Entry 16: With thunderous resolution and intention, I say I am ‘Mizrahi’!

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This is Entry 16 in the Mondo Awards end-of-year Inspire-us contest.

On the last day of my recent trip to Israel/Palestine, the question I dreaded most finally came and I think I was finally ready to engage it. “What exactly were you doing here for so long?” my father’s side of the family asked in discordant unison as we sat down for breakfast. It was an innocent question—not an ambush—but I definitely felt alone, cautious and weary from two months of conversations with Israelis. In this instance, I was talking to my committed custodians and I wanted to be respectful. I was keeping the conversation bland and they were appreciating that my understanding of the country is nuanced, even though I had lived there only as a child. But once the topic of the occupation, or as Israelis call it, “the situation,” came up there was a lot of resistance. Not resistance to the occupation. I wish my family were one of “those” Israeli families. The mere word “occupation”—and not even the description of its horrors—engendered resistance to my views, which were labeled at various moments as “naïve,” “leftist,” and “simplistic.”

After grinding water in a lengthy debate of one versus a hundred, what it turns out I failed to understand was how different from us Arabs are and always will be. They start with “You don’t know what it is like to live under terror,” monopolizing the conversation as if they are the only ones with credentials to say anything authentic. Even though I concretely talk about Israeli policy, it continues. “The question of justice is not relevant,” roars my aunt. “There is not justice, no morality in Muslim society,” my usually reticent but instantly authoritative grandfather interjects. They didn’t need to think and did not need to know what was actually happening only miles away in “the territories” because this conflict for them is based on irreconcilable cultural difference.

The jaded conversation ended calmly enough but it lacked a punch line, an exclamation point. At least until I noticed what my grandfather was about to do. Barely twenty minutes after the debate ended, and not five minutes after everyone left, he slipped on his headphones to listen to music in Arabic, on the radio, as he has done every Saturday afternoon since emigrating from Baghdad. Yes, I neglected to mention with whom, exactly, I was sitting at the table. My dad’s side of the family is Iraqi Jewish: Mizrahis, sometimes lumped with the Sephardis, Arab Jews, if you will. That is who we are and that moment of stark contrast between his genuine inhabitation of Arab culture and his total renunciation of that inhabitation was a potent dose of the dissonance that is prevalent throughout Israel.

I, for one, have not always been an Iraqi Jew. A common distinction that is important to Israelis when they meet each other is ancestry. For most of my life I favored mentioning my maternal ancestry, which is Bulgarian. If I said I was Iraqi, it was secondary. Bulgarian Jewish is not Ashkenazi, but it sure is white and Iraqi is, well, Arab. For many reasons, it is hard for me to identify with struggles inherent in the terms Mizrahi and Arab Jew but the fact that I almost exclusively and perfunctorily said Bulgarian means I had internalized some sort of shame. If I say Mizrahi now, however, it comes out with thunderous resolution and intention.

How did I encounter the subversive potential within the dissonance so many Mizrahis exhibit? One day, I went on a tour of Jerusalem that focused on the story and heritage of the Israeli Black Panthers. The Panthers were a group of young Moroccan Jews who came from in the neighborhood of Musrara in Jerusalem. We learned about how they built a social movement to challenge the Ashkenazi hegemony in the country. In the tour we walked the old neighborhood and heard the stories of the Panthers. The tour concluded in our meeting with Reuven Abargil who was one of the original founders of the group. He is now almost 70 years old and still fierce, brilliant and passionate about social justice. In the new and emerging social movement known as the Vendor’s Struggle, he is helping to organize various vendors who are under attack by city hall. In Jerusalem, the preponderance of vendors in the west are Mizrahi and in the east, Palestinian. They are currently protesting against their common tormentor: Mayor Nir Barkat who wants to “ clean up” the city and push his neoliberal agenda using the pseudo-legitimate violence of the police apparatus. The vendors are part of the city rightfully and intrinsically, working on its streets for decades. Their unity in challenging gentrification showed me the destabilizing potential of joint Palestinian and Mizrahi struggle.

I saw them protest together and I saw them speak Arabic to each other. To hell with the claim that Mizrahi’s are an obstacle to peace. Statements like this are meant to uphold the same kind of racial hierarchy, which made me think as a child that I wanted to be Bulgarian more than I wanted to be Iraqi. Once the Mizrahi disavowal of Arab identity and culture can be recognized for what it is, it can also be dismantled. In feeling empowered to reject and fight and dismantle that oppression, I want to acknowledge Ella Shohat, Sami Shalom Chetrit, Reuven Abargil, and Tom Pessah, great activists and scholars who made a difference in my life this year.

Initially, my trip to Israel/Palestine was meant as sort of a culmination of two years of transformation in California. I had been part of a community of students dedicated to engaging directly with social change organizations and activists in Israel/Palestine. That experience profoundly changed me and engaged me a process of critical thinking, which continues to inform my activism. Now, I wanted to meet all the wonderful people I had been working with, see everything up close, and go to the Apartheid Wall and to the protests in Bil’in. Rather than a conclusion, however, I found deepened commitment, vitality and inspiration.

As I move forward, my grandfather and the story of his life continue to permeate my consciousness. My curiosity, at first, sought to understand what it meant to arrive in Tel Aviv as a 23-year-old Iraqi cut off suddenly from your entire world. By now, I have committed to a personal journey of extracting new and more profound parts of my grandfather’s history while avoiding the mentality of proving to him that he is actually an Arab or that he has been oppressed. Instead, I find personal empowerment in a unique account of struggle in Israel—unique to my family—but common to millions of Jews. What I eventually found this year was not a culmination but transformation, a bridge to new possibilities.

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