600,000 Mizrahi Jews (Jews from Middle Eastern and North African countries) arrived in Israel soon after 1948 as refugees and immigrants, joining the Mizrahim already living in Israel, and expecting to be welcomed by their Ashkenazi Jewish brothers and sisters. Mizrahi immigrants, however, were often sent to peripheral transit camps, looked down on as simple and antiquated, and excluded from full participation in society.
Today, Mizrahim make up over half of the Israeli Jewish population. Accordingly, they have a huge impact on Israeli society and politics. Yet, the role of Mizrahim is rarely discussed outside of Israel, which is often seen as European and white.
What defines Mizrahi identity? Why do Mizrahim still face exclusion and inequality in Israeli society? How do the Mizrahim influence Israeli politics and society today? And why does it matter?
The Shaharit Institute and the Times of Israel asked these questions in a recent online conversation with two Mizrahi activists: Sagit Peretz-Deri – a religious woman who rose the ranks of the right-wing religious Jewish Home party, and later joined Ehud Barak’s Democratic Camp; and Or Seri – the former Manager of Gender Policy in the Tel Aviv municipality, and the director of “Razot VeMashpiot,” a political training program for women.
Or and Sagit described Mizrahi identity as unnatural and formed in opposition to, and due to discrimination by, the dominant Ashkenazi-Israeli hegemony.
Or and Sagit asserted that historically strong Mizrahi political support for the Israeli right-wing stems in part from discrimination, especially by an Ashkenazi left that has claimed solidarity with Palestinians and refugees, but has refused to recognize its failings towards the Mizrahim, and has neglected to work towards a greater sense of solidarity amongst all Jews.
Or and Sagit noted their own efforts to build solidarity in Israel, including through their participation in the Shaharit Institute’s 120 Program for Multicultural National Political Leadership.
This interview had been edited for clarity and precision.
What defines Mizrahi identity?
It is common to refer to the “Mizrahim” as a definable group with shared characteristics. But the speakers agreed that it is not natural or assumed for all Mizrahim to hold a shared identity, as they have significant cultural differences depending on their country of origin. According to Ms. Peretz-Deri:
If you ask people that originated from Yemen, they will say, ‘I am Yemenite.’ If you ask my Grandma, she will say, ‘I am a Moroccan Jew,’ or ‘I am a Sepharadi Moroccan Jew,’ she would not say ‘I am a Mizrahi Jew.’ They never heard of Mizrahi before they came to Israel. They never even heard of it for a few decades after moving to Israel, and they didn’t actually know that they are called Mizrahi.
Ms. Seri agreed, continuing:
When you open a map and you look at Yemen and Morocco and you look at Germany, you see that both Yemen and Morocco are closer to Germany than they are to each other. So, even the geographical roots of the definition of Mizrachi, is a bit strange.
The speakers asserted, then, that rather than being a cultural or geographic identity, Mizrahi identity is strongly defined by the shared experience of exclusion and discrimination by the Israeli Ashkenazi hegemony.
Ms. Seri said:
The definition of Mizrahi stems from the Ashkenazi essence of the Zionist movement. The literal meaning of the word in Hebrew means ‘Eastern’ [as in East of Europe]. I think what actually connects Mizrahi Jews in Israel is the treatment from the Zionist movement, and the stereotypes and the status in Israeli society, that started even before 1948.
Ms Peretz-Deri agreed:
Most of the similarities amongst Mizrahim are because of the same experience of living in Israel as non-Ashkenazi Jews.
Ms. Peretz-Deri then recounted one of her earliest moments of Mizrahi “consciousness”:
I remember as a very young and talented child, people around me saying ‘we must show the world, we must show people around us that we are not less than them, we are as good as the Ashkenazi people.
On the Yemenite Children Affair
One of the most traumatizing experiences for Mizrahim arriving in Israel is heavily disputed and sensitive – the case of disappeared babies. Sarah Tuttle-Singer of the Times of Israel framed the question:
Last winter, I rode in a taxi with a driver who was born in Israel but his mother and father were from Yemen. He told me a horrific story about his aunt who gave birth to twin girls. Both were born pink and healthy, but within hours of being moved to the nursery, the doctors told the mother that one of the girls had died. They asked to see a body, but the doctors said she was buried. 18 years later, the living daughter received her first draft notice from the army, and showed up to a military base, and met a young woman who her same face and same birthday – but a different last name. There are rumors that many of these babies were adopted out to Ashkenazi families, especially Holocaust survivors.
This accusation has been disputed by scholars and refuted by three state commissions that examined the matter and said most of the children died. But cases kept resurfacing, not least because most of the families were not given children’s bodies, and because Israel has a track record of treating non-Ashkenazi communities poorly during the early years of statehood.
Ms. Peretz-Deri added her own family’s story:
My Mom was born in an Israeli hospital after my grandparents immigrated to Israel. My Grandma was a 19-year-old girl, she did not speak any Hebrew at the time, she was a newcomer to Israel. And she said that the day after she gave birth, the nurse brought her a baby to nurse, and she looked at her, and she said, ‘this is not my baby. This baby is not my baby.’ And the nurse said, ‘this is your baby, you don’t know anything.’ And she started screaming, ‘I know my baby this is not my baby.’
And she started going around in the hospital and she found my Mom in a different crib in a different room. And she actually forced the nurse to go there and she said to her ‘this is my baby.’ And the nurse checked and said, ‘you’re right, we had a mistake,’ and she gave her my mom. And the nurse was very surprised, she said, ‘how can this be, you’re just an olah hadasha, you’re just an immigrant, how can you recognize your baby.’ And my Grandma, she always tells this story, she said, ‘why do you speak to me like this, even a monkey mom could identify her baby. She would know this is my child.’
Ms. Peretz-Deri continued:
I choose to believe the families. Because they lost their children. As you said, they did not get any real explanation for what happened to their children.
Ms. Seri agreed:
It was always clear to me that it happened.
Mizrahi Identity as a Response to Marginalization
Ms. Seri and Ms. Peretz-Deri agreed that discrimination against the Mizrahim has led to a lack of trust and solidarity amongst Ashkenazim and Mizrahim, that lasts to this day.
Ms. Peretz-Deri recounted the trust her Grandma lost after almost losing her baby.
I remember when I had a very intimate conversation with my Grandma [about her experience with her baby in the hospital], and she said, ‘we couldn’t believe that Jews would do it to us.’
They felt like they are coming to Israel, to be a part of the Jewish people. And they are our brothers and sisters and we trust them, we trust our Jewish brothers and sisters, that they would be good to us.
So they were very open, they were very trusting, and when time moved on, they understood that they should not be so trusting. And it was a big trauma for them, because they felt they were coming to be with their family, their nation.
Why doesn’t the Ashkenazi left recognize Mizrahi claims?
Ms. Seri, speaking specifically about the disappeared babies:
It’s really hard for the state of Israel, that’s supposed to be the homeland of the Jews, it’s really hard to admit. In other parts of the world, it was always a hegemonic group that took babies from another ethnic group [like in Ireland, Canada, or Australia]. Here in Israel, it’s Jews to Jews. It makes it harder to admit it or deal with it. It questions or doubts the essence of Israel as the homeland for Jewish people.
Ms. Peretz Deri:
One would think that as leftists, you would support groups that are discriminated against. But what happened in Israel is that the left group in Israel are the children and the grandchildren of the generation that established the state of Israel. The labor party. They are more interested in protecting the Establishment of the first generation in Israel, their parents, and the people who were the founding fathers in Israel, then supporting the Mizrahi issue, then supporting the Mizrahi community in Israel. So they prefer saying, ‘you just imagined that, there is no discrimination against Mizrahim.’
Mizrahi Voting Patterns
According to the Israeli National Election Studies, about 70% of Mizrahi Jews supported Likud or other right-wing parties in the last ten elections.
Ms. Seri and Ms. Peretz-Deri asserted that historical Mizrahi support for the right-wing can be explained in part to discrimination by the Ashkenazi left, especially as it claims solidarity with groups like Palestinians and refugees but doesn’t demonstrate solidarity with the Mizrahim.
According to Ms. Seri:
I think Mizrahi Jews looked left, and saw how the Ashkenazi left in Israel has a lot of solidarity to many populations – in Israel and outside of Israel – to the Arab population in Israel, to Palestinians, to population abroad like refugees, etc. but unfortunately the solidarity towards Mizrahi Jews was never there.
When the Mizrahi Jews talked about the injustices towards them, about their pain, it was denied.
Ms. Peretz-Deri agreed:
The left-wing parties are considered the old elites of Israel. And many Mizrahi people still see the old elites as the people who were not good to their parents, the people who put us near the border, who did not let us go to schools, go to universities, we cannot provide for our families well enough because of how they saw us and how they treated. The Likud was a place that the Mizrahi people were accepted into.
Don’t only blame the Mizrahim
Both speakers cautioned that Mizrahim alone should not be blamed for Israel’s recent rightwards turn. Ms. Peretz-Deri said:
The issue of nationalism is very strong not only within the Mizrahi community in Israel but it is a very strong sentiment in the entire Israeli politics. How many people vote for left-wing parties in Israel? Not many. The power of left-wing parties in Israel, for the last more than a decade, is not very strong. So most of the Ashkenazi also vote for right-wing parties. It’s something you see all over the world. You can look at the Brexit, Trump in America, so we see it all over the world, it’s something that happens not just in Israel and not just amongst the Mizrahim.
Ms. Seri agreed:
I do want to say that I wish that one day there will be a research on how Ashkenazi Jews vote, and how come they always vote for generals, because we tend to talk about how Mizrahim vote, and sometimes this discourse about how Mizrahim vote, it sometimes implies that they are to blame in the situation in Israel, and I think it’s unfair and I wish the public discourse would be able to see it and expand the discourse to talk about the hidden population we never discuss, in Israel it’s the Ashkenazi Jews, in the US and other places it’s the white population, the man population, it’s really similar.
What are the societal consequences of the treatment of Mizrahim?
Many Mizrahim feel a lack of solidarity and shared identity with Ashkenazis. Ashkenazis are trying to maintain a vision of the country formed by their forebearers in their own image, ignoring the increasingly strong and vocal Mizrahim. As such, both groups feel threatened, and feel like they are losing the country they love. As do Religious Zionists, Arabs, and Haredim. Altogether, this creates a zero-sum politics in Israel where every issue seems to be a decisive wedge issue, cross-sectoral cooperation is rare, and gridlock ensues. This prevents Israel from dealing with pressing national issues that require cooperation across sectors – including the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, growing economic inequality, and educational deficiencies.
What must be done to build solidarity in Israel?
The speakers focused on recognition and acknowledgement.
I believe that the state of Israel is still the house and the home of all the Jewish people. And I try to think of it as problems within the family. We have to solve our problems, we have to take responsibility for what happened, and we need to think how we can acknowledge the past and acknowledge what happened, and treat those wounds, and treat those painful traumas and memories, so we can move on to the next stage.
In order to deal with these things you need to recognize them and there is still mostly denial. In Israel we’re still very, very far from this stage of even being able to mention it or even talk about it. And it’s a pity you know, because it really affects the trust that people have in the state and the government.
What are you doing to build solidarity in Israel?
Both Ms. Seri and Ms. Peretz-Deri participated in Shaharit’s 120 Program for Multicultural National Political Leadership, a yearly training program of 20 young Israeli leaders from across the spectrum of Israeli identities and political views. Participants are trained and networked together, foster a sense of shared identity and common cause, and examine Israeli issues through a lens of the “Common Good” and collaboration, all while being encouraged to maintain the identities and traditions that make them unique.
I have a new project trying to bring Haredi (ultra-orthodox) Mizrahi female students, high school girls, to study science, and computer engineering in order to help them take part of the high-tech industry in Israel. The high-tech industry in Israel is maybe one of the strongest fortresses of the old elites in Israel, of the Ashkenazi secular families who built the country, and from the other hand, the Sephardic haredi community is Mizrahi, it’s girls, and it’s ultra-orthodox people who are not usually taking part of the economics in Israel, and if it will happen, it will be an important contribution to bringing different parts of the community in Israel together.
I think raising awareness is the most important thing. I also find it very important to tell Palestinian people about the issue because I found out they’re really not aware of it. And also abroad, it seems that Israel was established by Jews that came from Europe who came to a place they don’t belong to, and I think it’s really important for people to know that the Jews have been part of the Middle East for thousands of years in a row.
I do want to mention a project that I’m working on. It’s a politics schools, I’m doing it with some fellow feminist partners, we established this politics school and we’re opening a program called 51, it’s for women, and I should mention that it’s supported by Shaharit.
51 is a training program of 12 sessions of mentoring to women of diverse backgrounds, we’re going to have Mizrahi Ashkenazi, Arabs, Jews, ultra-orthodox Jews, secular Jews religious etc., trans women, anything, we are looking for the beautiful diversity of the Israeli population.
We’re doing it because we think it’s really important to have as many voices and as many female voices in the Israeli politics, because you know we’re lacking them, Israel is really not good in representing women in the parliament and in general, so we’re trying to change it, and we’re definitely going to bring our feminist and Mizrahi feminist agenda into this work.