Is there a difference between Sephardic and Mizrahi Jews?

The global Jewish population might be tiny, but it’s wildly diverse. Some Jews wear shtreimels; others wear jalabiyas. Some eat moufletta, while others eat bagels.

As Jews have spread out across the globe over the last two millennia, each community came up with a convenient shorthand. A label meant to answer the question: What kind of Jew are you? Ashkenazi? Sephardic? Mizrahi? Beita Israel? Bnei Menashe?

But identities are more complicated than one-word labels. Especially when two of these labels — Sephardic and Mizrahi — are often lumped together. 

So, what do we mean when we talk about Sephardic and Mizrahi Jews?

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Sephardic is more than a geographic connection. No single word can ever fully capture all the messy nuances of human identity. Especially when people use the same words to mean vastly different things. Like Sephardic and Mizrahi.

If you asked your average Jew to explain the difference, here’s the oversimplified response they’d likely give:

Sephardic means “from Sephard,” or Spain, and refers to Jews with roots in the Iberian Peninsula. Meanwhile, Mizrahi, or “Eastern,” is a catch-all meant to describe Jews from the Arab and Muslim worlds. Think places like Iran, Yemen, and Morocco. 

But that’s an oversimplification. Here’s why. In terms of the meaning of the words, yes, both Sephardic and Mizrahi refer to geography. Sephardic maps to Iberia; Mizrahi maps to some ambiguous place in the so-called “East.” But that’s not all those words represent. Sephardic also refers to a school of thought — a specific worldview about how to observe Judaism.

For hundreds of years, Jews thrived in Iberia. New schools of Jewish philosophy came into being. Sephardic scholars like the Rambam revolutionized the study of Jewish law. At the same time, Ashkenazi scholars in Europe were compiling their own modes of studying Torah. The two schools split on many key points — and that is why Sephardic and Ashkenazi Jews often follow different customs.

So, to be Sephardic meant both to be from Sephard and to follow the specific Sephardic school of religious observance. But the Jews of Sephard were not allowed to stay in the home where they had lived for centuries. By the late 14th century, Jewish life in Spain had become intolerable. The death blow for Sephardic Jewry came a century later, when King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella decreed that Spain would be a Jew-free zone.

Sephardic Jews fanned out across the world, taking their traditions and worldview with them. To the Netherlands. To England. To Asia, Africa and the Americas. And there, Sephardic traditions influenced and mingled with existing Jewish customs.

But some of these existing communities weren’t always eager to mingle with the Sephardic refugees. Many communities were conscious of their differences. The Jews of Cochin, India referred to their Sephardic neighbors as paradesi, meaning foreign. And in Morocco, Sephardic Jews were known as megorashim, the expelled.

But it’s the nature of people — and cultures — to mingle. So, though some communities maintained separate identities and traditions — praying in separate synagogues and burying their dead in different cemeteries — some integration was inevitable.

In fact, in some communities, Sephardic traditions became the new norm. And that’s how some Jews with no Iberian heritage whatsoever came to be called Sephardic.

Okay, you’re thinking. I get it. Sephardic isn’t just a geographic term. It’s also a heritage, set of traditions, a community, and a school of thought. So what about Mizrahim? Well…Mizrahi is a recent term…and it’s got some ugly roots

The expulsion from Spain transformed global Jewry, bringing far-flung communities into contact with one another. The result? Culture clash and cultural integration.

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Four and a half centuries later, another great migration rocked the Jewish world. The newly formed State of Israel welcomed Jews from every corner of the globe. And though many flocked to Israel out of idealism, others came because they had nowhere else to go.

Though Israel was established as a safe haven for world Jewry, Israel’s founding fathers weren’t entirely certain what to make of many of these immigrants. Most of the country’s founders were Ashkenazi, or Jews who had lived in Europe. And they had a very specific conception of how their new country should look. Secular. Socialist. And anchored in European tradition.

But ideals are one thing. Reality is another. As immigrants from across the Middle East and North Africa poured into the Jewish state, Israel’s founding fathers were forced to contend with the facts on the ground. By and large, these Jews weren’t secular. They weren’t socialists. And they had their own vastly different traditions.

This is where the story gets ugly. See, to Israel’s founding fathers, these Jews were all more or less the same. They didn’t know or care that some Indian Jews were originally Sephardic and some were Malabari. That some Moroccan Jews spoke Heketia, while others spoke only Judeo-Arabic. That Yemenite brides don a tashbuk, while Persian brides burn wild rue seeds to ward off the evil eye.

Who had time to investigate these differences? The country was buckling under the weight of war and poverty. These new immigrants were Israelis now. But they needed a name to distinguish them from all the other Israelis. The Ashkenazi ones. The ones that the founding fathers had envisioned.

And the name the Israeli establishment came up with was Edot ha-Mizrah. Communities of the East. Informally, Mizrahim. Easterners.

But East depends on where you’re standing. And that’s because the term wasn’t really about geography. It was just a nice-sounding way to set up a binary between the “Western,” and therefore “civilized” Ashkenazi Jews, and the “Eastern,” or “primitive” Jews. The term collapses all nuance, lumping Jews from countries as distinct as Iran and India into one catch-all category of “not-Ashkenazi.”

Most people — including some who identify as Mizrahi — don’t know about the ugly roots of the term. And that’s because it’s been reclaimed, a proud political statement rather than a semi-slur.

Some Israeli Jews with recent ancestry in the Middle East and North Africa have continued to define themselves as Sephardic as a nod to their religious views and traditions. That’s one reason why the terms Sephardic and Mizrahi are often lumped together.

But here’s the wildest part. Far from being an oasis of European culture in the desert, Israel has become increasingly “Mizrahi.” And here’s the third thing you need to know: Mizrahi culture has shaped Israel

It wasn’t easy to be a Jew from Morocco or Yemen or Tunisia in Israel’s early years. The Ashkenazi establishment suppressed and disdained Mizrahi culture. Mainstream radio stations refused to play Mizrahi songs. Few Ashkenazim would have been caught dead at a mimouna, the post-Passover carb-fest beloved by Moroccan Jews. Some Mizrahi brides even chose to forego the traditional pre-wedding henna ceremony, because those traditions were seen as embarrassing and uncool.

But some Mizrahi youth refused to accept the status quo. Small pro-Mizrahi protests grew until 1971, when the most famous pro-Mizrahi movement sent shockwaves across the country: Hapanterim Haschorim, AKA Israel’s Black Panthers. They marched in the streets to deliver a simple message: Mizrahi Jews deserved the same treatment and opportunities as their Ashkenazi brothers and sisters. 

Hapanterim weren’t the first to demand equal rights for Mizrahim. Some politicians had been advocating for better treatment of Mizrahim for decades. But the change was gradual. It wasn’t until 1977 that the Israeli establishment felt the power of the Mizrahi vote.

Prime Minister Menachem Begin managed to unseat the Israeli establishment in large part by appealing to Sephardic and Mizrahi voters. In less than a decade, Sephardic and Mizrahi Jews began to claim even more political power.

But the most prominent political revolution was the creation of the political party Shas. Founded in 1984 by Israel’s Sephardic Chief Rabbi, Ovadia Yosef, Shas proved to all of Israel that Sephardic and Mizrahi voters had significant clout.

More victories followed — some obvious, others more subtle. Mizrahi music began to dominate Israeli airwaves. Mizrahi food gained prominence, as Ashkenazi Israelis discovered the deliciousness that is kubbeh, mlawach, jachnun, and sabich — foods that are now synonymous with Israel.

These days, most Israelis, regardless of background, have attended at least one mimouna – the traditional Moroccan party that celebrates the end of Passover with a food coma of delicious carbs. Pre-wedding henna ceremonies have become increasingly common, too.

And Israeli movies and TV have gotten a lot of mileage out of portraying the culture clash between Mizrahim and Ashkenazim — exploring differences and similarities with warmth, humor, and song. 

And the term Mizrahi, with its painful roots? It’s been reappropriated by Israeli Jews whose families came from Iran, Morocco, Syria and Afghanistan. A celebration of their culture, rather than a veiled insult.

But the term isn’t necessarily widespread outside of Israel. And that brings us to the fourth thing you need to know about Sephardic and Mizrahi identities: They sometimes overlap.

Ready for an example that’s gonna make your head spin? Picture this for a second. It’s 1952 in Damascus. Things are not great for Jews living in Syria.

The Cohens, with zero Iberian heritage, get on a boat to New York City. Meanwhile, the Gabbais, who do trace their lineage back to Spain, sneak over the border to Israel. Within a decade, the Cohens — with NO Iberian heritage — have become American Sephardic Jews, while the Gabbais now identify as Mizrahi and Israeli.

See, Jews who immigrated to Israel from Arab or Muslim countries were defined and named by the mostly-Ashkenazi Israeli establishment.

But Jews who emigrated to other countries that were not majority-Jewish? They had to negotiate new ways to define themselves. And the many Jews who settled in America, Argentina, and France became Sephardic — even if they had no Iberian roots.

Remember, Sephardic is more than just a geographic connection. And that’s why a Jew from Aleppo living in Israel might call himself Mizrahi, while his brother, living in France, might define himself as Sephardic. Is your head spinning yet?

Look: identities are messy. Labels are far more complicated than they appear. Our identities are shaped in part against a wider society — a constant tug of war between how we define ourselves and how others define us. 

But here’s the thing that is most important: We’re all one people

People love to label and categorize and pin down. It’s human nature. And labels can be helpful. They tell us how a person sees themselves, in the broadest strokes. Are you religious or secular? Left-wing or right-wing?

But humans aren’t made up of broad strokes. We’re like pointillist paintings: infinitely detailed and nuanced. The more you zoom in, the more complex we become, and the more useless our labels. In a world where Ashkenazim and Mizrahim and Sephardim marry and mix and mingle, do these labels still have value?

Every person has to answer that question for themselves. But here’s our take. It’s important to know where you come from. To be rooted in your family’s traditions. But we should never forget that we’re part of a much larger family that has survived against all odds. Because what really matters is that we’re all reunited at last.

You can find this video on our YouTube channel Unpacked.
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