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  • Writer's pictureJewish Examiner

The Jewish Deep Nation XVI— The Mizrahim I—Where the Author Parks His Prejudice

The project now takes an eastward lurch, to the premodern and early modern Jewish collectives. Scholarship repeatedly trips over them in Amsterdam, Gibraltar, Morocco, Tunis, Istanbul, Bulgaria, and Teheran. Even Spain, a little. Usually the historians pick themselves up and keep on running, somewhat ashamed but unprepared to take serious action. Elsewhere, scholars don’t trip because there’s no one left to trip over: Salonika, Libya, Algeria, Egypt, Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, even China.

Today one hears of these Jews as … well, as what? Sephardim? Eastern Jews? Oriental Jews? Mizrahim? Non-Ashkenazim? The only collective name that fits them all is “non-Ashkenazim.” The other options express condescension, estrangement, or confusion. With tragic convenience, however, I will settle on “Mizrahim” (“easterners”) because this term seems preferred by those of this heritage in Israel today. Why tragic? Because the other options speak of dead Jews; “Mizrahim” pertains to the living.

Here is perhaps the biggest test of the Jewish Deep Nation project: to assure the inclusion of these premodern communities in the attributes of Jewish nationhood, to a strong enough degree that we may call those communities national.

They used to be the Ashkenazim of the Jewish world. One gets an overview in Dubnow (, starting with Chapter VIII, “The Gaonic Period, or the Hegemony of the Oriental Jews (500-980),” continuing with Chapter IX, The Rabbinic-Philosophical Period, or the Hegemony of the Spanish Jews” (980-1492). What happened then is perhaps the direst and the most under-remembered calamity in Jewish history -- the thing innocuously called “the expulsion from Spain,” which put to a violent end the thing wrongly called the “Golden Age of Spanish Jewry.”

This warrants a digression from the topic of this project. I start with the falsity of the Golden Age concept. I hinted at this several weeks ago, noting that Maimonides, always offered as an example of what the Golden Age produced, had to flee to northern Africa for his life in the middle of that Golden Age. His description of that event doesn’t bespeak a gold rush.

There was no Golden Age in Spain because there was no Spain. Muslim Iberia, home of that “Age,” was composed of twenty or more Muslim principalities that were eager to fight each other for hegemony but lacked the skilled manpower to do so. They solved the problem by alleviating or ignoring the shari’a restrictions on the Jews (the dhimmi and ritual-purity laws). This triggered an eruption of Jewish creativity in the principality that chose this course, including in-migration of Jews from other principalities where the abusive rules still held. When the principality won its war and no longer needed the Jews, it restored the restrictions with a vengeance, sometimes quickly, sometimes at a lag, and often with immense violence, until the next principality’s turn for war came around, and so on. This went on until Christian Spain, long similarly fragmented, became united under Ferdinand and Isabel, who are known as the Christian Kings because Isabel was the monarch who mattered. Massive abuse of the Jews loomed from then on, culminating with “the expulsion.”

That the expulsion is under-remembered hardly captures the situation. Scholarship can only guess within tens of thousands how many Jews died in the cataclysm and how many renounced their identity in fear or for gain. The others spattered in all known directions: to Portugal (where most of the tragedy would recur within a few years), the Netherlands, the Caribbean (pirates and all), and crucially for our purposes, the Muslim world.

Muslim historians, apologists, and propagandists tout that world’s beneficent reception of the Jewish refugees. Dubnow, in his Jewish History: An Essay in the Philosophy of History (1903), concurs:

“For a time, indeed, the Jewish spiritual centre was located in Turkey. What Europe, old, Christian, and hardhearted, refused the Jews, was granted them by Turkey, young, Mussulman, and liberal. On hearing of the banishment of the Jews from Spain, Sultan Bajazet exclaimed: ‘How can you call Ferdinand of Aragon a wise king, the same Ferdinand who has made his land poor and enriched ours?’ His amazement characterizes the relation of Turkey to the Jews of the day.”

Soon, however (Dubnow continues):

“These purple patches [of preeminence among Jewish exiles from Spain in Turkey and, later in Holland] in were nothing more than the accidents of a transition period. The people as a whole was on the decline. The Jewish mind darted hither and thither, like a startled bird seeking its nest. Holland or Turkey was an inadequate substitute for Spain, if only for the reason that but a tiny fraction of the Jews had found shelter in either. The Jewish national centre must perforce coincide with the numerical centre of the dispersed people, in which, moreover, conditions must grant Jews the possibility of living undisturbed in closely compacted masses, and of perfecting a well-knit organization of social and individual life. Outside of Spain these conditions were fulfilled only by Poland, which gradually […]assumed the hegemony over the Jewry of the world. This marks the displacement of the Sephardic (Spanish, in a broader sense, Romanic) element, and the supremacy of the Ashkenazic (German-Polish) element.”

By quoting Dubnow, I do not endorse him as the last word on Affaires juives. Specifically, his reference to Spain as the erstwhile “Jewish national centre” clashes with the principles of my project, which allow only the Land of Israel as the Jewish national center.

I tested the thinking of the Golden-Age Spanish Jews in this context last summer. Ahead of Tisha Be’Av 2017, I looked for an appropriate kina (lamentation) that the congregation in my synagogue could recite in order to commemorate the expulsion. I found several lamentations (there aren’t many) that describe the event in gruesome detail. In none of them, however, was any craving expressed for a return to Spain.

Instead, one finds the famous yearnings of Rabbi Judah Halevi, a preeminent product of that “Golden Age” (b. 1075 or 1086, d. 1141), whose existence is taken as evidence that there really was a Golden Age. In the best known of his “Zion” lamentations, he rues:

“My heart in the East But the rest of me far in the West— How can I savor this life, even taste what I eat? How, in the bonds of the Moor, Zion chained to the Cross, Can I do what I’ve vowed to and must? Gladly I’d leave. All the best of grand Spain For one glimpse of the ruined Shrine’s dust.”

R. Judah Halevi was privileged to have that one last glimpse, dying shortly after reaching the Land of Israel in 1147.

The expulsion from Spain marked Dubnow’s last glimpse at the Jewish communities of the east. The post-expulsion part of his Essay says nothing about them. Persian, Babylonian, Arabian, and Egyptian Jewry appear only up to their glory days in antiquity. The word “Iraq” appears nowhere in the Essay. Neither do Libya, Algeria, Morocco, Yemen, and Iran. Salonika? Not even Greece.

I know of no one who called Dubnow out for this. Some modern Jewish movements gave the Mizrahim the same treatment. Dubnow’s autonomism spoke to the central and East European reality only. Bundism was exclusively for Yiddish speakers. Zionism initially eyed them warily, mimicking the Ashkenazi tendency to take the most “primitive” of Mizrahim as representative of the whole.

The task in this project is to demonstrate that these communities, too, had national qualities that masqueraded, or are described today anachronistically, as purely religious.

I expect to find them in community self-rule, law, and taxation; in literature, language, and liturgy, in music, and (emphatically) in cuisine, by which I don’t mean shakshuka and sehug.

This is necessary in order to test a hypothesis that this project offers concerning the Mizrahim. It’s been stated that their integration in Israel is limping, is failing, or even “has failed.” In the late 1980s, the CIA pronounced this condition as the greatest existential threat that Israel faces, no less. So here’s the hypothesis: In comparison with other national integration projects, that in Israel between Ashkenazim and Mizrahim has been progressing with such dizzying speed as to suggest that the premodern Mizrahim had much the same national essence as the premodern Ashkenazim did -- that is, that they belong equally to the Jewish deep nation.

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