DEBORAH STARR: All right, why don't we get started? Thank you all very much for joining us. I'm Deborah Starr, the director of the Jewish Studies Program here at Cornell University. And I'm happy to welcome all of you to the concluding event of our all digital 2020-2021 lecture series, and I'm really excited to introduce our guest this evening. This will be a webinar format. I'm sure you're all used to this by now.
Our guest Professor Bryan Roby will be addressing us. We will not, unfortunately, be able to see you, but we do hope that you will engage with this lecture and post questions to the Q&A box. And I will sort of moderate and share your questions with Professor Roby after the lecture, so hopefully, those of you who have questions will be able to ask your questions.
Without further ado, I want to thank the Near Eastern Studies Department and Africana Studies for cosponsoring this event with the Jewish Studies program. We are hoping that next year, even as we start returning to some in-person events, there will continue to be some digital events in the fall, and we are hoping to continue live streaming some of our in-person events.
So please make sure, if you're interested in continuing to follow programs at Cornell Jewish Studies either in-person or digitally, that you sign up for our weekly newsletter at our website. So please hope you will be able to join us next year for some of our events. Oops. Sorry about this.
OK. Our guest tonight is Professor Bryan Roby who is Assistant Professor of Judaic Studies and Middle East Studies at the University of Michigan. His research explores intersections of race, gender, and sexuality in Israel and Palestine, 19th and 20th century North African history and the legacy of French colonialism on Arab and Jewish identity.
He is the author of The Mizrahi Era of Rebellion: Israel's Forgotten Civil Rights Struggle 1948-1966, which was published in 2015 by Syracuse University Press. This really extraordinary book provides an extensive history of social justice protests by Middle Eastern Jews in Israel.
He is currently working on a book, Israel through a Colored Lens: Racial Constructs in the Israeli Jewish Imagination, that examines how and why Middle Eastern Jews became associated with Blackness through the 20th century and what this tells us about the symbolic power and composition of Blackness on a global scale. I welcome you on behalf of all of us for tonight's talk, "Israel in Black and White: the Centrality of Black Thought for Afro-Asian Jewry in Israel."
BRYAN ROBY: So first off, thanks so much for having me. Second, welcome, everyone, to my living room. I'll be keeping this fairly conversational because I know it can be difficult to listen to people go on and on for a while, and I want to encourage you all to please feel free to ask questions and put them in the chat link when something pops in your mind.
So what I'm going to talk about today are little snippets of my second book project. And the main question that I'm trying to get at with this project is, if we continue to call like race as a social construct, then what are those building blocks at play. And I'm using the case of Israel and the Zionist movement as a way to explore how this new society, in a sense, created these building blocks for Mizrahim to be black and positioning Ashkenazim as white even before the state was created.
And so to that end, I'll be talking a little bit about the legacies of colonialism and scientific racism within the Zionist movement, focusing on a few key figures. And then I'll explore a little bit-- well, I'll talk a little bit about Black Americans who traveled to Israel and Palestine and their perceptions on that.
And I'll sort of conclude with looking at two instances, one within 1976 where there was a kind of threat of Moroccan and Iraqi Jews in particular to return to Iraq and Morocco at behest of the Arab League from Israel, and why that was so important or at least why there was such a huge threat for the state, and how people framed it.
So yeah, without further ado, let me give you a little bit of context. So this, thus far, is the kind of layout of the book in itself. Today, I'm talking more about Chapter 4 and 6 to a certain extent, as well as looking at mapping the black body. Jews in the Service of Empire does look pretty in detail into a lot of Zionist figures who are actually working for colonial authorities while at the same time working for the Zionist cause.
OK. For those of you who don't know-- I'm assuming many do-- but Ashkenazim would be considered white in this case, European-origin Jews. Historically have maintained political and socioeconomic power throughout the country and the movement. Mizrahim, or Afro-Asian Jews, which is a term that I've began to start using. I feel the most comfortable with that primarily because it's a little bit more broader than-- it allows a little bit more space for people.
For instance, there's a term "Arab Jew," for instance, which would kind of exclude those, let's say, from Morocco who are of Amazigh or Berber origin, as well as indigenous Africans or Asians who are not Arab in that case. And the third category of Beta Israel or Ethiopian Jews, I'm putting a Black and question mark, because their Blackness, at least from the '80s and '90s, or at least throughout the 20th century, was defined from the outside rather than an internal matter.
For many Ethiopian Jews, they would not consider themselves Black with that first generation of migrants, because within Ethiopian society itself, there is a range of colors from red, white, brown, and black as well, and each one has its own basis and a long, storied history of Ethiopian society.
So that's all to say that it's very important when we talk about race, even though I'm using these terms "Black" and "white," to understand they come with a long historical context. And you have to understand Blackness and whiteness within that historical context and geographic and societal space. Mchelle Wright was one of my favorite readings at the moment, and Physics of Blackness really lays this out in kind of trying to get away.
And so she's more speaking to Black studies in this case, and in this case, I'm speaking to Jewish studies, and Black studies in a way. But getting away from this idea that Blackness can be defined or located on the body, something that we oftentimes do with Jewishness as well, trying to locate Jewishness, a Jewish nose or facial structure or height or weight or hair color, all those kind of things.
That becomes problematic because it ends up reproducing the very kind of biological essentialism that is really problematic, that has this, you know, very clear and explicit history in scientific racism. So people, Jews and Blacks across the world, globally speaking, have a diversity of bodies that claim these identities, and it's important to acknowledge that.
A little bit more background. This is just a map of 20th century Mizrahi communities. This is prior to 1948. I'm always proud of this map because I made it, and it just shows you the major Jewish centers throughout the world in what can be called the Global South or where Afro-Asian Jews would have come from. Of course, after '48 and by the '60s and '70s, the majority of Jews in these countries had left for France, the UK, US, Canada as well as Israel, but I'm talking about Israel in particular.
Upon arrival in Israel, many were placed in transit camps, which has a very kind of long, storied history. And from what I've been seeing so far, which was quite a surprise to me, is that many of these, or at least the last evidence that I've seen of the last one that existed, was actually the 1980s. I believe Jesse Cohen's Ma'abara was the last one that was officially dismantled.
So there's a lot more at play, even though a lot of, I would say, scholars of Israel, Israeli history as well as Israelis, know about the Ma'abarot, but we don't really know about the Ma'abarot. We're still working out what was going on, how this was systematically done, in a way. And one thing that I think is really important is actually to look at how it played out in residential segregation, particularly in terms of housing and where people lived.
And so there's an assumption, or there's a kind of a known thing, that most Mizrahim historically have lived in what's called the periphery rather than the center of the country. I also created a map where it maps out where the Ma'abarot were throughout the '50s and '60s, and it does show the more you zoom in-- I didn't do it for here because that would take way too much time.
The more you zoom in, you can see very clearly kind of the boundaries of certain neighborhoods that are historically considered Ashkenazi, part of the Ashkenazi, the elite. And mind you, this is the '50s and '60s. If we take Tel Aviv, for instance, known as the White City for a number of different reasons, this map here shows where Afro-origin Jews, so North African and Ethiopian Jews, where they live in 2011.
When we take a look at Tel Aviv, we can notice that it has no color here. The green areas are where there is a majority of Afro or at least more than 50% of Afro-origin Jews, and the red areas are where it's an overwhelming majority of that, Tel Aviv having a kind of barrier block, having this coastal area without much significant populations of Afro-origin Jews.
On the left-hand side is the south, where it's a lot more color, and we can see around the borders with what is meant to be the Gaza Strip. There's a significant portion of Afro-origin Jews. All of the red areas, I could almost draw a line for the border areas of these communities. So that's something to really think about in terms of the impact of what I'll be talking about and how this played out, and how it plays out on the ground today
OK, so some of the major figures many of you may have heard of, some you may not have, within this Zionist engagement with scientific racism, are Arthur Ruppin, Nahoum Slouschz, Yitzhak Ben-Zvi, known as the first President, of Israel as well as Shlomo D. Goitein. All of these figures, with the exception of Ben-Zvi, were working for various different colonial entities, either the Ottoman government, the British government or the French one within British Yemen as well as North Africa.
So that's something to kind of get around, to really think over and mull over for a little bit, why that was the case. In addition to working for colonial offices, these are the people, when we talk about Mizrahi history or when we talk about Afro-Asian Jewish history, they are the kind of creators of it, right. They create this epistemology of-- they produce this knowledge that we, meaning the Western or European world, what we know about the Jews from other countries outside of Europe.
Yitzhak Ben-Zvi, for instance, writes a very detailed book that is kind of thinly veiled scientific racism, where it's called Our Population in the Land, where he categorizes each Jewish community throughout the world. He doesn't spend too much time on the insignificant communities like India and Pakistan, which has-- well, had-- a large community of Jews, but he does spend a significant amount of time looking at the differences between Ashekanzim and Sephardim and explaining why they're different.
And it's not just linguistic things. It's things about family structure and things that you could imagine are racialized, in a sense. In addition to him, I would like to talk about Nahoum Slouschz, a very fascinating figure. He worked as a French colonial spy for General Lyautey, the Resident-General of the Moroccan Protectorate.
And during that time, he's also working for the Jewish Territorial Organization, a somewhat alternative to the major or mainstream Zionist movement, while at the same time working for Ottoman authorities prior to, right before at the cusp of, the revolution that led to the creation of Turkey. So he's doing a lot of stuff in addition to finishing his PhD and working as a school teacher and at a museum in Rabat.
So he's all over the place, but what's important for our case or for my case is that he writes a book called My Travels in North Africa that's published and translated in Hebrew, French, English. I believe German as well, but I'm not too sure. And throughout, he really paints this picture of what North African Jews are like. It is not a pretty picture.
Many of the stereotypes that can be heard about Moroccan Jews in Israel, you can just pull them straight from his text almost word for word. It's really quite bizarre in some ways how pivotal this man was in creating a very negative stereotype in racializing an entire population of Jews. In one case-- so this is during his trip throughout Libya where he's trying to find for the JTO or ITO an alternative land from Palestine, so an alternative to Palestine.
While he's in Libya, his idea is that, let's bring in Eastern European Jews. And when we do that, we can have the native Jews working the land and building settlements for incoming Russian Jews. A lot of what he said and thought shows some of his ignorance, because when he goes to a coastal town like Amrus, as well as Benghazi, he says this.
"I was doubly deluded, for there are no Jewish farmers in Amrus, as there are none along the whole coast of Africa, and that too, although the people of Amrus are vigorous and handsome beyond the ordinary." He goes on in that same page to really extol the beautiful, handsome features of Libyan men in particular, their bronze beauty and things like that, and extolls or at least praises the Libyan Jewish women for their paleness.
And his idea is that most of the Magrehbi women could pass in some way, and that's a great way to actually integrate the two communities of Ashkenazim and Mizrahim, through this. His work is read thoroughly by Ben-Zvi as well as numerous other leaders in the Zionist movement and continues to influence a lot of how people think about Mizrahi history or at least its epistemologies.
In addition to that, this is part of a global conversation, I must say. It's not just specific to the Zionist movement, of course, scientific racism. And in addition to what's going on in Germany, France Israel or Palestine at the time, there's also this conversation going on in the US case. Maurice Fishberg is a guy of Polish origin who writes this book called The Jews: a Study of Race and Environment.
And he does the same thing that various other Zionist leaders are trying to do, which is establishing different categories as well as hierarchies of Jews. And that's really important in this case. And so some of it's explicit, some of it's implicit in terms of the hierarchical structure. But I just wanted to show this picture here where he has a quote, "fat Jewess" in Tunis in native costume.
And so you can get an idea about how people were actually really seeing kind of foreign or non-European Jews in this case. Moving very quickly, I'd like to tell a little story to orient you to now Israel in the 1940s and '50s with black Americans who would visit. There are two people in particular, Ida Jiggetts, as well as Roi Ottley. They are pretty much the major players in terms of establishing Black American knowledge about Mizrahim and the Mizrahim struggle.
Roi Ottley is a journalist who traveled throughout Europe as well as Palestine during the Second World War and then after, and then he came back very briefly to Israel after the state was created and wrote a pretty damning chapter against the state because of their treatment of Mizrahim. He calls it something like my travels in the dark continent or something like that, and it's part-- it's in his book No Green Pastures. He writes very explicitly that throughout his time before the state was created and then after the state was created that he continuously saw that Ashkenazim were marginalizing other Jews, and those Jews were darker or at least from Africa and Asia. And he found that very problematic.
He began to write about this to the Pittsburgh Courier, one of the major Black newspapers in the US at the time. Ida Jiggetts is then a PhD student who then starts reading it and then becomes interested particularly in Yemenite Jews. And so she travels to Israel throughout the '50s and writes her PhD about the integration of Yemeni Jewsim, particularly their experience almost in parallel with the Black American experience in the US. So these are important figures to know just to get a sense that it wasn't really one sided in this case.
It wasn't the case that, well, there's all European Jews who are calling Mizrahim Black, and then there's nothing else going on. But, of course, Mizrahim later would take that term Blackness as a tool of empowerment, but at the same time while they're learning from Black Americans, Black Americans are also learning from Mizrahim, which is super important and not really talked about too much primarily because of this really difficult relationship of Black internationalism that often privileges US Blackness over other forms of Blackness. And so there's a lot of complexities at play in terms of what the power balance is between looking at Black American perspectives on Mizrahim and vice versa.
By the 1970s, we have, of course, the Israeli Black Panthers. I'm just being cognizant of the time here.
We have the Israeli Black Panthers, of course, which I'm not going to go too much into but just to know that, of course, they're inspired by the American Black Panthers in Illinois and California. But after that ended or at least by the mid 1970s, you also have various different movements that are looking to what's going on in the Black world at large, meaning Blacks in European or Western context and what kind of strategies are being used, how people are feeling about the differences between Blacks and whites and things like that. And there's this case in 1976 where the Iraqi Revolutionary Council along with most members of the Arab League invited all the Jews provided that they're not Zionists to return to their homelands in the Arab world. It sounds silly to many at the time and now, but hundreds of families of Moroccan origin in Israel started packing their bags to leave and return to Morocco.
At least a little bit less than a dozen Iraqi Jews who were living in Israel returned to Baghdad and started living there. For the ones that I was able to track and trace, they ended up returning to Israel because they lack citizenship, and they didn't want to return to Israel. They wanted to live in Europe, but that's a whole other story that I can talk about in Q&A but really fascinating cases.
What's important here is that when people were interviewed, particularly Moroccan Israelis, when they were interviewed about why are you leaving this country, the one that saved you, the one that helped you get out of this backwardness and things like that, many people use terms like Black and white. In one case, a guy referred to the white regime ruling over the poor Blacks, and the way he phrased it, it had very similar kind of verbiage as what is used within the US as well as South Africa, at least how he phrased it. And so that's something to keep in mind that people are very conscious and cognizant of what's going on in the global Black community and really learning from that and also teaching others about that.
And so in another case, we have one person who's looking at the Wadi Salib rebellion as well as the emergence of the Black Panthers, and he's saying 28 years we put up with you Ashkenazim and we didn't become affluent from the riots that the Blacks did against the whites. So now we're saying thanks that's enough. We're going back to Morocco. It's a really interesting moment in time that's oftentimes not talked about that entire sectors or at least a good chunk of many sectors of Israeli society are ready to up and leave and go to what is presumably the enemy state, and a lot of that had to do with institutionalized racism.
Two, I'm going to conclude in maybe about five minutes or so. Think I'm doing all right. Great. Always hard to read the room because I'm just looking at you, Deborah. Yeah.
So what I want to talk about now is a little bit about something that I'm working on at the moment. If anyone isn't aware, the state archives in Israel are in an unfortunate situation where historians are hobbled by what's going on in that case. And to that end, I've started looking at various different ways to get at this question of Blackness and where does it come from, how was it constructed, and how does it change over time.
In this case, there is this cartoon or these two cartoons where on the left hand side, we have this kind of contentious politics at play. The writer of this cartoon, I'm not sure of his intentions with this. I think it could be problematic, but maybe I'm misreading it.
But it's an interesting case in itself that we have two men who are marked as Mizrahi primarily because the one on the right has a gold chain around his neck, has a shaved head, and the one on the left has a cigarette his mouth and a black shirt on that may be reminiscent of the Black Panthers or something like that. And the one on the right says once we were the oppressed Blacks here. The one on the left says, yeah, until the Ethiopians came and screwed us over with Ethiopian Jews in the background protesting against racism and saying enough with racism.
So this was published a few years ago just on one hand to show that these issues are still at play, two, that there is a changing context of what Blackness is within Israeli Jewish society primarily because the second generation of Ethiopians have started to embrace the term Black in various different ways whereas the first generation of migrants from Ethiopia were not really into that moniker.
So how does that play out within this context? Here we have Orit Tashoma, who's a poet, singer, spoken word poet, activist in some ways, where she composed the apology to Ethiopia, calling it Mama Ethiopia. She's use Amharic but I just translated it all in English to make it a little bit clearer. And some of it's mixed with Amharic and Hebrew in this case.
What I wanted to point out here is that what she's doing at least and what's in bold we didn't forget you, Jerusalem, but pretty soon I forgot you, you meaning Ethiopia, is showing the importance of diaspora within Israel itself, within Israeli Jewish society itself, which often-- which is like a great rhetorical move to negate the negation of the exile. Do you know this concept of getting rid of diaspora from our communities once we move to Israel and things like that. She's saying no. The diaspora is very much important to me. It's a part of my heart and identity in that case.
Sorry, there is something in my eye.
The last two that I want to talk about, one is Yossi Zabari who is also a spoken word poet, and what I find fascinating about his poems is that he actually really gets into interrogating Blackness. In one case in his poem if I were an Ethiopian, he talks through what it means to be an Ethiopian and then acknowledges that he himself is not and so he doesn't face the same kind of struggles even though he is a Black Jewish man and so are many European Jews.
And so at that conclusion, I think it's such a powerful line that even though I'm not Ethiopian, it's indubitably clear to me that Black isn't a color. It's a status, using the word mamad in this case. He goes on to have another one where he defines whiteness that I won't go over, but what I will conclude in is why and how we talk about this history of Mizrahi/Ashkenazi relations within Israeli society, why we have such a hesitancy to talk about race or even using the term institutionalized racism or institutionalized discrimination when it's so clear for those who experience this that that is the case.
There's many reasons for that, but [INAUDIBLE], another Yemenite origin poet, breaks it down in a really fascinating way in a poem in which she has a conversation between an Ashkenazi man and herself, and a lot of his arguments are that if you just try hard enough, then you'll be fine. It's not about race. We live in a post-racial Israeli society. The years of the Ma'abarot are done now, all that kind of stuff.
And what she says in response is that you say for you everything is Black and white, but you are the one who put on these glasses upon my eyes. Looking in the mirror, a Black woman who you caused to be embarrassed by the color of your skin. When you were a kid, let's play doctor and patient, who is the sick one, me or you?
Here she's pointing out that it doesn't make it worse if you talk about it, if you talk about racism. It doesn't make our society worse. It makes it worse when you ignore it in this case. You're making society sicker by pretending like there isn't an issue with rhetorical moves like, oh, well, the next generation, they'll be-- it'll be better for Mizrahim. People are being more socially mobile now. There's more integration or intermarriage and things like that.
And what's super important in that case is that there's so many striking parallels to the US case. In addition to that, many of these from the Black Panthers until today from the poets that I've talked about, many of them have found inspiration from global Black thought in particular. So writers like Franz Fanon, for instance, Adi Keissar heavily cites a lot of his thinking processes and ideas that were coming from there. You'll see Zabari also does so with Patricia Hills and later Black feminist writers. So it's really important when we think about Israeli society who we're picturing and who we're privileging in terms of which voices we're listening to as representative of Israeli society.
So I want to conclude there, and I'm going to look forward to the Q&A here. Thank you.
I think you're muted.
DEBORAH STARR: Thought I had unmuted. Thank you for alerting me. Thank you very much. That was really wonderful. And I wanted to just once again invite everybody to put questions into the Q&A, and hopefully we'll get through a few of those.
I actually wanted to start off with a sense of the historical arc. You started off talking about scientific racism and particularly among Ashkenazi Jews connected to colonialism. That was really, really interesting to trace it there. To what extent in their writing is colorism part of the discourse, and in what ways does that start shaping the discourse of the relations between European Jews and Afro-Asian Jews either at pre-state Palestine and through into the early years of Israel?
So I'm curious about some of those origins, and I'm also wondering the inverse of-- you talked about Adi Keissar and whiteness. But we-- there's certainly scholarship that has looked at the emergence of white-- of Jews as white in North America. Do Ashkenazi Jews ever become white? Might the lack of that marking have something to do with the kinds of denial about racism in Israel?
BRYAN ROBY: Yeah. So to start off with the first question about colorism, so that isn't as prevalent within these forms of scientific racism primarily because there is this emergence at this moment of transition from physical anthropology and ethnogary to cultural. And so when you see how people are phrasing things-- so someone like Ruppin, he does very much get into-- at least in his early years, he very much distinguishes this is the facial structure and the stature of Yemenite Jews and creating these categories of-- there was three categories-- the foreign type of Jew, the normal type, and the unique cases as he put it. And they have even worse connotations than what I just said when you read it in German.
And so in those cases, he talks a lot about Blackness but as the opposite of Jewishness. So he refers to-- for instance, he talks about Yemenite Jews and why they're so dark, and he says, well, it's probably because they've had a lot of Negro blood just like many of the Ostjuden, the Eastern European Jews, who've had these Negro-- Negroid blood or foreign admixtures from the medieval period. And so he really much tries to push this understanding of Jewishness as centered around whiteness in many different ways, but colorism doesn't play as much of a part later on.
So someone like Goitein, he doesn't use that kind of physical anthropology, doesn't take skull measurements and things like that. Instead he replaces race with culture. He talks about things that would-- are basically clashes of cultures, says that the state of Israel is doing very similar things-- Europe in particular should be proud of Israel for taking on what they're not willing to do, that they're taking on all of these backwards, culturally deficient people and trying to bring them up in their society.
So that's the take of what's going on. You asked the question about whiteness and Adi Keissar. Do Jews become white? Yeah.
So I think yes outside of Europe. There is-- I don't-- I know that in the US case, there is a big, big fear of openly defining Jews as white although I think the newer-- younger generations of Jews actually very openly express themselves or identify as white, which has an interesting thing behind that. But what goes on in Israel is that through work with the British and French government or colonial offices, they're able to negotiate their racial dynamics, and by they I mean Ashkenazi Zionists in this case through the mandates-- within the mandate period. That they could position themselves as the civilized leaders within that country, the more westernized they can speak the languages of real people-- something that the French would really appreciate-- unlike the natives including the Jews. And so through that way, state leadership was able to position themselves as white mediators doing everyone a favor by positioning themselves within this region as a bastion of Western culture and society.
DEBORAH STARR: Thank you. So I'm going to take some questions from the audience. And, again, please anyone who has any questions, please put them in the Q&A box. The first question is from Jonathan Boyarin, who says thank you for this talk. I take seriously-- and I hear I'm ventriloquizing-- I take seriously your quote from Michelle Wright that Blackness cannot be located on the body, that it is rhetorical, which doesn't mean it's not material. Have you ever thought about the rhetoric of Blackness as applied to Haredim in Israel as in-- and he's quoting loosely from Hebrew-- the neighborhood is turning black. It seems to me Haredi Judaism is abjected vis a vis secular progressivist Judaism in ways analogous but not identical to the racialization of Mizrahim.
BRYAN ROBY: Yeah. So that's a hard one. I think in terms of the Blackness of Haredim, that's a more metaphorical sense of Blackness in that case. But there are-- I find it very problematic that there is so much ease with demonizing the Haredi community within Israel, putting them as the foil to a more progressive or secular, more knowledgeable civilized Israeli society. And in doing so, a lot of times it falls into mimicking anti-Semitic rhetoric.
So things like talking about the burden, meaning military service, that many Haredi don't serve in the army in Israel that that's seen as something that they're not contributing to society. But then others go as far as to call them parasites on society, which has very clear connections to this long history of anti-Semitism within Europe in particular. So I find that pretty curious as to how that came about, and I think there is a way in which Haredim are placed in this figurehood-- they become a figure rather than people themselves and marginalized in somewhat similar ways to Mizrahim but quite different because there's not as much engagement with them on the part of secular Israelis.
DEBORAH STARR: Thank you. John Branfman asks how has the arrival of non-Jewish African refugees reshaped Blackness from Mizrahi and Ethiopian Israelis.
BRYAN ROBY: Great question. It-- so the non-Jewish African asylum seekers in Israel, it's questionable if they're Black. I think there is-- a lot of people go with ease in assuming that all of Africa is Black, and I don't mean just skin color and things like that. I mean that everyone in Africa once they leave Africa are Black. That's not the case. Each society has its own way of understanding race as I mentioned with Ethiopia with red being the predominant racial category there-- red and brown and then Blacks tend to be in the south of the country.
Same thing-- very similar with Eritrea which is where many of asylum seekers are coming from. Sudan has green and Black as well, same thing in terms of who the asylum seekers in Israel are coming from.
So keeping that in mind, I think for people outside of the country who are looking on it, it's very easy to say it's such a visible case of discrimination, and, yes, it is. Is it in the same context of Blackness? I would not say so.
I think Blackness in a lot of ways, it's part of a nation in some ways in which Blacks are in the margins of that nation. They create the borders of that nation. And in the case for non-Jews for Jewish nationalism, Zionism, non-Jews would not be part of that national thing. Mizrahim are around the borders. They create the borders of-- and I'm talking metaphorical but also physical-- they create the borders between the Arabs and the Jews being that in between, and a lot of times, that is the case for Blacks.
Black Americans being a pretty mixed-- a pretty big mixture of a variety of different communities, not just African but also European, sometimes Indigenous as well-- Black Americans are still part of the-- an inextricable part of the American nation state unlike Native Americans-- the US I'm saying, not the land of America in that case. How people conceptualize the US, for instance.
So James Baldwin has this really great quote that I won't quote directly, but he's saying America has to figure out why they created Negroes in the first place because I'm not one. White people created this because they needed Blacks for some reason. And we still don't know why, but they need that. It's a core element of the American nation.
Very similar to Mizrahim. It could have very easily been-- well, not easily-- but it could have been an Israeli state in which it's just lots of Jews, lots of different overlapping diaspora communities doing their own thing, living their lives as Jews in a land. But that's not the case, so we have to figure out why do we need-- Ashkenazim, why do we need Mizrahim.
And I'm not-- that's not to say that let's just get rid of the terminology or just pretend like they don't exist anymore, but we have to figure out what is that-- what's operating there. What's going on with that division? Where are those borders being marked in terms of identity? How does that play out on the ground, and how does that impact people in their consciousness? In other words,
Wow, that was a really long rant there.
DEBORAH STARR: And it's great. No, thank you.
BRYAN ROBY: For asylum seekers, right. That's what the question was. I would say that it's questionable if they're Black or not. Has it reshaped Blackness for Mizrahim and Ethiopian Israelis? No. No. Yeah.
DEBORAH STARR: Thank you. Let me see here. Itamar Haretan asks how are you thinking about the relationship between racism against Mizrahim and racism against Palestinians?
And then there's a second question, which is not exactly related, but-- well, I'll just ask the question as if you were asking it. And since you mentioned the negation of the diaspora, how are you thinking of the relationship between the race thinking you're studying and the negation of the Ashkenazi diaspora and Zionist thought? So one is about racism against Mizrahim and racism against Palestinians, and the other is about the racial discourse and what is the relationship between that and the negation of Ashkenazi diaspora.
BRYAN ROBY: Yeah. So the relationship between Israel and Palestinians-- I'm assuming you mean non-citizens but maybe citizens. So there's a difference there. I can talk a lot about citizens, so that's what I'll do.
A lot of that in the 1950s at the beginnings of the state, there is these concerted efforts to create some kind of allyship with people who are living under military rule-- Palestinians living under military rule. And, of course, before the state was created, there was a lot of connection and back and forth between what is now the Mizrahim of Israel and Palestinian citizens.
Of course, that changed quite a bit. I think a lot of times we used the 1977 great upheaval as this premier case of Mizrahi racism on things like that, and that's incredibly problematic. There's a lot more complexities of what happened with the election of the [INAUDIBLE] and [INAUDIBLE] that are not necessarily political ideological leanings. They don't indicate political ideology. They indicate a very smart move on the part of some people to vote for more of the same but a little bit better for them and not for others.
Whether or not that worked or not, I won't say, but in terms of racism against Palestinians, yeah, there's quite a bit within an Israeli case. Would I consider that anti-Black racism? No. And that goes against this idea of Palestinians not necessarily being part of Jewish nationhood. If we conceptualize as they've done through several bills the state of Israel as a Jewish state, they're not part of that Jewish nationhood.
And on top of that within Palestinian society, there's also a very, very big issue of racism against Afro Arabs, Afro Palestinians. Same thing throughout the Middle East if there's lots of different Black communities within the Arab world and in Iran as well where they're facing discrimination. And for the case of Palestinians, it's marginalization on top of marginalization on top of marginalization, and that is a fairly internal matter for another nation.
For Mizrahim, that's something I think that if feels easier for some way-- in some ways to punch down in that case, but there's also this issue with the '80s and '90s of this labor competition between Mizrahim and Palestinian, non-citizens in particular, that continues to this day in some cases where historically speaking, most Mizrahim-- lots of Mizrahim were construction workers and things like that. With the First Intifada, all that kind of stuff in the '80s and '90s and the banking crisis, a lot of Palestinian non-citizens would begin to take the jobs that many Mizrahim used to have, and so that created a lot of tension, very similar tension that was going on in the Yishuv, as well between Yemenite Jews within the Yishuv and Palestinians in the Yishuv.
The second question, I'm not too sure I understand it.
DEBORAH STARR: Well, I have a couple of other questions lined up.
BRYAN ROBY: OK. All right.
DEBORAH STARR: So for Melissa Sampson, this is a question about the use of genetics in understanding identity. So how do you see the ostensibly countervailing rhetoric that genetics has brought to the question of shared Jewish origins, genes, peoplehood across groups? And then she references Nadia Abu El-Haj, who has written about this among others and ties to how genetics is harnessed to distinguish between Jews and Palestinians.
BRYAN ROBY: Yeah. This is very much close to my work. Although I don't talk at all about genetics in particular, that's the science that I-- it's out of my-- above my head there. But it's very much-- Abu El-Haj's work is very much in line with how I'm thinking about really critiquing what was going on in these early moments of anthropology and academia at large.
People who are writing about these issues, who are trying to find Jewish genes are the same type of people who maybe 10 years prior to that are looking for the Jewish face. What are its measurements? How big is it? How long is it? What are the nostrils like? All these kind of questions that go into something that tries to make immutable something that's very fluid, Jewish identity, peoplehood, very fluid in that case.
And so in the same way that at least for in Abu El-Haj's case that people began to use these tools of academia to create serious divisions between peoples and societies, the same thing was going on with anthropology historians as well during this time as well as people who are-- I forgot the word-- the ones who go to cemeteries and-- excavators, the Israel Antiquities Society, those type of people. Yeah. Yeah. They're doing the same thing in trying to use these tools where they're looking for physical things that they can point to that would show this is the difference between Jews and Palestinians or Jews and the Arabs. And if you have to work that hard, something says-- that says something about what's going on in terms of how integrated Jews were within Palestinian society if you have to work that hard to create these very, very distinct boundaries between the two.
DEBORAH STARR: Thank you. Lee Rosenblatt was intrigued by some of the terminology that you used or that you're-- the early sources used and asks did any of the thinkers you were working with, because they were so shaped by Atlantic categories, ever envision a Jewish creole, mulatto, quadroon, or metis, et cetera, and think about the affective dimensions of these terms in Jewish or Zionist context.
BRYAN ROBY: One more time. Maybe I need to look at the question.
DEBORAH STARR: The question is so because these early thinkers that you cited, that you were referencing, these-- the thinkers who are engaging with scientific racism, since they were so informed by categories that were shaped by the envisioning of the Atlantic, are there any of these, the creole or mulatto category, for the Jews in the way they're characterizing the different groups of Jews.
BRYAN ROBY: Not explicitly but there was in terms of their aspirations yes. The main aspiration was that-- so on one hand, they saw a very gendered distinction between Mizrahim at large that men were a lost cause. They were too tribal, way too backwards, too into their patriarchal society, which is funny when you look at Zionist leadership and things like that for them to say that-- that it's no matter to really deal with them.
But the women, on the other hand-- in this goes to Nahum Slouschz as well as others like him who are pointing to North African and Turkish women-- Jewish women-- as being like much more lighter skin and beautiful, pale beauty, things like that. These are the terms that are being used.
And what the assumption was was that the women should be lifted up, and then they will marry Ashkenazi men. Arthur Ruppin says this almost explicitly in one of his works and Nahum Slouschz says something similar in a letter that he's writing to [INAUDIBLE] cousin. And so that's kind of where-- the assumption is that when we talk about where does this term-- oh, the next generation there's so much intermarriage now going on that the next generation will get better. The assumption is that Mizrahi women will marry Ashkenazi men to create a creolized type of-- I really like that. Thank you for mentioning that-- a type of creolized Israeli white society. Yeah. Thanks for that question.
DEBORAH STARR: Great. Nicole Soriano asks or starts out by saying racism in Israel certainly has parallels to racism in the United States and then continues just as the American Black Panthers inspired the Israeli Black Panthers in the 1970s, did the George Floyd protests give rise to a critical examination of racism in present-day Israel.
BRYAN ROBY: Oh, yeah, for sure. So there was-- there were cases of-- well, throughout Israel's history, Mizrahim in particular so I'll use the term Afro-Asian Jews historically in Israel have been victims of police brutality. Within the prison system as well as in life in general that Mizrahim men or youth-- young men are oftentimes criminalized in very similar ways that Black young men are criminalized in the US. The Black Panthers mentioned this quite a bit as well, particularly the type of abuse that they face within the prison system by Ashkenazi guards and police officers.
And then when you get to today in the present day, the past 20 years, there's been this shift in looking or how Israeli society sees Ethiopian Israelis. At first, they saw them as these very meek, quiet easily placated people that you just leave on the periphery. And then later, there was this notion that this Afro origin similar to Mizrahim, and, of course, they're living in the same neighborhoods that Mizrahim are living in. And so they become part of this criminalization effort against young Black men in that sense.
Many cases were-- one of the most famous ones was that of a young soldier-- Israeli soldier who was beaten by police and it was videotaped-- it was on videotape-- while he was wearing uniform. He was Ethiopian. That sparked quite a bit of protest against discrimination as well as the murder of Solomon Teka as well as a few other shooting of a few other young Israeli-- young Ethiopian Israeli men. But that's all to say that-- I wouldn't want to say that, oh, everything happens in Israel after the US because, of course, Ethiopian Israelis have had a long history of protest within the country even from the '70s. So the assumption is that almost all of the European Jews came in the '80s and '90s, but, of course, there were Jews from Ethiopia in the Yishuv, as well as in the state of Israel in the '40s and '50s and '60s and '70s.
I was lucky enough to go to an archive in the Netherlands where I found actual copies-- physical copies of these protest signs from the late '70s by Ethiopians talking about discrimination, and then it goes into the '80s and then it kind of disappears. So it's quite interesting to think about. Of course, there was the Blood Affair that was going on where Ethiopian Israeli Jewish blood was dumped, which was a symbolic of a very stark form of racism.
Did it actually give rise to a critical examination of racism in present-day Israeli society? I'm going to leave that as a question in the same way I would leave the question of did the murder of two or George Floyd give rise to a critical examination of racism in the US.
DEBORAH STARR: Thank you very much. I think we're right on the nose at the hour mark, and I've got-- we got through all of the questions in the chat box. So I think I'm going to take this opportunity to thank you very, very much for joining us, for sharing your research. Really excited to see this as a book. It's really, really great work.
And thank you all for joining us. And again, please look for a future Jewish studies events in the coming season. Thank you. Have a good night.
BRYAN ROBY: Have a good night, everyone.
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Lecture by Professor Bryan K. Roby (University of Michigan). Roby is an Assistant Professor of Judaic Studies. His expertise is on 20th century Israeli and North African Jewish history. His research and teaching interests include Jewish racial constructs; policing and civil rights globally; and 19th and 20th century North African history. He has written on social justice protests in Israel and is currently working on a second book, Israel through a Colored Lens: Racial Constructs in the Israeli Jewish Imagination, that explores the shifting boundaries of racial constructs in Israel/Palestine as well as African-American intellectual contributions to Israeli sociology and theories on race and ethnicity.