Ars Poetica: Poeticizing Mizrahi Inequality in Israel

 An Israeli poster from 1971 that calls to An Israeli poster from 1971 that calls to “stop poverty”. © Personal archive Sami Shalom Chetrit

In 1970, Angela Davis made an unintentionally momentous visit to Jerusalem. Davis, then a young, charismatic, “Black is Beautiful” leader of the Communist Party USA and close friend to the Black Panthers, found her way to the impoverished neighborhood of Mursara, which marks the tempestuous border of Jerusalem’s East-West partition. There she met Saadia Marciano, a 20-year-old Jewish-Moroccan activist frustrated by the discrimination in Israel, ruled by the European Ashkenazim, against his people, the Mizrahim, who had been forced from their ancestral homes in the hundreds of thousands across the Middle East and North Africa following Israel’s birth. The two revolutionaries, both intent upon dismantling racial hegemony, “exchanged notes.” A year later, inspired by Davis’s recounting of Huey Newton and Bobby Seal’s great enterprise, Marciano, along with several friends also from Mursara, annexed the moniker of militant American Civil Rights and organized the Black Panthers of Israel.

Marciano’s group, like its transatlantic cousin, was criticized for its methods—distributing stolen milk from wealthy Ashkenazi neighborhoods throughout distinctly poorer and browner ones, for example. Or coordinating truculent, illegal demonstrations, the largest of which involved between five and seven thousand marchers and is remembered as the “Night of the Panthers,” a maelstrom of airborne expletives and stones and molotov cocktails ending in hospitalization and arrest. But, the Panthers of Israel, although successful in installing Mizrahi discrimination at the forefront of public consciousness, faded to insignificance in 1977 after a disappointing transition to electoral politics. Their childhood Mursara walls now read as a museum of protest: “clenched fist” tiles, Menachem Begin mini-portraits, and graffitied cats, snarling, preparing to pounce. What the Panthers stood for, however—abolishing ethnic discrimination, equal cultural and governmental representation, redistribution of educational funds to Mizrahi periphery towns—remains pertinent. Only now, 45 years later, the Mizrahi fight for social justice isn’t characterized by blocked streets and angry slogans chanted in unison, but by poetry.

Within the past half-decade, Ars Poetica, a decentralized generation of dissident Mizrahi poets challenging Ashkenazi monopolization of Israeli culture, has reinvigorated the spirit of protest against Arab-Jewish marginalization. Consequently, with its unapologetic nonconformity, Ars Poetica — simultaneously an ironic play on Horace’s rulebook, “The Art of Poetry,” and a reclaiming of the Arabic word “Ars,” a racial slur for Mizrahi men originally meaning “pimp”—has also liberated (or stolen, as some prefer) poetry from the ivory tower of high-brow critique and inaccessible language.

Rather than the small bookstore recitations offered by professorial characters to seated rows of unexcitable dress shirts, Ars Poetica operates in bars and clubs, where hundreds of anti-establishment 20-somethings release primordial woots and dance to the rhythm of poetry superimposed upon deep funk and hip-hop instrumentals. Adi Keissar, the coiner of “Ars Poetica”, recently held a reading to launch her second collection at Tel Aviv’s underground Kuli Alma. Pink fluorescent lights dangled by wires from the ceiling and bold street art, ranging from exalted doodles to a whimsical interpretation of M.C. Escher’s famous “Metamorphosis,” decorated the walls. Hebrew verse was duck taped on the ash-stained stairs descending to the dance floor and tattoos commingled with piercings, legs, and shoulders. Keissar took to the stage, whiskey in hand, and launched into her performance—a vibrant, profane, poetic rock and roll concert. Keissar and the others in Ars Poetica are attempting to create a distinctly Mizrahi poetry that reflects their culture, which has been excised from the Israeli story for so long. Mizrahi culture is loud and passionate. As such, its poetry, Keissar says, should be a hafla—a party.

In celebrating Mizrahi identity, Keissar tears down that false dichotomy of the “mutually exclusive” Arab and Jew. She teaches the world, like she teaches her nephew, Itai, “walking around/the Clock Square/in Jaffa.” Hearing a shopkeeper talk, “Itai asks in trepidation/Adi, is he an Arab?” And, are the Arabs who live in Jaffa “good Arabs or bad Arabs?” She guides him past preconception: “Don’t worry, they are like us”, to that ultimate internalized suppression of heritage: “So sometimes people think we are Arabs/and they are Jews?” Keissar grieves for her nephew, who already, at such a young age, mirrors Israel’s alienation of him in a fundamental alienation of himself, an otherizing of his own Arab lineage. To be Mizrahi is to be Morrocon, Yemenite, Egyptian, Syrian, and to be Jewish. The two are not in conflict with each other. But that is not what Itai believes. Is he an Arab? Or is he a Jew? Can he be both? Evidently, the world has told him, “No.” Keissar, with her poetry, is telling him, “Yes.”

Roy Hasan, the 2015 Bernstein Prize winner and media-anointed “thorn in the side of the Israeli left,” also answers “Yes.” Hasan regards the very exclusion from the Israeli narrative that Keissar confronts as the single “greatest oppression” that young Mizrahim face. Feeling, like he did, as though “to be a man of culture… I need to renounce my identity, my roots, everything. I need to erase it, destroy it.” Growing up, he says, surrounded only by Ashkenazi street names and an Ashkenazi-centric history taught in school, “I always thought that if… I want to be a writer in Israel, I have to be Ashkenazi.” So, after spending several months as a cook in the army, he transitioned to veganism, sprouted a disorderly beard, and began writing poetry about his Mizrahi upbringing in the indigent neighborhood networks of Hadera, a dwarf city perched on the Mediterranean coast between Tel Aviv and Haifa. He took his cues from the titans of 90s Hip-Hop—The Wu Tang Clan, Biggie Smalls, Tupac Shakur—from whom he had learned English, developing a language and style of his own, just as they had, to describe life in the economic underclass and as victims of an ethnically preferential system.

Attributing prejudice to a “system,” however, can make discrimination seem frustratingly amorphous and nebulous, unintentionally abstracted from the concrete personal context in which it lives its most visceral and profound life. As Hasan says, it was, after all, Natan Zach, one of Israel’s most venerated poets, who, when discussing on national television the difference between Ashkenazi and Mizrahi jews, said, “the one lot comes from the highest culture there is—Western European culture—and the other lot comes from the caves”. This, in turn, exhumes Golda Meir’s peevish remark following her visitation to a congress of Moroccan Jews in 1971 describing the Black Panthers as “not nice guys.” In fact, to spitefully immortalize Golda Meir’s words, the residents of Mursara renamed two of their streets: “They’re Not Nice Alley” and “Black Panther’s Way.” It should not be forgotten, then, that the problems that Hasan speaks about are a product of personal belief systems. Circumstance simply necessitates that people imbue the systems they comprise with their convictions, whether they mean to or not. It is in the face of this reality, one in which public and private prejudice are mutually reflective, that the Black Panthers organized to make their demands, and, invariably, that Hasan now feels obligated to bleed his ink.

In the “The State of Ashkenaz,” Hasan defiantly asserts his Mizrahi identity as something that will not be trivialized or demeaned: “I am Haflah/I am Honor/I am lazy/I am everything that was never here before/when everything was white…/…I am an Ars.” Here, in these words, lies the subversive intention of Ars Poetica to carve out a place in Israeli cultural production that celebrates Arab-Jewish tradition and history. “Fuck you!” shouts Hasan, in an open diatribe directed toward the Ashkenazi elite. “Your poetry is really good, but why is there only a place for you? Where is my place? Where is Erez Biton’s place?”

Hasan is of course referring to Israel’s first Mizrahi poet and, incidentally in 2014, also the first non-Ashkenazi to win the prestigious Israeli Prize for Literature. Biton, who began writing in the 1960s, only recently, as Ars Poetica began to demand attention, entered mainstream popularity. A Mizrahi Sophoclean seer, he lost his sight along with half of his left thumb and much of his right arm after accidentally stumbling upon a grenade at the age of 10. But, although he was ostracized by the Ashkenazim-dominated poetry establishment for, among other things, importing Arabic into his poetic lexicon, his work, A Moroccan Offering and Book of Na’na in particular, deeply affected youngsters like Keissar and Hasan who clung to his voice as the only relatable one they could find. Biton laid the philosophical foundation upon which this new generation of Mizrahi poets has made its claim. He speaks about those early days as an effort to “express the inner feelings of those Jews who came from Islamic countries” and “build a new identity as someone who came from a Mizrahi childhood.” Now, Biton says, “Ars Poetica and myself, we try to cry through our poetry.”

When I met the great progenitor of Mizrahi literature on the afternoon of August 1st in the lobby of Jerusalem’s Crowne Plaza Hotel, he had just returned from a morning spent at the Knesset. In March, Education Minister Naftali Bennett, showing sincere intentions of moving towards social inclusion of the Mizrahim, currently comprising over half of Israel’s population, charged Biton with leading a temporary committee to investigate “the state of Mizrahi culture, history and literature in Israeli education.” Now, five months later, he had been invited to present the recommendations produced by the Biton Committee.  Among these is the suggestion that Roy Hasan’s poems be included in nationwide curriculum. Real change, beginning with the honest incorporation of the Mizrahim into the Israeli identity, may very well be on its way. Perhaps then it can be said, to employ that old cliche, that the pen, audaciously wielded by Ars Poetica, really is mightier than the sword, unsheathed by the Black Panthers of Israel all those years ago.

Biton has spent half a century relegated to shadow-hood, patiently and courageously awaiting the moment his words and the community carried within them would spring into three-dimensionality and rapturous technicolor. In this moment is captured a strange inter-dimensional cultural transition. The Mizrahi are forcing their way out of the shadows, out of underdeveloped shanty towns and inauspicious trade schools, off of the walls and onto the streets, into bars and universities and illustrious government halls. Biton was the first, and his every detail makes emphatically clear that his journey has not been a simple one. There are, of course, his eyes, sightless, yet profoundly haunting and penetrating; his prosthetic arm, which peeks out from under his jacket sleeve; and his scarred, deformed lower lip. But, these specifics are obvious and perhaps even superficial, artifacts of a boyhood overcome. More telling is his speech, soft, but calloused by the exercise of courage. He would say his piece, whether I asked him for it or not. And, so it was, that he told me when it was that I was allowed to ask questions and switch topics and so on. How startled I was when, after issuing a thought apparently leading or ill-conceived, a gentle, but curt interruption blew across the table to set me straight. None of this, however, took the tone of combativeness or condescension. Here was that rare revolutionary, by his words the “first poet in Israel who wrote about the breakdown of the immigrants from Arab countries,” who was living to see the fruits of his labor in his lifetime. Sitting, drinking tea, affectionately touching the forearm of his wife beside him, Biton told me the story of the Mizrahi in Israel. He told it with hope and with pride.

Prashanth Ramakrishna is a 20-year-old personifying the cliche of an “aspiring young writer in New York City”. When not scribbling in his overplayed, tragic moleskin, he’s earnestly tilting his head in an attempt to derive deeper meaning from minimalist art. He is from Shanghai when it suits him and Detroit when it doesn’t.

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