Zionism was not forced upon Mizrahi Jews - opinion

The allegation that Mizrahi Jews cling to Zionism because it was forced upon them is racist in the way it infantilizes an entire community.

Zionism, between the real and the ideal (photo credit: Courtesy)
Zionism, between the real and the ideal
(photo credit: Courtesy)
In this polarizing post-election environment, when our social media pages are plagued with fiction disguised as news and most politicians can’t be bothered to fact-check, it’s easy to rewrite history. “People don’t realize that the Ashkenazi leadership was pulling the strings and imposing these corrupt beliefs upon them.” The entire room nods vigorously. If it weren’t a room full of Jews, my next guess would be a meeting of white supremacists in Alabama.
This is a trope I first heard at a meeting with a Jewish group focused on social justice, and is often repeated in anti-Zionist spaces, including from Jews, but also from Arabs. It is the insistence that Mizrahi Jews, those of us from the Middle East, North Africa and Central or Western Asia, embraced Zionism not out of a true identification with the movement for Jewish sovereignty in the historic Land of Israel, but rather as the result of a concerted effort from the Ashkenazi elite in Europe to cruelly create brainwashed soldiers for their racist movement to settle Palestine. Beyond this assertion, it also implies that even today Mizrahi Jews would not identify with Zionism if it weren’t for this dishonest effort to recruit them to the cause. As if the “white Jews” are the only ones capable of forming opinions of their own.
The allegation that Mizrahi Jews cling to Zionism because it was forced upon them is racist in the way it infantilizes an entire community and implies that our views could not possibly be our own. This ignores the authentic religious and spiritual identity of Mizrahi (or non-Ashkenazi) Jews who, like their religious counterparts in Europe, prayed toward and for Jerusalem every day. My own tribe of Nash Didan Jews dates back to the Babylonian exile and continues to speak the same dialect of Judeo-Aramaic, though we spent the past 2,500 years on the Iran-Azerbaijan border. Our identities are defined by the preservation of our culture from ancient Israel.
In the 1940’s, my grandfather, alongside his brother Mordechai, was part of underground Zionist movements in Iran and Iraq, risking his life to bring Iraqi Jews into Palestine in the wake of the 1941 Farhud pogrom. He met regularly in the local synagogue to read Hebrew newspapers with his youth group. Most significantly, he was arrested and placed on death row for the unforgivable crime of placing an Israeli flag atop his synagogue in Tehran.
He narrowly escaped due to a bribe to the Shah from another Zionist Jewish family. For anyone who knew him, he was a man of deep convictions, enormous commitment to the Jewish people and the Land of Israel, and not someone who was easily convinced of other’s arguments. In other words, he was not and could never be brainwashed.
To be sure, many early Zionist leaders in Europe did make a concerted effort to recruit Mizrahi Jews to grow their movement, and that certainly included propaganda efforts. Additionally, there was widespread racism against Mizrahim throughout the 20th century in Israel, which my family of course experienced as well, particularly as refugees living in the infamous Ma’abarot refugee absorption camps. While it is less systemic now, it is still a phenomenon that many Israeli NGOs are working hard to combat. That said, the Mizrahi community overwhelmingly supports Zionism and the State of Israel. The history of our connection to this land cannot be rewritten when politically convenient to delegitimize a movement.
I won’t erase the experiences of Mizrahi Jews who feel anger and betrayal toward the State of Israel, nor whitewash the racism and inequality that plagued the country for decades, but it is equally important to recognize that the vast majority of Mizrahim found in Zionism the national liberation movement of all the Jewish people, a safe refuge from millennia of living as persecuted minorities, and at last a return to their homeland. The future of Jewish peoplehood requires us to avoid the romanticization of our story, while remaining in awe of the accomplishments that led 40% of the world’s Jews to live in Israel.
The writer is the deputy director of the IPF Atid program at Israel Policy Forum.