We have been forced into binarisms. Either we are progressive/pro-Arab/ pro-Palestinian and thus in favor of giving up the West Bank, Gaza, East Jerusalem, and the Golan Heights; or we are racist/anti-Arab/anti-Palestinian and in favor of keeping all or part of this land.
In all the analyses I have heard, from the so-called Left and Right, the hawks and the doves, there is a poignant lack of awareness of the reality of Jews indigenous to the Middle East and North Africa (Mizrahim). As if the only refugees have been Arab. As if the only Jews have been Central/East European (Ashkeanzim). As if “Jewish” and “Middle Eastern” identities diametrically are opposed. And ironically enough, although not surprisingly, I have found Arab analyses of the situation to be as Euro-centric as the Jewish and general world community’s analyses.
I say we put *all* cards on the table. I say we talk about *all* the Arab-Jewish/ Arab-Israeli points of connection and oppression – in both directions – and only then begin thinking of how to solve the problems in the Middle East. Without looking at the full picture, I find we do not have integrity in addressing Arab-Israel relations; and I find that racist and anti-Jewish assumptions and attitudes are woven into the lens through which we look at issues in the Middle East.
Germany has been held accountable for the Holocaust. The country has been publicly shamed throughout the world. It has made compensation payments to families of Holocaust victims and to the State of Israel. Israel’s relationship with Germany has been framed with a backdrop of poignant consciousness of German atrocities. People throughout the world have at least a context for understanding, if not ample compassion, for Jews who have difficulty hearing the German language or buying German products. On a daily basis in the Jewish world, we are reminded of the Holocaust: “We will not forget.”
To the contrary, the Arab states literally have gotten away with murder. How many people know of the daily terror Jews faced in Syria? How many people know that Arab countries such as Iraq invited Nazis to exterminate its Jewish communities communities that had been there 1,000-1,500 years prior to the Arab/Muslim invasion of the region? How many people know about the hundreds of miles of Jewish land and billions of dollars of Jewish property that were confiscated and nationalized by various Arab governments? Moreover, how many people know that 900,000 Jewish refugees from Arab countries and their millions of children now make up the majority of the entire Israeli population? How many people care?
I believe anyone in the Middle East peace movement would find it absurd to discuss Arab-Israel relations without inviting Palestinians to the table. Yet I consistently have found Mizrahim absent from such discussions. I also believe anyone in the peace movement would find it unthinkable to ask Palestinians at the table to be silent about the oppression their families have suffered at the hands of Israel. Yet I have found Mizrahim unfailingly silenced by these same people, when trying to talk about the oppression our families faced at the hands of Arab governments. This silencing, I have found, is rooted in a complex mixture of and relationship between racism and Jew-hatred.
Arab governments and international Arab community leaders publicly have spoken of Jews as if all Jews are European; and they have spoken about Israel as if it were a European state colonializing third-world people. In fact, as I mentioned before, the majority of Israel’s population is Mizrahi, indigenous to the region and never having left it. More specifically, they are Jewish refugees from Yemen, Syria, Egypt, Morocco, and other countries under Arab control. They were forced to flee their homes of 3,000 years when Arab states either issued expulsion orders or otherwise forced them to leave, through intolerable conditions of oppression.
I find that Arab dismissal of the Mizrahi experience stems from anti-Jewish sentiment that existed far before the creation of the State of Israel. If hostility towards Israel purely was because of injustices the state inflicted on Arabs, Arab leaders could speak about those injustices without needing to dismiss or trying to erase the Mizrahi reality. The two could exist side by side. And of course, they should.
But the dismissal is a way of taking even more from Mizrahim. On the materialistic level alone, it is a way of avoiding having to compensate Mizrahim for confiscating and nationalizing billions of dollars worth of communal and personal property. It otherwise is an opportunistic means of escaping accountability for the many injustices inflicted on these Jews, by reframing Arab-Jewish history so the world sees Arabs as third-world victims and Jews as white European oppressors.
Ironically enough, the State of Israel and the international Jewish community have helped foster this perception, as they too have presented all Jews as being white Europeans. Even during the Gulf War, when Iraqi missiles fell predominantly on Ramat Gan, an Iraqi Jewish suburb of Tel Aviv, we did not hear the Iraqi-Israelis speak of Iraq destroying their homes twice in one lifetime; rather, we heard European-Israelis saying how the bombing reminded them of the Holocaust.
Whereas I find Arab dismissal of Mizrahi reality stemming from anti-Jewish sentiment, I find Ashkenazi dismissal of Mizrahi reality stemming from racist sentiment. Mizrahi mistrust of Arab states has not been understood with compassion, the way Ashkenazi discomfort with Germany has been; and along those lines, Mizrahi hesitancy to give up Israeli land has not been explored and taken seriously. To the contrary, the Mizrahi experience and political stand on Israel has been contextualized in a racist, patronizing light. Mizrahim, we have been told, are “hawks” because they are too primitive to understand the Western values of diplomacy, democracy, and peace.
I have seen and heard Ashkenazim state this message over and over again in international media; literature and forums on Arab-Israel relations; and university classrooms. In fact, it is almost exclusively in this context that I ever have heard about Mizrahim in non-Mizrahi circles. When individuals view the Mizrahi experience in such a contemptuous way, I find it impossible to believe they have true respect and value for the Arab experience. For that which they intrinsically hate about Mizrahim, our Middle Easternness, is specifically that which Arabs share with us. How can someone who is truly so pro-Arab simultaneously be so hostile towards Mizrahim?
For a few years, I was baffled by that question. On a related note, I did not understand why a number of Jewish organizations have helped Arab causes while ignoring altogether or giving substantially less support to Mizrahi causes. A few months ago, I was thinking about these questions while also reflecting on Israel’s desire to emulate Europe – to assimilate Jews, in other words, on a grand national scale. Suddenly, I realized these two separate thoughts were one; and I developed this theory:
Anti-Semitism is a term that specifically describes the anti-Jewish experience facing Ashkenazim. Persecution of German, Polish, and Russian Jews was based on the premise that these individuals were not real Europeans; they were so-called Semites – people of the Middle East and North Africa. And because of European racism, people of this region were seen as undesirable foreigners.
Ashkenazim thus faced hostility, discrimination, and even death attributed to the Middle Eastern and North African roots of the Jewish people. For the sake of survival or status, depending on the time period, Ashkenazim therefore tried to assimilate into Christian Europe, by appearing as un-“Semitic” as possible.
As such, a cultural legacy was developed and passed on, where Ashkenazim shunned the Middle Eastern and North African roots of their heritage, in favor of a European identity. Despite the facts that Hebrew originated in the Middle East; that the first yeshivas (Jewish learning institutions) were in ancient Iraq; that the Jewish holiday of Purim celebrated the story of Iranian Jews; and that Passover told the story of Egyptian Jews; despite the fact that Jews lived in the Middle East and North Africa for 4,000 years as opposed to the 1,000 or so Ashkenazim lived in Central and Eastern Europe; and despite the fact that the overall Jewish rhythm Ashkenazim lived was rooted in a Middle Eastern and North African tradition, Ashkenazim completely dissociated from a Middle Eastern and North African identity because it was not safe or simply because it was deemed undesirable and inferior.
And so we have a crisis in Jewish identity, where anti-Semitism is itself a form of racism, and where Ashkenazi detachment from the Middle Eastern and North African roots of Judaism is simultaneously a form of self-hatred and self-preservation.
Modern Zionist ideology is based on enabling Jews to finally throw off their Semitic stigma and be considered equals among the European nations. So imagine the horror Ashkenazim felt when hundreds of thousands of Mizrahi refugees poured into Israel, many looking like they had just stepped out of the bible. Mizrahim, I am convinced, pushed every proverbial button of terror that Ashkenazim had.
For this reason, I understand how Ashkenazi individuals and community leaders can simultaneously embrace Arab causes and run in the other direction from Mizrahi ones. Arab causes seem external, about someone else. Mizrahi causes, to the contrary, challenge the very foundations of Jewish identity and thus threaten to crumble a millenium worth of hard labor Ashkenazim have put into being viewed as true Europeans.
Of course, this behavior describes Ashkenazim who consciously ignore or resist the Mizrahi reality. There are Ashkenazim who embrace the Arab cause but not the Mizrahi one simply out of ignorance. Because the Arab and Jewish communities have portrayed Jews as white Europeans, many Ashkenazim have analyzed the situation through this lens; and they honorably have gone beyond their own interests to fight what seems to be a racist case of white Europeans colonializing and oppressing third world natives.
There also are Ashkenazim who are hostile both to Mizrahi and Arab causes. I feel this attitude comes from general racism towards non-Europeans. Ironically enough, with the establishment of the State of Israel, Ashkenazim for the first time could present themselves as true Europeans and be the ones in power over the non-Europeans – whether Mizrahi, Arab, or more recently, Ethiopian.
A woman I met at the first conference for Mizrahi and Ethiopian feminists (Israel, 1996) voiced her opinion of one more reason why Ashkenazim may support the Arab cause but not the Mizrahi one. Whereas the majority of Mizrahim live in Israel, she pointed out, the majority of Ashkenazim live in the Diaspora (outside Israel), where they get a lot of flack for Israel’s actions. To relieve their own discomfort, they take whatever is the currently fashionable line on the Arab-Israel relationship. As the world community currently does not acknowledge the existence of Mizrahi reality yet sees Arab states and people as victims, many Ashkenazim will say the same not out of deep concern for what is going on, but simply so they will not be hassled.
What about non-Jewish/non-Arab individuals? I feel anyone who is pro-Arab out of the positive spirit of defending justice will embrace the Mizrahi reality. After all, the two are not in competition; and in fact, there are a number of places where they overlap. To the contrary, I believe that individuals who are using the Arab cause as a cover for Jew-hatred will resist learning about the Mizrahi reality. I in fact have had this latter experience and see it as a good litmus test for finding out one’s true intentions around the Arab-Israel issue.
Given the information most people have received about the Arab-Israel relationship, I can understand feeling anti-Israel. If I did not know what I do, I easily could be anti-Israel myself, perceiving a cut-and-dry situation of white Europeans yet again colonializing native people of color.
I feel it is imperative to learn about the Mizrahi experience and see it in its own context. Along these lines, I find it important to see in a compassionate light whatever Mizrahi mistrust there is of Arab states and people and to take seriously the experiences that led to this mistrust. For there to be healing in the Middle East, we must make room for everyone’s experiences and feelings, so that we can have the full information and intelligence we need to move into a peaceful future.
Right now, I find there is no room for Mizrahim to voice our experience with, anger at, hurt from, or mistrust of Arabs. For many of us, when we have begun voicing our feelings, people have jumped down our throats, reciting to us the Palestinian cause. As if it could not exist side by side with the Mizrahi cause. As if there only was room for one. As if the pain of another person’s broken leg meant you could not share the pain of your broken arm.
People have called us racist when we have spoken – a fact I find highly ironic, as I feel that perception in itself is Euro-centric. It can be very different, I believe, for an African-American to say, “I hate white people” than for a white person to say, “I hate black people.” In a racist society, the victims of racism have much reason to be angry at and hateful of the group that has been the oppressor. To the contrary, members of the oppressive group may feel hateful simply because of irrational feelings of superiority towards anyone not like them.
To view Mizrahi mistrust of or anger towards Arabs as being racist is to eradicate the Mizrahi experience of being the oppressed group in Arab countries. It is to see Mizrahim as analogous to white people and Arabs as analogous to African-Americans, instead of the reverse. It is to clump Mizrahim together with Ashkenazim and once again to see all Jews of Israel as being European oppressors.
The Mizrahi experience of course varied from country to country, and not all Mizrahim share the same feelings or current political stand regarding Israel. But the majority of Mizrahim in Israel seem to be more conservative about giving up Israeli land. I happen to feel the same, and I have spoken with many Mizrahi-Israelis who feel this way; accordingly, I can share a few thoughts as to why:
Throughout the Arab world, Jews were treated as dhimmis – legally second-class, inferior people. Some telling visual examples include that Jews were not permitted to ride horses, because their heads would be higher than the heads of Muslims, and Jews could not build synagogues taller than mosques. Through legal restrictions, Islam and Muslims were made to be, literally and figuratively, always above Judaism and Jews.
Even in the mildest forms of discrimination, Jews were treated as subordinate and expendable and were given many obstacles to basic economic survival. The restrictions on Jewish freedom were demeaning and thus humiliating. The yellow badge – i.e., the yellow Star of David, a symbol associated exclusively with Nazi Germany – actually originated in the Middle East, where it was used to identify and single out Jews for a variety of discriminatory treatments.
Throughout the Arab world, governments did not grant Jews equal protection under the law. Governments not only condoned or ignored the terrorization of Jews; but they initiated such terrorization, as well. In countries such as Iraq and Syria, for example, government officials randomly banged on doors of Jewish homes, after which time nobody ever again saw the families inside. Gruesome torture of Jews also was common in such countries, after which victims either were murdered or returned alive yet permanently disabled or disfigured. Kidnapping and holding Jews for ransom was so prevalent that the Jewish communities had official, ongoing ransom funds. Jewish children going to school frequently just disappeared, without even making it to the ransom stage.
When we ourselves have not experienced or been exposed to a certain oppressive lifestyle, the weight and significance of its reality may not really register with us. Because of the invalidation and silencing of Mizrahi Jews, we have not been exposed to the personal stories of people who suffered through the discrimination and terror I have described. We have not been flooded with footage of the daily abuses they experienced. We have not witnessed the community when it flourished despite its obstacles, and we have not seen its destruction when everything was taken and nationalized by the Arab governments.
I was not of the generation that grew up in and was forced to flee from Iraq; but I have been impacted directly by many consequences of the fear and destruction the Jewish community faced there. Growing up, my sister and I were forbidden from making any sudden, banging noise. Whenever we forgot, my father was thrown into a fit of panic and terror, having a visceral reaction that an Arab official was at the door to come do Gd-knows-what to the family. My father also slept with his shoes near his bed for years of my life, unable to get over the sense of needing to run from an Arab mob at any time. I learned fear of walking past an uncovered window at night; my father passed it on from his childhood, where it apparently was unsafe for a Jew to be exposed in such a way.
I also grew up feeling my father’s anger and resentment at Iraq for robbing his family of everything, making him have to start from scratch. Like all Iraqi Jews fleeing the country, he was allowed to bring only one suitcase on his exit. No significant amounts of money, momentos, or religious ceremonial objects . Just the basics. He had to leave his life behind. Then at the airport, Arab officials broke open his and everyone else’s suitcases, taking whatever they wanted from the minuscule amount the Jews were permitted to bring. They even took the glasses from my father’s nose, until they realized his prescription did not suit them.
I grew up hearing about one of my fathers uncles, tortured by Iraqi government officials for the crime of being a Jew. Arab men hung this Jewish man by his thumbs and left him there for seven days until his thumbs broke. He had been a gifted surgeon; but he was never able to practice medicine again. I heard about how my father grew up with pressure to be the absolute best in his class if he wanted a chance of getting into Iraqi university; only a handful of Jews were allowed each year.
And I grew up without things: We had only about 10 pictures total from Iraq. Everything else was destroyed. So I never really knew what my father or his family looked like before getting to Israel. I never got a sense of his home, neighborhood, school, or synagogue in Baghdad. I relied on my father’s stories and my own visualization to create a sense of family history.
Though I grew up with Iraqi-Jewish ceremonial objects, all but one were replicas from Israel. The only salvaged original was the kadous (wine) cup my great-grandparents gave to my grandparents on their wedding day. It was a silver cup with a silver top, boasting a loose dove in the middle. The dove wobbled around, I was told, because it originally had a Star of David next to it. My grandparents took out the star to make the cup more disguisable…just in case.
A number of people around me – family, community members, friends’ parents – have been completely unable and thus unwilling to discuss details of life and loss in their home countries throughout the Arab world. The pained silence itself has told me a story and given me a sense of the harsh impact of what happened to the Mizrahi community.
Murdered family, decimated community, confiscated land, destroyed property, and refugee reality – all as a direct result of Arab oppression of Jews. It is with this information, understanding, and personal experience that many Mizrahim approach and have insight into the issue of Arab-Israel relations. In our eyes, Arab animosity towards Israel stems primarily from general Arab hatred of Jews – a hatred that existed prior to and separate from the State of Israel.
Consider for a moment the significance of a prohibition such as not letting a Jew ride a horse. Consider the implications of laws forcing Jewish heads to be forever beneath Muslim heads, Jewish places of worship to be forever below Muslim places of worship, Jewish identity to be forever beneath Arab identity. Consider for a moment how Arab governments that made these laws and Arab citizens that supported them would feel towards a state created for and by the very people supposed to be forever below and at the mercy of Arabs…How much more aggravating that through the creation of this state, these worthless Jews have the power to create laws governing Arab lives!
I find it telling that the majority of Arabs seem to find Israeli control of east Jerusalem to be insufferable but international rule of the area to be acceptable. Either way, Palestinian Arabs are not in control of the territory. But at least with international rule, those damn Jews are not governing Arab lives.
Similarly, I find it interesting that Palestinian Arabs have centered their struggle for independence around miserable little strips of land along the West Bank and Gaza, when apparently 80% of British-mandated Palestine is now under Jordanian control. Why focus on the minuscule part of Israeli-controlled land, while completely neglecting the massive amount of Jordanian-controlled territory? In other words, how much of the Palestinian Arabs’ struggle for independence is truly about reclaiming land and achieving self-rule, and how much of it is about stripping power from Jews? How much of the struggle is pro-Palestinian, and how much of it is anti-Jewish?
From my perspective as a Mizrahi, the Arab-Israel struggle is rooted in an ancient tribal and religious battle, in which Arabs and their forebears have had the upper hand for over a thousand years. During this time, they have taken away Jewish land, stripped Jews of autonomy, and otherwise disempowered Jews.
The Jewish people began 4,000 years ago in Mesopotamia (ancient Iraq). In ancient times, tribes roamed the Middle East and North Africa, with no one force controlling another. Over time, however, empires and kingdoms arose, introducing systems of dominance and subordination, conquer and rule. In time, the Israelites broke free, conquered the land of Cana’an, and established their own space and government: Israel. Eventually, however, the Babylonian empire (ancient Iraq) conquered Israel and took Israelites into captivity and exile in Babylon (ancient Iraq).
After the Persian (ancient Iranian) empire conquered the Babylonian Empire about half a century later, Israelites re-established the nation-state of Israel, only to be conquered about 500 years later by the Roman Empire and exiled as slaves to the European continent. Since that time, Israelites maintained their presence on Israeli land, without re-establishing a formal government, until the modern state. In the meantime, they lived under the rule of various governments that took over the region, including that of the Ottoman Empire (under Turkish control) and British-mandated Palestine (under English control).
During the times of Arab rule throughout the Middle East and North Africa, the fate of Jews depended on how “useful” they were to the governments and how powerful they became. When Jewish labor was needed, Arab governments treated Jews well. When Jews gained power, Arab governments began persecuting Jews. Life always was uncertain.
But one thing is certain: When Mohammed began the Islamic religion, he initially embraced the Jews, hoping to convert them. After Jews refused conversion, however, he evidently became furious, thus establishing the scriptures condemning Jews to dhimmi status.
From that time on, Arab oppression of Jews became personal. Jews became specifically targeted, instead of just being the latest tribal victims of Muslim expansion and rule. And Islam swallowed up Judaism, claiming Jewish sites as Muslim and preventing Jews from access to them. Until the re-establishment of Israel, in fact, I understand that Jews were forbidden from entering Arab-controlled places as central to Jewish history and religious practice as the burial site of Abraham, our patriarch.
And so, for thousands of years, Arabs and their forebears have taken things away from Jews indigenous to the Middle East and North Africa. The Mizrahi community thus comes to the Arab-Israel relationship with a legacy of understandable mistrust, based on unceasing Arab efforts to erode away or eliminate altogether our space, power, and autonomy. We are an indigenous people fighting for our right to our own piece of land in our own region, without anymore being hassled or subsumed by Arab rule. We are engaged in a struggle to finally have the collective room to breathe.
For me, this struggle not only is about having our own space; it also is about recognition of the fact that we exist, that our identity is real and valid. The two of course are related: By recognizing Mizrahi reality, one must recognize our claims to Israeli land. “Ashkenazim got us into this mess,” a woman from the Mizrahi and Ethiopian feminist conference said to me, referring to identity politics and controversial land claims in the region. “They did not and do not have as deep a sense of legitimacy of being here as we do, because they are not from here; they are from Europe…They have backed down in the face of Palestinian claims to the region, because they do not feel the same rights to the land. But we Mizrahim have these rights. We have been here forever.”
Seeing Arab resistance and hostility to Israel only from the slant of Arab-as-victim and Jew-as-oppressor overlooks and erases thousands of years of Arab-Jewish history in the Middle East and North Africa. It is inherently Euro-centric: It only recognizes the existence and experience of European Jews, and it only recognizes power as in the hands of Europeans. Have we forgotten the fact that the Middle East and North Africa were international centers of political power, predating the rise of Europe; that the force of what we call “civilization” originated in this region? Are we so blinded by whiteness and Euro-centrism that we cannot conceptualize people from this area ever having power over others?
I find it imperative to begin recognizing where Arab resistance and hostility to Israel has been rooted in historical hatred and oppression of Jews. I feel we need to re-examine events of the region with an eye to Mizrahi reality and then reassess our understanding of what will bring true justice to the Middle East. For example:
Back to the beginning, why were so many Arab states completely resistant to the first partition plan dividing land between Palestinian Arabs and Palestinian Jews? If it was out of resistance to “European invasion,” why did these states take out their anger on the Jews back home (in Tunisia, Lebanon, Egypt..) ¾Jews who never had set eyes on the European continent? If it was out of concern for Palestinian Arabs, why did these states not absorb the Arab refugees after the creation of the State of Israel? Why did they create squalid camps (now under Israeli control) and dump the refugees in them?
Regarding today’s politics, why does the world demand that Israel give land or pay compensation to indigenous Arabs, while remaining completely silent about Arab states having stolen from and forcing out indigenous Jews, who now make up the majority of Israel’s population? Why does the world demand that Israel give Syria back some or all of the Golan Heights, when Syria inflicted serious human rights abuses on the Syrian Jews; confiscated and nationalized Syrian Jewish property; and never made compensation payments or even apologized?
Through ignoring or dismissing the Mizrahi reality, I feel the world has perpetuated Arab dominance over indigenous Middle Eastern and North African Jews, inherently accepting and enforcing Arab claims to our land, religious sites, and property. The forces silencing our voices have been so strong that many have given up altogether trying to speak about our reality, and others have done it with great fear of a backlash – which usually has followed.
I am tired of feeling fear of and guilt about asserting the rights, needs, and experiences of my community. I stand eager to work in alliance with Arabs, but I will not do so in sacrifice of my own people. As far as I am concerned, this situation is “all or none”: Arabs must be my ally if I am going to be theirs.
With rare exceptions, my experience has been that Arab leaders and individuals are eager to receive support of their cause but unwilling to give support to ours. I find this pattern to be a continuation of Arab oppression of Jews: We are supposed to step aside, shut up, and otherwise disappear, unless and until we are useful in furthering an Arab agenda.
What about us fighting for our own causes? Moreover, what about Arabs speaking out about the injustices Mizrahi Jews suffered at the hands of Arabs? There are numerous Jewish organizations – in Israel and abroad – dedicated to giving land to or securing financial compensation for Palestinian Arabs; yet I do not know of one single Arab organization – Palestinian or otherwise – fighting to demand the same for Mizrahim. In fact, I know of only one individual Arab simply verbalizing this message.
I find it no less than obnoxious for Arabs to expect Mizrahim to pretend our own reality does not exist, to expect us to be in deference to Arab claims and struggles. For there to be true peace in the Middle East, all parties involved must have the room to express how we have been oppressed by each other; and all must look at and fight to end how we have been oppressive to each other.
I am willing to stand up, speak out about, and fight against current Israeli oppression of Palestinian Arabs – whether at the hands of Ashkenazim, Mizrahim, or anyone else. I challenge my Arab sisters and brothers to be as willing to stand up and speak out about Arab oppression of Mizrahi Jews.
If supporting someone else inherently rips the floor out from under my own feet, I cannot risk it; I will not participate in a setup for my own destruction. As long as alliance work with Arabs is structured in such a way as to completely negate the Mizrahi reality, I refuse to participate in it. I will not help perpetuate the silencing and oppression of my people.
For example, I have been to several panels of Arab and Jewish women, where the Arabs were Muslim or Christian and the Jews were white Europeans. Every time, I have raised my hand and spoken about the invisibility of Mizrahi women on the panels. And every time, Arab women from the panel warmly have approached me after the program, taking me aside and telling me something like, “You and I are sisters. We are the same people. It’s those Zionists that are the problem.” Or, as one Arab woman added after a panel, “Those Ashkenazim are pigs.”
Statements like these have made shivers go up my spine. They essentially have asked me to split myself in half, to connect on the basis of one half and forget about the other. They inherently have demanded that I structure my Middle Eastern reality around an Arab construct.
But as a Mizrahi woman, I bring my identity to the table: Culturally, it is true, I have more in common with Arab Muslims and Christians than I do with Ashkenazi Jews. But I am a Jew, and this reality must be acknowledged and addressed. Arab women cannot expect to bond with me against the “big, evil Ashkenazi,” completely ignoring a legacy of Arab oppression of Jews. If we are to unite in alliance, Arabs must hold my struggle in their hearts, as I must hold their struggle in mine.
With rare exceptions, I have not experienced Arab willingness to have different perspectives on Arab-Israel/Arab-Jewish issues and come together where we agree; rather, I have felt pressure that to be friends or allies, I first must deny my own reality. As such, to be connected, I have felt I must endanger myself, participate in diminishing my own space.
The situation feels comparable to that of many men demanding that women sacrifice our autonomy and integrity to be involved with them. In both cases, I refuse to hand over a piece of myself so as to be connected with someone else. Regarding relations with Arabs, I will not hide my own politics or pain as a precondition of caring for an individual. I find such a precondition to be self-righteous and offensive, as well as destructive to my own integrity.
I deeply desire to connect with Arabs, to heal the wounds between us and support each other’s empowerment. I hope I can go into the fire instead of needing to stay far away. I hope I can offer attention, love, and support to Arabs and demand the same in return, helping end this either-or rift between us. And I hope that the uniqueness of Mizrahi voices finally gets heard in the Middle East peace movement and Arab-Israel peace talks. Regardless of our stand (we certainly are not a monolithic community), the world around us needs to finally recognize us and take seriously what we have to say.
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This article was first published in Clamor Magazine. Excerpts of this article were a cover story in Kinesis Magazine, under the same title. Excerpts also were in a story in Bridges Magazine (http://www.pond.net/~ckinberg/bridges), as part of a larger article, “We Are Here and This Is Ours.”
©1999 by Loolwa Khazzoom. All rights reserved. No portion of this article may be copied without author’s permission.