More than a history lesson: Reflections from a campus tour

My family immigrated to America from Samarkand, Uzbekistan, when I was 14. Samarkand was my ancestral city since 586 BCE, when Jews were exiled after the destruction of the first Holy Temple in Jerusalem. We came to America to freely practice our religion and live publicly as Jews without having to hide our identity in consideration of career, reputation and security. 

Growing up in Samarkand, I did not have to turn on the news to know when Israel was under attack: When a terrorist bombing occurred, students and teachers in my school responded to the news with antisemitic comments. These memories come to mind when I witness the experience of Jewish college students since Hamas’ attack on Israel. When Israel is at war, these students are also at war, and they face unprecedented challenges. The antisemitic reaction to this war is present in posts on social media; in comments by their professors and in the lack of support from college administrations; in the posters in hallways and in the physical confrontations aimed at shutting down expressions of Jewish identity on campus. In the aftermath of Oct. 7, 78% of American Jews said the attacks made them feel less safe as Jews living in the U.S., according to a survey by the American Jewish Committee, and one in four college students said they avoid wearing, carrying or displaying things that would identify them as Jewish out of fear for their safety. 

This is precisely why, as the executive director of SAMi: Sephardic American Mizrahi Initiative, I went on a national speaking tour in partnership with CAMERA on Campus to support Jewish students on college campuses. In just three days, we visited seven campuses and engaged with over 350 college students. Our goal was simple: to boost the spirit and morale of our students, help them feel proud of themselves and create a sense of community by providing resources and fostering meaningful conversations. It was also a priority for me to demonstrate that Jews from the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) and Central Asia have not been bystanders to Jewish history but active participants in the accomplishments and struggles of the Jewish people.

Photo from the author’s recent campus tour. Courtesy SAMi: Sephardic American Mizrahi Initiative

I began my presentation with sources from the Torah, the promise of the land to Abraham and his descendants, Joseph’s rise to power in Egypt while being mindful that it was not his native home, and Moses leading his people back to the land of Israel. 

Like Joseph, the Jews never forgot their roots during the subsequent dispersions to distant lands. In the Silk Road cities of Merv and Balkh, they were known as Isroil or Bnei Isroil. In the 12th century, Benjamin of Tudela traveled east from Spain to Baghdad, documenting the Jewish communities along his way and beyond: “Thence it is five days to Samarkand, the great city on the confines of Persia. In it live some 50,000 Israelites, and Rabbi Ovadiah the Nasi is their appointed head. Among them are wise and very rich men.” He also wrote about the community in Jerusalem, which was reestablished following the Muslim conquest of the holy land in 646. At that time, Jews also lived in Safed, Tiberias, Jaffa, Haifa, Gaza and Hebron.

In the medieval period and afterward, notable Sephardic leaders immigrated to Israel, such as Yehuda Halevi, Moshe Ben Nahman, Yoseph Karo, Moshe Alshich, Shlomo Alkabetz and Dona Gracia Mendes. The yearning to return to the land of Israel is central to the poetry, prayers, music, and holidays of Sephardi and Mizrahi Jews. 

According to historian Daniel Elazar, “Sephardim accounted for about one-eighth of the world Jewish population before 1958; and nearly one-sixth of the immigrants to Palestine.” Bukharian Jews began migrating to Israel in the 1830s. By the end of the 19th century, they built a neighborhood in Jerusalem outside the Old City walls, named Shehunat HaBukharim or Bukharian Quarter. Closer to the Old City, a cluster of Jewish families from the Caucasus established the Beit Shmuel ve-Zakhariya synagogue in 1884, followed by Kollel Dagestan in the same decade. South of the Old City, Yemenite Jews built their homes and synagogue in Shiloah starting in 1885. In the subsequent three decades, nearly 10% of Yemen’s Jews followed these pioneers to Israel. Kurdish Jews established their community in Jerusalem in 1895, naming it Nahlaot-Shaarei Rahamim. 

Thus the aspirations of Zionism predate the trial of Alfred Dreyfuss, which inspired Theodor Herzl to organize the First Zionist Congress in 1897; and the purpose of Zionism predates the Holocaust, although it indeed proved the need for Jews to have their own country. 

Violence against Jews in Arab nations increased during the Holocaust and Israel’s war of independence, and they knew where they wanted to live — among their brethren in an independent homeland. Between 1948 and 1950, approximately 48,000 Yemenite Jews were airlifted to Israel during Operation Magic Carpet. From Iraq, nearly 130,000 Jews were airlifted to Israel during Operation Ezra and Nehemiah; their exodus followed the Farhud riots in 1941 and the public execution of community leader Shafiq Ades in 1948.

Between 1955 and 1957, approximately 62% of Israel’s immigrants came from North African countries. An estimated 850,000 Jews fled MENA countries and were forced to leave behind an estimated $300 billion in homes, businesses, and possessions simply because the cost of antisemitic persecution was much higher.

Sephardic and Mizrahi Jews whose families immigrated to America came here with expectations of freedom and truth. To hear on campus that Israel is a European settler-colonial entity denies historical facts relating to their communities in that land and their massive contributions to Israeli culture and leadership. “Go back to Poland, f—ing Jew,” a fellow Rutgers University student told Joe Gindi. But Gindi’s family is from Syria; many of his relatives live in New York, and others in Israel, where more than half of the Jewish population has ancestry from nations outside of Europe. “Go back to Russia, f—ing Jew,” Michael Daniels was told at Queens College. But Daniel’s family is from Samarkand, just like mine. 

These attacks are just a few examples among many. Sephardic and Mizrahi students are often underserved by Jewish programming, which lacks sensitivity to their unique and diverse cultural backgrounds; yet when it comes to Israel, these students are at the forefront, unapologetically standing with the Jewish state. Their identity and family narratives inform their sense of commitment — they know when Jews are silent and do not take a stand, the place that they call home might not be there anymore. It is noteworthy that five out of the nine students who gave powerful congressional testimony about campus antisemitism to the Committee on Education and the Workforce in Washington, D.C. were Sephardic and Mizrahi. 

It is essential that the Jewish community recognize the importance of empowering these students to ensure a vibrant and diverse Jewish experience on campus. Many Sephardic and Mizrahi students are entrepreneurial, hardworking and eager to engage in Jewish life on campus. By investing in Sephardic and Mizrahi students and their narratives today, the Jewish community ensures an inclusive and diverse leadership pipeline for future generations.

Manashe Khaimov is the executive director of SAMi: Sephardic American Mizrahi Initiative, the first national organization for Sephardic and Mizrahi Jewish students on college campuses.