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The Orion

Life as an Oriental Jew

I grew up as a curious orientalist, always wanting to see the Middle East and Asia and perhaps even reclaim my Arabness.
Ari Sorokin
My Ancestry DNA test.

I am not white. I can pass as white, but I still get searched at the airport. Whenever I am around Middle Eastern people, they ask about my ethnicity. I usually tell them I am Yemienite, Afghan, Egyptian and Austrian. But I don’t feel like that, and I still don’t feel thoroughly American. I am Jewish American first, not because I want to be but because I accept the immutable reality that we are inevitably Jews. 

The Jews in Germany identified as Germans, yet in a few decades, they were relegated to Jewish subhumans. The Jews in Spain were comfortable in the homes they had been in for centuries until the Spanish forced them to convert and leave. And while America is a country built on religious freedom, Christian ideology drives much of the policy, even if some Jews hold a lot of power. And the over-assimilation of Jews like Jonathan Glazer causes them to refute their Judaism for the sake of fitting into the far-left Hollywood crowd. However, even the most comfortable, secular Jews in Germany were not allowed to refute their Judaism when the Nazis began their final solution.  

I grew up on Shakshuka, not Gefilte fish, and I learned Hebrew in Mizrahi and Sephardi pronunciation, saying “Ah-dohn-I” and not “Ah-dohn-oy.”

The first Jews in the United States emigrated to Latin America in the 17th century. These Jews traced their ancestry back to Sephardic Jews exiled during the Inquisition. Most Jews in America today are descended from Ashkenazi Jews from central and eastern Europe. I, however, come from the much less talked-about background of the Orient. 

Jewish communities in Islamic lands were typically much safer for Jewish people. They upheld the economy as merchants and tradesmen. While the Muslim rulers saw themselves as superior, they had high societal roles. 

Maimonides was the great Rabbi of Egypt and the physician of the Fatamid and Ayubid Caliphs in old Cairo. His Jewish writings are revered in all sects of Judaism for their ethics, laws, and philosophy. 

Most Israelis are brown or mixed. There are very few pure Ashkenazis in Israel unless you count the Orthodox, who keep to themselves. My extended family is mainly from the Middle East and Central Asia, not from the “white lands.” 

Unlike many Jews I know who can visit Germany, France, Ukraine, or Poland to find their family history, I have to go to lands that do not have the same democratic and liberal values. The only country I can visit is Austria; I have already seen much of Europe. 

As a result, I grew up as a curious orientalist, always wanting to see the Middle East and Asia and perhaps even reclaim my Arabness. I would love to visit Yemen or Afghanistan one day. 

Yemen has a rich history, and the beautiful mountains and plains in Afghanistan rival Switzerland. And yes, I can go to Switzerland for the mountains or Oman or the UAE  for the Arab culture, but they lack the family history I am looking for. And even if they weren’t warzones, it is likely that my openly being Jewish and American could be of concern. 

As a result, I feel some jealousy when I see Arabs because they know Arabic, they can explore the Middle East, and they can be part of that greater Middle Eastern culture. 

While Israel technically is a Middle Eastern state, it is not recognized by any of its Middle Eastern neighbors besides Jordan and Egypt. Thus, it is excluded from the Asian Group UN mission in Geneva and often has to join the Western European and Other Group. 

Israel is often accused of being a white colonizer. While the original settlers who formed kibbutzim were Ashkenazim, due to the massive depopulation of European Jews due to the Holocaust, the majority were Sephardi and Mizrahim. They were refugees fleeing pogroms and violence and would likely have been subjected to genocide had they stayed. 

My Afghan and Yemenite Mizrahim grandparents on my mom’s side did not go to Israel to become “white colonizers,” they went because of the immense economic persecution and racial violence they experienced in Islamic lands for holding onto their traditions. They were Dhimmi, a class of non-muslims who had to pay taxes to practice in their lands. And Dhimmi, who rose above a certain station, risked exposing themselves and their community to violence. 

During the Second World War, Jews in Iraq were murdered and sexually assaulted in pogroms similar to the ones perpetrated by the Russians or Hamas on Oct. 7. Those who eventually left for Israel had their passports and properties taken away, forcing them to leave the community they had been in for thousands of years. 

And the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem, Hajj Amin Al Husseini, had close relations with Hitler and lived in Germany. Had the Nazis continued their advance into North Africa and the Middle East, concentration camps like those in Eastern Europe could have killed millions of Jews. 

I am an avid traveler, yet I must visit so much of the world with extreme discussion.  While plenty of Americans are content with the places they cannot visit, like North Korea, there are plenty of places they can visit that people would find me crazy for going to. I wanted to go to Türkiye last year, but due to the breakout of war in the Middle East and the antisemitism of Recep Tayyip Erdogan, it was not safe. 

Growing up, I often would consider the stuff my mom said about Muslims to be Islamophobic as if it were an irrational fear like spiders. However, she lived with the constant fear of rockets firing into Israel and having to hide in bomb shelters whenever the sirens rang. And so, of course, she would have a rational fear of Arabs and Muslims as they were the enemy that united to wipe out Israel periodically. 

It was an intergenerational PTSD that I hope to understand better. It is not pure hatred like most forms of racism, but rather genuine fear. Due to the endemic antisemitism in Islam from the foundations of its Quran and prophet, it is understandable for her to have a long-lasting skepticism.  

My great-grandfather, who lived in Odesa, Ukraine, had to flee to Austria due to the brutalities of the pogroms. While he knew Russian well, he never taught it to my grandfather because he hated Russians. 

Similarly, my grandfather had to flee Austria because of Kristallnacht, and he was hesitant to return later, having never felt Austrian. He also had a sort of hatred towards the Austrians for the torment he put him and his family through. 

“He always believed the Austrians were more evil than the Germans. Or maybe more underhanded and trickier. He always said the Germans were like sheep and could be led around. The Austrians were perhaps smarter but less trustworthy,” his widow Cherrie Sorokin said. 

If I were to ask my great-grandfather what he thinks of Russian Orthodox Christians or my grandfather what he thinks of Germans, he wouldn’t be afraid to make generalizations. 

I can tell them not to judge all Russian Christians and Germans, but at the end of the day, I did not flee pogroms in the Russian Empire to Austria and flee from Austria to Mandatory Palestine after Kristallnacht.

And so when I see the way much of the Islamic community rallies against Israel while much of the Jewish community joins in, while it is far rarer to see the opposite, it is hard for me to trust Muslims and Arabs. 

There are Jewish Voices for Peace, but there are no Islamic Voices for Peace on an equal or opposite scale. Jews have always been willing to bend over backward for the sake of coexistence, but it never works. We will always be dhimmi or subhumans, and if we are not careful we can be like lambs to the slaughter. 

The Middle East, North Africa, and Central Asia have fascinating histories and cultures that I want to explore one day. I want to be curious about the world and not judge whole cultures, but we Jews have always to be careful. Hopefully, one day, I can take my orientalism to full effect so I can visit the shucks of Yemen and the mountains of Afghanistan. 

Ari Sorokin can be reached at [email protected].


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About the Contributor
Ari Sorokin
Ari Sorokin, Reporter
Dogs are Ari Sorokin's first true love and caring for them is his pride and joy. He loves keeping an active and creative lifestyle through his passion of drawing, writing and yoga. Sorokin is also a bit crazy about Indian culture.

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