Although the racism and hatred between Israel and its neighbors seems as entrenched as ever, many Mizrahi artists are connecting to their Arab roots. Does this trend portend a brighter future for the Middle East?
In an interview with Al Arabiya several years ago, popular Israeli singer Zehava Ben stated that she was interested in performing throughout the Arab world, and especially in Beirut and Gaza. Israel’s security system forbade her entrance into the Strip, due to the fact that Hamas rules the territory. In a later interview, she said that her dream is to perform in Cairo’s Opera House, where her favorite singer,Umm Kulthum, once regularly performed. Ben’s words express the natural desires of many Mizrahi Jews in Israel to connect to the roots of the Arab culture in which their parents lived for generations. Mizrahi music represents the longing of almost half of the state’s citizens for the elements of Arab culture that they know so well. But beyond the question of origin, history and biography, it is a question of Israel’s place in the Middle East, which affects every citizen, Mizrahi or not.
When Israeli music begins exporting Arabic culture to its neighbors, both near and far, it will be able to grow its popularity and double or even triple its sales. Mizrahi-Mediterranean culture can jump over that barrier and draw new audiences. Today, we know that many people in neighboring countries, and certainly in the occupied territories, know and love songs by Eyal Golan and are well-versed in new Mizrahi-Israeli music. It will be easier to sell Mizrahi music in the Mashriq (the geographical region between Iran and Egypt) and the Maghreb (from Egypt to Morocco) in parallel to cultural exports to the U.S. and Europe. It’s important to mention that more than a few Israeli success stories in Europe maintained their Arabic sound, such as Ofra Haza.
Maor Adri covers Syrian singer Wafik Habib’s 2012 hit “Yalla Yalla”:
Music and culture have an additional role. Should we be able to export Mizrahi culture to Arab countries, it is likely to reduce the tension and hatred against Israel. The Arab bloc will no longer see Israel as a vestige of European colonialism that came to settle on Palestinian land. They will understand that over a million Jews arrived in Israel from Arab countries, and maintained their Arab identity, which is expressed in music and culture.
Israeli society today cannot see its place between Beirut, Amman and Cairo. But anyone who listens to the many versions by some of Israel’s best singers (Sarit Hadad, Omer Adam, Maor Adri and many others) will discover that they regularly release covers of Arabic songs in Hebrew. There exists today a contemporary Israeli culture that is effectively in dialogue with a contemporary Arab culture, but no one speaks about it openly. There is a conspiracy of silence around the issue. Zehava Ben was brave enough to openly say that her dream is to perform in the same auditorium as Umm Kulthum in Cairo. But Ben is not speaking out of nostalgia – she is up to date and wants, like other artists, to update her work and create new art that corresponds, influences and is influenced by its surroundings. This is the reason that Ben’s album of Umm Kulthum songs made it to the Arab world (despite the boycott), along with albums in Arabic by Ofer Levi, Sarit Hadad and Sharif. Even albums by singers such as Yasmin Levy, who is very successful in Turkey, or Rita with her album in Persian, which made it to Iran (among other countries), or the Moroccan-Israeli singers, who transcend musical horizons within Israel and outside of it.
Omer Adam performs “Wai Li,” a song by Lebanese artist Fares Karam which was originally released in 2009:
The awaited change won’t only come from the Jewish side. It was an important event when Lina Makhoul, a Christian Palestinian from the city of Acre, won first place on Israel’s The Voice television show. Professor Yossi Yonah sees her victory as indicative of Palestinian citizens’ desire to integrate into Israeli culture. Nasreen Kadri’s victory on the second season of Eyal Golan is Calling You, which Israeli educator and activist Shira Ohayon called “a revolution on live television,” was a big step in that direction. Our shared lives here are not only full of negativity, racism and loathing – they also portend a new-old cultural development despite years of political and cultural deadlock that has been forced on us from above. Israel will find its place in the Middle East with the development of Jewish-Arab (as exemplified by Zehava Ben), and Arab-Jewish culture (as exemplified by Lina Makhoul and Nasreen Kadri). The success of these mixed cultures will only bring prosperity.
Nasreen Kadri and Ofer Nissim perform “Sawah” by Egypt’s Abdel Halim Hafez:
The publication in Yedioth Ahronoth of a photo showing haredim barbecuing in Jerusalem‘s Sacher Park on the eve of Holocaust Remembrance Day was a wise move. Freedom of speech is an important value. It would be wrong to suppress a photograph that makes us uncomfortable, especially because it is dangerous to deny the problem and pretend it doesn’t exist.
Many haredim, like many secular people, do not always agree with the hegemonic narrative of Holocaust Remembrance Day. The desire to play down this difference does not sit well with freedom of speech. The media have the right and the duty to print troubling photos pointing to conflicts that occur on sensitive days like Holocaust Remembrance Day and Memorial Day for Fallen Soldiers and Victims of Terrorism.
We must not try to prettify reality. Most of the haredim who held barbecues on Sunday evening knew that it was the eve of Holocaust Remembrance Day. No one in Israel could miss this. Everyone — Arab or Jews, secular or religious, rich or poor, knows this is a remembrance day that unites the entire nation and should be honored.
But those people knowingly chose to demonstrate disrespect for those Holocaust survivors still among us. We don’t have to compare their actions to sacrilege, as did Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi Yona Metzger. After all, this national holiday was created by the state, which is no one’s spiritual authority. People are free to go wherever they want on any day they want. Still, if the celebrants examined their own consciences, they might have decided to behave differently.
Voices will emerge saying that these are merely the bad apples of haredi and Orthodox society. But this is disrespectful toward those who oppose the Zionist narrative. The haredi story is not the same as the story of Zionism. It is a story that is opposed in its thought processes to the hegemonic story of the State of Israel. The symptom — Orthodox Jews who barbecue on Holocaust Day — belies a problem that goes deeper than we think. I am not saying this to incite. I am saying this because the reality is that cultures are not identical and we need to be aware of that.
We have to ask hard questions about education in the haredi world and the place of the Holocaust in it. We must not accept the glib theological answers of Orthodox religious education. The heads of the community and the community itself must do some serious soul-searching about how they relate to Holocaust Remembrance Day. If the opposite were to occur and the values of Orthodox Jews were to be treated with public disrespect, this would generate a furor.
Even if people within the haredi community make light of the barbecue, saying it was carried out by those on the margins of haredi society, we must not accept this explanation. We must be revolted by the deep rejection many haredim express towards the most basic values of Jewish society. I am not saying that everyone has to mourn in the same way, but it is important to honor public space. If the rules of that space were to change, then we would reassess our judgment.
There are different ways of rebelling against Israel and its laws. Some people make their act of rebellion political while others rebel more quietly. We must not make light of such disrespectful rebellions. The phenomenon is widespread and needs thorough treatment.
My deceased father | I wish I could return between the knives of time | Why there is no (re)union in reunions or, the cabin of our decline
My deceased father
The stamps have collected the final days
of my father unto countries where
he never traveled.
He laid them in a bowl of his soul’s water
and peeled away the envelopes of neglect
of the lower-class neighborhoods of the city of Haifa,
But the octopus-like hands of the government authorities
do not loosen their grip on the stamp
and the black ink persists like the mark of
(“Poetry Between Hazaz and Shemoelof”, 2006)
I wish I could return between the knives of time
Hadar neighborhood in Haifa awaited my grandfather in a worn-out wedding dress
and in honor of his retirement granted him two crumbling backgammon dice,
and poured him a glass of arak
and my grandmother told me how she sat in the roofless bus station, of the Eye without the Sea neighborhood,
and worried, but he never returned from there the way he left.
The past has its own time.
The time has its own past.
Allah be with you, grandpa Shlomo.
(“Poetry Between Hazaz and Shemoelof”, 2006)
Why there is no (re)union in reunions or, the cabin of our decline
A memory of trees dancing between the lotus flowers that the goldfish suffocate
In the grove that stretches back to the thorny high school days in a bug’s dance of incomprehensible moves.
Who dropped to the quiet rocky ground duck-like in their origins and awkward in their movements?
Who touched the angry sky with kittenish clouds?
Not you Ehud Banai, because there is no bonfire here and even the word, burning in a memory with no memory, dissolves.
Dust-mote wars and twigs dropping off bored hornet’s nests selling venom as if it was honey
and before them the children are quiet, silenced by their lack of imagination.
Was it my fault the laundry was colored red?
Devouring sunbeams from pebbles of scalded tea
Facing the passion of one thousand five hundred flies disturbed in the night of the sunflower eaters.
Do not get close to snort all the dream dust, you pair of mothers fucking between silken clamps.
A surrogate stagehand once again forgets to inform the goddesses of the East that the creation of the crucified She ended a long time ago, during high school in Haifa.
(“Apetite for Hugner”, 2013, fortcoming)
My lovely terrorist,
Don’t be afraid of the Jewish people.
I will serve you black coffee.
I will bring you a plate of stuffed cookies.
My terrorist, play me the music you download from the internet
and we will watch movies together.
You are my terrorist.
Terrorist you are my sister.
My sister you are a terrorist.
Come and let’s study together the books of spoken Iraqi that I received from Gal in Haifa.
Dear terrorist, you are so tired, perhaps rest a little on the bed.
We’ll go to the garden and harvest the giant mint bush that spread and overran the entire garden since ’77.
How much sugar do you take?
Shall I leave the tea bag in the cup?
Now before we part with the lovely Jewish blessing: See You Again
And a thousand blessings on your eyes,
We will watch in a long breath for an even longer breath.
May Allah give you health and strength.
(“Apetite for Hugner”, 2013, fortcoming”)
This poems were first published on Anisa Eskar art catalog (2013) / HAIFA MUSEUM OF ART
Poetry made of charms
In order to write, I fill my room with charms. These magical objects transform my simple wooden desk into a space crafted from unknown magic, with no beginning or end. The east opens, and I can see a new world – reaching all the way to the dark edges of town.
I start collecting my charms: a vintage photograph by Julia Margaret Cameron entitled “I Wait”; An old photo of me standing next to Nadav Cohavi RIP, from the time we had a band in LA; A gray plastic elephant my girlfriend Ayala got me, a magical cat standing at the gates of the ancient world of eternity, which I bought during a visit to the Pyramids many years ago; a Palestinian postcard from old Jaffa to complete them all.
I look at them surrounding me, and start hearing an old but new melody of prayer.
A spirit of Love and social change.
Mati Shemoelof, Tel Aviv/Israel
The recent campaign to extend daylight savings time offers an economic breakdown of how it would benefit the Israeli market. However, on more than one occasion, the report depicts an underlying hatred toward the ultra-Orthodox, and fuels the overall secular-religious divide.
Israel is grappling with a serious identity crisis that has yet to be resolved, and with daylight savings, the issue has come up once again and demands a solution. But people cannot be united by inciting the masses and exercising exclusivist doctrines. We need a new dialogue, one that will take us out of the realm in which the secular are depicted in a good light while the religious are seen in a bad one.
As is the case every year, the issue of turning the clocks back has arisen again. Hundreds of thousands of Israelis signed a petition drafted by MK Nitzan Horowitz (Meretz) to extend daylight savings time to late October, providing an extra month of light in the evenings. Horowitz’s proposition was passed with a significant majority at the first reading, following a recommendation by a panel of experts that supported the notion.
But, much to Horowitz’s surprise, his proposal was buried in the Interior Ministry’s committee, as part of the Shas party’s policy to delay any alteration to the status quo.
The daylight savings issue has lost perspective for both the religious and the secular communities in Israel. When examining the overwhelming support this proposal has garnered, one can see the deeper issues surface.
It is no surprise that Horowitz used the words of the Hanukkah song “We have come to drive out the darkness” when referring to the Shas party. Horowitz exhibits his party’s well-known, unfriendly attitude toward the religious population, suggesting that the forces of light are modern secular Israelis, pitted against the pre-modern religious forces of darkness.
“We came to drive out the darkness, but the real darkness is within the Interior Ministry and this gloomy government. We must drive them out so there will be light,” Horowitz said.
It is possible and even correct to criticize a government’s actions or ministers and their intentions, which occasionally go against the public’s wishes. But it is not necessary to turn one side into a superior group.
In the words of Mickey Gitzin, chairwoman of Free Israel, which advocates for the separation of religion and state: “The State of Israel once again is dragged down by the sinister intentions of Eli Yishai, instead of joining the civilized world and making use of the sunlight as best we can.”
Extending daylight savings time would not necessarily be a source of harm for the religious population. It would allow religious individuals to wake up one hour later for morning prayers and to hold evening prayers later. On Fridays, the religious community could have more time to prepare for the Sabbath, which would begin one hour later.
Yet, for some reason, we don’t hear the voices of religious constituents crying out against those who represent them.
On the other hand, is the secular public voting solely for the sake of efficiency, entertainment, and increased productivity? I think not. Horowitz’s secularism itself is a religious movement and is irrational, and its flaws should be pointed out. How can one join a campaign when its leaders utilize such methods?
I have no say in the decision as to whether daylight savings time should be extended.
But when it comes to the identity issue in Israel, I can say that we must stop referring to the religious public as something dark. The religious community has values, faces, tendencies and ideologies, just like the secular one. Secularists must be aware of the boundaries of what they can say in public discourse.
This article was first published on Israel Hayom
The United States House of Representatives is now considering a bipartisan bill, submitted last month, that would effectively equate the plight of the Palestinian refugees with that of Jews whose origins were in Middle Eastern countries.
Although the tragedy that befell Jews in Arab countries following the creation of Israel certainly requires recognition and redress, many Mizrahi Jews resent the linkage.
“The basis of this equivalence is spurious. Arab Jews and Palestinians have two different histories and their experiences are not similar,” insists David Shasha, who directs the Center for Sephardic Heritage in Brooklyn. “Israel has maintained that Arab Jews are members of the Jewish nation and are part of Israel. The fact that they were or were not expelled from Arab countries should not then be relevant to any peace negotiations.”
Despite this manipulation of the tragedy of the Middle East’s ancient Jewish populations, there are clear parallels between that calamity and the one that befell the Palestinians. In fact, you could say that Arab Jews are the Middle East’s “other Palestinians.”
“Both Palestinians and Jews from Arab lands were at the mercy of competing nationalisms – Zionism and Arab nationalism – sweeping the region at the time, playing off each other and insisting on reductive definitions of identity,” observes journalist and writer Rachel Shabi, herself of Iraqi Jewish descent, who is the author of Not The Enemy, a book on the history of Israel’s Mizrahi Jews.
By 1951, the situation for Iraqi Jews had become so untenable that most agreed reluctantly to give up their citizenship and property in return for safe passage out of Iraq. By the 1970s, the Middle East’s rich Jewish heritage had all but disappeared, though fairly sizeable Jewish communities continued to exist in Iran and Morocco.
Although Palestinians and Mizrahi Jews do have the loss of their homelands in common, the Mizrahim, particularly those in Israel, generally do not wish to return to their ancestral lands; indeed, many Mizrahim are actually situated on the anti-Arab end of the Israeli political spectrum. Some do visit their places of origin, such as Jews of Yemenite descent (who are the only Israelis allowed to travel to that country), as well as Moroccan and Egyptian Jews, but it should be recalled that Israeli Jews from most Arab countries are not allowed to visit their ancestral lands.
The majority of Mizrahi Jews today appear to be ideologically committed to the idea of Israel as their homeland. This is reflected, for example, in the fact that the Mizrahi vote brought the settler-friendly Likud to power in 1977 and has acted as a core power base for the party ever since. This implies that most Mizrahim no longer qualify as refugees, though they once were.
However, there are some, albeit a minority, who do still regard themselves as refugees and dream of unlikely return. Take Mati Shemoelof, a second-generation Iraqi-Israeli poet, journalist and activist who defines himself as “Arab” and believes that Mizrahi Jews went “from exile to exile.”
He wants Iraq, which he wishes to visit “more than anything in the world,” to make up for its historic crime by granting Iraqi Jews the right of return and full citizenship, while allowing them to retain their Israeli nationality and identity. His vision: “I want to live in two worlds.”
Shemoelof’s sentiments echo those of many Palestinians. Not only do many of them dwell in perpetual limbo in refugee camps across the Middle East, but the experience of exile and dream of improbable return is a central pillar of Palestinian identity. “[Exile is] a feeling that I have to carry my roots with me, so to speak, but can never fully put them down anywhere,” describes Jennifer Jajeh, a Palestinian-American actress.
Many in the diaspora feel that both they and their homeland have become phantoms. “I feel like I’m a visitor to my own home, like a ghost walking around in a land where other people refuse to see us even when we’re talking with them,” says Ray Hanania, a prominent Palestinian-American columnist, broadcaster and comedian from Chicago who visits Israel and Palestine regularly.
Those who cannot live in or visit the old country dream of being allowed at least to make it their final resting place. “When we die, bury us in Palestine. If you can’t manage that, then try to bring some of its soil and bury it with us,” the parents of a Jordanian-Palestinian friend used to tell her.
And this sense of exile can be just as acute among the Palestinians who stayed behind, as they watch the land of their forefathers morph into another country. “When I go to Jerusalem and walk around certain parts of it, I don’t feel that I belong to that place, because it has been colonized,” saysHurriyahZiada, a 22-year-old Palestinian student and activist in Ramallah.
Living within the boundaries of her historic homeland does not blunt Ziada’s keen sense of being an exile and refugee, perhaps partly because the movement restrictions imposed by Israel mean she has not been able even to visit her ancestral village of Faluja, near Gaza but now part of the Israeli town of Kiryat Gat. In 1948, Faluja’s residents had refused to flee the fighting but were subsequently driven out following the 1949 armistice.
Echoing the early Zionists, Ziada dreams of making Faluja her home – even though the town does not exist anymore and the surrounding area has become completely Israeli – and living the life of a Palestinian pioneer there. “It’s true that I’m used to living here [Ramallah] and all that, but it is my right to return to the village,” she insists, noting that “I’m willing to pay the price, and to start from scratch because this is the only way.”
It is unclear how representative Ziada’s views are of Palestinian refugees in general, since little research has been carried out on the taboo question of actual versus symbolic return and recognition of the historic wrong committed against the Palestinian people.
For most Israelis, even peace activists and pacifists, the idea of Palestinian return to what is today Israel is a complete non-starter. The creation and development of Israel “entails an essential injustice to the Palestinian people,” Amos Oz, one of Israel’s leading novelists, told me during a long and riveting conversation in his basement study.
In Oz’s view, it is essential for Israel to maintain “a Jewish majority” – though he diverges from the mainstream in his belief that Israel should be a state for all its citizens – even if it means shrinking its territory. His reasoning? That Jews have a right to live free of persecution and to determine their own destiny.
Palestinian return, in his view, should be to a Palestinian state within the full pre-1967 borders, referring to the armistice lines before the 1967 Six Day War. He argues that this is the pragmatic and realistic thing to do. But for an influential segment of Palestinian society, the idea of refugees not having the right to return to anywhere other than the actual homes and towns they abandoned is anathema.
So what’s the solution? According to some, compromise on both sides is the only way to ensure “a means of both of us surviving”, as Ray Hanania puts it.
“GAZA II” A poem from my third poetry book “Why don’t I write Israeli love poems” (2010). I will read it in Arabic and Hebrew. It is from five poems calling “Open the gates of GAZA!” and end the Israeli Occupation! I call for a new bi-national one state between the Jordanian river and the sea.
Large balloons filled with 50,000 poems, submitted by poets from all over the world placed up above the whole length of Arasta / Ledra street. And inside one of the ballons was my poem “Why don’t i write israeli love poems” from my third poetry book (2010).
Why don’t I write Israeli Love Songs
To Amiri Baraka
First bring me back my history
And then my textbooks
And don’t tell me my poem is a political manifesto
When you haven’t got a clue ‘bout your wrongs. So here is a lead:
I want compensation from the National Bank of Israel
For the Palestinians, the Mizrachim, the Women, the Gays and the Lesbians
For every comment, transit-camp, closed military zone
I want you to open the poetry safe
And give back the land to those you took from
And compensate for a horrible occupation
I will wait by the national bank of Israel,
Outside the window of the National Insurance Institute,
Under the cars of the treasury Department
Until you aptly compensate for all the distilled racism
And only then, when the children of children of the compensated ones
Will study in university, in an equal society
Only then will I be willing to write Israeli love songs.
The horrific rape in Gan Haair, in central Tel Aviv over the weekend, comes to us on the heels of the gruesome murder in Beersheba, stabbings in Netanya and across the country and senior municipality officials allegedly involved in a sex scandal in Kiryat Malachi. One incident follows another, at a rate that seems to be increasing. Israeli society has suddenly revealed its neglected, dilapidated backyard, and it’s open for all to see. Personal safety is slipping away.
In the face of all this violence, there is a communication breakdown. The language is violent. Reactions are violent. Instead of speaking to one another, people are killing and raping. Dialogue is lost, and with it man’s hope for reaching understanding with his fellow man.
What’s scary about the violence is that it is beginning at such a young age. Gadi Vichman was murdered by a group of teenagers because he asked for quiet and consideration for his sleeping children. We mustn’t assume this can’t happen in our neighborhoods. It could happen in any neighborhood in Israel, and it’s not only related to poverty and social frustrations. We are lacking the ability to listen, to be tolerant, and to open our ears to the distress of the person standing before us. The army can’t be solely to blame for this, nor can the occupation or the social welfare authorities.
What is required is social responsibility on a wider scale than simply blaming one governmental authority or another. We are in the midst of a tumult that doesn’t allow us to listen and hear our brothers — and we are witnesses to where things can deteriorate: murder, stabbings, sexual assault and rape.
It starts at home, with the manner of discourse between a child and his parents. When the parents are powerless against their own child, the result is a child who is powerless against himself and his friends. This dynamic of paralysis leads to unreceptiveness, anger and rage. The lack of ability to speak and communicate leads to using violence as a solution.
I read the newspaper headlines and feel helpless. I ask myself where the boiling point is. What else needs to happen before we wake up? The answer isn’t a simple one. Every moment brings with it a new record for the cruelty running rampant in the streets. But I don’t think the violence is meaningless and can’t receive proper treatment.
These random encounters with violence — one time in a parking garage in Gan Meir in Tel Aviv, the next in a residential neighborhood in Beersheba or the market in Netanya — won’t be solved only by the police, the use of force or imposing the public order. The streets are not a fight club. The streets must be a common place where we can meet one another.
We can, of course, walk around wearing heavy armor, like knights in medieval times, but what would we gain by that? It would only widen the detachment between us. We must bring a new energy to the street, with a shared vision.
The violence spreading among us shows that some of the seams of our society aren’t woven properly and have come undone. Where they have unraveled, we find ourselves in Sodom and Gomorrah. We must mend Israeli society, based on an ethos of dialogue, tolerance and listening. We must give our children hope. We have mouths and ears, so let’s use them.