Why Mizrahim hold the key to re-legitimising Israel

The Mount of Olives cemetery in Jerusalem, where Rabbi Yehuda Alcalay, a Sephardi forerunner of modern Zionism, is buried.

This thoughtful and perceptive blog post by Fernando can help explain why the left-leaning Israeli elite continues to come up with peace initiatives like this one, ignoring fundamental Jewish rights – such as the right to recognition and compensation for the forgotten Jewish refugees. Restoring Mizrahi Jews to their rightful place in Israel’s narrative and in the way Zionism is taught in schools can help Israel’s fight against delegitimisation. An extract (edited for clarity) follows:

Both contemporary Zionism and opposition to the creation of a Jewish State in Palestine originated from three streams in the Ashkenazi population in Central Europe long before the founding of the state in 1948.

One group is the ultra-Orthodox Jews, who believe that only the Messiah would support self-government (in this they match Catholics who believe that Jews will return to the Holy Land after Jesus’s second coming). Another group of Ashkenazi secular socialists or Marxists contributed greatly to the establishment of collective farms (kibbutzim). In addition, they formed an important part of the academic and governmental elite of the nascent nation, who did not have in mind the creation of that state as conceived by the Zionists but hoped to be an advanced position to establish socialism in the region conjointly with Arab proletarian masses.

Because of this, they behave not as defenders of working class rights (Jewish and Arab) as leftist or Marxist parties are supposed to do, but almost exclusively as supporters of Arab-Palestinian nationalism, in contradiction to Marx’s view of the concept of the nation. In the end, Ashkenazi Zionists prevailed, and delineated the emergence of the state – but as a continuation of Ashkenazi idiosyncrasy in the framework of European political ideology. Among them emerged movements such as Political Zionism, Cultural Zionism, Labor Zionism and Revisionist Zionism. (3)

Nevertheless, they had in common a patronizing disdain for Eastern Jews (Mizrahim) and Hispanic Jews (Sephardi) whom they considered ignorant and backward. A review of how Ashkenazim valued the indigenous Middle Eastern Jews is in the reference below (2). (Clearly, this picture began to change and there has been some degree of integration among the different Jewish groups).

Middle Eastern Jews envisaged living in the State of Israel as a way of practising their religious beliefs freely without fear of reprisals from Muslims or Christians. The Jewish religion relates closely to localities and most of the festivities relate to events tied to the Land of Israel, unlike Christianity and Islam whose own religious practices (those not borrowed from the Hebrew Bible) revolve around a central character (Jesus, Muhammad).

At this point it is worth mentioning that Mizrahi Jews considered themselves as part of a Middle East culture that includes diverse religious and ethnics groups besides Arabs, and hence not newcomers nor immigrants. European political and ideology concepts of nationhood were alien not only for oriental Jews but also for all other ethnic groups. Almost all Middle East countries and borders were established after WWI by victorious European powers after the fall of the Ottoman Empire and responded to their geopolitical and economic priorities, and not to the interests of local communities (Jews, Arabs or others).

From the above we can infer that the delegitimizing of Israel mainly in Jewish academic circles derives from internal struggles within Ashkenazi communities. Lately, some Sephardi and Mizrahi intellectuals have denounced Zionism and some are even pro-Palestinian activists. Nevertheless, it seems that they assume this position in reaction to humiliations and contempt suffered by Mizrahim during the first decades of Israel’s existence rather than a real desire to destroy it. This exclusion and feeling of marginalization provoked some oriental Jewish intellectuals to identify themselves with Israeli-Arab and Palestinian goals (4).

A similar phenomenon is observed on the Ashkenazi Left, but on different grounds, related to ideological stances mentioned before, i.e., anti-Zionism (“there is no such thing as a Jewish people”), post-Zionism (“Israel is no longer a Jewish country”); post-Judaism (negation of the significance of the Jewish religion). The Zionist Ashkenazi Left judged Arabs as real indigenous people worthy to deal with, instead of considering Mizrahim as the natural bridge between them (Western Jews) and peoples of the region. They consider themselves as a distinct and better class of Jew; they see Mizrahim and Israel as their exclusive creation.

Besides, Mizrahim regret that the Israel Ashkenazi establishment makes them ashamed of their millenarian Middle Eastern culture (not to be confused with “Arab” culture because Mizrahim preceded the Arab invasion by a thousand years) and started processes of self-denial and devastation of traditions supposed authentically to resemble those practised before the destruction of the Second Temple. In any case, the list of academics and journalists who are detractors of the Jews’ right in the Land of Israel show a minimum percentage of Mizrahim: these are even unpopular in their communities.

De-legitimizing Israel: is it a PR struggle? Israel’s current demography shows a large percentage of Oriental Jews (6). It means that Israel’s image as a European nation must change and the entire world ought to be conscious of that. Besides, Israeli Arabs are about twenty percent of the Israel population. In other words, it is important to raise an image that show a multiethnic country rooted in the Middle East and not in the ghettos of central Europe.

Israeli-Jewish identity must rely on the historical continuity of the Jewish people in this region of the Middle East. The current “narrative” implies that the Romans removed the Jews after the fall of Second temple then exiled them to central Europe. They returned to Israel in the nineteenth century through the efforts of Europeans (a widely-held view). (3)

This vision fractures the real history of the Jewish people and removes the vital contribution of Oriental and Sephardi Jews who remained in the region. Middle Eastern Jews reinforce Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish country (7) In this regard; I read in an Israeli newspaper some years ago about a Galilee Arab teacher surprised to learn that the Jewish people have lived in that region before Arabs because she believed Jews came from Germany in the 20th century.

The image of Israel as a Europe-derived country gives the impression of an imposed colonial regime (as in South Africa) and lends to Arabs the aura of the primitive “noble savage” oppressed by conquerors (resembling Americans Indians enslaved by Europeans). Not everybody remembers that almost one million Mizrahi Jews were expelled by Muslims in the Middle East (half of today’s Israel population).

“ In just 50 years, almost a million Jews, whose communities stretch back up to 3,000 years, have been ‘ethnically cleansed’ from Arab countries. These refugees outnumber the Palestinian refugees two to one, but their narrative has all but been ignored. Unlike Palestinian refugees, they fled not war, but systematic persecution. Seen in this light, Israel, which absorbed most of these Jewish refugees, is the legitimate expression of the self-determination of an oppressed indigenous, Middle Eastern people” Point of no return

Zionism Updated: the ideological posture differences between Ashkenazim and Mizrahi-Sephardim Jews must be worked out to preserve and strengthen Israel. A critical factor to consider is about the teaching of Jewish history. The timeline of Jewish history should show a continuous thread beginning in Biblical times followed by the Golden Age in the Middle East and Spain (Talmud, Kabbala, Sephardi philosophy), the history and development of contemporary Mizrahi Jewish communities and later, the expansion of the Jewish community to Central Europe developing contemporary Ashkenazi “ethnicity”. Therefore, the Ashkenazi Jewish religious tradition continues the Mizrahi and Sephardi Jewish Talmud, Kabbala and Jewish philosophy originating in Spain and the Mediterranean.

The Israel education system since the beginning of the state so far has failed to build an Israeli-Jewish identity. The Ashkenazi leading elite since 1948 imposes as basic truths that Ben-Gurion and his collaborators were the Founding Fathers of the Jewish nation (overlapping with Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses). They consider Ashkenazi migrations as the starting point of the modern history of Israel (omitting that oriental Jews and Sephardim have always lived here). Although European Zionism materialized in the 20th century with the long dreamed-of Jewish comeback to the ancient homeland, this approach breaches the historicity of the Jewish nation since it excludes non-Ashkenazim as primary actors in the renaissance of the state.

Sephardim predominated in Eretz Israel for about six hundred years, since 1268 (when Nahmanides restored the existence of a Jewish community in Jerusalem), until 1860, when the Ashkenazi kollelim (a type of Talmudic academy or orthodox yeshiva) originating with the kollel of Holland and Germany – gained recognition de facto and even de jure as independent communities arising out of the authoritative sphere of the Sephardi Community Council.

It is possible to affirm that, with the exception of one generation-and-a-half after ‘ 300 rabbis of France and England’ arrived in 1210-11 to settle the city of Acre order to help reconstruct Jewish life after the ravages caused by the Crusaders, Eretz Israel was always under the mastery of the rabbinical Sephardi current. It is possible to record that Eretz Israel was Sephardi from the point of view of rabbinical legislation (Halacha).

Zionist thought and action arose in Sephardi thinkers even before this movement appeared in Eastern and Western Europe. Namely, Joseph Levy, of Adrianople, Turkey; rabbi Yehuda Bibas, of Gibraltar; Marko Baruch, of Sofia and rabbi Yehuda Alcalay (1798-1879), of Sarajevo. Alcalay himself realized the ideal of the return to Zion. He came to Jerusalem to live his last years. Almost the whole thought of Herzl is contained in the writings of Alcalay, published circa fifty years before Herzl’ s work “ The Jewish State”. Furthermore, Alcalay prepared a detailed plan for widespread Jewish settlement in Eretz Israel. He dedicated part of his work to the vital importance of using the Hebrew language and demanded immediate aliya (immigration) to Israel.

The old Jewish Yishuv (community) in Eretz Israel until the middle of the 19th century was mostly of Sephardi origin and was settled in Jerusalem, Safed, Tiberias, Hebron and other places.

This community along with subsequent Jewish migratory waves emerged during the four hundred years between the expulsion of the Jews of Spain (1492) until the end of the 19th century. It created the bases of the economy and the commerce of the Jewish renascent community in Israel. In many senses, the new generation and traditional Sephardi world were the bridge between the Old Yishuv, mostly orthodox and conservative, with the later migratory waves. The same love of Zion fluttered in the heart of the Persian, Iraqi, or Moroccan Jew: more than 150 years ago it came to the Land of Israel. During the second half of the 19th century, we witnessed a new expression of the rebirth: Zionist thought imbued with a new spirit, with affirmative political action as part of a modern conception of the world.

Education must vindicate a Middle Eastern Jewish identity, sense of belonging, possession of every inch of territory related to history and religion (not precluding, of course, the rights of non-Jews).

Read post in full

Why do Leftists and Arabs ignore Mizrahi rights ?


  • The above is a response to Philo-Semite's comment, which for some reason keeps disappearing:
    The article is correct in asserting Mizrahim the key to legitimising Israel, but incorrect in its emphasis on Ashkenasi-Mizrahi divisions.

    Ashkenasi-Mizrahi issues are the internal business of the Jewish people only; exposing them internationally will only play into the hands of gentile anti-Zionists.

    The Mizrahi naqba, however, is a different and much-neglected matter. As the Christian world imposed sixteen centuries of subordination upon Jews, so the Muslim world imposed thirteen centuries of dhimmitude, culminating in the Mizrahi naqba.

    As a result, I assert, both the Muslim and Christian worlds "owe" Jews recompense for those many centuries, in the form of:
    – Moral, political, and financial support for the Jewish state.
    – Renunciation of both Muslim and Christian claims to the Holy Land and to Jerusalem.
    – Financial compensation for the material losses of Sephardim and MIzrahim.
    – Clear recognition of the right of the Jewish people to national self-determination.

    Zionist hasbara does err when it gives the Holocaust as justification for a Jewish sate, since that allows the Arab world to (disingenuously) claim, "The Holocaust was not our fault." But thirteen centuries of anti-Semitic subjugation ("dhimmitude") were the fault of the Arab world, and so the article is correct: When the Arab world asks, "Why should we pay for crimes against the Jews," the Jewish world should answer, "Because you Muslims subjugated us for 1,300 years."

    Philo- Semite

  • Dear Philo

    You are correct that Israel's existence is legitimated by 14 centuries of dhimmitude – it is what Muslims 'owe' the Jews, together with the Christians of the West.
    I don't think the divisions pointed out by the author between Ashkenazim and Mizrahim are particularly serious – they can be remedied by rebalancing the educational curriculum in Israel. What I find fascinating is that the Ashkenazi elites in Israel have taken on western feelings of colonial guilt towards the Arabs, instead of sharing Mizrahi pride in their long history of being indigenous to the region.

  • What a fantastic article! Couldn't agree more with the author's observations.


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