Western Jewry must re-orient its view of the Jewish world

The more Hen Mazzig, a Tel Aviv activist and writer of Iraqi and Tunisian-Berber parentage, mixes with North American Jewry, the more he is conscious of his eastern origins. The Ashkenazi diaspora needs to jettison its Eurocentricism or risk being accused of post-colonial orientalism, he argues in The Jerusalem Post:

Yet for as much as my family has assimilated, these layers of my identity are triggered as I encounter the ideas held by some in the Western (mostly North American) Jewish communities. By and large the articles, the Jewish publications, the speakers and the Jewish academics see “World Jewry” as an exclusively Western phenomenon. They gloss over the history of the Jewish People in the Middle East.

Hen Mazzig: Jewish world is diverse and multicultural

To them, the Jewish world is centered in North America, with its origins in Europe.

While they may see Israel and Jerusalem as their homeland, they present the Jewish community as belonging to the West. It seems they are the only ones who really matter. My story, the story of almost a million Jews from the Middle East and Africa, is often ignored, or looked down on in a way that mimics a post-colonial approach. Although some scholars have begun to realize the diversity of our global Jewish community, the main voices, as well as the majority of ideas espoused by English-speaking Jews, are still centered in the European/North American hegemony. Discourses on the meaning of Judaism, Jewish peoplehood, Israel and the Middle East seem to come from a naturally superior standpoint: that of the Westerner.

It is as if knowledge about Middle Eastern and African Jewish communities is generated not from facts, but from paternalistic tendencies. Preconceived archetypes envision all the Jews of the East as fundamentally similar to one another and alien to the Western Jewish community.

While I disagree with much of Edward Said’s writings, his descriptions of “Orientialists” remain accurate.

According to (Edward) Said ( author of Orientalism), these are people who study the East, but not purely as scholars attempting to understand other cultures. Intermingled with their scholarly pursuits are self-serving political biases that undermine the actual needs of the Middle Eastern communities they study.

Orientalism converted the “Orient” into a legitimate academic field, about which the West invented facts. According to Said, these thinkers and scholars were politically driven. Through their discussions of the Middle East, they fashioned themselves into the self-appointed representatives of the Orient.

They actively misrepresented the Middle East and its people, creating stereotypes and perpetuating false characteristics.

The global Jewish community is diverse and multicultural.

In Israel alone, almost 60% of us are descendants of Middle Eastern and African Jews.

Regardless of our origins, we should be united in the constant struggle for global equality and against antisemitism. But we must also remember that the Jewish world is centered in the East. It is in the East that the Jewish People began, and where today, in Israel, our peoplehood is maintained and continues to blossom. More Jewish writers and thinkers need to understand this key fact, and re-orient their scholarship with it in mind. The rich history of Eastern Jews should not be nullified by the superficial biases of Western scholars.

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More by Hen Mazzig


  • The Jews did not bring communism to America from Europe. Most of them came as religious, traditional Jews but various features of American life changed them. In any case, powerful members of the old American elite favored socialism and later communism, after 1918.

  • And the Communism, which originated in Europe and which they carried to North America with them. It was always to be the Europeans who lead the "Vanguard of the Proletariat".

  • It's not post-colonial orientalism that shapes the US Jewish outlook, just ignorant provincialism.


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