Of all the series premiered this November, Valley of Tears by HBO and Israeli public television is by far the one most openly posing historical and present political questions.
It does so in the context of a hyper-realistic representation of the fighting in northern Israel during the Yom Kippur war, a representation which would be worthy of comment in itself because of the way it deals with issues such as fraternization, relations between soldiers, or nationalism.
But its main message, after six episodes, would seem to be to reclaim a story – that of a certain anti-Zionist Israeli left – and to peddle a myth – that of the Israeli Black Panthers and their ethnicist ideology – as the country’s first social agenda.
This dichotomy can already be found in the title. To begin with, in Israel the series was titled Shaat Neilah, literally closing time but also the end of times. A reference to the final verse of the most important Sephardic liturgical chant of Yom Kippur. However, in its international version it is named Valley of Tears. And this is not an innocent wordplay either. The reference to the Vale of Tears carries at least three evident references for almost every ear accustomed to contemporary Jewish culture. In the first place, the hymn to the heroism of one of the most well-known psalms. Secondly, the famous quote by Marx in his text on the Jewish question about the need to abandon religious illusions by critiquing (=demolishing) the material basis of the vale of tears through which religion represents real social life.
The synthesis of heroism and self-deception, or the overcoming of it, would be the battle of the Valley of Tears which is how the Israeli media titled the battles against the Syrian army between the Lebanese border and the Golan, which are those described in the series.
However, despite the reference to Marx, what the series claims is not a material critique of the class structure of Israel-Palestine. On the contrary, it introduces identity politics -which were marginal at the time- as the most significant expression of the moment, and presents the division between Mizrahim and Sephardim on the one hand and Ashkenazim on the other, as the alleged main contradiction in the Israel of the time.
Mizrahim, Sephardim and Ashkenazim
Mizraj in Hebrew means Orient. The term mizrahim (oriental) applies to the Jews of Yemen and the Arabian Peninsula, Iraq, Iran, Pakistan and India, while the Jews of the ancient Ottoman Empire are considered sephardim (=Hispanic) because they are connected in different ways to the Jewish exodus of the 15th, 16th and 17th centuries from Portugal, Castile and Aragon and generally have retained the use of some variant of the Ladino language. This group includes not only Greeks, Turks, Yugoslavians, Bulgarians, the Jews of the Maghreb and Egypt, but also a part of Romanians, French and Italians and the Jews who lived in Syria – which included Palestine – when the first migratory waves arrived from Eastern Europe at the end of the 19th century. The latter, the vast majority of the Jews of Central Europe and the Russian Empire, were labeled as ashkenazim (=Germanic) and most of them kept yiddish (a dialect of German usually written with Hebrew characters) as a familiar and cultural language.
The difference between the Ashkenazim and the rest was not merely linguistic nor limited to ritual differences in religion. European Jews had lived through the emancipation proclaimed by the French Revolution, which had given way to the Haskala, that is, the birth of a bourgeois Jewish culture integrated into the new capitalist society. And since the end of the 19th century, in the most backward areas of the continent, the European regions of the Russian Empire, local Jewish people had been undergoing a process of ethnic segregation and massive proletarianization.
The first settlers of the Zionist project (1883-1903) were not only Yemeni Jews with a feudal, ultraconservative and religious culture, but also peasants and artisans from the Pale of Settlement area of the Russian empire who, in a different cultural context, also represent a particularly conservative, backward and religious part of the rural petty bourgeoisie of the time. The conservatism and religiosity of both groups brought them together without major problems. However, a good part of the Jewish refugees and migrants who arrive after 1906 –the second great Jewish migration– were workers who come with the experience of the 1905 Russian Revolution on their backs. The former will be unwilling to hire them as journeymen because they considered them to be dangerous and strikers. The latter, when they founded the first kibbutz from 1909, will find no way to integrate Yemeni migrants into communal forms of organization and socializing discourses, which were incomprehensible to the family structure and the feudal values the former carried with them.
But the real shock was the product of independence in 1948. During the war that followed the UN declaration, the strategy of the Arab armies was to evict the Palestinian peoples who were under the control of the new state. This ethnic cleansing was aggravated in some places by the murderous competition of the Irgun militias, which sowed panic and produced at least one proven massacre. The result was, the Nakbah (=disaster), the Palestinian exodus that brought a multitude of refugees to the neighboring countries, the West Bank and Gaza. Shortly before the outbreak of the war, the Iraqi president of the time had threatened the UN with reprisals against the Jewish population of his own country if independence were to be achieved. But with the defeat of the Arab countries and the drama of the refugees, these were legitimized in the political discourse and multiplied. Thousands of Jews were expelled or forced to leave their countries of origin from Morocco to Iraq.
Their arrival in Israel, almost in continuity with the last victims of the genocide carried out by the German state, radically changed the culture, the equilibrium between classes and even urban planning. The new refugees were distributed throughout the country, some thousands were temporarily sheltered in camps on the kibbutzes – which were forced back to rationing and food shortages – others were handed over to some neighborhoods abandoned by the Palestinians. The shock was cultural as well as political and economic. Many of them were petty bourgeois in their countries of origin, their main languages were Arabic, French and Ladino; and now they were forced to learn Hebrew and were forced to work as day laborers and farmhands because the vast majority lacked a recognized training or the skills required of the proletariat in an industrial country. Ideologically, they were religious and extremely conservative both in customs and in political affiliation, the majority sharing a resentment towards Arabs in general and an inveterate machismo that clashed with the political myths and discourses of Zionism. In short, ideologically and culturally they remained in the Maghreb or in Arabia. Even the ultra-right-wing Likud found it difficult to train its first Sephardic cadres for two decades.
Read also our articles about:
Were the Israeli Black Panthers really significant?
The six-day war (1967) marks the definitive end of the discourse for a binational state nominally defended by the Zionist left. The occupation of Jerusalem already aims at becoming definitive and taking the form of a reunification. The former district of Musrara in Jerusalem, originally the first district outside the city walls, home of the Christian-Palestinian merchant bourgeoisie, is now being transformed from a frontier and firing range for Palestinian snipers into an urban center. The neighborhood had been handed over after 1948 to Moroccan and Tunisian refugees. It is now a symbol of the new poverty: degraded palaces, chronic unemployment, divided houses and a youth, arrived in childhood or born there, halfway between lumpenization, social services and state subsidies. The municipal government initiates a series of policies to recover the neighborhood… and gentrify it.
A gang of about ten kids is adopted by the social workers of the city council in the neighborhood. With its influence, anti-Arab racism and frustration over the invasion of new Ashkenazi neighbors with more money mutates into a Sephardic identity. One of the group’s leaders, Saadia Marciano, proposes the name Black Panthers in imitation of the fashionable phenomenon from the United States. The name was a good analogy. Like the originals, the relationship of some of them to petty crime in the neighborhood will make them look like police infiltrators. But above all the name will attract the media and the university left. Especially the ISO (Israeli Socialist Organization) better known by the name of its magazine Matzpen (Compass), a split from the Stalinist CP that would become the Israeli branch of the Mandelist LCR (today Anticapitalistas in Spain and NPA in France). In the series, Matzpen is the newspaper in which the character who looks for his son on the frontline is said to be writing… which is still implausible. ISO had no more than 20 members at the time and at its peak it would not reach forty. Its position was antizionist, but far from internationalist, that is to say revolutionary defeatist. It advocated unwavering support for the newborn Palestinian nationalism of the PLO. They will end up becoming the propaganda arm of the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine, an ultra-Stalinist terrorist organization that will take them on a tour around Europe for years, turning them into a justification of the new anti-Semitic discourse. It is hard to see how writing in Matzpen could open the doors of an army operations center to anyone in the middle of a war.
But let’s go back to the Panthers. Their real political existence lasted less than a month and took the form of two demonstrations. The first took place on March 2, 1971. Although the government rejected the administrative permission for it, thanks to the propaganda support of Matzpen they managed to gather about 200 people, almost all of them university students, in the Panther’s neighborhood. The second, on May 18, preceded by much media coverage, dragged about six thousand people into a pitched battle against the police.
Golda Meir did not outlaw them or come close to doing so as the series implies. But after meeting with the leaders she refused to recognize in them a legitimate or representative political movement. She elegantly came to say that they were nothing but an expression of neighborhood lumpen: They are not nice people, she declared. Precisely because of this, fearful of handing over representation in the state to neighborhood protests, she opened a commission to study institutional discrimination against the Sephardim – which was real and notorious – and closely followed its state policy recommendations. The Panthers thus ended their moment of glory and their capacity for mobilization. They never had a real political platform, their organizational capacity was lent by a pro-Palestinian Stalinist university group, and they never exceeded 60 members.
After the war, the leaders of the Panthers, reduced to their original numbers, will follow a different path. After trying to stand for election without success (they did not even reach 1% of the vote), they will integrate themselves into the coalition orchestrated by the Stalinist party and will succeed in turning Marciano into a member of parliament in 1979 before disappearing completely.
What is this series’ point?
In the series the Panthers are credited with having pushed the social agenda for the first time in Israel. In reality, the movement, far from clashing with the military mobilization, served to stir up nationalism among the Sephardim and Mizrahim and to smooth the ascent to power of the warmongering ultra right-wing.
The Israeli far-right had been born out of Russian and Polish philoterrorist Zionism, and was on the verge of being outlawed in 48 by the first independent government. Already disarmed, it went from calling itself Irgun to being called Herut. The Herut had never had a government portfolio, due to the political problems of the apparatus created in 1948, which needed to dress up as socialist and continued to depend largely on the unions.
But Herut’s leader, Menachem Begin, former leader of Irgun and responsible for some of its bloodiest attacks, interpreted the frustration and racism latent in Sephardic identity as an opportunity. The demonstrations of the Panthers provided the basis for a discourse in which he described the Israeli politicians and military as a philocommunist Ashkenazi elite which monopolized national identity and the state. In 1973, immediately after the war, he transformed the Herut into Likud to incorporate Israel’s most prestigious -and militarist- general, Ariel Sharon and promote to the front line a generation of ultra-nationalist Sephardic and Mizrahi politicians. Thus, associated for the first time with the army and riding on the identitarianism spurred for the first time by the Panthers, the Likud came to power for the first time in 1979. It then began the systematic dismantling of all the institutions -from pensions and health care to the kibbutz system and the status of non-Israeli Palestinian workers- which cushioned the conditions of exploitation in Israel.
It is shocking that the series repeats today all the demagogic clichés of Begin and Sharon’s speech at that time: the Azkenazi privilege, the supposed -and non-existent- opulence of the kibbutz or the betrayal of our leaders referring to Meier and especially to Dayan, minister of the army in 73 and main rival of Sharon. But let us not forget the two messages to the Israeli public which the director of the series stresses in the interviews: the war took place and was a disaster because of the arrogance of the military and its government who underestimated the danger –the same thing Netanyahu now says about the current situation with Iran-; and the need to reinvent the left and regain the social promise that according to him offered the Panthers in opposition to old Israel and its socialist and Ashkenazi political elite.
The socialism of Ben Gurion, Golda Meir and Israeli Labour had nothing to do with any sensible definition of socialism. But the gambit of the series, like that of the Israeli right wing and the identitarian left, is not really to push against the lies of state capitalism and nationalism of which the Israeli right is also a part. On the contrary, it takes for granted the lie – we are told that socialism was that thing they were fighting against – and pushes against the aspiration for socialism that was emerging, as orphaned there as in the rest of the world, among the Israeli and Palestinian proletariat of the moment. They want to implant a fake memory of the Panthers and to get rid of the memory of the strikes because in the end, they want militarism to become invisible and consensual. Identitarianism, covering up class divisions and fattening nationalism in its own way, is the best tool for this.