Simultaneously Jewish and Persons of Color: The Status of Mizrahi Jews

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August 10, 2015; The Forward

The Forward’s deputy editor, Sigal Samuel, has a truly fascinating article on whether Mizrahi Jews should be considered persons of color. In the course of asking that question about Mizrahi Jews, Samuel uncovers some critical issues about what it really means to be a person of color.

Mizrahi Jews are Jews from Arab countries. Samuel’s parents can claim descent from Iraq, Morocco, and India. Like many Mizrahim, they look different than the “white” Jews of European origin. Samuel reports that she is frequently questioned by strangers who ask whether she is Persian or Arab or Latina because of her skin tone.

Does that mean that Samuel should be considered a person of color? In exploring the question, she learned that “nobody quite knows how to categorize Mizrahi Jews.” On the U.S. Census form, there is no category that fits a Mizrahi Jew or, she acknowledges, even an Arab-American. However, this year the census is testing a new category—people from the Middle East or North Africa (MENA)—that would potentially fit Mizrahi Jews and Arab-Americans. Samuel cites Linda Sarsour, the executive director of the Arab American Association of New York, who says she would welcome the participation of Mizrahi Jews in supporting the MENA category. She also talked to Jared Jackson, the biracial founder of a group called Jews in ALL Hues, who said half the Mizrahi Jews he knows identify as persons of color.

Does the option of checking “MENA” make a Mizrahi Jew a person of color? Samuel talked to New York University history professor Zvi Ben-Dor Benite, who challenged what it really means to be a person of color. “You are not a person of color in the American sense of the word, period,” Ben-Dor Benite told Samuel about her Mizrahi Jewish identity. “You never experienced the discrimination that Asians experienced into the late 19th century, and you certainly are not African-American.” However, he did say that in Israel, Mizrahim can identify as persons of color because Mizrahi immigrants have faced state-level discrimination there under the white European Ashkenazi Jews. Mizrahim in Israel even created the Israeli Black Panther movement, challenging the Ashkenazi majority who frequently referred to Mizrahim as “shvartze” and have repressed them into menial jobs. However, in the U.S., there has never been the kind of state-level discrimination against Mizrahim that that population has faced in Israel—or that African-Americans have faced for centuries in the U.S.

Does the definition of person of color require “state-level discrimination”? Samuel talked to other Mizrahim who believed that they had faced discrimination, even if not state-mandated, which would elevate them into the POC category. Many Mizrahim mentioned to her how they are routinely considered persons of color, pulled out of TSA lines at airports for extra review, and even subject to being stopped by police and required to show IDs in their own neighborhoods. Despite that, however, many told Samuel that they would be uncomfortable with a POC classification.

Ultimately, the question that Samuel raises is about the practical purpose of self-identifying as a person of color. Although there’s no equating America’s treatment of Mizrahim with its treatment of African Americans, do Mizrahim have a “narrative of oppression” to cite that warrants coding as a person of color?

Another dimension of the question is whether a Jewish person can identify simultaneously as an Arab (or MENA) and do so with pride? For some Jews, there is a sense of identity that comes from not being Arab, especially in light of the Jewish community’s dynamic with the strife surrounding Israel and Palestine, but that might be a false dichotomy. The existence of an Arab Jew may simply be a reality that Ashkenazi Jews or Israeli politics cannot deny.

Samuel asks, “If a Mizrahi Jew and a black Jew and a Latina and a Muslim American can all think of themselves as partners in a struggle, don’t the advantages outweigh those risks?” She concludes that they should see themselves as allies, and declares for herself, “for today, I am an Arab Jewish woman of color.”—Rick Cohen