Do Sephardi Jews View Anti-Semitism Differently?
When my mother-in-law, Joyce Fienberg, was murdered at the Pittsburgh Tree of Life Synagogue Shooting, there were literally thousands of people who came to mourn with us. One group of Jews from Brooklyn, NY traveled more than 6 hours to pray, cry and hear about Joyce and the kind of person she was and they identified themselves as being Sephardi, originally from the Middle East. They emphasized that we are all one family and her loss was personal to them. I have never forgotten their kindness.
While Jews are not the majority in North America, our small group has enormous diversity. We don’t have uniform opinions or approaches. Sephardi (also known as Mizrahi) Jews are from North Africa, living side-by-side with Islamic neighbors for more than a millennia. Modern anti-Semitism drove them to North America in different patterns than Ashkenazi Jews. How do they feel about it’s rise today and how do they face it?
Take Action sat down with Sarah Levin from Jews Indigenous to the Middle East and North Africa (JIMENA) in San Francisco, CA to discuss.
– Marnie Fienberg, Editor
Take Action: What is JIMENA and what is your mission ?
Sarah Levin: JIMENA was created in 2002 by former Jewish refugees from the Middle East and North Africa who desired to share their personal stories and rich culture with college students, policy makers and North American Jewish communal and lay leaders throughout North America. We are at the forefront of fighting anti-Semitic historical revisionism which ignores the one million Jewish refugees from the Middle East and North Africa. We honor November 30th as an annual, national day of commemoration in Israel for these forgotten Jewish refugees.
TA: Some Sephardi have been in the Americas for many generations, some are very new. What is Anti-Semitism like for different Mizrahi groups?
SL: The Middle East and its peoples are very diverse so there isn’t one monolithic experience amongst Jews from the region. Jewish people across the region were an integral part of the diversity that existed in the Middle East continuously for 3,000 years. With that in mind, each modern country in the Middle East has its own unique Jewish history, heritage, and experience of anti-Semitism.
There were positive periods of integration and coexistence and terrible periods defined by oppressive persecution. The ultimate circumstances that led to the departure of one million Jews from Arab and Islamic lands varied country to country. Unfortunately, the introduction of Nazism from Europe greatly influenced attitudes towards Jews in many parts of the Middle East and played a role in the destruction of Jewish life in the Arab world.
TA: How do North American Sephardi view the anti-Semitic activity from the past few years? Is it a different perspective than European/Ashkenazi Jews?
SL: Many Sephardic Jews who came here in the last 40 years from the Middle East have a different experience of anti-Semitism from Jews who was here earlier. Some of the Jewish refugees who fled anti-Semitic persecution in Middle Eastern countries have expressed that they feel as though the types of hatreds that forced them to flee their countries of origin has sadly followed them to the USA and poses a growing threat to the well-being of Jewish people.
Sadly, I reflect on the recent acts of anti-Semitism that have targeted Iranian Jewish synagogues in Los Angeles. While these acts of hate reverberate with Jewish people around North America, I can’t help but to think of the elder Iranian Jews who endured many traumas when they fled as stateless refugees. I imagine that the vandalism targeting their Jewish centers of prayer and community feel very personal and bring up traumas from when they fled the Islamic Revolution of 1979 – not that long ago.
TA: What does the Sephardi community do to fight anti-Semitism or reach out to others in North America? What do you encourage individuals to do?
SL: While JIMENA is designed to advocate for Mizrahi Jews made up of 40 Sephardic backgrounds, we help protect all Jews from anti-Semitism. We have a unique voice rooted in our different identities.
JIMENA was part of a large coalition for the recent Ethnic studies curricula in California. In July 2019 we reacted to the anti-Semitic materials and the Coalition got that removed. But we all went further, to become part of a positive collaboration. Advocates for the Middle East included non-Jewish organizations. We are excited that students will learn about the Mizrahi Jews as part of this curricula. This is an example of what happens when members of the Jewish community take a stand. We all have to speak up.
TA: Do you have any messages to the North American Jewish Community? What can individuals do?
SL: It’s clear to me that the vast majority of Sephardic Jews have internalized the horrors of European Jewish history in shaping their identities and Jewish world views. What would be a dream to me, and I think quite beneficial for all American Jews, is if that same ownership of Middle Eastern and North African Jewish history became an integral part of the Jewish worldviews of Ashkenazi Jews. We all deserve acknowledgement and understanding, of both the positive and negative chapters of our communal Jewish histories and experiences. Our heritage, both the resilience and trauma, are shared by us all.