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The Struggle for Sephardic-Mizrahi Autonomy: Racial Identities in Palestine-Israel, 1918-1948


"The Struggle for Sephardic-Mizrahi Autonomy" chronicles the creation of a Sephardic-Mizrahi identity-literally, "Oriental" Jews-uncovering the ways that political and racial factors contributed to the emergence of this identity. My inquiry draws from an extensive body of archives located in Israel, New York, and Los Angeles. I have investigated immigration records of the Jewish community in Palestine from the 1920s, protocols of Sephardic-Mizrahi organizations and letters, and journalistic pieces to chart the crystallization of a unified Sephardic-Mizrahi entity by 1918, the organizational forms it took in the 1920s, and the way in which it became the subject of careful scholarly scrutiny in the 1930s and 1940s.

In tandem with tracing the political strengthening of the Sephardic-Mizrahi federation, my dissertation throws into sharp relief the multiple studies undertaken by Jewish social scientists and medical professionals in the mid-1930s and into the 1940s. These studies invariably concluded that Sephardim-Mizrahim were intellectually impaired and predisposed to criminality, ascribing their imputed inferiority to biological differences. Ironically, Sephardic-Mizrahi leaders not only accepted such "scientific evidence" of their inferiority, but also leveraged this imposed racialized identity to highlight their invisible histories and marginal status. Previous scholarship has theorized Sephardim-Mizrahim ahistorically within a framework of passivity and victimization. My work, by contrast, identifies narratives of Sephardic-Mizrahi agency. By such agency, however, I am referring to the complicity of Sephardic-Mizrahi leaders in reifying racial hierarchies, which enlarged the trope of "Oriental backwardness" beyond Sephardim-Mizrahim to include Palestinian-Arabs as a national "problem" in the formative years leading up to the creation of the Israeli State.

The first chapter delineates the separate chronologies of the Sephardic and Mizrahi ethnic categories, as well as the political context in the Yishuv under which Sephardic leaders were interested in conflating the two terms and their histories. This chapter explores the role of this leadership in attempting to unify the varied Sephardic and Mediterranean communities into an independent political and economic entity in the 1910s. The second chapter focuses on the folkloristic, literary, and scientific work of three self-identified Sephardic-Mizrahi leaders. It charts their contribution to the emergence of Sephardic-Mizrahi institutions in the 1920s that gradually turned a porous understanding of Sephardim-Mizrahim into a standardized ethnic identity carefully catalogued in immigration records and demographic surveys in the Yishuv.

The third chapter explores the political context and tensions that led Sephardic-Mizrahi community leaders to establish a global federation with its own economic and settler network by 1925, independent from the Zionist Organization. The chapter contends that Sephardic-Mizrahi leaders chose to mobilize and capitalize on their "Oriental" identity by reaching out to Diasporic communities abroad. The fourth chapter considers the consistent exclusion of Sephardic-Mizrahi leaders from the Ashkenazi-dominated Zionist Organization, which drove Sephardic-Mizrahi leaders to strategically leverage the resulting isolation. This sense of alienation had two effects. On the one hand, it further extended their own economic and settler network to resist their subjugation. On the other hand, it promoted the internalization of inferiority. The final chapter traces the work of Israeli social scientists from such disciplines as anthropology and education conducted in the 1940s and 1950s, and the impact of their studies concerning a Sephardic-Mizrahi biological "type," associated with irreparable intellectual inferiority and criminalization.

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