This November, many within the Jewish community observed Mizrahi Heritage Month, a time dedicated to bringing visibility to a historically underrepresented Jewish demographic in the Western world, the Jews of North Africa and the Middle East.
After the Jewish people were exiled from their ancestral homeland of Israel and entered their ongoing diaspora, many Jews were spread across the Middle East, North Africa, and Asia. The term Mizrahi Jews come from the ancient Hebrew word “Mizrach,” which means East, a nod to their geographical and cultural ties.
Our educational journey at UCLA began a few days early on October 25th as a part of CAMERA on Campus’s Mizrahi Stories campaign. I hosted an event with prominent Mizrahi Jewish author and activist Hen Mazzig. The event was co-sponsored by Bruins for Israel. The son of Iraqi and Tunisian Jewish refugees, Mazzig shared an eye-opening account of the history, culture, food, and unfortunate plight of Mizrahi Jews.
While Jewish-Arab coexistence was marked by some periods of harmony, the Jewish people of the Middle East endured an inferior status under Islamic rule. This often led to eruptions of violence. In the seventeenth century, Yemenite Jews were forced from their homes, and their belongings were seized in the little-known Mawza Exile. In 1840, several Syrian Jews were falsely accused of murdering a Christian monk for ritual purposes in what became known as the Damascus affair, a localization of a classic blood libel, an antisemitic trope. The incident led to increased violence against Syrian Jews by Christians and Muslims.
Although Mizrahi Jews faced a history of inequality, expulsion, and forced conversion, the twentieth century brought with it a new wave of antisemitism to the Middle East fueled primarily by the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem, Hajj Amin al-Husayni, who collaborated with the Nazis to incite violent anti-Jewish hate in British Mandate Palestine, the greater Middle East and North Africa.
Over nearly four decades, Mizrahi Jews were ethnically cleansed in a series of catastrophic events in countries across the region. In 1941 in Iraq, where Hen’s maternal family is from, thousands of Baghdadi Jews were attacked, murdered, and subjected to atrocities in a pogrom known as the Farhud. World War II and the rise of fascism in Italy brought antisemitism to the shores of Libya, where Jewish homes were destroyed, and Jews were denied citizenship permits and even the right to leave the country.
In Iran, increasing anti-Jewish sentiment following the establishment of the State of Israel and political instability forced around 70,000 Persian Jews to flee the country between 1948 to 1978. The rise of the Islamist regime led by Ayatollah Khomeini later prompted the exodus of an estimated 60,000 additional Persian Jews in the months following the 1979 Iranian revolution.
Hen’s paternal family comes from North Africa. Though his surname, Mazzig, is thought to have originated with the Amazigh peoples of Tunisia–a group indigenous to the Maghreb before Arab expansion–like other Mizrahi communities, his family was not spared from the discriminatory climate. In 1956, the Tunisian government adopted numerous anti-Jewish government decrees, ultimately forcing 40,000 Tunisian Jews to flee and immigrate to Israel and many Western countries.
And these are only some accounts. Ultimately over 850,000 Jews were expelled from their homes across the Middle East and North Africa. With nowhere else to go, many, like Hen’s family, fled prosecution by seeking sanctuary in the newly established Jewish nation-state of Israel.
Hen recently published his book, “The Wrong Kind of Jew: A Mizrahi Manifesto” in which he describes Mizrahi Jews as the “wrong kind of Jew” because they do not conform to monolithic depictions of Jews in the West. In his book, Hen writes, “We’re not only unfamiliar, our culture shatters stereotypes and unspoken rules. Meanwhile, our story derails the narrative many want to propagate about Jews, antisemitism, and, most controversially, Israel. We break the expectations many hold about Jews and race, the Middle East and religion, and even politics and oppression.”
Today, the term “Arab Jews” is applied by Western academics to trivialize the experiences of Mizrahi Jews. Such a term mistakenly implies that Mizrahi Jews are Arabs who adhere to the Jewish faith, an ahistorical concept that discounts the abhorrent treatment of Jews in the Arab world. Most Mizrahi Jews were subjected to a distinct legal and economic status, forced to live in separate quarters and pay additional taxes to evade persecution. Such a term also drives a wedge between Ashkenazi and Mizrahi Jewish communities.
Like many other minority groups in the Middle East, Mizrahi Jews were around long before the Arab conquest of the Middle East and North Africa. As a result, Mizrahi Jews have rich Middle Eastern traditions–ranging from garb and cuisine to music and dance. For instance, Hen shared that when leaving Tunisia for Israel, his grandmother could not bring anything other than her recipes.
As a UCLA student, I find that Jewish history and culture are often generalized, often depending on common stereotypes about Jews. In a time when misinformation spreads like wildfire and antisemitism is on the rise, I am grateful for activists like Hen who challenge simplistic or less-than-honest approaches to tell the stories of our people.