The struggle for Mizrahi recognition isn’t limited to Israel

If Israeli Jewish society is going to move forward dealing with its own racial tensions, it needs British and world Jewry to do the same. Generations of Mizrahi Jews in the UK no longer understand their own history: they have been taught to weep for Krakow but never for Sanaa.

By Leeor Ohayon

Deep in the heart of North East London, where South Tottenham meets Stamford Hill, sits an Adenese Jewish community. Here, I was born and raised, born into a mixed Yemenite-Moroccan family in the middle of a Mizrahi Jewish bubble. Within that bubble, where Hebrew was sung in heavy guttural pronunciations, where cussing was done in Arabic, and where women ululated at bar mitzvahs and weddings, we lived an existence away from the “Fiddler on the Roof”-style clichés that have come to dictate society’s understanding of Jews.

In my community a large percentage were ’67 refugees. The last Jews of Aden, who in 1967 boarded British ships with nothing but the clothes on their back, forced to flee suddenly in the midst of the turmoil of the British colonial exit. An ancient community, 2,000 years old, uprooted overnight, made its way to North East London to join an already established Adenese Jewish community that traced its roots to the heyday of the British Empire. Yet, despite their historical place in the British Jewish landscape, their presence remains forgotten by the mainstream Anglo-Jewish narrative. Similarly, no one speaks of the Iraqi-Jewish merchants who set up thriving communities in London and British Mumbai, nor of the Egyptian-Jews who arrived with the empire, or the Iranian-Jewish presence.

Attending British Jewish schools my entire life, it did not take long for me to realize that my Judaeo-Berber surname, brown skin and Mizrahi identity were undesirable. Better yet, they weren’t “really Jewish.” That undesirability, that categorization of what is Jewish, is chained to a non-pluralist Eurocentric reality which dictates Jewish history and culture, from Israel to the UK.

Judaism, we are told, is uniform: it is socially Eastern European, linguistically Yiddish, ethnically White. Judaism is never Brown, Arabic or Middle Eastern.  Subsequently, the Mizrahi Jew is whitewashed from the Jewish historical narrative, which in turn has allowed for his erasure from both Western and Arab historical, social and political discourse surrounding the Middle East. The non-Jewish world thus understands Judaism and Israeli society through Eurocentric-Ashkenazi paradigms provided for them by the Ashkenazi experience, which has anointed itself as the sole narrative of world Jewry. The Mizrahi Jew is expected to partake in a mainstream historical narrative that sees itself between Warsaw and Minsk, but never Baghdad.

Throughout my Jewish education, lessons fixated on the Gaon of Vilna or the Cholent of Shabbat — never on the Baba Sali of Tafilalt or the sweet buttery Jahnoon of Yemenite Jewry. Efforts to inform teachers that at home our rituals differed, it was dismissed; one teacher conceded to the class that “Sephardis have different traditions” with an added eye roll for emphasis.

All of this served to place myself and other Mizrahi British Jews in a state of continuous confusion, dictating a one-size-fits-all Jewish identity that did not reflect the realities of our homes and traditions. Mizrahi Jews are subsequently pressured to Ashkenize, to avoid appearing “too ethnic,” to understand their Jewish identity as not only inferior but as a historical anomaly not worthy of mention in Jewish environments. From the secular to the religious who have adopted the black hats of religious Ashkenazi tradition, a rich aspect of the Jewish world is being extinguished, for the sake of “blending in” with Ashkenazi Jewry.

A significant aspect of the Ashkenization of Judaism is in part credited to the place the Holocaust holds within the Jewish historical narrative. A tragedy which barely touched Mizrahi Jewry apart from small parts of North Africa, which also remains absent from the culture surrounding Holocaust remembrance. Mizrahi Jews across the world are expected to own the Holocaust as if it is their own. In the process, generations of Mizrahi Jews no longer understand their own history: they have been taught to weep for Krakow but never for Sanaa.

The Mizrahi story has been sacrificed at the altar of collective memory, silently accepting that ancient Judaeo-Islamic civilization is not something worth mourning. We are fed the notion of a rigid dichotomy between the Arab and Jewish worlds, as if either were two separate homogenous blocs with no connection to the other. To belong to an Arabic or Middle Eastern culture and have a Jewish identity is an oxymoron — being Polish and Jewish is not.

That lack of recognition and ensuing racism is a product of a British-Ashkenazi mind-set that regulates Judaism to a race, condensing a socio-religious group according to basic physical features — features that we Mizrahi Jews do not posses, features that are strictly European. As a result the Mizrahi Jew is a humorous concept, he does not “look” Jewish; he is Indian or Arab but never Jewish. Not really a Jew, an anomaly.

The Mizrahi struggle in Israel today is one about cultural recognition, historical justice for the crimes inflicted upon it by the Ashkenazi establishment and a demand for a new pluralism, one that brings the Mizrahi story into the fold. However, the Mizrahi struggle is not solely confined to Israel, it is part of a wider struggle for Mizrahi recognition across the Jewish communities of the West. The Mizrahi identity is subsequently swallowed up by an Ashkenazi collective memory and voice; the Mizrahi is expected to conform to the Ashkenazi hegemon.

If Israeli Jewish society is going to move forward dealing with its own racial tensions, it also requires British and world Jewry to do so. If Western Jewish communities begin to understand the Mizrahi in their midst, to recognize his story and to restore his rightful place in the Jewish collective imagination, then maybe, just maybe Israeli Jewish society might begin taking steps regarding its own Mizrahi population.

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Leeor Ohayon is a documentary photographer from London currently in Israel focusing his photographic work on Mizrahi Jewry.