In Praise of Hegemony: Mizrahi Culture in Israel

Haim Watzman

Is the cultural freedom of marginal and minority groups violated by the promotion of a standard central culture by a state or society? In contemporary sociology and cultural theory, “central” and “standard”—more often called “hegemonic”—are dirty words. Such scholarship, veering from the descriptive into the prescriptive, seeks to rescue the lost and oppressed voices of marginal groups and to defend them against the dictatorship of the official, mainstream culture.

     Erez Biton and the Andalusian Orchestra
Erez Biton and the Andalusian Orchestra
I encounter this view frequently in scholarly works that I translate. Right now I’m pondering it as I work on the introduction to a book on the poetry of Israel’s Mizrahim—that is, of Israeli Jews whose origins lie in the Arab world—by Yochai Oppenheimer, a poet and writer about poetry.

Indisputably, when Mizrahi Jews arrived in Israel in the great wave of immigration in the 1950s, they encountered a central Zionist culture that believed itself to represent the only viable future for the Jewish people. That culture rejected Jewish religious tradition, and drew considerable inspiration from modern Europe. It viewed the Orient, and its Jews in particular, as a backward and primitive place. Therefore, its leaders and doers were not, for the most part, interested in fostering or respecting the native culture of the new immigrants. Instead, it sought to assimilate the Arab Jews and make them into Hebrew-speaking moderns.

For Mizrahi writers, acceptance into the Israeli literary world meant shedding the Arab-Jewish culture they brought with them and adopting the Zionist paradigm. Only relatively recently, since the 1990s, has a new generation of Mizrahi writers asserted the value of its own past and roots—and has the central Israeli culture become open enough to accept and welcome the challenge.

All that is true. But isn’t it simplistic? Secular Zionist culture was certainly powerful and its adherents controlled both political and cultural power centers—from ministries to professorships to editorial positions at important newspapers and literary journals.

But the establishment, like Israeli society, was never monolithic. It was constantly under challenge. The history of Israeli poetry is, just like the history of poetry and writing everywhere, a history of rebellions. Natan Alterman rebelled against the generation of Bialik, Natan Zach against Alterman. And the challenges were not just generational—secular Zionist culture was challenged laterally by religious Zionist writers, by left-wing anti-Zionist writers, and by Revisionists like Uri Zvi Greenberg. Each of these writers advocated different poetic ideas, but they also represented different political views and different views of the nature of the Jewish state and of Israeli culture.

True, it took along time for the first Mizrahi voices to appear—that is, writers who challenged the assumption that secular and Western were good and traditional and Eastern primitive. But Erez Biton published his first book of poetry in 1976, when the country was less than three decades old.

But Mizrahi culture in Israel is a new culture, not a reversion to the old Jewish cultures of Morocco and Iraq. Its writers write in Hebrew, not Arabic, and live in Israel. The best Mizrahi writers—take Sami Michael, for example—are those who have deep roots in both cultures and whose works address the tensions between them.

Many literary and cultural theorists argue—some explicitly, others implicitly—that the only morally acceptable culture is a multicultural. If a single strand or school or group dominates, other cultures are oppressed.

But multiculturalism is not and cannot be a level playing field. It’s an environment in which ideas, groups, styles, and subjects constantly vie with each other to establish what lies within and what lies outside the national (or ethnic or linguistic) culture. Paradoxically—and as Oppenheimer notes—it’s that very conflict, the very attempt to draw boundaries, that induces creativity and allows the challenges and rebellions that fertilize creativity.

So it’s not only right, it’s inevitable, that Israeli society will always be seeking to define and, yes, enforce, a hegemonic culture. It’s hardly dictatorial for critics, scholars, and writers to argue, for instance, that Israeli writers ought to write in a dialogue with the Bible, or the midrash, or the medieval Hebrew poets, or the modern Hebrew literary renaissance. Or, alternatively, to argue that what Israeli writers ought to be doing is engaging the Islamic and Arab culture that dominates the Middle East (or the ancient Levant, as advocated by Aharon Amir and others). To write is to struggle not just with who am I, but also with who are we—who do I belong to, what is the nature of my people and my country? It’s these boundary-drawing and boundary-crossing struggles that produce every country’s best writing.