Tomorrow, Monday, March 16, 2009, Sami Shalom Chetrit will be giving a lecture entitled “White Jews, Black Jews: Ashkenazi-Mizrahi Relations in Israel” at the CUNY Graduate Center from 6:30-8:30pm. A dynamic writer, producing work across genres, Chetrit’s historical work unearths the socio-cultural and political realities and movements of Mizrahi life in Israel. I caught up with him over email to discuss his lecture tomorrow, and the current state of politics in Israel.

CK: Your upcoming release, Intra-Jewish Ethnic Conflict in Israel: White Jews, Black Jews, builds on your last book, The Mizrahi Struggle in Israel: 1948-2003, this time also taking an in depth look at the social and cultural implications of Mizrahi Jews in Israel. Tell us what brought you to this next stage in documenting Mizrahi life in Israel.

SSC: Intra-Jewish Ethnic Conflict in Israel: White Jews, Black Jews is an English version of the Hebrew, Hamaavak Hamizrahi Beyisrael (the Mizrahi Struggle in Israel). Being a Mizrahi myself, and an activist for many years, motivated me to write the political history of Mizrahim in Israel, simply because there wasn’t such a book for the young generation to learn their history. This is absent from the official curriculum.

CK: The book describes that, in the last 25 years, we’ve seen both the maturation of a Mizrahi radical political discourse, and the socio-religious movement of Shas. Tell us about how these different movements originated.

SSC: Well, one is a mass movement–Shas–and the others are many organizations, movements and individuals that, through the years, developed an alternative discourse to Ashkenazi-Zionism. Basically it means social justice for all (social-democracy), cultural freedom (against cultural racism and oppression of Mizrahim and Arabs) and end to the occupation and opening into the Middle eastern world and cultures. Radical Mizrahim see Mizrahim as the Jewish victims of Zionism (although most Mizrahim don’t think they are). Shas on the other hand officially aimed to restore Sephardic dominance in Jewish life, as their slogan goes: “to bring back the crown to its former glory”. In other words, they’re fighting against Ashkenazi religious hegemony. Of course Shas used the jargon of social activism, although never meant to act for universal social change, but only to support the needs of its communities. Shas is a non-Zionist movement, but instead of declaring that in the open, they declare: “We are the true Zionists.” This way they get votes from Mizrahim coming from the right wing Zionist side of the map.

CK: You are a poet, filmmaker, essayist, poetry, historian and educator — how, as an artist, do you decide which artistic form to use to tell your story?

SSC: I also published my first novel, Doll’s Eye. I wish I could only write poetry and make some films, but I still need to publish political essays and academic research. I still have some things to say in those areas. I like all forms of telling a story and I use them all. I found that documentary film is the most effective form to tell a story in our era.

CK: Tell us about the film you’re working on now, Come Mother.

SSC: I finished the film in January. It is a journey within a journey – I took my mom to reunite with her classmates from 60 years ago Morocco. The result is beautiful 70 year old women talking in Hebrew, Arabic and French about their memories in Morocco and Israel.

CK: You’ve done a great deal of historical work on the Israeli Black Panther Party. What do you think of the rise of the New Israeli Black Panther Party, founded by Ayala Sabag Marciano?

SSC: I love Ayala very much. She’s a true Panther from childhood. Unfortunately, you can’t bring back movements of the past to life. They had their role and share, mainly to function as the fuel that kick-started the Mizrahi resistance – they gave us the courage and language to follow their footsteps. Ayala is definitely a leader, in the legacy of the Israeli Black Panthers, which her brother the late Saadia Marciano was part of, but the entire struggle is in coma and she’s having a hard time with her movement.

CK: With Gaza’s borders still under siege, and Avigdor Lieberman likely becoming the next Foreign Minister of Israel, what are your thoughts about the state of Mizrahi Jewish life in Israel specifically, and the direction of Israel overall?

SSC: If you think the majority of Mizrahim in Israel care about the Palestinians in Gaza, then you have to think again. Most Mizrahim today are, unfortunately, of the new generations who believe that being a proud Mizrahi is waving a bigger Israeli flag than the Ashkenazim wave. I’m happy that Israel elected an extremist Zionist government which truly represents the state of mind of Israelis today. If the world wishes to impose an end to the occupation on Israel, then this is the right government. The idea that there was ever a Zionist Left in Israel was revealed as false in the latest elections.

CK: You’ll be speaking on Monday night. What are three insights you hope your audiences will walk away with?

SSC: Only one — Ashkenazi Zionism has destroyed Arab-Jewish life in the Middle East, almost to a point of no return.

Join Professor Chetrit tomorrow night for his lecture on:

White Jews, Black Jews: Ashkenazi-Mizrahi Relations in Israel
Monday, March 16, 2009, 6:30-8:30 pm
Room 9205

The Graduate Center
City University of New York
365 Fifth Avenue
New York, NY 10016-4309

Prof. Ammiel Alcalay (Classic, Middle Eastern, Asian Languages & Cultures at Queens College, and English and Comparative Literature, the Graduate
Center, CUNY) will introduce Chetrit and moderate the Q & A.

Dr. Sami Shalom Chetrit is Assistant Professor of Hebrew Language, Literatures and cultures, in the Department of Classical, Middle Eastern & Asian Languages & Cultures, at Queens College, CUNY. He is a Moroccan Jew raised in Israel. His recent books include, Yehudim (Jews), a poetry book (Nahar Books, 2008); Ein Habuba (Doll’s Eye), a novel (Hargol-Am Oved publishers, 2007); The Mizrahi Struggle in Israel: 1948-2003 (in Hebrew) (Am- Oved / Ofakim 2004); and Shirim Be’ashdodit (Poems in Ashdodian), poetry form 1982 to 2002 (Andalus, 2003). Chetrit’s current research focuses on Mizrahi literature since 1948; in particular political poetry of second generation Mizrahim. The Intra-Jewish Ethnic Conflict in Israel: White Jews, Black Jews will be published by Routledge in 2010. Chetrit is also a documentary film maker. Together with Eli Hamo, he co-directed, “The Black Panthers (in Israel) Speak,” and is completing “Come Mother,” which describes the generation of Moroccan women who grew in Israel.