The Stories Of Non-Ashkenazi Jews and Equality For All

What does that term, Ashkenazi, mean that I’ve titled above, you may ask? many have associated it with Europe and Jews that descend from a wide range of countries namely, Poland, Germany, Lithuania, Russia, France, Britain and more.

Another question that you may be wondering is why all Jews aren’t labelled as being a singular Jewish people. This is because many of the non-Ashkenazi Jews consist of the; Ethiopian and Mizrahi (Arab/ Middle Eastern and North African) Jews, who in large are discriminated against in Israel. Arab Jews were the first wave of refugees to come to Israel after its creation in 1948, the Israeli Ashkenazi government at the time wanted to differentiate between them and this group and so invented the term Mizrahi, meaning oriental or eastern Jews. Since then, labels separating the different groups have stuck with some Jews. Ethiopian Jews of course refer to those coming from East Africa, the first wave of mass migration to Israel from Ethiopian Jews occurred in the 1980’s and 1990’s. The Ethiopian community have also struggled to integrate into Israel due to unfortunate issues of racism. 

I want to of course lead us together through the experiences of; Ethiopian and Arab Jews to understand how they feel about the past and future of Israel. There is a lot of internal division within Israel and the idea of what it means to be a Jew.

Before I jump into that, I would like to talk about the feelings within Israel about; the direction of the country and its feelings towards the situation that is going on in Palestine. 

Israeli and Jewish Feelings Towards The Issue of Palestine

Like a coin, there are two sides to this story. There is one side that shows an Israeli society as having hatred towards the Palestinians; which you’ll see if you investigate the TikTok trend in Israel that mocks the lives of dying Palestinians or some calling for Gaza to be turned into a theme park (I hope this isn’t real). 

Equally though, there is a movement within Israel and Jewish communities believing that the separation between firstly Israelis and Palestinians should be no longer. This would extend also to all Jewish groups and what they campaign for is a state that would treat everyone equally.

 The NY Times interviewed Israelis who had grown up in settlements and one of those interviewees was architect Michal Froman. Froman, an architectural engineer, was stabbed in 2016 while she was pregnant by a Palestinian teen. She had the capacity to forgive the attacker in the face of hateful messages online, with some Israelis wishing her death threats. She however stuck firm to her stance of peace and even allowed a Palestinian delegation to come over and pray in her house in an attempt to mend ties. There is certainly a lot of inspiration that people from all walks of life can take from Michal who is a model for society.

There are also groups upon groups of Israelis that have called out Netanyahu’s heinous war crimes and advocated for peace in Tel AvivSimon Zimmerman is an American Jew who has recently made a documentary called ‘Israelism’. It centres around young American Jew’s relationship with Israel and the hope that apartheid between Israel and Palestine can end. There are even further calls for the Israeli prime minister to step down for his handling of October 7th, despite what is believed to be various warnings about Hamas’ planned attack. There is certainly a section of society that feels let down by its current rulership, feeling as if it has bred a culture of separation and violence. All we can hope for is peace in this life.

The History Of Jews In Ethiopia

The history of Jews in Ethiopia pre-civil war was one of a mixture of both bad and good times. Now I do want to put a disclaimer that my knowledge of Ethiopian Jewish history is lacking, so apologies in advance if I mischaracterise or miss anything.

In the 1400’s a Jewish revolt occurred in Ethiopia because of religious pressure put on them by emperor Yeshaq. This was subsequently crushed, resulting in Jews being forced to convert or lose their lands, those who didn’t convert were labelled as ‘Falasha’ meaning landless person as put by Kaplan. Kaplan also goes on to talk about the 1620s when many Jews were forcibly converted to Christianity by emperor Susenyos I. 

However, discrimination against the Jewish communities would not always be the case. Before the Communists overthrew Hailie Selassie, the emperor’s regime treated Jews fairly well. Errol T. Lewis says that ‘Selassie claimed to be a descendent of King Solomon and so protecting the Jewish community only served to bolster his claim’. Whether there was an ulterior motive or not in Selassie’s case, it can be said these were good times for the Jewish communities in Ethiopia.

During the mid-1970s Ethiopia found itself in a civil war; according to Steven Kaplan, many in the Jewish communities residing in the Horn of Africa wanted to leave due to famine and hostility that they faced from a majority Christian country. Antonelli Judith says that some of the worst atrocities committed against Ethiopian Jews was when; “The Ethiopian Democratic Union, went on a rampage against the Jews in 1978, cutting children’s feet off, bludgeoning babies, castrating men, raping women, torturing old people, and selling women and children into slavery.” 

The details and sentiments towards Jews of ordinary citizens in Ethiopia are difficult to find through research and are only known through how paramilitary groups treated them. It would certainly be interesting to see if any documentaries have been made about Jewish experiences in Ethiopia. 

The Ethiopian Experience In Israel

The atrocities of the civil war resulted in Operation Moses and Solomon took place between 1984 and 1991 in which 20,000 Jews were airlifted into Israel. By the end of the 1990s, around 90,000 Ethiopian Jews were living in Israel (Source: BBC). 

Now Ethiopian Jews are believed to be either the descendants of King Solomon and Queen Sheeba or the migrating Jews from Egypt over two thousand years ago as part of the tribe of Dan, according to Durrenda Ojanuga. Despite these strong claims, Ethiopian Jews have often had to defend their identity within the very place they thought they were safe from discrimination. The Vice documentary ‘How Police Killings Forced Israel To Confront Anti-Blackness‘, tells us that because Ethiopian Jewish traditions differed from those in Europe; many of them were asked to convert by the chief Rabbinic council when they migrated to Israel. This was seen as a great humiliation at the time. Whether it is because of the colour of their skin or the region they migrated from, it seemed their Jewishness was dismissed.

Today Ethiopian Jews are not happy with the treatment they have received in Israel. In 2012, different groups in Africa such as Sudanese and Eritrean peoples migrated to Israel. Amongst these migrants were Ethiopian Jews, With 2012 being the year the migration ended. The same year there were significant protests from the far right in Israel as documented by The Nation against the migration of Africans into Israel, leading to some truly vulgar incidents and speeches. Member of Knesset (Israeli Parliament) Michael Ben-Ari (between 2009 and 2013) was a big part of these protests and said if you let Africans into the country ‘it will no longer be Israel’. Surely, this insults the foundation of the Ethiopian Jews who also have ties to Africa, claiming they don’t belong in Israel. In the Vice documentary I mentioned above, the Ethiopian Jews claimed they identified with being Ethiopian first and Israeli last because of such discrimination they have faced.

The police have also been a big part of upholding discrimination against Ethiopian Jews. In 2016 police chief Roni Alsheich said that it was “natural” to suspect Israeli Ethiopians as being more involved with crimes than other Jews. Alsheich essentially admitted to profiling and didn’t claim there was any issue with this. He carried on saying, “In all criminological studies around the world it is proven that immigrants are more involved in crime than others, and this should not surprise us.” These are very damning words, and it would seem unfair to label them in such a way that sticks out as different. In 2015, Demas Fekaday despite being a soldier was attacked by police. He said that the experience was “degrading” considering he was “serving the country.” While the officers were fired, it does make one question how deeply rooted systemic racism is against the Jewish Ethiopian community. What’s more, according to Vice, Solomon Teka and Yahuda Biadga were among two Ethiopian Jews shot dead in 2019). This caused a huge backlash against the police and led to protests about how Ethiopian Jews have been treated in Israel.

Not only has policing been an issue but even how hospitals have treated the Ethiopian Jews. Ali Jiddahmentions that all blood donated by Ethiopians was thrown away because it was seen as less valuable. This took place between 1984 and 1996 and according to Seeman, officials tried to defend these racist actions by claiming that the Ethiopian Jews were at higher risk of HIV infection. This is awful in itself, but perhaps the most shocking scandal was the sterilisation campaign aimed at Ethiopian women. An Israeli documentary found that the population of Ethiopian Jews halved in a decade after they migrated to Israel. This was down to them being given contraceptive jabs when they were in refugee camps in Ethiopia and continued when they moved to Israel. In the wake of airlifting Ethiopians to Israel, the government portrayed itself as saviours, but instead, it looked towards a systematic and targeted killing of a people. Thus, preventing the future lineage of Ethiopian Jews, in a land they were told was for all Jews, no matter the colour of the Jewish person’s skin. Forbes writer Elise Knutsen mentions that it would be ‘hard to imagine an American Jewish woman being forced to take sterilisation injections had she moved to Israel.’

The Ethiopian Jewish experience often gets ignored when talking about the culture of Judaism, they have been left to feel as if they need to prove their Jewishness. They are amongst the most targeted groups in Israel and Palestine for racist abuse, and this cites another issue with the Israeli hierarchical structure.

The History Of Jews In Arab and Middle Eastern Lands

Elliot (editor-in-chief of Bath Time) and I have previously gone over Jewish history in Arab and Muslim countries in our article ‘I’m Jewish, and you’re Muslim, this is a connection, not a conflict’ that was released in the February 2023 version of Bath Time’s print edition. If you don’t have access to that article, I will repeat some facts I covered in understanding just how vital Jewish culture was in the Middle East and North Africa.

As mentioned, both peoples Arabs and Jews are very closely linked genetically for both descend from the father of religions, Abraham. Abraham himself was born in what would now be modern-day Iraq which back then would’ve been considered Sumeria/Babylon in ancient times. What is also interesting is Moses married Zipporah, who was a Midianite. Midianites would have been considered as Bedouins and by this modern definition now Arabs. They have been inseparable in terms of genetics and by the sheer number of Jews that lived across the Middle East and North Africa.

Some of the oldest Jewish communities outside of Jerusalem lived in Babylonia and helped to create the Talmud between the years 500-700 CE, highlighting their intrinsic necessity to Iraqi history and knowledge, continuing into the Islamic golden age.

Many Jews also thought King Darius of Persia was the Messiah when he freed them from slavery under ancient Babylonian rule, and because of that many Jews decided to migrate to what is now modern-day Iran.

In Bernard Reich’s book, A Brief History Of Israel (2008) he writes, ‘Jews were given the right of return to Jerusalem (after they were kicked out by the Romans) under Umar-Ibn Al-Khattab after the Muslims freed the land from the Byzantines in 635 AD. They were given protection, and property, and allowed freedom of worship in return for land taxes’.

Even in more modern history, Jews have been prominent members of Arab societies and hence are known by the term Arab Jews in that they were virtually indistinguishable. This was proven when a Nazi representative visited Morocco during the Second World War, demanding that the king give up all Jews to Germany to put into camps. King Mohammad V is famously known for refusing by saying “There are no Jews In Morocco, there are only Moroccan citizens” enhancing this idea of equality. Lior B Sternfeld mentions in his book ‘Between Iran and Zion: Jewish Histories of Twentieth Century Iran’ (2019) that ‘Iraqi Jews held prominent positions in government, 10 out of 19 members of the commerce chambers were Jewish in 1947, for example’ (p.34). And even in modern Egypt where in ancient times the Pharaoh Rameses had held Jews as slaves, Jews were an integral part of society. Henri Curiel was known as a patriot leading the vocal resistance against British involvement in their lands, by creating The Egyptian Movement for National Liberation’ in 1943 according to Joel Benin (1998). 

It is undeniable, however, that there were cases of antisemitism in the Middle East before the creation of Israel. In the documentary  ‘Remember Baghdad’ (2019), a group of Iraqi Jews recount their experiences of the Farhud (pogroms) in 1941 where 180 Jews were killed by right-wing extremists. Eli Amir speaks about how his Muslim neighbours protected them, but regardless of this, the damage this caused to the country was fractious. In 1945 in Libya, protests against Jews led to 130 killings between the 5th and 7th of November that year. 

By the time Israel was created, many Arab Jews were in part not made to feel welcome by their governments, and there was overriding fear about their place in the Arab countries. Many of them left, and similarly to Ethiopian Jews, Israel sent airlifts to get them out. 

There is no doubt in my mind that the Iraqi government should have been held responsible for their part in the Jews leaving Iraq, however, blame can also be levelled at ‘Zionist agents who were directly involved in bombings of Synagogues in Baghdad that caused this panic of Jews to leave Iraq’ according to Iraqi Jewish historian Avi Shlaim.

Most of my knowledge of the history of Jews outside of Israel is based on Iraq. Having spoken to my dad and others on the matter and watching the documentary ‘Remember Baghdad’, many Iraqis did not want the Jewish community to leave and neither did the Iraqi Jewish community want to go to Israel. There has certainly been a missing presence without the Jews in Iraqi society today. As you can see in the documentary, one participant, Edwin, wanted to reclaim that part of his identity and buy a house in Iraq all these years later. 

Avi Shlaim also notes that all Iraqis mixed, no matter whether you were a; Christian, Jew, Kurd, Assyrian, Muslim etc; nobody was looked at as different. He says in a Middle East Eye podcast “Iraq did not have a ‘Jewish problem’, Europe had a ‘Jewish problem’”. 

 And as I have mostly mentioned there was a period of over a thousand years of relative peace for Jews in these countries and an unfortunate spell of ten bad years towards the end.

The Arab/Middle Eastern Jewish Experience In Israel

From the get-go, when Arab Jews landed in Israel, they were made to feel different from the Ashkenazi Jews. In the ‘Hidden History of Israel’ podcast I mentioned above, involving Avi Shlaim and Ghada Kharmi, Shalim recounts a story of how his dad spoke to him in Arabic in front of his friends when they moved to Israel because he didn’t know Hebrew. Shlaim says he felt ‘embarrassed because by Ashkenazi standards Arabic was viewed as a primitive and ugly language of the enemy, but he never considered how humiliating at the time it would have been for his dad who still viewed himself as Iraqi’. 

This feeling was also echoed by the former Israeli PM David Ben-Gurion who said:

 “We do not want Israelis to be Arabs. It is our duty to fight against the eastern spirit that ruins individuals and societies; and to preserve the authenticity of Jewish values that evolved in the diaspora.” 

This is despite the majority of Israeli Jews today being of Arab Jewish descent completely ignoring the structure of its society’s needs.

And, by Israeli PM Golda Meir (1969-1974):

“Are we able to raise these immigrants to a better level of civilisation?”

The message here was clear that being Arab or Middle Eastern was associated with being unsophisticated, whereas European Jewry was elevated as a pre-condition for superiority in society showing a clear racism against Mizrahi Jews. Meir also said this in response to the Black Panther movement in Israel which sought to recognise the rights of Arab Jews. Dvora Alosh, in the Al-Jazeera documentary ‘Israel’s Great Divide’, speaks of her pride in her Tunisian lineage and for taking part in these protests. Dvora speaks of how she was arrested and says Golda Meir wanted them to be ‘silent’, as opposed to standing for what they wanted in equal rights.

To build off that last point, in ‘Israel’s Great Divide’ we see this sentiment played out by Professor Amir Hestroni who is an Ashkenazi Jew of Polish heritage. When confronted by Yehouda Alosh (son of Dvora) who talks about the racism towards Arab Jews, Hestroni says “This country wasn’t created for you, it was created for me… In my view, you’re an immigrant.” These sentiments are particularly ironic considering his own family’s migration at some point from Poland to Israel and is a completely ignorant view.

The Yemenite community were also the subject of horrific abuses and between the years 1948-1950, there was a case that over 1,000 babies were abducted by the state, with some reports even going as high as 8,000 in what is known as the Yemenite Child Affair. The worst part about these events is that the parents never knew what happened to them. These children were put up for adoption by Ashkenazi parents in the hope that the new generation could be re-educated and distanced from their Arab heritage. Al-Jazeera reports that those babies who were stolen and eventually died were most likely not given the proper burial they deserved, and neither were many of the families notified of the deaths. And so, we see here a deep-seeded pain for the Yemeni Jewish communities to get justice for over 70 years and counting. 

Today Arab Jews are still looked down upon in Israeli society by the Ashkenazi sect, as Ehud Barak the foreign minister said in 1996: “We still live in a modern and prosperous villa in the middle of the jungle.” Orla Noy who is an activist and journalist says this is completely offensive because this refers to the natives of the land which means the Arab/Middle Eastern Jews also. Still to this day, Orla says for Arab Jews to fit into this “imaginary villa” they must “get rid of any trace of Arab hood in their identity (including) their language and culture.” She says that there is a common interest in striving for equal rights for the Arab Jewish community as well as for Palestinians.

Where Does This Lead Us Today

I think it is ignorant to say that Jews did not face any form of discrimination in the lands of North and East Africa, and the Middle East. However, we see that despite these experiences there have also been foundational blocks within said nations as well, making them a strong part of those societies’ histories. The same cannot be said of their experiences thus far in Israel, which is why many in Israel claim and identify with their heritage over being an Israeli.

I also think a big part of the foundations of Israeli society is founded on racism, as we’ve covered the Ethiopian and Arab Jews are belittled and treated as second-class citizens. When Israel was created it claimed its ideal was a haven for all Jews. We have seen this is not the case, as in Israel the aforementioned groups still face strong forms of discrimination, and this is at the hands of other Jews. This is antisemitism certainly and that definition harkens back to the idea of Jews facing racial hatred and abuse. Never did we think however that this would be from other Jews.

Each movement has its singular importance of course, but as what we are seeing now with the case of the hatred shown towards Palestinians by governing officials and a clear policy of racial superiority of one group over others, the Palestinian cause is a chance for all to stand up and demand that Israel end its policy of apartheid. For too long has there been racism against the Palestinians, Ethiopian and Mizrahi Jews. For the Ethiopians and Mizrahi to get equality the struggle starts with that of Palestine.

Interesting Documentaries/Podcasts/ Interviews I mentioned to watch

Remember Baghdad- Netflix or YouTube (the intro is in Arabic but the rest is in English)

The Forgotten History Of Arab Jews, Avi Shlaim- Middle East Eye, Youtube

The Hidden History Of Israel: Jewish Professor Avi Shlaim Meets Palestinian Author Ghada Karmi- Double Down News, Youtube

Israel’s Great Divide- Al Jazeera, Youtube

How Police Killings Forced Israel to Confront Anti-Blackness- Vice News, Youtube

Israel’s New Racism: The Persecution Of African Migrants In The Holy Land- The Nation, Youtube

What It’s Like Growing Up In An Israeli Settlement- The New York Times, Youtube

Israelism- By Simone Zimmerman and others; unfortunately, is only available for rent on the website Israelismfilm currently for about $5/ £3.92. Although screenings can be requested for organisations, perhaps could be done through Uni societies.

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