The Israeli Uprising: A Mizrahi Perspective
Over the past few months, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s radical right-wing coalition government has moved to curtail the independence of Israel’s judiciary and weaken the democratic separation of powers, against the backdrop of a frightening uptick of settler violence against Palestinians in the occupied West Bank. This package of “judicial reforms” is an early sign of what is in store from the most right-wing government in Israel’s history — one in which Kahanists like Itamar Ben Gvir have received high-ranking appointments.
In response to Netanyahu’s attack on the judiciary, an energetic protest movement has developed across portions of Israeli society, with recent massive and unprecedented demonstrations bringing well over half a million Israelis into the streets and, on Monday, a general strike backed by union and business leaders, and reports of a pause on judicial reform legislation. While most protests initially addressed the Netanyahu government’s judicial overhaul, after the Huwara pogrom at the end of February — when settlers rampaged throughout the West Bank Palestinian town, setting homes and cars ablaze and assaulting residents — some protesters have also voiced criticism of settler violence.
Many Palestinian and Israeli activists have rightfully criticized these protests for neglecting to challenge the anti-democratic foundation of Israel’s occupation and apartheid policies. Progressive Mizrahi activists, as well, have charged that protesters have largely overlooked the entrenched oppression of Mizrahi Jews, Jews with origins in Arab or Muslims countries, at the hands of Israel’s mostly Ashkenazi establishment. Indeed, while these protests have served as an important pushback against the anti-democratic agenda of the radical right, they have tended, at least in their early stages, to reflect the interests of a largely secular, urban, liberal Ashkenazi elite — one that is resistant to interrogating its own complicity in longstanding hierarchies that for Palestinians and Mizrahim, have been anything but “democratic.”
The invisibilization of Mizrahi voices in the “pro-democracy” protests, as many have called them, has played right into the strategy of Likud and the Israeli far right, who want to recast their attack on democratic values as an effort to erode Ashkenazi supremacy and elevate the voices of marginalized Mizrahi communities.
Ben Lorber and Shane Burley, two Ashkenazi American-Jewish journalists and activists, spoke with the Mizrahi anthropologist Smadar Lavie, a professor emerita at the University of California, Davis, to understand the contours and deep historical roots of the current crisis of hegemony in Israel-Palestine. With decades of experience in Mizrahi and Palestinian struggles, Lavie is the author of “Wrapped in the Flag of Israel: Mizrahi Single Mothers and Bureaucratic Torture,” a2018 book that interrogates the racial, religious, and gendered structures of repression targeting the interplay between Mizrahi women and the colonization of Palestine. Lavie discusses with us the possibilities, limitations, and contradictions of Israel’s current protest movement, traces the efforts of the small cohort of left-wing Mizrahi activists to make their voices heard, and unpacks what is needed to transform the status quo in Israel-Palestine and extend the unfulfilled promise of democracy to those to whom it has long been denied.