The Jewish communities of North Africa and the Middle East are often inaccurately represented in academia and the mainstream media. Their rich, complex history is purposely obscured to undermine Zionism. Indeed, professors, anti-Israel student organizations, and influential figures have denied the unique indigeneity of Jews in the Middle East. Moreover, these groups have minimized the widespread historical subordination, persecution, and exile of Jews under Arab and Muslim rule.
Unlike the harmonious depictions of an interreligious coexistence before 1948, Jewish life under Arabic rule was characterized by subjugation and discrimination. The 7th-century CE Pact of Umar formalized dhimmitude across several Islamic societies. Those under dhimmi status would pay a special tax, wear a yellow badge (which would inspire the Nazi-era Jude star), clip the front of their hair, and reduce the heights of their residential homes and places of worship. In addition, Jews could not build new synagogues, stand at eye-level with Muslims, carry swords, ride horses, wear Sudras, or raise their voices during Muslim prayer time. Despite these restrictions, Mizrahi Jews preserved their longstanding cultures and communities.
Thus, the term “Arab Jew” is as offensive as inaccurate. These Jews — as dhimmis — were never considered Arabs by their counterparts and were not afforded equal rights. The Jews were seen as foreigners above all else.
Rebranding a Mizrahi Jew as an “Arab Jew” is necessary to slandering and dismissing Zionism. Unlike the Mizrahi Jew, the “Arab Jew” does not require Zionism to fulfill his religious practice and cultural identity.
Al Jazeera’s Susan Abulhawa demonstrates this obfuscation, concluding that Mizrahi Jews are Arab. “They spoke Arabic, ate the same foods as their Christian and Muslim compatriots, celebrated and partook in the same national events and traditions, lived by the same social protocols, and moved through their respective cultures as other natives did… [they] speak Arabic at home… dance to Arabic music, eat Arab food.”
Abulhawa is so engrossed in her anti-Zionist agenda that she neglects all historical and semantic accuracies — obscuring the significant distinction between “Arab” and “Arabized.” Like Copts, Assyrians, or Kurds, the Mizrahim were Arabized by military expansion and imperialism — but they are not Arabs. Their cultural heritage represents syncretism with accessible aspects of Arab culture, such as food, language, and music of Arab culture, rather than a definite embrace of Arab culture. Anti-Zionists suppress the truth of this discrimination, as it substantiates the necessity of a Jewish state. In similar motivation, they reduce the complexity of Mizrahi identity and erroneously label it as Arab identity.
Anti-Zionist groups such as Jewish Voice for Peace also seem to have an affinity for the term, using it nearly 600 times across their different materials. They partner with “scholar-activists;” university professors that abuse their authority and credibility. These academics revise history to justify their anti-Israel political agenda and deliberately mislead students.
New York University’s Ella Shohat is one such “scholar-activist.” Shohat deliberately uses the term “Arab Jew” in place of Mizrahi Jew in her lectures, course materials, and publications, even though 78 percent of Mizrahi Jews reject the term “Arab Jew.” Shohat also suggests that the Mizrahi Jews who sought refuge in Israel have become victims of “internalized colonialism” and a “profound and visceral schizophrenia.” This notion is a bald-faced lie. Israel provided safety and absolute protection to 850,000 Jewish refugees from Arab lands for the first time in several centuries.
In 1948, Mizrahi Jews established the state of Israel as partners with Ashkenazi Jews. Their ranks included pre-state military groups, merchants, bankers, doctors, and the backbone of intelligence services. They culturally dominate the music and food industry and make up more than half of the population.
Not only are Mizrahi Jews simply not Arabs, but they are also, in fact, the embodiment of resistance to colonization. They shine as a beacon of light across the Middle East and North Africa to all oppressed and disenfranchised indigenous peoples. Mizrahi Jews are a paragon for Middle Eastern non-Muslims and non-Arabs to stand for their autonomy and self-determination.
The term “Arab Jew” distorts history, erases Mizrahi Jews, the oppression that they faced, and their immense contributions to the state. So long as the world is not aware of the stories of the Mizrahim, we will fall prey to the narrative that writes Jews out of their own story. It is essential to know the real history of Mizrahim, as it is one of Israel’s most compelling.
Rahel Friedman is a 2021-2022 CAMERA Fellow at Bar-Ilan University in Israel. This article was originally published in JNS.