CONCRETE BOXES: MIZRAHI WOMEN ON ISRAEL'S PERIPHERY Pnina Motzafi-Haller Wayne State University Press 2018, 636 pp, $64.99
The story of Zionism, as traditionally told, begins with European-born, Ashkenazi men. As we tell it, the main actors in the early chapters of Israel's creation--from the founder of political Zionism, Theodor Herzl, to the militaristic Ahad Ha'am--all fit that description. Yes, we acknowledge that, with time, many Mizrachim--Jews from North Africa, Yemen, Syria, Iraq, Iran--joined the enterprise. But all too often, Mizrachim have been included as an afterthought in the Zionist narrative, and Mizrachi women escape our attention almost entirely.
We are waking up to the fact that Mizrachim now make up more than half of all Israeli Jews. And not only do Mizrachim come from a different part of the world, but they also continue to view Zionism, Judaism, religion and gender very differently than do Jews of European descent. Without an appreciation of the Mizrachi worldview, therefore, we can have nothing but a myopic view of the country that Israel is quickly becoming.
The relegation of Mizrachim to the periphery of our Israel consciousness has been decades in the making. David BenGurion shoved the Mizrachim aside geographically and tried to segregate them from the Ashkenazi in the Israeli school system. And in the 1950s, when the desperately poor new State of Israel was flooded by some 700,000 Mizrachi immigrants who had been forced out of their North African homes, the government established ma'abarot (transit camps), designed to replace the less habitable tent cities that immigrants had been in and serve as temporary dwelling places until "real" housing was available. Soon, though, conditions in the ma'abarot were just as bad as they had been in the tent cities, and for many immigrants, the ma'abarot became permanent housing. In the years to come, some of the ma'abarot morphed into small cities such as Kiryat Shemona and Beit She'an, and often into Israel's poorest neighborhoods.
Israeli anthropologist Pnina Motzafi-Haller spent four years living in and studying one of these cities, Yeruham--a poor development town in the Negev. A Mizrachi woman herself, born in another development town, Motzafi-Haller examines the Mizrachim by following the lives of five Mizrachi women. The resulting book, Concrete Boxes: Mizrahi Women on Israel's Periphery, provides a welcome window into an Israeli world we discuss far too little. From...