Repatriation and Transgressive Migrations of Mizrahi Jews from Israel to the Arab World

By Bryan Roby
Submitted to Session P4801 (Mizrahi Cultural Trespassers: Boundary Crossing, Patriotism and Betrayal in Israel/Palestine, 2017 Annual Meeting
Egypt; Iraq; Israel; Maghreb; Morocco;
In 1975, Saddam Hussein called upon all Iraqi Jews, provided that they were not Zionists, to return to their Iraqi homeland. Morocco and Egypt followed suit and called upon Mizrahi Jewry to return from their exile in Israel back to their Arab homelands. While few actually repatriated, those who did so invariably used the act of migration as a means to publicly protest discrimination and prejudice they faced in Israel. This paper examines those instances of transgressive migration of Mizrahi Israelis who repatriated, or publicly threatened to do so, to a homeland outside of Israel. Thus, I specifically focus on the process of out-migration from Israel, then seen as the ultimate form of betrayal to Israeli Jewish society, as a significant form of protest.
This paper not only complicates our understanding of the binary categories of “aliyah” and “yeridah” (immigration/emigration to and from Israel); it also opens up the question of the meaning of the Jewish diaspora and homeland. Is the place of Mizrahim the moledet, or spiritual Jewish homeland of Israel, or the watan, the moribund Pan-Arabist ideal of an Arab homeland stretching from the Maghreb to the Mashriq? How do the notions of homeland, transnational migration, and diasporic politics complicate perceptions of Israeli Jewish identity? In asking the question of what constitutes the ‘homeland’ for Mizrahi Jews, I acknowledge that it is somewhat problematic. The question presupposes the same type of exclusionary binaries as ‘Arab or Jewish’, which the term Arab Jew, however flawed, seeks to rectify. However, rather than maintaining that this is a question of ‘either/or’, I contend that the ‘homeland’, like ethnicity, is fluid and inextricably tied to feelings of exile. Whether that exile is as an Iraqi or Tunisian in Israel, or as a Jew living in a millennium-long exile from Israel.