AUJS to increase the widespread community’s awareness of its Sephardi and Mizrahi members

September 27, 2018 by Hila Tsor
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The Yallah committee, a committee comprised of young adults from Sephardi and Mizrahi heritage as part of a NSW Jewish Board of Deputies initiative, passed a motion including the recognition of the marginalisation of the Sephardi and Mizrahi population of Australian/New Zealand Jewry.

Yallah committee: Janine Joseph, Rafael Ben-Menashe, Hila Tsor, Prielle Betito, Joshua Moses

The full motion passed at the recent AUJS AGM unanimously:

Sephardi and Mizrahi Motion

AUJS commits to:

  1. Recognise the marginalisation of the Sephardi and Mizrahi population of Australian/New Zealand Jewry.
  2. Seek to promote and employ greater inclusive practices of the Sephardi and Mizrahi population.
  3. Raise awareness of the shared history, celebrate the culture and contribution to the Jewish community of the Sephardi and Mizrahi population.
  4. Acknowledge and recognise the plight of Jews from Arab lands and Iran, which consists of approximately 850,000 Jews who were expelled or had to flee from Arab lands and Iran in the 20th century. Ensure that this narrative co-exists alongside Ashkenazi education and history.
  5. In order to realistically achieve these commitments, AUJS will host an annual event (either on campus or regionally; low-key or not) which is executed according to the executive’s discretion. Some examples can be a campaign, a Shabbat dinner at the Sephardi synagogue, providing support for the NSW Jewish Board of Deputies’ 30th of November event, etc. This will be the responsibility of the AUJS National Executive.

The Yallah committee is immensely proud of this achievement. The motion got a lot of support and feedback from AUJS with a few people standing up and speaking in support of the motion during the AGM.

Janine Joseph read the following evocative speech at the AGM when raising the motion, beautifully encompassing the purpose of the motion and the need for inclusivity:

“What I love about our Australian Jewish community is its inclusion of all Jews. We’re good at that. But there is a damaging side to inclusion and absorption if it is done under a single narrative – where we conflate being Jewish with being Ashkenazi as if specific aspects such as Yiddish or Gefilte Fish are a binding force for Jews.

Paradoxically, to achieve true inclusion I believe we need to separate and unpack our understanding of what “Jewish” is, because there is a multiplicity of Jews and Jewishness, not simply an Ashkenazi singularity or its only slightly better alternative – a Sephardic and Ashkenazi binary. Countries within these labels vary culturally, religiously and historically.

We should recognise, welcome and appreciate Mizrahi and Sephardi cultures and histories for several reasons.

Like any small community, our small but not negligible Australian Jewish Sephardi/Mizrahi community faces the danger of forgetting and losing its culture. For the Sephardic child navigating their Jewish heritage and identity, including only Ashkenazi culture and narratives, provides two main options: confusion and alienation. Having not been introduced to the rich culture, philosophies, history and joy of their heritage, we cannot blame them if and when they dismiss it. Their confusion may lead them to view their existence, as for example a Libyan Jew or Iraqi Jew as an irreconcilable contradiction, perhaps even a betrayal.

In the 20th Century, Jews from Arab lands and Iran experienced discrimination to the extent that if they were not expelled, living conditions had become so impossible and unbearable that fleeing was the only option. Jewish communities throughout the Middle East and North Africa were prohibited from working, had their properties stolen from them, faced pogroms, imprisonment and even execution. I believe this history deserves to be taught alongside holocaust education, for its differences, and also in holocaust education because Nazi propaganda in Europe infiltrated the Arab world and influenced Arab leaders, because there were concentration and labour camps in Libya and Tunisia, and because like the “Righteous among the Nations”, stories of Muslims hiding and protecting Jews from persecution are plentiful.

Ashkenazi culture takes centre stage by Jews through to media representations and wider assumptions. If we ourselves don’t recognise Jews from Arab lands and Iran how can we expect non-Jews to?

Including Sephardi and Mizrahi culture and history would be a fruitful endeavour for all Jews. It may help fill in the gaps of the Israel narrative – in which people mistakenly believe that Israel consists primarily of European Jews. By exploring the millennium and a half history of Jews and Muslims co-existing, we can untangle myths about the Arab world, such as that only hatred exists between Muslims and Jews, foster relationships with Muslims and approach peace in the Middle East more open-mindedly.

I do not wish to point fingers or claim victimhood. I see the exclusion of Mizrahi and Sephardi culture as unintentional, a default setting where we assume without question that all Jews relate to or should adopt Ashkenazi practices. I – as a half Ashkenazi, half Sephardi Jew – am part of that default setting as well. But I do believe this must be revised.

As leaders of the Jewish community, I believe that if we commit to annually holding a Sephardi/Mizrahi event, we’ll be changing the culture of our community for the better by creating an inclusive space, where a forgotten narrative will not only be remembered, but celebrated alongside Ashkenazi culture.”

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