Following the devastating attacks in Paris, right wing forces have been fanning the frightening flames of anti-Arab racism, Islamophobia and xenophobia. There have been calls for increased surveillance of Muslim communities, unconstitutional registration of American Muslims, and religious tests for Syrian refugees seeking safety in the United States.
I am Mizrahi. I’m a Jew, and like many Mizrahim, I’m also an Arab. We Arab Jews have a unique perspective to offer on the Syrian refugee crisis, and on the Islamophobic and anti-Arab backlash that we are seeing in this country and across the globe. For me, anti-Arab racism is not something abstract. It’s not something that needs a historical analogy to feel visceral. The hatred and fear directed toward our Arab and Muslim friends is an attack on the Arab heritage of Mizrahim and on our rich history as Jews.
Mizrahi Jews (meaning “Eastern”) are Jews who for over 2,500 years were indigenous to the Middle East, North Africa, parts of Asia and the Balkans. For much of this time, Mizrahim were deeply rooted in the Muslim-majority societies in which they lived. Our ultimate displacement was the result of several historical forces, including the establishment of the state of Israel by Ashkenazi (European) Jews with the support of imperial powers.
In the late 1930s, Ezra Haddad, an Iraqi Jewish author and historian, proclaimed, “We were Arabs before we became Jews,” in Al-Akhbar, an Iraqi daily newspaper. Before British and French colonialism, Arab Jews, Arab Muslims and Arab Christians shared communities, identities and homes – in the deepest sense. My mother’s maiden name is Soffer, which means “scribe.” My ancestors were Torah scribes in Basra, Iraq, dating as far back as anyone in my family can remember. There was no place my family would have called home before Basra. Like other Iraqi Jews, my family was part of a thriving Jewish community living among other religious minorities in a society that was widely tolerant of non-Muslims. We shared the physical, cultural and psychic space that made us all Arab. It is only recently, through the centralizing of the Ashkenazi narrative as the dominant Jewish story, that our identity as Jews is supposed to override our identity as Arabs.
There is no history to support the claim that Jews and Muslims are, or have ever been, perpetual enemies. Let us not forget that when both religious groups were expelled from Spain by the Catholic Monarchs in 1492, it was Muslims who welcomed Sephardi Jews (meaning “from Spain”) into Morocco and parts of the Ottoman Empire. And contrary to the notion that Jews were never safe in Muslim-majority territories, it was actually the Christian territories where they faced the most virulent forms of Antisemitism. Jews and Muslims were both demonized and targeted during the Spanish Inquisition under the same system of Christian hegemony that would later form the political foundations of white supremacy as we know it today.
I’ve been reassured to see a powerful chorus of voices speaking out against this recent wave of bigotry and vitriol. This has included many fellow Jews who draw powerful connections between today’s attacks on Syrian refugees and American Muslims and those targeting Ashkenazi Jews in Nazi Germany and its occupied territories. Mizrahi Jews living in Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia were also violently affected by European Antisemitism through the Vichy regime’s alignment with Nazi Germany. At the same time, this historical analogy neglects the significant and all too often erased history of the Arab Jewish communities who did not experience the Holocaust directly. Our histories of displacement and migration are more rooted in the violent and racist interplay of colonialism and nationalism. Today, Arab Jews are also directly impacted by the anti-Arab racism sweeping the country. Our connection to what’s happening is very current and very personal.
And it binds us even closer to the Arab Muslims with whom we share so much.
Anti-Arab racism looks like Mizrahim in Israel facing decades of systemic discrimination and forced assimilation in service of the Zionist project. Anti-Arab racism looks like Sephardi and Mizrahi history taking up a tiny fraction of “Jewish History” textbooks. It looks like my Iraqi grandfather, a businessman and entrepreneur, being demoted to a manufacturer in Israel. He never saw a promotion in the 15 years he kept his family there, while his Ashkenazi coworkers got promoted every year. Anti-Arab racism looks like my uncle needing to shave his beard before he gets on a plane. It looks like my mother and her brothers rushing back home for dinner in Tel Aviv to avoid being teased by their Hebrew-speaking Ashkenazi peers. They experienced such a deep sense of shame at the first sound of my great grandmother’s voice as she called out their names from the balcony in her thick, “guttural” Arabic.
This is the anti-Arab racism that Mizrahim have experienced from inside and outside the Jewish community – similar in many respects to the racism that Arab Muslims have faced and continue to face in America and Europe.
To my Ashkenazi family: we need to take action as Jews not only because of the Holocaust, but because many Jews are also Arabs. So long as Islamophobia and anti-Arab racism are alive, we must remember that white supremacy and Christian hegemony are also flourishing. And those systems target Jews and Muslims alike, regardless of Arab or European heritage. Ashkenazi Jews occupy a powerful position in speaking out against this injustice because of the access to whiteness that European Jews have been granted in this country.
And to my fellow Arab Jews: we need to show up for our Arab Muslim family. After everything that has been done to us to make us hate ourselves and deny everything about our history and culture in order to survive, we need to remember that the distinction between “Arab” and “Jew” – while it has very real political implications in our world today – is a concept that simply did not exist before the colonial era. Our current existence as Jews alone has been produced through a denial of all Arabness at all costs. It has been systematic. And it has been an immense loss.
Together, all Jews have a responsibility to resist the racism, Islamophobia and xenophobia now facing American Muslims and refugees seeking safe harbor. Our Jewish histories – shared and distinct – deny us the refuge of ignorance, and our commitment to the liberation of all people compels us to action for justice.
Keren Soffer Sharon is a Mizrahi organizer, educator, and youth worker from Queens, via Israel, via Iraq. She is a Member Leader at Jews for Racial & Economic Justice [JFREJ], where she has been building the organization’s first Mizrahi Caucus, and working to center the leadership of Jews of Color, Sephardi, and Mizrahi Jews in our broader movements for justice. Learn more at www.jfrej.org