BBC World Service Touts an Ill-informed Caricature of Israel

Listeners to the March 26/27 edition of the BBC World Service programme ‘The Cultural Frontline’ heard a long item (from 20:17 here which presented a caricature of Israel and Israeli Jews from Arab lands which is rife with subtly misleading inaccuracy and omission. An abridged version of the item was promoted separately on social media.The Cultural Frontline Khaled Diab

The programme’s synopsis misleadingly describes the item as follows:

Writer Khaled Diab explains why Mizrahi, or Eastern Jewish, music is becoming popular amongst both Israeli and Palestinian young people.

Longtime readers of the Guardian will of course be familiar with Khaled Diab. He has after all been promoting his ‘one-stater’ ideas on its pages for years and he is the man who, in 2009, tried to persuade them that the solution to the Arab-Israeli conflict ought to be modelled on his adopted homeland of Belgium – an idea which might currently seem even less plausible than it did at the time.

So let’s take a look at some of the notions Diab promotes on this generous BBC World Service platform. Following a rather long and flowery introduction, Diab gets to his subject matter:

Although Israel’s image abroad and the self-image it projects is very Western, about half of its Jewish population originates in the Middle East.airport sign

So far, so good but then Diab goes on to make the following assertion about a country in which Arabic is one of two official languages and everything from passports and ID cards to food packaging displays Arabic script – including the signs Diab presumably saw when he first stepped off the plane.

But Israel is generally coy of showing its Arab face to the world while many Arabs don’t like seeing it.

Known as Mizrahi or Eastern Jews in Hebrew, the first generation were born in Arab countries. The second generation grew up in Arabic speaking households and many in the third generation are busy rediscovering their roots. The first generation had it tough. They fled their homelands out of fear following the creation of Israel.

He continues:welcome to Israel sign

Diab does not elaborate on that last sentence and the significance of his sidestepping of events such as the Farhud pogroms in Libya.

Their Arab culture, which was also the culture of the enemy, was shunned and looked down upon by the Ashkenazi pioneers who founded Israel. This led the Mizrahim to seek escape from their offending Mizrahiness [sic].

Whilst there is no denying the cultural clashes of Israel’s early years, that simplistic caricature erases from audience view the topic of the process of building of a national identity in the formative years of the Jewish state (and its satirisation in works such as the 1964 film Sallah Shabati which garnered unprecedented box-office success at the time) and the work of people such as Abraham Zvi Idelsohn (author of the Thesaurus of Hebrew Oriental Melodies), Shoshana Damari and Sara Levi-Tanai.

However even if their culture was shunned in public, the Mizrahim maintained it in private, speaking Arabic at home and listening to the music they had grown up with. Some of the musicians who moved to Israel were among the crème de la crème of Arabic music but found no interest from the Ashkenazi establishment. These included Daoud and Salah al Kuwaiti. Born in Kuwait to an Iraqi-Jewish family, the Kuwaiti brothers were popular with both the political elite – including Iraq’s then King Faisal – and the masses in Iraq and the Gulf, though they were expunged for decades from the Arab collective memory. In Israel they found little better. Salah and Daoud were forced to eke out an existence as shopkeepers in Tel Aviv and sang in small bars. Decades later, Daoud’s grandson Dudu Tassa revived their memory by fusing their
songs with the guitar riffs he had become famous for as a rocker.

Here is Dudu Tassa’s own account of his grandfather’s move to Israel:

In the beginning of the 1950s, they decided to leave Baghdad and join the big wave of emigration from Iraq to the newly-established Israel. In spite of their wealth and of the wide range of possibilities before them Saleh and Daud had to leave everything behind. They emigrated to the young Jewish state without using their connections to gain permission to take their property with them.

Saleh and Daud’s status in Iraq was of no use to them when faced with the difficulties of finding their place in Israel. Their welcome in the new country was harsh due to the mass migration of Jews from oppressive Arab regimes they were sent first to live in a temporary tent camp in Beer Yaakov. Later they moved to the Hatikva quarter of Tel Aviv, there sometimes they used to play in the Noah café. Upon their arrival Saleh and Daud began playing and performing also in the Arab channel of “The Voice of Israel” (Israeli radio), soon becoming two of its leaders. They performed as guest soloists with the Arabic orchestra of the Israeli Radio led by Zuzu Mussa. For many years they gave a regular live radio performance, with thousands of people in Israel and millions in Iraq and Kuwait listening.

An Arabic orchestra belonging to Israel’s state-run radio? An Arabic channel run by the same official radio station? That of course is a very different picture to the one painted by Khaled Diab who would have listeners believe that such culture was “shunned and looked down on” by the “Ashkenazi establishment” but indeed the state-run ‘Voice of Israel’ radio station did have an in-house Arab orchestra from 1948 until 1993.

Diab then tells listeners that:

Recent years have seen Mizrahi music come out of the home and onto radio, TV and the club scene. You can hear it at parties, weddings and even on Saturday nights at Mahane Yehuda; Jerusalem’s covered market.

Diab does not clarify what he means by “recent” but obviously his definition is somewhat different to that of the dictionary given that in 1971 the Israeli Broadcasting Authority produced the first Mizrahi song festival which was aired on radio and screened on television. Apparently he has never heard of Zohar Argov’s smash hit ‘The Flower in my Garden’ from 1982.

Diab goes on to tell listeners that “numerous young artists have reclaimed the Iraqi, Yemeni and North African music of their ancestors” before moving along the route to his core agenda.

Despite the Palestinian distrust of Israel and the growing hatred towards Israelis in Palestinian society, Mizrahi music in Hebrew has a surprisingly strong following among young Palestinians. Even more bewildering; a trickle of Palestinian artists are singing Mizrahi music in Hebrew, such as Nasreen Qadri who has found mainstream success.

Audiences might have been somewhat less bewildered had Diab told them that Nasreen Qadri is an Arab-Israeli born and raised in Haifa. Had he done so, however, the use of the word “occupier” in his next sentence would obviously have required explanation.the cultural frontline diab abridged

While Palestinian activists I know dismiss this interest in Mizrahi music as a form of assimilation with the occupier and an expression of self-hatred, I think its causes run deeper. Despite their disparate politics, young Mizrahim and Palestinians have a lot in common. They are socially and economically marginalized. Their forbearers were uprooted and their culture has been under threat. As is the case with African-Americans, the fact that Mizrahi music has become hip and mainstream doesn’t mean that the Mizrahim are no longer marginalised. Despite some success stories, the Israeli establishment and upper echelons are still firmly Ashkenazi.

Diab provides no source or evidence for his claims of ‘marginalisation’ and makes no attempt to clarify to listeners how that process ostensibly takes place. But propagation of the notion of an ‘Ashkenazi elite’ – despite the fact that increasing numbers of Israelis have mixed Ashkenazi and Sephardi or Mizrahi heritage and that Mizrahim are to be found in prominent positions in all fields of Israeli society – serves Diab’s ultimate take-away messaging.

This growing cultural pride has not translated into greater sympathy for Palestinians and Arabs among Mizrahim. In fact, there’s been a hardening of sentiment and a troubling surge in anti-Arab racism. This is disheartening to Mizrahi activists I know who entertain the dream that their community’s Arab roots can help bridge a gaping chasm separating Israelis and Palestinians.

In addition to the fact that yet again Diab brings no evidence to support his claim of a “surge in anti-Arab racism” among Mizrahim, it is very obvious that since he first began banging this particular drum in an article titled “Israel’s other Arabs ” published seven years ago at the Guardian, he has done nothing to inform himself of the circumstances and background to the mass exodus of almost a million Jews from Arab and Muslim lands – and the related collective memories of Mizrahi and Sephardi Jews.

Whilst we would of course expect nothing better from such a seasoned polemicist as Khaled Diab, it is however regrettable that the BBC World Service elected to give such a generous platform to his recycled, uninformed and politicized caricature of Israel and Israeli Jews from Arab lands which not only does nothing to meet the corporation’s remit of enhancing audience understanding of “international issues” and “different cultures from around the world” but actively – and intentionally – hinders such understanding.
This article was corrected on Nov. 13, 2017 to reflect the fact that there are two official languages in Israel, not three, as previously stated.

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