Mizrahim, the Jews of the Middle East

This article is also available in: Italiano

A population that has always lived in the Middle East, to the point of becoming, until the birth of Israel, one of the most wealthy and powerful Jewish groups ever. The mizrahim are certainly the best way to tell how the contrast with the Arabs has only recent roots, linked above all to other Jewish components.

Mizrahim, the oldest Jews

The first communities of Mizrahi Jews arose even around the 7th and 6th centuries BC. following the Babylonian exile by Nebuchadnezzar II. In fact, not all the deportees returned home, forming the first Jewish communities outside Palestine, including the Kurdish and Babylonian ones, which are among the most ancient of all. Another element that led to the birth of this group was the destruction of the Temple in 70 AD, which led many of them to find refuge in the Arab and Persian kingdoms, already at the time much more tolerant towards them.


Finally, the community expanded with the Spanish Reconquista of 1492 which led the Sephardic Jews to migrate within the Islamic world, often joining with the mizrahim, the most similar to them in rites and traditions.

Between Arabs and Sephardim

Although very close to those of Iberian origin, the Mizrahi communities never fully joined them, maintaining a certain autonomy both cultural and ritual, also thanks to the social status acquired over the centuries in the Middle East and their linguistic-cultural fragmentation

Mizrahi Jews in a ma’abara

The Islamic empires had always shown themselves to be very tolerant and benevolent towards their Jewish relatives, so much so that there were communities in every corner of the Islamic world, with deeply different languages and cultures. In addition to the Kurdish and Baghdad Jews, there were Persians, Indians, Afghans, Azeris, Yemenis, Syrians, Tajiks, Uzbeks and many others that we cannot mention just for reasons of space. They had found their balance on this side of the Mediterranean thanks to their skills as craftsmen and merchants, which soon made them one of the richest and most influential personalities in the world. Everything changed, however, with the birth of Israel, mostly wanted by Ashkenazi Jews.

The loss of status

The birth of this state had a deeply different historical and cultural background from that of the Mizrahi Jews and this will bring them many problems in the future, also due to the speed with which they were forced to revolutionize their lifestyle. In 1948 Israel was born and most of the Islamic world then decided to expel all Jews from their lands, held in some way directly responsible for the Palestinian misfortunes.

The A-WA, one of Israel’s most important groups, proudly of Yemeni origin

This led to enormous mass displacements that spilled mostly into the ma’abarot, the sort of refugee camps created on Israeli soil to house the exiles. Even once the initial problem was solved, however, the Mizrahim suffered particularly from living in a state shaped according to Ashkenazi needs, decidedly different from them in history and culture. The latter, in fact, were largely peasants or in any case linked to work in the fields, something almost unthinkable for the former, linked above all to trade and craftsmanship. The loss of the past status will lead to an ever clearer division between the two groups, so much so that even today the issue is not only not resolved, but more and more mizrahim speak and are linked to the Arab world, much closer to their history than the European one of the Ashkenazis.

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