Depoliticization, Repoliticization and Mizra?i Politics in Israel

By Zachary Smith
Submitted to Session P4683 (Intellectual and Political Experiences of Middle Eastern Jews, 2016 Annual Meeting
Pol Science
Israel; Palestine; The Levant;
Current Events; Israel Studies; Middle East/Near East Studies; Minorities; Zionism;
LCD Projector with Audio Patch or Speakers;
Throughout Israel’s history, Mizra?im, Jews of Middle Eastern and North African (MENA) origins, were intensely involved in formal politics, from electoral movements to political parties to protests and demonstrations. Yet recently, Mizra?im have engaged in a number of cultural, linguistic and social efforts that, while nonetheless firmly entrenched in the broad map of Israeli political life, are at best tangentially related to formal political contestation. Why might this be the case? What can explain the “Mizra?i retreat” from the formal political sphere?

This paper contends that the current era of Mizra?i politics is formally depoliticized. In previous decades, Mizra?im had organized behind specific political parties and non-governmental organizations that advocated for specific policy solutions to perceived and actual endemic problems in Israeli society and political culture. Examining Mizra?im in formal politics today, however, shows a markedly different picture: they have no formal ethnic political party (the closest, SHAS, bases itself on religious adherence), are dispersed in the Knesset along the spectrum of political ideologies and are fractured on policy solutions and on the possibility of formal political redress. Mizra?im find political relevance not in the tools of Israeli formal politics, but through cultural engagement and critique, utilizing the tools of Israeli media to heighten the salience of Mizra?i claims of discrimination and racism against Ashkenazi-dominated political life. For instance, Mizra?im have formed a poetic movement aimed at destabilizing the Israeli poetry establishment, sing pop music – popular among all Israelis – in various dialects of Judeo-Arabic, and have written complex works of fiction designed to highlight the ambivalence of Mizra?i collective identity.

This paper will explore contemporary Mizra?i politics against the backdrop of previous generations of Mizra?i political action. It will highlight as its main case study, along with interviews with several young radical Mizra?im, the poetic movement ?Ars Poetika and its celebratory and critical airing of Mizra?i politics. In ?Ars Poetika poetry, concepts like the core-periphery divide, the future of Israeli, Israeli collective identity and anti-Mizra?i racism are juxtaposed with traditional Ashkenazi answers to Mizra?i political frustration. Moreover, new cultural-political movements, like Tor Ha-Zahav and Mizra?it Meshutefet, intersperse political calls to action with cultural calls for change and renewal. This paper contends, then, that while Mizra?im have retreated from the formal political space of party competition and Knesset lawmaking, their critique is nonetheless both highly visible and deeply politicized.