The Other Side of the Coin. The Negative Impact of Zionism on Mizrahi Jews

Term Paper, 2014

13 Pages, Grade: 1,0

Raphael Werner (Author)



1. Introduction

2. Analytical Part
a.) Definition and Origins of the Mizrahim
b.) Zionist Ideology
c.) Arrival and Parallels to Colonialism
d.) Caught Between Two Opposites: “The Hybrid Identity of the Mizrahim”

3. Conclusion

Work Cited List & Bibliography

1. Introduction

“War, however, is the friend of binarisms, leaving little place for complex identities. The Gulf War, for example, intensified a pressure already familiar to the Arab Jewish diaspora in the wake of the Israeli-Arab conflict: a pressure to choose between being a Jew and being an Arab. For our families, who have lived in Mesopotamia since at least the Babylonian exile, who have been Arabized for millennia, and who were abruptly [i] dislodged to Israel 45 years ago, to be suddenly forced to assume a homogenous European Jewish identity based on experiences in Russia, Poland and Germany, was an exercise in self devastation.”

- Ella Shohat

This quote taken from Ella Shohat´s article Arab Jew, published on the news website, picks up the problem of Mizrahi identity in Israel - a subject matter which is seldom addressed as it is considered to be taboo topic. The “Easterness” of the Jewish society Shohat refers to is an aspect regarded to be problematic by Zionist authorities, which has led to the enforcement of an assimilation policy towards the Sephardim immigrants who arrived in Israel after the state´s establishment in 1948. The Zionists´ desire to build a Europe-centric “one-people” nation posed many obstacles and discrimination against the Mizrahim, as they did speak Arabic, listened to Arabic music and even wrote in the Arabic language – a culture for which there was no room in the Israeli state. The infusion of new values and the denial of their culture inflicted considerable damage on the Sephardim identity.

The focus of this paper is primarily going to be set on the downsides of Zionism for Oriental Jews who arrived from the 1950s to the 1970s as the topic would otherwise go beyond the scope of a 10-12 pages paper.

Hereby, I claim that the Zionist movement has not been a liberation movement for all Jews, but rather worked in favor of the Ashkenazim. I will support this claim by displaying not only the disadvantages Zionism carried for Mizrahim but also by examining the unequal treatment towards the Sephardim which show parallels to colonial oppression.

2. Analytical Part

a.) Definition and Origins of the Mizrahim

Before starting with the aforementioned problem, I will briefly give a definition of the term “Mizrahim” and provide a short historical background to enable a better understanding of the topic.

Following Ella Shohat´s example, I will use the terms “Mizrahim”, “Sephardim” and “Oriental/Arab Jews” interchangeably, referring to the Jews who arrived in Israel shortly after the state´s foundation in 1948. As to the etymology of the words, “Mizrahim” literally means “Easterners” or “Orientals” and has become the more dominant word to refer to the Jews of Arab origins with Jewish belief. However, the term tends to carry a connotation of “Easterness” pride (Shohat 1999, 14f). “Sephardim” used to refer to the Jews who lived in Spain until the Jewish persecutions began at the end of the 14th century. Nowadays “Sephardim” is also used to refer to the Jews who derived from the Middle East and North Africa.

Nevertheless, it has to be mentioned that even within these communities there are cultural differences as they each used to live in different Arabic countries whose customs and cultures were not identical. Their historical connection to those regions goes back to Before Christ, when Jews resided in Babylon - today´s Iraq - and in the neighboring countries such as Syria, Egypt and Yemen. “Ahkenazim” on the other hand, are those Jews with European connections who used to live for instance in Poland, Hungary, Germany or Russia.

b.) Zionist Ideology

The Zionist ideology was founded in the early 19th century and gained immense momentum and support after the anti-Semitism and Holocaust atrocities that took place in Germany and Poland from 1933 on, with Hitler´s accession to power, until the end of the Second World War in 1945. Homeless and having escaped genocide, the desire and need to establish an own state grew stronger and more urgent than before. The Zionist movement aimed to build a “one-nation-state” in Palestine, where Jews would no longer be a minority community anymore. However, this “one-people” model that was strongly oriented on the western countries, left no room for the culture and identity of the later coming Jews of Arab origins. The Mizrahi “aliyah” was according to official ideology supposed to be a “homecoming” just as it was for the Ashkenazim. In truth, their return meant “a new mode of exile” (Shohat 1999, 15). However, this return to Israel was not the first one as there were immigration waves to Palestine already in the years 1882 and 1904. Why the third “aliyah” can be considered a new mode of exile will be further elaborated on in the following section.

In order to understand the gap between the two “groups” of Jews despite their common religion, I´m first going to attempt to explain the paradoxical Zionist idea of the ideal Jew.

Contrary to the ultra-orthodox Jews´ concept of an exemplary Ashkenazim that is characterized by being idle and pious, the Zionists not only rejected life in the diaspora but also strived for an independent Jewish population that would be able to defend themselves.

Despite their traumatic history with European countries, they followed the European model for the foundation of Israel. A surprising aspect here is that Zionist officials – aside from the European model in regard to economy or politics – also adapted the European ideal regarding outward appearances. In addition to the adoption of many German words into Yiddish, the ideal of the fair skinned, light haired, tall, serious and sophisticated European was taken over. This stereotype laid the ground for the upcoming conflict with the arrivals from the 1950´s and for the damage that would be inflicted on their self-perception. Thinking of the Holochaust atrocities this ideal they chose seems quite paradoxical if not somewhat ironic.

Only after having failed to convince Jews from the United States to emigrate to the newly established state of Israel, measures to “lure” the Mizrahi Jews to Israel were taken. This preference is again linked to the desire of a European state in the Middle East to which the Sephardim, whose customs, culture and society differed posed a threat.

When superficially looked at the “aliyah”, it seems to be a liberation movement that granted the Jews in Arab countries, whose governments turned hostile to them after the war in 1948, a secure home. This Zionist view however, that presents the Mizrahim as refugees and victims of Arab regimes, conceals the other side of the coin. The motives behind the “aliyah” of the Mizrahim are much more complex when looked at from a different angle and are closely linked to the economical and political situation of Israel in its first years. The first factor becomes visible when looking at the numbers of Palestine´s Jewish population in 1947. The disadvantage of being outnumbered (approximately 600,000 Jews in contrast to about 1,2 million Arabs) was reversed after the war. In 1948, there were about 550,000 Jewish Israeli residents whereas the Arabic population had dropped drastically to an estimated 150,000.

But with this loss Israel´s economy stood before a serious problem as the labor force had declined with the emigration of the Palestinians.

Therefore, Zionists took various measures, which will be elaborated on in the next sections, to prompt Jews from the Orient to immigrate to Israel. One purpose was to fill the gaps in the working class and to secure the state´s borders. How well this plan worked out can be seen by looking at the numbers of the Jewish population in 1952. The numbers had increased to about 1,3 million Jews in contrast to 180,000 Arabs. To examine the population shift from another angle - before 1948 there were approximately 800,000 Arab Jews living in Middle Eastern countries. By the 21st century the numbers had decreased to a mere 8,000 (Lynne 2002).

Certainly not all of them emigrated to Israel but a considerable majority followed the Zionists call.

c.) Arrival and Parallels to Colonialism

The Law of Return, a legislation passed in the year 1950, allowed anyone who had at least one Jewish grandparent to return to Israel and to claim citizenship. In essence, this law is a reversal of the anti-Semitic Nürnberger Rassengesetze that used the same criteria to discriminate and exclude German inhabitants of Jewish heritage. Two decades later, in 1970, the law was extended to all Jews who could prove Jewish ancestors, allowing much more Jews to immigrate. Under the disguise of rescuing the non-Ashkenazi Jews as well as under the pretence of an empty land, the Sephardim were coaxed to “the promised land”, making it sound like the land of “honey and milk”. The real motif behind their immigration was primarily the fact that they offered cheap labor to replace the Arabs who were occupied in the working class, since Zionists feared they would one day not only work on the fields but also take claim of the land. Looked down at by most Akshenazim the newcomers, regardless of their previous occupation, were forced to work in the working class, as the middle-class positions were already taken by the Ashkenazi Jews. For many of them this meant a drastic drop in quality of living compared to their previous condition in the Middle East. So the ethnic discrimination began right from the start with their arrival, which created a social and economical disparity between Ashkenazim and Sephardim.

Remarkable concerning their arrival are the parallels to early colonialism in North America starting in the 16th century. Though under different circumstances the Mizrahim were, similar to the plantation slaves from Africa, brought to the “promised” and “uninhabited” land by the Zionists to build a new labor force. The term “promised land” was also frequently used by Puritan colonists and settlers to persuade fellow British to join the journey. Using biblical terminology to justify questionable deeds is a pattern that can also be found in colonialism. Albeit the newcomers were certainly not called slaves, the Mizrahim were selected by how healthy their physical conditions were, because they were supposed to work on the fields (Shohat 1988, 16).


Excerpt out of 13 pages


The Other Side of the Coin. The Negative Impact of Zionism on Mizrahi Jews
University of Potsdam  (Historisches Institut)
Utopia in Distress: Israeli Politics and Society
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ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
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541 KB
Jewish Identity, Mizrahim, Ashkenazi, Identity, Sephardim, Eurocentrism, Mizrahi Jews, Zionism, Discrimination
Quote paper
Raphael Werner (Author), 2014, The Other Side of the Coin. The Negative Impact of Zionism on Mizrahi Jews, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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