This past November was Mizrahi heritage month, a time to recognize and uplift the narratives of Mizrahi Jews across the globe. The acknowledgement of Mizrahi history has grown in popularity in the United States, particularly after Israel passed a law in 2014 that designated November 30 as a national day of recognition of the 850,000 Jewish refugees from Arab countries — most of whom found refuge in the Jewish state. My grandparents were among those 850,000; they fled violent anti-Semitism in Iraq alongside 120,000 other Iraqi Jews as part of Israel’s Operation Ezra and Nehemiah.
It has been incredible to watch Mizrahi Jewish narratives finally receive the respect and recognition they deserve in the United States. But what breaks my heart now is how quickly anti-Zionists have manipulated these narratives for the sole purpose of demonizing the Jewish state. UC Berkeley’s Bears for Palestine is the latest group to join this trend, as part of their Palestine 101 curriculum.
To be clear, I do not wish to erase or whitewash Israel’s shortcomings with the Mizrahi community, especially during its early years. Israel is not perfect, and many Mizrahi activists speak openly and honestly about issues of discrimination and inequality between Mizrahi and Ashkenazi communities in Israel. But anti-Zionist groups do not seek to advocate for Mizrahi Jews or even include us in their conversations. They only wish to use us as pawns for Israel-hatred, promoting a narrative that erases the very identity of Mizrahi Jews in order to paint Israel as the ultimate oppressor, a symbol of “white colonialism.”
The Palestine 101 curriculum, available to the public on Instagram, outlines lesson plans for Bears for Palestine’s student-run UC Berkeley course on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict (or, as they refer to it, “the occupation”). There has been significant controversy over the course in recent years — it was originally approved by faculty, then suspended in 2016, only to be reinstated once again that same year.
Although much of the curriculum plays on routine anti-Zionist arguments and tropes, Bears for Palestine’s lesson materials for week five (“The Character of the Zionist Settler-State”) take a more creative approach to demonizing Israel by including an article by Ella Shohat titled, “Sephardim in Israel: Zionism from the Standpoint of Its Jewish Victims.” The article proceeds to tell a story of “Arab Jews,” a majority of whom now seek to form a “Palestinian-Sephardi alliance” in order to combat the evils of Zionism.
The article attempts to make an argument about settler-colonialism while indulging colonialist language. In the piece, Shohat routinely refers to Mizrahim as “Arab Jews” or even “Jewish Arabs,” terms that are themselves a product of Arab imperialism. Mizrahi Jews had been living in the Middle East long before the Arabization of the region, and pushing the use of the term “Arab Jew” over our preferred indigenous title is itself an act of colonization. As a result, a vast majority of Mizrahim today reject the term “Arab Jew” in favor of “Mizrahi Jew.” The irony of using this language of erasure for a unit entitled “The Character of the Zionist Settler-State” cannot be understated.
Pushing the use of the term “Arab Jew” over our preferred indigenous title is itself an act of colonization.
Shohat also dodges the topic of the Jewish exodus from Arab lands in favor of a narrative that paints Israel, the place of refuge, as the ultimate oppressor. If we wish to have an honest discussion about the oppression of Mizrahi Jews, should we not begin with the Farhud in Iraq? The internment of Jews in Egypt? Nazi-inspired concentration camps in Libya? To gloss over all of these atrocities in favor of an argument that demonizes the country that gave my family and the families of the 850,000 refugees a future is disingenuous at best.
But it is Shohat’s suggestion that there is a “Palestinian-Sephardi alliance” against the existence of Israel that is indicative of just how disconnected from reality and incredibly manipulative the article is. The mainstream Mizrahi perspective is a Zionist one. It is true that, as with any community, Mizrahim are not a monolith — but as Hen Mazzig writes in his article for JNS, “Mizrahi activism is not exclusively a pro-Israel movement, but it acknowledges that the safety of the majority of Mizrahi Jews is reliant on the existence of the Jewish state where we found refuge.” Today, Mizrahim make up 45% of Israel’s population, making us the largest Jewish group in the country over Ashkenazim, who make up 32%. Much of Mizrahi culture has become synonymous with Israeli culture at large — from listening to Eyal Golan to eating sabich on Shabbat. To imply that 45% of Israel’s population is rooting for its destruction is an unbelievable falsity.
Bears for Palestine’s inclusion of this article in their curriculum — tokenizing a fringe Mizrahi perspective solely to demonize Israel — speaks to the emptiness of their allyship and their true motivations in using Mizrahi narratives. I hope that next November 30, we continue to center the voices of those from the Mizrahi community, not those who seek to use us as pawns.
Maya Reuven is a 2019-2020 fellow for the Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting and Analysis.