In a Facebook post on May 20 slamming Hen Mazzig’s article in The LA Times, American academic and activist Marc Lamont Hill described Mizrahi Jews as an “identity category” that had been detached “from Palestinian identity.” CNN severed ties with Hill last year after anti-Israel comments.
Hill’s latest excoriation of Israel, posted to his 90,000 followers, followed Mazzig’s argument that Israel is not a country of “privileged and powerful white Europeans.” Mazzig sought to emphasize the role of Mizrahi Jews in Israeli history and condemned the tendency of critics to define Israelis as Ashkenazi Jews alone. Hill responded that Mazzig ignores “the racial and political project that transformed Palestinian Jews (who lived peacefully with other Palestinians) into the 20th century identity category of ‘Mizrahi’ as a means of detaching them from Palestinian identity.”
Mazzig posted a screenshot of another exchange with Hill in which Hill wrote that “I literally study Yemeni and Moroccan Jews for a living.”
Jimena, an organization that describes itself as committed to achieving universal recognition to the heritage and history of 850,000 indigenous Jewish refugees from Arab countries, said Hill was trying to speaking over the voices of Mizrahi Jews.
“Because he ‘studies us’ for a living," Jimena wrote on Twitter. "Nothing new here, yet another non-representative ‘social justice’ activist who erases Mizrahi voices to assert an anti-Israel agenda.”
The dispute between Mazzig and Hill comes at a sensitive time in the US where there is an increasingly active anti-Israel narrative that has attempted to label Israel a “white supremacist” country. Activist Shaun King wrote in June last year that “white supremacists” in Afula in Israel were surrounding an Arab home because “they want the neighborhood to be for white Jews only.” These comments come at a time in the US when Jews are also being attacked as “white Jews.” Women’s March leaders last year were accused of claiming that Jews “uphold white supremacy.” It is part of a wider agenda to label Jews as a different minority from the rest of American minority groups who are part of the intersectional social justice agenda. For instance, Jews have been told that discrimination against them is not systemic, while Islamophobia is.
Now the narrative has sought to portray Israel as “white,” when Israel is in fact primarily a country made up of Middle East-origin citizens. Hill’s comment takes this one step further, and notes that even when discussing Mizrahi Jews, who came from all over the Middle East, that they are an “identity category” that was created as a “means of detaching them from Palestinian identity.” This turns history on its head, redefining the Jewish people from the Middle East as “Palestinian Jews.” Once again, Jews are being re-defined by Westerners as part of a Western attempt to colonize Jewish identity, either as “white” or now “Palestinian.” It is part of an agenda to prevent Jews from being Jews, and affix different labels to them: “white Jews” or “Palestinian Jews.”
This new, mostly American, attempt to redefine Jews would be surprising to Jews who had lived in the period before terms such as “white” or “Palestinian” were widely used. The 12th century Jewish scholar Maimonides, who was born in Spain but lived in Egypt and the Middle East, would be surprised to find that today in US universities he must choose between arbitrary binaries such as “white” or “Palestinian” or “black” to describe his complex identity and background. Jews persecuted by the Nazis for being “wandering Jews” would have been shocked to find themselves now defined as “white” after being persecuted for being non-white. Jews prevented from immigrating to British Mandatory Palestine from places like Kurdistan and Yemen would have been surprised to learn that they are now redefined as “Palestinian Jews.”