Reporter's notebook'It was something both scholarly and very personal'

Harvard hosts first-ever conference for emerging field of Mizrahi legal studies

Diverse speakers and listeners including Palestinians and Israelis, participate in inaugural confab for those seeking to curb inequality for Israel’s Middle Eastern Jews

Reporter at The Times of Israel

Yifat Bitton, co-founder and chair of Tmura, the Israeli Anti-Discrimination Center, gave the keynote address at the first-ever Mizrahi Legal Studies conference at Harvard Law School, held on December 10 and 11, 2019. (Rich Tenorio/ Times of Israel)
Yifat Bitton, co-founder and chair of Tmura, the Israeli Anti-Discrimination Center, gave the keynote address at the first-ever Mizrahi Legal Studies conference at Harvard Law School, held on December 10 and 11, 2019. (Rich Tenorio/ Times of Israel)

CAMBRIDGE, Massachusetts — It was a long way from Israel, and far from the lands of origin of some of the speakers’ families, which included Morocco and Iraq. Yet the first-ever Mizrahi legal studies conference went off smoothly at Harvard Law School on December 10 and 11.

The conference was organized by the school’s Julis-Rabinowitz Program on Jewish and Israeli Law, and it highlighted an emerging area of legal studies relating to Mizrahis, or Jews who were expelled or immigrated from Arabic-speaking or Muslim countries following the establishment of the State of Israel.

Speakers reflected diverse backgrounds: Mizrahi and Ashkenazi, Israeli and Palestinian, gay and straight. In addition to a healthy representation from the legal profession, attendees came from many other fields, including academia, writing, religion, politics and government.

According to speakers, while Mizrahis’ numbers within the overall Israeli population have grown, many continue to face discrimination, racism, and sexism, and suffer its effects, such as low income, a dearth of public housing, being rejected for jobs and turned away at nightclubs. One panel examined a TV commercial in which aliens spoke in “Mizrahi” accents. Some speakers addressed painful moments from decades ago that continue to reverberate today.

Panels at the first-ever Mizrahi Legal Studies conference, held at Harvard Law School December 10-11, 2019, included a session examining Mizrahi representation in society, and included a depiction of aliens speaking in ‘Mizrahi’ accents in a TV commercial. (Rich Tenorio/ Times of Israel)

Hebrew University graduate Natalie Haziza, the daughter of a Moroccan father and an Ashkenazi mother, sent in an abstract for the conference after learning about a call for proposals. Although her current doctoral program is in clinical psychology and not law, it relates to an especially difficult chapter in Mizrahi history: the Yemenite Children Affair, when Yemenite and other Mizrahi immigrants to Israel in the years following independence allegedly suffered the kidnapping of their babies by medical personnel who gave them to other families.

Haziza is writing about intergenerational trauma among Yemenite, Mizrahi and Balkan families of allegedly kidnapped children in Israel in her doctoral dissertation at the City University of New York. Her research includes black-and-white photos of some of the children.

“I hope someone will recognize them,” Haziza said. She showed several photos to the audience, including a baby girl named Dalia who was born to Moroccan immigrants in 1956. Her mother was told that she had died and had been buried, and was told not to make a fuss because she was pregnant again and would have another baby, Haziza said.

Haziza shared her preliminary findings in public for the first time, including that 10 percent of her sample meet criteria for prolonged grief disorder. She told The Times of Israel that for the youngest participant in the sample, a third-generation Mizrahi, “even in the present time, delivering in childbirth is very traumatic… She tells herself in her head that it’s a different time.”

After the panel, Haziza told The Times of Israel, “Our hope is that my research exposes the psychological trauma of this.” She said that the trauma suffered by the families of the kidnapped babies is comparable to American first responders in 9/11.

“There has to be reparations, monetary compensation,” she said. “These babies were in the care of the state.” She recommended a truth and reconciliation commission, but added, “We’re running out of time, I think, for the perpetrators to speak at a commission. It’s been 70, 60 years.”

An image of a kidnapped Moroccan baby during the Yemenite Babies Affair is shown during the first-ever Mizrahi Legal Studies conference at Harvard Law School on Wednesday, December 11, 2019. (Rich Tenorio/ Times of Israel)

The conference’s keynote address was delivered by Yifat Bitton, the chairwoman of Tmura — The Israeli Anti-Discrimination Center, at the COMAS Striks School of Law. In 2018, Bitton was nominated, but did not become the first Mizrahi female justice and youngest woman on the Israeli Supreme Court. Panelists also included Shas MK Moshe Arbel — who spoke off the record — and Oshra Shraib Lerer, head of the Gender Equality Department in Israel’s Education Ministry.

“A keynote at Harvard Law School is like a milestone for every legal academic,” Bitton told The Times of Israel, reflecting that the last time she had been at Harvard was 15 years ago, when she had been a Fulbright fellow. She said, “I envisioned the keynote as allowing me to present an overview of the flourishing of Mizrahi legal studies nowadays, which requires the acknowledgment of those who enabled it.”

Panels at the first-ever Mizrahi Legal Studies conference, held at Harvard Law School December 10-11, 2019. (Rich Tenorio/ Times of Israel)

“I think, for a lot of speakers, it was something both scholarly and very personal,” said conference co-organizer Lihi Yona, herself a Mizrahi woman from Israel who is currently studying at Columbia Law School. “You could hear it in their talks.”

It was especially personal for panelist Shoshana Madmoni-Gerber, a veteran Israeli journalist and current professor at Suffolk University in Boston, who was on the panel with Hazizi that addressed the Yemenite Children Affair. Madmoni-Gerber said her own aunt was among those whose babies were kidnapped.

Sharing haunting documentary footage of another mother whose baby had been taken, Madmoni-Gerber cited over 2,000 documented cases and expressed frustration with mainstream Israeli reluctance to face the issue.

“It threatened the position of the Zionist narrative,” she said, citing Prof. Ella Shohat. “It was not ‘Mizrahis being rescued, saved out of primitive conditions, led gently into modern life.’”

The conference required extensive planning, according to Julis-Rabinowitz assistant director Susan Kahn, who worked on it for a year with Yona and program director Prof. Noah Feldman. And, she said, “I think it had to happen outside of Israel.”

Panels at the first-ever Mizrahi Legal Studies conference, held at Harvard Law School December 10-11, 2019. (Rich Tenorio/ Times of Israel)

An ocean away from tensions between Ashkenazis and Mizrahis, and between Israelis and Palestinians, attendees engaged in civil, wide-ranging discourse even to the end. The final panel included Fady Khoury, a Palestinian student at Harvard Law School, whose topic was “The Ambiguity of Segregation Regulation in Israel in Relation to Palestinians and Mizrahim.”

Khoury said that even before the 1948 War of Independence, which he referred to as the Nakba (catastrophe), a term commonly used by Palestinians, Israeli Jews have generally lived in separate municipalities from Palestinians, with Haifa and Jaffa as rare exceptions. He said that Mizrahis have also faced residential inequality.

In this file photo from July 28, 2018, fisherman cast their rods in the port of Jaffa. (AP Photo/Oded Balilty)

Citing Israeli author Tom Segev, Khoury said that Jews coming from Arab countries were “assigned the worst, least profitable parts” of agricultural land, while “the rich, easily cultivated coastal regions and south went to immigrants from Europe, mostly.” Further citing Segev, Khoury said that this “not an Ashkenazi conspiracy” but the result of Israelis “looking for people who most resembled them in mentality, worldview, background.”

In this photo from July 26, 2018, an Israeli shop keeper waits for clients at the flea market in Jaffa. (AP Photo/Oded Balilty)

The question-and-answer period following this panel proved challenging. A Palestinian questioner asked about the aim of Mizrahi legal studies as a movement. Querying whether its goals were “a better share for Mizrahis in the law schools, higher representation in the judicial system for judges,” he continued, “Do we need to come to Harvard Law School to do this?”

“I suggest there is a political choice Mizrahi people will have to make,” the audience member said. “I’m not imposing, I’m suggesting it. I’m sympathetic to the conference… It’s a crucial point that has not come up in this conference enough.”

After the session assistant director Kahn that the Palestinian participants filled in knowledge gaps.

“I thought the Palestinian contributions were essential, the Palestinian perspectives were essential,” Kahn said. “I’m very grateful to the Palestinian partners for articulating their point of view. There was such respect and civility.” She added that “the other thing that was wonderful was all the unexpected conversations,” such as between feminists and a Shas MK, Americans and Israelis, Ashkenazis and Mizrahis. “I think there are more points of possible connection that I hope will bear fruit,” she said.

When the conference ended, panelist Haziza was already thinking about some of these connections.

“I wish to see other areas,” Haziza said. “Mizrahi psychology, Mizrahi psychiatry, transitions to Mizrahi study. There’s a lot of places this can go.”

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