As a first-generation tzabar — Jew born in Israel — my abba (dad) grew up eating Ghormeh sabzi and tahdig, speaking Farsi with his parents and learning Arabic from his neighbors. My Eema (mom) learned to cook my great-grandmothers’ recipes for kibbeh, t’beet, and mutabbaq. She learned Arabic from her father’s proudly Zionist, 10-sibling Iraqi family, who fled from their land and property in Iraq to seek safety and religious freedom in Israel.
While my immediate family now lives in Pittsburgh, many of my loved ones still reside in Israel. Over the last few weeks, my text messages told stories of friends and family in Israel running for cover in bomb shelters. At the same time, my social media feeds showed anti-Israel Instagram posts by celebrities like Bella Hadid garnering millions of likes and shares. Hadid’s posts claim that Israelis are driving the ethnic cleansing of the Palestinian people and that Israel is an apartheid state. As a Middle Eastern (Mizrahi) Jew descended from Iraqi and Iranian Jewish refugees, my background is a visible refutation of the backward narrative permeating social media.
My grandparents were born in Iraq and Iran, which they fled in the 1940s and 1950s to break free from Jewish persecution infiltrating Arab countries. In Iraq, Nazi propaganda and the Palestinian Mandate fueled many anti-Semitic acts as early as the 1930s.
Unshared on Instagram are my Mizrahi Jewish family’s stories of displacement from Iraq and Iran, which do not conveniently fit into a viral infographic. Also unshared is the exile of hundreds of thousands of Jews from Arab countries, their lived experiences of religious discrimination, and refuge in Israel. While the Holocaust in Europe was a genocide, the persecution against Jews in Arab countries was, definitionally, ethnic cleansing.
During the mob pogrom, or Farhud, of 1941, about 180 Jews were killed in the city of Baghdad, where my maternal grandparents were born. Soon after, my grandfather’s elementary school started a Hitler Youth program. My great-grandmother recalled her children being forced to wear black shirts to match those of the Nazi Youth. Escaping religious persecution, my maternal grandfather convinced his parents to leave Iraq before anti-Semitic acts escalated. Most of Iraq’s Jewish population fled in the early 1950s after the Denaturalization Act forced Jews to emigrate to Israel and renounce their Iraqi citizenships.
Today, the Jewish population of Iraq has dwindled to fewer than five people.
In Iran, Jews also left their land to escape religious persecution. After Israel’s War of Independence, anti-Jewish sentiment became prevalent. My paternal grandparents immigrated to Israel in the early 1950s, along with one-third of the Iranian Jewish population. In the same land where Megillat Esther unfolded, fewer than 9,000 Jews live today.
My identity is shaped by my grandparents’ Middle Eastern ethnicities. My grandfather, a Palmach soldier, risked his life and labored the land to have a chance at prospering in the then-young state of Israel — and I, his first grandchild, could have a chance at living true to my Iraqi Jewish roots.
Almost a century after my great-grandparents were uprooted from their ancestral homes, I cook their foods on Shabbat mornings — and my best friends love sabich; I listen to their music in memory of my grandmother, Evelyn, who adored the singer Umm Kulthum; and I instinctively answer to “Amitjoon,” a Persian word of endearment. I commemorate the hardships my grandparents endured on their journey to Israel, in founding and fighting for a Jewish state where they could be equals and their descendants could be safe.
Jews were ethnically cleansed from Arab countries before World War II when Instagram didn’t exist, and standing up for the marginalized was not a societal virtue. Israel’s existence allows my family to keep our Mizrahi Jewish traditions alive. And yet, walking the streets of San Francisco in 2021, I do not wear my Star of David necklace for fear of being singled out.
Israel defends itself from terrorism so that Jewish people can have a home where they are safe from persecution and where they are safe from Hamas, which calls for the destruction of our small-but-mighty Jewish state and the annihilation of Jews in Israel and abroad. For that, I am thankful that I am Israeli and I pray for peace. I pray for a more accepting world, where Jews can thrive without fear, in Israel, Pittsburgh and beyond. PJC
Amit Shimshi was born and raised in Ramat HaSharon, Israel. She moved to Pittsburgh with her family in 2008 and later attended the University of Pittsburgh. She now resides in San Francisco, California.