The Farhud was a violent pogrom and massacre waged against the Jews of Iraq in 1941, in which about 180 Jews were murdered and many more injured. Raging during the Jewish holiday of Shavuot, the Farhud was the climax of a creeping antisemitic zeitgeist — anti-Jewish graffiti such as, “Hitler was killing the Jewish germs” was scrawled on walls, and antisemitic propaganda regularly aired on Radio Berlin in Arabic, as Farhud witness Sami Michael recalls.
The Farhud was just one of hundreds of ruthless pogroms that spurred the wider Jewish exodus from Arab and Muslim countries such as Iraq, Afghanistan, Morocco, Egypt, and others. Approximately 850,000 Jews, predominantly of Sephardi and Mizrahi background, were expelled from their homes from 1948 to the early 1970s.
Unfortunately, many are sorely uneducated about Sephardi (from Spain) and Mizrahi (from the Middle East, North Africa and Central Asia) Jews, who make up 50.2 percent of Israeli Jews. As a result of this ignorance, some unfairly classify all Jews as solely white and European. However, most Sephardi and Mizrahi Jews descend from Jews expelled by the Romans after the siege of Jerusalem in 70 C.E. — meaning that the majority of today’s Jews have never even lived in Europe. Of course, European Jews are no less authentic than Middle Eastern Jews – I solely aim to point out that this generalization is factually incorrect.
This mass exodus affected my own family. As the son of Iranian immigrants, throughout my childhood, I have heard about the colorful, serene life my family enjoyed, abruptly cut short by radical Islamists who propelled the Iranian Revolution of 1979 — an event spurred by conservative Iranians’ growing resentment toward the Shah and his Western-influenced policies, relations, and opinions. Unfortunately, my great-grandfather was a victim of such cruel sentiment. In the decade leading up to the revolution, he was murdered by these individuals in broad daylight during a routine haircut. At the height of the revolution in 1979, anti-Jewish rhetoric peaked. According to Orly R. Rahimiyan, “pamphlets were circulated threatening to take revenge upon the Jews for plundering Iran’s treasures” in Tehran. My parents were among the two-thirds of Iran’s Jewish population that fled the country as a result of such violent conditions.
Although these individuals descended from Iraq, Afghanistan, Iran, and more, they are often connected by the lack of recognition of their communities and, subsequently, the need for education about their diverse Jewish practices. For example, a common difference between Sephardim and Ashkenazim is the pronunciation of certain Hebrew letters. In addition, Ashkenazim do not to eat rice on Passover, while Sephardim do. Furthermore, the groups’ prayer styles are vastly different, with non-Hasidic Ashkenazim mainly praying what is known as Nusach Ashkenaz, while Hasidim pray Nusach Sefard or Nusach Ari. Most Sephardim pray Edot HaMizrach. These are some of the few differences that connect Sephardi and Mizrahi Jews worldwide.
These educational efforts are imperative — in fact, I have seen the need for them right here in Binghamton.
During the course of my myriad conversations with alumni of Binghamton University during my on-campus job, I once spoke to an individual who was entirely unaware that Iranian Jews existed. This is personal for me; I feel a need to contribute to this cause, leading the charge to educate Jews and non-Jews alike about the rich diversity of the Jewish people.
Mizrahi and Sephardi Jews differ from other Jews culturally, diverging in style of religious observance, language, and more. For example, my hometown community of Great Neck, New York is home to the second-largest population of Persians in the United States — nearly 21 percent of the town’s residents report Persian heritage, the majority of whom are Jewish Iranians that fled Iran as a result of the Islamic Revolution. Thus, my family’s primary language, the one spoken in our home, is Farsi, the national language of Iran. For Jews who descended from Arab lands, most of their communication was in Arabic, and not until recently, after mass Mizrahi immigration to Israel and the United States, did Arabic cease to be a primary language in Mizrahi Jewish society. In addition, Mizrahi culture differs from non-Mizrahi customs in our observance of holidays, bible interpretations from our sages, and increased emphasis on community. In fact, most don’t know that the Talmud, or primary source of Jewish law, was developed in Babylonia, or present-day Iraq, around 100 C.E. Therefore, the assumption that Jews are primarily European and nothing else is not solely naïve — it is plainly incorrect.
My mission statement to you, the readers, is to become tellers of the diversity of the Jewish people. By constantly reminding others that there is not one type of Jew, but a vast collection of different identities, we can directly help combat stereotypical tropes commonly aimed at the Jewish community. I encourage those in the Binghamton community and beyond to educate others about the rich, unique and hidden culture of Mizrahi and Sephardi Jews. Together, we can lessen dangerous discrimination and pave the way for a more accurate, well-rounded view of Jewish diversity.
A slightly different version of this article was originally published in the BU Pipe Dream.
Contributed by 2020-2021 Binghamton University CAMERA Fellow Eden Janfar.