By Adam Hanieh
The official ideology of Israel, Zionism, has always portrayed itself as a liberation movement for all Jews. But although Zionism claims to offer a home for all Jews, that home has never been offered equally.
The question of Arab Jews strikes at the heart of the Zionist contradiction — an attempt to build an anti- Arab, exclusively Jewish state on Arab lands.
From the early days of the Zionist project, large numbers of Jews from neighbouring Arab countries were brought to Palestine. Ostensibly they were "returning home", but in reality they came as cheap labour for their European counterparts (Ashkenazi Jews).
These Arab Jews were given the name Mizrahim (the eastern ones).
Official Israeli history presents the emigration of Mizrahi as a result of anti-Semitism within the countries where they lived or a religious devotion to the land of Palestine. This account forgets the economic interests of the Ashkenazi Zionists and the long and largely untroubled relationship between Mizrahi Jews and the other Arabs with whom they lived.
Mizrahim had lived in North Africa and the Middle East for millennia, and the vast majority were opposed to creating a Jewish state in Palestine. The Iraqi Jewish leadership, for example, cooperated with the Iraqi government to stop Zionist activity in Iraq; the chief rabbi published an open letter denouncing Zionism.
In 1920, Palestinian Jews signed anti-Zionist petitions denouncing Ashkenazi rule.
It is now well documented that Zionist underground cells planted bombs in Jewish centres to create hysteria amongst Iraqi Jews, hoping to encourage a mass exodus to Israel. On January 14, 1951, a bomb was thrown into an Iraqi synagogue, killing four people.
Of course these acts of terror by the Zionist movement did not happen in isolation from the corrupt Arab governments of the time, most of which were supported by the British, who had overtly backed the Zionist movement with the Balfour declaration of 1917.
The Mizrahim who arrived in Israel landed in corrugated iron transit camps where Israeli officials attempted to strip them of their "Arabness" by getting rid of their "unpronounceable" Arab names and replacing them with good "Jewish" names.
Most ended up in agricultural work, 10-12 hours a day in conditions of disease and squalor. Their high death rate was explained by one Zionist official as a "common and natural thing".
One particularly damning example of the European approach to Mizrahim was the infamous "kidnapped children of Yemen" affair. Doctors, social workers and nurses worked together to kidnap 600 Yemeni-Jewish babies, telling their parents they had died and giving them to childless Ashkenazi couples.
A massive protest rally was held in 1986 to demand the truth, but it was ignored by the Israeli media. A few months later, Israeli television produced a documentary which blamed a bureaucratic system for spreading rumours and perpetuated the myth of Mizrahim as careless parents.
Today Mizrahim constitute around 50% of the Israeli population. Palestinian Arabs make up another 20%, so the total non-European population is about 70%. This rises to 90% with the inclusion of Palestinians from the occupied territories, making clear the colonial nature of Israel.
Mizrahim and Palestinian Arabs make up the vast majority of the Israeli working class, concentrated in lower paid sectors and largely ignored by the official trade union movement, the Histadrut.
Such experiences have naturally led to protest. In 1959 a widespread rebellion began in a neighbourhood of Haifa called Wadi-Salib. It was crushed by the Israeli military.
A significant stage of the Mizrahi movement arose in the '70s with the Black Panther movement. The Panthers took a revolutionary outlook from the black struggle in the US and Marxist movements in Latin America. They called for the destruction of the regime and a state that did not discriminate on the basis of religion, origin or nationality.
In May 1971 a demonstration of tens of thousands was organised by the Panthers against police repression. Some 170 activists were arrested and 35 were hospitalised through clashes with the police.
The Panthers were the first Mizrahim to make links with the Palestinian movement, even conducting talks with the then outlawed PLO.
Another Mizrahi movement known as the Tents movement developed. These activists protested against the squalid housing conditions of Mizrahim by squatting in vacant apartments in wealthy Ashkenazi suburbs and erecting large tent camps.
They drew links between the billions spent in the occupied territories to build settlements and the underprivileged neighbourhoods in which Mizrahim were forced to live.
The Zionist left in Israel, which consists mostly of western educated Ashkenazi, likes to portray Mizrahim as right wing, uncritical and easily swayed by populist demagogues.
The leaders of Peace Now, whose membership is almost exclusively Ashkenazi, scapegoat Mizrahim for "supporting the occupation", "turning Israel into an anti-democratic state" and being "obstacles to peace". These attitudes obscure important points.
Firstly, the policies of occupation and war have been designed and implemented by Ashkenazi, who have until recently dominated Israeli politics.
Secondly, the leaders of all the right-wing parties are Ashkenazim. It is true that a relatively large proportion of Mizrahim vote for Likud, but this has less to do with Likud's policies towards Palestinians and more to do with the social devastation caused by years of rule by the Labour Party, the traditional party of Ashkenazi Zionism.
Thirdly, significant acts of solidarity with Palestinians initiated by Mizrahi have been erased from the history books.
Mizrahi and Likud
In the 1981 elections, Likud came to victory because of its image as the party of Mizrahim which would end Labour Party rule.
The leader of Likud, ex-paramilitary thug and Ashkenazi Zionist Menachem Begin, cultivated this image through cooption of many of the leaders of the Black Panthers and Tents movement.
Begin's second in command was David Levi, a Mizrahi who knew how to use the Panthers' rhetoric, but emptied of content. Levi ever since has used Mizrahi protests while preventing them from going too far.
During the Likud period in power, 1977-92, the social gap between Ashkenazi and Mizrahi did not narrow. Today David Levi continues as leader of his own party, Gesher, in the coalition government of Benyamin Netanyahu.
During the mid-'80s another reflection of Mizrahi discontent arose with the creation of the Shas party. Shas arose as a rebellion by ultra-orthodox Mizrahim who were studying in the Ashkenazi rabbinical schools.
Ultra-orthodox society is openly racist against Mizrahim, and Shas wanted to change this through establishing its own party and education system. Shas now wields important political power and currently has 10 seats in parliament.
It represents a false attempt to solve Mizrahi oppression by focusing solely on religion. However, it does reflect Mizrahi discontent with both Labour and Likud politics; one estimate puts four out of 10 Shas seats as due to the support of non-orthodox Mizrahi.
A new generation
Recently some developments in Mizrahi politics identify the root cause of Mizrahi oppression as the Zionist state and stress the need to build links with Palestinians.
One section of this movement is the Democratic Rainbow Movement, which is beginning a struggle over public lands.
Some 93% of Israeli territory is classified as state land, most of which was stolen from Palestinians who were expelled in 1948. Since the early '90s, Labour and Likud have been attempting to privatise this land and public housing.
Most Mizrahi, who tend to live in the lowest standard public housing, will have no chance of owning their own apartments. However, the Kibbutz and Moshav communities (dominated by Ashkenazi) are being provided with free apartments under the legislation.
In the past, Mizrahim were often forced to live in development towns and settlements near the Israeli border or often within the occupied territories. As Israeli control has expanded, these areas have become prime real estate, leading to the eviction of Mizrahi and an influx of Ashkenazi.
This is particularly true of Jerusalem, where Israeli yuppies are now moving into settlements once populated by Mizrahi.
The Mizrahi movement inevitably comes up against the question of Palestinian rights. Rather than seeing their struggle as one for a "bigger slice of the Zionist pie" many Mizrahi believe the struggle must be a joint one.
Another Mizrahi movement is HILA, the Public Committee for Education in the Underprivileged Neighbourhoods. HILA works with activist parents in an attempt to reveal the distortions about Mizrahi history taught in Israeli schools.
Other groups have been established on universities and high schools that bring together Palestinian and Mizrahi youth. One of these groups, Tzah, organised a protest in April against a racist textbook used in the Hebrew University.
A founder of Tzah and a current leader of Hila, Shiko Behar, has written extensively on the real Mizrahi history, including opposition to Zionism and in support of Palestinian rights.
These activists also reject the attempt by Likud and Shas to speak for the Mizrahim. As one Mizrahi activist told Green Left, "We need to liberate Mizrahi and Arab-Jewish identity from the Zionist framework — and that means the framework of Likud and Shas as well".