A (incomplete & ever-changing) Response from the Misidentified
November 16, 2017
Posted by: Nadav David, Former Intern
This essay is based on remarks Nadav gave as part of a panel discussion on “What Are You: A Response from the Misidentified” with other members of the Northeastern University community during its Social Justice Week on the theme of “Seeing Color: Exploring Whitness in a Racialized World."
Answering the questions, what are you or where are you from, has never been easy for me (or for anyone on this panel), but I’ll start with the basics. I was born in Jerusalem with dual Israeli and American citizenship. Me, my parents and my two older sisters moved to Northern California when I was five for my dad’s job, where I learned English and spent the rest of my childhood in Jewish day schools and communities.
My mother grew up in Miami, her parents were Jewish educators, and her grandparents immigrated to the States in the early 20th century from Poland to pursue a better life for their family, as they escaped various instances of antisemitism in Eastern Europe. My father’s parents and older siblings were displaced from their home in Baghdad, Iraq where they lived modest and mostly safe lives until the late 1940’s before being placed into transit camps with other Middle Eastern and North African Jews, once they arrived in Israel. As a result, my father grew up in deep poverty in South Tel Aviv with nine siblings in a two bedroom home, and would become the first in his family to complete a college degree in spite of the degrading systems and conditions placed upon Arab Jews.
I invite you into my own story of multiethnic identity not far from here, three years ago, as an undergraduate student at Northeastern, in a cramped classroom and on the quietest floors of the Snell Library. I am in final months of a course called “Race, Ethnicity and Religion: The Example of Jewishness.” Throughout the course, I feel drawn to and deeply affected by the essays and reflections written by Jews of Color and those from Middle Eastern and North African countries (known as Mizrahim), so for my final project, I choose to interview my abba, my father.
We sit down to talk. Seizing the opportunity to make this project personal, I make space for my father to be himself, and he opens up and is vulnerable with me, something that doesn’t comes naturally for either of us. Not only do I walk away from hours of interviewing, and even more hours of reading and research, feeling more connected to my abba and his stories of struggle and sacrifice, I feel like I’ve opened a door that felt unfamiliar within myself.
Fast forward six months from the class, and I am living alone in Milwaukee for a 6 month co-op (internship), in the center of a city ravaged by a violent past-and-present of white supremacy, taking the form of disinvested black and brown communities, segregation, and police violence. I see myself falling into the numbed oblivion made possible by my upper middle class upbringing and light-skinned privilege, feeling disconnected from the communities that are a walking distance from my apartment. In grappling with this sense of isolation, it feels like the only way to understand even a little bit of what I’m seeing around me is to look inwards. I find myself coming back to the questions that emerged from diving into my father’s stories. Three years later, it’s clear how the personal has affected the political for me, while the following questions have become increasingly relevant in my own Jewish life.
- Why don’t I, or the Jewish communities and institutions I grew up in, understand and value my Arab Jewish family’s displacement and trauma to the same extent as my European or Ashkenazi Jewish family?
- Why is it that my dad was forced to escape his neighborhood, and feel ashamed of his parents’ and older siblings’ Iraqi culture and Arabic language, to succeed in a country he was born in?
- Why don’t I see leaders who look like my father in the Jewish communities and institutions I grew up in, and feel like the current leadership is unequipped to support me in relearning and reconnecting with our people’s history?
Similarly, my narrative and relationship with whiteness in America is one of contradictions. It’s one of immense clarity around class and light-skin privilege, and one of confusion. It’s one of a child born with immediate documentation in two countries, who didn’t learn English until age 5. It’s one of hearing my father talk about how he’s felt targeted by police or at the airport as an immigrant with an accent. It’s one of visiting my grandfather on the same street in the same tiny home he’s lived on in Tel Aviv for 50 years, now living alongside the newly formed immigrant and refugee communities from East Africa and Russia.
It’s one of relearning, reclaiming, relabeling, unlearning and exploration.
It’s one of pain. It’s one of my older sister and I telling our loving, brown immigrant father that we outwardly identify as Arab Jews, and receiving a visceral response that “we shouldn’t say that, because non Jews just won’t get it.”
It’s one of being told by a white Jewish person eavesdropping my conversation with a Black Jewish woman about Mizrahi (Arab Jewish) identity that “it’s a privilege for me to be questioning whether I’m fully white.”
It’s one of entering a multiracial People of Color (POC) caucus group at a conference, being facilitated by a compelling Palestinian Muslim woman who is the only other Arab identified person in the room, and still feeling like I don’t have a right to be there in the way other Arabs do.
It’s one of being appreciated at the end of an organizing training for simply being “visibly Mizrahi”, in a room full of only white-identifying Jews.
It’s one of re-discovering a long history of Jewish and Muslim relationships in Iraq, Morocco, Yemen, and so many more places, and feeling a sense of comfort and belonging around my Jewish and non-Jewish Arab “family” while questioning whether I really fit in, especially after a trip to Morocco.
It’s one of deep pride when I read about the involvement of Middle Eastern and North African Jews in resistance movements.
It’s one of thinking about family, and how many Arab Jews I know in the US that come from mixed families, and questioning what that means for the future of our culture and history, and our relationship with whiteness.
It’s one of deep gratitude to my father for continuing to open up to me about his childhood and his immigrant experience in the States, and to my mother for integrating Mizrahi Jewish history into her Jewish Studies courses while cooking the Iraqi dishes she learned from her mother-in-law.
The truth is I’ll never have complete answers to these questions or fully move past these conflicting feelings. All I know is that I carry with me the pain, struggle, aspiration and pride of my family and ancestors from across the world and that the way I identify myself and the way others identify me is constantly changing. Today, I am before you as a proud mixed-heritage, multiethnic Mizrahi/Arab and Ashkenazi Jew who was born in Jerusalem and grew up in Northern California. Thank you!
Note: This post originally appeared on Medium.
PHOTO courtesy of Nadav David.