An Exploration of Power and Privilege In the Jewish Community

by Loolwa Khazzoom


Rarely in the organized Jewish community, in the United States, do you find Jews of Sephardi or Mizrahi origin in leadership positionsómanagers, directors, presidents, vice presidents, no, nary a one. Indeed, a cursory look at institutions such as the Skirball Cultural Center, the Jewish Museum in New York, the Museum of Tolerance in Los Angeles, the National Foundation for Jewish Culture (New York) or a glance at the editorial masthead of nationally-prominent newspapers such as the Jewish Journal (Los Angeles), Forward (New York), Jewish Bulletin (San Francisco) and Jewish Week (New York), all reveal that the Jews of Arab/Muslim lands are maintained in token status, when they are represented at all.

The same holds true, appallingly, for Jewish Studies departments at major universities: while Hebrew and history professors of Sephardi/Mizrahi descent are present, they are rarely department heads. The best jobs still go to their Ashkenazi counterparts. This of course determines the manner in which Jewish history and literature is taught, with the result that there is undeniably a hegemonic discourse summarily dismissing the valuable intellectual achievements of non-Eastern European and American Jewry.

I am without a doubt not the only person who finds this troubling; nor is Ivri-NASAWI the only organization which exists to advocate for greater inclusion of these voices, stories, experiences. Yet the situation persists, and it is nothing new. In republishing Loolwa Khazzoom's essay "When Jewish Means Ashkenazi," we are asking everyone in the Jewish community to re-examine their attitudes and perhaps prejudices, toward people of color in general and Sephardi/Mizrahi Jews in particular.

And the next time you pick up a Jewish publication, such as Moment, Tikkun, Haddasah, Commentary or any of the above-named newspapers, ask yourself if the editor or managing editor is perhaps someone of Sephardic or Middle Eastern origin; take a closer look at the editorial selection, and see if there is a genuine attempt to present the news from a broader, more pluralist perspective; and if you find that there is an absence, if you don't feel that a truly inclusive and international perspective is conveyed (comparable to what Ha'aretz is doing these days in its English international edition), write a letter to the editors, make a phone call. Request that among op-ed writers and columnists be included the "other" Jewish voices which have much to contribute to the intellectual, creative, and religious life of the American Jewish experience.

When Jewish Mean Ashkenazi

Gut shabbos; gut yuntif; let's say kiddish...

Most Jews who have been involved even minimally in community religious life will be familiar with all these expressions. And if we are not, we are expected to be. This phenomenon is one of Ashkenazi privilege.

Ashkenazi privilege lies in the assumption that anything billed as "Jewish" will reflect Ashkenazi identity: the assumption and expectation that if we open a book labeled "World Jewish history," we will find the modern history of Jews from Poland, Russia, and Germany; the assumption and expectation that if there is a Hanukkah party sponsored by the Jewish community, there will be dreidels, latkes, and gelt; the assumption and expectation that if we send our children to a Jewish school, they will learn Ashkenazi traditions.

An Ashkenazi Jew openly can practice her traditions within the Jewish community and expect that other practicing members of the community immediately will understand what she is doing and will be able to join in with her. A Mizrahi, Sephardi, or Ethiopian Jew cannot.

An Ashkenazi Jew can assume and expect that the Jewish community institutions and resources will provide information about her history, culture, and religious traditions. A Mizrahi, Sephardi, or Ethiopian Jew cannot.

On the high holidays, if I say, "Tizkoo leshaneem raboth ooneemoth," I cannot expect that someone will answer me, "Tizke wethihei wetha'arech ya'amim." To the contrary, I can expect a blank stare. I cannot even expect that anyone reading this article will know that expression is a Mizrahi high holiday greeting, which means "May you merit years that are long and pleasant."

If I go to a Purim party sponsored by the Jewish community, I cannot expect that I will find sambousak, ba'aba, and machbooz on the table; and I cannot expect that everyone will be playing nakshehood and dosa. Again, I cannot even expect that anyone reading this article will know that sambousak, ba'aba, and machbooz are some of the Mizrahi Purim pastries or that nakshehood and dosa are some of the Mizrahi Purim gambling games.

And I cannot go to a Jewish bookstore or library and expect to find books with the modern history of Jews from Iraq, Tunisia, or Syria. Even if I do find them - which probably will not happen - they will not be in the books marked "World Jewish History," and they will not be in the Jewish history section; rather, they will be in separate books in a small, separate section labeled "Sephardic."

Ashkenazi privilege lies in the assumption that anything billed as "Jewish" will reflect Ashkenazi identity; and that if it does not, whatever it is must not be valid. What kind of a Jewish cookbook is it, after all, if it does not include cholent, borscht, or kougel? What kind of a modern Jewish history book is it, after all, if it does not mention the Holocaust? And what kind of international Jewish assistance group is it, after all, if it does not include assisting Russian Jews ?

Yet, Mizrahi, Sephardi, and Ethiopian Jewish communities and traditions consistently are excluded from and invisible in every walk of Jewish life: Jewish language, thought, media, prayer, food, education, political analyses, music...every walk of Jewish life.

How do Jews feel walking through a society defined by Christianity? How do women feel walking through a world defined by men? Just as society at large must stop defining the world according to white, straight, Christian men, so must the Jewish community stop defining the Jewish world according to Ashkenazim. And just as white, straight, Christian men need to look at their privilege and become aware of where others are shut out, so do Ashkenazim need to look at their privilege and become aware of where Mizrahim, Sephardim, and Ethiopian Jews are excluded. Only then can healing begin.

The Mainstream Jewish Community's Resistance to and lack of Value for Incorporating Jewish Diversity

Jewish leaders and educators are a product of their own Jewish education. In that education, they have learned that the Holocaust is important and that Israel is important. They have learned about gefilte fish, and they have learned about Yiddish. They have developed a Jewish connection to all these topics. Hearing these topics mentioned thus rings a Jewish bell.

But when they hear, for example, the Yemenite pronunciation of Hebrew - which is the true, authentic way to speak it - it may seem foreign to them; weird, different, Arabic. It may spark feelings of what the hell does that have to do with us as Jews? Because of what the mainstream Jewish community has come to define and value as being "Jewish," most Jews today do not see non-Ashkenazi heritage as having the same intrinsic Jewish worth as Ashkenazi heritage.

For this reason, I have found Jewish community leaders unwilling to make it a priority to fund projects that will educate our community about Mizrahi, Sephardi, and Ethiopian Jewish heritage before it is too late.

For the past eight years, I have done extensive work as an organizational leader and independent educator, both on the issue of Jewish multiculturalism. I have spoken with a good chunk of the key Jewish leaders throughout Northern and Southern California. More often than not, these Jewish leaders could not for the life of them understand what Jewish multiculturalism had to do with them or their organizations.

For example, I once spoke with the leader of a Jewish Community Relations Council. I shared with him a detailed analysis of Jewish multicultural issues and gave concrete suggestions how we could work together to solve the problems. He answered me by saying, "You know, I was at the Yemenite Step in Israel recently, and they had unbelievable Yemenite food. I just loved it. " He then referred me to other Jewish organizations, because he could not see what Jewish multiculturalism had to do with his group.

It had everything to do with his group. The issue in fact has something to do with just about every Jewish organization.

It is the responsibility of the mainstream Jewish community leaders to seek out and sponsor those individuals who are willing and able to help our community finally reflect Jewish diversity. Otherwise, there is no integrity in calling our community organizations Jewish. Rather, they should be called the Ashkenazi Federation, the Bureau of Ashkenazi Education, the Ashkenazi Community Relations Council, and so on.

With rare exceptions, I insist on being paid for teaching and speaking about Jewish multiculturalism; because in the context of the money-oriented society in which we live, I have found that information about Mizrahi, Sephardi, and Ethiopian Jews is valued more when I charge to impart it than when I do not. Furthermore, I have found that Jewish organizations easily do have the money for the class or presentation I offer and that their claim of no money in truth reflects not their budget situation, but the value they ascribe to learning about Mizrahi, Sephardi, and Ethiopian tradition.

I find it imperative that Jewish organizations acknowledge the responsibility they have in reflecting Jewish diversity and that they give a much higher energetic and financial priority to educating themselves and their constituents about Jewish multiculturalism. Mizrahi, Sephardi, and Ethiopian individuals should not bear the burden of educating our fellow Jews at our own expense. When we go to Jewish events and prayer services, we have the right to expect to see our Jewish heritage reflected in them.

If it is not, it should not be incumbent upon us individuals to take on the teacher/leader role, unless and until the Jewish establishment hires us accordingly.

Mizrahi, Sephardi, and Ethiopian Jews have as much right to enjoy the Jewish community on a participatory level as do Ashkenazi Jews. If the Jewish establishment is not providing that kind of an environment, it is the responsibility of the organized leadership to address the situation accordingly.

Just as the community pays to have individuals do Israel education outreach; just as the community pays to have individuals do Holocaust education outreach; so must the community pay to have individuals do Jewish multicultural education outreach.

Until this reality happens, it is clear to me that the Jewish establishment does not hold Mizrahi, Sephardi, or Ethiopian Jewish people or traditions as being as valid and valuable as it holds Ashkenazi people and traditions. Until there is a shift in this paradigm, I anticipate that the Jewish establishment will continue to resist enacting the kind of changes that need to happen in our community, to reflect Jewish multiculturalism.

Transcending the Shame, Overcoming the Crisis

As a result of the racism and ignorance in the mainstream Jewish community, those of us in the Mizrahi, Sephardi, and Ethiopian communities have learned embarrassment or contempt for our own heritage. Out of our desire to "fit in" - in other words, to become like the Ashkenazim - we have failed to pass on our tradition; and our tradition now is in danger of extinction.

A number of Mizrahi/Sephardi young adults my age have shared the fact that they love Mizrahi/Sephardi tradition when they are exposed to it; however, they know virtually nothing about the tradition, and they do not relate to the tradition as theirs. "I grew up in Ashkenazi services my whole life," one individual recently said, "so I relate to those services as my tradition. I do not recognize the prayers in [a Mizrahi/Sephardi] service, even though those prayers are part of my heritage..."

The younger generations of Mizrahi, Sephardi, and Ethiopian Jews face a crisis in identity. As such, our entire heritage faces a crisis of extinction: Because the younger generation is ill-equipped to pass on our tradition, our tradition will die when the older generation passes on.

The only Mizrahi and Sephardi individuals and communities I have seen preserve and pass on our heritage have been those who practice separatism from the "Jewish" (Ashkenazi) mainstream. Though I honor the desire to protect our heritage from the force ripping it apart, I feel this particular approach ultimately is not productive.

What young adult, after all, wants to be separate from the Jewish power source, where most of the action happens? What child wants to be alienated from the other Jewish children in the neighborhood who are going to NCSY, Young Judea, Camp Ramah, or BBYO? And what Mizrahi or Sephardi community has the resources to sustain an entire sub-community, replete with Jewish schools, synagogues, community centers, camps, and so on? What more, from an ideological point of view, I feel we must insist that the Jewish community be just that - a Jewish community, reflecting all Jews from all backgrounds. It simply is unacceptable for Jewish organizations, schools, camps, and community centers to continue operating as purely Ashkenazi institutions.

"Loolwa," a Sephardi rabbi once pleaded with me, "Why do you bother with those Ashkenazim? They don't care about us..." But we must make them care. We must keep banging down the wall of the Jewish establishment until it crumbles, and we must enter in our full glory. The truth is that most of us are involved in the Jewish mainstream on at least some level. It thus is imperative that we make that Jewish mainstream reflect our identities and our heritage.

I have been blessed with tremendous success in transforming Jewish communities around me, to reflect Jewish diversity. The key ingredients to my success have been knowledge, pride, determination, anger, and love.

Knowledge: I was taught all the songs, prayers, and traditions of my Iraqi Jewish heritage. I grew up with Iraqi Jewish books all around me - in Judeo-Arabic, Hebrew, and occasionally English. If you have not been taught the traditions of your heritage, find someone who has and milk that person dry.

Pride: With knowledge came pride. How could it not? We have such beautiful songs, prayers, and customs. What more, my family has direct lineage to the first exile from ancient Israel, having remained in Babylon for 3,000 years until the modern day. How much more thoroughbred a Jew could I possibly be? Find the beauty of your own heritage and cherish it, worship it, nurture it.

Determination: What part of "no" did I not understand? The "n," the "o," and the two letters together. "We are not interested" is not an acceptable answer from a Jewish community leader. Period. I never experienced "rejection," as I saw disinterest simply as resistance, as a challenge. A person's lack of interest in our heritage was like a puzzle to me: This piece is not fitting here, where and how can I make it fit? I never experienced "failure," as I saw each door closing as simply giving me additional information for future strategies on how to make doors open. So get your agenda together and go, go, go!!!

Anger: Each stupid, racist, ignorant comment/behavior simply added fuel to the fire under my butt. At times, I was livid with rage at how obtuse Jewish leaders and educators could be. I simply became more determined, with the passion of my anger. Get mad, and use it to propel you forward even further.

Love: My heritage is so beautiful. I love it. What kept me going during the hard times was singing the beautiful Iraqi Jewish songs and prayers and thinking about how virtually nobody in the mainstream community ever had heard them. It made me so sad. I thought about all the people who would cherish them, if only they knew...Let the love of your heritage, as well as the love of knowledge and celebration, carry you through all your battles.

We do not have time to put our struggle aside until tomorrow. Our heritage is gasping what might be its last breaths, if we do not act immediately.

If you are of the generation that grew up in Iran, Syria, Ethiopia, Turkey, or Morocco, start writing and start teaching now. Have you told your children or grandchildren your life story? Have you recorded the songs, prayers, folk tales, and traditions from your community? Whip out a tape recorder and begin this very moment.

If you are of the generation that grew up in the United States or Israel, how much do you know about your parents' or grandparents' lives and traditions? Are your parents or grandparents still alive? If so, grab a tape recorder and start asking them questions. Now. If they live far away, pick up the phone. And if your parents or grandparents have passed away, find someone else's parents or grandparents; and pursue them for information, without mercy.

As we learn or transmit our respective heritages, let's start doing something with the information: Let's start making noise. I mean NOISE! Let's get mad and be loud about it, when our heritage is not represented at the local JCC; when there is not one article about Mizrahim, Sephardim, or Ethiopian Jews in our local Jewish paper; when our children's teachers claim that "all Jews" practice traditions that in truth are only Ashkenazi. Let us use our anger to propel us forward, offering alternatives to Jewish leaders and educators. Supply local organizations with information on who to call/where to go/who to invite to learn and teach about Jewish diversity. And stay plastered on their butts, to make sure they do it.

"Jewish" does not mean "Ashkenazi." It means all of us. Let us do everything in our power - as individuals and as organizations - to make the Jewish community finally reflect who Jews really are...

óLoolwa Khazzoom

* NCSY is the National Council for Synagogue Youth, the national Orthodox youth group. Young Judea is a national Zionist youth group. Camp Ramah is the national yearly camp for Conservative youth. BBYO is the B'nai Brith Youth Organization, the national Reform youth group.

Loolwa Khazzoom is a Mizrahi educator and activist based in Berkeley. Her work has been featured in the documentary, "The Way Home"; articles and essays have appeared in such publications as Tikkun and Lilith. Her forthcoming book as editor is Behind the Veil of Silence: Arabic and Iranian Jewish Women Speak Out. Read more of Khazzoom's work online.
Nasawi News
Bulletin Board
Levantine Project
Open Tent