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As Israel shifts from a “melting pot” model to one of multiculturalism, Israeli Mizrahim are bringing their once marginalized culture back to the center of Israeli life.
“Mizrahi” is a socio-political term describing Jews from Arab and/or Muslim lands, including Jews from North Africa, the Middle East, and parts of the Caucasus. The Ashkenazic establishment in Israel coined the term in the 1950s in response to the large wave of immigrants from Arab countries at that time. The immigrants soon began to use the term to describe themselves as well. “Mizrahi” is distinct from, but often overlaps with, the term, “Sephardi,” and the two terms are sometimes used interchangeably.
While “Sephardim” literally means Jews from the Iberian Peninsula, it has expanded to describe Jews from Africa or Asia, or to describe those who follow Sephardic, as opposed to Ashkenazic, religious practice. Following the expulsion from Spain, many Sephardic Jews immigrated to Arab countries, where they blended with the local population, making it difficult to distinguish between Sephardim and native Mizrahim.
Since the expulsion of Jews from Spain in the late 15th century, Sephardim and Jews from Arab lands (some who had returned to Israel from Babylonia, now Iraq, during the Second Temple period), were the majority of Jews in the land of Israel, and Sephardic religious practice dominated Jewish life. But beginning in the 1880s, Russian, Polish, and German Jews (all considered Ashkenazic Jews) immigrated to Israel in large numbers.
The Ashkenazim soon became the majority of Jews in Israel, and by 1948 they were 80% of the Jewish population of Israel. Due to their larger numbers, and because modern Zionism, for the most part, originated in Europe, the Ashkenazim became the leaders of the Yishuv, the Jewish community in Palestine. When Israel declared independence in 1948, Sephardim and Jews from Arab lands were almost entirely absent in positions of leadership.
Mizrahim Return to Israel
Following Independence, as Arab violence forced them to leave their native countries, Mizrahim began to arrive in Israel in huge numbers. The Ashkenazic establishment saw these newcomers as backward “orientals” whose traditions and culture were similar to that of Israel’s enemies, the Arabs, and so Mizrahim were victims of systematic discrimination. Upon arrival in Israel, Mizrahim were sent to transit camps, where living conditions were very difficult. When they moved out of the camps, they were settled in Israel’s least developed neighborhoods.
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