When the late Egyptian president and Pan-Arabist Gamal Abdel Nasser led the Egyptian Revolution of 1952, it may surprise people to know that it was the Egyptian singer and Mizrahi Jew Leila Murad who was chosen as the Revolution’s official singer. Murad was chosen over the much loved Egyptian singer and darling of the Arab world, Umm Kalthoum.
The reality is that Mizrahi Jews a.k.a. Arab Jews have played important roles throughout Arab history.
Recently, I had the opportunity to interview Mizrahi Jewish journalist and activist Mati Shemoelof. He and other Mizrahi Jews issued a special letter to the Arab/Muslim world this past summer — not only talking about their shared history but also to realize the positive message set forth by Pres. Obama earlier this year in Cairo, Egypt.
Sherri Muzher (SM): Before getting into the letter, “A New Spirit: A Letter from Jewish Descendents of the Countries of Islam,” I was hoping that you could describe what being a Mizrahi Jew has meant to you and how has it shaped your outlook throughout your life?
Mati Shemoelof (MS): Being a Mizrahi Jew is a personal family matter, as well as a political issue. It is part of other identities I hold. Also to be Mizrahi Jew is part of my social struggle to change the values that stand in the covenant/treaty between the state and the society. Because Mizrahis are still oppressed, it is my task to fight against discrimination and look for a multi-cultural consciousness. I look for new structures that will create more tolerant ways to handle the diverse Identities in the Middle-East.
SM: Mizrahi Jews and Sephardic Jews. What is the major difference since both are Middle Eastern Jews?
MS: Sephardic Jews originated in the Iberian Peninsula and North Africa. This subgroup of Jews includes mainly the descendants of Jews expelled from Spain under the Alhambra decree of 1492. The Sephardic Jews are part of the Mizrahi Jews. The term “Mizrahi” means (in Hebrew) “East” and it is part of a powerful mechanism of classification.
Mizrahi Jews are historically Jews of Middle-Eastern descent whose families, in most cases, immigrated to Israel from Arab countries. They form about half of the Israeli Jewish population. The painful reality of Israel is the division within the society between Ashkenazi Jews (of European descent) and Mizrahis. This reality often goes unnoticed by outside observers, who naturally focus on the more violent aspects of Israeli political reality and the division between Jew/non-Jew which the Israeli state draws.
In fact, in the mainstream of Israeli discourse there has long been a systematic avoidance/denial of this division, maintaining –” as is perhaps “demanded” by the core of Zionist ideology and its ongoing nation-building project –” that the Jews are a distinct people and that Israeli Jews have a unified ethnicity and a shared history.
Indeed, the mere notion of an Arab Jew, as some Mizrahis identify today themselves, is close to unthinkable in most mainstream media and consciousness. But the divide is not painful simply because it is denied. There is a history of political, economic and cultural oppression of Mizrahis and, as relatively recent scholarship establishes clearly, much of these elements are present to this day.
SM: What sorts of issues are unique to the Mizrahi Jews?
MS: Mizrahi Jews strive to bring about a meaningful change among the Israeli society and implement values of democracy, human rights, social justice, and equality and transform Israel to a multi cultural society.
As a poet, I want to see that the literature and poetry of the Arab Jews as part of the curriculum and the whole Israeli canon. Still, it is a long way in implementing those ideas inside the mainstream Ethno-National cultural realms.
SM: You are a member of Mimizrach Shemesh, an organization devoted to the Jewish tradition of social responsibility. How difficult is it in a climate of mistrust and anger to advocate this social responsibility?
MS: Your question shows that you are familiar with the difficulties that any social activist faces in their everyday activism. “Mimizrach Shemesh” is really a special institute trying to bring the theological and religious experiences of the Mizrahi Jews into the act of social change. For instance it re-constructs the world of the liturgical music of the Piyut (http://www.piyut.org.il) from the distant past to today’s scene. It isn’t the only place for Mizrahis to re-connect to their heritage –” it is a place for every Jew and non Jew to sit together and learn melodies that sing to God almighty. After you learn, sing and rejoice together, you can use this social and cultural power to bring political change.
SM: The title of the letter is, “A new spirit.” Explain the significance of this title.
MS: Well, EzÃ©chiel Rahamim, a close friend, a talented author, scholar and the initiator/ entrepreneur of the letter thought that we should look for “New Spirit” in terms of universalizing our identity and re-create it in a different way to move in the Middle East. For example, for years the West has been trying to mediate between Israel and the Arab states. But the European thought is the one which brought nationalism and Eurocentric as well as Orientalist ideas into the Middle East. Those European constructions couldn’t imagine a broad Arab-Jew range of identities (in which separation isn’t needed). For a thousand of years, Jews and Arabs lived, created, and breathed from the Arab culture without having the need to build an Apartheid separation wall between Judaism and Arabism.
We thought that a “New Spirit” is needed as parallel to the “A New Beginning” name giving by President Barack Obama in his Cairo speech of June, 4, 2009.
President Barack Obama is the first African-American to be elected; we’d like to see an Israeli prime minister who has an Arab heritage, will take on social responsibility and talk about his/her identity with pride.
SM: Can you talk about why you and other Mizrahi Jews decided to issue this letter now?
MS: In 2007 I was one of the editors of a book that dealt with the third Mizrahi generation (those who grow up in the seventies and eighties). The name of the book was: “Echoing Identities: Young Mizrahi Anthology” . We use an autobiographical prose in order to identify a new and assertive political collective of writers. That cultural confrontation was part of the ongoing Mizrahi and social struggles that came before us like the Israeli “Black-Panthers” movement and the “Democratic Mizrahi rainbow” and others.
Right after the Obama speech in Cairo, EzÃ©chiel called me. He was totally enthusiastic. He had an idea that we should continue and widen his (President Obama) message as part of our Mizrahi Generation. EzÃ©chiel wanted to use our list of writers from the book and sign that call. I immediately agreed.
We published the call in the Israeli media but we couldn’t get it ran for long. It seems that it was hard for the media to speak about it and they didn’t deal with it in a significant way. Please understand that it includes a really great list of Influential creators who signed it. Still, it seems that Israeli politics wasn’t interested in broadening her cultural national border.
SM: In "A new spirit,” you and the other authors write about the Arabic culture being a “part of our identity, a part of it that we cannot sever and wouldn’t wish to sever, even if we could.” Can you talk more about this, and how receptive are non-Middle Eastern Jews to this reminder?
MS: In our communities, as in others, we find various responses and it is a long process of democratic dialogue. You must understand that it is a denial discourse and so it raises a lot of violent energy. You can’t learn about it in school so it’s really unspeakable outside academic or cultural spheres (i.e. in a political way).
The first reaction I received was that we were racist. Friends of mine who work as editors asked me why they should publish it if European Jews were not included. “Well it isn’t about race” I said. “It is about ethnicity.” However, they couldn’t understand that we have different histories and symbolic imagination. I also tried to explain that we stand as a united Mizrahi generation not because we want to erase other groups but because we do believe that the end to the silencing of our group is raising our voice. But in Israel I guess,even friendship can’t precede the national Zionist idea of: “One nation, One language, One Memory.” We still try to challenge it by those acts.
SM: Would it be fair to say that given the shared history with the Arabs, Mizrahi Jews are more likely to effective conduits in the pursuit of peace between Arabs and Israelis?
MS: This argument can lead to essentialism so I will be careful. We use the Mizrahi term which the country has used to label us to empower ourselves.
The Arab Jew’s narrative holds creative ways to handle the problems which the national idea brought upon each other in the Middle-East. It is sharing knowledge of the Arabic language, culture and diverse viewpoints. The Arab Jew’s narrative holds in its memory and history and religion. But it is also a shared struggle for social justice and a re-construction of the region with its original inhabitants. So we stand in that tension between awareness and symbolic belonging and identification. And yes by moving on this scale of possibilities we can contribute to de-colonize the Israeli culture.
SM: Who is your main target audience with this manifesto and why?
MS: The main target of this Manifesto is really first of all a call to the Arab World to show that the Israeli government and policy makers don’t speak in our language. It is really a multi-cultural universal call for social justice in order to integrate into the Middle East without colonization and oppression, and be a part of the interest of the region itself.
SM: If President Obama was sitting across from you, what would you say to him?
MS: “Mr. President, I am proud that a community organizer (as I was) reached the higher level of responsibility. Your social vision is an example to all of us.”
If he had more time I would ask about the influence that Malcolm X’s heritage had on him. I wrote a thesis about the connection between the Autobiography of Malcolm X and Spike Lee’s film. I hope that my academic work will lead to a personal talk about identity, poetry and Arab-Jew awareness as a tool for social change.