Jewish Diversity and Sephardic and Mizrahi Jews

By Sarah Levin

When I first started my work at JIMENA: Jews Indigenous to the Middle East and North Africa – an organization committed to advancing and protecting the heritage and histories of Mizrahi and Sephardic Jews, I had the opportunity to sit with a prominent member of the San Francisco Bay Area Jewish community and introduce her to our work. Half-way through our meeting, she interrupted and said, “So JIMENA is an organization for Jews of Color.” I replied that, “JIMENA doesn’t focus on issues of race, but on ensuring the heritage and history of Mizrahi and Sephardic Jews is incorporated into mainstream Jewish life.” She looked at me genuinely confused.

In reflecting back on the meeting, it’s quite clear to me that this professional didn’t fully understand the differences between race and ethnicity. It’s likely that in her mind all Jews who aren’t of Eastern-European, Ashkenazi descent are automatically coded as Jews of Color – including Mizrahi and Sephardic Jews. Within the Jewish community, I’ve observed that the conflation of race and ethnicity and the tendency of Jewish organizations and professionals to socially categorize Sephardic and Mizrahi Jews and non-white Jews together into one lump binary happens often and tends to be problematic in the eyes of many Mizrahi and Sephardic Jewish leaders.

Mizrahi and Sephardic Jews are certainly racially diverse, but have rarely defined themselves in racial terms. It’s far more common for Mizrahi and Sephardic Jews to identify, collectively and individually, in ethnic terms. While there are North American Mizrahi and Sephardic Jews who identify as Jews of Color, especially amongst younger generations, it’s safe to assume that a large percentage are functionally white and identify as such. One of the problems Sephardic and Mizrahi scholars and activists face is a lack of empirical data to help us better understand our communities.

For many years at JIMENA, Jewish foundations and partner organizations have asked us to provide demographic statistics on Sephardic and Mizrahi Jews in North America. It’s been incredibly frustrating that we’ve never been able to adequately meet a single request for information as no empirical data on our communities exists. While Mizrahi and Sephardic Jews were intentionally excluded from the recent Counting Inconsistencies survey conducted by the Jews of Color Field Building Initiative, the results of the study provided useful information affirming that Mizrahi and Sephardic Jews, like Jews of Color, have been vastly undercounted, miscounted and inconsistently included in Jewish demographic studies across the board.

Because so little reliable research has been conducted, JIMENA has relied heavily on anecdotal research and it’s very likely that Mizrahi and Sephardic Jews, and their descendants, constitute the largest ethnic minority group amongst American Jews. We know that Sephardic and Mizrahi Jews are occupying greater spaces in organized Jewish life and in Jewish Day Schools, yet Sephardic and Mizrahi projects, organizations, and thought-leaders are still underfunded, underutilized and at times tokenized. Jewish institutions, have yet to design much needed programs and policies to ensure the inclusion of Sephardic and Mizrahi Jews. Most troubling, is that as attention towards Jewish diversity is finally growing, Sephardic and Mizrahi Jewish leaders are frequently left out of initiatives, conversations, and projects that address and advance issues of Jewish diversity and inclusion.

The marginalization of Sephardic and Mizrahi individuals, communities and heritage is indicative of a march older and deeper problem that demands a challenging exploration and confrontation if the American Jewish community is to fully commit itself to building truly diverse and inclusive communities. Dr. Devin Naar, Chair of the Sephardic Studies program at University of Washington and prominent Sephardic Jewish leader, explored this issue in a recent article published in Jewish Currents, titled “Our White Supremacy Problem.” In the end of the article he posits that,

Confronting the deep-seated and disturbing history of intra-Jewish prejudice is a prerequisite for the empowerment of Sephardic and Mizrahi Jews – and Jews of color – in Jewish spaces, and for a reckoning with the place of most Jews as targets of, and willing and unwilling accomplices to, the structures of white supremacy. Only a Jewish commitment to dismantling white supremacy will do justice to our own histories, keep our own communities safe, and fashion new foundations upon which to rebuild American – and American Jewish – society.”

Sadly, it was not uncommon for older generations of Sephardic and Mizrahi Jews in North America to experience blatant prejudicial attitudes directed towards them by their non-Sephardic Jewish peers, and these attitudes have evolved into systemic indifference and disconnect. Today’s younger generations of Sephardic and Mizrahi Jews are more likely to be embraced for their differences, however, despite shifting attitudes, these younger generations may never see their Middle Eastern and North African Jewish heritage reflected back to them in Jewish spaces.

The tendency of the mainstream Jewish community to gloss-over the voices and communal experiences of Sephardic and Mizrahi Jews while socially categorizing ethnically and racially diverse Jews together into a singular binary of Jews of Color, indicates a vulnerability towards the Black-White binary paradigm and is counterproductive to building an inclusive Jewish community that reflects the ethnic and racial diversity within in. Younger generations of American Jews are far more likely to hold multiple racial, ethnic and religious identities and the Jewish community needs to move towards a non-binary paradigm, that receives and reflects the growing diversity, intersections, and experiences of younger generations.

Despite the adversity and perhaps unintended erasure Mizrahi and Sephardic Jews have faced, rarely have our communities defined themselves by hardship and experiences of marginalization. It is far more common for Mizrahi and Sephardic Jews to be guided and self-defined by an incredible pride of our unique cultures, contributions, and ancient Judaic teachings and community practices that are relevant to issues of diversity, inclusion and belonging. This continues to ground many Jews of Sephardic and Mizrahi descent in approaching and thinking about issues of diversity and inclusion and provides a relevant lens for the larger Jewish community to explore these important issues.

I want to end this on a high note as there is much to be optimistic about. Jewish professionals are finally expressing an interest to integrate Sephardic and Mizrahi modalities into their programing and there is a wealth of Sephardic content and leadership ready to support them. There are wonderful Jewish foundations who genuinely understand the unique intersections Mizrahi and Sephardic Jews dwell in and are invested in efforts to elevate Sephardic and Mizrahi initiatives and thought-leaders. Most meaningfully, there are more and more professionals who have expressed a desire to listen and learn from American Sephardic and Mizrahi Jews who are tirelessly trying to reclaim and share an integral element of Jewish heritage that has been orientalized, acculturated and sidelined to the point of erasure. Our communities are getting closer toward an embrace of Jewish diversity, but until Sephardic and Mizrahi Jews are given a growing seat at every single Jewish table, especially ones focused on inclusion, diversity and pluralism, the catchphrase “Jewish diversity and inclusion” loses its authenticity and has very little meaning.

Sarah Levin is the Executive Director of JIMENA: Jews Indigenous to the Middle East and North Africa, an advocacy and education institution dedicated to raising awareness to Sephardic and Mizrahi Jews. Sarah has conceptualized and developed a number of campaigns and projects for Mizrahi and Sephardic Jews to explore, preserve and protect their heritage and diverse identities.