July 2, 2009

MORE THAN MEETS THE EYE: Social and Ethnic Divisions Among Israeli Jews and the Politics of Palestine

by Bob Kosuth

On June 13th about 35 folks gathered at the Friends Meeting Hall in Duluth to hear a presentation by anthropologist and feminist Dr. Smadar Lavie, Hubert H. Humphrey Distinguished Visiting Professor of the Islamic World and the Middle East at Macalester College. To do complete justice to all she covered would be impossible, so let me focus on just two major aspects that are likely to be new to many readers--the nature of the Mizrahim population and why it has pushed Israeli politics to the right.

The Mizrahim are Jews whose origins are North Africa and the former Ottoman Empire margins of Europe. They make up 63% of the Jewish population of Israel and 50% of the total population of the state of Israel when one includes the Palestinian citizens of Israel. Though the majority, they are generally socially and economically at the bottom of Israeli society. On the other hand, the Ashkenazi Jews from Eastern and Central Europe, though numerically a minority, form the economic and cultural elite of Israeli society and represent the familiar European face of Israel typically seen by the rest of the world.

From 1948 till the present, the Mizrahim have been settled in the border zones of Israel by the politically powerful Ashkenazim. The Ashkenazi right wing's policy of settlements has been a boon to the economically disadvantaged Mizrahim, who have received good affordable housing and other benefits in return for their political allegiance to the right. Thus, they have been the major contributing factor to the rightward drift of electoral politics. According to Lavie, the Mizrahim are considered "true Israelis" only when they become cannon fodder on border zones or pawns to replace expelled Palestinians in order to make impossible their legitimate right of return. The ultimate irony is that, being of Middle Eastern origin and economically disadvantaged, the Mizrahim have the greatest potential for dialogue--if not coalition--with the Palestinian citizens of Israel and Palestinians at large. It's their manipulation by the elite Ashkenazi minority that prevents this. Netanyahu's current government is only the latest manifestation. In Lavie's view, putting the Mizrahim in settlements is not unlike the movement of poor landless Scots to Northern Ireland by the British.

Much more could be said and sadly I have not at all covered the complexity of how feminism within the various groups figures in the equation. Mizrahi feminism is inspired by US feminists of color while Ashkenazi establishment feminism reflects the limitations of their class status.

Given the circumstances, Professor Lavie's conclusion is that the clock is ticking on a just solution to the problem of Palestine. For her, a just and lasting peace would only be accomplished through a secular one-state solution because only such a state could encompass all the social class, religious and cultural variation within Palestinian, Mizrahi and Ashkenazi cultures.

In any case, no solution is possible without an understanding of the social class, economic and power disparities between Ashkenazi and Mizrahi Jews. Potential US or European intermediaries have to speak directly to the concerns of the Mizrahim and not just talk to their Ashkenazi manipulators.

To say the least, the challenges are daunting.

-Bob Kosuth , Duluth MN BBC (rkosuth(at)hotmail(dot)com)

For a fuller treatment by Ms. Lavie, see: http://electronicin tifada.net/v2/article10208. shtml
or Left Curve no. 33, 2009 (www.leftcurve. org) "A Year into the Lebanon2 War"

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