University of Michigan professor explains how emigration created Israeli identity

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By Chidinma Onuoha
Staff writer
@OmniwriterPen

Within an intimate room in H.J. Patterson Hall, University of Michigan professor Bryan K. Roby explained how emigration sculpted Israeli culture and identity Tuesday night. The event, hosted by the Gildenhorn Institute, was part of a series which introduces events like this on a weekly basis. Roby is the last speaker of the semester.

Roby sat before students and scholars and explained the Jewish relationship between Israel and the diaspora. He focused on a section in Israeli history during the beginning of the Black Panther movement when groups of Moroccan Jews threatened to return to Morocco en masse to protest discrimination in Israel. Roby said newspapers referred to it as “bar scale defections” from the country and he found that 120 families had packed their suitcases to go back.

People who did not like their lives due to discrimination made daring attempts to escape, like trying to cross the border of Lebanon or Egypt. Roby said he wanted to know how a person could leave one’s country if that country was at war with others surrounding it.

“A lot of discrimination stemmed from the ‘50s and ‘60s,” Roby said. “Middle Eastern Jews were put in these transit camps. By the ‘70s, then you had people living in slummed towns and housing projects with very poor housing conditions as well as lack of access to education, lack of access to well paying jobs.”

Roby stated that Moroccan Jews felt they were the only people suffering from this discrimination and later decided to leave, which introduced the questions: What makes someone Israeli? When they leave, are they still Israeli or are they still Morrocan when they return? What is the Jewish relationship to the diaspora and what is the Jewish relationship to Israel? The group he was referring to had immigrated to Israel 10 to 20 years ago, but still wanted to go “home” to Morocco, an idea which Roby wanted to bring to the table.

Roby said he loves North African Jewish History and the study of Jewish emigration from Israel to Morocco because it is “kind of an understudied topic.”

“When people talk about Jewish history, a lot of it deals with Europe, but then when you look back into 2000 years ago or so there’s like a very rich Jewish history that continues into the present day that is not really looked at,” Roby said.

 

Students pay attention as Roby gives his presentation at H.J. Patterson hall. Chidinma Onuoha/Mitzpeh.

 

He hoped that after his speech, attendees would start to think not only about the Israeli relationship to the Jewish Diaspora, but also to the effect it has on Israeli society.

Shay Hazkani, assistant professor of Jewish studies at this university, said Roby’s lecture interested him.

“Professor Roby has fascinating research on Moroccan Jews which is a topic that doesn’t have that much writing about,” said Hazkani. “His most recent research looks at the Moroccan Jews who immigrated to Israel and why they wanted to return to Morocco in the 1970s with the major rebellion in Israel which is often referred to as the Black Panther movement. So his research is really innovative, and I thought it’d be interesting for UMD students.”

Sean Rao, a Ph.D. student majoring in government and politics, said he found Roby’s topic interesting since it found the link between where people see identity. He reflected on how there was a link between Moroccan Jews who felt disconnected from the Arab world and the rest of Israel due to emigration; but even though they emigrated, they still also faced an assimilation process in their new homeland.

“When Jews came from Morocco or Iraq, they are linked in with the Middle East but maybe their grandchildren are not so much,”  Rao said. “So they said, when do they become Israeli? Well, maybe when they don’t feel as connected with the Middle East…”

Rao said he thought people should apply what the rest of the world thinks about identity and figure out what it means for people. After listening to Roby’s speech, Rao learned that Roby seems to be doing it the other way.

“What have we learned about identity and how does that apply to Israel?” asked Rao.

“The event was very interesting,” said Isaac Solomon, a junior economics and computer science major. “I don’t know that much about Moroccan Jews, but I just like the concept of the opposite of Aliyah–leaving Israel–so it was very eye opening.”

Roby concluded his speech with a few takeaways.

“These events force us to reimagine Israel as a transnational Jewish homeland made up of a wealth of diasporic communities,”  Roby said. “Just because people move to Israel doesn’t mean they have left the diaspora; they are integrating and creating a new Israeli society.”

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