UW Sephardic Studies Hosts Anti-Zionist Artist who calls for Dissolution of Israel as Jewish State


The Sephardic Studies program at the University of Washington earned the enmity of many in the Seattle Sephardic community during the last Gaza war when its chair, Devin Naar, outed himself as an anti-Israel activist. The program has again embroiled itself in controversy following its promotion of anti-Zionist artist/political activist Tom Haviv. Haviv, best known for designing the Hamsa Flag to replace the Israeli flag, is one of the headline artists at an upcoming event hosted by Sephardic Studies, titled “Muestros Artistes”.

Despite apologists for Naar insisting that his personal animosity toward the Jewish state would not affect the apolitical focus and programming of the UW Sephardic Studies program, the appearance of Haviv, whose work is based on anti-Israel activism, appears to contradict that argument.

Anti-Israel activist, Tom Haviv.

In his explanatory essay titled “The Hamsa Flag”, Haviv reveals in a verbose concoction of Sephardic cultural references and political fantasizing, his hope for a Jewish state to be sublimated by an Arab/Jewish “binational” state, with an inevitable Jewish minority. Haviv explains, “I first imagined the Hamsa Flag in 2008 – when I was 20 – while reading an essay in the New York Times about a one-state solution in Israel/Palestine. Until then, I had only known of the two-state solution and had abided by the idea that it was integral to the so-called peace process. As soon as I finished the article, I remember having an immediate, almost bodily response: for such a utopia to exist, the flags of both sides would have to be abandoned and a new flag introduced”. Haviv deludes that in his multi-ethnic, multicultural utopian State, it will be his green Hamsa flag that replaces the Star of David.

Sephardic Studies at the University of Washington has faced criticism for their appropriation of Sephardic culture to construct a wedge between the Sephardic community and the Jewish state.

To bolster his assertion that a new Arab majority entity in place of Israel would result in an ecumenical paradise, Haviv intermingles Pollyannish recollections of the Sephardic experience under Islamic rule with a jaundiced view of his Ashkenazi co-religionists. This inevitably leads to a glossing over of serial persecutions and the permanent underclass status imposed upon Sephardic Jews, particularly under Ottoman rule.

Says Haviv “I saw the [Hamsa] flag as a meditation on the conditions of hybridity that my ancestors came from cobblestoned streets of Islamic Spain to the islands and cities–Salonika, Athens, Istanbul, Izmir, Mersin, Damascus–that thrived under the Ottoman Empire”. This fetishization of the Diaspora is belied by the reality that was more often than not Jewish life in the Arab and Ottoman world. In the best of times, Ottoman Jewry was subject to punitive taxation, occupational, property, and banking restrictions, Jewish dress codes, and religious restrictions, including restrictions on the construction of synagogues and on the performance of certain religious rituals. In the worst of times, Ottoman Jews faced Pogroms that rivaled those suffered by their coreligionists in Europe, such as the Salonika Pogrom, The Adana Massacre, and the Damascus blood libel.

Haviv muses that his Hamsa flag could perhaps become a symbol of  “non-Ashkenazi Jewry in solidarity with Palestinians or Muslims”

In an interview on the Read Learn Live podcast, Haviv offers an alternative origin story for his Hamsa flag, saying that the inspiration came in the midst of Israel’s defensive operation, Protective Edge, and around the same time that he became involved with the anti-Israel group IfNotNow. Says Haviv “I had a friend who was very excited about this idea that I had of a flag that would encompass or represent a possible binational or one-state solution for Israel/Palestine (sic) and the idea for the flag is pretty simple, and it is a Hamsa at the center.”

Haviv modified his green Hamsa Flag to incorporate the Islamic Crescent. Notably, there is no corresponding symbol representing the Jewish faith.

While Haviv, who says he comes from Ottoman Sephardic roots, aspires to “Jewish-Muslim solidarity”, he expresses no similar affection for his Ashkenazi Jewish brethren, depicting them in a recent article almost solely in derisive terms. Taking this animosity to its natural conclusion, Haviv muses if his Hamsa flag could perhaps become a symbol of  “non-Ashkenazi Jewry in solidarity with Palestinians or Muslims”.

Haviv brandishes his Sephardic identity as a weapon, ignoring the fact that the majority of Sephardic Jews profess a deep love and affinity for the Jewish people and the State of Israel. Similarly, the Sephardic Studies program at the University of Washington has faced criticism for misappropriating Sephardic culture to create a divide between the Seattle Sephardic community and the Jewish state. In May of 2021, while hundreds of Palestinian rockets were being launched at Israeli civilians, Sephardic Studies Chair Devin Naar endorsed a broadside that cast Jews as a foreign, “settler colonial” presence in their own indigenous homeland, using multiple anti-Semitic tropes in a single sentence to smear the Jewish state as a bastion of “Jewish supremacy, ethnonational segregation, discrimination, and violence”… After releasing his anti-Israel statement, Naar embarked on a well-orchestrated public relations campaign, holding a series of meetings with leaders in the Seattle Sephardic community that seemed designed to normalize and propagate his extreme anti-Israel and anti-Zionist stances.

UW Sephardic Studies is a program within the publicly funded behemoth that is the University of Washington, an institution with an annual budget of $4.3 billion and with a $4.8 billion endowment. Husky football alone generates about $140 million in revenue annually. It has not gone unnoticed that the two local Sephardic congregations, each with budgets that are dwarfed by that of the University of Washington, are regularly solicited and expected to contribute of their minimal resources to sponsor programs and endowments that support events like Muestros Artistes. Money that could be otherwise directed towards vital expenses, such as repairing leaks or meeting payroll.

The two local Sephardic congregations, each with budgets that are dwarfed by that of the publicly funded University of Washington, are expected to contribute from their minimal resources to support events like Muestros Artistes.

While the University of Washington’s Sephardic Studies, Israel Studies, and, Jewish Studies programs have every right to promote positions anathema to the Jewish community, some in the Jewish community are questioning whether those programs are deserving of our institutional and individual support.

Haviv is slated to appear in the Muestros Artistes event in late February.