Both see themselves as their countries’ most patriotic citizens, and demonize the left and its allies in the news media, academia and other liberal redoubts as traitorous enemies. Both, he said, feel disdained by those elites, who dismiss their views as racist, ignorant or unwittingly self-defeating.
“You keep ridiculing us and presenting us as undemocratic and dangerous,” he said, articulating the non-liberal view. “But we are the people. Who are you?’”
Professor Mizrachi, as his surname suggests, is a product of the Mizrahi working class himself: His mother, who moved to Israel from Iraq as a teenager, met his father at an institute for the blind (both had lost their eyesight, from trachoma, at age 2). The couple raised their son and his two sisters on a shoestring in Kiryat Hayovel, a poverty-stricken and overwhelmingly right-wing Jerusalem neighborhood of Mizrahi immigrants.
When a teacher said that young Nissim was bright, and should perhaps attend vocational school to become a handyman, he said, his mother responded tartly that her son would study and grow up to earn enough “to hire your son.”
Drawn to higher education, his outlook took a leftward turn in the United States while on a Fulbright Scholarship to the University of Michigan, where he earned a Ph.D. in 1998, and later at Harvard. He met other young Mizrahi scholars, still a rarity in the Israeli academy, which was dominated by Jews of Eastern European origin, and experienced something of a political awakening as a liberal and a Mizrahi.
Returning to Israel, he became an activist on Mizrahi education and human rights.
There seemed to be ample reason for Mizrahim, long treated as second-class citizens, to be drawn to liberal promises of equality and social justice. Yet, nothing he said could budge even members of his own family from their right-wing leanings.
In 2011, after hearing a visiting lecturer from Europe extol human rights as the “international moral language,” Professor Mizrachi had an aha moment.