Hen Mazzig: The peace deal with the Emirates could foster recognition of Jews from the region
Updated: Nov 29, 2020
Hen Mazzig is a Senior Fellow at the Tel Aviv Institute and popular activist who has contributed in many ways to focusing attention on Mizrahi Jews and Israel. The Israel Gulf Report sat down with him to discuss how the new peace deals might also lead to a new recognition and discussion about the Mizrahi Jewish experience across the region.
Can you give us a brief bit of background on your work?
I’m working as a Senior Fellow at the Tel Aviv Institute that does research combining online hate. I work a lot in the UK and focusing on North America. I am doing my first book now that will come out next year focusing on Mizrahi Jews.
How did you feel when you heard about the UAE-Israel deal? I was really excited. I was happy to hear we were making headway. I was hoping something like this would happen: new peace agreements with other Arab countries which symbolize a new age. I was waiting for it because of what’s going on with Iran. And the politics of the region showed this was a time for a coalition to protect ourselves from Iran. I felt it was an incredible opportunity. I felt that right now it’s not as exciting as the peace agreements with Egypt or Jordan, because of the way we had them. But in 20-30 years, people will look back and romanticize this deal the way my generation felt about the Jordan and Egypt peace deals.
And this does appear to be a more warm peace?
There is this element of warmth. I see people going there and coming back. I feel that the kind of people who are engaged in peace are specific. I am hoping that those who go into this deal did it for the right reasons. I see right-wing figures leading these deals, which makes sense because right-wing governments have led peace efforts, but I wonder if some of those people, who are opposed to national rights for Palestinians, really are committed to the business of peace.
You’ve talked about including the Mizrahi experience in panels and discussions? The most recent study in 2019 showed 55% of Israeli Jews are Mizrahi with parents from the Middle East and N. Africa and 7% are from mixed marriages, but most are from first, second or third-generation Israelis here from the Middle East and North Africa. In Israel, the rhythm and soul and food are Middle Eastern in nature. My grandparents brought their food from Tunisia. Our culture and music are middle eastern. The majority of Jews here have strong links to the Middle East. However, I feel like there is a disconnect. Because the Mizrahi communities came to Israel after being forced out from Middle Eastern countries following Israel’s independence, they carried baggage: trauma from being exiled and abused by Arab nationalists and surviving as a Jewish minority that didn’t have equal rights. I think this trauma is being ignored globally and we should try to address it if we want real peace between communities.
How can this inform the new peace? I think what we are seeing, besides the tech and business side which is important, the cultural bridge is being established by people with Mizrahi roots or Mizrahi artists. For instance look at Omar Adam or Sarit Hadad or others, many people in the Middle East are familiar with them and we have a shared culture. This is an important bridge that Mizrahim can establish as we have similar cultures. It’s not to say that people from Poland or Europe have less connection to the land here, but the cultural connection of Mizrahi Jews will play a major role in the peace between the people and that will be an important relationship to nurture and allow it to happen. Until now the events and the people in charge of peacemaking don't seem to acknowledge about this aspect. This is the elephant in the room. Mizrahi Jews share the same culture as the people we are trying to make peace with.
The Mizrahi experience and perspective offers an opportunity to change things
So how do you think Abu Dhabi could play more of a role? The peace deal with the Emirates could foster recognition of Jews from the region, such as museums and cultural events, bridging the cultures, and remembering our contribution to Middle Eastern and North African culture and society. They could create a museum of Jewish culture and history in the Middle East or discuss a way to recognize those communities. For instance, Jews in Iraq and their descendants deserve to have more of a spotlight, or even an offer from current regimes to get their citizenship back (this time, with full equal rights to the Muslim peers) even though many wouldn’t take it. Mizrahi Jews are ignored and often not recognized. To see real peace is to recognize us. We need justice and recognition for peace.
We hear that from the Palestinians too? Yes and that’s why I think it’s important to advocate for Jewish national rights and Palestinian rights. We shouldn’t speak about the injustice that we face if some deny Palestinians rights to self-determination. For instance, Netanyahu we heard met with the Saudi king and it may not have been fruitful because of there was no movement on the Palestinian issue. That is a cloud overshadowing some progress.
I think the Mizrahi experience and perspective offers an opportunity to change things. The people on the other side of the peace deals may not know how many people here are Mizrahi, that they have the chance to unify with Jews with whom they have a cultural and historical bond. I think they need to see more people from Israel from this background. We need a wider representation.
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