We look like the enemy: the hidden story of Israel's Jews from Arab lands

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Walker & Co., Jan 2, 2009 - Biography & Autobiography - 265 pages

“There is a class split,” writes Rachel Shabi, “that runs on ethnic lines”—specifically, between Jews of European origin and those whose ancestral homes were Arab countries. Middle Eastern Jews from Egypt, Morocco, Iraq, Yemen, and other Arab lands make up nearly half of Israel’s population. Yet European or “Ashkenazi” Jews have historically disparaged them because the emigrants looked Arab, spoke Arabic, and brought with them what was viewed as a “backward” Middle Eastern culture. David Ben Gurion, Israel’s first prime minister, called them “human dust with no Jewish or human culture.” Such opinions permeated Israeli society. Middle Eastern or “Mizrahi” emigrants were kept in transit camp longer than Ashkenazi Jews and had poorer housing, educational, and occupational opportunities. 

Shabi returned to Israel for a year to investigate the tense relations that still exist between Mizrahi and Ashkenazi Jews in Israel. She traces the history of this split, starting with the centuries-old story of the Jewish Diaspora, then discussing how Mizrahi figured in the founding and building of Israel, protests by the Mizrahi Black Panther Party in 1971—“the first clash of Jew against Jew in Israel”—and a successful campaign in the 1990s to get the Israeli Ministry of Education to remove negative stereotyping of Yemenites in a textbook. Internalizing such stereotypes led a Moroccan Israeli university professor to begin passing for Ashkenazi when she was only eight years old, even though it meant “destroying, down to the roots, the identity that my parents gave me…rejecting everything: their past, their language, their values.”

Israel’s striving to be a European country and demeaning the culture of its Mizrahi citizens has dislocated those citizens from their own Judeo-Arab identities, and has helped make Israel a misfit state in the Middle East. Shabi combines historical research with intimate oral interviews to shed light on ethnic injustice within Israel, past and present.  Her passionate, personal connection and the heartfelt stories told by other Mizrahis make “We Looked Like the Enemy” a stunning, unforgettable book.

Rachel Shabi was born in Israel to Iraqi Jews and grew up in England. A journalist, she has been published in the Guardian, the Sunday Times, and the Sunday Express. This is her first book. She currently lives in Tel Aviv.

“There is a class split,” writes Rachel Shabi, “that runs on ethnic lines”—specifically, between Jews of European origin and those whose ancestral homes were Arab countries. Middle Eastern Jews from Egypt, Morocco, Iraq, Yemen, and other Arab lands make up nearly half of Israel’s population. Yet European or “Ashkenazi” Jews have historically disparaged them because the emigrants looked Arab, spoke Arabic, and brought with them what was viewed as a “backward” Middle Eastern culture. David Ben Gurion, Israel’s first prime minister, called them “human dust with no Jewish or human culture.” Such opinions permeated Israeli society. Middle Eastern or “Mizrahi” emigrants were kept in transit camp longer than Ashkenazi Jews and had poorer housing, educational, and occupational opportunities. 

Shabi returned to Israel for a year to investigate the tense relations that still exist between Mizrahi and Ashkenazi Jews in Israel. She traces the history of this split, starting with the centuries-old story of the Jewish Diaspora, then discussing how Mizrahi figured in the founding and building of Israel, protests by the Mizrahi Black Panther Party in 1971—“the first clash of Jew against Jew in Israel”—and a successful campaign in the 1990s to get the Israeli Ministry of Education to remove negative stereotyping of Yemenites in a textbook. Internalizing such stereotypes led a Moroccan Israeli university professor to begin passing for Ashkenazi when she was only eight years old, even though it meant “destroying, down to the roots, the identity that my parents gave me…rejecting everything: their past, their language, their values.”

Israel’s striving to be a European country and demeaning the culture of its Mizrahi citizens has dislocated those citizens from their own Judeo-Arab identities, and has helped make Israel a misfit state in the Middle East. Shabi combines historical research with intimate oral interviews to shed light on ethnic injustice within Israel, past and present.  Her passionate, personal connection and the heartfelt stories told by other Mizrahis make We Looked Like the Enemy a stunning, unforgettable book.

"An Israeli journalist—born to Iraqi Jews and raised in England—presents a unique perspective on Israeli history: that of the oft-vilified Jewish immigrants from Arab countries. As Shabi amply demonstrates, the Arab Jewish minorities who first settled in Israel, or Mizrahis, were treated by the Zionist Ashkenazi founders (Jews from Europe) as inferior and even 'uncivilized,' suffering discrimination that still remains entrenched. The Sephardic Jews already living in Palestine when the European Zionists created the New Settlement had well-established business and social connections with the Arabs, and indeed maintained the so-called Oriental characteristics that were lost in the Diaspora. Yet the Jews of the Old Settlement were held suspect by the British-backed Zionists, who believed the Arabs were a corrupting influence on 'authentic Jewish values.' The Yemenis, for example, first arriving in Palestine in the 1910s, were said to possess 'the lifelong habits of the Arab,' and became the solution to 'Hebrew labor'—that is, relegated to the low-wage, dead-end work that the Arabs had done. 'Development towns,' established on the outskirts of the state between 1952 and 1964 to house migrants, are overwhelmingly made up of Mizrahis, and they tend to be the poorest places in Israel. Shabi also looks at other groups, including the Iraqi Jews, and chronicles their litany of discrimination, as well as the stigma associated with the Mizrahi accent—wherein the lost gutturals of Hebrew still reside—and the Mizrahi students' tendency toward low achievement in education. Although Israelis often silence these groups from speaking Arabic, Mizrahi music, notes Shabi, is making a comeback. A finely calibrated, intimate portrait of a diverse people, imbued with authenticity sympathy."—Kirkus Reviews

"Journalist and first-time author Shabi reports on the societal struggle of Israel's Arabian Jewish population from her viewpoint as the Israel-born daughter of two Iraqi Jews. Backed with a long view of Jewish history in both the Middle East and Europe, Shabi explores the conflicts and inequities among the privileged Ashkenazi Jews—European, educated and cosmopolitan—and their Mizrahi neighbors, whose culture—incorporating many Middle Eastern and North African traditions—is often devalued or oppressed: popular Arabian music gets banned from Israel's airwaves, the Mizrahi accent has become shorthand for the lower class, and government programs meant to help Mizrahi migrants are set up to fail (like the 'developmental towns' cut short of funding during the Six-Day War, and left half-developed thereafter). Interviews with Mizrahi citizens heap blame on the Ashkenazi-dominated Jewish Agency for presenting Israel as a haven for all displaced Jews, when the reality for Arabian Jews is likely less prosperous—and possibly less tolerant—than life in Arab countries. Shabi's investigative skill and grasp of Israeli history (especially her re-examination of the Jewish Diaspora) makes this a rare and fascinating overview of the other Israeli conflict."—Publishers Weekly (starred review)

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LibraryThing Review

User Review  - ValerieAndBooks - LibraryThing

An important book. It informs the reader of the fact that racism does exists within Jews in Israel -- the focus is on Ashkenazi Jews of European descent towards Jews of Arabic descent. It should be noted that the author is an Iraqi Jew. Read full review

LibraryThing Review

User Review  - ValerieAndBooks - LibraryThing

An interesting book. It informs the reader of the fact that racism does exists within Jews in Israel -- the focus is on Ashkenazi Jews of European descent towards Jews of Arabic descent. It should be noted that the author is an Iraqi Jew. Read full review

Contents

Prologue
1
Veiling Its Face
7
Meet the Family
25
Copyright

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About the author (2009)

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Rachel Shabi was born in Israel to Iraqi Jews and grew up in England. A journalist, she has been published in the Guardian, the Sunday Times, and the Sunday Express. This is her first book. She currently lives in Tel Aviv.