By David Green
During Stanford Professor Joel Beinin’s visit to the Urbana campus of the University of Illinois in March of 2000, I was introduced to the seemingly esoteric topic of the plight of Jews in Arab societies subsequent to the establishment of Israel–specifically regarding his research specialty at that time, the Jews of Egypt. In Beinin’s outstanding book on this subject, The Dispersion of Egyptian Jewry, he explores the ultimately unsuccessful attempt of 75,000 Egyptian Jews to “maintain their multiple identities and to resist the monism of increasingly obdurate Zionist and Egyptian national discourses.”
Beinin also spoke presciently—6 months before the beginning of the 2nd intifada–of the dire conditions of the Palestinians in the occupied territories, which he described as “worse than horrible.” Six months after Sharon’s 2000 visit to the Temple Mount, in March of 2001, a political advertisement sponsored by The American Jewish Committee and Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago appeared in the Chicago Tribune titled “The Other Refugees.” It claimed that:
“The Arab onslaught of 1948 and its aftermath tragically produced two—not one—refugee populations, one Jewish and one Arab. More than 700,000 Jews across the Arab world were forced to flee for their lives, their property ransacked in deadly riots, and their schools, hospitals, synagogues and cemeteries expropriated or destroyed.”
The ad went on to compare the absorption of many of these Jews by Israel to Palestinians who ”have remained quarantined in squalid camps,” concluding that “Palestinian leadership, backed by many in the Arab world, seeks the destruction of Israel through the ‘return’ of the refugees and their millions of descendants.” This diatribe concluded by claiming that such a return would mean “Israel’s national suicide.”
This bald propaganda has its origins in, among other things, a tendentious revision of the history of Arab Jews, from one of general cooperation with Muslims (also over-simplified) to deep-seated conflict and persecution. Beinin mentions prominent examples of this revisionism in his book. In 1974, a Jewish Israeli woman with the pen name of Bat Ye’or (daughter of the Nile) published Les Juifs en Egypte, to which Beinin credits with originating the “neo-lachrymose” view of Arab Jews, often referred to as Sephardic Jews, or more commonly as Mizrahim (Easterners), as they have come to be called in Israel.
Beinin defines two motivations for the popularity of this “normative Zionist interpretation of the history of the Jews of Egypt” and, by generalization, the Jews of other Middle Eastern and North African countries. First, it served to counter the grievances of Palestinian refugees, by claiming a “fair exchange” between refugee populations. Second, it provided the Mizrahim in Israel a means with which to redress their mistreatment in Arab countries, and—just as important—to claim a status in Israel comparable to Ashkenazi survivors of European anti-Semitism. To distance themselves from Arab cultural attachments, Beinin argues, was “the price of admission to Israeli society.” Beinin quotes one Israeli emigrant from Iraq: “In Baghdad we got along fine with the Arabs. But here we have to fight them.”
While Joan Peters’ notorious From Time Immemorial (1984) was discredited for its fraudulent demographic argument that the Palestinians essentially did not exist, it is rarely noted that Peters also supported the neo-lachrymose narrative of Arab Jewish history. This narrative has spawned various examples of tendentious scholarship and outright propaganda, some of which appear in Malka Hillel Shulewitz’s The Forgotten Millions: The Modern Jewish Exodus from Jewish Lands (1999). More important, as Beinin notes, this view was adopted by Martin Gilbert in The Jews of Arab Lands (1976), and Bernard Lewis in The Jews of Islam (1984). In Semites and Anti-Semites (1984), Lewis emphasized, according to Beinin, the “vulgar characteristics of Arab-Jewish relations.”
This discourse suggests at least three areas of inquiry. The first and largest, of course, concerns the actual causes of the emigration of Arab Jews, to Israel and elsewhere. The second, already suggested, concerns the status of the Mizrahim in Israeli society as an oppressed population. The final topic is that of the purpose of the propaganda itself, in order to explain its relatively recent popular dissemination.
I will briefly address the last topic first by speculating that, to a certain extent, Zionist propagandists have finally given up the ghost and ceased to claim that the nakba can be traced to “Arab broadcasts.” But while the expulsion of the Palestinian refugees has been at least tacitly acknowledged—if not its willfulness and the extent of its attendant brutality—this has in turn generated an alternative propaganda strategy based on the claim of “population exchange” that was put forward in the AJC/JFMC ad. It is argued that this exchange has remained incomplete because other Arabs (the same who expelled Jews) “turned their backs on the hundreds of thousands of Palestinians who crossed into Arab lands.”
As Palestinian invocation of the Right of Return has continued throughout this decade, the “population exchange” myth and tactic has become conventional hasbara wisdom, casually and repeatedly invoked, for example, in letters to the New York Times. Ten years ago, American Jews of Ashkenazi origin generally knew little beyond “Operation Magic Carpet” that brought Jews to Israel from Yemen. Now they “know” more, but their ignorance has been compounded. It has become “common knowledge” among defenders of Israel that the advent of the Jewish state brought, quid pro quo, the brutal dispossession and expulsion of hundreds of thousands of Arab Jews within a relatively brief period. There is little knowledge of the details of this expulsion, and for good reason—the claim does not withstand scrutiny.
A discussion of the second topic, that of the status of Arab Jews in Israeli society, may begin with Beinin’s observations quoted above, but centrally refers to the work of Ella Shohat, a Jewish Iraqi emigrant to Israel and then the United States. In “Sephardim in Israel: Zionism from the Standpoint of its Jewish Victims,” Shohat begins with the observation that:
“Sephardi Jews were first brought to Israel for specific European-Zionist reasons, and once there they were systematically discriminated against by a Zionism which deployed its energies and material resources differentially, to the consistent advantage of European Jews and to the consistent detriment of Oriental Jews.”
In historical discourse, this has meant that by:
“distinguishing the “evil” East (the Moslem Arab) from the “good” East (the Jewish Arab), Israel has taken upon itself to “cleanse” the Sephardim of their Arab-ness and redeem them from their “primal sin” of belonging to the Orient. Israeli historiography absorbs the Jews of Asia and Africa into the monolithic official memory of European Jews. Sephardi Jews learn virtually nothing of value about their particular history as Jews in the Orient..”
Shohat claims that it is too simple to assert that the “price of admission” for Mizrahim into Israeli society has been to learn to hate Arabs and to simplify their own complicated histories in Arab cultures. She points out that Arab-hating has ironically become part of the negative stereotype of Mizrahim as defined by “enlightened” European Israelis, including those in Peace Now:
“The Sephardim, when not ignored by the Israeli left, appear only to be scapegoated for everything that is wrong with Israel; “they” are turning Israel into a right-wing and anti-democratic state; “they” support the occupation; “they” are an obstacle to peace. These prejudices are then disseminated by Israeli “leftist” in international conferences, lectures, and publications.”
The result of this coerced assimilation and continuing prejudice, Shohat concludes, is that “the identity of Arab Jews has been fractured, their life possibilities diminished, their hopes deferred.” One response has been the emerging notion of Mizrahi identity as a “departure from previous concepts of Jewishness.” Vital in forming this identity is a more complex historical analysis of the circumstances that led to the emigration of Arab Jews. Shohat suggests in “The Invention of the Mizrahim” that such an analysis would consider:
“the secret collaboration between Israel and some Arab regimes, with the background orchestration of the British; the impact of this direct or indirect collaboration on both Arab Jews and Palestinians, now cast into antagonistic roles; Zionist attempts to drive a wedge between Jewish and Muslim communities; the Arab nationalism that failed to make a distinction between Jews and Zionists; and Arab Jewish misconceptions about the secular nation-state project of Zionism, which had almost nothing to do with their own religious community identity. Arab Jews left their countries of origin with mingled excitement and terror but, most importantly, full of Zionist-manipulated confusion, misunderstanding, and projections.”
This brings me to a brief overview of the emigration of Jews from various Arab countries: Algeria (1961-2), Egypt (1948-67), Iraq (1950-51), Morocco (1948-87), Syria (1948-56), Tunisia (after 1956), and Yemen (1948-49). My purpose is to refer to some helpful generalizations employed by reliable scholars, and to provide a selective list of references. Even a brief consideration of these points easily dispels the historical assumptions of the “exchange of populations” tactic.
Beyond those mentioned by Shohat, general factors that must be considered in each case include: the changing economic and cultural status of Jews under British and French colonization, especially French (Algeria, Morocco, Tunisia); the political relationship of Jews—religious or Zionist, bourgeois, nationalist, leftist, or Communist–to Arab nationalist movements (Egypt, Iraq, Algeria, Tunisia); the influence of Zionism among Jews, before and after 1948, and the extent of the messianic desire to emigrate to Israel (Morocco, Yemen); the effects of Zionist pressure and provocation with the specific goal of promoting emigration (Iraq, Morocco); the effects of ongoing conflict between Arab states and Israel from 1948 to 1967 (Egypt, Tunisia, Iraq); the consequences of the end of French colonization (Morocco, Tunisia, Algeria); and finally the general economic and social conditions under which Jews lived (Morocco, Egypt, Syria). To all of this must be added, in most cases, the cumulative effects of emigration as it relates to what Michael M. Laskier (discussing Morocco) calls the “self-liquidation” process.
Israeli historian Tom Segev summarizes emigration immediately after the founding of Israel, especially in relation to North Africa:
“Deciding to emigrate to Israel was often a very personal decision. It was based on the particular circumstances of the individual’s life. They were not all poor, or ‘dwellers in dark caves and smoking pits.’ Nor were they always subject to persecution, repression or discrimination in their native lands. They emigrated for a variety of reasons, depending on the country, the time, the community, and the person.”
Segev summarizes the “messianic fervor” that led to “operation Magic Carpet” in Yemen in 1948-49, but also notes that the Jewish Agency emissary in Aden, “asked permission to prepare the Yemenite authorities to expel the remaining Jews from their country.”
Discussions of the rapid emigration of Jews from Iraq in 1951 often focus on allegations of violent Zionist provocation, which are compelling but have not been completely substantiated. Just as important, the context of these alleged provocations was acutely described by the late Rabbi Elmer Berger in letters he wrote on the basis of interviews with Jewish leaders during a trip to Baghdad in 1955:
“Zionist agents began to appear in Iraq—among the youth—playing on a general uneasiness and indicating that American Jews were putting up large amounts of money to take them to Israel, where everything would be in apple-pie order. The emigration of children began to tear at the loyalties of families as the adults in a family reluctantly decided to follow their children, the stress and strain of loyalties spread to brothers and sisters . . . Several caches of arms were ‘discovered’ in synagogues . . . What both Jews and the Government had believed to be only a passing phenomenon—emigration—began to assume the proportions of a public issue.”
Similarly, the fate of the Jews of Egypt is often linked to the infamous Lavon affair of 1954, during which Zionist agents attacked American installations. But in a broader context, Beinin writes of:
“more than occasional instances of socially structured discrimination against Jews in Egypt. In the 20th century, they (the Jews) were inextricably linked to processes of colonization and decolonization, the nationalist struggle to expel the British troops who occupied Egypt from 1882-1956, and the intensification of the Arab-Zionist conflict.”
Jews, especially those whose Europeanized culture and bourgeois interests linked them to secular-liberal nationalism, were excluded from narratives of both colonial privilege and Islamic conceptions of the polity, and clearly had no place in the pan-Arab movement led by Nasser and opposed by Israel. They identified with the national narrative of neither Egypt nor Israel, and many of the wealthier moved to Europe.
Israeli scholar Michael M. Laskier concludes his description of Moroccan emigration, which was prohibited by the Moroccan government from 1956 until 1961, with this comparison to Egypt:
“Whereas in Nasser’s Egypt, Jews and other minorities were expelled or encouraged to leave in 1956-57 and subsequently as part of the national homogeneity campaign, Moroccan politicians frequently spoke of national heterogeneity, even though Moroccan Jewry was often portrayed in the local press as being disloyal and was becoming isolated from Moroccan society on various levels. The Jews were prevented from choosing the emigration alternative until 1961, because Moroccan authorities expected them to participate in nation-building, to invest their capital in Morocco and not in Israel.”
The long-term and disrupted emigration of Moroccan Jews stands in stark contrast to the “flash flood” of Algerian Jews, most of who immigrated to France after Algerian independence in 1962. Algerian Jews were more completely assimilated into French colonial culture, but nevertheless historically attached to Muslim society. Andre Chouraqui writes that “heavy pressure was applied (to Jews) from both sides in the hope of gaining both material and moral support; . . . the vast majority of Jews remained passive in the struggle.” Ultimately, FLN (liberation) attacks not specifically directed at Jews spread panic among both the Jewish and Christian elite, and “Jews saw headlong flight as the only escape from anarchy.” Chouraqui concludes that in North Africa,
“neither the westernized elite nor the masses of Moslems, who were almost entirely ignorant of the implications of Zionism, reacted with great feelings against their countries’ Jews. Had it not been for the conflict with the French…the Jews might well have remained in North Africa for centuries in comparative harmony.”
The disintegration of Jewish cultures in Arab societies was a complicated and by no means inevitable process that has been neither properly understood nor appropriately mourned by its victims, other Jewish Israelis, and Jews of European background around the world. Its use as Zionist propaganda by the Ashkenazi elite in Israel and the U.S. reflects various degrees of racism towards Mizrahim, Palestinians, Arabs, and Muslims, and serves to harden the false bipolarity with which Israelis and their American supporters view the world, now through the lenses of “Judeo-Christian” civilization. The specter of the Holocaust has been unfairly transferred to the Arab world, and is used to justify the oppression of the Palestinians and the “war on terrorism.” While Arab Jewish culture has been transformed in the Diaspora, an understanding of their history and demise can begin a process that will allow the Mizrahim to more actively shape a more just Israeli society, and a more peaceful future among Israelis, Palestinians, and other Arabs. In our own country, it can be minimally hoped that debunking mythology about Arab Jews will open some minds to a more fundamental questioning of Zionist conventional wisdom and its relation to American empire.
– David Green is a 59-year-old Jewish-American who lives in Champaign, IL. He contributed this article to PalestineChronicle.com. Contact him at: firstname.lastname@example.org.
- Beinin, Joel. The Dispersion of Egyptian Jewry: Culture, Politics, and the Formation of a Modern Diaspora. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998.
- Berger, Elmer. Who Knows Better Must Say So (2nd Edition). Beirut: Institute of Palestine Studies, 1970.
- Chouraqui, Andre. Between East and West: A History of the Jews of North Africa. Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1968.
- Laskier, Michael M., “Developments in the Jewish Communities of Morocco, 1956-76.” Middle Eastern Studies, 26:4, October 1990, 465-505.
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Shohat, Ella. “The Invention of the Mizrahim.” Journal of Palestine Studies 29:1, Fall 1989, 5-20.