeli left, which afflicts also radical intellectuals (not Zionist and allegedly not part of the establishment) like Gideon Levy, Daniel Blattman or Ilana Hammerman, who do focus their criticism on 1948 but continue to ignore the oppressions of Mizrahim. Human rights discourse in Israel, and outside of it, is reluctant to mention ethnicity, race and class, and hence mutes the colonial implications of its entire rule, in and out of its “territories.” This stands in stark contrast to activists like member of Knesset Jamal Zahalka or the lawyer Barak Cohen, one Jewish Arab, since, as Mahmoud Darwish understood it, the experience of exile binds together the Arab and the Jew, and one Arab-Jew—who also happens to be religiously observant.
The colonial landscape rests upon the distinction between the internal and the external, between the metropolitan state and the colony, between the legitimate and the illegitimate. Zionism effectively copies the colonial approach when it distinguishes and separates the “Territories” from the State. This serves the Left because it allows it to imagine that the colonial state exists only over there, while Israel’s most explicitly colonial achievement rests closer to home: the transformation of “the Polish pedlar into a German intellectual,” to borrow the title of sociologist Aziza Khazzoom’s book, while still always having someone to make falafel, kubbeh, and shawarma in the “legitimate” boundaries of Tel Aviv.
Hypocrisy is inherent to colonialism. Perhaps it is even a necessary condition for colonialism. The manner of empire is to present a benign, humanist appearance while far away, in the “territories,” they carry out genocidal policies. Accusing the Israeli left of hypocrisy is not an accusation that stops at Israel. It reflects our entire era, where cynicism has supplemented and inherited the place which hypocrisy previously occupied. In many ways, there is justification to Donald Trump’s election: industrial states have factories full of exploited workers also at home, but they ignore them as they munificently—almost charitably—import foreign doctoral students from every other place on the globe. While Trump is a billionaire born to wealth, his inarticulateness is a reaction to the inherent hypocrisy of the empire, a hypocrisy that enables colonial rule.
Cynical though he is, Netanyahu lives up to at least one promise. You can say a lot of things about him, but you cannot accuse him of loving Arabs. In Zionist reality—this is the greatest revolution which this European movement has accomplished—the hatred of Arabs is the only legitimate expression of the love of Jews. This explains, perhaps, how the accusation of self-hatred among Jews outside Israel has settled, albeit in a very distorted way, in the Israeli mind. Hate as the only expression of love is the awful ethos that Netanyahu embodies and which so many identify with so closely. Perhaps the most seasoned right-wing politician across the globe today, Netanyahu surely catalyzed figures like Trump and Europe’s current extremists. This, once again, is the ethos of Zionism in its entirety. In the Israel of 1948 the secular Jew is created through the negation of the Arabs, and in Israel post-1967, through the negation of Mizrahim, which occurs alongside allegedly loving Arabs.
So who reminds the Jews of their Jewishness? It would not be Netanyahu, who is far from being observant Jew. This past summer, in one of the weekly protests against Netanyahu, one of the protesters, a secular Jew, shouted at a religious protester, telling him “take off that carpet from your head!” meaning his bright Kippah. The video documenting this went viral, and the secular protester was accused—justifiably—of antisemitism. Of course, outside Israel, such cases have occurred with more frequency. There is something unsettling about seeing them occur in Israel, but the bitter irony is that during colonial rule, in non-Western countries Jews were attacked by their Arab neighbors who also referred to their appearance. It wasn’t classically antisemitic, however, but a protest again Jewish collaboration with the West. As Ella Shohat has shown, Arabs attacked Jews who adhered to European secularism by shaving their beards and taking off their side locks. Back then, it was the Arabs who castigated the Mizrahim for “forgetting what is like to be Jewish.”
Today, many Mizrahim express their protest through the Talmudic proverb that “the poor of your city take precedence,” which in Israel has also become an indicator of hatred and separation from its Palestinian residents. But in the foundation of Judaism’s moral structure, in the Torah, it speaks also of love: “Love thy neighbor as thyself,” says the commandment which became the cornerstone of the Rabbinical ethos, after Rabbi Akiva and Rabbi Hillel. As Anidjar has demonstrated, this rule contrasts with that of Paulian Christianity—“love thine enemy,” which includes the dosage of hypocrisy essential to the colonial project. There is no doubt which of the rules is more difficult to obey, and which, perhaps, articulates the very essence of love, which exists first and foremost with you, yourself, Jewish, Arab—“as thyself.”
For further reading:
Yehouda Shenhav, Beyond the Two State Solution: A Jewish Political Essay, Cambridge: Polity Press, 2012.