Book Review: Jews from Arab Lands

    May 2011          
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Book Review
Not the Enemy: Israel’s Jews from Arab Lands

By Jay Levinson

by Rachel Shabi
New Haven and London: Yale University Press (2009)
ISBN: 978-0-300-12275-5

The author, Rachel Shabi, has done extensive research and has conducted numerous interviews showing a wide range of problems in integrating eastern Jews coming from Arab countries into Israeli society. Her basic finding is that there has been a strong anti-Sephardic bias in virtually every aspect of Israeli culture. This unfortunate conclusion is certainly unpleasant, but Shabi is quite convincing in her analysis.

Quotations cited, albeit second hand, by the author from personages such as David Ben Gurion and Abba Eban show a very disparaging attitude that is more readily ignored rather than confronted. There were unfair practices. There were mistakes. Shabi describes Israel of the 1950s and 1960s, fully realizing that this is not the Israel of today.

To her credit Shabi does note elsewhere in the book that as Minister of Education Abba Eban chose as a declared priority raising the educational level of Jews who had immigrated from Arab countries.

Israel was a country striving to build a national identity in rough economic times while confronting enemies on its borders. There was no such thing as “Israeli.” It was a concept being developed. The newly found country of the late 1940s and early 1950s was trying to define the cultural relationship between the old yishuv and the masses of newly arrived Sephardim. Shabi shows that in academia and the higher echelons of government service there was a preference for Ashkenazi. As the country developed, Sephardic music and food became standards in the country.

Sephardic Jews came to Israel with an invaluable skill not rivaled in Ashkenazi society --- a native command of Arabic, the language of the “confrontation states.” Many Sephardim were given security assignments utilizing Arabic.

What was life like in Arab countries before the War of Independence? Shabi paints a very positive picture of the “good life” in pre-1948 Arab countries, realizing that at times there were pogroms and discrimination in several countries.

According to Shabi, Zionism was not the primary motivation for Sephardic aliyah. There was a strong religious desire to come to the ancient Jewish homeland, and a pragmatic necessity to flee Arab countries after the end of the British Mandate and the fighting in Palestine.

One of the subjects dealt with by Shabi is the rejection of Sephardic accents in Hebrew (even though havara sepharadit is preferred over ashkenazit). Shabi is correct. Sephardic accents are shunned on television and radio --- but so are American, Russian and French accents. Just as American broadcasts have come to favor a national standard (not New Yorkese, Bostonian or Southern), so it is in Israel. A broader perspective shows that television and radio play a dominant role in national culture. The language and pronunciation used are those most pleasant to the vast majority of listeners. Although sometimes slang and guttural pronunciation of certain letters re-enforce ethnic stereotypes, one cannot have a street vendor speaking university level Hebrew.

Shabi dwells on educational shortcomings of Sephardim, which she attributes to system bias, preferring Ashkenazic standards and models over Sephardic values. She proudly points to the fact that the residents of Arab countries, Jews and Moslems alike, have made significant contributions to world culture, particularly in a field such as literature. One should remember, however, the basic reality that for many reasons having nothing to do with discrimination, Israeli education is Western-oriented. For political reasons Israel has been forced to face Westward. English has become the international standard (not Arabic), again pushing Israel to the West.

Reading this volume is certainly recommended. The author has a skill to write in an easily read style. She also raises numerous questions well worth serious thought.


from the May 2011 Edition of the Jewish Magazine

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