February 18, 2020

Defining Israel in Black and White

A Jewish Yemenite family in transit to Israel in 1949. Photo from the National Photo Collection of Israel

About seven years ago, as Israel’s newly arrived consul for media affairs in New York City, I had a memorable moment during a speaking engagement at a prominent congregation. After I finished addressing the audience, and right after Kiddush, an elderly man tapped me on the shoulder. “Young man,” he said, “it is wonderful to see Arabs who speak so favorably and beautifully about Israel.”

I was surprised, maybe even taken aback, but almost instinctively smiled and thanked him — in Arabic: “Shukran, sir. Israel is very dear to me.”

This was a teachable moment for me. This man — no doubt a loving Jew and one so supportive of Israel — could not associate the color of my skin with my Jewish roots. As if Jews came in white and white alone. It was then and there I realized that the problem of ignorance about Israel — which today feeds the animosity toward the Jewish state and makes room for false accusations to be heard and accepted — was not rooted solely in the malaise of the general public or non-affiliated Jews. It was a problem of the organized Jewish community in the United States, those who go to shul and temple and attend Jewish schools, yet who remain oblivious to the expansive history of half of the State of Israel’s people: the Jews from Arab and Muslim lands — Mizrahi Jews.

The Jewish organizational world is not homogenous, nor is it devoid of any mention of Mizrahi Jews. Various organizations have come into being over the years to share their incredible and largely untold story, from JIMENA (Jews Indigenous to the Middle East and North Africa) to the Iranian American Jewish Federation, the younger group 30 Years After, and many others.

Within the non-Sephardic sphere, StandWithUs (my professional home from 2015-2018), as part of its curriculum taught in high schools and on college campuses, produced educational materials about the fate of Jews from Arab lands, their history and arrival in Israel. I am proud of our ability, during that time, to shine light on the history of the ancient Yemenite Jewish community. (It was a story that hit close to home. Both my paternal and maternal grandparents were Yemenite Jews, and their full story escaped even me, a direct beneficiary.) StandWithUs shared the incredible story of the Yemenite Jews’ arrival in Israel through Operation Wings of Eagles in 1948-1949, when Alaska Airlines planes with their courageous crew members brought them home after thousands of years in exile. But the story of that community does not only touch upon their plight at that time, when they were attacked and harassed by their Arab neighbors. Indeed, almost half of the Yemenite Jewish community made its way to Israel at the end of the 19th century out of sheer Zionism, following their dreams and yearning for their ancestral homeland.

Also, in Iraq, there was the Farhud, the June 1941 pogrom against the magnificent Iraqi Jewish community in Baghdad, during which hundreds of innocent Jews were killed, thousands were injured, and numerous Jewish homes were looted and destroyed. Authors such as Edwin Black made it their mission to remind the world of the Farhud, year in and year out, to Jews and non-Jews alike. Black wrote of his experience at a memorial event for the Farhud, held at the United Nations in June 2015:

While I was speaking to the packed room, a woman I did not know, sitting in the front row, slowly shook her tear-stained head in disbelief and muttered softly … barely audible … “I never thought I would hear these words in this building.” The woman, it turns out, was of Iraqi Jewish ancestry. The building was the iconic United Nations Headquarters in Manhattan. … Farhud in an Arabic dialect means violent dispossession. … The Mufti of Jerusalem, Haj Amin al-Husseini, leader of the Arab community in Mandatory Palestine, organized a blood-curdling massacre by Nazi-allied Arabs against Baghdad’s peaceful Jewish community on June 1-2, 1941. The ensuing mass rape, beheading, murder, burning, and looting spree was the first step in a process that throughout the Arab world effectively ended 2,600 years of Jewish existence in those lands. Ultimately, some 850,000 to 900,000 Jews were systemically pauperized and made stateless in a coordinated forced exodus from the Arab world. Many Sephardic Jews consider the 1941 Farhud, which murdered and maimed hundreds, to be their Kristallnacht. 

“Israel is an incredibly diverse place and includes so much more than just one ethnic “color,” as opposed to the scenario its adversaries attempt to portray.”

Not until 2014 did the Israeli parliament, the Knesset, designate Nov. 30 as the official day to commemorate the expulsion of Jews from Arab lands, as 850,000 Jews fled their ancient homes in the Arab and Muslim world to find refuge in the nascent Jewish state. Tired and weary, many of them came carrying very little, if any, of their belongings. And there in Israel, alongside their brothers and sisters, they built a life. Refugees they were but are no more. Indeed, it was a unique achievement worthy of much praise and celebration on a global scale.

Israeli writer and author Adi Schwartz, in a May 2011 article, shed an interesting light on Israeli society as it struggled to acknowledge its own history as a refuge for those who needed it. “Zionism,” he wrote, “preferred to describe its vision in terms of resurrection and homecoming. The desire to instill pride into this national enterprise resulted in downplaying the clearest of historical justifications for the reestablishment of the State of Israel — the persecution of the Jewish People for generations. Acknowledging such a justification was perceived as an admission of inferiority.”

This struggle was evident in the discussions that took place from time to time dealing with the plight of Jews from Arab lands and the Middle East. As Schwartz wrote:

“Some of those immigrants, and their descendants, acknowledged their rights and defined themselves as past refugees, yet others fiercely objected to that definition. When member of the eighth Knesset, Mordechai Ben-Porat, presented a resolution concerning ‘the legitimate rights of Jews who had to abandon Arab lands,’ his speech was interrupted by a member of his own party, Knesset member Habib Shimoni, a native of Iraq himself as well, and proclaimed: “Jews are not refugees. They chose to arrive of their own volition.” In the course of a similar debate on the issue in the Knesset in 1987 around the definition of a refugee, an insinuated accusation surfaced, according to which Ashkenazi Jews attach this dubious title to Sephardic Jews only, whereas they define themselves only as Zionist pioneers. In the pursuing debate, Ran Cohen, a Knesset member of Iraqi descent, wondered out loud: “Are we refugees? I don’t feel like one. Can anyone say that we, Jews from Arab lands, arrived here only to seek refuge from harm, whereas the power of Zionism, the attraction of this land and the notion of redemption played no part at all?!”     

Indeed, Israeli society has had to come to terms with its past as a shelter for refugees, whether those refugees escaped from pogroms in Baghdad or Kishinev, Russia.

The issue of Mizrahi Jews became more central in the past decade as it was framed in the context of the political process between the State of Israel and the Arab world. This pertained to a specific topic that arose in the negotiations, relating to the property left behind by Jews who fled Middle Eastern countries and the rights of those Jews and their descendants to be compensated for their losses. Or, rather, the issue came about to equate those losses with those of Palestinian refugees, and thus create a zero-sum game that potentially could neutralize a key Palestinian claim — that of the rights of Palestinian refugees — and thus overcome a major hurdle and help propel the political process toward a desired solution.

As the Economist magazine reported in February 2014, “Much as Palestinian refugees and their offspring remember the orange groves and cinemas they lost in Jaffa when Israel was born in 1948, Jews who once lived in Iraq recite the qasidas — lyrical Arabic poetry — and recall the time when most of Iraq’s banks and transport companies were run by Jews. ‘Iraq has gone downhill since they forced us out,’ sighs a professor at a gathering of academics of Iraqi origin at Or Yehuda, a Tel Aviv suburb, slipping into Arabic: ‘Mubki, lamentable.’ ”

However, the narrative of Mizrahi Jews does not and should not exist only as a counterreaction to that of Palestinian refugees. It is much more than a bargaining chip on the table. It is a story very much worth telling. As mentioned above, Zionism drove many members of the ancient Yemenite Jewish community to arrive in Israel in 1881. Those early pioneers, who were lucky enough to survive the journey, faced difficulties upon arrival in the Land of Israel. They were rejected by some of their Ashkenazi brothers and sisters, who doubted their Judaism.

The ignorance did not end there. While Mizrahi Jews were many and present in Israel’s culture and everyday life, the country’s educational system for too long taught Western Jewish history to the letter while only slightly touching on the history of Mizrahi Jews, if at all. This lack of knowledge contributed to the marginalization of this important community in the overall Israeli narrative.

In response, the Israeli government has taken important steps in recent years to narrow the gap. Israel’s Ministry for Social Equality in 2016 allocated about $2.5 million in U.S. dollars for a special project to document the stories, heritage and history of Jews who immigrated to Israel from Arab lands. The goal is to collect personal testimonials from Sephardic and Mizrahi Jews — their lives before they made aliyah, their situation when they left or were expelled from their homes, and the story of their absorption into modern Israel. Upon announcing this national project, Minister Gila Gamliel stated: “This is not a uniquely Mizrahi interest but a national, Jewish and Zionist interest. From now on, the Jewish story will be more complete, and Israeli citizens young and old will get to hear, study and become familiar with both the Eastern and Western sides of the glorious heritage of the Jewish people.”

In addition, Israel’s Education Ministry set up a special committee on this matter — the Biton Committee, which recommended changes to school and university curricula to include more content about Mizrahi and Sephardic Jews. This was followed by the Education Ministry’s announcement that it was creating a database of speakers who would come to schools to tell their personal stories to “perpetuate the heritage of the Jews of the East and Spain.”

However, Mizrahi Jews are not the only black Jews, as evidenced by The International Israelite Board of Rabbis, which describes itself as an organization “founded in 1919 that represents thousands of peace-loving black Jews who prefer the term Israelite because of its scriptural significance.”

In January, the American Sephardi Federation and the Morocco-based Association Mimouna hosted the Jewish-Africa Conference in New York. The conference not only claimed to strengthen ties between the mainstream Jewish community and Jews in Africa, but between white and black Jews, as well. Rabbi Capers Funnye, chief rabbi of the International Israelite Board of Rabbis and leader of the Chicago-based Beth Shalom B’nai Zaken Ethiopian Hebrew Congregation, participated at the conference. Funnye has undergone a conversion by Conservative rabbis and is bent on building bridges with the mainstream Jewish community. “It means a great deal to the African American Jewish community [and] the Jewish community of West Africa, because we’ve been a long time in saying we’re here,” Funnye told the Times of Israel.

Indeed, the dangers of ignoring non-white Jews flow far beyond the bounds of the Jewish state. The vocal anti-Israel camp claims that Israel is nothing but a colonial entity, a strange and malignant growth on the body of the Middle East. “White Jews, go home!” they shout. “You don’t belong here and you never did.” It was the infamous anti-Semitic White House reporter Helen Thomas who urged Jews to go back home to Germany and Poland (while ludicrously and insanely claiming that “Congress, the White House, Hollywood and Wall Street are owned by Zionists”). But we didn’t only come from Germany, Poland or Europe. We came from Egypt, Morocco, Tunisia, Algiers, Libya, Ethiopia, Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, Iran and Yemen. While there, the Jewish community built glorious institutions, created beautiful customs, curated a wealth of Jewish wisdom, wrote books and composed delightful poetry. The literary marvels of Mizrahi Jews remain some of the most luminous gems in the Jewish book cabinet to this day.

The very idea that Jews hail only from Europe is a laughable notion, especially as the more recent waves of immigration to Israel have included our brothers and sisters from Ethiopia. Various operations in the course of the last few decades brought Jews from Ethiopia to Israel — black Jews who speak Amharic, a language that was, for the most part, new to Israel. Ethiopian Jews were welcomed to Israel with open arms, yet due to the special nature of that community and the cultural gap between them and modern Israel, absorption has not been easy and tensions are still felt to this day. While many younger Ethiopians are doing much better (not devoid of difficulties, of course, but a success overall), older immigrants sometimes complain of being isolated and left behind. And though mistakes have been made, not only in the case of Ethiopian Jews but also in the absorption process of others in the earlier days of the state, Israel’s future has always depended on the newcomers’ ability to integrate into a changing and dynamic society.

As so many already know (although not enough), Israel is an incredibly diverse place and includes so much more than just one ethnic “color,” as opposed to the scenario its adversaries attempt to portray. Take a walk in central Tel Aviv and a multitude of languages swarm your ears: Arabic, Russian, Yiddish, Amharic and, of course, Hebrew. Culinary treasures from Morocco, Libya and Russia fill the markets, where beautiful and fragrant spices from the Middle East appear before you like an ethnic rainbow.

“The issue of Mizrahi Jews became more central in the past decade as it was framed in the context of the political process between the State of Israel and the Arab world.”

The narrative of black Jews must not only serve as a talking point against the claims of the anti-Israel forces, it is crucial that we in the U.S. get to know it as part of Jewish history in its entirety so we can sustain the bond between the world’s two largest Jewish communities — in America and Israel. Getting to know each other is vital, and estrangement is a sure path to destruction and failure.

Author Daniel Gordis addressed this tension in a 2017 essay in Mosaic magazine:

Eurocentric though much of the Zionist narrative has been, at least half of Israel’s Jews hail from regions in which the European Enlightenment did not take root, where Western theological tropes never became the currency of religious discourse, and where Jews never openly rebelled against their tradition. One paradoxical result is that, for these Jews, religion is for the most part a more relaxed and “natural” part of life. Many Mizrahim comfortably call themselves Orthodox, attend Shabbat services in the synagogue, and then drive to the beach — behavior that can strike observant Ashkenazi Jews as utterly inconsistent or blatantly sacrilegious.

The sad truth is that the organized Jewish community as a whole, as well as the prominent Jewish organizations, are yet to seriously deal with and teach the history of half of the Jewish people in a profound and significant way. It’s definitely not enough to assign professional fundraisers to solicit support within those communities in Brooklyn, Great Neck or elsewhere. And make no mistake about it: If we do not take this challenge head on, others will.

In April 2017, an organization called Jews for Racial and Economic Justice held an event titled “Israeli Black Panthers, Mizrahi Jews and Palestinian Solidarity.” Jewish Voice for Peace, a pro-boycott, divestment and sanctions group, tries to do the same — spin history in their direction and “own” the Mizrahi Jewish narrative for their own nefarious purposes. Recently JIMENA, together with other Sephardic organizations, harshly criticized those attempts, stating that Jewish Voice for Peace  “tokenizes, appropriates, revises and explicitly lies about Mizrahi and Sephardic history and experiences in order to promote a hostile, anti-Israel agenda.”

The struggle to allow Mizrahi Jewish identity to emerge and shine means diving into the inspirational history of its communities. It›s about teaching their stories in schools, the same way other parts of Jewish history are taught. The more we fiddle, the more we fail. It’s time to change the texture of our fabric so that it fits the body wearing it.

Shahar Azani is a former Israeli diplomat, an author, public speaker and strategic consultant.