For many Jews, anti-Arab racism hits home


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.

A transit camp (maabarah) for Mizrahi immigrant refugees in 1952

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.

A transit camp (maabarah) for Mizrahi immigrant refugees in 1952

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

12 thoughts on “For many Jews, anti-Arab racism hits home

  1. Keren, I appreciate the intention and sentiment behind your piece. However, there is I think an essential detail that you did not address about Mizrahi Jewish Arabs and Muslim Arab relations, in Iraq particularly. Omitting this important piece of history is not only irresponsible, but by placing responsibility squarely on Jews for repairing relations with Arab Muslims, you make it impossible for those relations to be repaired. That detail is, of course: “In the 1930s, the situation of the Jews in Iraq deteriorated. Previously, the growing Iraqi Arab nationalist sentiment included Iraqi Jews as fellow Arabs,[17] but these views changed with the introduction of Nazi propaganda and the ongoing conflict in the Palestinian Mandate. Despite protestations of their loyalty to Iraq, Iraqi Jews were increasingly subject to discrimination and anti-Jewish actions… Following the collapse of Rashid Ali’s pro-Axis coup, the Farhud (“violent dispossession”) pogrom of June 1 and 2, 1941, broke out in Baghdad in which approximately 200 Jews were murdered (some sources put the number higher[20]), and up to 2,000 injured – damages to property were estimated at $3 million (US$ 48 million in 2015). There was also looting in many other cities at around the same time.”

    • Andrea, You’re absolutely correct.Life and liberty declined significantly in Iraq for Jews. Funny how I read that we were Arabs before we became Jews”. Well strangely enough, German Jews felt the same way until the emergence of Nazism. They were “loyal Germans. No one forces Jews to be expelled from Arab states due to the establishment of the Jewish state. If they were so part and parcel of Arab society, then the emergence of Israel by AshkaNAZI (n written in jest) Jews would not have mattered.

  2. The author is of course entitled to her opinion but she neglects to add that virtually all Mizrachim despise the made up label “Arab Jew,” a term that Mizrachim generally feel is not only degrading but insulting. Does speaking English make Ms. Sofer an “English Jew?” Speaking Arabic has no bearing on Jewish identity outsode of literally less than 50 dedicated Leftists who for whatever reason eschew their true identity, that being the same as Ashkenazim and Sephardim, simply a “Jew.”
    The Arab people entered the historical stage in 853 BCE at which point there were well established Jewish communities in what is now 21 Arab nations. How then could Ms. Sofer imagine that a well established and already ancient people- Jews- assume a second identity simply because of existing within a minority status? If her neighbourhood in America is overwhelmed with re-settled Rohingya refugees would Ms. Sofer then become a “Rohingya Jew”? Her thinking is scattered and erratic and driven by ideology rather than sense or reality.
    We existed not only AS a minority in everyone of those Arab societies as a minority but with very rare exceptions, a despised and villified minority. Beging in al Yathrib (cum al Medina) in Hijaz in the 620s and up until the present Arab Anti Semitism has become so ingrained in the wider Arab Culture that to toss around that imaginary label is a slap in the face to literally millions of Jews. In this mythical world that comes hand in hand with this label Jews and Arabs got along wonderfully before Zionism. They ignore major pogroms that took place in ever cofner of the Arab world on a regular basis since the aforementioned friction in al Yathrib.
    Take Historical Palestine where a continuous bloodletting began in 636 with the Rashidun Arab Invasion and subsequent purging of the indigenous Jews that continued off and on into the Zionist Era. 1834 in Hebron, Jerusalem, Shechem and Galilee? Was it Zionism? 1799 in Akko, Safed, and Tiberias? Was it the fault of “Jews from Europe?” We lived as virtual slaves under the brutally racist strictures of Dhimmitude. Perhaps Ms. Sofer might actually visit our shuls, our community centres and actually talk to the community and see what reaction her label provokes.

    • For “many” Jews, anti-Arab racism does, indeed, hit home. Not because they are “Arab Jews,” but because they are compassionate and hate discrimination. Speaking of “many,” an interesting question is how many Muslim Arabs would consider Sofer Sharon to be an Arab. Out of 400 million Arabs, I’d estimate the number of Arabs who would agree she is Arab is about equal to the number of Mizrahi Jews who call themselves Arab – very, very few and all of them outliers,

  3. Ms. Sofer Sharon:
    There is a glaring omission from your piece – you have failed to define the term Arab. This renders your “Arab Jew” label meaningless. Jews from Iraq are Iraqi Jews. Jews from Egypt and Egyptian Jews. But the Jews in those, and other, Arab countries were an ethno-religious group that was distinct from the predominant majority Arab ethnic group. I am an Arabic-speaking Iraqi Jew. The “Iraqi” part refers to the country where I was born. Arabic is the language I learned to speak in the country in which I was born. I had Arab neighbors and friends. But I decidedly am not an “Arab Jew” and I am deeply offended by that label. You paint a false, idyllic picture of harmonic co-existence between the Arabs and Jews. Of course, there were times of co-existence during the centuries, but they were punctuated by periods of violent outbursts by the Arabs against the Jews – the “others” – in their midst, going back at least to the eighth century. You assert that your mother’s family in Iraq was “living among other religious minorities in a society that was widely tolerant of non-Muslims.” That was not MY family’s experience. More recently, it is shocking, if not laughable, that you simply ignore the Frahud of 1941, the alliance between Iraq and Nazi Germany, and Arab deeply-rooted anti-Semitism in general (let me change that to anti-Jewism, lest you sniff that Arabs are Semites too). This oversight – it has to be calculated – really weakens your thesis. The discrimination by Ashkenazi Jews in Israel against the Arabic-speaking Jewish immigrants was (is) shameful and hurtful. It is reminiscent of the discrimination of the Arabs against the Jews in Iraq. But it does not magically turn us into Arab Jews. I have sympathy for the Syrian refugees (the real ones, not the economic migrants), not because I am some mythical Arab Jew, but because I am a Jew and a caring human being. Ask the members of your family mentioned in your piece whether they are Arab Jews. I am willing to bet they will flatly reject the label. You are, of course, free to indulgently self-identify as an Arab Jew, but you would still be no more an Arab Jew than Rachel Dolzal is black or that I am Umm Kulthum.

  4. There is a lot of truth to what Karen said. I am an Arab born in Palestine but had to flee to Cyprus with My family in 1948 when I was 3 and we lived as refugees for many years. My father’s business partner in Palestine was Jewish and lived in the same friendly community. My mother told me that when Jews were being prosecuted in Germany our community welcomed them and helped them not knowing that their arrival was part of the Zionist plan to establish a Jewish state. Only after the Zionist plan was exposed and Zionist terrorist organizations such as Irgun headed by Menachem Begin, who later became the prime minster of Israel, started terrorizing the Arabs and massacring them in Der Yasin and other villages did the animosity between Jews and Arabs materialized. Jews and Arabs can live peacefully side by side like all human beings. We belong to the same species. Any Jew could have been born to a Muslim family and any Muslim could have been born to a Jewish family. It would not have made them different people. The indoctrination changes people.

    • Fauzi, Jews had plans of establishing a Jewish homeland long before WW 2. It was no secret. Partition was proposed before WW 2 under the Peel Commission and it was rejected by Palestinian Arabs. A few things, though, you might want to try ad understand. Attacks on civilians came form both sides. Yes, there was Dier Yassin. But there were also car bombs set off by Arabs in Jerusalem and ambushes directed at ambulance convoys moving out of Hadassah Hospital at the same time. And Arab violence against Jews in the Palestinian mandated region dated back to the 1920’s. Hebron’s Jewish community fled after 1929 Arab riots. Denying Palestinian role in the violence is intellectually dishonest.
      It’s damn shame that Palestinians cannot take an ounce of responsibility in this conflict. And it is also a damn shame that your Arab brothers use Palestinian refugees and a playing card rather than finding ten a permanent home, perhaps in properties seized from Jews in the Arab world. There are Arab citizens in Israel and not one Jewihs citizen on the Arab world.
      Finally and you might want to not this when you make claims, President Abbas acknowledged that rejection of partition in 1947 by the Palestinians and Arab wrong was a BIG mistake.
      “Arabs made a “mistake” by rejecting a 1947 U.N. proposal that would have created a Palestinian state alongside the nascent Israel, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas said in an interview aired on Friday.
      Palestinian leaders have always insisted that General Assembly Resolution 181, which paved the way for Jewish statehood in parts of then British-ruled Palestine, must be resisted by Arabs who went to war over it.
      Decades of regional fighting have hinged on challenges to Israel’s existence and expansion. By describing historical fault on the Arab side, Abbas appeared to be offering Israel an olive branch while promoting his own bid to sidestep stalled peace talks by winning U.N. recognition for a sovereign Palestin
      “At that time, 1947, there was Resolution 181, the partition plan, Palestine and Israel. Israel existed. Palestine diminished. Why?” he told Israel’s top-rated Channel Two television, speaking in English.
      When the interviewer suggested the reason was Jewish leaders’ acceptance of the plan and its rejection by the Arabs, Abbas said: “I know, I know. It was our mistake. It was our mistake. It was an Arab mistake as a whole. But do they punish us for this mistake (for) 64 years?”

  5. If France is any indication, European Jews consider far-right nationalist parties like the FN to be their allies. Let’s say parties like them, the Sweden Democracts, the Austrian Freedom Party, etc. are actually successful in keeping out the Muslims that are supposedly so menacing. Do they honestly think that they will be content with just those people? History tells us that Jews need to be very skeptical of nationalist movements like these, and it’s sad to see that there are enough of them that support them.

  6. December 12, 2015
    Abdallah Skander 6001 Paseo Acampo # 226 Carlsbad, CA 92009
    My Dear Respectful Rabbi Michael Lerner
    I watched speaking out to the CNN Carol Costello against the oppression and injustice that the Israeli’ Military is committing against innocent Civilians. Thank you much for your kind words that you speaking out the whole truth and I would like your honest truth to be exposed to the world.
    I am attaching a video in Youtube for you from Mr. Daniel Cohn-Bendit, is a German Jewish MP at the European Parliament speaks the truth about Israel’s deceit:
    Never be afraid to raise your voice for honesty and truth and compassion against injustice and lying and greed. If people all over the world…would do this, it would change the earth.
    -William Faulkner
    As American Muslim, I grew up in Morocco is a Muslim country; in the years 60 the majority of Jewish people in the Arab world were in Morocco were living with Muslim people. Not only that Jewish people they are the first people living with the Amazigh tribes in Morocco before Islam and Arabs came to Morocco, Jewish woman was breastfeeding a Muslim baby and Muslim woman was breastfeeding a Jewish baby; both religious groups lived together with peace and love.
    My father made the best business with Jewish community in Morocco with respect and trust. Jewish and Muslim people they have many positive stories and they never caring the hateful. I strongly condemn any loss of human life and cannot be defended or justified under any circumstances or under the name of God. Islam teaches and promotes kindness, generosity, mercy, sympathy, peace, disinterested goodwill, scrupulous and truthfulness towards all creation in all situations. The killing of innocent people is forbidden by Islam, regardless their religion, color, race, name, language or fortune.
    The fact is that all Muslims across the United States, whether they are Arab, Indo- Pakistani, Asian, African American or Caucasian, decry any act of bloodshed against humanity. Fundamental to Islam is the protection of civilians, properties, respect for all human life and justice as a way of life. Many Muslims people suffered also from terrorism in Lebanon, Iraq, Syria,
    Tunisia, Turkey and other Muslim countries, Muslims worldwide and the Muslim American community condemn these acts of bloodshed and any loss of human life in this earth.
    The statement from Donald Trump against Muslims is hateful rhetoric and unacceptable. The Republican presidential candidates seem to view Muslims as fair game for increasingly harsh words is “reckless and ignorant’. I don’t know if Mr. Donald Trump has the brave to ban himself and his supporters to enter any Muslim country and dealing with any Muslim human been in the earth?
    All Americans with good moral and conscience should denounce and reject any racist statements and fight to preserve freedom and the American way of life, be understandable and part of the solution and not the problem and spread peace and love.
    Very Respectfully Yours;
    A. Skander

  7. In the 60-70s a lot of whites–specially girls- deliberately slept with Blacks as a mark of apologizing for the injustices inflicted by whites on blacks.Ms Sofer is attempting a similar course of action in attempting to introduce the concept of Arab Jews and Arab Arabs and dominance of Ashkanazi over the Sephardic/Mizrahi .Jews If there is deeprooted anti-Arab stance it is but natural because Jews have been at the receiving end of Arab hatred and hostility since times immemorial.If The Paris attack has raised this fear of Muslims world wide it is very natural .

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