Mizrahi Jews, Jews of Color, and Racial Justice
Jewschool is proud to be a media partner for the first ever Jews of Color National Convening on May 1-3 in NYC and to host this series written by Jews of color about their movement for greater racial justice within and by the American Jewish community. These articles represent their authors and may not reflect the views of sponsoring organizations. Read the full series here.
I began organizing at JFREJ as a self-identified white person.
[/pullquote]As a Mizrahi Jew organizing for justice in my city, I initially questioned whether I had a role to play in the upcoming National Jews of Color Convening. Even though I co-founded the Mizrahi Caucus at Jews for Racial and Economic Justice [JFREJ], I still doubted whether I — a half-Iraqi Jew who has been racialized as white in this country — had any right showing up at this thing. And I sure as hell questioned whether I had any right to lead.
But my discomfort showed me precisely what our movement stands to gain when we collectively identify as Jews of Color, Sephardim, and Mizrahim in our intersectional struggles for the liberation of all people.
I began organizing at JFREJ as a self-identified white person, interested in moving past my immobilizing guilt over racial privilege into accountable action to transform the systems that exploit low-income folks, people of color, and immigrants in my city. It was through finding a Jewish Left community that is committed to ending racism in all of its forms that I came into a deeper understanding of how I can do that work as a mixed-race Mizrahi Jew, who is both white and Arab at once.
[pullquote align=left] I was playing into the same racial scripts that were invented to divide and oppress different ethnic groups.
[/pullquote]There’s a significant history of cultural erasure and forced assimilation that has made many Mizrahim, whether we’re mixed or not, really confused and ambivalent about where we fall (and we’re not the only ones). Radical women of color have long wrestled with the complexities of mixed-race and borderlands experience in our intersectional racial justice movements. The truth is that the racialization of Mizrahi Jews is incredibly complex — and context, as always, is everything.
The majority of Mizrahim in the world, particularly in Israel/Palestine, are racialized as people of color. There is also a distinct history of institutional oppression that Mizrahim face in Israel that warrants that identification. Let’s not forget that the Mizrahi Black Panthers of the 1970s saw themselves as Black within Israeli society, and felt inspired and connected to the struggles of Black people in America. While the same history of systemic oppression doesn’t exist for Mizrahim here in the U.S., many Mizrahim experience overt anti-Arab racism in their day to day life, both within and outside Jewish communities.
[pullquote align=right] Incredible potential lies ahead for Jewish communities when we recognize the critical role that Arab Jews can play.
[/pullquote]I am fortunate enough not to be one of those people. I look like my Ashkenazi father and pass as white, like many children of mixed marriages. Maybe the Convening was not meant for me. I also drew conclusions about which Mizrahi JFREJ members I felt should and shouldn’t attend, based on how Arab they looked. Even in organizing the first National Jews of Color Convening, I was playing into the same racial scripts that were invented to divide, classify, and oppress different ethnic groups in order to justify centuries of colonization, enslavement, and imperialism.
Because that is how racism and white supremacy work.
These systems make us internalize and recreate the hierarchies that were always meant to divide us. We know race is socially constructed, yet we’re still suspicious of each other’s “legitimacy” in this struggle. These systems also make us doubt how our struggles are truly interconnected.
Racism and white supremacy get in the way of us working together, in our full power, to end the systems we’re passionate about fighting against and which we all have a stake in transforming.
[pullquote align=left] Those of us with light skin or white skin privilege must also take responsibility.
[/pullquote]For me, coming to identify as Mizrahi has been an ongoing process of working to silence these scripts while holding on to three key values. I need to reclaim a beautiful, rich, and vast history of Arab Jewish culture that spans centuries, and which has been largely erased through forced assimilation into whiteness and Ashkenazi culture, most notably through Zionism. I need to remember the role that white Ashkenazi Jews have played in systematically oppressing, discriminating against, and exploiting Mizrahim and Jews of Color in Israel/Palestine, in ways that culturally reverberate for Mizrahim in America. And I need to realize the incredible potential that lies ahead for Jewish communities when we recognize the critical role that Arab Jews can play in grassroots, global movements for justice — particularly in ending Islamophobia and anti-Arab racism within the Jewish community and beyond.
As Arab Jews, our very existence calls into question some of the most basic values that our mainstream Jewish community has tragically come to hold about the “threat” that Palestinians and Arab Muslims in general pose to our collective safety. We’re the Jews who need to lead the struggle to transform that belief internally, just like Black Jews need to be the ones to lead the Jewish community’s struggle against anti-Black racism and police brutality in this country. But we can only do that if and when white Ashkenazi Jews do their own work to confront the multiple forms of racism that they perpetuate within and outside our Jewish communities.
[pullquote align=right] That is the only way that we will win.
[/pullquote]JFREJ is perhaps one of the few organizations that is holding these contradictions, and reimagining race and assimilation in these ways. As we’ve learned, this work is complicated and difficult; we’ve made mistakes along the way and I’m sure we’ll continue to do so. But one thing we have learned is that we can’t homogenize the oppression faced by Mizrahim and/or Jews of Color. Our power comes from rigorously analyzing the particular social conditions that characterize our respective communities’ experiences — not by essentializing them. That means that those of us with light skin or white skin privilege must also take responsibility for the ways in which colorism and anti-Black racism play out in the work that we’re doing.
Jews of Color, Sephardim, and Mizrahim all have a role to play in ending the systems of racism, white supremacy, and Ashkenazi cultural dominance that work so well to keep us apart. Even though we all have varying experiences of privilege and oppression within these systems, each of us has power to gain by linking to one another’s struggles. That is the only way that we will win.