The foods and spices that enriched my childhood — malojahea, fasulia, labneh and za’atar — are unfamiliar to most of my Jewish peers at GW. Despite sharing common words and phrases, our prayer tunes hardly harmonize. And when I share my grandfather’s story, their eyes widen and jaws drop: a Jew from Egypt?
Like hundreds of Jewish families, my grandfather’s family was expelled from Cairo in the 1950s. Jewish communities in Arab countries and Iran faced similar repression and expulsion during the 20th century. Israel was the saving grace of thousands of Jews from Arab lands who compose more than half of its population today. Mizrahi Jews also live in vibrant communities in the diaspora. Why don’t more people know about us?
When Ashkenazi Jews of central and eastern European descent are considered the default representation of Jewish identity, the unique identities and experiences of Mizrahi Jews and Sephardic Jews from the Iberian Peninsula get lost in the mix. The Jewish people, however, are far from monolithic in ethnicity, customs and religious practice.
Understanding the Mizrahi story embraces Jews and Judaism in all their richness and diversity and dispels the myth that Israel is a state of European imperialists. The history of Mizrahi Jews, defined by hostility and harmony, holds pertinent lessons as we navigate today’s turbulent times in Israel and Gaza — and on our campus.
Jews in Muslim lands were classified as dhimmis, or “People of the Book.” They enjoyed a protected status that permitted their religious practice among other social privileges in exchange for paying the jizya tax while enduring persecution from ancient times up until the Ottoman Empire. Jews could practice their religion freely, though they remained socially inferior to Muslims and had to wear yellow belts or bells in Baghdad and Egypt.
At the same time, Jews in Iraq, Egypt, Morocco, Syria and elsewhere fostered cultural and theological convergences with Muslims. Maimonides was one of the many Jewish scholars who drew from Islamic thought to develop his philosophy of Judaism which has deeply influenced modern Jewish thought.
Fast forward to the 20th century: Jews living in the Middle East and North Africa did not escape the violence of Nazism during World War II, facing violent pogroms in Iraq in 1941 and Tripoli in 1945 that echo Hamas’ barbaric attacks on Oct. 7. The Axis powers of Vichy France and fascist Italy brought the Holocaust to North Africa, including the establishment of concentration camps, while pro-German Muslim leaders and clerics supported the Nazi regime.
However, other Jews were saved by leaders like Morocco’s Sultan Mohammad V, who was appalled by antisemitic laws and insisted on legal protections for the property and lives of his Jewish subjects. Sultan Mohammad V treated Moroccan Jews with the dignity Islam and its Abrahamic values mandated, a history that traces back to Jews and Muslims establishing ancient communities together, like the city of Baghdad.
Religion is not an inherent wedge between Muslim Arabs and Jewish Israelis — division comes from leaders who pervert religious ideals, distort history and demonize “the other” for their own political agenda. Indeed, an indigenous people — the Jewish people — who were exiled from their ancient homeland and lived across diverse diasporic communities until they were able to liberate their land from dozens of empires cannot be a foreign colonial, imperialist enterprise.
Anti-Israel propaganda harms Jews and Muslims worldwide, and it is clouding campus conversations about Israel with hateful lies. The Israel-Palestine conversation on campus can take a different dimension, away from inflammation and division. We can examine the shared history of Muslim and Jewish intellectuals to illustrate Jewish-Arab religious and cultural convergence. This positive approach can de-escalate our tense campus environment and, one day, bring peace to the Middle East, as demonstrated by the Abraham Accords.
In 2023, the United Arab Emirates took a notable step as the first Arab nation to include Holocaust education in its curricula and purge antisemitic materials from its literature. The country also builtthe Abrahamic Family House, a cultural center with a mosque, church and synagogue. Just last week, villagers of the Muslim town of Fureidis, Israel, hung a sign in Hebrew and Arabic with the message “good neighbors even in difficult times” — an attitude we should reflect on campus.
I bonded with a Palestinian peer in a Georgetown class about Jewish-Muslim coexistence in the Middle East and North Africa over similarities between Hebrew and Arabic words and traditions: Ra’s Asana and Rosh Hashanah translate to Head of the Year or the New Year on both Hebrew and Islamic calendars, for example. We attended a Shabbat service and dinner together, where our fruitful conversations about a myriad of topics — even political differences — allowed us to express our aspirations for a peaceful Israel/Palestine, which we both call home.
Fact-based education and events inside and outside the classroom that bring individuals together culturally can create empathy and understanding. And with student councils to advocate for Jewish and Israeli students and Muslim, Arab and Palestinian students, the Office for Diversity, Equity and Community Engagement, and the Multicultural Student Services Center’s new Religious and Spiritual Life Division, we can build bridges across cultures and between faiths at GW. At the same time, we must continue to combat acts of antisemitism and support for Hamas, both of which have skyrocketed around the world since Oct. 7.
Elevating one ethnic, racial or religious group over another can’t build a culture of tolerance and unity. We must demonstrate that, despite challenging histories, Jews and Muslims, Arabs and Israelis, share much in common and that our differences are worth exploring.
This article was originally published in the GW Hatchet, the official campus paper for The George Washington University.