The Danger of Ignoring Mizrahi Jews' History

The more you delve into Mizrahi Jewish history, the more you understand what a real alternative it is, one that could help to neutralize the Israeli fear machine

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The Youssef Abad synagogue in Tehran in 2013.
The Youssef Abad synagogue in Tehran in 2013.Credit: AFP

Lately I’ve been reading quite a lot about Jewish-Arab relations in the age of Islam. An incredibly fascinating and saddening subject.

Here’s the story in a nutshell: In the seventh century C.E., the prophet Mohammed embarked on a journey of conquests throughout the Old World. Before long, parts of Asia and Africa had been conquered, and even Spain became a Muslim country. The lives of the Jewish communities that were living in these areas, some from as far back as the days of the First and Second Temples, changed completely. Not only were they forced to define themselves in relation to the Muslim conqueror and thus to cohere in a certain way, they also became dhimmi, a protected people.

“Dhimmi” is a deceptive term. On the one hand it implies an inferior, controlled civil and religious status, but it also defines the Jewish (and Christian) populations as religious minorities that are due protection. Yes, there were still some incidents of violence and oppression and harassment, but the system also enabled coexistence, shared culture, language, innovations and great achievements in philosophy, religious jurisprudence and other fields. One can certainly say that the current Jewish world would look completely different were it not for the innovations and changes wrought by Mizrahi Judaism, long before the Asheknazim were born.

The entry of a foreign entity into this delicate fabric of relations – first in the form of Christian-European colonialism and later by Jewish-European Zionism – essentially undid it. At first, most of the Jews in the Muslim world chose to side with colonialism and turned a cold shoulder to the longtime Muslim neighbor, which the neighbor perceived as ingratitude; and at a later stage, right after David Ben-Gurion’s 1941 “One Million Plan,” and the acknowledgement that Zionism needed Mizrahi Jews to realize its vision, many Jews once again chose (or were forced to) turn a cold shoulder to the Muslim patron. The latter also began to dream of a separatist nationalism, and couldn’t abide the repeated insult from its loyal subjects, and began attacking and plundering and also expelling the Jews of Arab lands to their new homeland.

Shimon Peres once said that history isn’t important, that only the future matters, or some such clever nonsense. I say: Only Ashkenazi privilege that thinks its history is everyone’s only history could say such a thing. If Peres had only understood that ignoring history, or a significant part of it at least, means omitting an alternative model for our life here, he likely would not have been so quick to minimize history for the sake of some pithy wisecrack that doesn’t hold water.

Try to imagine what would have happened to all those Mizrahi youths, or even their parents in their forties and fifties, those who were born here, those whom you so like to single out and despise and oppress, if they had known themselves and their history, just as you know Ashkenazi history, which also, like Mizrahi culture, underwent a reduction at the hands of the Zionist establishment (which at the same time erased the Palestinian culture and narrative). Imagine what would have happened if Mizrahi young people knew that their ancestors lived right next door to their Muslim neighbor, that they respected each other’s religion and that their lives overlapped in nearly every area. That these young people knew something beyond the tales of their grandparents who only remembered the end of the colonialist period and the start of the nationalist period, when the Muslim began to see the Jews as a genuine threat, or as a group that could no longer be integrated in the realm under his control.

There’s been growing talk in recent years of the increasing violence in schools, about students’ indifference to the curriculum material, with the common recommendations being to either add another guard at the gate or to adopt a curriculum of “meaningful studies.” I say this: Let Mizrahi students learn about themselves and let Ashkenazi students learn the history and narrative of their Mizrahi brothers. For the more you delve into it, the more you understand how it is not a mirror image of Ashkenazi history but rather a real alternative, a distinct point of view that could somewhat neutralize the Israeli fear machine that Netanyahu is so fond of, the one that is mostly based on the memory of pogroms and riots and persecution and, of course – the Holocaust.

The addition of Mizrahi history, with all the good and bad it entails, to Israeli textbooks and research, particularly the recognition of its importance, would not only be a necessary corrective, apropos the findings of the Biton Committee, but would also help put the brakes on the Mizrahi slide to the right, and start a vital process of getting better acquainted with our neighbors.

The continued depiction of Mizrahi history, with the focus being only on things like the 1956 expulsion of Egyptian Jews, as a reflection of Ashkenazi history, not only bolsters the thriving fear industry as well as the weapons and bereavement industries, it also turns us all into something like Shimon Peres – into people who in the name of a single, very purposeful historical truth are ready to deny any alternative and portray it as a lie, a historical distortion or a threat to continued hatred of the Arab, which over time has become the only glue binding Israel’s various tribes.

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