January 18, 2020

It’s Time for Mizrahi Studies on Campus

As an undergraduate at UC San Diego, I was active in our campus pro-Israel group. I loved every minute of it, even if it meant that I spent one hot Israeli Independence Day celebration on campus dressed as the back half of a camel, with Israeli friends joking and yelling, “Yalla!”

One afternoon, I was “tabling” to promote a pro-Israel event when suddenly, a student came up to me and screamed, “White colonialist!” before darting away.

I was shocked … and thrilled. Not so much about the “colonialist” accusation, but the “white” part.

Well, hit me over the head with a Persian cucumber, I thought. When did I become white?

Growing up in Los Angeles as a refugee who was often made to feel inferior by some of my American-born peers, I would have sold out my own mother to have been considered “white,” like the beautiful blond girls in school, or the enviable character Michelle Tanner on ABC’s “Full House.” I loathed Tanner with the fiery envy of a thousand burning kebab skewers.

Soon after that incident on campus, I began to look closely at other members of our pro-Israel student group: half of them weren’t white, either. They were Iranian, Iraqi, Moroccan and Yemenite Jews. In truth, I knew nothing of their history.

If I, a Jew who was born in Iran, didn’t know about the 850,000 Jews who escaped from or were kicked out of the Middle East and North Africa, there wasn’t much hope for anyone else on campus. I realized that UC San Diego badly needed a Mizrahi history course as part of its Jewish Studies program.

We are blessed with many Jewish Studies departments, but as one scholar and friend recently complained, they’re highly Ashkenormative.

Israeli leaders had an epiphany about Mizrahi history, too. In 2014, Israel officially designated Nov. 30 as a “Day to Mark the Departure and Expulsion of Jews from the Arab Countries and Iran.” The date is symbolic: On Nov. 29, 1947, the U.N. adopted the Partition Plan for Palestine, and the next day, Jews in the Middle East felt the palpable tension with their Muslim neighbors, as Israel was close to achieving formal statehood.

In the United States, we’re blessed with many Jewish Studies departments, but as one East Coast scholar and friend recently complained, they’re “highly Ashkenormative.”

I can’t speak to this, but I do recall there was little mention of Mizrahi Jews in any Jewish Studies classes I ever took. I was in my late 20s before I learned that Hillel, the famous Jewish scholar who died in 10 C.E., was born in Babylon, effectively making him … Persian. I wondered, if Hillel houses across the country knew the origins of their namesake, would they consider swapping Ashkenazi bagels for Persian lavash bread at programs every now and then? Nothing against bagels, but have you ever tried warm lavash with feta cheese?

UCLA has a unique Sephardic Studies program as part of the Alan D. Leve Center for Jewish Studies, whose director is Sarah Abrevaya Stein. For nearly a decade until the spring of 2018, UCLA also had a popular class called “Iranian Jewish Life: Past and Present,” taught by my friend Saba Soomekh. UCLA also has an interdepartmental class on the history of Iranian Jews, taught by Nahid Pirnazar. Brandeis University in Massachusetts has the Marash and Ocuin Chair in Ottoman, Mizrahi, and Sephardic Studies, but we need more philanthropic families to step up and sponsor such positions nationwide.

Let me make one thing clear: Like Israel Studies, university courses dedicated to Mizrahi history must not be founded on the basis of advocacy, but because such a topic is worth learning. It would be vital that both Jewish as well as non-Jewish students enrolled in courses that taught such history, in all its vivid richness and abhorrent persecution.
It’s almost 2020, and I believe the average American college student doesn’t even know that Mizrahi Jews exist, especially not in Israel, which, in their eyes, is probably full of pale-faced, Ashkenazi rabbis who uphold apartheid and create a white, privileged human chain to keep everyone else out of holy Tel Aviv.

It’s time for a change. From Los Angeles to Syracuse, we need Mizrahi Studies, now more than ever. Yalla.


Tabby Refael is a Los Angeles-based writer and speaker.