I Guess They Think All Jews Are From Europe
A mixture of a California wildfire forcing an early end to a camping trip, Los Angeles afternoon traffic, and a wrong turn off the 405 freeway brought me and a friend on a serendipitous visit to the Skirball museum of Jewish culture and heritage on an early Thursday afternoon.
The main exhibit “Jewish Life from Antiquity to America” traces 4,000 years of Jewish life from the early days of the Bible all the way to Zionism and modern Jewish Life in America. As someone who is fascinated by Jewish history, I was excited to see how the museum would attempt to tackle this daunting task.
The museum decided to organize the exhibit in an interesting way. After the biblical and subsequent Greco-Roman periods in ancient Israel, the museum decided to ditch a purely chronological organization of the history for a country-specific one. As Jews were spread out all over the world after the Greco-Roman period, this tactic seemed reasonable, and I began to go country hopping.
There was a section devoted to Spain and Portugal with a focus on the relative religious and intellectual freedom that the Jews had under Muslim rule and then pivoting to the horrors of the expulsion once Christendom took over, effectively ending Spanish Jewry.
There was a large section on Russia which, at one point in its history, had more Jews than anywhere on Earth. As my great-grandfather was exiled from Russia to Siberia for illegally teaching Torah, the anti-semitic wave that crashed over Russia in the late 19th century has always been a personal area of interest.
There were sections on France, Italy, England and other European countries explaining the historical importance of each of these countries throughout the middle ages vis-a-vis the Jewish community and educational luminaries produced in the great study halls of Europe. And, of course, comments on how the Church set the stage for much of modern Jew hatred.
The Museum then pivoted once more and the remaining three sections dealt extensively with the Holocaust, Israel, and American Jewish life.
As we walked back to the car my friend and I were thinking the exact same thing. There was no mention of any Arab Jews, Latin American Jews, or really any Jews who didn’t spend the bulk of the last 1,500 years in Europe.
Now it’s important to put this into perspective. This isn’t just some Ashke-normative, Eurocentric, and dare I say somewhat racist, phenomenon that is ubiquitous across Jewish museums, schools, and other educational fronts. Rather it is also a simply false presentation of Jewish history and, if we wish to think about this from a purely selfish perspective, one that really hurts us within the wider political landscape.
The first major Jewish community outside of Israel was in the 6th century BCE where, after the destruction of the first temple, the majority of Jews found themselves in the area of modern day Iran and Iraq. While a good percentage of these Jews returned to Israel a century later, many remained in place, meaning that until the mid to late 20th century, there had been a continuous and sizeable Jewish population in Iran and Iraq for about 2,500 years. Today, at least 10,000 Jews still reside in Iran where they enjoy relative religious freedom by Middle Eastern standards.
From ancient Babylonia Jews began to spread throughout the rest of the middle East where they too have been living ever since. At this same time, Jews in Israel began to migrate south to major cities in Egypt establishing large Jewish centers around the country. Again, all of these movements happened before the second temple was even rebuilt.
Similar stories can be told about a myriad of other countries such as Syria, Yemen, and even Ethiopia which, for some absurd and again, racist reason, many in the Ashkenaz community actually discount their Jewishness.
When we forget or ignore the diversity within the Jewish community we are doing ourselves a disservice on multiple levels. We are creating a false history of Jewish people around a Eurocentric worldview, similar in my mind to when Christians hilariously portray Jesus as a white dude.
We are, additionally, bifurcating the Jewish community in a way that is fundamentally un-Jewish. Jews are one singular nation or family that, due to various historical circumstances, have split off into a myriad of races cultures. Yet the centrality of the Jews as one people has always remained a primary Jewish value and we must recognize that no group within the Jewish nation is better than any other. When we value one group’s history or customs over another’s, we are rejecting this fundamental notion that is ubiquitous throughout our tradition.
Furthermore, this type of Ashke-normativity only gives fodder to the nefarious idea that Jews are simply white Europeans and Israel is a colonialist regime. The reality is that 800,000 Mizrahi Jews were kicked out of their home countries in the past century, with Israel being the only place that awarded them a safe haven. While we all recognize the absurdity of the idea that Jews are simply white Europeans, we are not helping our case by purposely ignoring those Jews who don’t fit this label.
So whichever reason you chose, whether it be dictated by historical, anti-racial, or political underpinnings, it is never helpful to perpetuate a fully Eurocentric/Ashke-normative view of Judaism.
. Moshe Daniel Levine regularly writes blog postings for Jewish Values Online.
Please note: All opinions expressed in Blog Postings and comments on the Jewish Values Online site and through Jewish Values Online are those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the views, thoughts, beliefs, or position of Jewish Values Online, or those associated with it.
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