Recognizing the unique histories and cultures of Mizrahi Jews

A celebrant at Magen David Sephardic Congregation’s Yemenite party this month. Photo provided.

When Hen Mazzig was young, he didn’t know much about his grandparents’ lives in Iraq. He knew his mother’s family emigrated from there to Israel, but like many young Mizrahi Israelis, he says, that was about the extent of it.

“And that was a big part of the Mizrahi community when they came to Israel. They just prefer to look forward,” Mazzig told a Washington audience last month. “Not only that, [but] the stories my grandmother shared with me about Iraq were so minor compared to what happened to the Ashkenazi community in Europe. [Mizrahim] felt their stories are almost, you know, it’s not equal and that if they will share their stories it will take away from the pain of the Holocaust.”

Mazzig, a writer, speaker and Mizrahi Israeli advocate, later learned that his grandmother’s father was accused by the Iraqi government of being a Zionist spy in 1951 and executed three days before the family was to make aliyah.

His father’s side of the family is from Tunisia. He learned from his aunt that the family came from the Amazighs, a tribe indigenous to North Africa.

“I knew that [our] last name was originally Amazigh, but I didn’t even understand this, that we’re part of this [indigenous] community,” Mazzig said.

In the United States, the distinction between Ashkenazi and Sephardi Jews is well known. But Mizrahi Jews — who come from North Africa and the Middle East — aren’t as well recognized here. To educate the Jewish community about Mizrahi history and culture, some groups are marking November as Mizrahi Heritage Month.

Ashkenazi Jews, who form the majority of the Jewish community in the United States, immigrated from Central and Eastern Europe. Sephardi Jews are descendants of those who were expelled from Spain in 1492.

Because they came from two continents, and countries as diverse as Yemen, Iraq, Iran and Morocco, customs are diverse among Mizrahim. The name itself is a modern invention, meaning Easterners, according to Arie Dubnov, the Max Ticktin chair of Israel Studies at George Washington University.

“It’s basically a basket term,” he says. “A big, very wide umbrella into which Ashkenazi Zionists threw everyone who was not Ashkenazi.”

Dubnov says the term is connected to identity politics in Israel, and there’s a binary between Ashkenazi and Mizrahi Jews, who have faced struggles as outsiders in Israel in the “very first decade” of its conception.

“Once you were denoted as a Mizrahi, you were a savage, an oriental, you were not as civilized,” Dubnov says. “The feeling of discrimination was central to the experience and the historical memory.”

Mazzig acknowledges that cultures within the Mizrahi group are very different, but also says Mizrahi Israelis have accepted the term because they can be strong together.

“My Iraqi side is so different from my Tunisian side in almost everything. But I think what they faced when they got to Israel was there were two groups of Jews. They wanted to really identify who they are to come together and to fight for their community. Today, the situation’s a bit different, but I think that’s where it started from.”

Americans tend to see a binary between Ashkenazi and Sephardi Jews (and often lump non-white Jews into the latter category). At the same time, Sephardi and Mizrahi Jews are starting to celebrate their heritage and fight back against what’s been called the Ashke-normative view of modern Jewry.

When Mazzig visits college campuses, he says, students tend to think that Israel is a white
colonial state, and don’t realize that about half of Israeli Jews are Mizrahim.

“American students tend to think that imperialism was just a white European idea, and it isn’t because it comes in different shapes,” Mazzig says.

In 2014, Israel established Nov. 30 as the Day to Mark the Departure and Expulsion of Jews from the Arab Countries and Iran. It was the first time Israel had officially recognized the trauma that Jewish refugees from Israel’s neighboring countries had experienced.

Dubnov says it makes sense that American Jews would decide to mark November as Mizrahi Heritage Month because of this commemoration date in Israel. But, he says, “the way we chose November as commemoration is very politically fraught.”

This is because Nov. 30, 1947, was one day after the United Nations adopted Resolution 181 to divide Palestine into a Jewish state and an Arab state. The Jewish minority of Palestine accepted the partition plan. But Palestinian Arabs and Arab governments rejected it. On Nov. 30, violence against Palestine’s Jews began.

Choosing Nov. 30 to recognize Mizrahi trauma is “problematic,” Dubnov says, because it “ties the entire history of the Mizrahi community to a Zionist project.”

But overall, he says it’s a good thing that Mizrahi Jews — and Sephardic Jews, who often band together with Mizrahim — are pushing for more recognition in the Jewish community.
“I completely sympathize with the bigger picture,” Dubnov says. “It’s about time to write Sephardi history and to not understand modern Jewish history only through the lens of

Jewish groups and schools around the United States are marking the month with lectures about Mizrahi heritage or events that allow people to partake in Mizrahi cultural traditions.
Magen David Sephardic Congregation in Rockville held a Yemenite party this month. New Synagogue Project hosted a People of Color, Indigenous, Sephardi & Mizrahi Shabbat dinner. And SHIN DC hosted Mazzig for his lecture on Oct. 30.

As for these groups sticking together?

“I think for us to come together as Mizrahim and Sephardim, it is a way to really amplify each other’s voices,” Mazzig says, “and come together to combat those that see Jews as bagels and lox.”

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Twitter: @jacqbh58

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