Israel’s Mizrahi Activists Are Fighting the Racist Nation-State Law

Israel’s Mizrahi Activists Are Fighting the Racist Nation-State Law

Israel’s Mizrahi Activists Are Fighting the Racist Nation-State Law

Echoing the country’s Black Panther movement of the early 1970s, they’re challenging the false binary of Arab vs. Jew, which the law strengthens.


In July 2018, human rights attorney Hassan Jabareen, a Palestinian citizen of Israel, called sociologist Yehouda Shenhav. They had been trying since the mid-1990s to find a route for joint resistance to state oppression between Palestinian citizens and Israelis who are Mizrahi Jews (Jews of Middle Eastern heritage, as opposed to Ashkenazi Jews, who are of European origin). Jabareen had never felt the time was right—until that year, when the Israeli parliament passed the Nation-State Law.

The Nation-State Law declares that Israel is the historic homeland and nation-state of the Jewish people. It’s a Basic Law, Israel’s equivalent to a constitutional law (Israel doesn’t have a constitution). Jabareen’s call to Shenhav (a Mizrahi Israeli) planted a powerful seed in Shenhav’s mind. Might Mizrahis want to challenge the law before the Israeli High Court, alongside appeals submitted by Palestinians, including Jabareen’s organization, Adalah? Shenhav consulted co-activist Orly Noy, who called the idea “brilliant” and spearheaded the effort.

The appeal, submitted on January 1, 2019, was signed by nearly 60 prominent Mizrahi activists and intellectuals. Its opening paragraph acknowledges that the law primarily targets Palestinian citizens, but Noy says the petition is far more radical than a solidarity statement. “We’re petitioning because [the Nation-State Law] also discriminates against us.” The law damages Mizrahis’ connection to their roots, culture, language, and “our ability to understand ourselves as a natural part of the geopolitical environment, which Israel very systematically tried to destroy.” The petition aims to pick up the pieces of the fractured Mizrahi identity and rebuild it, whole, complete, and proud.

Noy references a 1996 speech by Ehud Barak, then Israel’s foreign minister, calling Israel a “villa in the middle of the jungle.” When this is your self-perception, then your attitude toward the native people of that “jungle”—Mizrahis and Palestinians—becomes hostile, says Noy. Palestinians aren’t permitted in the villa at all. Mizrahis are permitted “as conditional guests,” provided they can prove their loyalty. “They need to be more patriotic, to get rid of any trace of Arab-hood in their identity, their language, their cultures, their traditions, their history.” Egyptian singers such as Umm Kulthum can be appreciated privately, at home, but not publicly. Noy, whose family emigrated from Iran when she was 9, remembers her father smoking water pipes in Jerusalem’s Old City with Palestinians—“the closest thing he could experience to home”—yet supporting right-wing Israeli parties. “This schizophrenia became the defining experience of a whole community.”

The petition addresses two articles of the law: the one stripping Arabic of its status as an official state language, and the one encouraging Jewish settlement as a national value. Regarding Jewish settlement, Noy points to the historical experience of Mizrahis whenever demography has been engineered in Israel. In the early years of the state, Mizrahi immigrants were dumped in marginalized (“development”) towns and border neighborhoods and were the butt of discrimination by “admissions committees” in white, Ashkenazi communities. Palestinians weren’t interested in these Jewish-only communities (“built on Palestinians’ own stolen land,” adds Noy), while Mizrahi applicants were deemed “unsuitable.”

Reuven Abergel, a 76-year old activist who identifies as Arab, black, and Mizrahi, is a signatory to the petition. Abergel’s family was brought to Israel from Morocco in 1950, after being held for two years in a detention camp by the Zionist leadership. They were housed in Musrara, on the seam line bordering Jordanian-controlled East Jerusalem. The call to prayer on the Jordanian side made Abergel feel like he was back home in Morocco. Abergel, then 9, and his friends snuck across the border. “This is how we got arrested; we weren’t supposed to be there,” he says, adding, “just like they arrest Palestinian kids today.”

Abergel was, he says, “a kid who roamed the streets.” He wasn’t skipping school—there were no schools in Musrara. There was no running water or electricity, either, or even enough food. Abergel and his friends rotated in and out of juvenile detention centers. During those years, Yemeni Jewish babies were kidnapped from their parents and adopted by Ashkenazi families, and radiation treatment was forced on Mizrahi children to treat/prevent scalp ringworm, causing cancer and other illnesses. Jews from India protested their mistreatment in the early 1950s—the first to identify white supremacy in Israel, says Abergel. In 1959, after a policeman shot and wounded a Moroccan Israeli in the poor Wadi Salib neighborhood of Haifa, riots erupted—and spread to other heavily Mizrahi cities, like Tiberias and Beer-Sheva.

After Israel occupied East Jerusalem in 1967, Abergel found himself with Palestinian neighbors. “We all had the same culture, we ate similar food, we spoke Arabic,” he says. Mizrahis and Palestinians opened joint market stalls, coffee shops, construction companies. Abergel believes the political elite opposed these new alliances. “They started separating us from them—and escalating the oppression against them.” The increased oppression pushed Palestinians into militant resistance, says Abergel, damaging the new relationships. “Once again, we started calling them the enemy.”

Students had to walk through Musrara to access Hebrew University, whose  Mount Scopus campus had previously been behind enemy lines. Some wanted hashish, widely available in Musrara, “and this is how these students, the anarchists, became our friends, while their parents were our oppressors,” says Abergel. In 1970, students told him and his friends about global social movements, including the US Black Panthers. “That’s when we decided to get organized.”

Early in 1971, police arrested the Mizrahi youth for distributing leaflets, and then arrested those protesting the arrests. Abergel and other activists negotiated their comrades’ release. “This is the day the [Israeli] Black Panthers movement started.” Their demands were simple, he notes: to end police violence and stop mass Mizrahi incarceration, and get access to decent living conditions, education, health care, and employment. The Ashkenazi establishment responded with a heightened crackdown.

At the time, Abergel and his friends lacked political education. “We came from dealing hashish in streets, from spending time in different correctional institutions…but we understood that we touched a raw nerve.” The Black Panthers grew more serious. Abergel cowrote a Passover Haggadah through a Black Panther lens. In their version, the Exodus was from (rather than to) Israel, and Prime Minister Golda Meir was Pharaoh. They published a newspaper called The Words of the Black Panthers. Until then, Mizrahis had often been disconnected from one another in different regions of Israel, but “suddenly everybody knew what was happening in other places.” Panthers redistributed resources by swiping milk bottles from wealthy homes and breaking into warehouses run by Mapai (the dominant, Ashkenazi political party) to steal chicken, meat, and oil to distribute in Mizrahi neighborhoods.

The Panthers organized a large protest in May 1971 resulting in police brutality and fierce street fighting, injuring police and Panthers alike. “You could see stones and Molotovs flying in the air,” Abergel says. “We didn’t plan or want violence. We wanted social justice. The real violence is the institutional one.” The Israeli Panthers developed relationships worldwide, including with diaspora Palestinians and US Black Panthers. “We started to learn and understand the greater connections of the oppressive powers.”

 Today, Abergel is “busy day and night, with my identity, my culture.” Resisting the Nation-State Law is just one aspect of his struggle—but a crucial one. “[The law] tells me, ‘We erased the culture of your mother and father, the culture of the Rambam [acronym for the 12th-century Torah scholar Maimonides, who was exiled from Spain and settled in Fez and, later, Cairo].’” With all that’s been taken from him, Abergel says, “my language is the last thing left to fight for.”

 The Mizrahi petition is founded on expert opinions submitted by 11 scholars, including Yonatan Mendel from Ben-Gurion University, whose research focuses on Arabic in Jewish society. Arabic became an official language in Palestine in 1922, during the British Mandate. The Jewish Agency for Palestine accepted the 1947 UN partition plan, which included a commitment to protect minority rights, including language. When the state of Israel was established the following year, Arabic’s official status was maintained, albeit chiefly on a symbolic level.

“Israel was the only place back then where you would find all the spectrum of Arabic languages and dialects,” says Shenhav, of Israel’s early years. In addition to Palestinian Arabic, the influx of Mizrahi Jews brought dialects from Morocco, Iraq, Yemen, and Egypt. Yet, two generations later, Arabic is considered legitimate in military contexts only. In 2015, Mendel and Shenhav measured Arabic proficiency among Jewish Israelis. Less than 10 percent understood Arabic, and only 0.4 percent could read an Arabic novel. “There’s a gradual erasure of the Arabic language among Jews in Israel over the years, which is very, very depressing,” says Shenhav.

Most Ashkenazis don’t speak the European language of their origin, but Israel doesn’t border Europe, Mendel notes. “We border Palestinians, Syria, Egypt, and Lebanon. Arabic should have been preserved in the Jewish community.”

Shenhav recalls a conversation with the late Palestinian author Salman Natour, who was perplexed that Israeli Jews never learned the lingua franca. “From your attitude toward Arabic, it seems that you’re temporary residents here,” Natour told Shenhav.

“There’s a connection between attitude to language and attitude to speakers of that language,” Mendel says. The Nation-State Law reflects a hardening attitude toward Palestinians. Language is both a symptom of the segregation between Arabs and Jews and a facilitator of that segregation.

Mendel calls it “dangerous” to demote Arabic, which he calls Palestinian citizens’ last collective right. “Language is culture, language is identity.” Lowering the status of Arabic is akin to lowering the status of Palestinian citizens themselves. According to Mendel, “Israel wishes to degrade, to humiliate, the language and its speakers…and it’s like playing with fuel, it’s like playing with matches.”

Preserving Arabic’s status would reflect Israel’s democratic values, Mendel insists, and its Jewish values as well. Until the 12th century, Arabic was the most common language for most Jews, and continued to be a language of creative, philosophical, and religious writing for Eastern Jews. Indeed, Hebrew and Arabic share the same roots. Demoting Arabic cuts the tree from which Hebrew also grows.

Maintaining Arabic as an official language kept open a “narrow channel for Arab-Jewish thinking, looking at Arabic and Hebrew as two languages on the same shelf,” says Mendel. It helped to shine a small light on the existence of culture that is both Jewish and Arab, and the idea of nonseparation. It is precisely this bilingual, binational vision that scares the increasingly supremacist, nationalist Israeli political leadership. Jewish Israelis “want to have hierarchy: This is a Jewish country first, this is the Hebrew language first,” Mendel says. “An Arab is a non-Jew, a Jew is a non-Arab.” The very existence of Arab Jews threatens that false binary, a binary that the Nation-State Law strengthens. “People already forgot that Arabic used to be part and parcel of the Jewish identity, and especially the Jewish Arab identity, because it has been forced on them to forget this— because in order to become Israeli, you had to forget that you are also an Arab.”

Shenhav’s parents came to Israel from Baghdad. As a small child, Shenhav spoke only Arabic. “Then I went to kindergarten and I defied all this, because I wanted to be an Israeli. A ‘proper’ Israeli, not associated with the language of the enemy.” Shenhav was furious when his uncle outed him by shouting “Allah, Allah, Allah!” in public. As an adult, Shenhav changed his Iraqi last name (Sharabani) to Shenhav, “ivory” in Hebrew. “There’s nothing more white than Shenhav,” he says now, ruefully.

After Shenhav’s father passed away—ironically, one of the few Israeli fatalities of the 1991 Gulf War—Shenhav embraced his mother tongue in homage. He studied Arabic obsessively for two years, regaining his identity. He now refers to himself as Shenhav-Sharabani and tries to be “a real Arab Jew.” Shenhav’s effort to fully live this identity is “full of paradoxes,” including his very mastery of Arabic in order to reclaim his roots. His family laughed at his new Arabic, saying, “This is not our Arabic, it’s not the Iraqi dialect.” Still, Shenhav publicly calls out “Allah, Allah, Allah!” daily, transforming his shame into pride.

As a university student, Orly Noy interviewed Palestinians for a talk show at a binational radio station. At the same time, she enrolled in a course about Mizrahi politics. Noy realized that the two tracks—the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and Mizrahi politics—overlapped. “At a very early stage, I came to understand that the roots are the same,” says Noy.

Noy hopes the Mizrahi petition will stimulate co-resistance. The struggle, though, cannot center on improving Mizrahis’ position within the existing, distorted structure. “We need to work with Palestinian allies to break down the walls of that [structure] and to reestablish something completely equal.”

Noy references the 1959 Wadi Salib uprising. The demands of the impoverished Mizrahi youth included ending martial law over Palestinian citizens, which was in place from the end of the 1948 war until 1966. “They understood intuitively something very deep about this mutual interest of Palestinians and Mizrahis in Israel,” Noy says. For her, “reopening the channels to come up with a mutual political vocabulary that takes into regard both communities…that would be for me the most inspirational political project.”

From the time of Israel’s founding, Palestinians realized there was no possibility they could integrate into Israeli society; nor did they want to. Therefore, they retained a strong national and cultural identity. Mizrahis, however, “want so much to believe that they’re part of the system,” says Noy. For 70 years, they have played by the Zionist system’s rules. “They got rid of their names, they got rid of their language, they got rid of the history and of the culture, and they remained—with nothing.”

Gaps between Ashkenazis and Mizrahis in education and income persist, and in some cases are growing. Studies show lower-quality schools in Mizrahi towns and deep inequalities in budgets historically given to Mizrahi culture.  Noy believes this inequality is no accident. “It’s an immediate consequence of this white self-image of Israel as a Western country.” Yet Noy doesn’t want the Mizrahi discourse reduced to class. Though exclusionary state policies created endemic poverty, there are wealthy Mizrahis, and certain Israeli institutions (namely the military) have enabled a degree of integration. Noy is fighting for her ability to fulfill her Mizrahi identity, and to understand herself not as part of a colonial entity but as an indigenous inhabitant of the region. She demands the right to play a role in shaping her society, envisioning a state for all its citizens, with equal rights for both national entities. Most of all, Noy wants Israel to acknowledge—and embrace—its existence in the heart of the Middle East.

The petition isn’t the first Mizrahi legal battle. Vicki Shiran, a matriarch of the Mizrahi feminist movement, petitioned the High Court in 1981 against the Israel Broadcasting Authority, on grounds that it ignored Mizrahi contributions to Israeli nation-building. There have since been numerous other cases addressing discrimination against Mizrahis.

But Neta Amar-Shiff, a human rights attorney with Yemeni roots who wrote the current petition, calls it “groundbreaking,” because it stems from an identity that is simultaneously Arab and Jewish. The solidarity with Palestinians within the petition is rooted in geographically based Mizrahi identity, moving beyond Western notions of individual civil liberties. The petitioners are objecting to the law’s undemocratic suggestion of Jewish cultural supremacy. “Arabs and Jews are two sides of a single identity, upon which this country needs to flourish,” says Amar-Shiff.

Israel’s Basic Laws require substantial participation of those most affected.  This didn’t happen with the Nation-State Law, says Amar-Shiff. Historical documents and analyses that should have been considered during the legislative process were submitted as expert opinions, with Amar-Shiff making the legal claim that Mizrahis’ history of discrimination should have been considered before passing this Basic Law. On a personal level, Amar-Shiff considers the initiative an opportunity to make her own statement. “It’s an honor to file this petition,” she says.

The Mizrahi petition is one of 15 High Court petitions challenging the Nation-State Law. Other petitioners include human rights organizations, the High Commission for Arab Affairs, a left-Zionist party, and prominent Palestinian figures. After a series of extension requests from the state, all of which Israel’s High Court granted, the hearing had been scheduled for May 3 by 11 of the High Court’s 15 judges, but was once again postponed to an as yet undetermined date.

Abergel doesn’t believe much will change, whatever the court’s ruling. “Racism and oppression are still embedded in Zionist institutions and ideology,” he says, calling the Nation-State Law “one spot in this ongoing dark story.” Still, the struggle is important for him. “My kids, my grandchildren, my great-grandchildren, my neighbors—everybody will know and remember that I never gave up.”

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