While the Zionist movement as envisioned by the founders of modern Zionism (Theodor Herzl, 1897) was created within Eurocentrist thought, the reigning rhetoric was, in fact, one of separation from Europeanism, and the creation of a "new Israel." It was this sort of pioneer in the revived homeland that stood at the center of the cultural and ideological activity during the Yishuv (pre-state) period. The foundations of the Zionist vision described in Herzl's Old New Land, 1902, however, were elitist and exclusive. The cities of Tiberias and Jerusalem, for example, were to become holy, and the book's heroes spoke about how they could purify themselves from everyday profanities and from the merchants and the dirt of city life. New melodies by Heine were to be introduced into the environment in which marble, gold and pure whiteness would reign once again. The Arabs were described in a patronizing tone. The language was to be determined according to the cultural preference of the speakers, and the national language of the past was not to be forced on the incipient society.1
The early Zionists, for purposes of self-interpreting the particular cultural position of the emergent society, made do with a general "other": on the one hand Arab, and on the other hand Diaspora-Jewish. From the outset, the society was saturated with images caught in the tension between Eurocentrism and Orientalism, but dominated by the Eurocentrist view of the "Oriental." Zionism was founded on Eurocentrism and injected Enlightenment knowledge and values into the various realms of life (politics, sociology, the military, ideology, science, and into what Edward Said calls the collective "imaginative").2 It was these that determined the terms and criteria of belonging to the "Israeli society" and its emerging institutions. The degree of proximity or distance from the newly formed society was based on an imagined Israeli identity founded on Eurocentrism. The Oriental part of Israel was of interest to the forefathers of the Yishuv, but, as a hegemonic society, it first had to be cleansed of its Oriental traits through a war against the Levantine spirit. In the words of Ben-Gurion, "We don't want Israelis to become Arabs."3
In his book on Orientalism, Said claims that the definition of identity, and more specifically the Eurocentric definition, needed an opposing "other," based on which it would define its selfhood. It could be assumed then, that Eurocentrism from a Zionist standpoint embodied the Arab as "other." Why, then, did Zionism need an additional "other," its own private "other," besides the Arab who embodied for it the Oriental "other"? Why did it need a Mizrahi (Eastern Jew) whom it would negate even as it absorbed it into its society?
"Mizrahi" is not an "authentic" category that exists in any geopolitical space or historical time. In Morocco, Tunisia, Yemen and Iraq there are no "Mizrahis" in the political-cultural sense that exists in Israel. Their emergence as a politically and ideologically significant category is relevant only to the Israeli reality.

Inventing the Mizrahi

In order to understand why Zionism had to invent the Mizrahi as its sole contrast, one must understand that Zionism, although it was nourished from Eurocentrism, was not its equivalent. Zionism developed from a dialectic process of rebellion both against European decadence and against the Jewish lifestyle as it evolved in the European Diaspora.
As a revolutionary ideology, Zionism adopted unmistakable attachments to biblical Judaism, but Zionism was unhappy with the cultural-ethical Judaism that had developed in the course of the history of the Jews in the Diaspora. Its formulation as an ideology of cultural and national revival was focused on motifs of revolution and national revival. These were expressed by each Zionist stream in its own way - socialist, nationalist and later religious, with the new and modern mingling with the old and distant. However, the new was dissociated from the Shtetl (the Jewish village in Eastern Europe) and the Melah (the Jewish quarter in the Moroccan city). Socialist Zionism, for its part, related to religion as an opiate of the masses, to much of tradition as degenerate - an obstacle to the modern liberation project - and to the Diaspora as a force threatening an authentic emergence of the new Israeliness.
Here lies the root of the challenge of Zionism as a secular political ideology to tradition and religion. This challenge served to reverse all that related to Diaspora and tradition into the "other" that Zionism needed vis-à-vis pre-modern Judaism. Ostensibly, the Orient and Orientalism constituted the basis from which the Zionist "other" was derived. Zionism did not find in Orientalism a particular solution to the question of Jewish identity, and it thus had to invent a particular "other." This invention was embodied in the image of the Mizrahi Jew who solved the problem of "otherness" in the Jewish context. The Mizrahi combined in his image of the "other" both the Diasporic identity, traditional and religious identity, and the Orientalist, i.e., non-European "other." Zionism could not derive these "others" from its own essentially universalistic Eurocentrist roots, so it therefore created its own private "other," based on the traditionalism and the religiosity of the Jewish Arabs who came from Arab and Muslim countries. They embodied the universal, Oriental dimension in their Arabness, and the particular aspects in their Jewishness.
As stereotypes, they came to serve as a basis for the fictionalization of an Israeli identity, the new Sabra (Israel-born), which created, from within the confines of its own consciousness, its own private "other," aimed at giving concrete expression to the negation of Jewish foundations from the past. This took shape in the immigrants from Arab and Muslim countries who were almost reinvented as "Mizrahi," emphasized in the early 1950s with the mass immigration from North Africa. This influx constituted a threat to what the Zionist enterprise saw as its continuity, at a time when the leadership viewed laying the groundwork for national political sovereignty as one of its central goals. As against this, the massive flood of immigrants from Arab countries imposed the threat of reversing cultural trends in the opposite direction towards Orientalism, Diasporism and pre-modernism.

Identity Crisis

Here, in my opinion, lies the explanation for the two levels of violence employed against the immigrants. One level took the form of actions, like the trimming of earlocks, anti-religious coercion, sending most of the immigrants away from the geographical center of Israel to the periphery and to outlying areas of settlement. The second level consisted of an active educational policy that laid a foundation for portraying the children of the Mizrahi as "others," their internalization of these concepts regarding themselves and their projection onto their parents as well.
Programs assuring their assimilation were created for children and parents of immigrants from Arab and Muslim countries. Israeli literature concerning "collective identity" has dealt little with the crisis of identity experienced by immigrants from Arab and Muslim countries, and their consequent political and cultural behavior. It has not addressed the questions of alienation and cultural discrimination, and the ramifications of the deconstruction and reconstruction of their identity. Neither has it tackled the complex sense of social belonging that the Mizrahis developed vis-à-vis the imagined Israeli collective. Instead, psychological and educational studies have developed in the direction of constructing the Mizrahi identity as one that is perverse, retarded and intellectually undeveloped, usually contrasted to European cases. Zionist educational systems ultimately ended in a decisive failure and demanded a high price: the multi-dimensional alienation and identity crisis of the Mizrahis. The founding fathers and mothers, in determining the place of the immigrants according to their own worldview, failed to ask them for their opinion on their "new" identity.
Ben-Gurion and his colleagues, other policy-makers from the same school of thought, found themselves trapped by the obligation to open the gates of immigration to all Jews, and at the same time to construct a modern non-Diasporic society. This is why they took the decision to remove hundreds of thousands of immigrants to the geographic and social periphery. They explained this as an attempt to lessen what Ben-Gurion called the "predicted damage."4 The immigrants from Arab and Muslim countries were viewed as an object to be crushed and shaped, and not as a subject with status, opinions, will or entity of its own. Their desires, feelings, values, culture, aspirations and problems were viewed as dangerous and perceived as foreign, different, "other."
The Mizrahis were objects for religious or proletarian resocialization and for electoral-political co-option. They were also objects to be drafted into the cheap labor force, or to receive less valuable lands in the settlement process. Rather than being essential for the definition of the new Zionist Israeli, they were omitted from the textbooks and excluded from cultural expression. In many areas of life the situation remains similar to this day. Their political and cultural patterns of oppression and exclusion arose from condescension and paternalism. The efficiency of manipulations, and the weakness of the Mizrahis as an object, rendered official discrimination superfluous, as opposed to the case of Palestinians, homosexuals and women, against whom discrimination is founded in the legal system.

Captive Subjects

The Mizrahi problem was that of a population whose origins were in Arab and Muslim countries, but whose strongest desire was and is for the right of entrance to Israeliness, if only the Mizrahis would adopt universal ideas of equality and progress as dictated by the founders. Within these boundaries, the Mizrahis were trapped, hearing promises that they would win great happiness in the likeness of an egalitarian and humanistic society. In practice, the Mizrahi population was ensnared within an oppressive and aggressive social and cultural order, which erased its knowledge, silenced it, and removed it from history.
One of the results was the creation of a second generation of captive subjects with an identity of dependence, characterized by scattered and random patches of culture and folklore, the essence of which was a longing for resemblance, for being "similar to," for equality and self-definition like everyone else. The histories of the Mizrahis remained excluded from the history of the state, and if small, superficial sections were admitted to this history by elites with a European majority, it was only due to the result of local struggle, to marginal successes in moments of crisis.
This was what occurred after the "Black Panther" demonstrations in 1971, when the Ministry of Education established the Department of Jewish Mizrahi Heritage, and memorials for the pioneers of Dimona were established, as if to say, "We too have a part in the pioneering epic." Folklore departments, exhibiting mainly the folklore of Jews from Arab lands, were opened in the Israel Museum, the shrine of canonic Israeli cultural assets. But all this occurred in grotesque proportions, with the result that "the Zionist activity of Mizrahi Jews" was blown out of proportion. The portrayal of Mizrahis as a deviation from the accepted Israeli image also led to internal splits among the Mizrahis themselves.
By the time Mizrahis began responding to their situation, it was already impossible to change it through resuscitation, possibly nostalgic, of their Arab past. What was needed was not to negate the emptiness of modernity. Mizrahis who decided on a critical stance vis-à-vis their place in Israeli society as Mizrahis discovered that their position was intrinsically tied to a critique of modernity and the West. However, failure to give credit to and legitimize modernity did not involve wishing to return to pre-modernity. We are dealing with a process that is simply irreversible. What remained open was the option of developing post-modern viewpoints, expressing the struggle of the Mizrahis for change.


The various types of struggle taken up by Mizrahi activists can be identified in stages: outbursts of violence; an appeal to the ruling political circles with claims of entitlement; and even the adoption of practices used by the ruling political forces. The latter process culminated in the Shas party, the ultra-Orthodox Sephardic5 movement, which set about building a political model based on that of Mapai (the Labor Party that ruled the country for 30 years), with a wide system of pervasive and ubiquitous political, cultural, economic and educational practices. The very ability to reconstruct the mechanisms of manipulation and to draw attention to the presence of power by creating and silencing identities, contains an element of liberation. Shas, as an ideological movement, was the Israeli model of that which seeks power through exposing the colonial concealment of the ethnic "other"; while, at the same time, it speaks for those who were considered marginal and offers them an alternative interpretation of the political reality and their role in it.
Two arguments are brought up whenever the present position of the Mizrahi is discussed. The first is that the problem of deprivation and under-representation of Mizrahis is over, and it is enough to look at the many political and military positions they now occupy, in order to see that there is a massive penetration of many Mizrahis into the system. But this argument fails to see that those Mizrahis did so at the cost of discarding their Arab-Jewish traditional legacy and becoming Europeanized. This process has been even termed in Hebrew "Ashkenization." Hence, even if all the 120 Mizrahi members of the Israeli parliament were to be Mizrahim, that would not indicate that the Mizrahi identity problem has been resolved.
The second common argument is aimed at the Shas Party. It is argued that Shas is manipulating its electorate just as the previous Mapai establishment did. Shas furnishes its people with a religious education that is so restricted in its curriculum that it completely fails to provide the necessary qualifications for a successful absorption into a modern and sophisticated economy. This argument is brought up by Shas's political rivals, such as the leftist secular Meretz Party and its leaders Shulamit Aloni and Yossi Sarid. However, this is only one side of the coin and Shas's supporters have a twofold response: first, that the party is providing the welfare needs that the state should have provided in the first place, and, if there is somebody to be blamed, it is the state and not the party. Second, the party has developed its educational system with very limited resources and, whenever there is a possibility, it is developing an advanced educational system such as Ulpanot for young women in high schools and at the college of Ariel in the Jewish settlement of the same name in the West Bank.


The conclusions that arise from what I have written is that, while the concept "Mizrahi" grew out of a Eurocentrist and Zionist Israeli reality, in the course of time it became a hump on the back of the very identity that invented it, but no longer needed it. "Mizrahi" was brought in through the back door by the shapers of Israeli culture, who turned it into a part of their own culture. This is reflected in every realm of Israeli life and values. But wherever it exists, it causes conflict and represents a negative value: the hegemonic Israeli society (Mizrahi and Ashkenazi) is interested in discarding it.
When all is said and done, Mizrahi represents the failure of the melting pot. It divides and damages the ethos of "national unity," showing that the concept of Israeliness has been corrupted and is actually merely a collection of rifts and social fragments. Even so, the ethnic dimension has germinated in every one of these fragments. Facing post-modern reality, nothing remains in the Israeli ideal that is not expendable. In such a reality, even identity is not preserved, neither for Sabra, for Ashkenazi nor for Mizrahi. This does not yield universal liberation from mechanisms of control over identity, memory, and individual and collective knowledge. Rather, in these and other areas of life, it provides an opening of the arena for participants to struggle to define power relations, and to mold cultural and social conditions.

1. The idea of freedom to choose one's language, as it originated in Europe, was related to the trend towards universalism, of which the interest in developing Esperanto as a universal language was also a part. Ironically, this universalism was actually a mix of exclusively European languages, and certainly did not include Arabic.
2. Edward Said (1979), Orientalism (New York: Vintage), p. 3.
3. As quoted in Sammy Smooha (1978), Israel, Pluralism and the Conflict (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press), p. 88.
4. David Ben-Gurion (1957-1962), A Vision and a Way, Vols. D & E (Tel Aviv: Am-Oved [Hebrew]), pp. IV, 212; V, 267.
5. Sephardi is the term replacing that of "mizrahi." Its connection is different for it refers also to Jews of Spanish origin who came prior to the establishment of the State of Israel, and goes back hundreds of years to the Ha-Rambam epoch.