Mizrahim (Arab Jews) in Israel: Challenges of Identity in Overcoming State Oppression

The majority of Mizrahi Jews from Middle Eastern + North African countries who arrived in Israel were placed in transit camps (ma’abarot)

This piece was adopted from a research paper I wrote for a course at Northeastern University titled “Race, Ethnicity, and Religion: The Example of Jewishness.”

Individual as well as collective identities may seem stagnant and predetermined at first glance, but they are constantly evolving and being challenged. Following the establishment of the state of Israel in 1948 (and the dispossession of Palestinian communities), the Jewish population experienced dramatic changes. In the first two decades of the state’s early history, Israel absorbed millions of Jewish immigrants, with over half of them coming from Arab Jewish communities in the Middle East or North Africa (not all North African Jews are technically Arab, but the majority identify as so). These immigrants are now identified ethnically as Mizrahi (“Eastern”), as opposed to being originally grouped with the Sephardic (Spanish background) classification, forming a clear dichotomy alongside those who descended from Western or Eastern Europe, known as Ashkenazi Jews. The experiences of Mizrahi Jews in Israel, following the establishment of the state, were often devastating and deeply rooted in a societal structure which facilitated the institutionalized dominance of the Ashkenazi narrative through anti-Arab racism and Orientalism. The treatment of Mizrahi immigrants originated from a European centered Zionist ideology and was widely disseminated by prominent figures in Israeli society. The marginalization was most visible in the living situations into which they were placed, the inequitable education system and the refusal to acknowledge Mizrahi culture and narratives in mainstream society. My family’s experience as Iraqi immigrants in Israel provides a lens into exploring complex questions of identity through the integration into a new society. Therefore, the challenges associated with overcoming the oppression of a dominant Ashkenazi culture inform questions of Mizrahi identity in the early decades of Israel’s establishment, as well as continue to affect such populations in the present day.

Prior to exploring the effects of the newly formed Israeli society in shaping Mizrahi identity, it is vital to understand the context of the situation from which they immigrated. While Jews in Arab nations in the early 20th century experienced periodic oppression, they lived in fairly positive situations until the establishment of the state of Israel. Iraqi Jews in particular, “were well integrated and indigenous to the country, forming an inseparable part of its social and cultural life while retaining a community identity.”[1] For example, my grandparents lived comfortably in Baghdad, with my grandfather working as a fabrics salesman and my grandmother as a seamstress. They lived close to their family members and traveled freely to Iran to sell goods and earn a living. “The liberal and secular trends of the twentieth century”[2] deepened the Iraqi Jews’ connection to their Arab culture and traditions. The events leading up to the creation of the Jewish state played an enormous role in the mass migration of Mizrahi Jews to Israel in the late 1940’s and early 1950’s. As many of the Middle Eastern and North African countries aligned with Arab Nationalism movements and were influenced by the antisemitism of European colonialism, existing relationships soon dwindled and Jewish lives became much more difficult as “they began to be seen as enemies”[3]. In some communities, Jews were targeted and their money and possessions were taken away, leading to collective histories being wiped away.

With tensions heightening in Middle Eastern and North African countries, hundreds of thousands of Jews escaped to Israel. In some cases, they traveled thousands of miles by foot, while in other situations, such as my family’s Iraqi experience, the Israeli government and the Jewish Agency helped them evacuate by plane to the newly founded state. The urgency of the situation prevented them from collecting their belongings and finding true closure in a transformative moment. Some communities lost all of their most valuable assets, access to their professions they were most proud of and the relationships they had created, in effect having to start from nothing in a brand new country. The displacement from lands which had defined their identities for generations and from societies in which they had excelled as well integrated Jews, exposed enormous questions of identity. They were forced to tackle the challenges of whether or not to maintain their national or ethnic connection which may have been a painful reminder of their removal from their homelands, while adapting their religious and social practices in a completely foreign society.

The marginalization of Mizrahi Jews that ensued in Israel was deeply informed and intensified by the European focused Zionist ideology. Zionism primarily emerged in Western and Eastern Europe as a response to late 19th and early 20th century antisemitism, as an opportunity for the Jewish people to establish a Jewish homeland in order to develop a collective identity which would create a “’new Jew’, whom Zionism wished to define as a new European, and not an oriental.”[4] Theodor Herzl, the primary thinker in the early Zionist movement, described in his 1902 novel Altneuland, the “transformation of the exilic Jew through his emigration to Palestine; a process of regeneration that will lead, ultimately, to the creation of a ‘Europe in the Middle East.’”[5] The fact the Mizrahi Jews associated with Arab culture and nationality challenged and posed serious issues for the “Eurocentric conception of the Jewish nation.”[6] The Europeans saw the Mizrahi Jews as being entrenched within an ancient and outdated culture and were skeptical of integrating such populations into a newly formed society. The immigration of the Mizrahi Jews to Israel was unexpected and such populations were completely ignored until after the establishment of the state. As a result, the relocation of Middle Eastern and North African Jews in the decades following the establishment of the state was “dictated by history, not written into the original plan.”[7]

The classic Israeli narrative stresses the fact that the Jewish state saved the Arab and North African Jews from dire circumstances but this exposes an incomplete narrative. This popular conception elicits an uneven power structure which becomes a determinant in defining Mizrahi ethnicity, culture and history as somehow inferior or outside the realm of Jewish identity. Many Mizrahi Jews express anger that the “Zionist narrative denied, erased, and excluded their historical identity.”[8] Ultimately, the depth to which the Mizrahi Jews were alienated and disregarded by Zionist ideology played a major role in creating fragmented and broken identities once these communities settled in Israel.

The depth of the divisive rhetoric directed towards Mizrahi Jews became an inescapable consequence of the actualization of the Zionist vision. As a result, social marginalization and separation powerfully emerged in the late 1940’s and the early 1950’s because “Mizrahim were brought to a place founded on the explicit rejection of their culture and traditions.”[9] As soon as Iraqi and other Mizrahi Jews arrived in Israel, many were forced by the Jewish Agency to change or ‘make more Israeli’ their names to fit the mold of the Ashkenazi-focused collective identity which controlled Israeli society. The cultural foreignness as well as the language barriers between Arab speaking immigrants and Yiddish or German speaking government workers created pervasive social barriers and ultimately enabled discrimination.

Mizrahi Jews were first placed in refugee absorption centers (ma’abarot) and then transferred to development towns. These separate Mizrahi communities were formed on the outskirts of a number of different cities or in the periphery far from major urban centers, including places such as South Tel Aviv, Be’er Sheva and Dimona. They received little investment of time or resources from Ashkenazi controlled government institutions. The physical separation and segregation of the Mizrahi Jews, often driven by cultural and ethnic insensitivity, exemplified how the immigrants were treated as an inferior social class and “intensified and reproduced the inequalities and tensions between the country’s main ethnic groups.”[10] These physical barriers enforced and deepened the social, economic and psychological challenges which created boundaries for the Mizrahi communities’ pursuit of a better life.

In reaching beyond their own insulated communities, individuals often realize the extent to which they are limited in their ability to integrate fully into mainstream society but on the other hand, often struggle to return fully to their home communities. For example, my father speaks to the fact that even when attending a higher quality school outside of his immediate neighborhood, none of his Ashkenazi friends ever came and visited his house. Even for children who create relationships that overlook potential ethnic differences, social boundaries are ever so present in challenging one’s identity in alignment with the societal norm. Additionally, as comfortable as people become when living with those of similar backgrounds, individuals clearly feel excluded from mainstream society and more importantly the opportunity to advance. As my father described, “it impacted them (his parents) as they saw the Ashkenazim having jobs in the center of the city, able to focus on sending their kids to school and able to do much better than us.” Meanwhile, many Arab and North African communities were forced to become dependent on the Israeli government’s limited assistance and struggled to find employment opportunities because of their inability to access urban centers and the restricting culturally determined stigmas that defined their ethnicities or nationalities.

Conclusively, even as Mizrahi Jews maintained strong bonds within their insular communities, they were clearly treated as outsiders and were forced to reconsider their identification with the wider Jewish collective. These damaging qualities of early Israeli society alienated the Mizrahi immigrants. “My parents absolutely felt like outsiders. They were outsiders in the jobs they worked in, they way we grew up. They felt like the ‘underclass’…and it impacted the way society looked at us.” In a country predicated on the ideology of creating a coherent “Israeli” character, the institutionalized devastation of Mizrahi Jews, especially through the segregation of immigrant communities, created even more disjointed identities.

The most striking example of the marginalization of the Mizrahi immigrants was evident in the broken educational system and the divisive rhetoric that accompanied these failures. For example, David Ben Gurion, the face of Israeli independence, clearly communicates his disdain and distrust in Middle Eastern and North African Jews. He refers to them as “uneducated, primitive beasts with no need for education or plumbing”[11] and describes the immigrants as “being without a trace of Jewish or human education.”[12]

Schools in development towns and transitional communities were extremely low quality, with the least qualified Ashkenazi teachers coming to teach the low income Mizrahi children, many of whom had very little support from their parents or families to succeed. Classes were overcrowded, the teachers were extremely disconnected from the communities in which they taught and students often began working at early ages to provide for their family, so the classroom was not necessarily a priority. My father discussed the normalcy of kids starting to work at a young age; “Everyone in the neighborhood was doing it. It was very native to us. Looked like to us that this was what life was all about.” This is a powerful representation of the way in which societal expectations and clear inequalities damage personal constructions of distinctiveness and purpose.

Even as the majority of the schools in the development towns were religious and integrated religious studies, all of the curriculum and prayers originated from Ashkenazi perspectives, while the historical Mizrahi narrative was overlooked. This prevented Mizrahi children from feeling deeply connected to their religious backgrounds and devalued the historical value of Arab Jewry. Additionally, the opportunities to excel in the school system were extremely limited, and with little support from teachers or parents for socioeconomic and language related reasons, many of the students dropped out and ended up on street corners.

“At the beginning of first grade I had difficulty reading and no one was able to help me and teach me through it. When I came home, my parents didn’t know Hebrew…It took me time to catch up. Other people for example had the same situation and didn’t pick it up and they fell to the street. They didn’t even finish first level of school…many of them didn’t have any education which really impacted their lives.”

The success of individual Mizrahi Jews, such as my father, to overcome the educational limitations of the discriminatory state-sponsored system reveals complex questions regarding the challenges of maintaining a strong cultural identity. After completing elementary and primary school (1st — 9th grade) students in South Tel Aviv were tested to be admitted into trade schools, made up of a mostly Mizrahi student body, or higher level technical schools in higher income areas in the cities, with primarily European students. Even for those students who excelled academically at the Mizrahi primary schools, the Ashkenazi led establishment was unwilling to support them in providing high quality schooling and as my father explained, “They didn’t look at us as individuals; they looked at us like a group.” The Mizrahi students were not expected to do well enough to succeed in a more career focused environment. For example, after scoring extremely well on an entrance exam, my father’s sister was accused of cheating and forced to take the test over again while sitting next to a proctor. After receiving an even better score, the administrators were absolutely shocked.

In my father’s case, his personal persistence and commitment to pursuing a high quality education effectively broke down social norms but caused him to be separated from the neighborhood he grew up in. For the first time, he was exposed to the Ashkenazi culture which in many ways had caused his family and his community great devastation. Similarly, as a 13 year old girl from South Tel Aviv, Orly Levy demanded of the education authorities to send her to a first-rate high school in affluent north Tel Aviv. She points to the “price to pay for that dislocation” but emphasizes the fact that while growing up in Israel, she constantly felt the need to “create for myself a different track.”[13] Levy clearly points to the challenges and sacrifices evident in the process of succeeding within a society that has created restrictive boundaries for specific populations and the way in which this concurrence complicates individual identity.

Army service is another gauge of the way in which Israeli society has stigmatized Mizrahi societal roles and identities. My father’s ability to reach an elite paratrooper unit, even in the mid 1970’s, was a rare occurrence and one which allowed him to break the constraints of mainstream Israeli culture, a privilege many Mizrahi Jews struggled to achieve early in Israel’s existence. “I had to really push myself hard to convince people that I could do it. I had to put more effort than other people, such as the Ashkenazim, to get where I wanted to get.” Both informal and formal boundaries were created in ways which were harmful to Mizrahi individuals who came from low income development towns. For example, in the initial screening process for new soldiers, background or ethnicity often impacted the ‘profile’ or ranking given, which often prevented Mizrahi Jews from entering special or elite units. Often, stereotypes created about Mizrahi soldiers and their educational background or capabilities forced them into low level positions, preventing the true cohesiveness on which Israeli army service prides itself.

One of the most influential ways in which overcoming socially constructed limitations and breaking ethnic expectations affects both individual and collective identity is the differences in generational responses. Speaking Arabic at home created a separation for Mizrahi children between their life at home and their experience in school or outside of their insulated neighborhoods. Similar to immigrant children in other contexts, the younger generation is forced to question in what ways they want to fit in with the dominant society and in what ways the dominant society is holding them back from succeeding. My father’s parents never fully felt Israeli, partly due to their inability to connect to mainstream society, because of socioeconomic limitations and the struggles to remain involved with their children’s’ lives.

“My parents didn’t even know what I was doing. I think it wasn’t just me; it was just the way we grew up. They couldn’t communicate in Hebrew with the teachers, they didn’t understand their culture. You felt like you had to do everything on your own.”

My family’s socioeconomic struggles in the context of a society which considered them to be the ‘underclass’ not only deeply affected the intergenerational relationships but the ways in which they responded to the prevalence of restrictive ethnic divides. My father clearly broke the constraints of the socially constructed ethnic divisions;

“Now when I’m looking at myself in Israel, I no longer feel Ashkenazi or Sephardic or Mizrahi, I was able to break that and I no longer feel the tension…After the army, all these differences between Ashkenazi and Mizrahi went away…But of course, when I look at my childhood there is no question that there were these kinds of issues.”

My father and his siblings’ emergence into mainstream Israeli society exemplify the ways in which achieving success through challenging societal limitations is deeply liberating. At the same time, a clear disconnect exists between the younger generation’s narrative and their parents’ identification with Iraqi culture as well as the lives they lived prior to immigrating to Israel. As a Jew now living in a primarily Ashkenazi community in the US, my father no longer feels a connection to the Mizrahi identity which defined his childhood in the sense that he felt that he “always had to go through struggles that other people didn’t have to go through.” For many Mizrahi Jews including my father, escaping the socially constructed boundaries created by a European controlled society, meant escaping an ethnic identity which was accompanied by degrading stigmas and societal expectations. Instead, my father and many other Mizrahi Jews began to identify more deeply with a modern Israeli identity rather than an ethnic classification that was associated with economic hardship or cultural misunderstandings.

The Mizrahi experience in Israel has improved in some ways since the mass immigration in the early decades of the state’s existence, but major cultural and socioeconomic issues, driven by ethnic differences, remain deeply ingrained in Israeli society. Researchers point to the higher rates of ‘mixed’ marriages, representation in high levels of government and greater economic opportunities. Nevertheless, the treatment of Middle Eastern and North African Jews throughout Israel’s history has facilitated severe challenges in succeeding while maintaining a unique identity, in a society which facilitates Ashkenazi cultural dominance. Israeli society must continue to build formal and informal channels which enable the integration of the Mizrahi narrative into a collective Jewish identity and ultimately reformulate the ways in which they treat non-Ashkenazi communities and immigrants, from Iraqis to Ethiopians to Russians.


[1] Shohat, Ella. “Reflections of an Arab Jew.” The Flying Camel: Essays on Identity by Women of North African and Middle Eastern Jewish Heritage. New York: Seal, 2003. 119. Print.

[2] Shohat, Ella. “Reflections of an Arab Jew.” The Flying Camel: Essays on Identity by Women of North African and Middle Eastern Jewish Heritage. New York: Seal, 2003. 119. Print.

[3] Interview Transcript

[4] Kalmar, Ivan Davidson., and Derek Jonathan. Penslar. “The Zionist Return to the West and the Mizrahi Jewish Perspective.” Orientalism and the Jews. Waltham, MA: Brandeis UP, 2005. 166. Print.

[5] Kalmar, Ivan Davidson., and Derek Jonathan. Penslar. “The Zionist Return to the West and the Mizrahi Jewish Perspective.” Orientalism and the Jews. Waltham, MA: Brandeis UP, 2005. 170. Print.

[6] Kalmar, Ivan Davidson., and Derek Jonathan. Penslar. “The Zionist Return to the West and the Mizrahi Jewish Perspective.” Orientalism and the Jews. Waltham, MA: Brandeis UP, 2005. 171. Print.

[7] Shabi, Rachel. “Veiling Its Face.” We Look like the Enemy: The Hidden Story of Israel’s Jews from Arab Lands. New York: Walker, 2008. 23. Print.

[8] Wurmser, Meyrav. “Post-Zionism and the Sephardi Question.” Middle East Forum. The Middle East Quarterly, 2005. Web. 27 Apr. 2015.

[9] Kalmar, Ivan Davidson., and Derek Jonathan. Penslar. “The Zionist Return to the West and the Mizrahi Jewish Perspective.” Orientalism and the Jews. Waltham, MA: Brandeis UP, 2005. 173. Print.

[10] Yiftachel, Oren. “Israeli Society and Jewish-Palestinian Reconciliation: ‘Ethnocracy’ and Its Territorial Contradictions.” Middle East Journal 51.4 (n.d.): 505–19. Web.

[11] Setton, Ruth Knafo. “The Life and Times of Ruth of the Jungle.” The Flying Camel: Essays on Identity by Women of North African and Middle Eastern Jewish Heritage. New York: Seal, 2003. 7. Print.

[12] Shabi, Rachel. “Meet the Family.” We Look like the Enemy: The Hidden Story of Israel’s Jews from Arab Lands. New York: Walker, 2008. 27. Print.

[13] Rosenblatt, Gary. “Trying To Close Israel’s Social Gap.” Between the Lines (1999): n. pag. Web.

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