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The struggle for Mizrahi recognition isn't limited to Israel

If Israeli Jewish society is going to move forward dealing with its own racial tensions, it needs British and world Jewry to do the same. Generations of Mizrahi Jews in the UK no longer understand their own history: they have been taught to weep for Krakow but never for Sanaa.

By Leeor Ohayon

Deep in the heart of North East London, where South Tottenham meets Stamford Hill, sits an Adenese Jewish community. Here, I was born and raised, born into a mixed Yemenite-Moroccan family in the middle of a Mizrahi Jewish bubble. Within that bubble, where Hebrew was sung in heavy guttural pronunciations, where cussing was done in Arabic, and where women ululated at bar mitzvahs and weddings, we lived an existence away from the “Fiddler on the Roof”-style clichés that have come to dictate society’s understanding of Jews.

In my community a large percentage were ’67 refugees. The last Jews of Aden, who in 1967 boarded British ships with nothing but the clothes on their back, forced to flee suddenly in the midst of the turmoil of the British colonial exit. An ancient community, 2,000 years old, uprooted overnight, made its way to North East London to join an already established Adenese Jewish community that traced its roots to the heyday of the British Empire. Yet, despite their historical place in the British Jewish landscape, their presence remains forgotten by the mainstream Anglo-Jewish narrative. Similarly, no one speaks of the Iraqi-Jewish merchants who set up thriving communities in London and British Mumbai, nor of the Egyptian-Jews who arrived with the empire, or the Iranian-Jewish presence.

Attending British Jewish schools my entire life, it did not take long for me to realize that my Judaeo-Berber surname, brown skin and Mizrahi identity were undesirable. Better yet, they weren’t “really Jewish.” That undesirability, that categorization of what is Jewish, is chained to a non-pluralist Eurocentric reality which dictates Jewish history and culture, from Israel to the UK.

Judaism, we are told, is uniform: it is socially Eastern European, linguistically Yiddish, ethnically White. Judaism is never Brown, Arabic or Middle Eastern.  Subsequently, the Mizrahi Jew is whitewashed from the Jewish historical narrative, which in turn has allowed for his erasure from both Western and Arab historical, social and political discourse surrounding the Middle East. The non-Jewish world thus understands Judaism and Israeli society through Eurocentric-Ashkenazi paradigms provided for them by the Ashkenazi experience, which has anointed itself as the sole narrative of world Jewry. The Mizrahi Jew is expected to partake in a mainstream historical narrative that sees itself between Warsaw and Minsk, but never Baghdad.

Throughout my Jewish education, lessons fixated on the Gaon of Vilna or the Cholent of Shabbat — never on the Baba Sali of Tafilalt or the sweet buttery Jahnoon of Yemenite Jewry. Efforts to inform teachers that at home our rituals differed, it was dismissed; one teacher conceded to the class that “Sephardis have different traditions” with an added eye roll for emphasis.

All of this served to place myself and other Mizrahi British Jews in a state of continuous confusion, dictating a one-size-fits-all Jewish identity that did not reflect the realities of our homes and traditions. Mizrahi Jews are subsequently pressured to Ashkenize, to avoid appearing “too ethnic,” to understand their Jewish identity as not only inferior but as a historical anomaly not worthy of mention in Jewish environments. From the secular to the religious who have adopted the black hats of religious Ashkenazi tradition, a rich aspect of the Jewish world is being extinguished, for the sake of “blending in” with Ashkenazi Jewry.

A significant aspect of the Ashkenization of Judaism is in part credited to the place the Holocaust holds within the Jewish historical narrative. A tragedy which barely touched Mizrahi Jewry apart from small parts of North Africa, which also remains absent from the culture surrounding Holocaust remembrance. Mizrahi Jews across the world are expected to own the Holocaust as if it is their own. In the process, generations of Mizrahi Jews no longer understand their own history: they have been taught to weep for Krakow but never for Sanaa.

The Mizrahi story has been sacrificed at the altar of collective memory, silently accepting that ancient Judaeo-Islamic civilization is not something worth mourning. We are fed the notion of a rigid dichotomy between the Arab and Jewish worlds, as if either were two separate homogenous blocs with no connection to the other. To belong to an Arabic or Middle Eastern culture and have a Jewish identity is an oxymoron — being Polish and Jewish is not.

That lack of recognition and ensuing racism is a product of a British-Ashkenazi mind-set that regulates Judaism to a race, condensing a socio-religious group according to basic physical features — features that we Mizrahi Jews do not posses, features that are strictly European. As a result the Mizrahi Jew is a humorous concept, he does not “look” Jewish; he is Indian or Arab but never Jewish. Not really a Jew, an anomaly.

The Mizrahi struggle in Israel today is one about cultural recognition, historical justice for the crimes inflicted upon it by the Ashkenazi establishment and a demand for a new pluralism, one that brings the Mizrahi story into the fold. However, the Mizrahi struggle is not solely confined to Israel, it is part of a wider struggle for Mizrahi recognition across the Jewish communities of the West. The Mizrahi identity is subsequently swallowed up by an Ashkenazi collective memory and voice; the Mizrahi is expected to conform to the Ashkenazi hegemon.

If Israeli Jewish society is going to move forward dealing with its own racial tensions, it also requires British and world Jewry to do so. If Western Jewish communities begin to understand the Mizrahi in their midst, to recognize his story and to restore his rightful place in the Jewish collective imagination, then maybe, just maybe Israeli Jewish society might begin taking steps regarding its own Mizrahi population.

Related:
‘But you’re not really Mizrahi’: Rewriting an erased identity
Can a Mizrahi girl fit into Israel’s national story?
Re-learning history: A tribute to North Africa’s Jewish artists

Leeor Ohayon is a documentary photographer from London currently in Israel focusing his photographic work on Mizrahi Jewry. 

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    1. Richard

      Mizrahi Jews – don’t just abandon your ties with Ashkenazim in Israel, do it everywhere! The Arabs are your real brothers! Oh the crimes committed by the Ashkenazim! Lament! Hahahaha who thought of this silly propaganda strategy anyway. +972 being original for a change at least.

      Reply to Comment
    2. My own take is that the injuries inflicted upon Mizrahi Jews by Israel start with the decision (by some Ashkenazi Jews who were presumably as unwilling to be aware of Mizrahi Jews as they were of Palestinian non-Jews) to use terrorism adn warfare to create a state in Palestine and incur the wrath of the Arab people’s which often fell on Mizrahi Jews who’d lived fairly happily and certainly quite long in Arab countries.

      It is also my take that it’d be a fine thing (if an unlikely one) if the Mizrahi Jews, wherever they live, would make common cause with the Palestinians, the other victims of (Ashkenazi) Zionism.

      Diversity is a wonderful thing. An Israel with a mixture of Jews and also of Palestinians — themselves also and already a mixture — would be a far better thing than the present maintained-by-force monoculture which harms Mizrahi Jews, Palestinians, democrats, and others.

      Reply to Comment
      • Kolumn8

        So in this grand historical narrative the Arabs expelled their Arab Jewish brothers due to the actions of some other Jews thousands of kilometers away. Brotherhood indeed. And then the Arabs are upset that their ‘brothers’ side with the Zionists. Oh why? Why!?!?

        The Zionists claimed that the Jews were in exile and should come home because they are Jews first and will never be accepted in the Muslim world as full citizens. The anti-Zionists among the Arab Jews (and there were some) argued that Iraq and Egypt and Yemen were the homelands of the Jews and that they form part of the Arab people. That argument was settled when the Arabs expelled the Jews from the Arab countries. Their ‘brother’ Arabs saw them too as first and foremost Jews and not a part of the Arab people. It certainly takes a fine analytical mind to argue that being expelled from the Arab countries by the Arabs turns them into victims of Zionists.

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        • Hassan mostafavi

          what are you trying to say ?
          Because Arabs mistreated Mizrahi jews they were not part of the Arab culture or ethnicity?Christians and Shiah Muslims are also badly treated by Sonni arabs. Religion and racial similarities or disparities are two different matters.Jews were mistreated everywhere but more in the west(Christians) than in the east(Muslims),which Holocaust was the last official and large scale.
          One cannot deny the fact that Ashkenazis are European and different from eastern jews and ethnic ME jews.
          It is a fact that Ashkenazis treated the eastern jews as well as Arabs as inferior , and they still do.
          The writer stated a matter of fact conflicts of cultures and races. Are you trying to say it did not or does not exist or if such differences exists it is the fault of Mizrahis and not Ashkenazis ?

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          • Kolumn6

            If by mistreated you mean excluded, oppressed, made to live like third class citizens, and expelled then yes, the Jews that lived in the Arab world were expelled by force from the ‘Arab ethnicity’ and made into foreigners who did not belong.

            There is no really such thing as Mizrahi and Askenazi outside of minor religious differences, which also exist within these distinctions. They are artificial political constructs created for political reasons within a very specific Israeli cultural/political experience. The author of this piece is even more pathetic in trying to get in on that bandwagon despite not having a valid ticket to ride.

            They made him taste gefilte fish? Poor baby.

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        • Eliza

          Kolumn8 You state that it ‘certainly takes a fine analytical mind to argue that being expelled from Arab countries by the Arabs turns them into victims of Zionists’.

          Regardless of the mix of reasons why Jewish Arabs left their home countries, they did move to Israel.

          Jewish Arabs or Mizrahi have their cultural roots in Arabic countries. Leeor is talking of reconciliation of historic injustice as well as racial tensions within Israel; he is also lamenting the disregard of Mizrahi
          cultural heritage. He is silent on the issue of non-Jewish Arabs.

          However well (or not)the Mizrahi and Ashkenazi are integrating and getting on today, the lack of recognition of their non-European background clearly still rankles. There clearly is a sense of injury carried by Leeor.

          I wonder what Leeor would have to say about Jews (Mizrahi or Ashkenazi) who chant ‘Death to Arabs’ within Israel? It would be interesting to know if his plea for cultural recognition and respect extends to non-Jewish Arabs.

          Regardless of the past, is there any sense of historical belonging to non-Jewish Arabs? To the Palestinians.

          Isn’t it possible to accept that many Jews are either Arabic or of Arabic descent.

          Reply to Comment
      • Richard

        Thanks for proving my point Pabelmont. I like how you get the real message +972 is after here, about dividing Israeli Jews and weakening their sense of national solidarity.

        Reply to Comment
      • Ginger Eis

        Some individuals are completely full of raw sewage. And when they open their mouth the stench is deadlier than cancer!

        Reply to Comment
      • Y.

        One could correct the ‘history’ involved, but instead, we can look at how every single non-Arab and/or non-Muslim community has fared in the Middle East in the same time to the present, and see that Israel was founded just in time to save ME Jews from what would have happened regardless of its existence.

        Indeed, Israel is where they have the most expression even by the standards of this far Left article, and their descendants are known for their support of Zionism. Perhaps they can decide their own identity? And just maybe they already did?

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      • GilGamesh

        If they lived so happily in Arab countries why did the Jewish population in Arab countries drop by 99% after Israel’s formation. OH and please tell me what Ashkenazi terrorism preceded the 1921 riots ?

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        • joos

          You are right – Baghdadi jews fled Iraq as a result of bloody pogroms – they fled Iraq with 15 kilogram suitcases – when they had luck to flee with anything.

          Reply to Comment
    3. Gustav

      You wanna remember Mizrahi history? Then repeat after me …

      Mizrahi Jews too suffered for being Jews in Arab societies.

      Mizrahi Jews too were persecuted for being Jews in Arab societies.

      Mizrahi Jews too were subject to periodic pogroms in Arab societies.

      Mizrahi Jews too were subject to expulsion from their homes in Arab societies.

      Mizrahi Jews had to pay Jaziyah to their Muslim overloards in order to be tolerated in some Muslim Arab societies.

      There you are. I am an Ashkenazi and I knew all of that. See? Not all of us Ashkenazim are evil racists.

      By the way. Here in Israel intermarriage between Ashkenazi, Mizrahi and Sephardi Jews is rife. Including in my family. That is great. We are a melting pot. We are ALL Israelis here. And everyone is free to remember and talk about what we want to remember. No laws against remembering Ashkenazi, Mizrahi or Sephardi culture.

      Don’t like what’s happening in Britain? Come live with us and be one of us.

      Reply to Comment
      • CigarButNoNice

        Well said, Gustav.

        May I also remind our Leftist “multiculturalists against RAAAAACIST Israel” that, in contrast to Mizrahi–Ashkenazi Jewish marriages being rife in Israel of 2014, the local Arab colonists in both pre- and post-1967 Israel still cling to their ancient custom of giving first priority to the father’s brother’s daughter’s hand in marriage.

        Yes, I know: That fact isn’t racism—my mentioning it is. Saved you the typing, lefties. Enjoy your “anti-racist” self-righteousness, even though (as Richard pointed out above) you seek a race-oriented view and solution to a conflict between two nations neither of which is defined by race.

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      • rd

        well said.

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    4. BOOZ

      “Fiddler on the Roof”-style clichés that have come to dictate society’s understanding of Jews.”

      What a paranoid view on human relations ,Leeor.

      Nobody has dictated society’s understanding of the Jews except the bird you have on your shoulder.
      As an happily married Ashkenazi to a Moroccan girl, I have taken quite a few living habits of my partner’s family. As I am doing the cooking at home , please be assured that my Dafina and my zaalook live up to my mother in law’s highest standards ( not to say a word about the h’rira we had yesterday for dinner).

      For the perspective, I am a French Jew.

      And you will be welcome to taste my “Bidaoui” cuisine any time.

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    5. Renny Reep

      Sadly, even Western Jewry is divided into its own ethnocentric divisions. Even in America, I and my family are not considered “really Jewish” by at least 1/2 of the American Jewish denominations (Orthodox and most Conservative Jews) because we are Jewish Renewal (New Age Jews!)Of course, this is nothing by comparison to the non-recognition of Mizrahi Jewery, but it speaks to the schisms in global Jewry in modern times, and the potential extinction of Judaism (Jews are only 1% of the Earth’s population) at our own hands!

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    6. a yid

      Just for knowing, here are 3 vital sources for the truth about Israel and the Arabs who want to destroy her: 1) “From Time Immemorial” by Joan Peters, a pro-Arab journalist who upon doing deep research learned the truth about the fakestinians 2) “Phantom Nation” by Shai-Ben Tekoa 3) “This Land is My Land” by Rabbi Chaim Kramer. Maybe someone reading this piece will be inspired to learn the truth about the situation.

      Reply to Comment