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Sami Shalom Chetrit

Sami Shalom Chetrit

Published: March 30, 2010
Sami Shalom Chetrit

Sami Shalom Chetrit

Poet, academic, filmmaker, and social justice activist.

Sami Shalom Chetrit was born in 1960 in Qasr as-Suq in Morocco. His family immigrated to Israel in 1963 and he grew up in a working class immigrant neighborhood of the port city of Ashdod, 30 miles south of Tel Aviv.

Chetrit’s experience as a Mizrahi Jew (a Jew of Middle Eastern descent) has motivated and informed his life as a poet, academic, and activist.  His works reveal the contradictions of being both Jewish and Arab while living in a region where these are commonly understood as communities in conflict.

Historically, Israel has been dominated politically and socially by the Ashkenazi (Jews of European descent) community, who were at the forefront of the Zionist movement. The Mizrahi community has struggled for equal rights since the founding of the State of Israel.

Chetrit has revealed this history through writing and film. His doctoral dissertation from the Hebrew University in Jerusalem was titled Mizrahi Politics in Israel – Between Identification & Integration to Protest & Alternative and was published in 2004 in Hebrew as the book The Mizrahi Struggle in Israel, 1948 – 2003.

Additionally, Chetrit has brought the story of the Mizrahi struggle for equal rights within Israel to film with the documentary The Black Panthers (in Israel) Speak which was completed in 2003. The film discusses the Black Panther movement within Israel that organized and protested for equal rights for Mizrahi community during the 1970s.  It was one of the first organized movements to openly challenge the Ashkenazi economic, political, and social power in Israel.

Through this work Chetrit has joined other Mizrahi scholar-activists, such as Ella Shohat, in complicating the standard history of the creation of Israel and the Zionist movement by showing that no monolithic Jewish view of Israel or Zionism exists and that "Jewish" and "Arab" narratives and histories are often intertwined and overlapping.

Chetrit has explored similar themes and histories in his poetry, which also addresses the Israeli occupation of Gaza and the West Bank and militarism in Israeli society. His poem "Hey Jeep, Hey Jeep" uses a popular Israeli song about the 1948 war to comment on the first intifada.  In "Acrid Memory," Chetrit reveals his experience as a soldier in Lebanon and challenges mainstream Israeli views of the military. Chetrit has written several books of poetry including Openings (1988), Poems in Ashdodians, poems from 1982-2002, and his poems were included in the anthology Keys to the Garden: New Israeli Writing (1996).

Acrid Memory

At the train station a rabid crowd
Doles out yellow ribbons and flags
asking passersby to pledge their blessings
and give thanks to the boys coming home.
As for me, I put down:
miserable, pitiful souls.
And a stinging memory comes back.
Homecoming memory.
Driving through the streets of a strange city at full tilt
(the streets there weren't at all unfamiliar to us),
an old Arab stood by the side of the main road waving his cane
(now I think: that old man's grandfather once must have stood
by the side of that very road and waved that very cane).
We stopped to find the meaning of his wave.
The old man bent toward me (in his eyes I saw that he didn't get the essence of human adulation,
the quality of victory or failure), and spit a yellow
glob of saliva in my face before turning back on his way.
And on that day I was purified.
If only for a fleeting moment was I purified.

Chetrit has also been a figure in Mizrahi community activism and education.  In 1993, he joined other Mizrahi educators and academics in starting the Kedma ("Eastward") educational project. This project launched Kedma schools to give the Mizrahi community an education equal to Ashkenazi schools.  The curriculum reflects the Mizrahi cultures and histories.

Later in 1997, Chetrit was one of the founders of Hakeshet Hademocratit Hamizrahit (The Mizrahi Democratic Rainbow Coalition), a social movement that continues the struggle for Mizrahi economic and social justice within Israel. Finally, Chetrit has also been a long time supporter of Azmi Bishara and his political party Balad, which primarily represents Palestinian citizens of Israel. This support comes from Chetrit's belief that democracy is "all about the protection of the rights of the minority."