Sarah Katz
Don't fit the mould - MAKE the mould.

The Dangerous Myth of Ashkenazi Privilege

In light of the often-heated conversations surrounding intersectionality that have blossomed throughout the US in the past decade, a parallel rift has emerged within the American Jewish community – the alleged distinction between Ashkenazi and Mizrahi Jews. This degree of separation serves as a frequent talking point for various Jewish influencers, namely pro-Israel activist, Hen Mazzig.[1] As a half Mizrahi, half Ashkenazi Jew myself, I hold the fixation on such discrepancies within the Jewish community as perilous against the backdrop of revived levels of global anti-Semitism.

Throughout their time in Diaspora, Ashkenazi (immediate ancestors in Europe) and Mizrahi (immediate ancestors in the Middle East) Jews have understandably developed various unique traditions. For example, Gefilte fish represent an Ashkenazi delicacy not found among Mizrahim, just as Ashkenazim rarely indulge in Hawaij and Aden. That said, the one location in the world where both cuisine types tend to intersect is Israel – which brings us to the hottest point of contention:

As the Islamic world and western left continue to frame Israel as a European colonialist outpost in the Middle East full of “white Jews” seeking to oppress “non-white Arabs”, an alarming chunk of the global Jewish community has fallen into the trap of divide and blame. Namely, provided the financial and political success of majority Ashkenazi Jews in the US and Israel, many Mizrahim and non-Jews have come to conflate Ashkenazim with white Europeans, almost a sort of ‘false Jew’ or, at the very least, Jews who are too removed from Israel and the Middle East to be considered legitimate or even at risk of oppression.

This categorization of Ashkenazim as “privileged white people” is not only dangerous, as any kind of divide among the already minuscule world Jewish population facilitates the goal of those wishing to victimize us – furthermore, such a label is also inaccurate. After all, the synagogue shootings in Pittsburgh, PA,[2] and Poway, CA,[3] within the past year alone targeted communities of majority Ashkenazi Jews. In neither case did the white supremacist assailants choose to spare these Jewish individuals because of their skin tone or their ancestors’ residence in Europe. Moreover, the Jewish caricatures included in the recent Belgian street parade[4] specifically targeted Ashkenazi Jews living in Belgium, complete with the long-held stereotype of the large hooked nose, a physical trait also commonly observed throughout western media when portraying Arabs.[5] Unfortunately, however, the western left has taken to labeling Ashkenazim as “occupiers” and “fake Jews”[6] to claim indigeneity to the Levant, accusations that Mizrahim typically do not experience, despite the latter two groups’ proven common ancestry.[7]

All that being said, we cannot deny the existence of Ashkenormativity in the US and Israel – the former due to the majority of American Jews being Ashkenazi, while the latter stems from the fact that most of Israel’s original founding fathers in 1948 were also Ashkenazim. Therefore, despite such Ashkenazi dominance in these circles, this tipped scale has everything to do with history and nothing to do with skin tone, especially since not all Ashkenazim have fair skin – two of the most notable examples being the well-known Ashkenazi actors, Jeff Goldblum and Oded Fehr.

Thus, an issue arises when Mizrahi Jewish influencers such as Hen Mazzig strive to paint all Ashkenazim as a lump sum of Jewish privilege. When faced with the threat of white supremacy, the entire Jewish community worldwide – along with Muslims, such as the victims of the Christchurch atrocities[8] – must stand in solidarity, rather than creating victimhood hierarchies based on Diasporic discrepancies and perceived similarity to “white” Europeans.

 

[1]Mazzig, Hen. “Mizrahi Jews: Israelis, but Not Israeli Enough.” Hen Mazzig | The Blogs, The Times of Israel, 8 Mar. 2019, blogs.timesofisrael.com/mizrahi-jews-israelis-but-not-israeli-enough/.

[2]Robertson, Campbell, et al. “11 Killed in Synagogue Massacre; Suspect Charged With 29 Counts.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 27 Oct. 2018, www.nytimes.com/2018/10/27/us/active-shooter pittsburgh-synagogue-shooting.html.

[3]Cowan, Jill. “What to Know About the Poway Synagogue Shooting.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 29 Apr. 2019, www.nytimes.com/2019/04/29/us/synagogue-shooting.html.

[4]Schreuer, Milan. “Jewish Caricatures at Belgian Carnival Set Off Charges of Anti-Semitism.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 8 Mar. 2019, www.nytimes.com/2019/03/08/world/europe/belgium carnival-anti-semitism.html.

[5] Reel Bad Arabs: How Hollywood Vilifies a People Jack G. Shaheen The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science Vol. 588, Islam: Enduring Myths and Changing Realities (Jul., 2003), pp. 171-193

[6] Kestenbaum, Sam. “Louis Farrakhan: Israel Is Not ‘Home To The White Jew’.” The Forward, The Forward, 10 May 2017, forward.com/fast-forward/371551/louis-farrakhan-israel-is-not-home-to the-white-jew/.

[7]Proc Natl Academy Sci USA 2000 Jun 6; 97(12): 6769–6774. Published online 2000 May 9. doi: 10.1073/pnas.100115997 PMCID: PMC18733 PMID: 10801975 Medical Sciences

[8]Al Jazeera. “US Synagogue Shooter Inspired by Christchurch Mosque Attacks.” USA News | Al Jazeera, Al Jazeera, 29 Apr. 2019, www.aljazeera.com/news/2019/04/synagogue-shooter-inspired christchurch-mosque-attacks-190429080419250.html.

About the Author
Sarah Katz is a UC Berkeley alumna, cyber security engineer, and author.
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