Mizrahim, Sepharadim, Beta Israel & Zionism

INTRODUCTION

Recently various influential accounts have made the ahistorical implication (or outright claim) that Ashkenazi Zionist agents “duped” Mizrahim, Sepharadim, and other Jews of Color into immigrating to Israel or adopting Zionism. This is not only completely ahistorical, as mentioned, but also orientalist, racist, and infantilising. Mizrahim, Sepharadim, Beta Israel, and other non-Ashkenazi Jews are just as capable of critical thought and forming their own opinions as Ashkenazi Jews.

First, a little primer: the word “Sephardi”describes the diasporic experience of Jews whose ancestors settled in the Iberian Peninsula prior to the Spanish and Portuguese Inquisitions (the term “Sephardi” can also have a wider meaning, describing the communities that follow the Sephardic rite, such as many Mizrahi communities). The term “Mizrahi,” meaning “eastern” in Hebrew, is used to describe the diasporic experience of Jews whose ancestors remained in Southwest Asia (and sometimes North Africa). Beta Israel Jews are Jews descended from the Jewish community that settled in Ethiopia.

Before I delve into Mizrahi, Sephardi, and Beta Israel experiences with Zionism, a reminder: the Jewish People are an ethnoreligious group, nation, and tribe originating in the Land of Israel. Though most Jews were forcibly displaced from our homeland at various points throughout history, there has been a continuous Indigenous Jewish presence in the Land of Israel for the past 4000 years. Reverence for the Land of Israel is inextricable from Jewish identity. The Torah, which is the “origin story” of the Jewish People (think Greek mythology) commands all Jews to live in the Land of Israel. Beyond that commandment, many of the 613 “mitzvot” (“commandments”) in the Torah can only be fulfilled while in the Land of Israel. The Hebrew calendar follows the agricultural cycle of the Land of Israel. All of our holidays commemorate events in our collective history, celebrate the Land of Israel, or both. To this day, Jews in the Diaspora pray facing Jerusalem.

 

ZIONISM

Zionism — as defined by the overwhelming majority of the world’s Jews — is the Jewish movement for self-determination in the ancestral Jewish land, the Land of Israel (Israel-Palestine today). It can also be described as Jewish nationalism. It’s worth noting that self-determination is a basic tenet of international law. The fact that Jews come from the Land of Israel should not be debatable; it is easily proven through 3000+ years’ worth of archeology, DNA science, historical record, and Jewish culture.

The name “Zionism” comes from a historical event known as the Return to Zion, which took place in 538 BCE. In 1897, in response to virulent, deadly antisemitism, Jewish representatives traveling from Europe, Central Asia,  Southwest Asia, and North Africa congregated for what is known as the First Zionist Congress. At the end of the Congress, the representatives agreed: “Zionism seeks to establish a home for the Jewish people in Eretz ­Israel [the Land of Israel] secured under public law.”

 

Beyond the concept of Jewish self-determination in Israel, you’d be hard pressed to find anything else at all that Zionists agree with. Zionism is a wide movement, ranging from religious Zionism to labor Zionism to green Zionism and many, many others.

It’s true that Zionism, in practicality, had devastating effects for Palestinian Arabs. But it’s insincere not to consider these effects in context, including the rising (antisemitic) Arab nationalism and pan-Arabism during the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire, the Arab riots of the 1920s and 1930s, the ethnic cleansing of Jews from Southwest Asia and North Africa, as well as the 1947 Palestine Civil War (which the Zionists did not start), and the 1948 Arab (Egypt, Syria, Jordan, Iraq, Lebanon, and Saudi Arabia) invasion of Israel.

 

RETURN TO ZION

In 930 BCE, the United Monarchy of the Kingdom of Israel split into the Kingdom of Israel to the north (Samaria) and the Kingdom of Judah (Judea) to the south. In 720 BCE, the Neo-Assyrian Empire conquered the northern Kingdom of Israel, exiling its residents and prompting others to flee to the southern Kingdom of Judah.

In 587/6 BCE, the Neo-Babylonian Empire conquered and exiled about 25 percent of the citizens of the Kingdom of Judah. Most historians agree that the vast majority of the Tanakh (“Hebrew Bible”) was written during the period of the Babylonian Exile.

In 539 BCE, the Persians, led by Cyrus the Great, conquered the Neo-Babylonian Empire. Cyrus issued what is known as the Edict of Cyrus, which freed the captured Judeans and permitted them to finally return to Jerusalem. In the immediate aftermath of the decree, some 50,000 Jews embarked on a journey to return to their homeland. This event — the rest of which took place over a period of 110 years — is known as the Return to Zion (“Zion” is another Hebrew word for Jerusalem), which is where the term “Zionism” comes from.

Some historians and archaeologists argue that it wasn’t a single decree that prompted Jews to return, but rather, a “general policy of allowing deportees to return and to re-establish cult sites.”

 

JEWISH REVOLT AGAINST HERACLIUS

In the midst of the Byzantine-Sassanian (Persian) War (602-628), the Jews of Jerusalem, Tiberias, the Galilee, Damascus, and Cyprus revolted against the Byzantine Emperor Heraclius and attempted to retain autonomy over the territory then known as Palestina Secunda and Prima (now Israel-Palestine). They were briefly successful, holding control of Jerusalem for the first time since the dissolution of the Hasmonean Kingdom. This event is considered the last “serious” Jewish attempt to recover sovereignty in the Land of Israel until the development of modern political Zionism.

When the Persian army entered the Galilee, 20,000-26,000 Jewish rebels, angered by hundreds of years’ worth of oppressive Byzantine rule, took arms with the Persian forces. The Jewish army was led by Nehemiah Ben Hushiel, a Persian Jew, and Benjamin of Tiberias, a “Palestinian Jew” (see my post LET’S TALK ABOUT THE TERM “PALESTINIAN JEWS”).

In 614, the Persians and Jewish rebels conquered Jerusalem and Nehemiah was appointed the ruler of the city. The Jewish recapture of Jerusalem was considered so miraculous that Nehemiah began making arrangements for the construction of the Third Temple. In 617, however, the Persians went back in their promises to the Jews and sided with the Christians. In 622, the Byzantines captured Jerusalem and massacred tens of thousands of Jews, with the only survivors having to flee to Egypt and the mountains. Jews were then banned from living within a three-mile radius of Jerusalem.

 

SPANISH INQUISITION

When Sephardic Jews were expelled from Spain and Portugal in 1492 and 1497, respectively, many considered it a sign from G-d that they must return to the Land of Israel. Two influential (and, for all intents and purposes, Zionist) Sephardic Jews, Ottoman diplomat Don Joseph Nasi and his aunt Doña Gracia Mendes Nasi, financially backed the resettlement of Sephardic communities in the Land of Israel, particularly in the cities of Tiberias and Safed. Many of these refugees were Jews who’d converted to Christianity under duress.

This influx of Sephardic refugees/immigrants helped revive the fledgling Indigenous Jewish community in Palestine, whose numbers had declined exponentially as a result of various massacres, forced displacements (i.e. ethnic cleansing), second-class citizenship, colonialism, imperialism, and foreign exploitation of the land.

Sephardic Jews quickly became the majority Jewish community in Palestine, so much so that the Sephardic language, Ladino (a mixture of Old Spanish and Hebrew), became the lingua franca among the various groups of Jews in Palestine. Today, these Sephardic communities form some of the oldest continuous Jewish communities in the Land of Israel.

 

ETHIOPIAN JEWRY

Like Sepharadim and Mizrahim, Ethiopian Jews have a long history with Zionism. Various Beta Israel leaders embarked — or attempted to embark — on long, treacherous journeys to the Land of Israel.

In 1848, Ethiopian Jews wrote a letter to Jews in Europe praying for the unification of all Jews in the Land of Israel. In 1862, a group of Ethiopian Jews, led by Abba Mahari, attempted to reach the Land of Israel by foot. Unfortunately, the attempt was unsuccessful, ending in complete disaster and mass starvation.

Another Ethiopian Zionist leader was Ermias Essayas, a Hebrew teacher who in the 1920s arrived to Jerusalem with the mission of acquiring as much Jewish knowledge as possible and passing it on to his students, as well as advocating for Ethiopian Jewry.

In the 1980s, caught in the midst of a bloody civil war and antisemitic persecution, Israel emergency airlifted groups of Ethiopian Jews in a series of operations known as Operation Moses (1984), Operation Joshua (1985), and Operation Solomon (1991). Prior to these secret operations, some 8000 Ethiopian Jews had attempted to reach Israel; about 4000 died either as a result of starvation, disease, or murder.

 

MODERN POLITICAL ZIONISM 

In 1897, in response to virulent, deadly antisemitism, Jewish representatives traveling from Europe, Central Asia, Southwest Asia, and North Africa congregated for what is known as the First Zionist Congress. In other words, Sephardi and Mizrahi representatives were involved with modern political Zionism from the very beginning. At the end of the Congress, the representatives agreed: “Zionism seeks to establish a home for the Jewish people in Eretz ­Israel [the Land of Israel] secured under public law.”

Jewish immigration during the 19th and early 20th centuries was not limited to Jews coming from Europe. Between 1881-1904, 10% of all Yemenite Jews immigrated to Palestine. Most settled in Jerusalem and Jaffa.

Between 1880-1914, 8% of all Bukharian Jews from Uzbekistan fled to Jerusalem, escaping brutal persecution.

In the 1920s, another 10,000 Mizrahi Jews immigrated to (now British) Palestine, coming primarily from Yemen and Iraq.

Beginning in the 1940s — several years before the establishment of the State of Israel — the entirety of the Arab and Muslim-majority world expelled (i.e. ethnically cleansed) some 850,000 Jews, completely decimating millennia-old Jewish communities. As these horrors took place, so-called “Zionist agents” facilitated various missions to help bring these Jews to safety. Some of these missions include Operation Magic Carpet, Operations Ezra and Nehemiah, and Operation Yachin. To reiterate: these Jews were fleeing for their lives, not being “duped into Zionism.”

 

“PALESTINIAN JEWS”

It’s important to note that, following the First Zionist Congress, Zionism was far from an Ashkenazi-only or diasporic dream. The Sephardic leaders of the “Palestinian” Jewish community supported the idea of a sovereign Jewish state. For more on this, see my post LET’S TALK ABOUT THE TERM “PALESTINIAN JEWS.”

For instance, Yaakov Meir spoke fluent Hebrew and encouraged the construction of new Jewish Quarters in Jerusalem. He also eagerly supported the re-establishment of an independent Jewish Israeli nation.

Ben-Zion Meir Hai Uziel also supported Zionism, stating: “We all desire that the in gathering of the exiles should take place from all areas where they have been scattered; and that our holy language will be upon our lips and upon the lips of our children, in building the Land and its flowering through the hands and work of Israel; and we will all strive to see the flag of freedom and redemption waving in glory and strength upon the walls of Jerusalem.”

At the 1921 Cairo Conference, the Jewish National Council of Palestine, which represented the interests of the “Palestinian” Jews, thanked the British for supporting "the rebuilding of the Jewish National Home" and asked that in doing so, Jews did not deprive Arabs “of their legitimate rights.” They also applauded the new Zionist immigrants for their accomplishments in the last 40 years (cultivating the land, etc).

However, what truly united the Old and New Yishuvim under the Zionist cause was the 1929 Hebron Massacre, when Arabs indiscriminately murdered 67 members of the largely apolitical, ancient Hebron Jewish community. The Jews of Hebron had previously declined Zionist paramilitary protection because they had incorrectly believed that as apolitical “Palestinian” Jews, Arab nationalists wouldn’t target them. The Hebron Massacre was the final nail on the coffin for Arab-Old Yishuv relations, and after this, many members of the Old Yishuv joined the Zionist Haganah or Irgun.

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