Many would argue that Middle Eastern and North African Jewish culture is having a moment. Dishes like sabiḥ and shakshuka are gracing menus around the globe and musicians like Dudu Tassa and Riff Cohen are gaining praise for their fresh takes on traditional Middle Eastern and North African sounds. Many Ashkenazi Jews don’t bat an eye when invited to a Henna party or a Mimouna celebration. Embracing new foods, music, and traditions is even being used as a pathway to discuss diversity in the Jewish world. This, of course, was not always the case. In a historic context, non-Western Jewish sub-cultures were often marginalized and looked down upon. Why then are we suddenly embracing Jewish cultural diversity? And why was this not the case in the past?
In the period between 1948-1973 over a million Jews left the Middle East and North Africa (MENA). It’s no secret that this experience was traumatic. Historic Jewish communities dissolved overnight, families were separated and many were left impoverished due to autocratic governments, political insecurity, and corruption. The trauma of exile was compounded for those who went to Israel by the atrocious conditions of the maʿabarot (transit camps) in the 1950s and later resettlement in remote development towns along Israel’s border. The experiences left an indelible mark on MENA Jewry, but it was not only the dreadful living conditions (which many Eastern European Jews experienced as well) that traumatized MENA Jewry. More shockingly, MENA Jewry were treated as second class citizens by the Ashkenazi establishment who saw their languages and cultures as inferior to that of the Germanophile Ashkenazi majority at the time.
It is well documented that many political leaders in the early years of the state viewed Eastern European Jewry as having greater potential than MENA, not a surprising bias given the shared origins. Furthermore, government leaders feared that lack of enthusiasm for Zionism, connections to Arab communist parties, and apathy towards an agrarian lifestyle in many circles of MENA Jewry could engender political instability in the already fragile state. As a consequence, these concerns and biases translated into Ashkenazim being allocated better housing, jobs, and more access to higher education due to their perceived superiority, ultimately resulting in socio-economic differences which are felt to this day in Israel. Furthermore, MENA Jewry was coerced into abandoning their language and traditions through promises of socio-economic mobility which rarely materialized. 1
“we are dealing with little amoral beings whom lying, deception, denunciation, and dishonesty are qualities as natural as their opposites are to young Westerners.”
Often forgotten in these bleak narratives about the mistreatment of MENA Jewry upon their arrival in Israel, is that prior to the uprooting of these communities the relationship between MENA Jewry and European Jewry was primarily perceived as positive, constructive, and collaborative. This is apparent in the many biographies written by Jews from the Islamic world and is also reflected in the collaborative nature of philanthropic initiatives that existed between European and MENA Jewry in the nineteenth and early twentieth century. At the beginning of my doctoral research I paid a visit to the eminent scholar of Iraqi Jewry, Prof. Esther Meir-Glitzenstein, to discuss interactions between Iraqi Jews and their European co-religionists in the first part of the twentieth century. I was curious how Baghdadi Jews saw themselves vis-à-vis foreign Jewish communities and how foreign Jews looked upon Baghdadi Jews before their mass immigration to Israel between 1949-1951. In response she spoke of her mother, who grew up in Basra, Iraq, adoring her European teachers and imitating their habit of putting milk in tea. Meir-Glitzenstein used this anecdote to illustrate the friendly exchanges between Iraqi and European Jewry in the first half of the twentieth century. There are many other European cultural norms such as naming practices and Western styles of dress which reached MENA Jewry via their European co-religionists as well. Although European Jews may have seen themselves as the “saviors of Eastern Jewry” they did not force changes upon them but offered options. In fact, most trends began with local communal elites and trickled down to the middle classes over time. Overwhelmingly MENA Jewry chose to adopt some aspects of normative European (although not Ashkenazi per se) culture as a means towards socio-economic mobility in a rapidly changing predominantly colonial context. A colonial context which was driven by forces far outside the control of any Jewish group, but in which MENA Jewry overwhelmingly flourished in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century.
However, this rosy picture of European-MENA Jewish relations, becomes more complicated when we dive deeper into the archives. Reading letters written by European Jews in the MENA in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century the language used to describe local communities is less than salutary. The MENA Jewish communities are called backwards – personal hygiene, education, and social mores are regularly criticized. Examples include a teacher in Casablanca in 1898 discussing the arduous task to teach students to “exchange greetings politely, and to answer questions without vulgar interjections.” Seven years later, a teacher in Damascus describes “the frightful dress of Syrians” and their nature as “apathetic and lazy.”2
Perhaps one of the most upsetting examples I have come across dates from 1910, in a letter discussing the need for a moral education of Persian Jews. The author states that, “we are dealing with little amoral beings whom lying, deception, denunciation, and dishonesty are qualities as natural as their opposites are to young Westerners.”3 To remedy these social ills, European Jews speak of their objective to “regenerate” the communities of their impoverished co-religionists, a language which is not far from that of the mid-century Zionists when describing MENA Jewry in Israel. The language may be similar and certainly disturbing, yet the philosophies and outcomes both in regard to socio-economic mobility and inter-group perception were markedly different.
As Aziza Khazzoom writes in her seminal article, “The Great Chain of Orientalism: Jewish Identity, Stigma Management and Ethnic Exclusion in Israel,” the orientalism4 that shapes ethnic inequality in Israel today, is actually part of a longer history of Jews the world-over being stigmatized as oriental. Herein lies the link between the similar language of the Zionist establishment in Israel and the European philanthropists.5 Without summarizing the whole article (you should read it for yourself), the essential idea is that world Jewry has historically been ‘orientalized’ by European Christendom. In this context, ‘orientalized’ refers to a pejorative and inherent otherness by virtue of one’s Jewishness, which challenged the idea that Jews could be full participants in modern European society. European Jews internalized the stigma of being ‘orientalized’ and in response attempted to fashion themselves as Western by presenting their brethren in the Muslim world and Eastern Europe as the true “Jewish Orientals.” From the vantage point of European Jewry, in this conception, it was their responsibility to educate and civilize their brethren in the East if they were to truly convince the ‘civilized’ West they were not ‘orientals.’ The ultimate objective being to demonstrate that all Jews were capable of becoming fully emancipated citizens. The early Zionists also wanted fully emancipated citizenship in the new Jewish state, hence the similarity between the language used in each context. However, the actors, objectives, philosophies, and means were vastly different in these two contexts.
For example, the most well-known Jewish international philanthropic organization, the Alliance Israélite Universelle was founded in 1860 as a response to European anti-Semitism. The AIU and other similar organizations used transnational Jewish collaboration as a strategy to mitigate anti-semitism and improve the position of Jews throughout the world. The AIU’s official mission was to work for the global emancipation and moral progress of the Jews and to lend effectual support to those who suffer through being Jews.6 Thus the primary objective was to liberate Jews in Eastern Europe, North Africa, and the Middle East from anti-Semitism through curing them of their own backwardness and alleviating poverty through secular education and vocational training. It was thought that by combating the social ills associated with Jews everywhere the global perception of world Jewry would improve. The mission civilisatrice, as it came to be known, to emancipate Jews in poorer countries, was linked to enlightenment universalist ideology which sought to undo the traditional segregation of Jews and to encourage their ‘regeneration’ as an enlightened and educated people in the wider societies in which they lived- be they Muslim or Christian majority spaces.
The Western European Ashkenazi and Sepharadi elites of the nineteenth century saw themselves as superior due to their wealth, education, pedigree, and status as emancipated citizens. In articulating their opinions on the state of world Jewry they made no appreciable distinction between Eastern European or MENA Jewry. Instead they saw Jews from both regions as being victims of their own superstitions and backwardness in need of support from their emancipated and educated brethren. One need only look at the travels of Moses Montefiore which included trips to Morocco, Eastern Europe, and the Ottoman Empire to appreciate the pan-Jewish perspective of the mission civilisatrice.7 More importantly, the Western European Jewish elites genuinely believed that with access to secular education and social emancipation all Jews could be redeemed. The proof of this position is that by the early twentieth century members of the leading Eastern Sepharadi and Baghdadi families were given prominent positions on the boards of the leading transnational Jewish philanthropic associations, married their children to members of European Jewish aristocracy, and developed important business partnerships with these families as well.
Thus, the essential differences between the predominantly Eastern European Zionist leadership and the earlier Western European Jewish elites were their means and objectives in ‘de-orientalizing’ MENA Jewry. The European Jewish philanthropists strove to give MENA Jewry the tools to prosper in the modern world and gain access to white-collar employment. The ultimate goal being to further embed communities in their local, non-Jewish societies to combat global anti-Semitism. The road to this objective was quality education. In comparison, mid-century Zionists sought to develop an economically independent state grounded in European culture and a socialist ideal. To obtain this objective they needed an able workforce ready to adopt their specific worldview and thus ignored the education, culture, and potential contribution to Israeli society of MENA Jewry beyond that of laborer and border guard.
The Western European Jews ascribed the perceived backwardness of MENA Jewry due to a lack of opportunity and oppressive conditions, the exact same backwardness they saw in Eastern European Jewry in this period. These philanthropists genuinely believed that through education and emancipation all Jews would become model citizens for their countries and become active participants in combating anti-Semitism, albeit via a rigid conception of acceptable social norms (and a heavy dose of ethnocentrism). They were willing to invest in these communities to help take them out of poverty through partnering with communal elites and respecting social hierarchies. In the case of the state of Israel, MENA Jewry was ascribed an inferior status based on an inherent ‘anti-oriental’ sentiment which completely ignored not only the culture and traditions of these communities but also the high level of education and training many people brought to Israel due in large part to the education initiatives developed through transnational Jewish philanthropic networks.
Today, the ‘oriental’ music, food, and traditions brought to Israel by MENA Jewry are regularly highlighted by the Israeli tourism bureau in presenting Israel as an exotic travel destination. Whereas previous generations strove for cultural uniformity, most Jewish intellectuals today write of the importance of preserving marginalized Jewish cultures and languages as opposed to trying to homogenize them. Philanthropic initiatives now struggle to preserve threatened Jewish languages. Ultimately the objectives of these modern promoters of Jewish cultural diversity are similar to both the nineteenth-century European philanthropists and the labor Zionists. Inherently they want to portray the Jewish world in the best light possible in the hopes of combating anti-Semitism and promoting Jewish culture. The shift is that today we value diversity as opposed to cultural homogeneity and as such we work to preserve what we perceive as “exotic” or “unique” as opposed to erasing it.
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- Orit Bashkin, Impossible Exodus (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2017); Aziza Khazzoom, Shifting Ethnic Boundaries and Inequality in Israel: Or, How a Polish Tailor Became a German Intellectual (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2008).
- Aron Rodrigue, Images of Eastern and Sephardi Jewries in Transitions. (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2003), 74;76-77.
- Ibid. 79.
- Orientalism is the view that non-Western societies are exotic, primitive, and inferior and is based on a world view that considers “the East” as inferior.
- Aziza Khazzoom, “The Great Chain of Orientalism: Jewish Identity, Stigma Management and Ethnic Exclusion in Israel” American Sociological Review68.4 (2003): 481-510
- Jacques Bigart, “The Alliance Israélite Universelle,” The American Jewish Year Book 2 (1900): 46.
- Abigail Green, Moses Montefiore, (Cambridge: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2010).