Israel Pulse

Israel literature prize stirs debate over Mizrahi discrimination

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Article Summary
The announcement that Erez Biton was to be awarded the Israel Prize for Literature and Poetry generated a debate over his Mizrahi (Sephardic) origins rather than his poetry.

Given the way things are in Israel, it was unlikely that anyone would have taken for granted the decision on March 29 to award the Israel Prize for Literature and Poetry to Erez Biton, the first Mizrahi (Sephardic, of Middle Eastern or North African descent) to win the prestigious accolade. After all, the ethnic card doesn’t wait for someone to pull it out of the deck; it roams freely and pounces.

Israelis, both of Ashkenazi (of European descent) and Mizrahi descent, do not need a special reason for a confrontation over ethnicity. They simply find a way to a link in every event, whether remotely related or not, to generate tension and each use it for its own purpose. We encountered such farcical manipulation, for instance, in using the death of songwriter and poet Arik Einstein as an excuse to attack the Ashkenazi cultural hegemony, or the claims against the Mizrahim in the wake of the Likud Party’s recent election victory.

The prestigious Israel Prize is awarded at an official ceremony on Independence Day each year by the prime minister, and is generally regarded as the state's highest honor. The prize is awarded in several areas, such as natural science, humanities, social science, Judaism, exact sciences, culture, arts, communication, sports and lifetime achievement. A public committee picks the recipients.

In the case before us, the ethnic tensions are clearly relevant: Critics argue that Israel Prize recipients are traditionally picked by mostly male, Ashkenazi judges, along unequal, ethnic lines that discriminate against Mizrahim, women and Arabs. Proof can be found in the small number of Mizrahi laureates. “Since 2000, only 18% of the winners were women and 92% of all winners were Ashkenazi,” social activist Revital Madar wrote in Haaretz. “Who really needs the Israel Prize?” asked another pundit who examined the history of discrimination in the annual awards.

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Only two writers of Mizrahi origin have ever been awarded the Israel Prize in the literature category: Yehuda Burla and A.B. Yehoshua, both born in Israel to well-established families of Sephardic ancestry. Unlike them, Biton, 73, who was blinded at the age of 11 by a hand grenade he found that blew up in his face, is the first Mizrahi prize winner not born in Israel. Biton was born in Morocco and immigrated to Israel with his family at the age of six. His poetry touches directly on the discrimination of the Mizrahim in Israel and the gaping wound of humiliation that has yet to heal.

His well-known poem “Zohara al-Fasiya,” for instance, describes how the Zionist melting pot dumped the famous Jewish-Moroccan singer, who entertained King Mohammed V in Morocco, in a slum in the town of Ashkelon: “Antiquities 3 / By the welfare office the smell / Of leftover sardine cans on a wobbly three-legged table / The stunning royal carpets stained on the Jewish agency cot.”

In February, in an unusual move, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu disqualified two judges appointed to the panel of the Israel Prize for Literary search committee, claiming they were part of a radical, anti-Zionist clique. At the time, literary critic Orin Morris predicted that the debate over the judges would focus on ethnic aspects, i.e., would justify their disqualification based on their Ashkenazi origins, whereas many believed the real motive was their being vocal leftists.

And now, after the announcement of Biton’s pick, there are those on the literary scene who claim that the Ashkenazi judges chose Biton not by virtue of his importance or accomplishments, but to prove that contrary to the accusation against them, they are neither racist nor discriminatory. According to these claims, Biton serves as the Ashkenazi cultural fig leaf.

Poet, writer and activist Almog Behar quickly discounts this claim, saying, “Erez Biton should have won a long time ago … I’m not going to get into the psyche of the jurors, the award is justified. Of course the question arises of why until now there have not been more Mizrahi winners, and this only shows the oppression and cultural erasure. Biton has been the most worthy candidate for years; he was rejected only because of the oppression. To claim that he was chosen because of his Mizrahi descent is a distortion of reality.”

When Biton dared claim in an interview that he represents Hebrew poetry and not Mizrahi, he stirred up a storm among some Mizrahim. Talk backer Gabi Abergil was quick to opine that “Mizrahim don’t need representatives who suck up,” suggesting that Biton change his distinctly Sephardic family name. “You are not even worthy of being part of the Mizrahi culture,” he wrote, wiping out with one comment dozens of years of vibrant Mizrahi creativity.

Biton’s representation is important, and how, even if that was not the reason he was chosen. Not choosing him would have been perceived by Mizrahim as a slap in the face.

Among the multitude of well-wishers were those who urged Biton to reject the prize to avoid collaborating with the Ashkenazi cultural establishment. Poet and former Likud Party activist David Merhav, who has since become a sworn Netanyahu enemy, went as far as to claim on his Facebook page: “In the name of his ethnic radicalism, Erez Biton should have refused the Israel Prize being given by that inciting Duce Netanyahu.” He nonetheless added: “In radicalist thinking, getting a prize from the fascists to set up the so-called Ashkenazi-Zionists constitutes an act of bravery.”

In Merhav’s view, Biton should boycott the prize. He told Al-Monitor, “Netanyahu should be boycotted for his racism against the Arabs, especially as the representative of an oppressed minority such as the Mizrahim. He is a symbol of the struggle against oppression and choosing him was no coincidence, by any means. Dissidents in the Soviet Union and in [apartheid] South Africa would not have been given prizes by the regime. Anyone getting a prize from the regime is a collaborator.”

Merhav, who describes himself as “a Hebrew, not an Ashkenazi” made clear that he is in favor of Biton getting the prize, but not from Netanyahu. He also pointed out "the exclusion of Arabs from the prize,” over which there is no Mizrahi protest whatsoever. “Radical Mizrahism is a collaborator of the settlers and the right. In return for recognition, they will sell their mother.”

In the wake of Merhav’s comments, Behar said, “There’s a reason that the central proponent of such a view is Ashkenazi and not Mizrahi. We live in the State of Israel, and the opportunities as Mizrahim and as political leftists to protest are complicated. There are things you boycott, and others you don’t. In the context of the Israel Prize, it’s important to me that my children know that Biton won, that it [his poetry] will be added to the curriculum. As long as your tax money pays for these prizes, and you consume the media and your kids are in the school system, you want involvement. I'm not against boycotts, but sometimes giving up a prize is the privilege of those who no longer need the prize. This is not the case here.”

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Found in: sephardic jews, poetry, mizrahi jews, literature, israel, discrimination, ashkenazi

Yuval Avivi, journalist and literary critic, is a columnist for the magazine Firma (of the Israeli economic daily Globes group) and writes for TimeOut Tel Aviv magazine. He was previously deputy chief editor of the Israeli daily Israel HaYom weekend supplement.

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