Are Jewish Institutions Fighting Racism Wrong?

If anything, institutions such as Hillel and the Schusterman Foundation should make extra efforts to invite Mizrahim to the table.
August 28, 2020
Image by da-kuk/Getty Images

In recent weeks, I’ve been delighted to see the many strides American communities, particularly Jewish ones, have been making to fight racism. There have been countless events, forums and Zoom calls during which we’re having difficult conversations about the discrimination that people of color experience.

I noticed Hillel was sponsoring a “Racial Justice Learn In,” a day devoted to introspection for the Jewish community around race. Given that Hillel has such wide reach among Jewish youth, I was excited to see it “building a big, wide tent for this gathering, as we come together to confront white supremacy, learn from many JOC teachers, and hold up the diversity of our Jewish community.” This event was sponsored by major institutions, mainly the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation, and others, including the Jewish Multiracial Network, Jewish Women’s Archive, Jews of Color Initiative, Keshet, Moishe House, T’ruah, and National Council of Jewish Women.

Then I scrolled down to the speakers’ list. I could not find a single Mizrahi Jew. Not one.

It was truly disappointing to see Asian Jews, Black Jews and even people who do not identify as Jews of color lead panels about racism, while not a single Jew from the Middle East or North Africa was offered the same opportunity.

Out of 35 events, not a single one focused on the Mizrahi experience or Ashke-normativity.

There are more than 4 million Mizrahi Jews in the world. That’s double the population of Jews in the New York City area. It’s not hard to find one of us to talk about our experiences. The challenge seems to be getting American Jewish institutions to invite us into the conversation.

I travel to universities around the world to lead discussions on Jews of the Middle East. After speaking, many Jews tell me I am the first Mizrahi Jew they have met. Some say they had never even heard of Mizrahim before.

Meanwhile, Mizrahi Jews tell me they feel invisible — both in Jewish communities and in the fight to make them more inclusive.

That invisibility stems from systemic inequalities. Today, Mizrahi Jews are more than 50% of Israeli Jews, yet still are treated as a minority. Choose a sector in Israel, and Mizrahi Jews are underrepresented in it. Just look at these demographics of Ashkenazim — 30% of Israel’s population — compared with Mizrahim in public life:

    • Academic staff at Israeli universities: 91% Ashkenazi
    • Students in Israeli universities today: 61% Ashkenazim, 20% Mizrahi (18% Arab Israelis)
    • Presidents of Israeli universities, all-time: 60 Ashkenazi, 1 with one Mizrahi parent
    • Israeli Prize recipients: 221 recipients, fewer than 20 of them Mizrahi
    • All-time presidents of Israeli official theaters: all Ashkenazim
    • Senior judges in Israel: 90% Ashkenazi, 9% Mizrahi
    • Israeli State Attorneys: 10 Ashkenazim, 0 Mizrahi
    • Governor of the Bank of Israel: 8 Ashkenazim, 0 Mizrahim
    • Head of Mossad: 11 Ashkenazim, 1 with one Mizrahi parent
    • Prime Minister of Israel: all Ashkenazi

Meanwhile, American Mizrahim not only are a minority; they are an invisible one. In 2020, three Mizrahi synagogues were vandalized, with little public outcry or press. This makes sense when you look at American Jewish publications, which predominantly are staffed by Ashkenazi journalists.

When The Forward sought to diversify its ranks, it did not hire a single Mizrahi columnist. Jewish Telegraphic Agency, particularly its vertical Hey Alma, has come under fire from Mizrahi Jews for repeatedly publishing content that misrepresents and tokenizes us. Meanwhile, Jewish Currents, which swings even farther left, has published only one article discussing the inequalities Mizrahim experience. However, it has printed multiple pieces criticizing Mizrahi advocacy groups. The only American Jewish publication that consistently features the Mizrahi experience is the Jewish Journal, likely because its editor-in-chief, David Suissa, was born in Morocco, and it is based in Los Angeles, where there is a large population of Persian Jews.

 I scrolled down to the speakers’ list. I could not find a single Mizrahi Jew. Not one.

If anything, institutions such as Hillel and the Schusterman Foundation should make extra efforts to invite Mizrahim to the table, particularly because many of us lack the resources to build a platform on our own. We do not have any Mizrahi equivalent of the Schusterman Family Foundation.

In raising these issues with Hillel International’s CEO Adam Lehman, he both acknowledged the concerns regarding the “Racial Justice Learn In” and shared numerous steps Hillel is taking to better represent and include the Mizrahi Jewish community in its work. It recently launched an Employee Resource Group to support Mizrahi Jews serving as professionals in the Hillel field and is actively working to increase the number of Mizrahi Jews working as Hillel professionals. Hillel has also held several sessions for students through its Hillel@Home online platform focused on various aspects of Mizrahi experience, including Mizrahi music, spiritual practice, food and culture. Some campus Hillels have made notable efforts to engage their Mizrahi communities, such as Queens College Hillel’s Mizrahi LEAD program. And Hillel International recently established a board task force on racial justice, which is committed to highlighting and addressing the prevalence of Ashkenormativity in its communities, among the task force’s priorities.

My parents and my 27 uncles and aunts are the children of refugees. I am the only one in my family able to write and speak in English. I’m personally responsible for giving voice to hundreds of family members. I am saying what millions of other Mizrahi Jews would have said if they were just given the chance.

Mizrahim are invisible not only in Jewish communities but in diversity initiatives as a whole. American Jewish institutions should do more to make Mizrahi Jews feel welcome in the conversation about racial justice in the United States. As Jews, we pride ourselves on being the pioneers of justice. Let’s show the world just that.

Hen Mazzig is an Israeli writer, speaker and a senior fellow at the Tel Aviv Institute. Follow him: @HenMazzig

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