The Mizrahi Jewish “refugee” problem

Gil Troy’s recent post titled “Why Israelis Will Vote For Bibi” is full of points that supporters and opponents of the polarizing prime minister would do well to heed. Certainly, one can disagree with some of Troy’s arguments—his view on the privatization (read: neoliberalization) program on the Israeli economy, for instance—but it remains a stark reality that Israelis look likely to vote in Likud-Beiteinu in this month’s election.

Yet Troy, in discussing the brain of the Netanyahu voter, veers off into a few strange remarks about Mizrahi Jewish identity. He describes “Sephardi memories of the dhimmi status and periodic riots that were a natural part of life under Islamic rule, culminating in the Great Expulsion of nearly one million Jewish refugees from Arab lands.” Troy’s choice of words illuminates a few conceptions of Israel’s Arab Jews.

Troy describes Mizrahi—a term meaning “Eastern,” fraught with its own conceptions of West and East—Jews as “Sephardi,” a term still in use by some in Israel today. The problem with the term “Sephardi” is twofold. It refers to Jews who were expelled from Spain in the Christian Reconquista before, during and after 1492. These Jews retained part of their Spanish identity where they settled, mainly in North Africa, but also in other areas. But there were other Middle Eastern Jews living at the same time with no conception of Sephardi identity, with no link to Spain. The Baghdadi Jewish community, for instance, was even an integral part of a rival Islamic caliphate. The Palestinian Jewish community lived where they always had—in and around historic Palestine. Yemeni Jews thrived in the far southwest of the Arabian Peninsula—without a single link to Spain.

This linkage is particularly pernicious, as Ella Shohat points out, because it actively links Israel’s Arab Jews to Europe while once again snubbing the Middle East. In the early years, politicians as high up as David Ben Gurion warned of the dangers of the Levant and worried that, with the influx of Arab Jews (whom Ben Gurion once described as “without a trace of Jewish or human education”), Israel would soon succumb to the vagaries of the Orient. This rampant Orientalism was taken out on Mizrahim who came to Israel not undereducated, but actually better educated than the new Israeli school system.

Troy also makes mention of the “Jewish refugees” who were forcibly expelled from their Arab homelands in the years following 1948; prior to that, he says, there were intermittent riots against Jews throughout the preceding centuries. Leaving aside this accusation of long-standing Muslim Arab anti-Jewish action—an accusation that is extremely debateable—his use of the term “refugees” is an all-too-common misconception about Israel’s Mizrahi Jews.

Calling Mizrahim “refugees,” first of all, denies Mizrahim any opportunity to be Zionists in their own right. While it is true that European Zionist organizations only turned their attention to Arab Jewry—at the time, around eight percent of the world Jewish population—in the 1940s, organic Zionist organizations were active in Tunisia and Morocco in the early 20th century. In fact, Yemeni Jews had already begun immigration to mandate Palestine in the early 1900s. As it happens, the Yemeni Jewish immigrants were treated like Palestinian laborers: European Zionist settlers believed they could subsist on so-called “Arab wages,” and denied them any position of political power after independence.

Calling Mizrahim refugees has also strangely been linked to the Palestinian right of return. In 1976, the World Organization of Jews from Arab Countries was founded, in large part to claim that Oriental Jews were banished from Arab countries and ought to have compensation rights. WOJAC’s goal in claiming compensation rights was not to get any monetary compensation from Iraq, Yemen, Morocco or Tunisia, but to set these debts off against the ones owed to the Palestinians.

One doesn’t even know where to begin when objecting to this proposal. There is no reason, as Rachel Shabi says, that Mizrahim and Palestinian refugees ought to be treated as one and the same people. And Mizrahim themselves generally reject this definition. Shabi quotes Knesset speaker Yisrael Yeshayahu in 1975 as saying, “We did not want to call ourselves refugees…we had messianic aspirations.”

Moreover, Arabs were quick to pick up on this in the 1970s: Iraq (in Hebrew!) and Libya (in Arabic) called for the return of their Arab Jews from Israel, and the Palestine Liberation Organization urged Mizrahim to return to their home countries at a WOJAC conference. Calling Mizrahim refugees, in essence, solves the conflict by eliminating Israel: If Mizrahim are refugees, well, they can return home, and so can the Palestinians. Needless to say, this is a ridiculous proposition on its face, and one that only the most hardened anti-Zionists would endorse.

In the following decades, various Mizrahi leaders came forward to denounce the “refugee” distinction: Shlomo Hillel, a former Zionist leader in Iraq, said, “The Jews in the Arab countries came because they wanted to come.” MK Ran Cohen of Meretz said, “I am not a refugee. I did not come to this country as a refugee. I stole across borders…Can anyone say that we, the Jews from Arab lands, came here only for negative reasons, and that the force of Zionism…played no part among us?” Palestinians did not want to leave mandate Palestine, their homeland. Mizrahi Jews came sometimes of their own free will and sometimes not of their own free will—a clear distinction in a complex history of Jewish immigration to Israel.

Mizrahim were, for the most part, individual agents and actors making decisions about Zionism and Israel. Denying them this Zionist impulse does not just hurt Mizrahi collective identity by portraying them as helpless. It also hurts Israel, because refugees, as is apparent in the Palestinian case, demand to return home.


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