Don’t silence Middle Eastern and North African Jews

To a group of radical anti-Zionist students at Vassar, however, all of this made me a threat on campus. As an Israeli who knows a thing or two about legitimate threats, this was chilling.

BDS activists in Berlin (photo credit: REUTERS)
BDS activists in Berlin
(photo credit: REUTERS)
As part of a recent three-week campus speaking tour, I was invited to Vassar College in Poughkeepsie, New York, on November 14 to share my family’s story. My father is Tunisian and my mother is Iraqi; their families came to Israel as refugees. In my talks, I share their stories and those of the 850,000 Jewish refugees who were expelled from Arab and Muslim countries between 1941 and 1972.
My speeches also cover my experience growing up as a Jew of color in Israel, serving as an openly gay commander in the Israeli Defense Forces for five years, and helping Palestinian civilians through my humanitarian work. I always make sure to emphasize my longing for peace.
To a group of radical anti-Zionist students at Vassar, however, all of this made me a threat on campus. As an Israeli who knows a thing or two about legitimate threats, this was chilling.
Earlier that week, my mother called me from a bomb shelter in Israel. That’s where she was going to be sleeping for the week while 450+ rockets meant to terrorize and indiscriminately murder Jewish civilians rained down from Gaza. She texted me nearly every hour to tell me she is okay – admittedly, not the most comforting phrase to hear from your mother given the circumstances.
This was a particularly bloody week in the region, resulting in dozens of Israeli civilians injured and 34 Palestinian casualties – 25 Islamic Jihad militants and nine civilians, including an innocent seven-year-old boy.
My heart breaks for both Israeli and Palestinian families facing these tragedies. More than most, I understand what it’s like to lose someone in the aftermath of this conflict; my great-grandfather was falsely accused of being a Zionist spy and was hung in Baghdad in 1951. Just as the members of my Ashkenazi Jewish family carry with them the horrors of the Holocaust, I, too, am haunted by the executions of my family members for the simple crime of being Jewish in Arab and Muslim countries.
This is why I’ve devoted my life to traveling the world to have courageous conversations about the most heated conflict in the world today, even if that means being the frequent target of Neo-Nazis, radical Islamists, homophobes and racists. So I was floored when self-identified progressive students at a private American university in upstate New York showed up to protest my talk about achieving peace.
Everything started out fine. When I arrived on campus, I was initially greeted by the Jewish students who had invited me. As we arrived at the event, however, I was appalled, sickened and saddened to see dozens of students holding signs while chanting, “From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free.”
This slogan, while seemingly benign, is an antisemitic phrase frequently used by Hamas to elude to the mass-murder of all Jews living in Israel (between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea). It’s such an offensive trope that late last year, even former CNN commentator and Temple University Professor, Marc Lamont Hill, had to apologize for using it at the United Nations. Whether or not they understood this, these American students – and Hill – were openly calling for the death of my family.
Slightly fazed by the jeers, but eager to initiate a dialogue, I invited the protesters to attend my talk. I emphasized that while this is a painful time for Israelis and Palestinians, we must communicate with, rather than silence, each other. My invitation was sharply declined.
ONE PROTESTER – who identified herself as a Jewish member of the LGBTQ community – even told me that “as a queer Jew” she rejects my existence on her campus. When the student identified herself to me as white (being of Ashkenazi heritage), I again extended the invite, telling her I could teach her about my contrasting experience as a Jew of color from Israel. Instead, she opted to join the others in yelling over me. There I was, facing down an experience I’ve had many times in the comment sections of my articles and tweets, only this time it was happening in real life.
These students have almost no knowledge of the exile and violence my family faced. To make it worse, they didn’t even want to try to learn. Despite being present in the room during my talk, they still don’t know how we survived the Farhud, a catastrophic event in which the pro-Nazi Iraqi government murdered around 280 Jews in two days.
While the Jewish community actively memorializes the crimes committed in the Holocaust, we rarely discuss the horrors endured by Iraqi or other Middle Eastern and North African Jews. We are underrepresented in nearly every facet of American Jewish life, and this clique of Vassar students seemed intent on keeping it that way.
To them, I am a threat because I offer a perspective that is extremely dangerous to the anti-Israel movement. To be clear, this is not the same as the pro-Palestinian movement, of which I have been a member from my days in the army to my work today supporting Israeli-Palestinian peace initiatives. The uncomfortable reality for these activists is that I, and countless other Mizrahi Jews, are breathing proof that Israel has saved lives. Not just white lives, but those of people of color.
If I had the chance to speak to these students, I would have said that I will be the first one to support an open and tough debate about Israel. I have been critical of many policies of the Israeli government, as have many Israelis. However, the protesters’ actions are disenfranchising a large community, effectively erasing our stories. It is officially crossing the line when the debate devolves into tired, chanted slurs that call for the destruction of my nation and my people.
The writer is an Israeli Mizrahi writer and LGBTQ+ activist, he is a senior fellow at The Tel Aviv Institute and editor-at-large of the J’accuse Coalition for Justice. Follow him: @HenMazzig