July 15, 2002, 10:45 a.m.


By Barbara Lerner

Why does everyone in the West - Israel's friends no less than her foes - assume that the West Bank and Gaza are "occupied lands"? Don't look for answers in U.N. resolutions. At best, they establish Israel's right to exist, in some form, under international law. Moral rights are something else; and here, native rights - the rights of the people indigenous to a region - loom large. In the Middle East, as we know, Arabs are the only natives. Sure, Jews lived here in biblical times, but we know that's irrelevant because they all left after the destruction of the Temple in 70 A.D. - right? Hopped on jets - whatever - and went West for 2,000 years, returning only in the 20th century. They are therefore the latest colonial oppressors, unjustly occupying Arab lands. Israel's friends reject the colonial label (sort of), arguing that it was only right, after the Holocaust, to give Jews a state. But we want to be fair to the natives too, and so we embrace "the two-state solution."

But there's a problem with this bottom-line consensus - and the solution that flows from it. It ignores the rights of Israel's other, invisible natives. Another oppressed minority? No, these natives are a majority - there are some three million of them, and they've been there, in Palestine and all through the Middle East, from time immemorial: a non-Arab, non-Western people, persecuted in the East, unknown in the West, and, too often, condescended to by Israel's Western Jews, the Jews we all know, the Jews who are just like us - the Ashkenazi elite. Ignore them, for once.

Meet the Mizrahi, the Jews of the East, the Jews whose ancestors never left. A small Mizrahi offshoot - the Sephardi - did go to Muslim Spain in the 8th century, contributing to the Renaissance there. But most Mizrahi never joined them, never left their ancient homelands. And when Christian Spain expelled the Sephardi in 1492, some escaped to other European lands, others to Turkey; but most went back to the Middle East and stayed there. Where?

Well, start with the census the Emperor Claudius took in 48 A.D. He counted 7 million Jews on his turf: 2.5 million in Palestine, and more than a million each in what are now Iraq, Syria, Egypt, Iran, and Asia Minor. When the Romans sacked Jerusalem 22 years later, some Jews hung on in Palestine; the rest were driven back to their ancestral lands. In the 7th century, when Muslims conquered their lands, things were sometimes better, sometimes worse. Even in the best of times, though, under Muslim rule, native Jews were dhimmies - tolerated minorities - forced to humble themselves and pay special taxes. But life within those constraints could still be sweet, in between the recurrent waves of slaughter and chaos.

The fighting was brutal when the Ottoman Turks conquered the Middle East in the 16th century; but they imposed order and stability, and prosperity often followed in their wake - theirs was a strikingly meritocratic order (even for slaves). Beyazit II 's response when Spain expelled the Jews exemplifies the Turkish approach; he appraised Sephardi skills, then offered them refuge in Turkey, commenting: "they say the Spanish King is wise, but I think him dull; he impoverished his country, and enriched mine." Many Sephardi accepted his offer; 25,000 are still there, living as equal citizens now.

But the bulk of the Mizrahi remained in the Middle East; under Turkish rule, they were usually better off than Jews in the West. The relative superiority of life in the East only waned in the 18th century, when the Ottoman Empire began its slide into decadence, corruption, and disorder. Meanwhile Europe was rising, and the fortunes - and the population - of Western Jews rose with it. In the 17th century, two-thirds of all Jews still lived in the East; by 1900, only about 10 percent did - post-Holocaust, about 20.

Then, in 1948, Israel became a modern state, with an initial population of 650,000 mainly Ashkenazi Jews. It was a great moment for them, but it was terror time for the Mizrahi. Given a choice, many might have come to Israel eventually, but few were given a choice. Mobs all over the Middle East vented their fury on their Jews; Arab governments stripped them of their possessions and expelled them from the lands they had always lived in and, in spite of everything, mostly loved. Altogether, almost a million Mizrahi flooded into Israel.

It was not an easy transition. Arabic was their mother tongue, or Farsi. (It still is, for many.) Hebrew was considered a language of prayer - about as useful in everyday life as Church Latin to American Catholics. Yiddish, the common language of the European Jews, was incomprehensible to them. And the raw, new country they came to was at war from the day of its birth. Living at first in primitive, hastily erected tent camps, they were later sent to development towns - though these, too, were grim, at least at first. Some still are. Moshavs - communal farms - were tried as well, but the Mizrahi had been mainly craftsmen and merchants, not farmers. Moreover, while most Ashkenazi pioneers were secular and many were socialists, the Mizrahi were neither. Still, there was adequate food and excellent medical care. Their souls were unsatisfied, but their health improved, and their fertility rates mirrored those of their Arab peers - making them a majority by 1968. Numerically, the Mizrahi have been dominant from that day to this.

Politically, however, they were and still are anything but. They remain invisible to the West - few Western reporters speak Arabic or Hebrew and, unlike Palestinian Arabs and Ashkenazi Jews, few Mizrahi speak English. In Israel as in America, their native rights and their claim to "Arab lands" have never factored into the thinking of the ruling elites - with one great exception, the man the Mizrahi elected in 1977, toppling the Ashkenazi Labor party that had ruled Israel since 1948: Menachem Begin. A Polish officer and underground fighter who did as much as any man to create the state, he led the loyal opposition in Israel from the start.

Begin was no socialist, though, and he wasn't a secular Jew either; he was, always, a true, small-d democrat. Western elites reviled him, in Israel and America, but the Mizrahi called him "malkanu": our king. He understood that they had rights too - not just legal rights like the Ashkenazi, but native rights like the Arabs. It's time for the rest of us to consider those rights too.

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