In his 300-level class, Maryland professor Shay Hazkani will address a lesser-known issue in Israeli society: the state’s mistreatment of Mizrahi Jews
By Charlie Summers
University of Maryland Professor Shay Hazkani is bringing back a course on the history of Mizrahi Jews in Israel this fall. Initially taught in Spring 2018, the class will cover the history of the Jews of the Middle East and North Africa from the outset of the Zionist movement into the 21st century.
“When I first taught this class on Mizrahi identity, I always had to explain why it still matters. I think that’s almost unnecessary today. In the current Israeli election cycle, the Mizrahi issue is literally front and center,” Hazkani said, citing a recent exchange related to the fault lines that still exist within Israel’s society. “[The argument] is between the chief justice of the Israeli Supreme Court and a member of the Knesset, one of the main allies of Netanyahu who basically says she’s racist. This is everywhere in today’s Israel.”
Hazkani started at this university in 2017 and is an associate professor of history and Jewish studies. He will also be teaching another course this semester on the history of Palestine under the Ottoman and British empires.
During the pandemic, Hazkani published Dear Palestine, a social history of the 1948 Arab-Israeli War. The book relies on materials from the IDF Archive, primarily personal letters written by Jewish and Arab soldiers during the war. A film adaptation of his book entitled The Soldier’s Opinion debuted in July at the 2022 Jerusalem Film Festival and will be screened in select U.S. theaters.
Hazkani’s research on Israel’s 1959 Wadi Salib Revolt, a wave of demonstrations sparked by the police shooting of a Moroccan Jewish man, will be published this year. The article, which students will read for class, touches on how the revolt and its suppression were portrayed in the Arabic and French-language press, as well as how Moroccan Jews in Israel saw themselves in relation to anti-racist struggles worldwide.
Despite teaching a class that focuses on Israel as a modern state and Mizrahi Jews as a unified group, Hazkani wants to stress the diversity of Jewish communities and diaspora experiences in the MENA region.
“The story in Iraq is so radically different from Morocco and from Algeria,” Hazkani said.
Nevertheless, a consolidated Mizrahi identity is far from imaginary.
“We want to show and emphasize that at some point within the course of Israeli history, from 1948 to the present, there has been a grouping of Jews from Arab lands in the context of Mizrahi Jews,” Hazkani said.
The course curriculum will cover various strains of Mizrahi activism and protest movements, from the Israeli Black Panthers of the 1970s to the more contemporary Mizrahi feminist movement.
Even within Israel, the Mizrahi political organization varied depending on where a community is situated. Jewish Telegraphic Agency reporter Asaf Shalev, who is currently writing a book on the Black Panther movement, described how the group formed out of a distinctly urban environment, the inner city Jerusalem neighborhood of Musrara, rather than the largely Mizrahi, economically downtrodden development towns of Israel’s periphery.
“The Panthers all grew up in this neighborhood, that was until 1967, right on the border of Jordan. It was in the periphery of the city, so they’re simultaneously in the center of the city but also on the margins of it,” Shalev said. “It’s at that moment [after the Six-Day War] when the Panthers start to really coalesce and go from having an impoverished experience based in discrimination to having a political realization about their experience.”
Incorporated into Hazkani’s class is a documentary consisting of interviews with Black Panther leaders that grew up in Musrara, where they trace back their organizing to the Wadi Salib Revolt.
Although mainstream in modern Israel, the common usage of the term Mizrahi to describe Jews of the MENA region is a relatively new phenomenon within the Jewish anglosphere. Only within the past few years have writers such as Shalev felt able to use the term for an English-speaking audience.
Shalev holds that the importance of identity in modern political discourse has contributed to increased recognition of a distinct Mizrahi history.
“I think there’s a lot more awareness of the Mizrahi story,” he said. “A lot of people are getting excited to learn about Mizrahi identity in Israel. It’s really in vogue to talk that way and think about things that way.”
Hazkani’s class is in tune with this shift in awareness, bringing a lesser known history to this university’s lineup of humanities courses.
The history class is cross-listed with Jewish and Israel studies and fulfills general education requirements, so student motivations to take the class vary. Sophomore psychology major Hodaya Worcester chose to enroll because of her family’s connection to the topic.
“When I saw that this class existed I was super fascinated by it because both my grandparents are from Iraq and Morocco,” Worcester said. “I’ve grown up hearing stories about their life there and what they went through when they came to Israel. I think it’ll be really fun to learn about it in a class setting.”
The seminar class is held twice a week in Van Munching Hall.