Appreciate this article? +972 depends on your support.

Click here to help us keep going

Analysis News
Visit our Hebrew site, "Local Call" , in partnership with Just Vision.

It is time to rebuild ties between Mizrahim and the Arab world

Five years after Mizrahi Israelis offered their solidarity to the young men and women of the Arab Spring, it is time to say it loud and clear: real peace will come once we recognize the deep cultural and religious ties between Jews and Muslims of the region.

By Almog Behar

Egyptian protesters march from Tahrir Square to the country’s High Court on June 2, 2012. (Al Hussainy Mohamed / CC BY-NC 2.0)

Egyptian protesters march from Tahrir Square to the country’s High Court on June 2, 2012. (Al Hussainy Mohamed / CC BY-NC 2.0)

Five years ago in April of 2011, in the wake of the events of the Arab Spring, a group of Jewish descendants from Muslim and Arab countries, second and third generation Mizrahim in Israel, published an open letter of the women and men of the Middle East and North Africa, titled “Ruh Jedida: A New Spirit for 2011.” We looked on with great excitement at the role people our age played in the streets of the Arab world and in the demonstrations for freedom and change. We identified with the hopes for revolution that would bring down the tyrannical regimes in Tunisia and Egypt. We also looked on at the loss of life and great pain of the people of Syria and other places.

We hoped that a movement of people of our generation against oppressive regimes, and the call for change and democracy — which would allow all citizens to take part in the political process — would symbolize a dramatic moment in the history of the Middle East and North Africa. This was a region that had been torn apart in different directions by various forces — internal and external — which trampled over the political, economic, and cultural rights of most citizens.

We wanted to show solidarity as Israeli Jews who are descendants of Jewish communities that lived in the Middle East and North Africa for hundreds and thousands of years. We wanted to show that we too are part of the religious, cultural, and linguistic history of the region, even if we seem like we were “forgotten”: first in Israel, which imagines itself located between Europe and North America; and second in the Arab world, where it seems like the dichotomy between Jews and Arabs, and the attempt to view Jews as Europeans while erasing the history of Arab Jews, has become the norm. Even within Mizrahi communities, in Israel and across the world, we must admit that our past has been forgotten; in the wake of Western colonialism, Jewish nationalism and Arab nationalism, many of us were ashamed to acknowledge that we shared a common past with the Arab people.

We hoped that the Arab Spring would bring about a cross-generational moment in the history of the Middle East and North Africa. We hoped that they would bring freedoms, justice, and a fair distribution of resources. We turned to the young people in the Arab and Muslim world in a hope to create a dialogue that would include us in the history and culture of the region.

Mizrahi activists protest outside Finance Minister Yair Lapid's house, north Tel Aviv. (photo: Yotam Ronen/Activestills.org)

Mizrahi activists protest outside Finance Minister Yair Lapid’s house, north Tel Aviv. (photo: Yotam Ronen/Activestills.org)

We wrote about how we live in state that pretends to represent enlightenment and democracy, while at the same time not representing large segments of the population. Instead, the state — on both sides of the Green Line — cares little for the economic rights of most people, is restricting freedoms and democracy, and builds racist walls in the face of Jewish and Arab Middle Eastern culture. We spoke about the connection between our struggle, as Mizrahim in Israel, and the Palestinian struggle, out of a belief that the Mizrahi struggle for economic, social, and cultural rights depends the understanding that political change cannot depend on Western powers, which exploited the region and its people for generations. Change must emerge from an inter-regional dialogue, from a connection between different struggles happening in Arab countries. Specifically, it must emerge from the struggle of Palestinian citizens of Israel for political and economic rights, and the Palestinian struggle in the West Bank and Gaza for freedom and an end military occupation.

Today, more than five years after Mohmed Bouazizi set himself on fire on in Tunisia on December 17, 2010, leading to a wave of demonstrations in the Arab world, the situation in Tunisia continues to raise our hopes for the establishment of a stable, democratic regime. On the other hand, the destruction and loss of life in Syria continues. We are pained by the inability to bring about an end to the cycle of violence and a democratic, just political arrangement that will guarantee representation to the Syrian people.

Meanwhile, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict continues, and its perception in the Israeli, Arab and international community as a Muslim-Jewish conflict only accelerates the erasure of Arab Jews from historical memory — wiping out more than 1,000 years of deep cultural, linguistic and theological ties between Islam and Judaism.

Now, more than ever, when the hatred between Jews and Muslims is seen as “natural,” it is important for us to emphasize the fact that our ancestors helped contribute to the cultural development of the region. The huge mutual contributions between Jewish and Arab cultures were nearly wiped out of our collective memory over the past few decades, in the wake of the nationalism that flooded the region in the 20th century. We can, however, see traces in many aspects of our cultures and religions, from music, to prayer, to linguistics and literature. For many Mizrahim in Israel, the culture of Muslim countries and the feeling of belonging to the region are an inseparable part of our identities.

It is my hope that our generation, across the Arab world — both Muslim and Jewish — will be the one to rebuild bridges — to jump over the walls and hatred of the previous generations, and will renew the deep dialogue that we cannot understand our own identities with it — between Jews, Sunnis, Shi’a, Christians. Between Arabs, Kurds, Amazighs, Turks, or Persians. Between Mizrahim and Ashkenazim, and Palestinians and Israelis. I hope we are able to remember all those previous generations that stood at the intersection between Judaism and Islam, between Jewish culture and Arab culture — who left us with a bountiful legacy.

Egyptian Alexandria Jewish girls during Bat Mitzvah. (photo: Nebi Daniel Association public photo collection / Maurice Studio CC BY 3.0)

Egyptian Alexandria Jewish girls during Bat Mitzvah. (photo: Nebi Daniel Association public photo collection / Maurice Studio CC BY 3.0)

I hope that as people with a common past, we will be able to look at a common future. Only inter-regional dialogue, whose goal is to fix and rebuild everything that was destroyed over the past generations, will provide the key for a renewed Andalusian Muslim-Jewish-Christian life, and, God willing, inshallah, real cultural and historical partnership in our countries. We meet many people in the Arab and Muslim world who wish to make these connections, and who hope to remember the Jewish legacy in countries such as Morocco, Egypt, Yemen, and Iraq.

If we are able to make the connection between the deep cultural ties and the theological ties from the time of Rabbi Sa’adia Gaon and Rabbi Moshe Ben Maimon and until today. If they become a part of our demand for distributive justice in our societies, for democratic, equal citizenship and an end to oppression and occupation, we will be able to propose a new political agenda in our countries that will be based on justice, equality, mutual respect, remedying historical injustices, and peace.

Almog Behar is a poet and literature critic. This article was first published in Hebrew on Haokets.

Newsletter banner

For additional original analysis and breaking news, visit +972 Magazine's Facebook page or follow us on Twitter. Our newsletter features a comprehensive round-up of the week's events. Sign up here.

View article: AAA
Share article
Print article
  • LEAVE A COMMENT

    * Required

    COMMENTS

    1. Carmen

      “We wanted to show that we too are part of the religious, cultural, and linguistic history of the region, even if we seem like we were “forgotten”: first in Israel, which imagines itself located between Europe and North America; and second in the Arab world, where it seems like the dichotomy between Jews and Arabs, and the attempt to view Jews as Europeans while erasing the history of Arab Jews, has become the norm. Even within Mizrahi communities, in Israel and across the world, we must admit that our past has been forgotten; in the wake of Western colonialism, Jewish nationalism and Arab nationalism, many of us were ashamed to acknowledge that we shared a common past with the Arab people.”

      Awesome. Israel is not between Europe and North America. Bordering Egypt, how could anyone think of Israel as European or Asian? Why erase the brown and black faces that are Jews? There are those who insist that the zionist state is treats all of its citizens the same. Hardly.

      Love the picture of the bat mitzvah girls.

      Reply to Comment
      • Gustav

        Only Dinasaurs ignore that this is the age of the internet and while they were not looking, the world has become a global village.

        Translation….

        Location does not matter!

        Reply to Comment
      • Salim Douba

        I am one of many Arabs who deeply regret the loss of the Arab Jewery in our midst. It is unfortunate that this should happen and that the forces of darkness and reaction keep to manage to stand the way stirring as much hatred and hostility. Nonetheless, we shouldn’t give up. We shouldn’t surrender. For starters we belong to the only race and that is the human race. Our shared humanity can only triumph. Our shared history won’t be lost. It will be revived as long as there are Jews and Arabs who reach out to each other.

        Reply to Comment
        • Lewis from Afula

          The whole article is nonsensical. Half of Mizrachi Jews are now married to Ashkenazi Jews and most of the new generation is mixed. In another few years, these fault lines will be totally erased. Yet, the Arab World is extremely hostile to Israel. Given the Jewish Nakba when Mizrazi Jews had an area 5x the size of the Land of Israel confiscated, the entire piece is nothing more than wishful BS.

          Reply to Comment
          • Ben

            It is always interesting and it is instructive to see how time and again the far right greets any attempts at building bridges, any overtures, any attempts at making peace, with fear and loathing and contempt. (Lewis’ response here, furthermore, might be seen as a small scale replica of the swift and unconditional rejection of the API by Israel.)

            Reply to Comment
          • Gustav

            Good try Benny-leh. If you can attempt to peddle your lie about the ApI for the umpteenth time, then I too am patient enough to pull you up on it again…

            When the API was first announced, our then foreign minister Shimon Peres was positive about it but he wanted to negotiate the bits in it which were unpalatable to us. For instance, the right of return demand which would potentially involve “the return” of millions of descendants of refugees into Israel proper.

            The Arabs told im that they would only negotiate the method of the implementation of their plan and that Israel would have to take the offer as is or leave it. So, under the circumstances, we left it and not too many of us have any regrets about it either. We don’t like the idea of suicide.

            Reply to Comment
          • Ben

            It is equally interesting to see how Lewis seems to think the only solution to the Mizrahi-Ashkenazi divide is intermarriage. Because Lewis sees ethnic and racial qualities as fundamental. There has to be genetic mixing to bridge the divide. And if you think that, and for ideological reasons you fear any bridging of the Arab-Jewish divide, then Arab-Jewish intermarriage, “miscegenation,” will not be seen as the nifty solution it is for the different kinds of Jews, or not even as a limited, benign and inevitable happenstance, no, it will be seen as a horror, as an abomination.

            Reply to Comment
          • Gustav

            Fact: If a Muslim marries a non Muslim, any child born is considered to be Muslim.

            Fact: According to Muslim law if a Muslim turns to another religion (becomes an apostate), that is a crime punishable by death.

            Yep, definitely, the Muslim Arabs are much more enlightened and tolerant than us [sarcasm].

            Having said that, I think we need to allow civil marriage in Israel. I am for repealing the existing marriage laws in Israel. And it WILL happen sooner or later.

            Right now, people who want to avoid a religious marriage, work around it by marrying in Cyprus oranother European country. Such marriages are recognized according to Israeli law.

            Reply to Comment
          • Ben

            One of your heroes, Education Minister Naftali Bennet, is not for it at least not openly. He and his party on the other hand are openly for making Israel more nationalistic, race based, and Torah-based. Gustav you remind me of those masses of angry lower middle class people who voted for Donald Trump, and once upon a time, a man in Germany whom both Trump and Bennet disturbingly recall, while saying “oh I don’t agree with everything he says, he gets carried away, but he stands up for “us” against “them.”

            Reply to Comment
          • Gustav

            Benny trying to pigeon those who show him up for the mindless propagandist that he is. Bennet? Trump? Who cares about them? Was I talking about them? Did I ever vote for them? Benny just introduced them coz he thinks he can use them to distract from the point that I made about what can happen when a non Muslim marries a Muslim in a neighborhood where there are lotsa religious minded Muslims.

            Reply to Comment
          • Ben

            If course you did not vote for Bennet. You voted for Bibi and Bibi hates Bennet’s guts, and raided Bennet’s votes with his last minute (but planned and calculated far in advance) “Arabs are coming in droves” maneuver. But there is no substantive difference between Bibi’s, Bennet’s and your aim to gobble as much of the West Bank and East Jerusalem as possible and to lord it over “the Arabs” as much as possible.

            “the point that I made about what can happen when a non Muslim marries a Muslim in a neighborhood where there are lotsa religious minded Muslims.”

            Oh. That was your “point”? And when a non-Muslim married a Muslim in this Israeli neighborhood, what happened?
            http://972mag.com/palestinian-jewish-couple-hires-wedding-security-for-fear-of-anti-miscegenation-group/95449/

            Did “the Muslims” protest this or did “the Jews”? Did “the Muslims” threaten the couple or did “the Jews”? Oh, it wasn’t “the Jews,” it was Lehava fanatics among Jews? But that’s different, right? One must never stereotype Jews because that is anti-Semitic but it’s A-OK to stereotype Muslims and Arabs in the same way. In Gustav-World. Is Tibi, one of “the Arabs,” a devotee of killing apostates? Is Hanin Zoabi a devotee of killing apostates? Are Rami Younis or Amjad Iraqi devotees of killing apostates? Is Dov Khenin, one of “the Jews,” a racist devotee of forbidding intermarriage? Do you think Lehava does not also consider Morel Malka’s future children to be Jewish? Do you think most of the members of your government do not consider Morel Malka’s future children to be Jewish?

            Fact: If a female Jew marries a non-Jew any child born is considered to be Jewish.

            Oh, but hey, that’s not the same as this fact?:

            “Fact: If a Muslim marries a non Muslim, any child born is considered to be Muslim.”

            And the second fact is sinister but the first fact is not?

            Because why? Because Gustav says so.

            Reply to Comment
          • Lewis from Afula

            Well, it is not just intermarriage. It is also culture -for example most Israeli Jews (some 70%) are born in Israel and have the same education, upbringing etc. It is largely irrelevant for the Israeli millenial whether his grandparents came from Poland, Morocco, Iran, Greece, Uzbekistan etc or whether each grandparent came from a different place.

            In short, this article is about 40 years out of date.

            Reply to Comment
        • Leffe

          Nice thought Salim. Thanks.

          Reply to Comment
    2. Avraham Zilkha

      This is wishful thinking. Generally speaking, it is precisely Mizrahi Jews who are keeping the Likud in power. However, one must differentiate between their origins. The less educated, lower income North Africans are the core of the right wing voters, while many immigrants from Iraq and Egypt, who are well educated in Arabic, support the center and even the left. The Black Panthers failed because they could not mobilize the North African masses. On the other hand, writers such as Sami Michael and Eli Amir, who are critical of Israel’s policies towards the Palestinians, do not find a match on the other side. Moreover, they are being threatened in the West with boycott . The so-called Arab Spring did not lessen the hostility of educated Arabs towards an Israeli-Arab dialogue. They are scared of تطبيع, normalization. Only today an Egyptian member of parliament by the name of Tawfiq Ukasha was suspended for five years for meeting with the Israeli ambassador. Seriously, how should Mizrahi Jews feel when article seven of the Hamas charter calls for indiscriminate genocide against the Jews that includes them?

      Reply to Comment
    3. Eliza

      The sentiment is fine. The desire of Mizrahi Israelis to feel connection to their shared history within the region, and not to have this history become just a small footnote to Zionism (which has a nationalistic movement with European roots) is understandable. But is it really reasonable to expect the people behind the Arab Spring to be able to take you in.

      The Arab Spring is not over; but there is no easy path to dismantling dictatorships or small political/economic elites.

      And what is stopping any Mizrahi Israeli was embarking on their own Israeli Arab Spring? If you accept that you share an cultural, religious and linguistic history with the Palestinians, what is to stop you from acting on this within Israel. What is stopping you from making political alliances with Israeli Palestinians and voting for the Joint List? Or refusing IDF orders to raid Palestinian villages, or demolish their homes or even police the checkpoints etc? Why wait for a free ride from others in the region?

      I really can’t see there being any substantive connection in an ‘Arab Spring’ sense from other Arabs in the region whilst Mizrahi Israelis are complicit in the occupation/siege of the Palestinians.

      Reply to Comment
      • Gustav

        What is to stop them? Oh not much…

        Here are just a few things that stop them from realizing your equivalent of your wet dream…

        1. The Mizrahi Jews are not suicidal.

        2. The Mizrahi Jews have things in common with Ashkenazi Jews too. Wanna know what? We are all Jews.

        3. As someone else has mentioned. Israel has become a melting pot for all Jews. Only the older generation has “pure” Mizrahim or “pure” Ashkenazim. Most of the young generation are a product of mixed marriages.

        So dream on Eliza dear…

        Reply to Comment
    4. sara maimon

      use of the word mizrahi is an adaptation of the colonialist “western” v. everyone else. the word means eastern and the jews in the picture are yemeni jews which means “South.” the other largest group of arabic jews is from morrocco, the “mughreb” which means “west”. the distance to palestine is as far as eastern europe. the arabic they spoke was a different dialect from each otehr s well as from palestinians. assuming that they are cultural brothers with the palestinians is a rather orientalist assumption. whats more the idea that palestinians should feel friendlier to a yemeni or kurdish jew that displaced them more than a hungarian, doesn’t make a lot of sense either. aside from which we are talking about a completely different generation.

      Reply to Comment
    5. Genocide against Mizrachim is tolerated by Israel Lo Nimgin Do not continue or Do not put up with it!
      IS killed most of the Mizrachim and they may have been killed in Central Asia and have been killed by China and when rescued by the refugees from the failed Mongol liberation of China from the Manchus colapse settled, mixed and survived with Native Americans the elite Elo ale oleha cavalry division for rescue of women and similar were bombarded to death with suspected intention by the Israeli army
      the jewel of Sarah had before shone on the metal arm of my chair softly vainly intensely
      it is the end

      Reply to Comment
© 2010 - 2017 +972 Magazine
Follow Us
Credits

+972 is an independent, blog-based web magazine. It was launched in August 2010, resulting from a merger of a number of popular English-language blogs dealing with life and politics in Israel and Palestine.

Website powered by RSVP

Illustrations: Eran Mendel