Riches To Rags To Virtual Riches: When Mizrahi Artists Said ‘No’ To Israel’s Pioneer Culture

Shoshana Gabay. Ills. Joseph Sassoon Semah

Upon their arrival in Israel, Mizrahi Jews found themselves under a regime that demanded obedience, even in cultural matters. All were required to conform to an idealized pioneer figure who sang classical, militaristic ‘Hebrew’ songs. That is, before the ‘Kasetot’ era propelled Mizrahi artists into the spotlight, paving the way for today’s musical stars. Part two of a musical journey beginning in Israel’s Mizrahi neighborhoods of the 1950s and leading up to Palestinian singer Mohammed Assaf.  Read part one here.

Our early encounter with Zionist music takes place in kindergarten, then later in schools and the youth movements, usually with an accordionist in tow playing songs worn and weathered by the dry desert winds. Music teachers at school never bothered with classical music, neither Western nor Arabian, and traditional Ashkenazi liturgies – let alone Sephardic – were not even taken into account. The early pioneer music was hard to stomach, and not only because it didn’t belong to our generation and wasn’t part of our heritage. More specifically, we were gagging on something shoved obsessively down our throat by political authority.

Our “founding fathers” and their children never spared us any candid detail regarding the bodily reaction they experience when hearing the music brought here by our fathers, and the music we created here. But not much was said regarding the thoughts and feelings of Mizrahi immigrants (nor about their children who were born into it) who came here and heard what passed as Israeli music, nor about their children who were born into it. Had there been a more serious reckoning from our Mizrahi perspective, as well as the perspective of Palestinians, mainstream Israeli culture might have been less provincial, obtuse and mediocre than what it is today.

Israeli radio stations in the 60s and 70s played songs by military bands, or other similar bands such as Green Onion or The Roosters. There were settler songs such as “Eucalyptus Orchard” with its veiled belligerence, and other introverted war songs, monotonous and stale, inspiring depressive detachment. For example, take “He Knew Not Her Name,” sung here by casual soldiers driving in a jeep through ruins of an Arab village, or the pompous “Tranquility.” When these songs burst out in joy, as is the case with “Carnaval BaNahal,” it comes out loud and vulgar. “The Unknown Squad,” composed by Moshe Vilensky, written by Yechiel Mohar and performed by the Nahal Band in 1958, always reminded me of the terrifying military march music I used to hear on Arab radio stations as a child. As far as the Arabs were concerned, these tunes represented trivial propaganda, not the cultural mainstream. However, in Israel, the Nahal Band was lauded as the country’s finest for more than two decades. Thanks to YouTube, we can now revisit the footage and see them marching, eyes livid and intimidating, faces blank.

Shoshana Damari’s voice, which was supposed to cushion our shocking encounter with this music, only made it worse. Every time her voice would boom out on early 70s public television my father would stretch an ironic smile under his thin Iraqi mustache and let out an expressive, “ma kara?” (“what’s the big deal?”), in sardonic astonishment of the wartime-chanteuse’s bombastic pomp.

It’s not hard to understand why revolutionary Zionists would have their hearts set on a patriotic military musical taste, complete with marching music and Eastern European farming songs fitted for a newfound belligerent lifestyle. But this dominating attitude would prove shocking to Mizrahi Jews, and the musicians among them, who took an active role in the greater Arab music scene (for more on the topic read part one of this series). These musicians were accustomed to the cultural freedoms they enjoyed in the cosmopolitan atmospheres of Marrakesh, Cairo and Baghdad before the military coups. And contrary to popular belief, our ancestors carried no sickles or swords. From Sana’a jewelers to Iraqi clerks under British rule, Persian rug merchants and Marrakesh textile merchants, the majority of Mizrahi Jews lived in urban areas.

In Israel, Mizrahi Jews found a political rule that penetrated all aspects of civilian life, controlling and demanding full obedience even in matters like culture and music. Everyone had to conform to the idealized Sabra figure who sang “Hebrew” music – as in, Eastern European music with Mizrahi touches, celebrating the earth-tilling farmer and the hero soldier. The Broadcasting Authority’s Arab Orchestra, where only an small portion of the musicians were employed and paid meagerly, was established for the sole purpose of broadcasting propaganda to Arab audiences, never with a thought toward domestic consumption.

Patriotic songs that tried going Mizrahi weren’t of any greater appeal. We didn’t get what was so mizrahi about their monotonous drone. On rare occasions, a moving song like “Yafe Nof” slipped through. Written by Rabbi Yehuda Halevi and composed by the talented Yinon Ne’eman, a student of songwriter Sarah Levi Tanai, the song plays like an ancient Ladino tune, sung in Nechama Hendel’s beautiful, ringing voice. The delightful Hendel, who had also been shunned by the cultural establishment for a time, sings the magical Yiddish tune “El HaTsipor” (To the Bird), a diasporic soul tune that occasionally snuck its way on to the radio. At the time, I thought this song seemed more adequate in relation to the sorrows of Ashkenazi Holocaust survivors living in my neighborhood than what “Shualey Shimshon” (Samson’s Foxes) had to offer.

There were exceptions, such as Yosef Hadar’s timeless “Graceful Apple” and the internationally acclaimed “Evening of Roses.” Most of the several-dozen versions of this song circulating on the net were not posted by Israelis or Jews, but rather by music lovers in general.

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Naeim Giladi ~ World Organization Of Jews From Islamic Countries

11-07-94 Original Air Date – Naeim Giladi (Hebrew: נעים גלעדי‎) (born 1929, Iraq, as Naeim Khalaschi) is an Anti-Zionist, and author of an autobiographical article and historical analysis entitled The Jews of Iraq. The article later formed the basis for his originally self-published book Ben Gurion’s Scandals: How the Haganah and the Mossad Eliminated Jews.

Giladi was born in 1929 to an Iraqi Jewish family and later lived in Israel and the United States.[Giladi describes his family as, “a large and important” family named “Haroon” who had settled in Iraq after the Babylonian exile. According to Giladi his family had owned, 50,000 acres (200 km²) devoted to rice, dates and Arab horses. They were later involved in gold purchase and purification, and were therefore given the name, ‘Khalaschi’, meaning ‘Makers of Pure’ by the Turks who occupied Iraq at the time. He states that he joined the underground Zionist movement at age 14 without his parent’s knowledge and was involved in underground activities. He was arrested and jailed by the Iraqi government at the age of 17 in 1947. During his two years in the prison of Abu Ghraib, he was expecting to be sentenced to death for smuggling Iraqi Jews out of the country to Iran, where they were then taken to Israel. He managed to escape from prison and travel to Israel, arriving in May 1950.

While living in Israel, his views of Zionism changed. He writes that, he “was disillusioned personally, disillusioned at the institutionalized racism, disillusioned at what I was beginning to learn about Zionism’s cruelties. The principal interest Israel had in Jews from Islamic countries was as a supply of cheap labor, especially for the farm work that was beneath the urbanized Eastern European Jews. Ben Gurion needed the “Oriental” Jews to farm the thousands of acres of land left by Palestinians who were driven out by Israeli forces in 1948″.
I organized a demonstration in Ashkelon against Ben Gurion’s racist policies and 10,000 people turned out.”
After serving in the Israeli Army between 1967-1970, Giladi was active in the Israeli Black Panthers movement.

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Translating The Arab-Jewish Tradition: From Al-Andalus To Palestine/Land Of Israel

Yuval Evri – Ills.: Joseph Sassoon Semah

This essay investigates the vision of two Jewish scholars of a shared Arab-Jewish history at the beginning of the twentieth century.

The first part of the essay focuses on Abraham Shalom Yahuda’s re-examination of the Andalusian legacy in regard of the process of Jewish modernisation with respect to the symbolic and the actual return to the East. The second part of the essay centers on the work of Yosef Meyouhas (1863-1942), Yahuda’s contemporary and life-long friend who translated a collection of Biblical stories from the Arab-Palestinian oral tradition, examining the significance of this work vis-à-vis the mainstream Zionist approach.[1]

A Dispute in Early Twentieth-Century Jerusalem
On a winter’s evening late in 1920, in an auditorium close to Jerusalem’s Damascus Gate (“bab al-‘amud”), Professor Abraham Shalom Yahuda (1877-1951) gave a lecture attended by an audience of Muslim, Christian and Jewish Palestinian intellectuals and public figures.[2] Its subject matter was the glory days of Arabic culture in al-Andalus.

The event was organized and hosted by the Jerusalem City Council in honour of the newly appointed British High Commissioner Herbert Samuel (1870-1963). In his opening address, Mayor Raghib al-Nashashibi (1881-1951) introduced the speaker as a Jerusalemite, son of one of the most respected Jewish families in the city.[3]
In his lecture, delivered in literary Arabic, Abraham Shalom Yahuda, since 1914 Professor of Jewish History and Literature and Arabic Culture at the University of Madrid portrayed the golden era of Muslim Spain describing the great accomplishments of Muslims and Jews during this period in the fields of science, literature, philosophy, medicine and art and emphasizing the fruitful relations between them. This event was an important moment in the life of this scholar of Semitic culture, one in which his long-standing scientific and political projects merged.

From his early days in Jerusalem, and later on in Germany as a student in Heidelberg and as a lecturer at the Berlin “Hochschule für die Wissenschaft des Judentums” (1904-1914), Yahuda had focused on the Andalusian legacy, emphasising the historical and philological aspects of the Judeo-Muslim symbiosis during that period and its symbolic significance for the modernization and revitalization of Jewish and Hebrew culture. This issue was at the heart of Yahuda’s long-standing debate with Jewish scholars regarding the different options for Jewish modernization. Towards the end of his lecture, Yahuda addressed the Arab Palestinians in the audience directly. Speaking from the heart, albeit in a slightly pompous tone, he called on them to revive the legacy of al-Andalus:

If the opportunity exists today for the Arabs to return to their ancient Enlightenment, it has been made possible only by virtue of the empires that fought for the rights of suppressed peoples.
If the Arabs revive their glorious past through the good will of these empires, especially that of Great Britain, which is willing to help them as much as possible, they have to return to their essence of generosity and allow the other suppressed peoples, including the People of Israel, to benefit from the national rights granted by the British Government. Only when the spirit of tolerance and freedom that prevailed in the golden age of Arab thought in al-Andalus […] will return to prevail today, in a way that will enable all peoples, without religious or ethnic prejudice, to work together for the revival of enlightenment in the Eastern nations, each people according to its unique character and traditions, can an all-encompassing Eastern enlightenment be reborn that will include all Eastern nations and peoples.[4]

Thus, Yahuda chose to end his lecture with a political statement regarding the future of Palestine in this new imperial era. Well aware of the importance of his words in such dramatic times, Yahuda proposed a symbolic return to al-Andalus as a potential political and cultural platform for Jews and Arabs in post-Ottoman Palestine. While it is hard not to see an affinity with the British Empire in his words, we should however note the unique context in which this lecture took place: a few months after the official beginning of British Mandatory rule in Palestine, at an occasion dedicated to the newly appointed High Commissioner Herbert Samuel and in his presence.[5]

However, the event also had a more specific historical context, as it took place on the same night that the third Arab National Congress opened in Haifa. The lecture was organized by Raghib al-Nashashibi in honour of Herbert Samuel, and Nashashibi invited Yahuda to give the main lecture. As the historian Safa Khulusi has suggested, this clash was probably not coincidental, but rather was part of the internal political struggle within the Arab Palestinian community.[6]

During the end of the Ottoman period, and more intensively throughout the British Mandate, the Palestinian political leadership was deeply divided between a few notable families.
The rivalry between the two leading Jerusalemite families—the Nashashibis and the Husseinis—split the local leadership into two main camps: the national camp, under Haj Amin al-Husseini, and the opposition camp, led by Raghib al-Nashashibi. Both families drew supporters from other elite families and refused to cooperate with each other, resulting in a deep political divide in Palestinian society.[7]
This split, which dominated the Palestinian political arena throughout the Mandatory period, had its origins in the early days of British rule, when Raghib al-Nashashibi was appointed Mayor of Jerusalem after the British Military Commissioner removed Musa Kazim al-Husseini (1853-1934) from office.[8]

The three-day Arab congress in Haifa was organized by members of the al-Husseini family and led by Kazim al-Husseini.
Just a few months after the French army destroyed the short-lived constitutional Arab Kingdom of Syria under King Faysal (1885-1933), and amid the ruins of the first modern Arab state in Bilad al-Sham (Greater Syria) that projected equal citizenship to all, the participants in the Haifa congress sought to establish a new strategy towards British rule and towards the Balfour Declaration and the notion of a homeland for the Jewish people.

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The British Institute for the Study of Iraq – The Jews of Iraq Conference ~ 16-18 September 2019

Panel 1 – Linda Abdulaziz Menuhin speaks on her memoires, memories and personal history.

The conference aimed to evaluate the many contributions of the Jewish community in Iraq within the spheres of the arts and culture, social policy, education, government and the economy in the early modern and modern period. Iraqi Jews constituted one of the world’s oldest and most historically significant Jewish communities and were in Iraq for over 2,500 years. There is a widening academic interest in the history and contributions of the Jewish community as well as growing interest in Jewish history in contemporary Iraq. This conference brought together UK, Iraqi and international scholars interested in exploring and researching the contributions of this important community to modern Iraq.

Day 2 – Prof Zvi Ben-Dor Benite (NYU) and Prof Orit Bashkin (UofChicago) give a historical overview on the Jews of Iraq.

Conference 16-18 September 2019 at SOAS, London. The conference was organised by the British Institute for the Study of Iraq in collaboration with The Center for Middle Eastern Studies at the University of Chicago and the Department of History, Religions and Philosophies at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), London.

Please visit the YouTube Channel of The British Institute for the Study of Iraq for more uploads:

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Iraqi-Jewish Oral History | Ghetto In Diwaniya, Iraq 1941: Lynette’s interview With Daniel Sasson

Jan. 15, 2020 ראיון עם דניאל ששון בעברית עם כתוביות באנגלית: הגטו בדיווניה, עיראק

I had the honor of interviewing Daniel Sasson about his book, “The Untold Story” (available in Hebrew). Inspired by the ghettos in Europe during the Holocaust in 1941, then Iraqi Prime Minister Rashid Ali set up a Nazi-like ghetto for over 600 Jews in the small city of Diwaniya, located just outside Baghdad.

Daniel was only 5 years old, and his family was one of the most prominent Jewish families in Iraq at the time. A couple days after the ghetto’s release came the ‘Farhud’, a pogrom in which hundreds of Jewish homes were looted and destroyed, 200 Jews murdered, thousands injured, and Jewish life in Iraq forever changed. Its 79th anniversary was a few days ago.

Daniel was one of my first interviewees last summer, when I was conducting interviews for my Master’s thesis. I spent the entire Fall semester processing the things he and other interviewees told me– stories I couldn’t get out of my head for months. I am honored to have met such a resilient person like him, and I believe that English-speaking communities have so much to gain by learning about the stories and experiences of Iraqi Jews.

(If the English translations don’t come up automatically, press “CC”)

היה לי כבוד להיפגש עם דניאל ששון ולדבר על הספר שלו, “הסיפור שלא סופר,” על הגטו הראשון (והאחרון) בעיראק. אין לי מספיק מילים להודות לו על ההזדמנות הזאת. למדתי על ההשפעה של הנאציים בעיראק, חיים שלו בבגדד, ומה קרה בתוך הגטו. הקהילה היהודי העיראקית חזקה מאוד, עשירה, ומלא עם סיפורים מדהימים– זה כדאי לשמוע, להבין, וללמוד מהם.

אם אין כתוביות באנגלית, לחץ על “cc”

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Murtadha Ridha ~ Jewish Cemetery In Baghdad | مقبرة اليهود في بغداد

The Jewish Cemetery in Sader City in Baghdad – Iraq.
Filming and Editing: Murtadha Ridha / Iraq – Baghdad

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