Last updated on: 5/16/2008 | Author:

Who Are the Mizrahi (Oriental/Arab) Jews?

General Reference (not clearly pro or con)


This site was archived on Aug. 3, 2021. The two-state solution is no longer the most popular solution among the jurisdictions involved. A reconsideration of the topic is possible in the future.

Dilip Hiro, MA, author and journalist, in his 2003 book The Essential Middle East: A Comprehensive Guide, wrote:

“The term [Oriental Jews] applied to non-Ladino-speaking jews from the Arab countries, Iran, India, or Central Asia. In biblical times their ancestors left Palestine for North Africa or the Middle East — from where they immigrated to Central Asia or the Indian subcontinent. While their religion set them apart from their hosts, they underwent cultural assimilation and adopted the local language as their own. In the late 1960s the 1.5 million Oriental Jews formed about one-ninth of the world’s Jewry. They were the dominant group among the Jews in Palestine under the Ottomans. But since the Jewish aliyas [moving to Israel] into Palestine between 1882-1939 did not include Oriental Jews (except 45,000 from North Yemen), their proportion in the Jewish community in Palestine declined to about one-fifth of the total on the eve of the Second World War. However, following the 1948-1949 Arab-Israeli War, Oriental Jews began to arrive in Israel in large numbers.

Given their higher birth rate, within a generation they formed half of the Jewish population and became a majority during the next decade. But due to the influx of 540,000 Jews from the former Soviet Union from 1990-1994, they lost this position to Ashkenazim, a trend that continued with further immigration of the Jews from that region. Though only the Jews who immigrated from the countries surrounding the Mediterranean followed Sephardic rituals and practices, those who came from such countries as Yemen, Iraq, and India, with a history of different rituals and practices, often affiliated to the Sephardic chief rabbinate in order to receive public funds for their newly established synagogues.

As for the government, it classifies those Jews born abroad (76 percent of the total population) in its annual Statistical Abstract of Israel according to the continent of origin: Europe-America-Oceania (meaning, for all practical purposes, Ashkenazim) and Asia, Africa (taken together, meaning Sephardim). Strictly speaking, the term ‘Oriental Jew’ is geographical whereas the label ‘Sephardim’ is sectarian. However, to describe someone originating in Morocco, Algeria, or Tunisia — part of the Arab West — as ‘Oriental’ is inexact. The most logical, and ethnically correct, term is ‘Arab Jew,’ which parallels ‘European Jew’ or ‘American Jew.'”


Loolwa Khazzoom, Founder and Director of the Jewish MultiCultural Project, in an article posted on the Jewish Virtual Library title, “Jews of the Middle East,” (accessed Apr. 26, 2007) wrote:

“Mizrahim are Jews who never left the Middle East and North Africa since the beginnings of the Jewish people 4,000 years ago. In 586 B.C.E., the Babylonian Empire (ancient Iraq) conquered Yehudah (Judah), the southern region of ancient Israel.

Babylonians occupied the Land of Israel and exiled the Yehudim (Judeans, or Jews), as captives into Babylon. Some 50 years later, the Persian Empire (ancient Iran) conquered the Babylonian Empire and allowed the Jews to return home to the land of Israel. But, offered freedom under Persian rule and daunted by the task of rebuilding a society that lay in ruins, most Jews remained in Babylon. Over the next millennia, some Jews remained in today’s Iraq and Iran, and some migrated to neighboring lands in the region (including today’s Syria, Yemen, and Egypt), or emigrated to lands in Central and East Asia (including India, China, and Afghanistan)…

In the early 20th century, severe violence against Jews forced communities throughout the Middle Eastern region to flee once again, arriving as refugees predominantly in Israel, France, the United Kingdom, and the Americas. In Israel, Middle Eastern and North African Jews were the majority of the Jewish population for decades, with numbers as high as 70 percent of the Jewish population, until the mass Russian immigration of the 1990s. Mizrahi Jews are now half of the Jewish population in Israel.

Throughout the rest of the world, Mizrahi Jews have a strong presence in metropolitan areas — Paris, London, Montreal, Los Angeles, Brooklyn, and Mexico City. Mizrahim and Sephardim share more than common history from the past five centuries. Mizrahi and Sephardic religious leaders traditionally have stressed hesed (compassion) over humra (severity, or strictness), following a more lenient interpretation of Jewish law.

Despite such baseline commonalities, Middle Eastern and North African Mizrahim and Sephardim do retain distinct cultural traditions. Though Mizrahi and Sephardic prayer books are close in form and content, for example, they are not identical. Mizrahi prayers are usually sung in quarter tones, whereas Sephardic prayers have more of a Southern European feel. Traditionally, moreover, Sephardic prayers are often accompanied by a Western-style choir in the synagogue.”

Apr. 26, 2007

The Country Studies/Area Handbook on Israel, published by the United States Federal Research Division of the Library of Congress in 1988, posted the following:

“The heterogenous nature of the Oriental segment of Israeli Jewry is sometimes lost when someone speaks of ‘the’ Oriental community, or collects census data (as does the Central Bureau of Statistics) on the basis of the ‘continent of origin’ (‘Europe-America versus Africa-Asia’) of its citizens and residents. The category ‘Oriental’ includes Jews from Moroccan and Yemeni backgrounds — to take only two examples that span the range of the Arabic-speaking world. These two communities see themselves, and are seen by other Israelis — particularly Ashkenazim — very differently. Yemenis enjoy a positive self-image, and they are likewise viewed positively by other Israelis; the Moroccans’ self-image has been more ambivalent, and they are often viewed by others as instigators of violence and crime.

Although this image has become something of a stereotype, Moroccan Jews did instigate acts of violence against the Labor Party in the 1981 elections, and statistically their communities have tended to have a high crime rate. In a similar way, Iraqi, Iranian, and Kurdish Jewish ethnic groups all differ from one another in matters of self-perception and perception by other Israelis. They differ also according to such indices as income (for example, Iraqis are more concentrated in the middle class, Kurds in the lower classes), orientation to tradition (Yemenis are probably the most religious of all non-Ashkenazi groups, Iranians are relatively secular), and so on. These differences are likely to continue, moreover, as marriage statistics in the 1980s indicate a higher rate of endogamy among members of Oriental ethnic groups, as compared to the Ashkenazim. As an ethnic group in the 1980s, Ashkenazim have become much more culturally homogeneous than the Orientals.”