Waking up to this new week, many Israelis are experiencing a shudder of anticipation. This is the week, the one on which the winner of Channel 2's over-hyped reality show "Big Brother" will be announced.
There's nothing Israelis are mose engaged in, neither their vanishing savings and jobs, the dying education system, the continued disregard to human rights by their government, the organized crime going rampant, nothing. The fate of Israeli POW Gilad Shalit, kept in Gaza now for two and a half years, is suddenly of very little interest. Other hostages are on our minds, and they are kept in a well equipped villa somewhere in the Neve Ilan stuio complex.
As much as I'd like to avoid saying this, they really are important. The final stages of "Big Brother" give us a peek into current Israeli social reality that will be useful to sociologists in centuries to come. Three months into "Big Brother", only five of the house's inhabitants are left within. Two of them are Yossi and Einav Boublil, father and daughter. They are from the south of Israel and their heritage is "Mizrachi" - meaning that the family originated in the Middle East, rather than in Europe. The Boublils have thus come to symbolize, for many Israelis, what we have seen for decades as the "Mizrachi attitude". to use one simple word: They are aggresive. To use another, one that may be found to be more controversial, they are uncultured.
The other participants in the show are all Ashkenazim. There's Leon (an extrovertedly gay man) and Itay (a run of the mill straight dude), who are both weak in the face of the Bublils' hostile takeover of the atmosphere. It's only Shifra, an artsy girl who emerged from an Ultraorthodox family to live a Tel-Avivian, secular life, who's giving them a fight. Israeli society is splitting between supporters of Shifra and Supporters of Boublil the father, who seems most likely to win the show.
In a society that always dealt with tension between the Mizrachim and Ashkenazim, this is no simple experience. The Mizrachim who side with Boublil don't realize that, while being potentially triumphant, he is actually causing them severe harm, tattooing poisonous stigma. Moreover, Boublil has come to embody the Ashkenazim's fear that their society is being taken over by brutes, who disregard not only culture but civil behaviour. Boublil forces the bunch to watch the film he fancies (a light hearted comedy with blue collar, Mizrachi themes) rather than the one requested by the majority (a sophisticated drama/thriller, half set in Berlin). He causes all to disregard Shifra's birthday, simply because he and his daughter dislike her. To many ashkenazim, this reflects a shift away from emphasis on culture and civility in society, for which they blame the gradual empowerment of Mizrachim.
Ashkenazim who side with Shifra are often using her as a tool to express prejudice that otherwise would never have been voiced. In such way, Shifra herself contributes to uglyness in the society. This house will be the death of us. I can't wait till Tuesday!
To be honest, though, what really intrigues me is the experience of people "in the middle", such as my dear friend, intellectual and social activist Mati Shmuelof. Mati devotes himself to the Mizrachi struggle. He is infuriated by the harms inflicted by Ashkenazi society on immigrants from Middle Eastern and North African countries. For the most, those immigrants arrived here in the 50s, into a land ruled by the Ashkenazim, and found advancing in society rather difficult.
Now they have advanced. Le Monde called Yossi Bublil "the Prime Minister of Israel". How does Mati, a cultured, sensative and elegant Mizrachi man, who carries himself about this life in a manner far more reminicient of Shifra's, feel about this? Would he vote for Boublil to support the mizrachi cause? Could he bring himself to vote for a "Fridmanit" (the term for an Ashkenazi woman that originated on the show), attractive though she may be? How does he feel when Bublil is praised in his company? How does he feel when he is being put down?
My guess is that Mati doesn't vote at all, but that if forced to, as a task imposed by "Big Brother", for example, he would have gone for Shifra. Israel still is split between Mizrachim and Ashkenazim, but a much more strongly pronounced divide exists between those who hold education and civil behaviour in high regard and those who don't. On either side of this divide are both Mizrachim and Ashkenazim. If more Mizrachim are to be found on the Boublil end of the map, it is because Israeli society fostered lack of education among them for decades by treating them all as potential Boublils. Let's not repeat this mistake. Yes, Boublil is a Mizrachi, but he is, above all, and in a way to which ethnicity is irrelevant, an asshole.