We are witnessing the start of a race: the race, between various political factions generally but not exclusively tracking "Zionist" vs. "anti-Zionist", to determine where Mizrahi Jews will be placed in contemporary political narratives. If the starting gun has not been fired, it will be soon. And while I think most readers of this blog are relatively familiar with the competing narratives being put forward, to summarize briefly:
- The Anti-Zionist narrative seeks to present Mizrahi Jews as "Zionism's other victims". While not necessarily denying the fact of some oppression, this narrative presents Zionism as having destroyed a vibrant and robust Middle Eastern Jewish (sometimes rendered "Arab Jewish") culture and having replaced it with a concocted framework where Jew and Arab were irreconcilable opposites. It highlights past and ongoing discrimination of Mizrahi Jews by Israel's Ashkenazi elite to suggest that Israel's multicultural claims are deceptive and opportunistic, and suggests that a potential alliance exists between Israel's two "brown" underclasses vis-a-vis their foreign European oppressors. More broadly, it presents a rejection of Zionism as a step towards (and a prerequisite of) restoring a fractured relationship between Mizrahi Jews and their former neighbors, seeing past tales of eternal enmity and envisioning mutual recognition and support.
- Under the Zionist telling, by contrast, Mizrahi Jewish presence in Israel, and general commitment to Zionist beliefs, destabilizing the notion that Zionism is a European import. It, too, contests the sharp divide pitting "Jew" versus "Middle Eastern", but does so by suggesting that the "Middle Eastern" perspective has until now implicitly Jew-free in orientation by not accepting Mizrahi Jewish political behavior as legitimately "Middle Eastern" to the extent it aligned with Jewish (read: Zionist) perspectives. The oppression and eventual expulsion of Middle Eastern Jewry may not "cancel out" Palestinian oppression, but suggests that anti-Zionists have their own reckoning to do and that there is more interfering with paradisiacal co-existence than evil Zionist perfidy. Emphasizing Mizrahi Jewish life also means that certain more extreme anti-Zionist arguments -- e.g., that Israeli cultural is purely "appropriative" or invented -- can easily be turned as forms of antisemitic erasure that denies basic elements of (Mizrahi) Jewish history. To the extent Mizrahi Jews identify Zionism as part of their liberation (and anti-Zionism as part of their oppression), this links up with elements of contemporary discourse which respect minoritized communities' right to define their own experience, even as against persons who do not accept that (White European) Jews generally count as a minoritized community.
As presented above, these narratives are both over-simplified. This is intentional -- not necessarily because those working this field are committed to oversimplification (though some may be), but because the manner in which these narratives will penetrate popular consciousness almost inevitably will be oversimplified. As a matter of popular political discourse, there likely will never be a deep, layered, and complex understanding of Mizrahi Jewish history (matters of popular political discourse do not tend towards deep, layered, and complex understandings of anything). What there will be a sort of gestalt understanding of a "side" that the Mizrahi Jewish frame supports. And so the casual way of putting the question is: for which side will "Mizrahi Jews" become an argument? Will "aligning with Mizrahi Jews", in its most general public understanding, be taken to mean acting in accordance with the first narrative (broadly conceived), or the second?
Right now, this is an open question. For many years, Mizrahi Jewish history and experience was ignored in contemporary discourse about Jews, Israel, Zionism, and the Middle East. This overlooking was in many way overdetermined. Here are just a few of the factors that likely played a role:
- Eurocentrism. For many years, history in general, as a subject, ignored most things and happenstances that occurred outside of Europe and America.
- The demographics of American Jewry being disproportionately Ashkenazi, making Mizrahi Jewish heritage relatively unfamiliar to American Jews writing about "our own" history.
- The concentration of Mizrahi Jews as being mostly in Israel, meaning that most people not-in-Israel, when they encountered Jews, encountered Ashkenazi Jews and assumed that they were all who needed to be thought about when thinking of Jews.
- Israel's desire to be seen as as a "western" nation, which involved minimizing or diminishing the salience of non-European elements (such as its Mizrahi Jewish inhabitants).
- Anti-Zionists' desire to present Israel as a purely foreign, colonial imposition to the Middle East, which is disturbed by recognition of significant Middle Eastern Jewish presence; as well as a desire to minimize their own decidedly ignoble behavior towards their Jewish communities in the 20th century (which is why Mizrahi Jews are now concentrated mostly in Israel -- see #3).