A Democratic Mizrahi Vision

A Democratic Mizrahi Vision

No to the Constitutional Revolution and
No to the Old Regime

We, a collective of Mizrahi* citizens in Israel, hereby present a vision based on the fundamental values of democracy and citizenship in the fields of law, education, culture, media, housing, and more. Our vision strives to eliminate, rather than exacerbate, social inequities in the spirit and values of the Mizrahi struggle across the generations.

We believe that fundamental and comprehensive reform is sorely needed both in the judicial system and in public policy — but not in the racist and reactionary rendition promoted by the Kohelet Forum, nor in accordance with the “villa in the jungle” version of Israel’s pseudo-democracy — a model that has served Jews unequally based on their ethnic and racial origins, while excluding Israel’s Palestinian citizens altogether.

We have grave concerns about the new government’s plans to carry out a constitutional and Kahanist coup, which is bound to worsen the ongoing and systematic harm inflicted upon marginalized populations in Israel, by further entrenching social inequities. At the same time, we have no desire to restore the Old Regime: that pseudo-democratic model predicated upon violent social injustice and a hostile, separatist attitude toward the Middle East, including the non-white/non-European Israelis who hail from the region, be they Jews or non-Jews. We are especially outraged by the cynical appropriation and manipulation of Mizrahi discourse by the conservative right in the service of political interests utterly foreign to the essence of the Mizrahi struggle.

We, activists in the various Mizrahi and civic struggles of recent decades, are deeply concerned by the new government’s plan to carry out a constitutional, educational, evangelical, and Kahanist coup. We believe that this coup has no intention of improving either the status or living conditions of Israeli citizens and residents. As made evident in recent weeks, the consequences of this coup are bound to further diminish the already-limited democratic public sphere, expand violence and oppression, increase social inequality, silence critical pedagogical discourse, and curtail the possibility of fighting state injustices, for which all prior and present Israeli governments are responsible.

At this critical moment, we must speak loudly and clearly about our Mizrahi past and vision for the future — from a realistic vantage point on the present. The Mizrahi struggles of our predecessors against the oppression we experienced and continue to experience — from both rightwing and leftwing hegemonic forces — have always called for the expansion of democratic rights, which never guaranteed equality to all. Although the State of Israel has defined itself as a “democracy” from day one, we, Mizrahim, as well as other marginalized communities, were never granted full democratic rights. We fought, and continue to fight, against inequality before the law and all attempts to oppress and delegitimize us further. We continue to demand a just distribution of resources and adequate political representation, the redress of wrongdoings (including the crimes committed against the families of abducted Yemenite, Mizrahi, and Balkan children) and fight for the due place of Mizrahi history and culture in Israeli society. Despite the impressive achievements of the Mizrahi struggle thus far, blatant inequities and injustices are still imprinted upon the social, economic, and political fabric of Israeli society and continue to color it to this day.

A culture of democracy is the lifeblood of democratic institutions such as the separation of powers, free and fair media, adherence to the rule of law, and basic laws that guarantee civil rights. Israel was founded, and continues to see itself today, as a “villa in the jungle,” i.e. a democracy-for-the-few hostile to its Arab and Muslim surroundings. This derogatory disposition is ingrained in the state’s attitude toward its citizens who are native to the region, including Mizrahim. The tight linkages between neoliberal capitalism and racist colonial practices, which at their core share notions of white supremacy, hatred of the poor, and anti-labor sentiments — have created socioeconomic inequities in the distribution of public resources and unequal opportunities in all areas of Israeli life, including cultural representation, education, employment, housing, and equality-before-the-law.

Today, we do not lament: “There goes democracy…” as many other Israelis are doing right now. The reason is that full democracy for Mizrahim, Palestinians, Ethiopians, and immigrants from the former Soviet Union was never really in place — so where could such “democracy” possibly go?! The current crisis presents an opportunity to envision a real democratic horizon — not one that longs for an imagined past but one that strives instead to transform the oppressive power structures at their core, for the benefit of everyone who inhabits this land.

The historical Mizrahi struggle for recognition and equality has always been grounded in universal values and the demand for comprehensive justice for all. The struggles of Communist Mizrahim in the early 1950s, the uprising in Wadi Salib in the late 1950s, the Mizrahi Black Panthers in the 1970s, the Tent Movement of the 1980s, the Mizrahi Democratic Rainbow Coalition of the 1990s, and the 21st-century Feminist Mizrahi movements Achoti (My Sister) and Shovrot Kirot (Breaking Walls), as well as the determined women fighting for public housing, have all stood for systemic change. This is also the spirit underlying the Mizrahi petition against the Nation-State Law.

We are unimpressed by empty words and statements about the lack of Mizrahi representation — from both the right and the left — if they are not based on a deep commitment to fundamental changes in the regime of inequality.

In recent years, we have witnessed many attempts by government officials to appropriate Mizrahi struggles and make cynical political use of them. Instead of learning from Mizrahi criticism against secular Zionist hegemony, which is chiefly Ashkenazi, and from Mizrahi efforts to improve the socioeconomic standing of Mizrahim in Israeli society, the government is instrumentalizing Mizrahi criticism to both fortify its own political standing and neutralize protest against rightwing policies that consistently harm Mizrahim, alongside other marginalized groups. We have been consistent in our critique of Ashkenazi Zionist hegemony. We, therefore, emphasize that those Mizrahi politicians who speak in our name, and in the name of the socioeconomically “transparent” sectors of society, yet have never lifted a finger in the fight against poverty and inequality in their consecutive years as members of government — do not represent us.

The cooptation by rightwing pundits and politicians of the discursive fruits of the Mizrahi struggle and our collective demands for representation, coined in concepts such as “the second Israel” or “periphery and center,” has turned the discussion over recognition and rights into a forceful political confrontation wherein ignorance of Mizrahi history and culture has increased and the profound problems of the present have been silenced. The rightwing politicians who ostensibly attack the hegemony today have never participated in the struggles for equality in education, the equitable re-drawing of local council jurisdictions, the expansion of public housing, the prevention of evictions, and the struggle against forced removals of Mizrahi residents of neighborhoods such as Kfar Shalem, Givat Amal, Abu Kabir, and HaArgazim.

Figures such as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Minister of Justice Yariv Levin, and Knesset Law Committee Chair MK Simcha Rothman — who are currently implementing the constitutional revolution — do not represent the Mizrahi public in any way, nor are they working to advance its interests. Netanyahu, Levin, and Rothman are the contemporary representatives of Ashkenazi hegemony, with its attendant racism and discrimination. Within the framework of the constitutional revolution, Rothman, as well as Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich, seek to undermine the right of association and the right to strike with the intention of leaving few tools of resistance in workers’ hands. These neoliberal machinations, perpetrated in the service of the wealthy and with the help of the evangelical financiers of the Kohelet Forum, will harm the very social “periphery” on whose behalf they seemingly speak, along with Israeli society at large, while undermining and reversing the achievements of the Mizrahi struggle.

As a feminist sociopolitical struggle, we have always called for partnerships with other oppressed groups with the understanding that our oppression does not exist in a vacuum separable from Israeli society, and with the understanding that meaningful change can come about only through genuine alliances and the rejection of divide and rule tactics. As the late Mizrahi feminist Vicki Shiran elucidated: “The work of revealing the linkages between gender, class, race, ethnicity, and nationality under the difficult circumstances of occupation, war, and death is almost impossible, but it is undoubtedly  essential.“

For years, we hoped that the Mizrahi historical memory we bring with us to Israeli society, i.e. generations of Jewish-Muslim coexistence (marked by closeness and crisis alike) across the Middle East and North Africa; a vital Jewish life immersed in the Arabic language; dynamic comings and goings in a shared space for centuries — would help bring about a process of reconciliation and rapprochement between Israeli Jews and Palestinians. We are thus appalled by the nationalist and racist Kahanist vision that the present government promotes, which seeks to persuade the public that violence, fear, separation, oppression, and deportation will somehow bring “security,” without admitting that it will only unleash yet another vicious cycle of violence and vengeance.

Instead of addressing the lack of personal safety that most civilians sense, especially women — as a consequence of increased state-sanctioned violence — Ben-Gvir and his partners generate more violence. They propagate the “lack of governance” lie and call for excessive policing and mass inflation of personal arms. These “magic solutions” are bound to harm women, children, and families in the periphery, as well as Israeli society as a whole.

Our decades-old criticism of the judiciary and the Supreme Court in particular — whose homogeneous ethnic composition is overwhelmingly Ashkenazi — has always been based on the demand to expand democracy and increase equality, contrary to the political right that actively acts to diminish and reduce them.

We hereby wish to present an alternative, hopeful, forward-looking vision wherein we aspire to see the land we live in as a fertile and egalitarian space shared by Jews and Arabs, Mizrahim and Ashkenazim, Russian and Ethiopian emigres, asylum seekers and refugees; a place where Jews, Muslims, and Christians come together alongside LGTBQ and straight folk, women and men, secular, traditional, orthodox, and ultra-orthodox. We believe in the potential of this land to provide its inhabitants with a good life based on equality, justice, peace, and democracy.

We, the undersigned, call upon the government and the Knesset to halt immediately the current legislative proceedings. Instead of phony compromises under the guise of “negotiations” between “right” and “left” — that commonly take place well above the heads of citizens and residents alike — and instead of would-be magic solutions “in the name of the people” that only exacerbate violence, curtail the power of civilians to fight for justice, and leave inequality intact — we call for profound, far-reaching change in all the aforementioned domains, for the sake of substantive democracy, justice, and equality.

February 2023

*Literally ”Eastern” in Hebrew, Mizrahi denotes Jews of Middle Eastern and North African origin.

**Refers to the extreme rightwing ideology of the late Meir Kahana and his political disciples, such as acting Minister of Police Itamar Ben Gvir.