Rassegna Stampa Elezioni Israeliane 2009

Monitoraggio attraverso i media internazionali delle elezioni in Israele del Febbraio 2009

Israel, land of broken promises

Posted by claudiacampli su 10 maggio, 2009

Times

Open Minds: Israel should embrace Jews of all colours and cultures, says the writer Rachel Shabi

Don’t read this as belligerence, but would you mind not asking me about gefilte fish? I don’t know much about bagels and cream cheese either, come to that, and I can’t clarify any queries over klezmer music, shtetl style or Yiddish vocabulary. It’s commendable that you’re familiar with so many aspects of European Jewish culture — but please don’t assume that it has anything to do with me.

I’m Jewish, yes, but my family is from Iraq, which means that my way of being Jewish is entirely Middle Eastern. I can tell you about the Arabic sayings and parables that I grew up with, or the delicious oriental cuisine such as sambusak, aromatic cheese or meat-filled triangle pastries, or kibbeh burghul pasties of cracked wheat stuffed with spiced meat, herbs, raisins and pine nuts. Instead of klezmer music, I could describe Arabic musical legends such as Umm Kulthum or Farid al-Atrash, whose emotional songs used to move crowds to tears so copious, they say, that you could water gardens with them. Among my family, “Arab” is effectively a way of being “Jewish”. And what makes this interesting, as opposed to vaguely anecdotal, is that it’s also the case for a large chunk of Jewish Israelis.

Growing up in Britain, I was often confused that people imposed a European, more often called Ashkenazi, template onto my Jewishness. But in truth, it’s an understandable assumption. Most Diaspora Jewry (and certainly most British Jewry) is Ashkenazi in origin, so it stands to reason that “Jewish” and “Ashkenazi” are practically collapsed to mean the same thing. Yet in Israel, around 50% of the Jewish population are from Arab or Muslim countries: Iraq, Iran, Syria, Lebanon, Egypt, Turkey, Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia and the Yemen. They mostly migrated to Israel soon after the Jewish state was created in 1948. At one point, these Jewish communities — known as “Mizrahi” — comprised the majority population of Israel until mass migration from the collapsed Soviet bloc during the early 1990s equalised the East/West Jewish mix.

Today, if you add up the population of Jews from Arab countries and Palestinians who are citizens of Israel, you come up with a surprising statistic: Europe is the demographic minority in the Jewish state. And despite the national narratives of a bitter conflict, many Israelis of oriental origin still talk about having culture in common with Palestinians. Even in Sderot, the Israeli town that suffers regular rocket attacks from the neighbouring Gaza Strip, some Mizrahi residents recall better times, before the sealed borders and the bombs, when the two sides socialised together. I met several Moroccan-origin Israelis here who’d talk of regular trips to Gaza, to the cinema or to visit Palestinian friends. For these Israelis, Gaza city used to be the closest cultural capital, and not just geographically.

Israel was conceived and run by Jewish pioneers from Europe who wanted to create an egalitarian homeland for Jews of all colours and cultures. But unfortunately, those pioneers arrived in Israel with a prejudicial view of the Arab world as a backward, barbaric and inferior backwater. Jews who had once lived in that world were assumed to carry the same characteristics, and so were denigrated in the new Israel. Meanwhile, European Jewry was foregrounded to the extent that it became the cultural cookie-cutter of the Jewish state. Mizrahi culture, the Arabic language, oriental-accented Hebrew, Middle-Eastern music and swathes of Judeo-Arabic writing, were often just abandoned altogether. Things have improved since those early days, but Israel is still woefully under-representative of its oriental-Jewish citizens.

Researching a book on this subject, I’d often hear people exclaim: “Israel is in the Middle East!” At first I took this to be a patronising assumption over my grasp of geography. But the more time I spent in Israel, the more it became apparent that this was a statement of desire — that the country ought to be “in” the Middle East, not just spatially, but also culturally. In other words, Israel should be building ties with its Arab neighbours, more so than with the Europe that keeps kindly inviting it to compete (quite well) in song contests and (hopelessly) in football tournaments. And the Middle East in discussion here is the one showcasing an expansive culture and rich creative output, not the uniformly fundamentalist, violent wasteland that Israel — and the West — myopically assume it to be.

A number of Israelis now make this case for their country — but many don’t, and it’s something the nation is going to have to work out on its own terms. But if Israel could find a way to reconnect with its own Middle-Eastern self, the chances are that this would result in the country having entirely different relations with the region. Because long before they were apparent arch enemies, Arabs and Jews were culture collaborators, good neighbours — and friends.

Not the Enemy: Israel’s Jews from Arab Lands, by Rachel Shabi, is published by Yale University Press

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