Mizrahi Identity Politics Heads to Harvard Law School With a Conference

First-of-its-kind conference uses Israel’s largest Jewish minority to shed light on issues ranging from profiling to ties to Palestinians

Linda Dayan
Linda Dayan
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Israelis protesters demanding recognition of the kidnapping of Yemenite children, Jerusalem. 2019.
Israelis protesters demanding recognition of the kidnapping of Yemenite children, Jerusalem. 2019. Credit: Emil Salman
Linda Dayan
Linda Dayan

A first-of-its-kind conference at Harvard Law School will bring together Israeli academics, jurists and activists Tuesday to discuss an emerging field: Mizrahi legal studies. The discipline takes the identity politics of the group and uses it to reveal hidden forms of discrimination and biases on a wide range of issues.

Arriving from Muslim countries in the Middle East and North Africa after Israel’s establishment in 1948, many Mizrahi immigrants were sent to shantytown transit camps and largely sidelined by the country’s mainly European Jewish leaders. They have long complained of discrimination by the Asheknazi elite that traditionally dominated the government, military and economy. Though Mizrahi identity politics has long been a dominant force in Israeli society, the conference’s legal framing sheds new light on its role in academia as a research topic.

Harvard may not seem like an obvious location for the conference. But participants — who include some Palestinians — say that beyond the prestige the university confers, its distance from the subject underscores its importance.

The event was conceived when Columbia Law School doctoral candidate Lihi Yona approached Noah Feldman and Susan Kahn, director and associate director, respectively, of Harvard Law’s Program on Jewish and Israeli Law, to discuss incorporating the Mizrahi aspect into the program. The idea eventually snowballed into the conference, which features presentations and panels on topics as varied as Shas, abortion access, club door policies, the Yemenite children affair and Palestinian-Mizrahi relations.

Yifat Bitton, a keynote speaker, is a pioneer in the field of Mizrahi legal studies. In 2012, she wrote a pivotal article asking where Mizrahim fit into Israel’s legal system. As the first Mizrahi woman to be shortlisted for Israel’s Supreme Court — twice — she is intimately familiar with both Israeli law and its intersections with Mizrahi identity.

Israeli Black Panthers demanding social justice for Mizrahi Jews, Tel Aviv, 1974.
Israeli Black Panthers protesting for social justice for Mizrahi Jews, Tel Aviv, 1974.Credit: Ya'akov Sa'ar / GP

For Bitton, it’s a homecoming of sorts. “I was able to pursue my own research regarding being Mizrahi in Israel for the first time at Harvard,” she said, referring to her postdoctoral degree. “I needed to stay away from all the identity politics in a bad way. ... I needed to cross the ocean and go to Harvard to do it, and now we’re doing it again, 15 years later, to celebrate it.” Though they should be celebrating it in Israel, she notes, the fact that it is taking place in one of the world’s most prestigious legal institutions “is a good enough consolation.”

Bitton sums up the discipline as a critical perspective on law that grew out of the need to prevent discrimination. And although there is significant crossover with the experience of other disadvantaged Israeli groups, such as Arabs and Ethiopian Jews, it serves as a unique case within Israeli society.

“The peculiarity of Mizrahim,” Bitton says, “is that they were not discriminated against de jure.” They were viewed as part of Israel’s privileged Jewish class, which has made it harder to acknowledge and identify when they do face de facto discrimination. “It’s not a matter of government denial,” she says. “It’s a prevalent social convention.”

For years, feminist lawyer and conference participant Vardit Avidan says, Israeli courts “den[ied] that discrimination on the basis of Mizrahi origin exists.” Only in recent years have they begun to acknowledge it, namely in cases of keeping Mizrahi men out of dance clubs and separating Mizrahi children from their Ashkenazi peers in the ultra-Orthodox education system. Just as it is difficult to tell whether or not an Israeli is Mizrahi, discrimination can be invisible. Yona says the discipline seeks to uncover aspects of Israeli law that seem innocuous, but when observed through the right lens show an underlying ethnic element.

Mizrahim far outnumber Ashkenazim in prison, and are far outnumbered in academia. Ashkenazi men earn more than Mizrahi men, according to the Adva Center think tank, though less so than in the past. Though there has been much research on Mizrahi identity in Israel and abroad, the legal perspective offers new light on how discrimination can manifest.

Yona notes that Israeli abortion regulation may not seem to be an issue of discrimination, but is “highly influenced by stereotypes regarding Mizrahi and Ashkenazi Jews,” as a panel must authorize every abortion.

She hopes that holding the conference at Harvard will serve and inform other disciplines. “Very much like we can utilize the question of how a certain policy affects women to better evaluate it, we can ask similar questions regarding Mizrahi Jews,” she says. Those practicing law in Israeli contexts “could potentially examine the way in which their research questions are influenced by questions of race and ethnicity, and explore hidden biases in laws, adjudication or even their own research.”

”There’s a part of the Israeli public that’s still not open to this conversation,” says Avidan, adding that it can be difficult to discuss these matters even within Mizrahi society. “And here, one of the best universities in the world is giving it a stage. I hope it’ll open a door for the subject to take root in Israel, too.”

AP contributed background to this report

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