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Who Gets to Speak for Mizrahi Jews?

My Iraqi-born Israeli grandparents, or anti-Israel activist Marc Lamont Hill?

Hen Mazzig
May 24, 2019
Photo: Bennett Raglin/Getty Images for BET Networks
Marc Lamont Hill speaks at an event in 2016 in New York City.Photo: Bennett Raglin/Getty Images for BET Networks
Photo: Bennett Raglin/Getty Images for BET Networks
Marc Lamont Hill speaks at an event in 2016 in New York City.Photo: Bennett Raglin/Getty Images for BET Networks

Earlier this month, I wrote an op-ed in The Los Angeles Times titled “No, Israel isn’t a country of privileged and powerful white Europeans.” I speak from experience: I am neither white, nor European—my grandparents came to Israel from Iraq and North Africa. And, as a gay man, I don’t feel particularly privileged, either.

Marc Lamont Hill, a political commentator and professor of media studies and urban education at Temple University, did not like my piece. In a Facebook post he shared with his 90,000 followers before curiously deleting it, he made the following argument: “the racial and political project that transformed Palestinian Jews (who lived peacefully with other Palestinians) into the 20th century identity category of ‘Mizrahi’ as a means of detaching them from Palestinian identity,” he wrote.

Like Congresswoman Rashida Tlaib, who made the preposterous claim that Palestinians helped make the land of Israel into a safe haven for Jewish Holocaust survivors, Lamont Hill’s account of history is blatantly and laughably false. There has never been a group that self-identified as Palestinian Jews. Nor did Jews live in peace with other Palestinians: In August of 1929, for example, Palestinians turned on their Jewish neighbors in Hebron, unleashing a pogrom. The peaceful leaders of the Jewish community refused to fire at their Arab neighbors, even though they were armed with guns, and pleaded instead for reconciliation. The Arabs responded by smashing skulls, castrating men, beheading babies, and tossing one Jewish man into an oven more than a decade before the Nazis would have the same idea, slaughtering 67 Jewish men, women, and children. Similar tales of Palestinian violence toward their Jewish neighbors abound.

Sadly, that is not Lamont Hill’s only lie. He also claim that Mizrahi is an identity manufactured for nefarious political reasons by Israel’s largely Ashkenazi founders. It’s a claim that’s easy for me to personally refute: When my grandparents arrived in Israel, together with 850,000 other Jews who lived in the Middle East and North Africa, they understood three things.

First, they understood that they were being forced to leave their Arab homelands. My Iraqi grandparents, for example, had very clear memories of the Farhud, the 1941 pogrom that left more than 180 Jews dead at the hands of their neighbors. They finally fled their native country in 1951, pushed out by an Iraqi government determined to rid itself of all of its Jews.

When they arrived in Israel, my grandparents did not see themselves as Palestinian Jews—they had never before lived in Mandatory Palestine. They saw themselves as Jews of Iraqi descent returning to the ancient homeland they and their ancestors had dreamed of and prayed of for thousands of years, the land from which they were once expelled and to which they were overjoyed to return. And they also understood themselves to be distinct from their Ashkenazi brothers and sisters: They were all Jews, but my grandparents were proud of their Mizrahi heritage just as the 200,000 Israelis of Ethiopian descent are proud of theirs.

Lamont Hill ignores all that. He also turns the imperial narrative on its head, accusing Israel of the crimes that were, in reality, committed by its Arab neighbors in the name of pan-Arabism. Since the 20th-century rise of pan-Arabism, leaders advocated Arabization policies of indigenous national groups—whether the Kurds, the Berbers, the Arameans, or the Sudanese—and sought to permanently reduce the status and power of indigenous religious groups, such as the Copts and Maronites, across the region. This sort of abuse goes on: Two decades ago, there were 1.4 million Christians living in Iraq; today, there are fewer than 250,000, an 80% drop. It’s precisely the same imperialist policy, intolerant of minorities, that drove my grandparents out all these decades ago.

You’d think that Lamont Hill, a self-proclaimed researcher of these topics, would know these facts. And you’d think that, as a self-described progressive, he’d at least listen to me as I shared my personal family history with him. He did not: In response to my article, Hill merely claimed that he studied Mizrahi Jews, and thus he knows better than me about my own community. It’s a statement that would make any decent person cringe. Imagine if I claimed that I studied racism and the Civil Rights Movement in the United States, and had the right to make any claim I wanted about the African American community, lecturing it about its own history. Lamont Hill, I suspect, would be rightly outraged, and yet he and many of his allies on the anti-Israel left expect the Jewish people to sit back and listen to him—a man who doesn’t speak the language, hasn’t lived in the region, and doesn’t understand the culture—lecture us on our history and our identity.

In the wake of some of Lamont Hill’s recent controversial statements about Israel, several leading Jewish voices, including Peter Beinart, rushed to defend Lamont Hill against charges of anti-Semitism. It is hard, however, to see how distorting Jewish history and silencing Jewish voices to promote a vicious and false charge could be construed as anything but.


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Hen Mazzig is an Israeli writer, public speaker, and digital communications consultant from Tel Aviv.