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Current Intersectional Discourse Omits Mizrahi Jews


Back in January 2016, one of The Third Narrative’s newest participants, David Schraub* co-authored with Analucia Lopezrevoredo* in Tablet.  Their thesis: “Jews of color from the Middle East and North Africa comprise a plurality of Israel’s population, yet both the country’s supporters and detractors elide the Mizrahi experience. This needs to change.”  What follows is an abridged version of their article:


The watchword of the day in activist circles is “intersectionality.” The term was coined by Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw to recognize the role that multiple identities (i.e., the intersection of race and sex) have in creating unique lived experiences for individuals.  . . .

. . .  As we explore what intersectionality means in the Jewish context, it is worth asking—yet again—why so many of our conversations ignore Mizrahi, Sephardic, and other non-Ashkenazi Jews.

The omission of Mizrahi and Sephardic Jews in intersectional discourse is symptomatic of a larger problem. In the global imagination, the easy conflation of “Jews” and “white” has blinded many to the internal ethnic diversity within the Jewish community—especially in Israel. Non-Ashkenazi Jews are typically ignored in public discourse or respected only insofar as they confirm the prejudices and ideologies of others. While there are some organizations, such as JIMENA (Jews Indigenous to the Middle East and North Africa), devoted to elevating the profile of Mizrahi and Sephardic Jewish concerns, in general American Jewish organizations right, left, and center are notorious for being Ashke-normative—in other words, making the Ashkenazi experience the de-facto Jewish experience. This is similarly the case among critics of the American Jewish establishment, both Jewish and not.

Mizrahi Jews represent a conundrum for Jews and non-Jews alike accustomed to the typical Eurocentric modes of characterization.  . . . Yet for more than 2000 years, Jews lived among Arabs, spoke their language, and shared many of their customs. These Jews were responsible for contributing the Babylonian Talmud, and centuries later were crucial in revolutionizing the economies of cities including Aleppo, Baghdad, and Cairo.

Unfortunately, Ashkenazi history and culture primarily dominates Jewish dialogue and experiential learning, and Jews are erroneously being uniformly labeled “white” as a result of it. It’s Yiddish—not Ladino or Arabic—that Jews and non-Jews incorporate into their daily vocabulary. It’s the Holocaust—not the expulsion and exodus of nearly one million Jews from the Middle East, North Africa, and Iran—that students learn about in schools.  . . . This lack of knowledge becomes even more troubling when one considers that included in those unaware of this history are Jews that grew up in a Jewish home, attended synagogue, and received some form of Jewish education.

Israel, a country which (despite anti-Zionist erasures seeking to portray it as a colonial White imposition) possesses a Mizrahi Jewish plurality, is similarly battling this information and representation gap. On June 23, 2014 the Government of Israel adopted a law to designate November 30 as the annual national Day of Commemoration for the 850,000 Jewish refugees who were displaced from Arab countries and Iran in the 20th century. The law, which is the culmination of several years of hard work and dedication by an international team of Mizrahi Justice advocates, legislates commemoration events and the inclusion of Mizrahi history into the Israeli school curriculum.  . . .

An intersectional lens illuminates how issues important to Mizrahi and Sephardic Jews are routinely marginalized and suppressed. For example, Lara Friedman of Americans for Peace Now (APN) has attacked congressional endeavors to promote compensation for Mizrahi and Sephardic Jews forced to flee from Arab countries, complaining that they undermine the peace process.  . . .

To be sure, Ms. Friedman claims to support recompense for Jewish refugees, objecting only to the manner in which the goal is pursued . . . But . . ., there is a simple solution: empower these communities to speak with their own voice and take control of their own stories.

Such an endeavor, of course, risks the possibility that these Jews will make claims or issue demands that are difficult to hear or which don’t mesh with prevailing narratives.  . . .

Even as it attempts to cloak itself in intersectional garb, the BDS movement in particular faces a serious challenge if Mizrahi and Sephardic Jews are recognized as having a voice demanding respect. The BDS movement exploits the predominantly Ashkenazi character of the North American Jewish community to elide the fact that most non-Ashkenazi Jews in the world live in Israel, and so a boycott of Israel functionally acts to exclude most Jews of color from global conversations.  . . .

To read the entire article at Tablet’s website, click here.  

*David Schraub is the Darling Foundation Fellow in Public Law at the University of California, Berkeley, and blogs at The Debate Link.  His co-author, Analucia Lopezrevoredo, is the Program Director at JIMENA: Jews Indigenous to the Middle East and North Africa.

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