Iranian-born professor Saba Soomekh says pro-Israel nationalism is a natural extension of Mizrahi pain; it’s “the only place we are accepted.”

By Hen Mazzing

It’s Friday morning in Petach Tikvah. An older Iraqi Jewish woman rolls a spicy mix into balls of dough, preparing an ancient Iraqi Jewish dish known as kubbeh. Her grandchild looks up at her and asks, “Why do we live here in Israel?” She laughs and answers, “Where else could we live?”

My grandma Hela fled to Israel after surviving the Farhud, a massacre in Iraq during which her neighbors were murdered for being Jewish. Her story is not unlike that of my father’s parents, who are Jewish descendants of the Amazigh tribe of Tunisia. After surviving the Vichy regime’s Nazi forced-labor camps, they also came to Israel as refugees. In the Jewish state, my family rebuilt their lives, facing discrimination from other Jews along the way.

It wasn’t easy for them in Israel. They were stateless refugees who lost all they had, trying to maintain their dignity in a country whose enemies are the countries they came from. To this day, Mizrahim face racism in Israel and in the United States.

But the Mizrahi Jewish communities today bear living witness to a Jewish link to this land, as well as shared culture and history that predates its current inhabitants. Just as grandchildren of Holocaust survivors feel a special responsibility to memorialize the Shoah, I fight for recognition of the ethnic cleansing my family endured. Since the majority of my family does not speak English, I have made it my life’s work to give them a voice in the Western world.

My family’s story has propelled my activism on behalf of the Mizrahi communities, and I am committed to working towards a better world for all oppressed groups. This makes recent attempts to define my activism as merely pro-Israel propaganda all the more painful.

A recent article in +972 Magazine claimed that Mizrahi activists, including myself, “exploit the oppression of Mizrahi Jews in order to justify the subjugation of Palestinians.” A new term has surfaced to describe advocates like myself who champion our underrepresented family heritage as part of the Israeli experience: “Mizrahi-washing.”

The term “Mizrahi-washing” is a spin on “pinkwashing,” a term used to point out the hypocrisy of those who use LGBTQ-friendly verbiage in order to cover up other problems and depict a place or company as inclusive, modern and tolerant.  At its core, “Mizrahi-washing” is the claim that activists like me who advocate for better representation of the Mizrahi experience and support Israel because our families found refuge there—while acknowledging the systemic discrimination we face—are nothing more than a smokescreen to distract from Israel’s alleged wrongs.

As a gay Israeli man, I’ve encountered the same approach when discussing my LGBTQ experience. Any time I celebrate queer rights in Israel, it’s dismissed as “propaganda,” as if I only exist as a talking point.

The irony is that both my Mizrahi and my queer identity are still not fully accepted in Israel, but Israel is the only home I have.

“I haven’t met a single MENA Jew who has ever denied the racism they may have experienced in Israel,” Sarah Levin, executive director of Jews from the Middle East and North Africa (JIMENA), which advocates for universal recognition of the heritage and history of the 850,000 indigenous Jewish refugees, told me in an interview. “It isn’t a zero-sum game. In fact, MENA Jewish refugees are well-positioned to advocate for the rights of Palestinians as the same countries that forced Jews out as dispossessed, stateless refugees advocate for keeping Palestinians as perpetual refugees.”

Iranian-born American professor Saba Soomekh, the doyenne of Iranian Jewish history, agrees. “I think it’s utter nonsense,” she told me when I called her. “We have every right to speak about our history and our family’s trauma, and no one has the right to tell us not to speak about our history. It does not negate anyone else’s history.”

The irony is that the anti-Zionists promoting this concept completely ignore the central tenant of Mizrahi activism: for Mizrahi Jews to achieve equality in both Israel around the world. We’ve been denied equality because of massacres, ethnic cleansing and intense persecution in our countries of origin, in addition to the world’s failure to recognize those atrocities. 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.

Historically, Mizrahim have a strained relationship with the Arab and other Muslim communities they lived under even before they were mass expelled from their homes in 1945. In these nations, Mizrahim were always considered dhimmi, a minority that is protected as long as they paid a tax for being non-Muslim. They were, at best, second-class citizens.

“Our community is still dealing with a lot of trauma from what happened to us all over the Middle East and North Africa,” said Soomekh. She also warned against romanticizing the past. “In my book From the Shahs to Los Angeles, I interviewed 120 Iranian Jewish women. When I asked the older women, they used to tell me, ‘Oh, it was great in Iran,’ and only when I kept digging, I realized that ‘great’ for them was being able to walk in the streets and Muslims throwing rocks at them for being Jewish.”

The leading sociologist on the Middle East and North African Jewish history, an Algerian Jew himself, professor Shmuel Trigano, explained to me that “the Jews of the Arab countries suffered from persecution and pogroms for many generations, hundreds of years prior to the emergence of Zionism.” He said “their situation deteriorated in modern times with the appearance of Arab nationalism in the 20th century. The narrative that describes their immigration to Israel as colonialism is the opposite of the truth. These were fleeing refugees who found home and shelter in the State of Israel.”

For Trigano, the notion of “Mizrahi-washing” defies historical truth.

So what is the rhetorical value of “Mizrahi-washing” and the ideological bent of those promoting the term? Ron Katz, head of the Tel Aviv Institute, where I work as a senior fellow, had some ideas. Katz earned his Ph.D. in researching the use of rhetoric and propaganda from UC Berkeley.

For him, whiteness plays a large role in this terminology. “White Anti-Zionists labeling Mizrahi Jews’ support of Israel as propaganda or ‘Mizrahi-washing’ is the most virulent kind of bigoted rhetoric,” he said. “Its implication is that MENA Jews are somehow incapable of forming independent opinions and are therefore simpletons reliant on state-sponsored bribery. The only thing one can deduce from this is that those doing the labeling, the white majority, have determined that theirs is the only unencumbered voice.”

Katz believes the value of this new rhetoric is “simple—silencing you and people like you.”

Although he is speaking about me, his analysis applies to all Mizrahi Jews fighting for better representation: “Your existence stands against all of their claims.”

Soomekh says that Mizrahi Jews overwhelmingly support Israel because “that is our experience,” not to weaponize Mizrahi Jewish history against Palestinians.

“We do not have the luxury of going back to Iran,” she said. “I was born there, and I cannot go back. Of course, Iranian Jews are Zionists; they go to Israel every summer. Israel is their national homeland. It is the only place we are accepted.”

She believes that pro-Israel nationalism is a natural extension of collective Mizrahi pain. “How can Mizrahi Jews not be nationalists when they were kicked out of every country in the Middle East because they were the minority?” she asked. “Make no mistake; this was not a slow leaving. We escaped. We left everything behind. The only place that took us in and still is there to protect us is the homeland we have yearned to return to, Israel.”

My grandma Hela, who was born and then exiled from Iraq, along with my late grandma Kamisa, who escaped Tunisia with just the clothes on her back, would be the first to agree.

 

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