Mizrahi Jews

Mizrahi Jews
Mizrahi Jews
Nouriel RoubiniShai Agassi
Yossi BenayounDalia ItzikHarel Skaat
Nouriel Roubini • Shai Agassi • Yossi Benayoun • Dalya Itzik • Harel Skaat
Total population
4,500,000–5,000,000 (estimate)
Regions with significant populations
Middle East
 Israel 3,500,000–4,000,000
(including those of mixed ancestry)[1][2][3]
 Iran 25,000
 Egypt <400
 Yemen <400
 Iraq <100
 Syria <100
 Bahrain <50
 Lebanon <50
Central Asia & Caucasus
 Kazakhstan 15,000
 Uzbekistan 12,000
 Kyrgyzstan 1,000
 Armenia 500
 Tajikistan 100
Americas & Europe
 France 400,000
 United States 250,000
 Brazil 7,000
 United Kingdom 7,000
 Argentina 2,000

Hebrew, Arabic, Persian, Marathi, Manipuri, Judeo-Malayalam, Dzhidi, Judæo-Arabic, Georgian, Bukhori, Judeo-Berber, Juhuri and Judæo-Aramaic



Related ethnic groups

Ashkenazi Jews, Sephardi Jews, other Jewish ethnic divisions and Arabs.

Mizrahi Jews or Mizrahiyim, (Hebrew: מזרחיים, Modern Mizraḥiyim Tiberian Mizrāḥîyyîm ; "Easterners"), also referred to as Adot HaMizrach (עֲדוֹת-הַמִּזְרָח) (Communities of the East; Mizrahi Hebrew: ʿAdot(h) Ha(m)Mizraḥ) are Jews descended from the Jewish communities of the Middle East, North Africa and the Caucasus. The term Mizrahi is used in Israel in the language of politics, media and some social scientists for Jews from the Arab world and adjacent, primarily Muslim-majority countries. This includes Jews from Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Yemen, Iran, Afghanistan, Uzbekistan, Kurdish areas, the eastern Caucasus, India, Northern and Eastern Sudan and Ethiopia. Sometimes, Sephardi Jews such as Jews from Morocco, Algeria, or Turkey are erroneously grouped into the Mizrahi category for some historical reasons.

Despite their heterogeneous origins, Mizrahi Jews generally practice rites identical or similar to traditional Sephardic Judaism, although with some differences among the minhagim of the particular communities. This has resulted in a conflation of terms, particularly in Israel, and in religious usage, where "Sephardi" is used in a broad sense to include Mizrahi Jews as well as Sephardim proper. Indeed, from the point of view of the official Israeli rabbinate, the Mizrahi rabbis in Israel are under the jurisdiction of the Sephardi Chief Rabbi of Israel who, in most cases, is a Mizrahi Jew. Today they make up more than half of Israel's Jewish population, but before the mass immigration of 1,000,000 mostly Ashkenazi immigrants from the former Soviet Union in the 1990s they made up over 70% of Israel's Jewish population.[3]


History and usage

"Mizrahi" is literally translated as "Eastern", מזרח (Mizraḥ), Hebrew for "east." In the past the word "Mizrahim," corresponding to the Arabic word Mashriqiyyun (Easterners), referred to the natives of Syria, Iraq and other Asian countries, as distinct from those of North Africa (Maghrabiyyun).[4] For this reason some speakers object to the use of "Mizrahi" to include Moroccan Jews.

The term Mizrahim or Edot Hamizraḥ, Oriental communities, grew in Israel under the circumstances of the meeting of waves of immigrants from the Ashkenazi, Sephardic and Oriental Jewish communities. In modern Israeli usage, it refers to all Jews from North African and West Asian countries, many of them Arabic-speaking Muslim-majority countries. The term came to be widely used more by so-called Mizrahi activists in the early 1990s. Since then in Israel it has become an accepted semi-official and media designation.[5]

Many "Mizrahi" ("Oriental" Jews) today reject this (or any) umbrella and simplistic description and prefer to identify themselves by their particular country of origin, or that of their immediate ancestors, e.g. "Iranian/Persian Jew", "Iraqi Jew", "Tunisian Jew", etc., or prefer to use the old term "Sefardic" in its broader meaning.

Other designations

Many Jews identify all non-Ashkenazi Jews as Sephardim, in modern Hebrew "Sfaradim". This broader definition of "Sephardim" as including all or most Mizrahi Jews is also common in Jewish religious circles. The Ethiopian Jewish religious leaders in Israel have also joined the Mizrahi-Sefardic rite collectivities.

The reason for this classification is that most Mizrahi communities use much the same religious rituals as Sephardim proper. The prevalence of the Sephardic rite among Mizrahim is partly a result of Sephardim joining some of their communities following the 1492 expulsion from Sepharad (Spain and Portugal). Over the last few centuries, the previously distinctive rites of the Mizrahi communities were influenced, superimposed upon or altogether replaced by the rite of the Sephardim, perceived as more prestigious. Even before this assimilation, the original rite of many Jewish Oriental communities was already closer to the Sephardi rite than to the Ashkenazi one. For this reason, "Sephardim" has come to mean not only "Spanish Jews" but "Jews of the Spanish rite", just as "Ashkenazim" is used for "Jews of the German rite", whose ancestors spoke the Judeo-German, Yiddish language, whether or not they originated from Germany.

Many of the Sephardic Jews exiled from Spain resettled in greater or lesser numbers in many Arabic-speaking countries, such as Syria and Morocco. In Syria, most eventually intermarried with and assimilated into the larger established community of Arabic-speaking Jews. In North African countries, by contrast, where the Sephardim came to outnumber the pre-existing Mizrahi Jew communities it was some of the latter who assimilated into the more prosperous and prestigious Sephardic communities. In Morocco a distinction remained with the purely Sephardic Gerush Castilia of the Spanish-speaking northern strip who kept their Judeo-Spanish language known as Haketia. Either way, this assimilation, combined with the use of the Sephardic rite, led to the popular designation and conflation of most non-Ashkenazic Jewish communities from the Middle East and North Africa as "Sephardic", whether or not they were descended from Spanish Jews, which is what the terms "Sephardic Jews" and "Sepharadim" properly implied when used in the ethnic as opposed to the religious sense.

In many Arab countries, older Arabic-speaking Jewish communities distinguished between themselves and the newer arrivals speaking Judeo-Romance languages, that is, Sephardim expelled from Spain in 1492 and Portugal in 1497. The established Arabic-speaking Jews called themselves Musta'arabim (Arabic for Arabizers), while the newer Sephardi arrivals called them Moriscos (Ladino for Moorish).

The term "Arab Jews" is controversial, used for self-identification by some members of the communities concerned but strongly opposed by others due to its political, social and ideological implications (see Arab Jews).


Kurdish Jews in Rawanduz, northern Iraq, 1905.

Most of the so-called Oriental Jewish or Mizrahi communities spoke Arabic, although Arabic is now mainly used as a second language, especially by the older generation. Most of the many notable philosophical, religious and literary works of the Jews in the Orient were written in Arabic using a modified Hebrew alphabet.

Among other languages associated with Mizrahim are Judeo-Persian (Dzhidi), Georgian, Bukhori, Kurdish, Judeo-Berber, Punic language, Juhuri, Marathi, Judeo-Malayalam and called by some Judeo-Aramaic dialects. Most Persian Jews speak standard Persian.

Neo-Aramaic is a Semitic language closely related to Hebrew. It is identified as a "Jewish language", since it is the language of major Jewish texts such as the Talmud and Zohar, and many ritual recitations such as the Kaddish. Traditionally, Aramaic has been a language of Talmudic debate in yeshivoth, as many rabbinic texts are written in a mixture of Hebrew and Aramaic. As spoken by the Jews of Kurdistan, Jewish Neo-Aramaic dialects are descended from Jewish Babylonian Aramaic, as could be seen from its hundreds of reflexes in Jewish Neo-Aramaic.

By the early 1950s, virtually the entire Jewish community of Kurdistan—a rugged, mostly mountainous region comprising parts of Turkey, Syria, Iraq, Iran, and the Caucasus, where Jews had lived since antiquity—relocated to Israel. The vast majority of Kurdish Jews, who were primarily concentrated in northern Iraq, left Kurdistan in the mass aliyah (emigration to Israel) of 1950-51. This ended thousands of years of Jewish history in what had been Assyria and Babylonia.

In 2007, an important book was published, authored by Mordechai Zaken, describing the unique relationship between Jews in urban and rural Kurdistan and the tribal society under whose patronage the Jews lived for hundreds of years. Tribal chieftains, or aghas, granted patronage to the Jews who needed protection in the wild tribal region of Kurdistan; the Jews gave their chieftains dues, gifts and services. The text provides numerous tales and examples about the skills, maneuvers and innovations used by Kurdistani Jews in their daily life to confront their abuse and extortion by greedy chieftains and tribesmen. The text also tells the stories of Kurdish chieftains who saved and protected the Jews unconditionally.[6]

Post-1948 dispersal

After the 1948 Arab-Israeli War and subsequent establishment of the state of Israel, most Mizrahi Jews (900 000) were either expelled by their Arab rulers or chose to leave and immigrated to Israel. Roughly half of Israeli Jews are of Mizrahi origin.[citation needed]

Anti-Jewish actions by Arab governments in the 1950s and 1960s, 25,000 Mizrahi Jews from Egypt left after the 1956 Suez Crisis, led to the overwhelming majority of Mizrahim leaving Arab countries. They became refugees. Most went to Israel. Many Moroccan and Algerian Jews went to France. Thousands of Lebanese, Syrian and Egyptian Jews immigrated to the United States and to Brazil.

Today, as many as 40,000 Mizrahim still remain in communities scattered throughout the non-Arab Muslim world, primarily in Iran, but also Uzbekistan, Azerbaijan, and Turkey.[7] There are few remaining in the Arab world. About 5,000 remain in Morocco and fewer than 2,000 in Tunisia. Other countries with remnants of ancient Jewish communities with official recognition, such as Lebanon, have 1,000 or fewer Jews. A trickle of emigration continues, mainly to Israel and the United States.

Absorption into Israeli society

Refuge in Israel was not without its tragedies: "in a generation or two, millennia of rooted Oriental civilization, unified even in its diversity,” had been wiped out, writes Mizrahi scholar Ella Shohat.[8] The trauma of rupture from their countries of origin was further complicated by the difficulty of the transition upon arrival in Israel; Mizrahi immigrants and refugees were placed in rudimentary and hastily erected tent cities (Ma'abarot) often in development towns on the peripheries of Israel. Settlement in Moshavim (cooperative farming villages) was only partially successful, because Mizrahim had historically filled a niche as craftsmen and merchants and most did not traditionally engage in farmwork. As the majority left their property behind in their home countries as they journeyed to Israel, many suffered a severe decrease in their socio-economic status aggravated by their cultural and political differences with the dominant Ashkenazi community. Furthermore, a policy of austerity was enforced at that time due to economic hardships.

Mizrahi immigrants arrived with many mother tongues. Many, especially those from North Africa and the fertile crescent, spoke Arabic dialects; those from Iran and Central Asia (Uzbekistan and Tajikistan) spoke Persian; Baghdadi Jews from India arrived with English; the Bene Israel from Maharashtra, India arrived with Marathi, Mizrahim from elsewhere brought Georgian, Gruzinic, Tajik, Juhuri and various other languages with them. Hebrew had historically been a language only of prayer for most Jews not living in Israel, including the Mizrahim. Thus, with their arrival in Israel, the Mizrahim retained culture, customs and language distinct from their Ashkenazi counterparts.

Disparities and integration

The cultural differences between Mizrahi and Ashkenazi Jews impacted the degree and rate of assimilation into Israeli society, and sometimes the divide between Eastern European and Middle Eastern Jews was quite sharp. Segregation, especially in the area of housing, limited integration possibilities over the years.[9] Intermarriage between Ashkenazim and Mizrahim is increasingly common in Israel and by the late 1990s 28% of all Israeli children had multi-ethnic parents (up from 14% in the 1950s).[10] It has been claimed that intermarriage does not tend to decrease ethnic differences in socio-economic status,[11] however that does not apply to the children of inter-ethnic marriages.[12]

Although social integration is constantly improving, disparities persist. A study conducted by the Israeli Central Bureau of Statistics (ICBS), Mizrahi Jews are less likely to pursue academic studies than Ashkenazi Jews. Israeli-born Ashkenazim are up to twice more likely to study in a university than Israeli-born Mizrahim.[13] Furthermore, the percentage of Mizrahim who seek a university education remains low compared to second-generation immigrant groups of Ashkenazi origin, such as Russians.[14] According to a survey by the Adva Center,[15] the average income of Ashkenazim was 36 percent higher than that of Mizrahim in 2004.[16]

Notable Mizrahim

Business people


Medicine and therapy

Politicians and military

  • Yekutiel Adam, Israeli general (from a Caucasian Jewish family)
  • Binyamin Ben-Eliezer, Israeli general, current Israeli minister of Infrastructure, former minister of Defense and Israel Labor Party chairman, (Iraqi Jew), commonly called by his Arabic name "Fuad"
  • Aryeh Deri, former leader of Shas Party and minister of Internal Affairs, (Moroccan Jew)
  • Yisrael Yeshayahu Sharabi, Minister of Post and Speaker of Knesset 1970s and 80s, ethnicity/country of origin: Yemen
  • Les Gara, Democratic member of the Alaska State Legislature, former deputy state attorney general (Iraqi parents)
  • Dalia Itzik, former Knesset speaker
  • Avigdor Kahalani, former minister of Internal Security and decorated IDF tank commander
  • Moshe Katsav, former President of the State of Israel and minister of Transportation, ethnicity/country of origin: Iran
  • David Levy, former minister of Foreign Affairs and Deputy Prime Minister (Moroccan Jew), minister of housing and transports
  • Shaul Mofaz, former Israeli Minister of Defense and chief of the IDF General Staff, Iranian Jew
  • Yitzhak Mordechai, retired IDF general, former minister of Defense and minister of Transportation, ethnicity/country of origin: Iraq
  • Dorrit Moussaieff, First Lady of Iceland (Bukharian Jew)
  • Abie Nathan, Israeli peace activist
  • Yitzhak Navon, fifth president of Israel and former minister of Education, from a Sephardic Jewish family
  • Shlomo Hillel, was speaker of the Knesset, minister
  • Amir Peretz, current Knesset member and former Israeli Minister of Defense, Labor Party chairman, and chairman of the Histadrut, ethnicity/country of origin: Morocco
  • Silvan Shalom, former Israeli minister of Foreign Affairs, minister of Treasury and Deputy Prime Minister, Tunisian Jew
  • Meir Sheetrit, current Israeli minister of Internal Affairs and former Deputy Prime Minister, minister of Treasury and of Education
  • Moshe Levi, Israeli general, chief of the Idf General Staff
  • Shlomo Ben Ami, Israeli historian, diplomat and diplomat, was minister of police
  • Gabi Ashkenazi, Israeli general, chief of the IDF General Staff
  • Dan Halutz, Israeli general, chief of the IDF General Staff
  • Moshe Shahal, minister and lawyer
  • Moshe Nissim, was Israeli finance and justice minister
  • Eli Cohen, Israeli spy in Syria
  • J. F. R. Jacob, Indian general, distinguished himself in the Indo-Pakistani War of 1971
  • Shimon Sheetrit, Israeli lawman and politician, was justice minister, professor of law
  • Ran Cohen, politician from the left liberal party Meretz, former MK
  • Nissim Dahan, rabbi and politician from Shass party, was minister of health
  • Shalom Simhon, Israeli politician, from Labor party, minister of agriculture

Religious figures

Sports and game players

Writers and academics

See also

  • List of notable Mizrahi Jews and Sephardi Jews in Israel
  • Mizrahi Hebrew


  1. ^ http://www.mepeace.org/forum/topic/show?id=661876%3ATopic%3A44893
  2. ^ http://www.ynetnews.com/articles/0,7340,L-3743829,00.html
  3. ^ a b http://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/jsource/Judaism/mejews.html
  4. ^ In medieval and early modern times the corresponding Hebrew word ma'arav was used for North Africa. In Talmudic and Geonic times, however, this word "ma'arav" referred to the land of Israel as contrasted with Babylonia.
  5. ^ http://web.mit.edu/cis/www/mitejmes/issues/200105/download/Shohat.doc
  6. ^ Mordechai Zaken, Jewish Subjects and Their Tribal Chieftains in Kurdistan: A Study in Survival, Brill: Boston and Leiden, 2007.
    Based on new oral sources, carefully analyzed, this book explores the relationships between Jewish subjects and their tribal chieftains in Kurdistan, focusing on the patronage and justice provided by the chieftains and the financial support provided by the Jews to endure troubles and caprices of chieftains. New reports and vivid tales unveil the status of Jews in the tribal setting; the slavery of rural Jews; the conversion to Islam and the defense mechanisms adopted by Jewish leaders to annul conversion of abducted women. Other topics are the trade and occupations of the Jews and their financial exploitation by chieftains. The last part explores the experience of Jewish communities in Iraqi Kurdistan between World War I and the mass-migration to Israel (1951-52).
    The author, Mordechai Zaken, Ph.D. (2004) in Near Eastern Studies, The Hebrew University of Jerusalem, specializes in the history of the Kurds, the oriental Jewry, and the minorities in the region. He served as the Adviser on Arab Affairs to the Prime Minister of Israel (1997-99).
  7. ^ The Jewish Population of the World, The Jewish Virtual Library
  8. ^ Ella Shohat: “Sephardim in Israel: Zionism from the Standpoint of its Jewish Victims,” Social Text, No.19/20 (1988), p.32
  9. ^ Blackwell Synergy - Int J Urban & Regional Res, Volume 24 Issue 2 Page 418-438, June 2000 (Article Abstract)
  10. ^ Barbara S. Okun, Orna Khait-Marelly. 2006. Socioeconomic Status and Demographic Behavior of Adult Multiethnics: Jews in Israel.
  11. ^ Project MUSE
  12. ^ http://www.jstor.org/pss/351810
  13. ^ http://www.cbs.gov.il/publications/educ_demog_05/pdf/t16.pdf
  14. ^ 97_gr_.xls
  15. ^ Adva Center
  16. ^ Hebrew PDF
  17. ^ "'המוזיקה המזרחית - זבל שהשטן לא ברא'". Ynet. 2011-03-09. http://www.ynet.co.il/articles/0,7340,L-4039633,00.html. Retrieved 2011-03-09. "בסופו של דבר אני רואה את עצמי כבן עדות המזרח גאה, ודווקא מהנקודה הזו אני נותן ביקורת כואבת." 


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