Shabi: We Look Like the Enemy (2008)

Rachel Shabi’s “We Look Like the Enemy: The Hidden Story of Israel’s Jews from Arab Lands” is a well-written, well-researched yet imbalanced book. Her thesis is simple: Jews, who came from Arab countries, labeled as Mizrahis, are systematically treated as second class citizens in Israel. Her research pointed to many examples and areas of lives where, indeed Mizrahis are at an intentional or unintentional disadvantage. She also attempted to write a balanced book by pointing out the evidence that is contrary to her thesis. Unfortunately she didn’t find the sought after balance, as she belittled her counterexamples to prove that suppression is systematic and central. In her desire to paint the whole, Ashkenazi society faulty at the class/ethnic/economic division in Israeli society, she stepped over the lines of objectivity

The book is well written at every level. The individual paragraphs are coherent and interesting to read. It helped that the author has many years of journalism experience. The chapters are also well put together and taken together cover a wide enough spectrum of life to support her thesis. The first chapter is a history lesson, how Zionism was and Ashkenazi idea and movement and consequently how they believe they founded modern Israel and how this gave them the right to suppress non-Ashkenazi culture. The chapter points out the problem with this pictures and how communal memory and social standards were created, often by force.

The second chapter tells of the history of Yemenite Jews in Israel and how stereotyping them was helped by media depiction. We also learn about the differential treatment they suffered in terms of access to land and about how their children were literally stolen from them when they immigrated to Israel. The third chapter shows what went wrong with the development or lack of, of “development towns.” These towns, where mostly Mizrahis, often Moroccan and Tunisian origin lived, ended up getting much less government support than originally intended, because the money poured to the, mostly Ashkenazi settlements.

The fourth chapter covers the ancient and recent history of Iraqi Jews, through the examples of the village of Or Yehuda, where they form the majority. The author lingers a lot about the local museum and how veritable its exposition on Iraqi Jews is. The next chapter’s focus is on language and pronunciation. All the old-timer popular media outlets and cultural institutions were founded by Ashkenazis and they set the tone of the voices heard. That excluded the guttural Mizrahi accent, which is closer to Arabic and to the original Semitic root of the language, than the harsh sounding, German influenced standard of Modern Hebrew.

Chapter six is about music and musicians, yet another territory where Mizrahis have to take a second role, because their affinity and integration into the wider Middle Eastern culture, which is based on Arabic one. By “second role” we mean less and later government support for classical music, as in classical Middle Eastern music is not thought and supported the same way as classical European music. Because of the complexity of Israel’s diplomatic relationship with its neighbors the musicians playing this kind of music have fewer opportunities to play and travel.

The seventh chapter covers the disparities of the education system and rehashes the central idea of another book titled, “Not failures but made to fail.” Through tracking the rise and fall and partial rise of Kedma–a network of schools, founded by sociologists where parents take a leading role and where the majority of the students are Mizrahi—the author shows how anti-segregation was and communal anger about disturbing social standards was used to shut down a successful school.

The penultimate chapter attacks the complex fields of politics, where in Israel the “racial card” is known as the “ethnic demon”. It is used both by racists and by anti-racists, it both helped Mizrahi politicians and help to cause their decline. Raising the “ethnic demon” refers to the fear of talking about something, or doing something that may increase racist tendencies in society. At the same time, politicians of Mizrahi origin used the ethnic demon to explain if they failed at something, while their enemies used the slogan if they thought these politicians accomplished something solely on the merit of their skin color.

The final, ninth chapter proposes that the concept of being an Arab and a Jew should not be exclusive. Just like we have Hungarian Jews, French Jews and so on, the reality I that Jews from Arab lands are culturally Arabs and only Jews by their religion. It is a simplified version of the idea of course, but that was the essence I got.

I summarized the chapters so it would serve as a reminder of all the areas where Israeli society could improve integration and equal treatment of Mizrahis. Shabi did a great job of covering all of these. Her notes are extensive and scholarly: I was happy to see that she provided references, so we could check out her sources. But I would have preferred even more as there were several places where she just wrote “studies prove”, without mentioning what studies. Nevertheless her year of researching and writing the book was well spent as the result proves it.

As a left-leaning, Jew of mostly Ahskenazi origin it was difficult to read this book, particularly the early parts. The beginning was even more heavily influenced by the author’s sense of injustice about what happened to Palestinians and Mizrahis as the rest. While I am sympathetic to their causes as I have empathy for all suffering, but not at the expense of seriously harming my tribe. The emotions her text stirred in me made me want to put down the book. I am glad that I didn’t, because at the end I learned a lot about Israeli society and it was interesting from a sociological point of view as well. I just wish that she had opted to be more objective and less provoking. But I understand that Shabi, being an Iraqi Jew, who lives in the UK, had her own emotions to write out.

The book @ Amazon

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