Andrea Zanardo
Andrea Zanardo
The Zionist Rabbi your friends warned you about

A painful reading

The Report of the Commission on Racial Inclusivity is painful reading.  Enough to make you cry. Indeed, I cried.

Nonetheless, I want to be optimistic.  I hope that next year the Day to Mark the Departure and Expulsion of Jews from the Arab Countries and Iran (November 30) will be observed in Reform and Liberal synagogues. It’s one of the Report’s recommendations (at p. 41), and I hope it will be followed largely. Because I want to be an optimist.

Indeed, I want to be very optimistic. I hope I won’t be called a racist or an Islamophobe like when I dared to suggest such an observance.

I want to be a super-optimist. Perhaps one day, Reform and Progressive Jews will even have a prayer to recite on November 30, to pay honour to the memory of the Jewish communities from Arab Countries.  After all, why commemorate the Kristallnacht and not the Farhud? Is the blood of Iraki Jews less red than the German Jews’?

This attitude — privileging the experience of Ashkenazi Jews while marginalising Sephardi, Mizrachi… has a name: Ashkenormativity. It means assuming that all Jews are Ashkenazi.

Read the Report and you’ll learn how widespread, and painful is such an attitude in the Reform and Progressive world. The lack of Progressive training for Sephardi Rabbis, the dismissal of the Sephardi melodies, the obsession for the East End which — let us call it JewDas narrative — is imagined as more authentically Jewish even than Israel. I’ve seen it all. And much more. Ashkenormativity hurts.

But, also, Ashkenormativity is detrimental to our Movement.

It pains my heart to read of that father who complained “the total absence of any kind of Progressive Sephardi experience”. We want to be inclusive, but “songs of any typical Shabbat service are full of ‘lai-lai-lai’s as if every Jew comes from the shtetl. Their newsletters and sermons reference Yiddish words. Their kiddushes are full of Eastern European flavours. Most importantly of all, the siddur, musical traditions of the services, and minhagim are radically different. It is really hard to be a Sephardi father, trying to pass my heritage down to my children.” [Report, p. 66].

The Report flags to our attention that Progressive and Sephardi can be part of the same identity. Are we surprised?

Haven’t you seen how well attended are the “Sephardi and egalitarian” services at Limmud?

Do we think that Mizrachi Jews are all a bunch of tribal, patriarchal, new money… as portrayed in a 2007 article of the New York Times, which unfortunately circulated when I was a student? Well, they are not. There is a demand for Sephardi and Reform out there. Apart from moral considerations, our denominations can grow in numbers if we make room for Mizrachi families in our communities.

But there’s a but.

Let’s review a bit of history. The oldest synagogue of Damascus had been converted into a school for Palestinian refugees. In 1947 the Arab League advocated the freezing of Jewish citizens’ bank accounts to fund “to finance the movement of resistance to Zionists ambitions in Palestine” (L. Julius, Uprooted, p. 169).  After the Jewish neighbours of Baghdad and Tripoli were made Judenrein, houses were given to Palestinian refugees. And let us not forget the pogroms that forced the last Jews to leave Libya and Algeria after the Six Day War.

Arab nationalists retaliated violently against centuries-old Mizrahi Jewish communities in the name of the Palestinian resistance.  How often we talk about these pages of history?

How can you expect that children and grandchildren of these refugees to feel at home in synagogues where the Palestinians are mentioned even in the prayers?  The last time that I checked “Tikkun Olam” did not mean upholding the narrative of your persecutors.

We can add the odd bit of Sephardi folklore (such as the Mimouna) to what our synagogues offer. But it will be pointless if we don’t learn to listen to Mizrachi voices, if we do not make room for those Jews whose voices we can almost hear in the Report, at p. 33: “My family would not be alive today if it were not for the State of Israel.”

What is the narrative about Israel in our Movement? Yes, we are Zionist – we say. But how often do we remind the public opinion in the UK, and to our congregants, how many Jews are alive because a Jewish State exists? As it happens, your average Mizrahi congregant, or future congregant, is one of them. If not he/she, at least his or her cousin. Recalling the pogroms that those families have suffered, and for which they had to leave, is “Far Right” or “Islamophobic”? And why? Is it “Germanophobic” to recall the Shoah, as we do two or three times a year (Holocaust Memorial Day, Yom HaShoah and Kristallnacht anniversary)?

In 1840, among the founders of the first English Reform synagogue, Sephardi were the majority. Today, if we learn to listen, a Progressive Sephardi and Mizrachi Judaism can flourish in the UK.

It’s true that Quien quere á la rosa, non mire al espino, if you want the rose, you must ignore the thorns. And it’s true that at the moment, the thorns hurt. But, let’s be  optimist, one day the rose can blossom.

About the Author
Italian by birth, Israeli by choice, Rabbi of the largest synagogue in Sussex (UK). Uncompromising Zionist.
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