Sunday, July 28, 2002

The following is dedicated to SAH, although I don’t think this is exactly what she had in mind:

Keeping the anger and bitterness alive (and not Palestinians this time).
A friend told me that there are plans to establish a new far left political party in Israel. She said that among others, Hakeshet Hademokratit Hamizrahit might be taking part. This got my attention because this movement interests me.

Hakeshet Hademokratit Hamizrahit is a far left movement established by Jews originating from Arab countries. This is unusual in Israel because the majority of Sephardi and Mizrahi (Eastern) Jews in Israel are hawkish and tend to vote for right wing and nationalist parties. Hakeshet Hademokratit (translation of the name: the Eastern Democratic Spectrum) has been trying to raise awareness in Israel's slums and "development towns" on social and economic issues.

So far their public struggles have lead to a law allowing people living in public housing to cheaply purchase the homes they’ve been living in and paying a low rent for, for many these years. The idea is based on the fact that many kibbutzim and moshavim have been selling parts of the state land they live on and cultivate to real estate companies and realizing the profits. Hakeshet Hademokratit claims that there is no difference between the kibbutzim and moshavim’s rights to their homes and the rights of people living in public housing, squatters and Arabs living in “unofficial” villages. On the other hand, they are opposed to the sale of state-owned agricultural land for personal profit, a practice the kibbutzim and moshavim are engaging in under the auspices of the Israel Lands Council.

All this seemed to me to be very just and I began reading articles by people affiliated with Hakeshet Hademokratit. I was saddened by what I found. Many of these articles reveal a strongly anti-Zionist sentiment and are filled with a romantic yearning for their past in Arab countries. The writers claim that they feel much more connected to what they see as their Arab brethren than to Ashkenazi Jews and to the State of Israel.

They seem to be motivated by deep hatred for European culture and by feelings of being personally wronged by all Ashkenazis (Jews from European origin) and what they call the ruling Ashkenazi elite. Hakeshet Hademokratit is made up of a highly intellectual and educated group. Many of them are deeply influenced by European philosophy and political and social thinking. It seems it’s only Jewish European culture that offends them so much.

Some time ago I began visiting Kedma, the Israeli Eastern portal. It has a very active forum, with extremely learned and intelligent discussions on the matters of Eastern Jews’ discrimination that they see as inherent in Israeli society. They also widely discuss Israel’s Nazi tactics with regard to the Palestinians. The forum is strongly anti-Askenazi. It seems they are prepared to make allowances only for Ashkenazis that bow to their views and accept their cultural superiority.

Sami Shalom Shitreet, educator and poet, is editor of the portal, and runs the forum. I first heard about this guy when he opened a school in a South Tel Aviv neighborhood a few years ago. The goal of the school was education from an unapologetic Eastern point of view, making a point of teaching the kids about their Eastern cultural heritage. I though at the time that this sounded like a good idea, and mentally wished him luck. Sadly, the school was a dismal failure. In the last year or two of its existence, the school had tiny registration numbers and it closed (I remember reading in the local paper that there were six new kids in the school’s last year). At the time, the local newspaper suggested that this was because the children and their parents didn’t want to be classified as specifically “Eastern”, and preferred to go to ordinary “mixed” schools. Shitreet claims that the Municipality was against him from the start and gave him a hard time (even though it was a publicly funded school).

Other educators regard Sami Shalom Shitreet as a very talented and able educator. I had a few short discussions with him on the portal forum, and he was always very nice and soft-spoken even when we disagreed. But his articles show him as angry and vindictive. He holds the view that most Eastern Jews are brainwashed into despising their own cultural background. I think that’s another one of the reasons he gives for the failure of the Kedma School in Tel Aviv.

But this doesn’t explain the huge popularity for Eastern style Israeli music and dancing (and not only amongst Eastern Jews) in Israel today. Eastern style (“belly”) dancing and darbuka (Eastern drum) are very fashionable evening classes for grown-ups and children, in affluent neighborhoods and not only in working class areas. Kedma people seem to despise this popular stuff as garbage orientalism. Some people are never satisfied.

People from Hakeshet Hademokratit and Kedma believe that racial discrimination, purposely directed by the state and the “Ashkenazi elite”, against Jews from Arab countries has kept them down, socially and economically. I agree there has been discrimination. I agree we must work to close social and economic gaps. I think investing in education in poor and peripheral areas is paramount.

But seeing the discrimination as intentional and conspiratorial and directed by the state and by the “Ashkenazi elite” as do the people from Hakeshet Hademokratit and Kedma is wrong and can be very harmful. I believe that the discrimination stems mainly from ignorance and fear of change. And we’ve come a long way in this respect in the last forty years or so.

I know so many educated and accomplished Sephardi Jews (I even married one), many with powerful jobs and successful businesses that I disagree vehemently with the assertion that racial discrimination has forcibly kept down Eastern Jews and kept them out of the ruling elite. In both my daughters’ classes in a school in a well-to-do North Tel Aviv neighborhood, at least 2/5 of the students are Sephardi or mixed (this is an estimate, I haven’t counted). This could not be the case if there was active discrimination, or if Sephardis were unwelcome in Ashkenazi dominated neighborhoods. Of course, Hakeshet and Kedma people despise these successful Sephardi Jews who belong to “the elite” as being brainwashed and as serving to prolong the injustice.

I support Hakeshet’s lobbying for equality and impartiality in the distribution of state investments in education and housing. I agree that Eastern Jews have a rich history and culture that should be taught in schools. I think this is all in order, and timely. But Hakeshet and Kedma seem to be coming from a place of deep hatred, and are working to actively spread this hatred, and this, in my mind, is destructive and harmful.