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‘Wrapped in the Flag of Israel’ Author Earns Heart at East Award

On May 21, 2013, in Tel Aviv, the Heart at East Lifetime Achievement Plaque was bestowed upon Prof. Smadar Lavie. Her scholarly and activist voice for the rights of Mizrahi Jewish women living in Israel received formal recognition. Lavie’s two decades of ethnographic research and community leadership to better the lives of those within these populations not only earned her the award, but also led her to write Wrapped in the Flag of Israel, to be published in April 2014. Below, Lavie explains why Heart at East is significant—both within the State of Israel and for herself.




Smadar Lavie
— Photo by Jutta Henglein-Bildau

I was so thrilled to receive Facebook messages from Reuven Abarjel, co-founder of the Jerusalem Black Panthers, and Shira Ohayon, a longtime Mizrahi feminist and educational director of Israel’s Andalusian Orchestra, that I was to be awarded the Heart at East Lifetime Achievement Plaque in May 2013.


To explain the award’s significance, let me first elaborate on the State of Israel’s demographic makeup. The state’s largest group is the Mizrahim, or “Easterners” in Hebrew. They are Jews with origins in the Arab and Muslim World and the margins of Ottoman Europe. They constitute 50 percent of the state’s citizenry. The other two segments of Israel’s citizenry are Palestinians with Israeli citizenship (20 percent) and Ashkenazim, or European Jews of Yiddish-speaking origin (30 percent).


Statistics officially kept by the Israeli state largely downplay these demographics. This may sound odd because only around 15 percent of world Jewry is Mizrahi. The great majority of Mizrahim, however, reside inside the State of Israel. The remaining 85 percent of the world’s Jews—living mostly in North America and Western Europe—are Ashkenazi. English readers are likely more familiar with the Ashkenazim living in the diaspora or in the state of Israel. Inside Israel, Ashkenazim hold the power and privilege even though they are a minority. The Mizrahi-Ashkenazi income gap, on average, is worse than the Black-White income gap in North America. Again, official discourse ignores these disparities.


Diaspora Jews are Israel’s broadest support base in all areas. Most are Ashkenazim themselves, and relate to Israel’s Ashkenazi minority. Many have also been at the forefront of civil rights movements in the United States, anti-colonialist movements in Latin America, and anti-apartheid movements in South Africa. How would these progressive diaspora Jews react to the fact that European Jews in Israel practice activities that can be perceived as colonialist and against civil-rights against Jews of other hues? Thus, the downplay.


“Heart at East” is a coalition of 20 NGOs dedicated to promote community consciousness as it exposes and defies Israel’s folkloric marginalization of Mizrahi cultures. Formed in 2009, Heart at East was meant to remedy the extreme inequality in the allocation of public funds and other resources distributed by the Israeli regime to cultural institutions. The Heart at East Lifetime Achievement Plaque was established by these Mizrahi NGOs as an alternative to the Israel Prize, the state’s most prestigious lifetime achievement award. The Israel Prize recognizes contributions to the categories of humanities, natural sciences, culture and arts, and national contributions. Its award ceremony is on Israel’s independence day. Most recipients of this award, however, have been Ashkenazi. The Heart at East Lifetime Achievement Plaque aims to remedy this bias by recognizing the lifetime achievements of Mizrahi community authors, artists, musicians, scientists, and grassroots leaders coming from Israel’s majority citizenry.


As far as how my work has led to receiving the Heart at East plaque, I will leave that to the Heart at East nomination committee’s presentation:


“The Heart at East Honorary Award is given to Professor Smadar Lavie, PhD, for her life work, dedicated to Mizrahi communities in Israel; for her illumination of the twisted intersection where racism, gender, class and religion meet in the lives of women of color; and for her fight against the disenfranchisement of the Mizrahi communities in Israel from their cultural rights. This award is given to Prof. Lavie for both her activism and leadership of Mizrahi Feminism in Israel, and for her groundbreaking academic research.”


See the powerpoint presentation for the scholar, translated from Hebrew to English by Dana Peleg, here: Heart at East presentation




Smadar Lavie is a visiting fellow at the Center for Middle Eastern Studies, UC Berkeley, and a visiting professor at the Institute for Social Science in the 21st Century, University College Cork. She specializes in the anthropology of Egypt, the State of Israel, and Palestine, with emphasis on issues of race, gender, and religion. She is the author of The Poetics of Military Occupation (University of California Press), which won a 1990 Honorable Mention of the Victor Turner Award for Ethnographic Writing. She is also the co-editor of Creativity/Anthropology (Cornell UP, 1993), and Displacement, Diaspora, and Geographies of Identity (Duke UP 1996). Lavie is a winner of the American Studies Association¹s 2009 Gloria Anzaldúa Prize, and of the 2013 “Heart at East” Honor Plaque for lifetime service to Mizrahi communities in the State of Israel.