An Israeli journalist—born to Iraqi Jews and raised in England—presents a unique perspective on Israeli history: that of the oft-vilified Jewish immigrants from Arab countries.
As Shabi amply demonstrates, the Arab Jewish minorities who first settled in Israel, or Mizrahis, were treated by the Zionist Ashkenazi founders (Jews from Europe) as inferior and even “uncivilized,” suffering discrimination that still remains entrenched. The Sephardic Jews already living in Palestine when the European Zionists created the New Settlement had well-established business and social connections with the Arabs, and indeed maintained the so-called Oriental characteristics that were lost in the Diaspora. Yet the Jews of the Old Settlement were held suspect by the British-backed Zionists, who believed the Arabs were a corrupting influence on “authentic Jewish values.” The Yemenis, for example, first arriving in Palestine in the 1910s, were said to possess “the lifelong habits of the Arab,” and became the solution to “Hebrew labor”—that is, relegated to the low-wage, dead-end work that the Arabs had done. “Development towns,” established on the outskirts of the state between 1952 and 1964 to house migrants, are overwhelmingly made up of Mizrahis, and they tend to be the poorest places in Israel. Shabi also looks at other groups, including the Iraqi Jews, and chronicles their litany of discrimination, as well as the stigma associated with the Mizrahi accent—wherein the lost gutturals of Hebrew still reside—and the Mizrahi students’ tendency toward low achievement in education. Although Israelis often silence these groups from speaking Arabic, Mizrahi music, notes Shabi, is making a comeback.
A finely calibrated, intimate portrait of a diverse people, imbued with authenticity sympathy.