One cannot over-estimate the implications of the Six-Day War, which swept the Middle East in 1967. It completely changed the political shape of the area, creating new circumstances and new difficulties in the Arab-Israeli conflict. A less-known aspect of the war is its effect on Israeli society. As is often the case with wars, it brought to the surface frustration and anger that otherwise perhaps would have remained dormant: the feeling of Sephardi Israelis (people whose families came from Middle Eastern countries) that they were discriminated against by the Ashkenazi elite (the Ashkenazi Jews being those who were descendants of European Jewry).
Eli Amir (1937– ) is an insightful Iraqi-born Israeli writer. At the age of thirteen he emigrated with his family from Bagdad to Israel. He experienced the difficulties of Sephardic Jews coming to Israel in the fifties: due to lack of accommodation and funds, the huge influx of immigrants were placed in refugee absorption camps; he went to school in a kibbutz, where he encountered a condescending Ashkenazi elite; he then moved to Jerusalem, slowly advancing as a civil servant, struggling with prejudice against immigrants from the Middle Eastern countries. In 1983 he published his first novel, which was followed by several others.
Yasmine, published in 2005, is a love story between a young Israeli man and a beautiful Palestinian woman. Nuri, the protagonist, a character with a strong autobiographical quality, is a soldier fighting in the Six-Day War on the Egyptian front. Like the author, he emigrated from Iraq as a child, went to school in a kibbutz, left for Jerusalem, and is part of the Israeli forces in the war. Being a fluent speaker of Arabic and well-educated, in the wake of the war he is appointed to a government post in East Jerusalem, where he meets Yasmine. She left her parents to study in the Sorbonne, but concern for them prompted her to visit them. The passionate love story between the two eventually ends in her returning to Paris, feeling that marriage between a Palestinian and Israeli is practically impossible.
The entire novel revolves around Nuri’s self-perception in terms of East and West. The turmoil generated by belonging to two different cultures drives him to constant contemplation of the nature of each one, and how he is part of it: “I am a Jew born in Arabia, who holds dear the treasures of the West. In the morning I listen to classical music, in the evening to Arab music. A bird traveling between two worlds”.
But Nuri is not simply wavering between two worlds; he feels the contempt many Ashkenazi Israelis have for Middle Eastern culture. This deepens his solidarity not only with Sephardic immigrants but also with Middle Eastern culture in general: “I am at odds with myself, and with those who are believed to be my brothers. Sometime very close to them, sometimes horrified by them. I miss the Tigris River, the palm trees, my home in Bagdad, but I will never return there”.
So, strangely, this young man who fought against the Egyptian army in the Six-Day War finds himself feeling more at ease with Arab culture than with the values and lifestyle of many Israelis. He even defends the Egyptian soldiers, ridiculed by Israelis for fleeing without fighting.This inevitably brings to the surface the Sephardi-Ashkenazi conflict, in a way that leaves no room for any ambiguity or avoidance.
Amir further elaborates on the role of the Six-Day War in the worsening of ethnic tensions in Israel. In the frame of his post in the Israeli government, Nuri meets several cabinet ministers, and also Levi Eshkol, the prime minister at the time. To his utmost surprise they converse in Yiddish (the language of Ashkenazi Jews); affectionately they call him yunger-man, young man. But not only that: he then realizes that the Ashkenazi elite perceives the victory of Israel in the war in terms of West vs. East. The prime minister, his cabinet, and in fact most Ashkenazi Israelis, believe that Israel won because it is a western country; to put it more precisely, they think that the Arab nations lost due to their backward Middle Eastern mentality. This leads Nuri to an almost impossible emotional dilemma, not knowing where he belongs.
All this does not lead Amir to a simplistic preference for the Middle Eastern mentality – in fact, is it the other way around. Nuri says: “I love the east, the role of the family, the manners, the warmth, the colors, the odors, the crowd, the sweat, but I also detest it for its stench, hypocrisy, treachery, its blind and cruel fanaticism, and I prefer the open-mindedness of the West, its airy alienation and distance”.
The novel follows the emotional dilemma that led to the outbreak of protests by Sephardic Israelis. In 1971 the ‘Black Panthers’ violently challenged the Israeli establishment for its discrimination against Sephardic people. And though the intensity of these feeling has diminished greatly today, the issue of Ashkenazi-Sephardi relations is still very relevant; it is certainly part of party agendas in the coming elections.