Middle Eastern Jews (mizrahim) and the Zionist National Narrative
Many Mizrahim in Israel felt excluded and neglected by the labor Zionist governments of the 1950s and 1960s led by MAPAI and its successor, the Labor Party. Labor Zionism was a self-consciously European ideological synthesis that emerged in response to the crisis of Eastern European Jewry in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. It proposed to “normalize” the Jewish people by transforming them from a persecuted minority disproportionately composed of economically marginal petty merchants and craftsmen into citizens and productive workers and peasants: the proper subjects of a nation-state and what labor Zionists hoped would become a socialist economy. Secularism, socialism, redemption through physical labor, and a reformation of Jewish identity in national-political terms were the core elements of the labor Zionist solution to the Jewish problem. This ideology was articulated and implemented through highly centralized political parties—MAPAI, MAPAM (the United Workers' Party), and Le-Ahdut ha-‘Avodah (Unity of Labor)—that created the institutions that dominated the prestate yishuv (Jewish settlement) and the early state of Israel—the Histadrut, the kibutzim, the Haganah, and the Palmah.
Most Mizrahim shared little of the history in the diaspora or in the yishuv that informed the theory and practice of labor Zionism. Except for the descendents of the pre-Zionist “old yishuv ” and several thousand Yemenis who were brought to mandate Palestine by Zionist authorities seeking Jewish workers who would work for Arab wages, only a small minority participated actively in the Zionist project before 1948. The leadership of the Zionist movement and the early state of Israel was overwhelmingly Ashkenazi.
After open Zionist activity became impossible in Nazi-occupied Europe, all the Zionist parties of the yishuv began to send emissaries to Egypt, Iraq, Tunisia, Morocco, and elsewhere in the Middle East and North Africa. There had been small Zionist organizations in these countries before World War II. The combination of the emissaries' work, the reception of the news of the mass murder of European Jewry, and the more precarious conditions of Middle Eastern Jews due to the intensification of the Palestinian-Zionist conflict made Zionism a significant, though still a minority, orientation for Middle Eastern Jews after the war.
Some Mizrahim became active in the labor Zionist movement, but most had no links to the labor Zionist establishment and its key institutions. Hence, they had no patrons to ease their way into Israeli society. When they arrived in Israel in large numbers in the 1950s, their customs and lifestyles were commonly discounted as “primitive,” and they were expected to adopt the modern, healthy, tzabar culture. By a conscious decision of the state and Zionist authorities, large numbers of Mizrahim were settled in “development towns,” moshavim (cooperative agricultural villages), or in the former homes of recently departed Palestinian refugees in cities such as Jaffa, Jerusalem, Haifa, Acre, and Tiberias. Their role in the Zionist project was to establish a Jewish population in territories and neighborhoods previously inhabited by Palestinian Arabs and to occupy the bottom ranks of the Jewish labor force. The immigration of the Mizrahim was vital for the demographic and economic stabilization of the Jewish state, but they were settled on the margins of Israeli economic, political, and cultural life.
Alienation from the political ideology, cultural and social norms, institutions, and economic benefits of labor Zionism drove many Mizrahim and their children to provide the votes that brought the first Likud government to power in Israel in 1977. The new regime made extensive efforts to find places for its supporters in the official national culture and historical narrative. Dozens of scholarly and popular books, articles, television programs, and public symposia revised the formerly Eurocentric history of Zionism, asserting that there had been a Zionist movement in Middle Eastern Jewish communities and that Mizrahim had contributed substantially to establishing the state of Israel. The inflection of Israeli public culture was transformed as the Middle Eastern origins of about half its Jewish population at last received public and official acknowledgment. Mizrahi Hebrew accents began to be heard on the radio and television news, and Arab-accented Hebrew music found its way to the top of the popular song lists. In response, Labor and other political parties began to promote “their” Mizrahi figures and to rediscover and revalorize the role of Mizrahim in the history of labor Zionism. The reassertion of Egyptian Jewish identity examined in Chapter 8 is both an expression of this broad movement of Mizrahi self-assertion and a particular phenomenon related to the course of Egyptian-Israeli relations.