From an Israeli Jew of Eastern European Heritage

I am an Israeli Jew of Eastern European heritage:

  • My grandparents were born in Poland and Hungary. My parents and grandparents spoke Hungarian and German, though not Polish or Yiddish. My grandmothers and my mother cooked Polish and Hungarian food.
  • The first generation of leaders in my country, Israel, were predominantly Eastern European. Through their modeling and leadership, Eastern European culture influenced many aspects of life in Israel. They also acted out racism toward Mizrahis1 and Arabs.
  • The Russian and Polish nicknaming system was adopted into my language.

In my heart I feel like Eastern Europeans are my people, but in other ways I can identify myself as their oppressor. Here are some of the reasons:

  • I live in a country that looks up to the United States as a model and considers itself to be a First World country, superior to Second World countries.
  • Part of Israeli Jewish identity was built on the desire to be the opposite of diaspora Jews—meaning poor, Eastern, persecuted Jews. Connecting poor with Eastern and rich with Western is a form of classism that pushes many of us Israelis into upward mobility and wanting to be Western.
  • Internalized Ashkenazi2 oppression can lead me to prefer Western Jews over Eastern Jews.
  • The history of the Holocaust as told to me focused on the extermination of Eastern European Jews, stereotyping them as victims, and on Eastern European Gentiles as collaborators. The history of Western countries—including that of both Jews and Gentiles—was presented more favorably. For example, most people know the story of the Danish people saving “their” Jews, whereas few are aware of the no less heroic and even more successful protection of the Bulgarian Jews by the Bulgarian people.
  • Because I was born in 1967, Eastern Europe was mostly unknown to me. It was behind the Iron Curtain3 (I didn’t know what that was). I didn’t know anybody from Eastern Europe who was my age. It was my grandparents who came from there. Nobody I knew had been there as a tourist. The picture of Eastern Europe in my mind came from books; films (mostly U.S.); and the Olympic Games, which were accompanied by oppressive comments and interpretation and the campaign (to release Jewish prisoners in the Soviet Union) “Let my people go,” which scared me as a child.
  • The many immigrants from the former Soviet Union who arrived in Israel in the 1970s, and again more recently, have been oppressed.

I have work to do! Thank you, Julian, for making it visible.

Tami Shamir

Shefayim, Israel

Reprinted from the RC e-mail discussion list for leaders of wide world change

(Present Time 171, April 2013)


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Last modified: 2017-05-31 15:32:44-07