Thursday, June 22, 2017

'Mizrahi' is an artificial construct of the 1970s (updated)

In response to Norman Berdichevsky's attempt to clarify the confusion about the difference between Ashkenazi, Sephardi and Mizrahi Jews, Point of No Return commenter Sylvia puts forward her explanation:
I'll try to address that question while at the same time explain how we call ourselves as well as show that there is much in common between Asians and Sephardim.
Family of Iraqi Jews. Edot Ha'Mizrah?

ASHKENAZIM Jews from Germany (Ashkenaz) or whose religious centers were in Germany. Also known as Jews of the North in the Middle ages.

EDOT HAMIZRAH (The communities of the East) Jews of the Middle East and the areas formerly dependent of the Babylonian Geonate as religious center before that center moved to North Africa (Kairouan). This includes communities of the Middle East and Asia as far East as the Indus as far North as Samarkand including Egypt, Lebanon Iraq, Iran, etc. It is in the plural because they lived among different peoples with different languages, laws and customs. Not all knew Judeo-Arabic which has become by the 8th century the language of communication of the Gaon and many go by different names.

HA'EADAH HA MA'ARAVIT (The Maghreban community or Western Community) of North Africa including Morocco Algeria Tunisia and Western Libya.
It is in the singular because they lived among one single people (the Berbers) who dwelt from Morocco to Egypt and ruled in parts of Spain for a while. Yet the religious rulings came from Babylonia just like for all the other communities of the East, people some of the youth went to study in those academies (for example Dunash Ibn Labrat, born in Fez) until the center of learning passed to Kairouan(today Tunisia) and from there to Fez with the Rif (Rabbi isaac El Fassi) then to Spain where the Rif founded the Academy of Lucena (where Maimonides fathers has studied)

SEPHARAD From Hesperia (the West), as the Romans used to call Spain. That is where the two currents of Sephardi religious philosophy-the mystic and the rational met and developed. They studied the Babylonian Talmud and worshipped in Babylonian synagogues (The synagogue institution was founded by the leadership in Babylon).

MIZRAHIM (ORIENTALS). This is an artificial construct that was imposed by a Knesset education committee in the mid 1970s, without our consent and without us being consulted, without even our knowledge. It was done mostly for campaign purposes, but there were many other reasons. Contrary to what the author of the article believes, we North African Jews have never accepted the name Mizrahi, which is nothing more than an unrelated geographic designation and without a history or heritage.

HOW DID IT HAPPEN?
The term "Mizrahi heritage", purposedly in the singular yet meant to include the heritage of the various Jewish communities of the East, North Africa and the dispersed Sephardim, was an artificial construct imposed on March 21, 1976 by the Culture and Education Committee of the 8th Knesset.

What was billed as a Seminar or Study day on Jews from Muslim countries following calls for cultural pluralism turned out to be an ambush.

Despite fierce opposition to the absurd wording on the part of academics, the committee stood its ground and the formula passed as worded and academic Israel obeyed. The subtitle of the journal Peamim of the Ben Zvi Institute, for example was "Studies in the Cultural Heritage of Oriental Jewry".

Yet historians were in a bind:how does one teach and write about the heritage without mentioning the heirs?
There was much criticism from abroad as well and there were those who compared the new orders to the institution of Black Studies in the United States. All this turmoil was confined to the academic community and took place over the head of the general population.

Historian Shaul Shaked thus expressed the complexity of the dilemma:
"Even if we ignore the public dimension of the issue as well as the external pressure on the universities and research institutes to give voice to the human cultural and Jewish equality of the "Oriental" half of the Israeli people, introspective debate is still necessary."

The late Historian Haim Hillel Ben-Sasson was less forgiving:
"The topic presented to us today, as it is worded, is based on the assumption that the Jews of the East had a common background. This is not true. This was not true in the past, this is not true in the present.[...]
Anyone speaking of "Oriental Jewish Heritage" in the singular as of one concrete bloc is committing an injustice toward the many heritages and their living differences, and by setting them in the splint of something artificial, prevents them from contributing all they can contribute to their sons and to the global national culture.

18 comments:

Meira Lettieri Kingberg said...

Thank you. I didn't know how the term "mizrachi" came about. It always has a slightly derogatory tone to it in my ears. I tried to say much the same as you did in response to a commentator on FB who was insisting as an Iraqi he wasn't Sefaradi. I disagreed with him because Sefaradim certainly have more in common theologically with the East than with the North. Regional customs of dress etc. may vary but our Halaka is much more in line with non-Ashkenazim. I used the example of how we all eat kitniyot during Pesah and it doesn't matter if it's hummus or another recipe. The Ashkenazim do not eat it and make quite an issue of it.

Sylvia said...

Bataween that's not merely my interpretation those are facts although written hastily in a nutshell. Ashkenazi scholars often neglect to mention the Babylonian Exilarchate and Geonate who issued halachic rulings for centuries for Edot HaMizrah, the Maaravim and the Sephardim.

There is much more to fisk in that article I might comment on some additional and important points of that article later this afternoon.

Meira I'll post a little more details on how the name Mizrahim came about, precise date and other matters around it, later this afternoon if you're interested

Heather said...

Thank you Sylvia,

I would enjoy knowing more.

Heather

Sylvia said...


The term "Mizrahi heritage", purposedly in the singular yet meant to include the heritage of the various Jewish communities of the East, North Africa and the dispersed Sephardim, was an artificial construct imposed on March 21, 1976 by the Culture and Education Committee of the 8th Knesset.

What was billed as a Seminar or Study day on Jews from Muslim countries following calls for cultural pluralism turned out to be an ambush.

Despite fierce opposition to the absurd wording on the part of academics, the committee stood its ground and the formula passed as worded and academic Israel obeyed. The subtitle of the journal Peamim of the Ben Zvi Institute, for example was "Studies in the Cultural Heritage of Oriental Jewry".

Yet historians were in a bind:how does one teach and write about the heritage without mentioning the heirs?
There was much criticism from abroad as well and there were those who compared the new orders to the institution of Black Studies in the United States. All this turmoil was confined to the academic community and took place over the head of the general population.

Historian Shaul Shaked thus expressed the complexity of the dilemma:
"Even if we ignore the public dimension of the issue as well as the external pressure on the universities and research institutes to give voice to the human cultural and Jewish equality of the "Oriental" half of the Israeli people, introspective debate is still necessary."

The late Historian Haim Hillel Ben-Sasson was less forgiving:
"The topic presented to us today, as it is worded, is based on the assumption that the Jews of the East had a common background. This is not true. This was not true in the past, this is not true in the present.[...]
Anyone speaking of "Oriental Jewish Heritage" in the singular as of one concrete bloc is committing an injustice toward the many heritages and their living differences, and by setting them in the splint of something artificial, prevents them from contributing all they can contribute to their sons and to the global national culture.

Sylvia said...


Berdichevsky writes:
"Jews, although a small minority in the South, were well respected and even elected as mayors in towns such as Ocala and Tampa in the 1890s long before the post-World War II mass migration to the state!

He is referring here to Jews from Germany who became mayors in Florida in the 1890s.

My question is this: If his intention is to boost about Jews in respectable positions, why overlook the first Jewish US Senator from Florida David Levy Yulee (elected 1845) the son of a Moroccan-born Jew, and after whom a Florida county (Levy) and a Florida town (Yulee) are named?

Ben said...

Morocco is mostly to the west of Europe and even of the British Isles and Eire, so to call Moroccan Jews Mizrahim is a geographic howler. The Spanish exiles were dispersed widely, especially in the lands bordering the Mediterranean, but also including in the East, and many Iraqi Jews are descended from that community, as are many Georgian Jews. Yet most Jews in these countries are members of much older communities, some dating to the times of the ancient world.

A possible term to describe non-German/non-Yiddish speaking Jews is something like non-Teutonic or non-Germanic, but I doubt anyone would be comfortable with that.

Heather said...

Is it really any more acceptable to conflate German and Ukranian Jews under the heading of Askenazi? The common elements come from the Torah....

Most of these classifications are useless....(unlike US affirmative action classifications, which are mostly useless (merely dividing up government benefits--a use, but not actually useful in a sociological sense--apparently Sephardi A might be considered Hispanic, while Sephardi B is not).

Rachamim Slonim Dwek said...

With all due respect to Sylvia, her article/post is chock full of errors. The terms have been in use since the 14th and 15th Centuries depending upon the term. They merely refer to difference in Nusaf and liturgy. They do NOT refer to ethnic groups or sub-ethnic groups.


Ashkenazi originally referred to Jews living in an undefined area that stretched from the Southern Caucuses in the east to the Taurus Mountains in Anatolia in the west. Its corruption as a term describing Central and Eastern Europe took place only in symbiosis with the flood of Sephardim into the Balkans and points east as far as the Ukraine in the 15th Century.

The term "Mizrachi" was NOT "invented by the K'nesset" and did not enter existence in the 1970s.

As for rabbis not knowing about Babylonian Jewry, sister, do yourself a favour and open a Talmud, Bavli IS "Babylon" and even the Jerusalem Talmud memtions Babylon frequently. No Rabbi could possibly be ignorant of it as it is what defines Rabbanite Judaism.

As for the Exilarch, the position is discussed frequently in both Talmuds so again...

The Maghreb was NEVER viewed even within itself as a simgular group. There are Sephardi AND Ashkenazi communities that existed in most areas of the Maghreb to say mothing pf Qara'im.

Please, it is good to learn but spreading ignorance is sinful. How much more sinful when it is devisive?

Rachamim Slonim Dwek

Hannah out loud said...

Hi



Hi Sylvia,

I never see myself as mizrahi , hate the term as oriental to my mind is describing china and south east Asia...so I'm glad that's made up and can be ignored. Sephardi sounds better. My grandparents were from Mesopotamia , but I'm third generation(30 years old) British. I do keep Shabbat and observance religiously , I still keep the tradition of hospitality and welcome when people visit. trying to keep the best of the cultural heritage, which in any case a new one is there alongside it as culture and religion don't sit in a vacuum. Another layer of the heritage to include British bits: Anglo - Mesopotamian Jew I suppose. Unlike my grandparents I can't write or speak Jewish Arabic fluently, but know enough to translate their dairies .

Hannah out loud said...

Also I think Sephardi Jews are identified by geographic location and or geographic historical location with associated local customs and tradition e.g. Iraqi, Italian , Moroccan , Egyptian etc etc .

By contrast I think Ashkenazi are identified by theology or ideological rites e.g. Haredi , Hasidic, Modern Orthodox, Conservative , Reform, Zionist, Liberal , atheist etc etc.

Sylvia said...

Ben
You're right of course, but do you seriously believe that the people who use the term to designate everyone from the Indian ocean to the Atlantic don't know that? Some of them are academics and journalists even geographers (Yftachel for example) some among them are Rabbis.

Then why are they doing it, and take the chance of being mocked by non-Israelis to whom "oriental" is just as anathema as the "N..." word?


Sylvia said...

Heather
Yes it is possible to conflate German Jews and Ukrainian Jews and even Russian Jews as Ashkenazis because they have a common background. Not only in terms of rite, but also because they're largely homogeneous, both culturally historically and one might say even ethnically (even if we consider converts who subsequently married into the faith).

I'll explain:
Ashkenazis go back to the first group who settled in Western Germany, itself part of a number of territories that formed the Holy Roman Empire (Roman in the sense of Roman church). The Holy Roman Empire lasted for 9 centuries until it was ended in 1806.

By the 11th-12th century, the reigning Emperors encouraged and even helped Christians and Jews to go settle eastwards, beyond the borders of the H.R.E. The Jews took with them their particular languages and rites and settled as far as Russia, the Ukraine, Lithuania, Latvia, and more. They of course mostly married among themselves, maintained communication with their bethren in Germany for religious matters and understandably the yiddish language as a language of communication survived as well (despite the regionalisms).

In terms of halakha (not taking into account the schism Orthodox-Reform), they all follow the Mapa, R. Moshe Isserles gloss to the Shulhan Arukh of Rabbi Yosef Caro. Rabbi Yosef Caro is the halakhic source for Sephardim.

sami said...

The Jews of Israel were of two categories: The Ashkenazi who came , mainly from Eastern Europe and the Sephardi those who came from The Middle East, or expelled from Spain. The term Sephardi, in fact, covers Jews who were expelled from Spain and later settled in The Ottoman Empire, Turkey, Greece, Bulgaria and Yuogoslavia. At the same time, there were Sephardi communities that were settled in The UK, France, Holland and other Western Europe countries, as well as North America and South America. The term Sephardi Jews become a wide generalized term and some writers think they have to isolate from it the Jews who came from Middle Eastern countries and the term Mizrahi Jews was introduced. This term is also too wide and of course covers Sephardi Jews from Morocco, Tangier, Algeria, etc.. that their origin was Spain and some of them still Speak Ladino.

Looking at the situation from many angles, the term Mizrahi Jews did not solve the problems of classification, but its purpose is to split the Jews further. We do not need that, Do we? What is happeneing now in Israel where marriage took place of Ashkenazi Jews and Mizrahi Jews and the new product is a Sabra! It is the same in USA and Canada. Shall we stop these marriages and called them VOID !

We have to look at all these classes as turning meaningless with the passage of time. We are one class and we are Jews. The idea of being one and undivided was introduced by the Famous Babylonian Rabbi Saadia Gaon bin Yosepf Al Fayumi. We are small in number in this world, the more we are divided the weaker we become. Let us be one and unity means our survival. Let us remember , regardless to which class we belong, we all heard in our life time the two famous word,"Dirty Jews". Let us be smart.

Sylvia said...

Rachamim
Thank you for your intervention and for reminding me the difference in liturgy between Sephardim and Ashkenazim. I had forgotten to mention it.
You write:
Ashkenazi originally referred to Jews living in an undefined area that stretched from the Southern Caucuses in the east to the Taurus Mountains in Anatolia in the west.
You're confusing with the Khazars

Its corruption as a term describing Central and Eastern Europe took place only in symbiosis with the flood of Sephardim into the Balkans and points east as far as the Ukraine in the 15th Century.

1. The Hebrew word for Germany has been Ashkenaz until the 20th century when it was officially changed to Germania.
2. Rashi in the 11th century used French and German words to explain biblical concepts. He called the German words לשון אשכנז -the language of Ashkenaz.
You should take it up with Rashi.

-No, the term Mizrahi wasn't "invented" by the Knesset. There was the Mizrachi Ashkenazi Zionist movement, there was the patronyme Mizrahi, the Hebrew word for Easterner, long before the 1970s but until then the Jews of the Maghreb went by other names. And does the term Mizrahi with its load of stereotypes and references to amulets do justice to cities like Aram or Baghdad?

Divisive? You should tell that to the Slonim of Immanuel who refuse to accept Sephardi religious girls in the only school in town.

Sylvia said...

Hannah

You nailed one of the major problems with the name Mizrahim:its blurred and blurring character encompass so many cultures it really applies to none.

Some people just narrow it down to this and that heritage, others reject it altogether.

Sylvia said...

Hi Sami

It's odd you should mention the Gaon Saadia, who fought so vigorously the Karaites, to illustrate unity. Are you sure he wasn't speaking of unity and being undivided during the time of Redemption?

There are invariably two reactions, always the same, to those who refuse to bow: either they're dividing or they're getting the djinn out of the bottle. The djinn accusation hasn't showed up on this thread yet.

The act of "naming" comes always from a position of authority, parents name a baby, a person names his dog.

I remember a particular and insightful midrash on the creation that has to do with naming.
It says as I recall that on the fourth day of the creation, it was Adam who named all the animal species - because man was to dominate them.

Sami Sourani said...

Hi Sylvie,
My main focus is that splitting our community may not be appropriate and has many negative consequences. I mentioned Saadia Gaon, because he was against splitting the community by creating an off shoot called Karaim.
When the Holy land became a colony under the British Mandate one of their earlier policies they had is the creation a position for a "Chief Ashkenazi Rabbi".I do not want to mention any details about the justification of that. From that point on, there were a series of ethnic jokes.
This situation is not encouraging but like any split, the community became weaker and weaker.

I still remember the Israeli Newspapers used to call Jews from Arab countries:"Edot Hamizrah" and that was before making this definition an official term.
I am looking at the negative side of splitting a community into classes. The concept of "Divide and rule applies here."

Sami

Ben said...

The term mizrahi is neutral, not derogatory. People who wish to insult use terms such as frenck, chakh-chakh, sepharajuke and so on.

In 19th century and early 20th century Jerusalem all the non-Ashkenazi communities called themselves Sepharadim, whether they were from the Caucasus, Yemen, the Balkans, Greece, Italy or wherever. Furthermore they all learnt and spoke Espagnol, and it was their lingua franca until Hebrew became rooted.