On Apr. 19, as part of Israeli Apartheid Week, Students for Justice in Palestine hosted Ilise Cohen from Jewish Voice for Peace to talk about Sephardic and Mizrahi solidarity with Palestine. Sephardi Jews are descended from those who lived in the Iberian Peninsula, and Mizrahi Jews are descended from the Jewish communities of the Middle East.
Cohen is a Sephardic and Mizrahi scholar with a PhD in social and cultural anthropology. Cohen’s speech was a look at the hierarchy of Israeli society.
While conversations about the Israeli occupation are generally centered around Ashkenazim (European) Jews and Palestinians, this is an oversimplified view. Sephardim, Mizrahi and Ethiopian Jews are not a part of the discussion, despite their prevalence in this society.
According to Cohen, the hierarchy of the Israeli state is as follows: Ashkenazim Jews, Sephardim Jews, Ethiopian Jews and finally Palestinians. Each of these communities faces different types of marginalization.
“Mizrahi Jews are discriminated against in times when there is a desire to be closer to the power and elite,” said Cohen. “Sephardim lived under Muslim rule until they were either converted, killed or exiled by the Catholic Monarchs in the last efforts to rid Spain of its Jewish population by 1942. Ethiopian Jews are one of the most marginalized and minoritized Jewish groups in Israel… They have not been considered eligible to immigrate to Israel as Jews.”
Multiple factors contribute to one’s place in society. For example, Sephardic Jews have racial privilege over Ethiopian Jews. Likewise, while Ethiopian Jews have less privilege than Ashkenazi Jews, they still have religious privilege over those of other faiths.
“[Ashkenazi Jewish people] created a state that had the same mentality as the European state, which had an internal other,” Cohen said. “Jews were an internal other in Europe. And now, European Jews have internal others. They have the Mizrahi others, they have the Ethiopian others, they have Palestinian others, they have foreign worker others, they have African others.”
Regardless of religion, Palestinians are always at the bottom tier of Israeli society and lack privilege even if they are of a social group that would be given preferential treatment. For example, Jewish Palestinians are just as oppressed as Muslim Palestinians.
“The entire premise just points to the fact that the establishment of Israel was conceptualized as a white supremacist state overall. A lot of these dynamics that are weird and conflicting always end up discriminating against the people of color,” said Raphael Eissa, a senior from Savannah majoring in political science and international affairs.
When we leave these dynamics out of the equation, we erase the depth of the discrimination.
“So many people use the language of anti-semitism, saying that people who supported the liberation of Palestine were anti-semitic, but actually, no, states function in different ways. Let’s dismantle how states function,” Cohen said.
By establishing the ways in which oppressive states work, we can begin to dismantle them. We cannot begin dismantling the state before addressing the problems inherent in every step of this hierarchy. Therefore, to discuss the Israeli occupation meaningfully, we must discuss it in its entirety.