Mizrahi Jews

Mizrahi Jews or Mizrahim, also referred to as Edot HaMizrach (Communities of the East) are Jews descended from the Jewish communities of the Middle East, North Africa, Central Asia and the Caucasus. With the exception of Yemenite Jews, who are sometimes included but more often considered to comprise a group in their own right, the Mizrahi category includes Jews from the Arab world and adjacent countries, primarily Muslim-majority, including Iraqi Jews, Syrian Jews, Lebanese Jews, Persian Jews, Bukharian Jews, Maghrebi Jews, Berber Jews and Kurdish Jews, as well as communities such as Mountain Jews and Georgian Jews, and among the Jews of India and Pakistan the Baghdadi Jews (descendants of relatively recent Iraqi Jews settled in the last few centuries, in contrast to Jewish communities of the Indian subcontinent established millennia earlier).

Despite their heterogeneous origins, Mizrahi Jews generally practise traditional Sephardic Judaism, although with some differences among the minhagim of the particular communities. The prevalence of the Sephardic rite among Mizrahim is largely as a result of Sephardic expelees joining their communities so that ultimately, over the last few centuries, the previously distinctive rites of the Mizrahi communities were influenced, superimposed or altogether replaced by the more prestigiously perceived Sephardic rite. This fact has resulted in a conflation of terms, with the term Sephardi Jews often used with the implicit encompassing of Mizrahi Jews, especially in the prevalent Israeli usage.

History and usage

"Mizrahi" is literally translated as "Eastern", מזרח (Mizrach), Hebrew for "east." The terms "Mizrahi" and "Edot ha-Mizrach" were a translation of the Arabic Mashriqiyyun (Easterners), referring to the natives of Syria, Iraq and other Asian countries, as distinct from those of North Africa (Maghrabiyyun). For this reason some speakers still object to the use of "Mizrahi" to include Moroccan Jews.

In modern Israeli usage, it refers to all Jews from North African and West Asian countries, particularly Arabic-speaking Muslim-majority countries. The term came to be widely used by Mizrahi activists in the early 1990s, and since then has become an accepted designation.

Many Mizrahim today reject this (or any) umbrella description and prefer to identify themselves by their particular country of origin, or that of their immediate ancestors, e.g. "Iranian/Persian Jew", "Iraqi Jew", "Tunisian Jew", etc. Another description sometimes heard is "Oriental Jews". This term is still frequently used by people in the western hemisphere.

Other designations

Many people, especially in Israel, identify all non-Ashkenazi Jews as Sephardim. The reason for this classification is that most Mizrahi communities use much the same religious rituals as Sephardim proper. In the same way, "Ashkenazim" is used for "Jews of the German rite", whether or not they originate from Germany. This broader definition of "Sephardim" as applying to all Mizrahi Jews is also common in Jewish religious circles, especially those associated with the Shas political party.

Additionally, many of the Sephardic Jews exiled from Spain resettled in greater or lesser numbers in many Arabic-speaking countries such as Syria and Morocco. In Syria, most eventually intermarried with and assimilated into the larger established community of Arabic-speaking Jews. In North African countries, by contrast, where the Sephardim came to outnumber the pre-existing Arab and Berber Jews, it was some of the latter that assimilated into the more prosperous and prestigious Sephardic communities, though in Morocco a distinction remained between the purely Sephardic Gerush Castilia of the Spanish-speaking northern strip and the more ethnically mixed Arabic or Berber-speaking communities of the interior. Either way, this assimilation, combined with the use of the Sephardic rite, led to the popular designation and conflation of most non-Ashkenazic Jewish communities from the Middle East and North Africa as "Sephardic", whether or not they are actually descended from Spanish Jews, which is what the terms "Sephardic Jews" and "Sepharadim" properly imply when used in the ethnic as opposed to the religious sense.

In many Arab countries, older Arabic-speaking communities distinguished between themselves and the newer arrivals speaking Judeo-Romance languages, that is, Sephardim expelled from Spain in 1492 and Portugal in 1497. The established Arabic-speaking Jews called themselves Musta'arabim (Arabic for Arabizers), while the newer Sephardi arrivals called them Moriscos (Ladino for Moorish).


Mizrahi communities spoke a number of Judeo-Arabic dialects such as Maghrebi, though these are now mainly used as a second language. Most of the many notable philosophical, religious and literary works of the Mizrahim were written in Arabic using a modified Hebrew alphabet.

Among other languages associated with Mizrahim are Judeo-Persian (Dzhidi), Gruzinic, Bukhori, Kurdish, Judeo-Berber, Juhuri, Judeo-Marathi, Judeo-Malayalam and Judeo-Aramaic dialects. Most Persian Jews speak standard Persian.

Aramaic is closely related to Hebrew. It is identified as a "Jewish language", since it is the language of major Jewish texts such as the Talmud and Zohar, and many ritual recitations such as the Kaddish. Traditionally Aramaic has been a language of Talmudic debate in yeshivoth, as many rabbinic texts are written in a mixture of Hebrew and Aramaic. As spoken by the Jews of Kurdistan, Jewish Neo-Aramaic dialects are descended from Jewish Babylonian Aramaic, as could be seen from its hundreds of reflexes in Jewish Neo-Aramaic. In addition to Judeo-Aramaic, some Kurdish Jews speak an unrelated language called "Judeo-Kurdish" which is a "Jewish" form of the Indo-European Kurdish language.

By the early 1950s, virtually the entire Jewish community of Kurdistan — a rugged, mostly mountainous region comprising parts of Turkey, Syria, Iraq, Iran, and the Caucasus, where Jews had lived since antiquity — relocated to Israel. The vast majority of Kurdish Jews, who were primarily concentrated in northern Iraq, left Kurdistan in the mass aliyah (emigration to Israel) of 1950-51. This ended thousands of years of Jewish history in what had been Assyria and Babylonia.

Post-1948 dispersal

After the 1948 Arab-Israeli War and subsequent establishment of the state of Israel, most Mizrahi Jews emigrated to the new state where they could become citizens.

Anti-Jewish actions by Arab governments in the 1950s and 1960s, including the expulsion of 25,000 Mizrahi Jews from Egypt after the 1956 Suez Crisis, led to the overwhelming majority of Mizrahim leaving Arab countries. They became refugees. Most went to Israel. Many Moroccan and Algerian Jews went to France. Thousands of Lebanese, Syrian and Egyptian Jews emigrated to the United States.

Today, as many as 40,000 Mizrahim still remain in communities scattered throughout the non-Arab Muslim world, primarily in Iran, but also Uzbekistan, Azerbaijan, and Turkey . There are few remaining in the Arab world. About 5,000 remain in Morocco and fewer than 2,000 in Tunisia. Other countries with remnants of ancient Jewish communities with official recognition, such as Lebanon, have 1,000 or fewer Jews. A trickle of emigration continues, mainly to Israel and the United States. A number have been arrested, mostly for alleged connections with Israel and the United States. Some have been executed, with religious intolerance often cited as the main contributing factor.

Absorption into Israeli society

Refuge in Israel was not without its tragedies: "in a generation or two, millennia of rooted Oriental civilization, unified even in its diversity,” had been wiped out, writes Mizrahi scholar Ella Shohat. The trauma of rupture from their countries of origin was further complicated by the difficulty of the transition upon arrival in Israel; Mizrahi immigrants and refugees were placed in rudimentary and hastily-erected tent cities (Ma'abarot) and later sent to development towns on the peripheries of Israel. Settlement in Moshavim (cooperative farming villages) was only partially successful, because Mizrahim had historically filled a niche as craftsmen and merchants and most did not traditionally engage in farmwork. As the majority left their property behind in their home countries as they journeyed to Israel, many suffered a severe decrease in their socio-economic status. Furthermore, a policy of Austerity was enforced at that time due to economic hardships.

Mizrahi immigrants arrived with many mother tongues. Many, especially those from North Africa and the fertile crescent, spoke Arabic dialects; those from Iran spoke Persian; Baghdadi Jews from India and Gruzinic arrived with English; Mizrahim from elsewhere brought Georgian, Tajik, Juhuri and various other languages with them. Hebrew had historically been a language of prayer only for most Jews not living in Israel, including the Mizrahim. Thus, with their arrival in Israel, the Mizrahim retained culture, customs and language distinct from their Ashkenazi counterparts, but with time they became more assimilated, creating a new, Israeli identity.

Disparities and Integration

The cultural differences between Mizrahi and Ashkenazi Jews impacted the degree and rate of assimilation into Israeli society, and sometimes the divide between European and Middle Eastern Jews was quite sharp. Segregation, especially in the area of housing, limited integration possibilities over the years. Intermarriage between Ashkenazim and Mizrahim is now relatively common in Israel, however, it has been found that intermarriage does not tend to decrease ethnic differences in socio-economic status.

It appears that despite increased social integration, disparities persist. A study conducted by the Israeli Central Bureau of Statistics (ICBS), Mizrahi Jews are less likely to pursue academic studies than Ashkenazi Jews. Israeli-born Ashkenazi are up to twice more likely to study in a university than Israeli-born Mizrahim. Furthermore, the percentage of Mizrahim who seek a university education remains low compared to second-generation immigrant groups of Ashkenazi origin, such as Russians. According to a survey by the Adva Center, the average income of Ashkenazim was 36 percent higher than that of Mizrahim in 2004. This difference is declining as the communities integrate.

Notable Mizrahim


Writers and academics


Business people

Religious figures


See also



  • Ella Shohat, "The Invention of the Mizrahim" in: Journal of Palestine Studies, Vol. 29, No. 1. (Autumn, 1999), pp. 5-20.

External links




Search another word or see Mizrahi_Jewson Dictionary | Thesaurus |Spanish
Copyright © 2015, LLC. All rights reserved.
  • Please Login or Sign Up to use the Recent Searches feature