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Rachel Wahba
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Noa Tishby, Bill Maher and Mizrahi invisibility

When the TV host described Palestinians as 'browner' than Israelis, the actress-activist shouldn't have let it slide
(courtesy)
(courtesy)

Bill Maher’s recent show fed into a popular (and false) narrative that Israel is a country filled with “white” Jews.

The March 17th program, featuring Noa Tishby, Israel’s First Special Envoy for Combating Antisemitism and Delegitimization, went maddeningly awry.

In discussing a recent poll revealing how Democrats today “sympathize” with Palestinians more than Israelis, that Israel lost the PR war, “...and they (Palestinians) are “browner.”

This “browner” comment is probably just Bill Maher being provocative, using American racial references to poke at politically correct progressives. The comparison is seriously incorrect when talking about Israeli society.

Maher inadvertently amplified a dangerously false narrative. And Tishby failed to catch and correct – The moment flew by.

She is human. He is a friend of Israel. I imagine it was inadvertent. But whoosh, like a ton of feathers, words let loose into the air, out there, unexamined, done. The show has millions of viewers.

I imagine most viewers have not been to Israel to see for themselves. It is impossible to tell who is a Mizrahi Jew (the majority of the Jewish population in Israel), and who is a Palestinian or Israeli Arab by color alone.

In fact, since Ashkenazi Jews originate from the region most Jews, including Ashkenazim, look alike and tan under the Middle Eastern sun, with many looking as “brown” as Palestinians and Arabs and Mizrahi Jews.

And we aren’t even mentioning Ethiopian Jews, who are black. They are Israeli Jews. And bi-racial Jews who are also Israeli. It’s so not about being “browner.”

I took out my frustration on Social Media:
So arggggh – Noa Tishy who is wonderful in so MANY ways missed the opportunity to correct Bill Maher re Palestinians being favored because they are “Browner”

FB friend – She did but overall it was the most pro-israel few moments on tv in my memory

Me – And tell me how/why she missed this…more Mizrahim to be interviewed. I am crazy sick of this omission and it’s a big one. I have and appreciate Noa Tishby but this was is a big miss

FB friend – Because we have very high expectations and have the luxury of Monday morning quarterbacking. Of course we and she knows full well that we are not all white Ashkenazi She did a bang up job with a very friendly interviewer -for a change

Me – too many years of this… years of sitting in pro-Israel spaces listening to this or that speaker giving keynote addresses on the Israeli landscape failing to mention half the country’s Jews are from Arab lands…”Rachel just be grateful a pro-Israel person is speaking …” It gets old and it’s sad and damaging …I love Noa Tishby too but not this blunder.

FB friend – Okay okay. I hear ya. Next time you see her, remind her. I’m sure she’s home saying “oh damn i wish i said this and that and this”

Me – Yeah, no (not appreciating the sarcasm)

FB friend – As a full 100% pure blooded Ashkenazi I too have to remind myself.

Me – You actually have to THINK ABOUT IT? That’s a problem and if you lived in Israel I’d say it’s unacceptable (and worse) It’s way past time for Ashkenazim to grow out of this and not get defensive when reminded ok? And even more not have to be constantly reminded ❤️.

FB friend – I’ve learned. It’s part of where and how I was raised. Going to Israel for the first time was an awakening. But now I get it…

There’s a profound disconnect. By now it should be reflexive.

And yes, Maher is right about PR – I imagine Maher’s audience doesn’t know that there is such a thing as Jews from Arab lands.

In the early 1980s, I asked the Israeli Consul General in San Francisco why close to a million Mizrahi Jews, most who ended up as impoverished refugees in Israel, were never mentioned, how (among other reasons) it was necessary for PR reasons. His answer was a very unsatisfying “We don’t consider any Jews as ‘refugees.’”

The hundred of thousands of Jews impoverished and ethnically cleansed from native Arab lands, who spent their first years in transit tin shacks and dusty or muddy tented camps would beg to differ, despite the truth in our homecoming.

Matti Friedman in his book, “Spies Of No Country” writes about the Mista’arvim. TheseArabic” Jews, poorest of the poor Jewish kids from the streets of Syria and neighboring Arab countries, played a heroically critical part in the fight for Independence. Because they were Arabic/Arabized Jews in speech and manner, they infiltrated anti-Zionist cells “passing” as Arabs.

Today, descendants of Mizrahi Jews forced out of native Arab lands all over the Middle East and North Africa make up the predominant physical face of Israel.

Just walk in Tel Aviv to Sabich Frishman on the corner of Dizengoff and Frishman St. where Israeli Arabs gather with Mizrahim, Ethiopian Jews, and Ashkenazim for the best falafel, or stroll Mamilla Mall to Jaffa Gate in Jerusalem to see that.

About the Author
Rachel Wahba is a San Francisco Bay Area based writer, psychotherapist and the co-founder of Olivia Travel. An Egyptian-Iraqi Jew, Rachel was born in India and grew up stateless in Japan. The many dimensions of her exile and displacement are a constant theme in her professional work as well as her activism as an advisory board member for JIMENA (Jews Indigenous to the Middle East and North Africa).
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