“I identify as an Arab Jew,” Hadar Cohen recently wrote in +972 Magazine. “My family has lived in Jerusalem for over 10 generations, and my other ancestral cities include Aleppo in Syria, Baghdad in Iraq, and Shiraz in Iran, along with a small village in Kurdistan.” And yet, the Zionist project has no place for Mizrahi Jews like Cohen. “There is no space for Arabness in Zionism. I need to repress, erase, and hide my Arab lifestyle and assimilate into European notions of Jewishness.”
In the first segment of this week’s Marc Steiner Show, we bring you the latest installment of our ongoing series “Not in Our Name,” which highlights the diverse voices of Jewish activists, artists, intellectuals, and others who are speaking out against the Israeli occupation. In this installment, Marc talks with Cohen about living as an Arab Jew in Israel’s “racial caste system,” and about the crisis of spirituality underpinning Israel’s militarist occupation. Hadar Cohen is a Mizrahi feminist multi-media artist, Jewish mystic, healer, and educator. She is the founder of Feminism All Night, a project that designs communal immersive learning experiences about feminism and spirituality.
Tune in for new segments of The Marc Steiner Show every Tuesday and Friday on TRNN.
Pre-Production/Studio/Post-Production: Stephen Frank
Marc Steiner: Welcome to the Marc Steiner Show, here on The Real News. I’m Marc Steiner, and it’s great to have you all with us once again. And welcome to another edition of our series Not in Our Name, where we talk with Jews from across the globe who say that the occupation and the oppression of Palestinians must end.
We cannot allow it to happen in our name. This is not who we are, and after you’ve suffered so much oppression, we have to live it differently. And today, we talk with Hadar Cohen, who traces her family back 10 generations in Jerusalem. She’s a Mizrahi feminist, multimedia artist, healer, educator, a mystic. She’s written and spoken extensively on what it means to be both Arab and Jewish. And in spiritual, cultural, and political frameworks and realms, she speaks about how you create these de-colonial frameworks, an end to Zionist oppression of Palestinians and Arab Jews.
And she’s someone who wrestles deeply what it means to be both Arab and Jewish in a land where Europeans have defined those definitions. She founded Feminism All Night, a project that designs communal immersive learning experiences about feminism and spirituality, and her artistic world is just wide. Performance, movement, writing, weaving sounds and more together, and joins us here today. And welcome, Hadar. Good to have you with us.
Hadar Cohen: Thank you so much. Glad to be here.
Marc Steiner: So let’s just step back just for a second. I want the people listening in to understand who you are and where you come from. When I read that your family is 10 generations in Jerusalem, that you have family who are Kurdish Jews and Syrian Jews all coming together in this to create this woman, Hadar Cohen. Talk a bit about that first. Let’s start there.
Hadar Cohen: Yeah, totally. So I was born in Jerusalem, and it’s so funny because the last couple months I’ve started writing and speaking more, and I feel like my identity has become world news, because I think it really surprises people so much. And growing up, I think that I was also very confused because… I think I was taught to hide my identity in so many ways, or to really be ashamed of my identity also.
But I grew up in Jerusalem. My mom’s parents were born in a small village in Kurdistan, and they immigrated to the state of Israel in the early ’50s. And my dad’s family… My grandmother, my dad’s mother, who was like my mom, I was so close to her, she’s Palestinian-Jewish. And from that generation, we’ve been there for 10 generations. And my grandfather comes from Syria, from Aleppo.
So I grew up with a lot of Syrian, Palestinian kind of cultures and traditions. And my great-grandmother was also born in Baghdad. Someone used to joke that I almost have the whole Arab league in my family, and I really like that. Maybe my family’s unique in that, but I feel like having such a wide variety of Middle Eastern kind of communities in my lineage…
It’s funny because I remember doing… I moved to the States when I was 10, to New Jersey, and yeah, I think all the time, especially in the Jewish community, people just assumed that I had some European ancestry in me. And I remember doing a DNA test and it came out like 98% Middle Eastern with 1% in Nigeria or something and literally zero European. And I think that it was just this interesting thing that I always had to kind of navigate through my life of being Jewish, and people just assuming that there’s some part of me that comes from Europe, and really saying that there’s really no part. I think that’s quite shocking to a lot of people.
Marc Steiner: A lot of people don’t even realize that there were Palestinian Jews, and I remember in San Francisco back in 1968 I met a family who were Palestinian, because I was involved in some work there with Palestinians. And I walked into this person’s house and they had a menorah sitting in their cabinet and I went, “Well, why do you have that menorah in your cabinet?” Assuming they would be Christian or Muslim. And the response was, we’re Jews.
That I think is kind of a really important framework for people to understand about the connections. Part of what you touched on here, in some of your writing and work, is the idea that it challenges that Jews were always oppressed in Arab countries. And again, I’m driven to a story by my Iraqi friends whose grandmother, who’s a woman in her nineties, says to me in her community where she was raised in Baghdad. She’s Muslim, Sunni, said, I had Jewish neighbors. I had Christian neighbors. I had Shia neighbors. We all lived together. We all [inaudible] our children, and she even said, we all breastfed our babies together and traded them off and on between mothers.
It’s a very different story than the one that was being told about why what we call Mizrahi Jews, Jews from North Africa and the Arab world, ended up in Israel. So there’s a lot of contradictions there.
Hadar Cohen: Yeah, yeah, definitely. Yeah, well, first to your point, I think it’s so ironic because it’s Zionism that actually erases Jewish history in Palestine. Because it’s like oh, the Jews kind of came later, but actually there was Jewish community living in Palestine forever.
I always think it’s so ironic that actually Zionism is the one that erases that history. I remember talking to one of my Palestinian friends, and this was such a moving story for me, when I was kind of exploring my identity and thinking about how can I really express my identity, and what do I even say to people? And he shared with me how people always talk about Ramallah as the center of what it means to be a Palestinian city, but he was like, that’s actually not true, because there’s no Jews there. So how could it be this epitome of a Palestinian city?
And that really moved me because I was like, “Yeah, so much of what it means to be in Palestine is to have this shared cultural and faith experience.” And Jews were certainly part of that. And I think, largely, most Palestinians know that and honor that. And I think it’s really also interesting because I think that the Arab world actually was one of the more welcoming places for Jews throughout the world. And that’s not to say that antisemitism wasn’t real or it didn’t happen. Antisemitism was certainly a global issue, but with all the different regions and all the different Jewish sufferings that have happened across the world, the Middle East was a place that Jewish people thrived for so many generations.
And I remember in Iraq, the woman who won the beauty pageant in 1947 was Jewish. There was a lot of integration and in Syria… In Morocco, Jewish women in specific were singers, that they would sing for the whole community, and Jewish people were just very integrated. Certainly our holidays… So many of Jewish holidays that come from the Middle East are shared in some ways, like Jewish-Muslim holidays.
So I think that there was just so much connection there that is completely erased, and I think definitely the way that you grow up in a lot of Jewish communities around the teachings of Israel and the teachings of what happened. And even Mizrahi Jews themselves, I think, internalized as like, oh, the Arabs always hated us. They never welcomed us, and all of that. But that’s kind of a revision of hundreds of years.
Certainly, there was violence that happened in different Middle Eastern countries with the rise of the state of Israel, but we also have to understand that that was also an effect of what was happening in Europe with the Holocaust. And that, actually, there was so much history of the violence that was happening in Europe towards Jews coming to the Middle East. So there was a connection there. It didn’t just happen because all of a sudden Arab countries were like, we hate our Jews. There was something happening globally.
So I think sometimes people erase that context and I think we’re certainly in a crisis, not just around Zionism and Israel-Palestine, but the whole Middle East is in crisis. And I personally don’t blame indigenous communities for that crisis, especially when we look at US imperialism and European settler colonialism. We have to kind of have this wider perspective of why are all these countries in crisis? And I think that a lot of times in Jewish communities, we actually fuel Islamophobia a lot when we come up with all these really weird narratives about what’s happening in Arab countries.
Marc Steiner: So, one piece before I get into this, where you think the future could lead in a non-Zionist framework, if that’s possible? You wrote in one of your pieces about when the Mizrahim and the Arab Jews came to Israel, or [were] convinced to come to Israel, this mass adoption took place where children were taken from families and given to Ashkenazi European Jewish families, and it talks about the medical experiments that also took place.
What hit me was, A, that’s a story that could be in America. The mass adoptions of Native American children stolen from their families to white families was… It was massive, and the medical experiments against Black folks in America, syphilis experiments and others, is the same thing. So I think people aren’t aware that it actually happened to Jews who were Arabs, the same things happened to them inside of Israel.
Hadar Cohen: Yeah. Yeah, definitely. I think that this is why I’m such an advocate for global racial justice, because there’s so many similarities between different struggles and especially, as a Mizrahi Jew, our struggle is constantly erased. Sometimes I have Palestinian friends who literally tell me that… They’re like, you’re worse off because nobody even knows about your struggle. With Palestinians, at least, the whole world is watching. The whole world knows there is some of that, but with Mizrahi Jews, nobody knows, nobody cares. It’s completely under the rug and under the covers.
And especially in America, I think the conditioning that Jews are white is so, so strong. Or that Jews are European, or Jews eat bagels and lox, or Jews do all these things is so strong.
Even for me, I live in Los Angeles right now and I do a lot of multi-faith work, and every time I come up into the multi-faith work and I say that I’m Jewish, people don’t expect me to be Arab. They expect me to come with what they know, what they’ve seen on TV to be Jewish.
It’s not just the popular media. It’s also in academia, there’s very little investment in researching Arab Jews. All of our archives were practically burned. There’s just no investment in resources. Even for me as a Jewish person who’s an educator and has been around Jewish community for a really long time, it’s really hard to get funding for just Arab-Jewish culture and traditional stuff. So much has been erased. So even within our own identity and our own consciousness in our own community. So then to kind of speak to the world about it gets really difficult too.
But for me, I think the reason why my Instagram kind of blew up when I started sharing these stories is that this is where I think that there’s a lot of hope for Mizrahi and Palestinian solidarity. I think the Mizrahi story really crumbles the Zionist narrative really beautifully. And then you start to kind of unwind all of these ways that we’ve been taught about Zionism and what actually is true, and just starting to see a different history that it’s there.
And I think that so often people like to think about Israel-Palestine is like, okay, it’s Arab versus Jews. But what if that’s not what’s happening? What if it’s actually, like you were saying, a racial caste system that is actually very similar to how systems work all across the world, and it’s actually not about Judaism as a religion? So I think a lot of my work is also to de-tangle this obsession that we sometimes have when we are like, oh, if we criticize Israel, then we’re antisemitic.
Marc Steiner: Yeah, no, no. Yeah. So tell me… I’m curious where, given the work you do, which brings together in many ways the spiritual and the political, as well as your own heritage as a Jewish woman and how you see that… What role that plays in what the future might bring? Because clearly, when you look at what’s happening in Israel-Palestine at the moment, there is no way… I don’t see a way anymore to disentangle people to say this is now a two-state solution. This is now Palestinians over here and Israelis over here. We’ve gone way beyond that.
So how do you see that? Especially as someone who’s wrestled with both being an Arab and a Jew at the same time, which is something that people have to understand how wide and deep that is. Talk a bit about how you see the future going, and how you get there.
Hadar Cohen: Well, so, I do think that the conversation about spirituality is essential. So often in Israel-Palestine we’re like, what’s the solution? Well, what’s the actual problem, right? If we don’t even know what the problem is, how are we going to talk about the solution? And I think that we’re still really far away from really understanding and really naming the problem as it is. There’s so much denial of what’s happening.
Jewish communities have a really hard time acknowledging the trauma in their system, especially in Israel. There’s kind of this myth around… Okay, well, if we have this army, if we have this defense system, if we have this “physical safety,” then that means that we’re safe in the world. But that’s not a form of safety that is sustainable.
It’s very similar to what’s happening in the States where sometimes the mindset is like, okay, well, if we have more policing, then we’ll be more safe. But actually, more policing by definition increases violence, and I think that more militarization by definition creates more violence. More war is always going to create more violence. That’s just true.
So we have to understand what is in our narrative that’s feeding this militarization equals safety, and how that actually is coming from a traumatized mind.
This is why I think that spiritual work is really important, because the spiritual work provides another dimension to what it means to heal. Okay, I feel a lot of instability or lack of safety in my body. So, instead of rooting into militarization, what does it look like to actually go into spiritual traditions? And to work with the body, and to work with mysticism, and to work with all of these beautiful, ancient histories that are there to provide us with these exact challenges?
Again, the future that I see for Israel-Palestine has to be also connected to what’s happening in Lebanon and what’s happening in Syria and what’s happening in Egypt. And recently, I’ve been part of conversations with activists throughout the Middle East of coming together and being like, okay, this region is one of the most sacred regions in the world. I mean, there’s so much history. There’s so much depth here. There’s so much beauty in here, and it’s literally all under war zone, basically daily. So how are we going to transform it into this?
To me, my vision of it is the spiritual center of the world, especially Jerusalem, right? It’s supposed to be this multi-faith hub that people from all over the world can come and travel and visit, and have this spiritual experience there. So yeah, I think that for me, this multi-faith connection and finding those gems that can heal us, can help deviate from an investment in militarization.
Marc Steiner: This may be a semi-difficult question, but as someone who comes from a family that traces roots in Jerusalem 10 generations, that also traces roots to Syria and Iraq and among the Kurdish people as well, and you alluded to it earlier, that many people who are Jewish of Arab descent in Israel have kind of gone to the right politically. And I think about all the people I know who are Israelis, and actually, the vast majority of my Israeli friends who are Jewish and on the left have gone. They’re in Europe. They’re in the United States, and when I was in Vietnam doing a documentary, I met dozens of Israelis in Ho Chi Minh city, especially.
So that is also difficult when you have to kind of, how you bring people over, and there is a split in the Jewish world at the moment. You can see it here in the younger generations. My daughters are all part of the anti-Zionist Jewish community.
Hadar Cohen: Yeah.
Marc Steiner: And if there’s a real generational split going on… And you alluded to 2,000 years ago when the Jews fought each other, and you can feel that happening at the moment. So I’m just curious how you look at all that?
Hadar Cohen: I think it’s so interesting because so often, I feel like the claim for anti-Zionism comes from this Ashkenazi left, but actually there’s a lot of rich history of Mizrahim being anti-Zionist, and we never get the platform for it. So then to me, it’s a form of racism, especially in American Jewish community. When we look at Israel-Palestine, and then we blame it all on Mizrahim being right wing, because that’s not seeing at all what’s happening. A lot of Mizrahim tend to be right wing, but if we look at which Israelis are actually doing the subtler violence and are in leadership, and are actually perpetuating this harsh militarization, they’re 99% Ashkenazim.
Sometimes I think about it in the way that… Sometimes we teach about an antisemitism that the Jews were kind of the middle men, and they were kind of invisibilized, and that’s why. And that’s how I actually feel sometimes about also this Mizrahi-Ashkenazi struggle, where I feel Ashkenazim have kind of… In Israel, they’ve done so much violence, but then they hide it under the name of Mizrahim, and then they blame and project it all on us.
And I’ve had so many experiences being in the left America and in kind of non-Zionist, anti-Zionist spaces, where people really still hold onto that narrative where they’re like, oh, the reason why Israel’s so bad is because all these Mizrahim are there. And you have to kind of pause and be like, what is this racism that still exists in the anti-Zionist Jewish space?
I think that’s a huge, huge block, and I know a lot of Mizrahi friends, that’s a huge reason why they don’t get involved in anti-Zionist activism because they’re like, I can’t show up here being Arab. There’s so much racism towards me from the Ashkenazi community.
So I think that there’s so much potential to be done to have that more unified Jewish front through actually understanding the racism that’s there towards Mizrahim, and actually centering Mizrahi voices in this anti-Zionist, Jewish space. Because there’s so much rich history there around anti-Zionism and resistance that’s just been completely erased and forgotten.
Marc Steiner: Yeah. I think that’s going to be really important for that history to be brought to light, for people to understand that. To me, what you’re describing is a really important part of building the blocks towards ending the occupation and ending the oppression of Palestinians, and creating a different world. That story is completely missing.
Hadar Cohen: Yeah. So many people don’t know that there was a Black Panther movement that happened in Jerusalem.
Marc Steiner: Right.
Hadar Cohen: And even for me, I grew up in kind of the ghettos of Jerusalem, listening to rap music, following Black culture. So many Mizrahim grew up this way because there was a real seeing of Black struggle in America, and seeing it from our own lens of what was happening in Israel-Palestine and there was this such deep connection.
And then, it’s so funny for me because when I got to the States, and I was part of all these racial justice movements here. The way they talk about Jewish-Black solidarity is through talking about Abraham Joshua Heschel, and it comes from this very Ashkenazi, European, Black solidarity base. And it was so disorienting for me, because I came from this very different way of thinking about the connection between like Arabness and Blackness and all of… Especially like through the dynamics of Israel-Palestine.
So that’s also been something that I’ve had to navigate. And again, I think this is why having conversations about global racial justice and having that more international frame around race is quite critical.
Marc Steiner: Well, there’s so much more to talk about, and I look forward to having more conversations here and having you join us for Not In Our Name, here on the Marc Steiner Show. Hadar Cohen, it’s been a pleasure to talk with you. And thank you for your work, both spiritually and politically, in our world, and I appreciate you taking the time with us because I know you’re a busy woman.
Hadar Cohen: Thank you. Thank you so much for having me. It’s such an honor to be here.
Marc Steiner: Thank you all for joining us today, and please let me know what you think about what you’ve heard today, what you’d like us to cover. Just write to me at firstname.lastname@example.org, and I promise I’ll get right back to you. And if you’ve not joined us yet, please go to www.therealnews.com/support, become a monthly donor, and become part of the future with us. So for Stephen Frank and the crew here at The Real News, I’m Marc Steiner. Stay involved, keep listening and take care.