It takes Haisam Hassanein, an Egyptian Muslim, to give this accurate Wall St Journal portrait of the Mizrahim he met in Israel. His conclusion is correct: if only the Palestinians absorbed their refugees as effectively as Israel did its Jews from Arab lands. But he makes the assumption, as many do, that the culture of Mizrahim was Arabic, when for many it was French. (with thanks Gavin; Lily)
Many Mizrahim went through the experience of tent camps (Ma'abarot) on arrival in Israel
Thousands of years ago, Abraham and Sarah went from Israel to Egypt.
So did Jacob and his sons. In my lifetime, I have made the reverse
journey, traveling from Egypt to Israel by way of the U.S. During my
travels I quickly discovered that the presence of the Jewish people in
Arab lands did not end with the Exodus.
As a child in Egypt, my image of my Jewish countrymen was
shaped by the numerous Egyptian television dramas that depicted them as
spies, thieves and fifth columnists. I never knew any Jewish people
personally. Naturally it came as a shock when, during my first visit to
Israel in 2014, I met a man who spoke to me in perfect Iraqi Arabic,
laced generously with profanity. He introduced me to the concept of “
Jews,” or those from the eastern lands.
For more than a
thousand years the Mizrahi Jews lived and thrived in a wide swath of
land, from Morocco to India and Central Asia. Some arrived in biblical
times while others came after their expulsion from Spain in 1492. Often
treated as second-class citizens, they nonetheless created a culture as
diverse and distinctive as the places in which they settled.
this story came to a crushing end for most Jews in Arab lands in 1948,
when states like Yemen and Libya responded to the creation of the state
of Israel by forcing out their Jewish populations. Since 2014, the
Israeli government has designated Nov. 30—the day in 1947 when the
United Nations voted to partition Palestine into Jewish and Arab
states—as the “Day to Mark the Departure and Expulsion of Jews from the
Arab Countries and Iran.”
When I attended graduate school at Tel
Aviv University, I befriended Egyptian Jews who were good, kindhearted
people. They invited me to their Shabbat dinners, where we ate delicious
Egyptian dishes, shared our love of Arabic music and culture, and
discussed politics. I felt at home.
In the heart of Tel Aviv I
met Rachmo, a vivacious 73-year-old Egyptian Jew whose restaurant served
falafel made of beans in the Egyptian style, rather than the
Israeli-Levantine version made of chickpeas. Still a proud Egyptian, he
had mounted pictures of the pyramids and the sphinx at the entrance of
In perfect Egyptian Arabic, he described the trauma of
immigrating to Israel with his family at age 13. After escaping
persecution in Egypt, his family was placed in a camp in Israel, where
his upper-middle class parents had to work in construction to earn a
living. Living in a land settled and dominated by European Jews, or
Ashkenazim, they often felt denigrated by their Jewish brethren. “They
did not know that we Egyptians were more cultured, polite, and not
troublemakers,” he told me last year.
Like many immigrant groups,
Mizrahi Jews sometimes felt the price of acceptance was full
assimilation, or abandoning their old culture. Many of the succeeding
generations do not speak Arabic or observe their unique customs. One of
my professors in Tel Aviv once said in class that as a child of Iraqi
immigrants, he used to brag among his peers that his father spoke
English and French. He never mentioned Arabic.
At the same time,
Mizrahi Jews remember all too well the discrimination they suffered in
the old country. Many Iraqi and Morrocan Jews in Israel were alive when
persecution was at its worst in the 1940s and ’50s. Some continue to
harbor a bitterness that drives them to support Israel’s far-right
parties. “The Ashkenazim will never understand the Arabs as we do,” a
friend recalled his grandmother’s admonition. “They only know about the
But today the landscape has changed as Israeli
society becomes more inclusive. Eastern Jewish culture is honored.
Intermarriage between Ashkenazim and Mizrahim is a nonissue. The Mizrahi
Jew Avi Gabbay heads the Israeli Labor Party, the current main
opposition party and historic domain of Ashkenazi Jews going back to the
Zionist ideologues of Europe.
a Muslim, I am acutely aware of the hundreds of thousands of
Palestinian refugees who have been left to languish in camps for
decades, unwelcome in the lands of their Arab and Muslim neighbors. Most
recently, Syrian refugees are isolated in tent cities or face
discrimination when they try to integrate into new countries. The
successful absorption of Jews from eastern countries in Israel—across
linguistic and cultural barriers—is a modern-day success story that
deserves to be remembered, celebrated and emulated.
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