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Why Are Mizrahi and Sephardic Communities Being Misrepresented as Anti-Israel?

avatar by Sapir Taib and Matthew Nouriel / JNS.org

Opinion

Members of extreme anti-Zionist group “Jewish Voice for Peace.” Photo: NGO Monitor.

JNS.org – Anyone involved in Mizrahi and Sephardic Jewish life knows that the overwhelming majority of us are Zionists. Israel’s existence has been a lifeline for many of us. It has been crucial to the survival of our culture in the face of violent hatred. So why are anti-Zionist organizations, in an attempt to look inclusive of our communities, elevating Mizrahi anti-Zionists whose views are neither representative of nor respected by the vast majority of Mizrahi Jews around the world?

We are both descendants of Jewish refugees from Iran, Tunisia and Libya; and we are Jewish communal professionals committed to advocating for and advancing the stories and rights of Mizrahi and Sephardic Jews. Both of us come from families whose lives were saved by Israel. After Israel’s establishment, a tidal wave of intimidation struck Jews in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA). An estimated 850,000 Jews fled MENA countries and were forced to leave behind an estimated $300 billion in homes, businesses and possessions simply because the cost of antisemitic persecution was much higher.

Sapir’s grandparents fled from Libya to Israel with two children and two suitcases. As antisemitism reached its zenith during the Iranian revolution, Jews like the family of Matthew’s mother were smuggled into Turkey and Pakistan hidden amongst cargo or traveling by donkey across mountainous terrain. Our grandparents left behind all their possessions and property after centuries during which their ancestors built lives, livelihoods and communities.

In many of the countries our ancestors fled, we were dhimmis: second-class citizens whose safety was dependent on the whims of caliphs, emirs and sheikhs — and whether our neighbors had absorbed or ignored antisemitic tropes. In Arab countries, we were not even allowed to be referred to as Arabs. Persian Jews were similarly forced to pick a side after 1979: We could be Iranian citizens or we could be Zionists.

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So today, we work at the organization JIMENA (Jews Indigenous to the Middle East and North Africa) to document and share the stories of Mizrahi and Sephardic people. Those telling those stories are overwhelmingly grateful for Israel’s creation. Many say Israel saved their lives.

Yet scroll through the feeds of anti-Zionist organizations like Jewish Voice for Peace or publications like +972 or Jewish Currents and you’ll find cherry-picked stories that misrepresent our communal values. More and more ink is being spilled by the small number of Mizrahi and Sephardic Jews who do not support Israel’s existence. They focus on Israel’s faults with no mention of the antisemitism we faced in MENA countries before 1948, willfully taking advantage of the limited recorded history of our communities.

Poor public understanding of the history, politics and economics of MENA countries makes it easy to tokenize Mizrahi and Sephardic anti-Zionists, turning them into leading voices even though they do not represent our communities. Anti-Zionist organizations and publications exploit our underrepresentation to manufacture partisan narratives about the Middle East and weaponize public ignorance in order to rewrite history.

The anti-Israel publication Jewish Currents regularly hires Mizrahim whose views are beyond the fringe to weigh in on our issues as if they were experts. They’ve brought in voices to make the ahistorical claim that Mizrahim are “Arab Jews” and that we experience Islamophobia. In reality, as mentioned above, MENA Jews were never allowed to be referred to as Arabs and were denied the legal rights that Arabs enjoyed. +972 has gone as far to publish op-eds claiming that centering our stories of escape to Israel is “Mizrahi-washing,” and that teaching about tragedies such as the Farhud — the 1941 massacre of Jews in Iraq — is to “diminish the Palestinian claim for justice.”

A prime example of this dynamic is when Jewish Voice for Peace published an inflammatory Instagram post about Mimouna, a traditional end-of-Passover festival celebrated in North Africa. They claimed that “Zionism has coopted”such traditions and “our Mimouna celebrations won’t be used to marginalize or tokenize our people, brownwash Israeli colonialism and occupation or erase our history of community.”

Anyone with basic knowledge of Mimouna knows that it is obscene to claim that Zionism has “coopted” it. In fact, given the ethnic cleansing of nearly all Jews who celebrate the occasion, almost the only place where Jews still freely celebrate Mimouna is in Israel. Even in their own post, JVP admits that since the tenure of Golda Meir, every Israeli prime minister has commemorated Mimouna. We fled to a Jewish state, which is why we and our traditions are still alive.

The vast majority of Mizrahim and Sephardim do not marginalize, tokenize or erase our own history. Expressing our communal values is not “brownwashing.” Organizations that capitalize on the increased attention to diversity within the Jewish community in order to burnish their credentials as “progressive” while ignoring the mainstream values of Mizrahim and Sephardim are exploiting us.

Just as anti-Zionist Jews try to represent themselves as conventional American Jews even though their political stances are on the fringe, these organizations and publications cherry-pick minority voices that are not representative of Jews from North Africa and the Middle East. These voices are chosen only because they are willing to affirm anti-Zionist viewpoints rather than tell our collective story. This tokenization lends an unearned legitimacy to those demonizing Israel and harms Mizrahi and Sephardic communities by rewriting our ancestors’ histories.

Sephardic and Mizrahi Jews were a crucial part of the project to reestablish a Jewish state in the Land of Israel. In 1558, Gracia Mendes Nasi — one of the wealthiest Jewish women of the Ottoman Empire — built a Jewish community in the Holy Land that’s credited as one of the earliest attempts at a modern Zionist movement. In 1839, Rabbi Yehuda Bibas, a scion of Moroccan rabbinical royalty, traveled across Europe to encourage Jews to make aliyah and reclaim Jerusalem. Scholar-socialite Flora Sassoon of the “Rothschilds of the East” staunchly supported the Balfour Declaration and Zionism. The son of a Moroccan immigrant, Haim Amzalak, used his position as the British Vice-Consul of Palestine to acquire land for some of the earliest Zionist communities, such as Petah Tikva and Rishon Le Zion. Zionism not only has a place for Jews like our families; it was created by them.

Today, over half of Israel’s Jewish population is of Mizrahi descent. We do not deny that, in its early days of independence, Israel sometimes failed the Mizrahim. Some of these issues persist today. Yet those failures pale in comparison to how Israel has helped us. Our struggles should not be weaponized by individuals and organizations — who have otherwise shown little interest in our stories — to advance a political agenda.

The best way to fight this injustice is for the Jewish community to come together and ensure that we elevate spokespeople that represent us accurately. We must include Mizrahi and Sephardic voices — not just for the sake of inclusion, but because our stories are an essential part of the Jewish story as a whole. The more our stories are told, the harder it will be for people to distort them.

Sapir Taib serves as the Program Director and Matthew Nouriel serves as the Program Coordinator for JIMENA: Jews Indigenous to the Middle East. JIMENA is a non-profit organization based in California whose mission is to achieve universal recognition for the heritage and history of the 850,000 indigenous Jewish refugees from the Middle East and North Africa, and their Mizrahi and Sephardic descendants. JIMENA’s programs aim to ensure that an accurate history of Mizrahi and Sephardic Jews is incorporated into mainstream Jewish and Middle Eastern narratives in order to create balance in attitudes, narratives and discourse about Middle Eastern refugees and the modern Jewish experience.

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