No such thing as ‘half-and-half’: On mixed Mizrahi-Ashkenazi identity

By Itamar Toby (Taharlev) (Translated from Hebrew by Maayan Goldman)

The melting pot’s favorite category, ‘mixed,’ doesn’t pass the test of reality: in Israel, banal characteristics like one’s last name, appearance and place of residence, continue to dictate one’s opportunities in life and create an ethnic identity, concerning both class and culture. On Talia Sagiv’s book

I don’t like definitions. When people assume I’m Ashkenazi I’ll say I’m not. I don’t hide my Mizrahiness. I’m not relieved when people think I’m Ashkenazi. But I also won’t try to highlight the fact that I have a Mizrahi side. (p. 130).

On the Fault Line: Israelis of Mixed Ethnicity, a new book by Dr. Talia Sagiv of the Hebrew University (Hakibbutz Hameuchad publishing), deals with the offspring of what are called “mixed marriages.” To this day, the myth of mixed marriage has been used as the ultimate weapon of proactive Ashkenazim in the ethnicity debate: the joker card, drawn to silence the oppression of Mizrahim. And here, a doctoral student who was originally trying to prove that there’s no such thing and that “everybody’s marrying everybody nowadays,” manages to deconstruct – from deep within – one of the most successful arguments that historically assisted in nurturing that oppression, mainly against whoever is not white, male and secular.

My brothers changed their names, they turned Toubul to Tal, and I hate it. (p. 116)

No doubt – the book’s publication isn’t going to be easy for missionaries of the “everybody’s marrying everybody today and there’s no such thing anymore, so be quiet” argument. Sagiv’s process is extremely interesting, because she goes beyond statistical data and takes a clear interpretative, qualitative approach, demonstrating how her interviewees (offspring of mixed couples ranging in different ages) interpret and perceive their identity through their negotiations with Israeli society. The negotiation takes shape and comes to being on the basis of the following elements, from most influential to least: 1. Skin color. 2. Last name. 3. Place of residence 4. Presence and influence of a dominant personality.

The ethnicity issue comes up in conversations with the kids. I’m amazed by the fact that it still exists in this generation. They’re a little confused, when I tell them I’m half Kurdi they don’t understand. They want to be known as Ashkenazim, especially the oldest daughter. They are preoccupied by the color issue. For example, I have a daughter who I always tell them it’s nice that she’s darker. Still, it’s on their mind. (p. 115).

half half In an interesting way, Sagiv’s interview-based thesis pretty much slaughters the myth of “having an actual half-and-half identity.” The book shows that political categories of east and west in Israel – manifested mainly through skin color and family name – are stronger than the official melting pot ideology of the Zionist movement. The east and west categories leak through the way the “mixed” experience their identity, and manage to continue the construction of offspring that are either Mizrahim or Ashkenazim in their identities, hence effecting their stratified mobility in society. The melting pot category of the “mixed” is a made up category as it doesn’t exist and has nothing to do with reality, both in everyday life and in life opportunities. According to the book, unlike the “mixed identity” experience, eventually banal facts such as family name, appearance (and to a lesser degree- place of residence) that continue to construct social and cultural identities in Israel and affect life prospects.

For me, getting together with an Ashkenazi partner completed my life course, of becoming completely Ashkenazi. (p. 106)

It’s important to mention that there are already several studies of mixed race marriages. Prof. Barbara Okun shows that “mixed” Israelis who are more educated, tend to eventually marry Ashkenazi partners, whereas less educated “mixed” will tend to marry Mizrahi partners, thus replicating the ethnical inequality in Israel (Okun 2007). There’s also what Ortal Ben-Dayan referred to in a lecture as “marriages of Iraqi men with Romanian women: mixed marriages that are characterized by educated Mizrahi men who marry Ashkenazi women who are less educated (or vise-versa, “weaker” Ashkenazi men who can’t find a partner in the Ashkenazi group and probably after being “rejected”- try to find well established Mizrahi women).”

In the Ashkenazi side of the family there was a violent father. Loud arguments in German. Really tough home. My grandmother on the Mizrahi side studied in an Alliance school, she was very educated woman; actually in her father’s house they spoke English, French, Arabic and Hebrew. My grandmother had seven children, but she tought them English, and Alterman, she was an educated woman! From an established Iraqi family. (119).

As far as mixed marriages are concerned, the logic is that the Ashkenazi side brings the whiteness (passive) and the Mizrahi side brings the livelihood, day-to-day management and education (of a more active nature). Therefore, mixed marriages actually cause the rift between Mizrahim and Ashkenazim to widen because a “strong” Mizrahi side marries a “weak” Ashkenazi side, thus making the Mizrahi category weaker as a whole, left with a lesser amount of “strong” people on its side. (It would be interesting to deepen the debate as to what qualifies as strong and weak – is it just about education and social class or also physical appearance, desired characteristics or certain standards?”)

That I have good Hebrew, and that I’m not lazy about opening a dictionary to look up certain words – I got that from my father, not my mother. People attribute it to my mother because she’s Ashkenazi, but it’s not true. The person that still opens up dictionaries to this day, and has an extensive knowledge of phrases, is my father. (p. 135)

The quotations in the book, only a small part of which are presented here, show that the offspring of mixed marriages create very interesting and complex approaches to life. But in the racist reality of Israel, their complex approaches and experiences – as human “chameleons” or “double agents” – are shattered because of the meaning attributed to skin color and family names. It’s interesting to ask whether a lot of “half-and-halfs” have a type of an inner legitimization to articulate a rich form of racism, maybe because they feel entitled to it or beyond an ethnical reality?

I don’t want some “wachsit”[1] sitting in the kitchen and not thinking about education… on the other hand a Polish girl is worse – dried up, anxious, stingy. (p. 103)

In any case, they provide us with living examples of the suppressed ethnic drama in Israel, also due to the fact that they are, in certain ways – the result of it. Later on we will see that many of the “mixed” are portrayed in the book as having an utopian view of the world, maybe because they experience themselves as spokespeople of a magical, idiosyncratic, post-ethnic position – one that could soften the blow of what they see with their actual eyes:

And it’s just a matter of chance, the fact that most people from good families are Ashkenazim and most arsim[2] are Mizrahim. It is by chance, I mean, because I think that all in all it doesn’t exist anymore, the whole ethnic thing, like ethnic groups and class. (p. 95)

At the same time, the half-and-half position allows for more explicit expressions of the racist manifestations happening in Israel:

It’s easier to be Ashkenazi, almost in every work place… for example they didn’t hire me to be a salesgirl in a clothing bazaar because I look too Ashkenazi, but in most places, I think they prefer Ashkenazi. (p. 111)

The unique self-perception that I suggest naming “the exoticization of the self,” is sometimes characterized by a sense of entitlement in different Facebook debates of ethnicity. It seems like in these debates, the half-and-halfs don’t experience any discursive restrictions, because perhaps they feel themselves to be beyond everything and therefore entitled to everything. Are “mixed” people who try to silence discussions of ethnicity usually “mixed” people who are in actual fact (at least according to skin color and last name) Ashkenazim?

Dan Shilon to basketball player Oded Katash: “But you don’t look Moroccan.” Oded Katash: “Yeah, I know, you may say that I look intelligent, but also eat well. I have it good on both sides”. (“The Circle with Dan Shilon”, summer of ‘98).

In her Doctorate, Sagiv recognizes the importance of skin color (and family name right after it) as what determines and constructs identity. It reminds me of the interesting song “Marocani” by the band “Lo Dubim”, referring to the identity issue of fair skinned Mizrahim.

I have freckles, and fair skin / but my descent, is not Ashkenazi… He has freckles, and fair skin / doesn’t smoke, doesn’t eat spicy food / didn’t vote for Shas, also not Hadash / even though my descent is… Arabic, Moroccan, Arabic, Moroccan.

The song talks about a young guy from Moroccan descent who is white, and who combines – in rock ’n’ roll language – being a white male, who is secular and who doesn’t vote Shas. He talks about the duality – and maybe establishes it – according to which Mizrahiness is marked by darker skin, as something creating a double identity. That’s why he uses the word “also,” he doesn’t vote for Shas but also not Hadash; meaning, he’s white enough to not vote Shas but not white enough to vote Hadash. For the past year I’ve been participating in a workshop for researchers of the Jews of Asia, Africa and the Balkans at Tel Aviv University and we have quite a few Mizrahi researchers. I knew a fair skinned guy whose name is Tomer Lapid, who introduced himself as an “Arab-Jew” on both sides (although he doesn’t speak Arabic). If identity has to do with negotiation with society – and society puts a lot of emphasis on skin color – will Tomer Lapid be recognized in society as Mizrahi/Arab, although according to his last name and skin color he is actually what I will call – an “albino Mizrahi?” The fact that Sagiv brings up skin color (and family name) in her doctorate as an element that might be constructing identities and life chances, helps us think about the identity of Mizrahim from both sides, meaning they are indeed historically Mizrahim, but are fair skinned and with a last name not necessarily recognized as Mizrahi (like Cohen, Sasportas, Levi, Salman or Nidam). Isn’t it time we talk – and maybe call out for further research – about Mizrahi experiences of different identities and classes, that also have to do – in addition to dynamics of status and geographical location – with appearances and family names? Are inner-Mizrahi identities, like in the “Lo Dubim” song, constructed differently by culture and class depending on skin color? Meritocrats will probably say it’s nonsense, but still, it’s interesting. In micro-sociology, do the same powerful obstructions such as negative or positive treatment by teachers, directed at darker Mizrahim with darker last names, directed in the same way and intensity at Mizrahim (even from both sides) with lighter skin and “lighter” last names? Perhaps Sagiv’s book calls for further research of Mizrahi experiences in Israel: understanding whether different experiences lie in different combinations of family name/place of residence/skin color, and trying to find out more about racism in Israel – its micro-social ways of action – and about the stratification in Israel, controlled by secular white male privileges. Some criticism toward the end. I’ll mention that this important book doesn’t talk about the actual economical capital that the Ashkenazi side usually brings in to mixed marriages (and thank you Avishay Tzubery for clearing that point up for me). The doctorate-turned-book focuses mainly on the identity discourse, culture and symbolism, and avoids relating to non-liquid and non-negotiable assets. Therefore, the critical reader might feel the absence of chapters such as real-estate, foreign passports and money. Even when someone is “mixed” but is in “actuality” Mizrahi, (dark skin and dark family name), eventually it’s very likely that when he inherits one of his Ashkenazi grandmother’s apartments in Kiryat Moshe in Jerusalem, Carmel in Haifa or Bialik in Tel Aviv, his destiny will be determined in a whole different way compared to the Mizrahi on both sides with a Mizrahi appearance and Mizrahi family name, but with no fat inheritance from a privileged Ashkenazi grandfather. What identity effect – Mizrahi or Ashkenazi – does an inherited apartment in a good area in Haifa, Gush Dan or Jerusalem have?

Images: Itamar’s archive.

This article was first published in Hebrew on Haokets.


[1] Social stereotype/slang term which supposedly refers to a generally vulgar, uneducated, violent person, but is actually deeply rooted in racist connotations and usually refers to Mizrahim.
[2] Social stereotype/slang term whose origin is in Arabic meaning pimp, bastard or someone who can’t be trusted. Supposedly the term refers to any violent, verging on criminal person, who is flashy and wears gold chains (as put by Wikipedia). In fact it also has a long history of Israeli racism, and refers to or is represented by Mizrahi men and women.
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