A New Movie Tells How Israel’s Ultra-Orthodox Mizrahi Party Came to Be

April 12 2019

Founded in 1983, the political party known as Shas represents Ḥaredim of Mizraḥi descent, a constituency that has often experienced no small amount of prejudice from both secular and religious Ashkenazi society. Although its influence has declined somewhat from its peak in 1998, it tellingly tied for third place in the most recent election. A new Israeli film, titled The Unorthodox in English, depicts Shas’s founding by an obscure printer named Yaakov Cohen, played by the actor Shuli Rand. Sarah Rindner writes in her review:

In the film, Rand, channeling Cohen, narrates: “People think that politics is about the ‘big shots’ . . . but real politics, the kind that survives, comes from the bottom, from the street, from the people, from the pain.” In Cohen’s case, it was frustration that his high-school-age daughter had been kicked out of an elite Ashkenazi ultra-Orthodox high school for no real reason other than being Sephardi. “Mr. Cohen,” he is chastised by her principal, “you are a guest of the ḥaredi community; don’t abuse our hospitality.”

The rebuke echoed the condescension in which the dominant religious party, Agudat Israel, held its Sephardi voters. Cohen, along with a motley crew of neighborhood characters, patched together a political party, at first only hoping for some representation in the local Jerusalem elections, that would eventually become a major national party and a political movement. Ostensibly focused on local concerns such as funding for synagogues and houses of Torah study, what the party really provides for its constituents is a sense of pride in their Mizraḥi heritage and a refusal to accept a second-class status in a European-dominated Torah culture.

Cohen’s associate Yigal, a ritual slaughterer with a checkered past, declares that “the [Mizraḥi] Black Panthers will look like pussycats next to us.” But truthfully, there is something gentle about the Shas revolution as depicted in the film. It’s a party of elderly Moroccan ladies from the periphery of Israel beaming as a well-spoken rabbi calls to “return the crown to her former glory.” . . .

Ultimately, Rindner concludes, the film is “an exploration of what it means for an organic community to become an organized political movement, replete with bureaucracy, egos, and corruption.”

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Read more at Jewish Review of Books

More about: Film, Israeli politics, Mizrahi Jewry, Shas, Ultra-Orthodox

Who Changed the Term “Nakba” into a Symbol of Arab Victimization?

April 19 2019

In contemporary Palestinian discourse, not to mention that of the Palestinians’ Western supporters, the creation of the state of Israel is known as the Nakba, or catastrophe—sometimes explicitly compared with the Holocaust. The very term has come to form a central element in a narrative of passive Palestinian suffering at Jewish hands. But when the Syrian historian Constantin Zureiq first used the term with regard to the events of 1948, he meant something quite different, and those responsible for changing its meaning were none other than Israelis. Raphael Bouchnik-Chen explains:

In his 1948 pamphlet The Meaning of the Disaster (Ma’na al-Nakba), Zureiq attributed the Palestinian/Arab flight to the stillborn pan-Arab assault on the nascent Jewish state rather than to a premeditated Zionist design to disinherit the Palestinian Arabs. “We [Arabs] must admit our mistakes,” [he wrote], “and recognize the extent of our responsibility for the disaster that is our lot.” . . . In a later book, The Meaning of the Catastrophe Anew, published after the June 1967 war, he defined that latest defeat as a “Nakba,” . . . since—just as in 1948—it was a self-inflicted disaster emanating from the Arab world’s failure to confront Zionism. . . .

It was only in the late 1980s that it began to be widely perceived as an Israeli-inflicted injustice. Ironically, it was a group of politically engaged, self-styled Israeli “new historians” who provided the Palestinian national movement with perhaps its best propaganda tool by turning the saga of Israel’s birth upside down, with aggressors turned into hapless victims, and vice-versa, on the basis of massive misrepresentation of archival evidence.

While earlier generations of Palestinian academics and intellectuals had refrained from exploring the origins of the 1948 defeat, the PLO chairman Yasir Arafat, who was brought to Gaza and the West Bank as part of the 1993 Oslo Accords and was allowed to establish his Palestinian Authority (PA) in parts of those territories, grasped the immense potential of reincarnating the Nakba as a symbol of Palestinian victimhood rather than a self-inflicted disaster. In 1998, he proclaimed May 15 a national day of remembrance of the Nakba. In subsequent years, “Nakba Day” has become an integral component of the Palestinian national narrative and the foremost event commemorating their 1948 “catastrophe.”

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More about: Arab World, Israeli-Palestinian Conflict, New historians, Yasir Arafat