Penn Hillel Learns About Mizrahi Jews

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Zach Smith told attendees his goal was to offer a dialogue that people normally don’t hear when discussing Israel: the Mizrahi, Jews from the Middle East and North Africa.

Some might wrongly view Israel as made up of ethnically European Jews and Palestinians fighting over land, but doing so — a common misconception — ignores the long history of another ethnic group: the Mizrahis, Jews of Middle Eastern or North African descent.
As part of the University of Pennsylvania Hillel’s Israel Week, which spanned April 1 to 9, Zach Smith, a Penn political science Ph.D. student, traced the political history of Mizrahim in Israel in a talk titled “Arab Wages to Arab-Jews.”
“You can’t actually tell the difference by looking at somebody,” Smith said to the Exponent, referring to the differences between Mizrahis and Arabs.
Smith told attendees his goal was to offer a dialogue that people normally don’t hear when discussing Israel. Jews from the Middle East and North Africa were originally called Mizrahim, but they eventually changed it to Mizrahi.
From 1516 until the end of World War I, the Ottoman Empire ruled the land then known as Palestine and much of Western Asia. According to Smith, roughly 10,000 to 25,000 Jews lived in what would later become Israel. They were mostly Sephardic Jews, but were not part of the Zionist movement.
Before 1948, there were thousands of Jews in Morocco, Algeria, Egypt and Yemen. Eventually, most migrated to Israel, with the majority coming from Yemen.
“Middle East-North African Jewry were only 10 percent of the worldwide Jewish population,” Smith said.
As they poured into the land in the late teens and early 1920s, Arab wages were harmed, Smith explained. Unlike Jews from Europe, Mizrahi Jews were willing to work the land for cheap, which appealed to Jews who needed labor done.
“Some Zionists were capitalists, and Jews from Europe wanted to be paid a certain salary,” Smith said.
Zionist leaders were not interested in embracing Mizrahis, Smith said. But the Holocaust changed everything, as it decimated European Jewry, causing former Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion to declare in 1942 his plan to bring a million Middle Eastern Jews to Palestine.
“Jews for the first time had to choose between being Jewish and their own identity,” he said.
According to Smith, Ben-Gurion was afraid of Mizrahis and, when they arrived in Israel, they were placed in transit camps, similar to Ellis Island. Things did not get better afterward.
They were not allowed to live in Jerusalem, but rather forced to live near Gaza, Lebanon and Syria in poor, desolate areas.
“There’s a reason they’re on the borders,” he said. “The biggest reason was Israel’s borders were not real yet. It also unfortunately means these communities are facing the brunt of the Palestinian attacks.”
In the 1950s, dissension between Mizrahis and the rest of the country grew. Immigrants from Eastern Europe received better housing and a rumor spread that police killed a Mizrahi teen.
Former Prime Minister Golda Meir showed her disapproval of the group in 1969 when she announced every Jew must speak Yiddish. During protests in 1971, Mizrahis chanted, “teach us Yiddish.”
While Meir and Ben-Gurion did not like them, Mizrahis never had a viable party to back until 1973, when Menachem Begin of the Likud Party became a big supporter and campaigned for their votes.
“They turned to the Likud Party because the Labor Party was identified by them as the labors of their oppression,” Smith said.
Today, Mizrahis make up 40 percent of Israel’s population, but have little political power. Smith explained that while politics are important, Mizrahis would rather have people respect them.
“What they want is a society that cares for everyone,” he said.
Smith told the Exponent that many of the Mizrahi still live near the borders because it is too expensive to relocate to other parts of the country.
“You would think people would choose to leave,” Smith said. “But in order to get out, you have to have an education.”
He added that he is quite impressed with the persistence of the Mizrahis and their strength in numbers.
Ortal Hackshur, the Israel fellow at Penn Hillel, knows firsthand about Mizrahis — because she is one.
Hackshur, 29, was born and raised in Israel. While her parents emigrated from Iran in the 1950s, her dad always stressed that she was Israeli.
“My father never allowed us to say Mizrahi or Ashkenazi,” she said. She grew up in Ra’anana, a wealthy Anglo-Saxon city where she was one of only three Mizrahi. She stood out among her classmates and was often taunted.
“I always felt weird and different,” Hackshur said. “I started to realize the discrimination.”
As she finishes her time at Penn, her goal is to educate people in Israel about the Mizrahi history and culture.
“We were lacking this narrative,” she said. “We always talk about the white Israelis versus the brown Palestinians. I believe that every Mizrahi should feel proud to be Israeli and be proud of their heritage they come from.”
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