A 'hidden story' with preconceived notions
Problems present themselves from the very beginning with Rachel Shabi's attempt to tell the history of Israel's Jews who came from Arab lands. There's the part of the title that describes this as a "hidden story," for one thing, and the map on the opening page marking Tel Aviv as the capital of the Jewish state, for another.
To be sure, most of the world does not recognize Jerusalem as Israel's capital. But what this has to do with the story of Jews from Arab lands is never addressed. The reason for the map emerges only vaguely, near the end of Shabi's discourse.
For whatever else this may be, it is not a story, and it is not hidden. Virtually all of those with broad Israeli contacts, and many others, are well acquainted with the prejudices of Ashkenazim, Jews whose traditions have been shaped by centuries of exile in Europe and America, toward Mizrahim, whose traditions evolved during their long dispersion in Arab lands.
It is not at all uncommon to encounter in the United States or Great Britain Jews who immigrated to Israel from Iraq, Morocco, or elsewhere in the Arab world and then moved on to escape bias. It used to be much worse in Israel, but there is no denying it still exists.
If that sounds like racism in the United States, it should. The question, which a furious Moroccan-Israeli hurls at the author, is "why are you even talking about this? Don't you have racism in England? There is racism in France, in the United States, everywhere! Why are you focusing on Israel?" Shabi does not answer. Instead, she grudgingly, usually briefly, acknowledges Mizrahi breakthroughs in politics, the arts, and other fields, while lingering sympathetically, and often sentimentally, with Mizrahim who dwell on the injustices that they suffered.
The "why" comes into focus as Shabi's personal story unfolds and her professional history is taken into account. Born in Israel to Baghdadi Jews, she was raised in London, where she is a columnist for The Guardian, which among reputable British newspapers is hands-down the one least comfortable with anything Israeli.
Strangely, she reports nothing of the family decision to move from Israel to England. But some of the bitterest regrets of Arab Jews for the Paradise Lost of Baghdad come out of the mouths of her uncles, her father, and former members of the upper class of Iraqi Jewry.
Many members of this privileged class - and their counterparts in Morocco, Egypt, and other Arab countries - would have preferred not to give up what was a very good life for the hardships of an unknown future in the Israeli melting pot. They simply felt they had little choice once the Zionist pioneers declared statehood, the persecuted Jewish masses of the Arab world made a beeline for the Promised Land, and most of the Arab world declared jihad.
It turns out that Shabi wanted to write a book that proved that all the grievances of the Arabs and the liberal West against the Israelis could have been avoided if the Middle East-centered Mizrahim rather than the Euro-centric Ashkenazim had been in charge.
Three pages from the end, she admits that this was "a crashed pet theory" and that most Mizrahim in Israel "hold tight to the national script." Shabi wishes that Israeli Jews from Arab lands were bridges to peace who wanted to keep the Ashkenazim from unreasoningly brutalizing blameless Palestinians - that is certainly her tone when she periodically wanders from her subject and into the Israeli-Palestinian conflict - but it just is not so.
It is a pity that once her hypothesis crashed Shabi persisted in writing the book she had preconceived. How Arab Jews are influencing Israeli culture is a tale worth telling.
Charles A. Radin, a former Globe Middle East correspondent, works in international affairs programming at Brandeis University.