Blue and White MK panned for saying Mizrahi Jews have ‘culture of Arab drums’

Blue and White MK panned for saying Mizrahi Jews have ‘culture of Arab drums’

Yoaz Hendel insists statement on Israeli melting pot was not derisive, while right-wing, Arab politicians accuse him of racism and ignorance; colleague calls comments ‘wretched’

Blue and White MK Yoaz Hendel at the Knesset, May 29, 2019 (screenshot)
Blue and White MK Yoaz Hendel at the Knesset, May 29, 2019 (screenshot)

A Blue and White MK’s comments on the culture of Arabs and Mizrahi Jews elicited outrage and accusations of racism from opposing politicians on Friday, though he insisted he never intended to assert Ashkenazi supremacy.

Yoaz Hendel, one of the more right-wing figures in the centrist party, who was once Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s director of communications, told Haaretz during an interview that of the Jews who immigrated to Israel to form the state, “Some came here with a mentality of Vienna concerts and some came with a mentality of darbukas [Arabic-style goblet drums].”

The MK was speaking of the need for a shared Israeli culture, and specifically of his refusal to accept the “culture of chaos” he believes exists in the Arab sector.

The comment about darbukas, prominent in the music of Jews of Mizrahi descent, was read by right-wing politicians as a smear.

Ethnicity is a sensitive subject in Israeli politics, with Mizrahi Jews (descended from immigrants from Arab states) having long complained of institutionalized discrimination by the establishment, which is perceived as being predominantly Ashkenazi, or European-descended.

Likud blasted Hendel’s “attitude toward people who returned home to the Land of Israel, with a rich and grand culture. He should be ashamed.”

Education Minister Rafi Peretz of Yamina said he was “proud to be part of a culture of darbukas.” Shas MK Ya’akov Margi lambasted Hendel’s “condescension” and said Mizrahi Jews came from a grand tradition that included “Maimonides, science and medicine” and accused him of racism.

And MK Ayman Odeh, the leader of the Joint List, an alliance of predominantly Arab parties, said “Hendel’s theory of European supremacy” was disproved by “the ignorance and lack of culture he showed in his interview with Haaretz.”

Ya’akov Margi attends a meeting of the Education, Culture, and Sports Committee which he chairs on January 27, 2016. Photo by Yonatan Sindel/Flash90.

Hendel himself insisted he was not attempting to claim one culture was preferable to the other, but rather that “There are thousands of colors and shades in Israel and that’s a good thing… By the way I connect more to darbukas than classical music… Whoever thinks the culture of concerts is better than others has a problem. That’s not where I am.”

But a fellow Blue and White MK criticized him anyway Saturday. Ofer Shelah said Hendel had made “a wretched statement that should not have been made. It does not reflect in any way the spirit of Blue and White.”

In the interview Hendel also said Israel was far more cultured than its surrounding neighbors.

“I think the Arab culture around us is a jungle. There is flagrant violation there of every human right we know from Western culture. These rights haven’t even appeared there. They haven’t reached the evolutionary stage where there are human rights,” he said. “There are no rights for women, no rights for the LGBT, no rights for minorities, no education. Most Arab states are failing dictatorships.”

And he said Israel did not need to accommodate problematic aspects of Arab culture.

“In the end, part of being in an advanced Jewish democratic state is the formation of a certain culture. It’s not just musical culture — it’s a culture of organization, management, government, and we need to stick to that culture,” Hendel said.

“I don’t accept a culture of chaos. I don’t accept that there are 4,000 illegal structures a year in [Arab communities of] the Negev or the Galilee, I don’t want bigamy in Arab society, I won’t accept honor killings. I won’t accept harm to LGBT or women’s rights,” he said.

Hendel also spoke out against his former ally Netanyahu, who he said had become more interested in power than ideology.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu delivers a speech during the Fifth World Holocaust Forum at the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial museum in Jerusalem on January 23, 2020 (Abir SULTAN / POOL / AFP)

“He has no restraints. Maybe that’s sometimes necessary, but I don’t want a prime minister like that,” Hendel said. “We cannot accept the cult of personality as a substitute for ideology.”

Ahead of the March 2 election, Blue and White and Likud continue to poll neck and neck — with the former having a slight lead. But neither party is projected to easily form a majority coalition after the national vote, similarly to the elections in April and September of last year, and it is not clear that the upcoming vote will end the unprecedented political gridlock.

Yisrael Beytenu and its leader Avigdor Liberman remains kingmaker between the right-wing and center-left Knesset blocs.

Netanyahu was indicted last week on graft charges, making him the first Israeli premier to become a criminal defendant while in office. Blue and White has said it will not join a Netanyahu-led government so long as he is suspected of criminal wrongdoing.

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