Let Mizrahim speak for themselves

In Israel’s early years, Jews from Arab and Muslim countries were viewed from the perspective of a nation-building, modernising project. In the 1970s, academics inserted a post-colonial or neo-Marxist angle, studying Mizrahim as underdogs in a system of Western hegemony that included ‘white’ or Ashkenazi Jews.  But Mizrahim did not only emigrate to Israel, but re-settled in the West, sometimes well before Israel was established. Some emigrated to Israel from the West and vice-versa. Let’s hear the voices of Mizrahim themselves, professor Aviad Moreno tells Sephardi Ideas Monthly. (With thanks: Edna)

Professor Aviad Moreno of Ben-Gurion University

First, because the majority of Sephardi/Mizrahi Jews made Aliya, or migrated, to the State of Israel, historians in the 1950s and 60s approached these events from the perspective of the modernizing, nation-building project of Zionism. From this perspective—this angle—the story to be told was how Sephardi/Mizrahi Jews were progressing from a traditional to a modern form of life, with “modern” understood in terms of secularized, contemporary European society.

This nationalist-modernist approach generated a reaction among historians who viewed Sephardi/Mizrahi history from a “separatist” perspective, decoupling Sephardi/Mizrahi Jewry from Jewish nationhood and viewing it instead from a post-colonial or neo-Marxist angle in which a single riff repeats itself in an endless loop, namely, how Sephardi/Mizrahi Jews were abused and oppressed by forces rooted in the West.

It’s possible to add additional “angles” that, in effect, silenced the voices of Sephardi/Mizrahi Jews themselves. Arab historians viewed Sephardi/Mizrahi Jews as collaborators in an oppressive European colonial project, and entire histories fell under the radar: what about Sephardi/Mizrahi Jews who migrated to the Americas? Or what happens to the stories of Sephardi/Mizrahi communities that migrated piecemeal to Israel and whose history continued as a kind of dialogue between Sephardi/Mizrahi Jews in Israel and their communal brethren still in the country of origin? In telling these stories, the historian who seeks to explore the power of human experience needs to move gracefully between different “centers,” and not to stake his or her flag in one place and view that perspective as sacred ground.

In response to these two dominant “schools”—secular-Zionist and post-colonial—some historians tried to identify what was useful in both while delineating a middle path that recognized the intensely powerful historical reality of Jewish national solidarity, while also acknowledging the ways in which Sephardi/Mizrahi Jews were, in many cases, viewed and treated with condescension, if not contempt.

This revision was indeed helpful, but it still missed what Dr. Moreno and his colleagues are trying to do: let the Sephardi/Mizrahi Jews speak for themselves, independent of larger historical framings.

Sephardi Ideas Monthly is delighted to share our interview with Dr. Aviad Moreno and, in so doing, to share with our readers the trailblazing, new perspective that is enriching our understanding of Sephardi/Mizrahi history and with it, Jewish history as a whole.

Sephardi Ideas Monthly: Dr. Moreno, please explain how, in your book, The Long History of the Mizrahim: New Directions in the Study of the Jews of Islamic Lands, you and your colleagues challenge some of the dominant perspectives in the field of Sephardi/Mizrahi Studies, particularly with regard to the way in which we tell the story of Sephardi/Mizrahi migrations in the 20thcentury.

Moreno: If we go back to Israel’s early years, the Jews collectively known as “Oriental Jewry” were viewed from the perspective of a large nation-building, modernizing project. Academic researchers examined edoth, Jewish ethnic groups that, it was assumed, would “progress” and shed their particular characteristics within the national Jewish melting pot. But, broadly speaking, the melting pot was designed to Europeanize everything. Now, despite some obvious differences, this analytical perspective was shared in other immigration-absorbing countries such as Australia and Brazil, where the national modernization projects also assumed European norms.

Beginning in the 1970s, however, academic discourse in the humanities and social sciences started to change. The nationalist framing of ethnic groups was challenged, and multiculturalism and hybrid identities were celebrated. There were a series of “turns,” such as the “cultural turn” followed by the “post-colonial turn,” and as a consequence, by the 1980s Jews from the Arab and Muslim world in Israel—now collectively known as Mizrahim—were being studied as another ethnic minority in post-national and post-colonial contexts and re-framed as underdogs within a global system of “Western hegemony” that included “white” or Ashkenazi Jews.

SIM: So it sounds like either way, the perspectives of the Sephardi/Mizrahi Jews themselves were overlooked, and their stories, as they experienced them, weren’t told.

Moreno: Yes, but we’re not there yet, there’s another layer.

To read rest  of Moreno’s interview, click here.

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