Matti Friedman at the Jewish Review of Books:
In Israel of the 1970s everyone was supposed to speak Hebrew and forget the past. There would be no Yiddish, there would certainly be no Arabic, and being from the Maghreb—a fluid Arabic term encompassing Morocco, Algeria, and Tunisia—was nothing to be proud of. Shouting “I’m from the Maghreb” in the confident heart of the new Israel—and in Arabic—in those days was daring. The same poem goes on to imagine the poet sitting among Ashkenazi intellectuals at the nearby Café Roval wearing a colorful Moroccan robe.
All of this might seem innocuous now. But Bitton’s poems had an electrifying effect on many readers—particularly young Mizrahim who had been given the impression in school, as one put it, that their parents arrived “from a smooth and empty place, like the surface of the moon.” That writer, Sami Shalom Chetrit, remembered a school classroom of “forty Mizrahim and one good-hearted Ashkenazi teacher” where he received no inkling of the cultural riches of his Moroccan family, or of any of the Jews who poured into Israel from the Islamic world after 1948. (Today roughly half of Israel’s Jewish population has roots in Islamic countries.)
Few of the stories the new state told about itself—“from annihilation to rebirth,” the kibbutz, Herzl—had much to do with people from Casablanca or Tehran. Their culture wasn’t welcome in public, beyond fragments quarantined as folklore. Some of the greatest Iraqi musicians had been Jews, like the famous brothers el-Kuwaiti, and there was Zohra el-Fassiya, of course, and many others—but the music wasn’t on the radio, kept alive only in living rooms, at private parties, and in small clubs in the area of south Tel Aviv known as the Yemenite Vineyard.