Giving Mizrahim an equal seat at the table

If we want to reach our potential as a Jewish community, we must start to fully include members of our family who have far too often been forgotten.

Rachel Sandler and brother Hertzel Hasson, Mizrahi Jews, give an interview in 2007 (photo credit: REUTERS)
Rachel Sandler and brother Hertzel Hasson, Mizrahi Jews, give an interview in 2007
(photo credit: REUTERS)
In recent years, I’ve watched many communities become inspired and empowered to demand respect and dignity. In the spirit of this momentum, I believe we must have a long overdue discussion about what it means for my community, Mizrahi Jews, to have an equal seat at the table of American Jewry.
For me, the story of Mizrahim – Jews from the Middle East and North Africa – has always been central because of my grandfather Nissim Mishan. Beloved as a jidoh (grandfather in Arabic), his grandchildren grew up learning about Syrian culture, food, slang and what life was like in Syria before he escaped to Israel.
Nissim Mishan was part of the vibrant Jewish community in Aleppo. Despite facing systematic discrimination and cycles of violence, his community flourished for centuries. This lasted until 1945, when Syria’s independence from France was followed by an onslaught of riots against Jews. Nissim’s community, which was never fully at ease in Syria, saw its homes, shops and synagogues destroyed.
They were barred from government service, possessing telephones or driver’s licenses, buying property, or leaving the country.
As hostility grew, Nissim’s family and many others were forced to flee. Escaping meant leaving in the middle of the night. It meant leaving everything behind, including a pot on the stove to create the illusion that they were coming back. It meant splitting the family up in hopes that at least one group would be safe. It meant traveling on foot for over 20 hours, just to find refuge. My jidoh’s family was lucky to survive the journey and avoid getting caught.
Once he got to Israel, Nissim still couldn’t rest easy. On May 14, 1948, he celebrated the Declaration of the Establishment of the State of Israel and immediately had to pick up arms to protect his new country. As a sergeant-major in the Givati Brigade, he led soldiers of many backgrounds and helped defeat the Arab armies that threatened the nascent Jewish state. Fluent in Arabic, Nissim became quite successful in the Foreign Ministry, which was especially impressive given the struggles Mizrahi Jews faced in the state’s early years.
I grew up knowing that my jidoh’s story, like that of so many Mizrahi Jews, was inseparable from Israel’s story.
AND YET, in most presentations and programs about Israel, my community is not represented, my jidoh is not represented, I am not represented.
I encounter this problem in my own work as an Israel educator. Sometimes, well-meaning programs inadvertently center the Ashkenazi experience and tokenize us as an exotic “other.” Other times, we are exploited to promote anti-Israel agendas that hardly any of us would ever support. More often, our story isn’t mentioned at all.
My most recent trip to Israel was illustrative of this problem. At Mount Bental, as my group overlooked Syria, our guide talked about Syrians and Israelis but never mentioned Syrian Jews. I stood in the back, debating if I should speak up about what Syria – now caught in a vicious civil war – meant to my community and how its expulsion and escape, along with the expulsion of Jews from other neighboring countries, shaped the Middle East.
Being written out of or misrepresented in the story of Israel and the Jewish people is crippling. It can even trigger an identity crisis that leads members of my community to disengage from Israel and their heritage. Yet this is what happens in far too many programs that are aimed at fostering connections to Israel and Jewish identity.
How many American Jews know that the Holocaust extended deep into the Middle East? Can we meaningfully talk about the abuse Egyptian Jews faced or the veritable house arrest Syrian Jews lived under until 1992? I’d argue that education about the Middle East is woefully incomplete if we disregard the still-recent history of families like mine.
While my organization, StandWithUs, has developed materials centered on the plight of Middle Eastern Jews and given Mizrahi employees like myself a platform to share our stories, more must be done by us and others. This is why I want to challenge Jewish institutions and communities to do better at integrating Mizrahi Jews into our communal narrative. Here are just a few possible steps toward that goal: • Examine Israel curricula and programs, and incorporate our story systematically.
This should be done together with Mizrahi scholars, as well as organizations like Jimena and 30 Years After.
• Mentor young Mizrahi leaders for senior roles within Jewish community and Israel education organizations.
• Put Mizrahi stories in the spotlight at high-profile Jewish community events.
• Include Mizrahi and Sephardic religious traditions in our communal spaces.
This is not a one-way street. Mizrahi communities must also make a bigger effort to participate as an unwavering voice. But we must be welcomed and embraced as we do so. So many important causes today deserve our time and attention that it can be easy to overlook our internal struggles. Nevertheless, if we want to reach our potential as a Jewish community, we must start to fully include members of our family who have far too often been forgotten.
The writer is tri-state campus director for StandWithUs.