In Honour of the Desert Generation; the Arab Jews of Egypt, Morocco and Iraq Had Much to Offer the Nascent Israel - but Its Founding Fathers Feared Their Contagion

Article excerpt

Byline: MARINA BENJAMIN

NOT THE ENEMY: ISRAEL'S JEWS FROM ARAB LANDS by Rachel Shabi (Yale, [pounds sterling]18.99)

ADD THE number of Israeli Jews from Arab lands -- from Morocco, Tunisia, Yemen, Syria, Egypt, Iraq -- to the population of Arab-Israelis and a rather surprising statistic emerges: 60 per cent of Israel's population is Middle Eastern. Peel away the mythology about hardy pioneers from Poland and Hungary reclaiming Biblical land and you uncover another, prior group of "pioneers", Arabicspeaking Palestinian Jews, living in the Holy Land for centuries and tending the land peacefully alongside their Muslim neighbours.

So much at odds with Israel's self-image are these quiet demographic truths that it's sometimes difficult to see the nation for what it is: to wit, a country deeply riven by ethnic conflicts that divide Jew from Jew, before separating Jew from Arab. What Israel is patently not, says Rachel Shabi, tearing down the country's own banner ads, is a beleaguered outpost of Europe, struggling to uphold Western values in a backward region.

Herself an "Oriental", a British-educated Iraqi Jew recently transplanted to Tel-Aviv, Shabi is well placed to catalogue the ongoing woes of Mizrahi Jews, who from their first arrival in the 1950s were settled in half-built development towns along the Lebanese and Gazan borders, to serve as human buffers; given smaller, less arable plots of land than their European counterparts; educated in slow-track vocational schools instead of high-achieving academies; and frowned upon for speaking Arabic.

Today, discrimination continues in more veiled forms. Mizrahi music, classed as "ethnic", is banned from public radio playlists, while the guttural Mizrahi accent (closer to ancient Hebrew than shushysounding Ashkenazi consonants) is universally mocked. On radio and television Mizrahis are stereotyped as lazy, stupid and untrustworthy. They're virtually absent from the history books and almost never

At peace: Jewish boys in Yemen, long used to living alongside their Muslim neighbours described as pioneers, though the country was built on the back of their labour. …