Rethinking Mizra Him | Zionism | Jews –

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Rethinking Mizrahim: Examining Neo-Zionism and Mizrahi Studies

Article April 2014


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Zachary SmithSOAS, University of London7 PUBLICATIONS0 CITATIONS


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The user has requested enhancement of the downloaded file.Rethinking Mizraim: Examining Neo-Zionism and Mizrai Studies

Zachary Smith

22 April 2014Smith 2


This paper seeks to examine and deconstruct two groups and the relationships between

them: the Israeli national-religious settler movement and the Israeli Jews of Middle Eastern and

North African descent, or mizraim. In academic, journalistic and popular literature, these groups

are rarely placed in the same discursive space. Rather, they frequently find themselves

implicated at divergent ends of the relationships of power that define the Israeli Jewish polity

and socioeconomic structures. How has the image of the settler as white, ashkenazi, middle-

class, religiously and ideologically driven been produced? Conversely, how has the critical

scholarship on mizraim in Israel, which locates mizraim both spatially and economically at the

periphery of Israeli Jewish society, constructed an imagined mizrai subject with no relationship

to the image of the settler above? This essay will seek to understand the real overlap between

these two contrasting pictures and discuss the participation of mizraim in the neo-Zionist

project. While these questions demand a much fuller theoretical discussion than this short piece

will be able to detail, I seek to propose in this paper a new way of thinking mizraim and neo-

Zionists, and, by extension, mizrai participation in and reproduction of ashkenazi hegemony.

In exploring these topics, this essay will begin by briefly outlining two fields of inquiry.

The first is critical scholarship on mizraim and the socio-spatial periphery of Israel, especially

highlighting areas in which theoretical and practical gaps exist that contribute to the production

of the mizrai individual as disconnected from the settlement enterprise. The second is a

discussion of neo-Zionism, bringing to the fore the image of the ideologically motivated settler

as ashkenazi and middle-class, from the geographic and economic core of Israel. In doing so, it

will consider the national-religious group Gush Emunim (Bloc of the Faithful) and its successors

juxtaposed with the practical reasons behind settlers presence in the occupied territories. Finally,Smith 3

this paper will conclude with a larger attempt at outlining the potential participation of mizraim

in the neo-Zionist movement and as a part of neo-Zionist ideological frameworks.

Mizrahim and Critical Mizrahi Studies

Critical studies of mizraim have centred on the lasting effects of the absorption-

modernisation policy on the new immigrants from the Middle East and North Africa (MENA).

Scholars have documented these groups as the Jewish victims of Zionism,1 deconstructed the

societal dichotomy of Arab and Jew through the figure of the mizrai,2 critiqued the stereotype

of mizraim as traditional,3 and situated them on the socio-spatial periphery of the Jewish state.4

Academics have struggled to define this group, situated in the third space between the affluent

Ashkenazi elite and the dispossessed indigenous Palestinians,5 as they are alternately referred to

as Sephardim, Arab-Jews, mizraim and Jews of MENA descent. This paper will settle on the

term mizraim, which resists opposing tendencies to divide this group and links to their struggle

against marginalisation and discrimination.6 The mizrai struggle against forced settlement in

development towns and assimilation into a quasi-European Hebrew culture while demanding

equality with ashkenazi elites is real, from the 1959 Wadi Salib riots, to the 1970s Black Panther

movement, to current efforts for integrated schooling and political rights led by the Mizrahi

Democratic Rainbow.7 What is missing from this narrative is any sense of mizrai agency

outside of the struggle against ashkenazi oppression, any understanding of active mizrai

participation in the Zionist project. While this paper will not engage with the history of

1Shohat (1988).2Shenhav (2006).3Shafir and Peled (2002).4Yiftachel (2000); Shohat (1999).5Bhabha (1994).6Chetrit (2009); Goldberg and Bram (2007).7Chetrit (2009).Smith 4

discrimination against mizraim, this section will explore how this history has constructed an

image of the mizrai with no relation to the Zionist settlement project.

The location and history of mizrai communities has considerable implications for

consideration of Israel as a democracy, liberal or otherwise. Sociologist Sammy Smooha has

argued that Israel fits the ethnic democracy model, in particular emphasising the state

preference for the Jewish ethnie and lack of full rights for the Arab minority.8 Smoohas model,

however, generally ignores the systemic stratification between ashkenazi and mizrai

communities, to say nothing of former Soviet Union and Ethiopian immigrants. Differentiations

within Jewish society between various ethnic groupshave a great impact on the character of

Israeli regime and especially on democracy.9 In contrast, Oren Yiftachels ethnocracy model

draws on a broader range of case studies in developing ethnocratic theory and applying it to the

Israeli case. Ethnocracies are regimes premised on a main project of ethnonational expansion

and control and on a parallel self-representation of the system as democratic and are stratified

not only by ethnonational group (Jewish-Arab) but by ethnoclasses (ashkenazi-mizrahi).10

Ethnocracies are both non-authoritarian because of the granting of significant civil-political

rights to ethnonational minorities and non-democratic because of the rupturing of the demos

the seizure of the state by one ethnonational group.11 I do not take issue with Yiftachels

characterisation of the Israeli polity and state; indeed, I very much agree with his critique of

Smooha.12 Rather, I am struck by his lack of engagement with the other half of the data he

presents on mizraim.

8Smooha (2002).9Jamal (2002), 414.10Yiftachel (2006), 5.11ibid., 32.12Ganim, Rouhana and Yiftachel (1998).Smith 5

Yiftachel situates mizraim, both in Ethnocracy and in scholarly articles, both on the

spatial and political periphery of the Israeli state and as a trapped ethnoclass between ashkenazi

elites and the Palestinian ethnonational minority. This builds on Bhabas conception of third

space in that an ethnoclass in entrapment also faces significant obstacles in their mobilisation

against endemic marginalisation.13 Mizraim are trapped by Zionism in that even as European-

led Zionism marginalises mizrai communities, the communities themselves have come to

terms with, and even sustained, the Zionist settlement project that marginalized them in Israeli

society.14 In recognising this, Yiftachel seems to approach a dual understanding of mizraim as

both victimised by and continuously reifying Zionist ideology. Yet, in mapping the location of

mizrai-dominated development towns on Israels frontiers, development towns situated in the

occupied West Bank are characterised as towns, not settlements.15 This is deeply confusing:

why are mizraim allowed to be settled in towns but not actively settle the frontier themselves?

The confusion extends further when considering Yiftachels documentation of mizrai social

distance/closeness with regard to other groups in Israeli society. Mizraim of both the first and

second generation feel neither particularly close nor distant towards settlers in the West Bank,

but feel very distant towards both Palestinian citizens of Israel and Palestinians in the occupied

territories.16 Ninety-five percent of mizraim identify as Zionists. The internalisation of

ethnocratic logic among mizraim, in short, seems very strong. In this sense, even as the

marginalisation of mizraim continues, it is not surprising that mizaim can also be found in

13Bhabha (1994).14Yiftachel (2006), 211.15Dalsheim (2008).16See Figure 9.3 in Yiftachel (2006), 222.Smith 6

significant numbers in settlements like Ariel and Maale Adumim, active agents in the neo-

Zionist settlement project.17

Before discussing neo-Zionism and the settlement of the occupied territories more

directly, I want to offer a few questions that could help frame an understanding of how the image

of the mizrai is produced. First, given the mizrai presence in development towns, and these

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