Monday, January 25, 2016

"An Intersectional Failure" To Include Mizrahim

Tablet Magazine has just published an article, "An Intersectional Failure: How Both Israel’s Backers and Critics Write Mizrahi Jews Out of the Story", that looks at recent discussions concerning intersectionality and how they might apply to the situation of Mizrahi and other non-Ashkenazi Jews. The article, coauthored by JIMENA's Analucia Lopezrevoredo and myself, notes that even as there has been a recent flurry of  writing on intersectionality as it pertains to the Jewish community, none of the writers (critics or defenders of the concept) have even mentioned Mizrahi or Sephardic Jews. This absence echoes a larger erasure of non-Ashkenazim from both Jewish and non-Jewish conceptions of the global Jewish community.

Title notwithstanding, this is not a problem restricted to the context of Israel. Certainly, discussions about Israel -- whether they seek to cast it as a "White" state by and for European colonists or downplay the very real discrimination and mistreatment non-Ashkenazi Jews continue to experience in Israel -- are one very important forum where this phenomenon can be identified. But there are more broad cultural implications as well, including disrupting the assumption in Western circles (Jewish and non-Jewish) that Ashkenazi culture is the default Jewish culture, emphasizing and celebrating the long history many Jews had in the Arab world and their important contributions to Arab and Middle Eastern culture, and incorporating the plight of Jews driven out of Arab countries into broader discussions of achieving a Mideast peace.

These issues, as one might expect, do not lend themselves uniformly to either conventional "left" or "right" narratives.  But too often, "non-Ashkenazi Jews are engaged with only as far as they support someone else’s narrative. Once they seek to speak in their own voice, their putative allies disappear." That needs to change.

Our concluding paragraph reads as follows:
Mizrahi, Sephardic, and other non-Ashkenazi Jews have stories and demands which pose a challenge to Jewish and non-Jewish groups of any political persuasion. But the obligation to be intersectional does not end when a marginalized group ceases to say what one wants to hear. Taking non-European Jews seriously means taking them seriously on their own terms. This basic principle of justice is one in which both the non-Jewish and Ashkenazi Jewish communities have often failed to uphold. They, and we, need to do better.
Speaking for myself, I hope that this column triggers a needed discussion both in and out of the Jewish community. Serious consideration of non-Ashkenazi Jewish perspectives is not an option for groups that want to talk about Jews, or Middle Easterners, in a just and egalitarian fashion.


Unknown said...
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Unknown said...

As a Mizrahi myself, I want to thank you and JIMENA for your (sorely needed) efforts. That being said, there are a couple of things I would like to point out.

1. A large percentage of us (at least from my experience) absolutely hate being designated as 'Arabs' or 'Arab Jews', for several reasons. Firstly, it conflates us with our historic oppressors. We've always identified as Jews/Israelites first, not unlike Ashkenazim. Second, it perpetuates the falsehood that the only thing separating us from those we lived with (and likewise, the only thing uniting us with other Jews) is religion. Not only does this effectively rob us of our national identity, it helps Israel's detractors delegitimize the country (i.e. "since Jews are only a religion, what possible claim could they have to the Land of Israel? They're just converts from all over the globe", etc).

2. I find the term "Jews of color" to be somewhat oxymoronic, particularly as it is applied here. There are lots of Ashkenazim who are dark skinned/look Middle Eastern, and Mizrahim (like my aunt, for example) who are relatively fair skinned. Although I suspect you are using it in the "anyone who is not European" sense, in which case we would all (save for recent converts, I guess) count as people of color, since we are an indigenous Middle Eastern ethnic group. See:

3. I think the main reason Jewishness is conflated with Ashkenazi culture is because that is what Europeans/Westerners are most familiar with. The majority of Jews outside of Israel are Ashkenazi, and Europeans (obviously) have had more contact with them than anyone else.

Other than that, excellent piece.

David Schraub said...

1. Our piece did not use the term "Arab Jews." I've seen plenty of work on that phrase, pro and con, but I'm aware of its contentious nature. We did note that there are Jews who identify as both Jewish and Arab, which is true. Many Mizrahim do not, which is fine too. I've written why imposing the Arab identifier on Mizrahi Jews who don't identify is bogus, but it is not my place to reject the ability of persons to so claim that identity if they choose.

2. The question of whether Jews generally or Ashkenazim in particular are "White" is fabulously complex and reams of scholarship has been written on it. This piece was not the place to delve into it. I think it is fair enough to say that Ashkenazim get something that is similar enough to "White privilege", even if it is only privilege in passing and even as that does not mean they do not experience anti-Semitism as well. For a pop piece, I was comfortable with the distinctions made.

3. Possibly, though I don't see much of a difference in how Jews are perceived in, say, France (where most Jews are Mizrahim). I think there are deeper problems in play here related to questions of power -- especially "Jew = powerful, White = powerful, therefore Jew - White" which makes Mizrahim a problematic category better off not thought about.

Unknown said...

1. "We did note that there are Jews who identify as both Jewish and Arab". Yes, and that was what I was responding to. Although some of us do identify as Arab, the majority of us don't (and in fact, find it offensive). That's all I was trying to get across. The way we relate to Arabs isn't terribly different, I would imagine, from the way African-Americans relate to whites. Of course, Arabs are nowadays regarded as "people of color", so this fact tends to not sit very well with a lot of people.

2. Likewise, it's not my place to comment on the experience of Ashkenazim, although (again, from my experience) an increasing number would probably disagree with being labeled white/European. I believe a sea change is underway, as far as that goes. As for Jews and white privilege, my impression is that antisemitism doesn't function any differently from other forms of racism. The only real difference being that many American Jews look like white people and therefore can't be detected as easily as most other minorities (other examples: other Levantines, white Latinos, some Native Americans, etc). Of course, once they *are* detected, people start treating them very differently. At least that's what I've been told by most of my Ashkenazi comrades.

3. The preponderance of Mizrahim in France is a relatively recent thing. Traditionally, most Jews in France were Ashkenazi. And if their word is anything to go by, most French antisemitism nowadays (the openly violent kind, anyway) comes from France's large North African/Arab population. The traditional white French antisemitism is, unsurprisingly, aimed almost entirely at Israel, which they see as an Ashkenazi enterprise.

Anonymous said...

I could potentially pass as white under certain circumstances (if I took off the identifying signifiers of my Yiddishkeit - like my kipa - if I shaved) but even then there's no guarantee. In the past I've been on the receiving end of anti-Asian bigotry (once in high school I was wearing a hoodie so my yarmulke wasn't visible and some teens sang "We are Siamese" from Lady & the Tramp) which suggests that even dropping any indication of Jewishness my phenotype still doesn't code entirely as white. But even if it had, the privilege to pass is the privilege to assimilate by dropping Jewishness. Steve Cohen discusses this so-called privilege in length in "That's Funny You Don't Look Anti-Semitic." There's more there than I can c/p into this comment box but it is all worth reviewing to understand how the "privilege of passing" quickly slips into an advocation for assimilation: One good way of parsing this is by way of the recent call in France for Jews to stop wearing visible indications of Jewishness to protect themselves, and the negative response to it.

I cannot speak for other Ashkenazi Jews but I do not self-identify as white/European, nor do my parents. In terms of intermarriage it was clear to me since I was a child that any Jew I chose to marry would be acceptable no matter their background or phenotype (and my adopted sister - who self-identifies as culturally Ashkenazi - has a Chinese phenotype). Ashkenazi Jews, Mizrahi Jews, Black Jews, and Asian Jews were all family by nature of their Jewishness. A white gentile was not acceptable. I understand this wasn't always the case and that at some point in time there were Ashkenazi Jews who had an unacceptable attitude towards [so-called] "intermarriage" with Mizrahi families but it's pretty obvious to me that this is a consequence of internalized bigotry learnt in European white society and nothing that has any validity in the Jewish tradition. After all, Miriam was inflicted with tzaraas because she defamed her brother's Cushite wife.