‘I have not come to rediscover
my memories, nor to recognize those I have distorted, nor to imagine that I
could live here again. I came to bury all this, to get rid of it, forget it,
even hate it, as we are taught to hate those who do not want us.
I now realize that I am behaving
in a typically Jewish fashion. I came back to Egypt as only Jews do, aspiring
to return to places they were in such a rush to flee’ – André
Aciman, False Papers: essays in exile
Last year, the Libyan leader Colonel
Gaddafy invited the Jews of Libya to ‘come home’. In October, a
Jewish delegation did return for the first time in almost 40 years - and was
well received. They wished to visit their roots, renew business ties, seek the
restoration of desecrated cemeteries and compensation for lost property. (A
follow-up visit of some 20 Israelis of Libyan origin was scheduled for May 2005,
the first time Israeli citizens have set foot on Libyan soil.) And Libya, anxious
to be rehabilitated in the post-Saddam era, seems eager to usher in a new era
Yet this was not the first time
the Libyan leader had asked the Jews to return to the land of their birth. When
he made a similar offer in 1975 (‘Are you not Arabs like us, Arab Jews?’),
Albert Memmi, the Tunisian-born French writer and intellectual, scoffed:
Yes, indeed we were Arab Jews
– in our habits, in our culture, our music, our menu. But must one remain
an Arab Jew if, in return, one has to tremble for one’s life and the future
of one’s children and always be denied a normal existence? We would have
liked to be Arab Jews. If we abandoned the idea, it is because over the centuries
the Muslim Arabs systematically prevented its realization by their contempt
and cruelty ‘Who is an Arab Jew?’, in Jews and Arabs [Chicago:
O’Hara, 1975]; this essay can also be read on-line at www.jimena-justice.org/faq/memmi.htm).
Even if it acknowledges that the
Jews ever lived in the Middle East – an admission which undermines the
oft-heard claim that Israel is a white, European, colonialist settler state
- modern Arab historiography has marginalized the Jews and their ancient heritage
to the point of invisibility, appropriating their achievements. Maimonides has
morphed into an Arab scientist. Schoolchildren are taught that the sixth-century
Jewish poet As-Samawaa’l and the medieval luminary Avicebron (Ibn Gvirol)
were Muslims. How many know that a Jew helped write the constitution for the
modern state of Egypt?
The very expression ‘Arab Jews’ is a misnomer
to describe people who were living in the Middle East and North Africa 1,000
years before Islam and the seventh-century Arab invasion. From these communities
sprang the Babylonian Talmud, Rabbi Hillel and the philosopher Philo. In the
last 50 years, after almost 3,000 years of unbroken presence, nearly a million
Jews fled persecution and legalized discrimination and overcame much hardship
to build new lives - mostly in Israel - where they now account for roughly half
the Jewish population. The remaining 5,000 live reasonably securely in Yemen,
Morocco and Tunisia, in spite of being targeted by recent Al-Qaeda bombings.
But a key chapter of Jewish history is drawing to an irrevocable close.
Some have propagated the myth
that the Jews left of their own free will, or were forced out by Zionist pressure.
Israel itself has been complicit in drawing a veil over the Jewish narrative,
emphasizing the romance of the Zionist ‘pull’ factor, while glossing
over the unhappy circumstances of the ‘push’. The comparatively
neglected story of this Jewish exodus continues to live in the shadows.
So what is the truth about relations
between Arabs and Jews? The issue is loaded with political implications for
today. Consider two extreme views. If Jews and Arabs can be shown to have always
coexisted harmoniously, then Arabs bear no responsibility for the existence
of Israel; they are the undeserving indirect victims of European antisemitism.
If, on the other hand, antisemitism is seen as endemic to the Middle East, that
offers uncomfortably little hope for an end to the conflict. One thing
is sure: a complex reality, varying from era to era, from region to region and
ruler to ruler, does not lend itself easily to sweeping generalizations.
Ask Jews themselves about the
life they left behind and they will wax lyrical about the scent of jasmine and
lemon trees: sunsets over Alexandria harbour; samekh mousgouf, the fish
grilled on the banks of the river Tigris; sleeping under the stars on the roof;
a comfortable life of leisure and servants. Yet most of these same Jews fled
for their lives with one suitcase.
Many Jews like to reminisce about
their charmed lives and do not dwell on their hasty uprooting. But while these
rosy images of the past reflect a genuine reality, Albert Memmi insists that
it was temporary, a reasonably secure interlude lasting only for the duration
of the colonial era, a matter of a few decades.
So what were Arab-Jewish relations
like historically? Again there are two extreme competing answers to this question.
On one view, Jews and Christians enjoyed the status of a ‘protected’
minority under Islam, and the Jews in Muslim Spain enjoyed a golden age of peace
and prosperity. Others argue that Jews and Christians were ‘protected’
only from extermination and were never anything but second-class.
Muslims took control of the Middle
East through jihad – religious wars of conquest. The indigenous
Christians and Jews were spared conversion and death if they abided by certain
terms of a dhimma agreement. They had to pay a special tax, the jizya,
cede the centre of the road to Muslims, ride only donkeys, not horses. They
could not build synagogue taller than a mosque, could not testify against Muslims
in court, could not bear arms, and had to wear distinctive clothing. In short,
their status was one of institutionalized inferiority and humiliation.
However, like all other dhimmis,
writes Norman Stillman in The Jews of Arab Lands (Philadelphia: Jewish
Publication Society of America, 1979), the Jews
enjoyed extensive communal autonomy
precisely because the state did not care what they did so long as they paid
their taxes, kept the peace and remained in place.
There were massacres, but these
were rare and only occurred when the Jews were thought to have stepped out of
The golden age myth
One of leading writers on Islamic
history, Bernard Lewis, believes the golden age in Spain is a myth - Jews were
persecuted by both Muslims and Christians:
Belief in it was a result more
than a cause of Jewish sympathy for Islam. The myth was invented by Jews in
nineteenth-century Europe as a reproach to Christians – and taken up by
Muslims in our own time as a reproach to Jews.
If tolerance means the absence
of persecution, then classic Islamic society was indeed tolerant to both its
Jewish and Christian subjects – more tolerant perhaps in Spain than in
the East, and in either incomparably more tolerant than was medieval Christendom.
But if tolerance means the absence of discrimination, then Islam never was or
claimed to be tolerant, but on the contrary insisted on the privileged superiority
of the true believer in this world as well as the next (Islam in History:
Ideas, Men and Events in the Middle East [London: Alcove Press, 1973]).
The truth is that both extreme forms of Arab-Jewish relations
(and many in between) could obtain in different times and different places.
Conditions for the Jews were good in the early Middle Ages, worse in the later
Middle Ages, dire under the Almohads, difficult under the Mamluks. Life was
best in the centre of the Ottoman Empire, hardest on the periphery. As the European
powers increased their influence and during the colonial era, Jews and Christians
acquired near-equal status to Muslims. Crucially, however, conditions for the
non-Muslim minorities deteriorated again when Arab nation states gained their
independence. To blame was a sinister nexus of European fascism and an anti-western
Arab nationalist movement. Today, a virulent Islamist strain of anti-westernism
and antisemitism sweeping the Arab and Muslim world bears little resemblance
to the more tolerant end of traditional Muslim attitudes.
When the Ottomans conquered Constantinople
in 1453, a good period began for the Jews. The Ottoman Turks populated the city
not with fellow Muslims but productive and creative Armenians, Greeks and Jews
fleeing the Spanish Inquisition. Unlike Europe, where the Jews were the only
minority, the Ottoman Middle East was a mosaic of religions and ethnicities.
Jews, debarred only from the army and the diplomatic corps, rose to prominence
as doctors, merchants and courtiers, at a time, to quote Professor Norman Stone’s
Foreword to Lord Kinross’s study of The Ottoman Empire (Bury St
Edmunds: Folio, 2003) ‘when Christian kingdoms were shovelling heretics
or Jews out to sea’.
Islam, unlike Christianity, did
not view Jews as Christ-killers – they were simply benighted unbelievers.
As Bernard Lewis explains in Semites and anti-Semites (New York: Norton,
the situation of non-Muslim minorities
in classical Islam falls a long way short of the standard set and usually observed
in the present-day democracies. It compares, however, favourably with conditions
prevailing in western Europe in the Middle Ages, and in eastern Europe for very
Lewis traces the infiltration
of specifically Christian hostility towards Jews - with its blood libels, fears
of conspiracy and domination, images of Jews poisoning wells and spreading the
plague - to the high Middle Ages, when many Christians converted to Islam, and
to the particular influence of Greek Orthodox Christians.
Over the centuries a Muslim family,
the Nusseibehs, were the keepers of the keys to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre,
not because the Christian sects squabbled among themselves (although squabble
they did) but as a symbol of Muslim primacy. To escape their inferiority, Christians
were at the forefront of twentieth-century pan-Arabism; the founder of the League
of the Arab Homeland was a Christian.
Christians, more conspicuous and
identified with the Ottomans’ European enemies, deflected attention from
the Jews. They bore the brunt of persecution – the 1915 genocide of over
one million Armenians being the most extreme example. But their common dhimmitude
did not make them any more sympathetic to their economic rivals, the Jews -
quite the contrary. It was Christians, for example, who stirred up a blood libel
in Damascus in 1840 (and on 34 subsequent occasions), a Christian who first
translated The Protocols of the Elders of Zion into Arabic.
In Iran, where there were fewer
minorities, and in Yemen and North Africa, where Christianity had died out,
the Jews generally led a miserable and degraded existence. They were confined
to mellahs or ghettos and periodically subject to forced conversions.
Whereas the Turks had introduced the fez in Iraq in 1808, so that religious
groups should not be immediately recognizable by their headdresses, in Tunisia
over a century later Albert Memmi’s grandfather was still expected to
wear the obligatory and discriminatory Jewish garb. Every Jew could expect to
be hit on the head by any passing Muslim, a ritual which even had a name –
the chtaka. Shi’ites subscribed to ritual purity prejudices until
recent times. A Jewish friend who lived in Shi’a Bahrain tells how her
grandmother once picked up some fruit to see if it was ripe. The fruit seller
tipped his basket to the ground, crying out ‘You have defiled it!’
In Iran, Jews were executed for brushing up against Muslims in the rain, and
so ‘defiling’ them.
Dhimmitude and Zionism
Why did Zionism elicit fury from
the start? A explanation suggested by Francisco Gil-White in ‘Whitewashing
the Palestinian Leadership’ (http://emperors-clothes.com/gilwhite/Israel.htm#part4,
31 August 2003) is that
the Arab upper classes saw dhimmitude
as the cement of the social fabric, helping to guarantee the loyalty of the
street. Many Arabs saw in the lowly status of Jews a confirmation of their own
worth. And there was special contempt for the Jews, perhaps because, unlike
the Christian case, no Jewish states existed to compete with Islamic states.
The movement for a Jewish state
in Palestine overturned the natural pecking order. When slavery was abolished,
American whites in the Deep South responded by lynching black slaves. Similarly,
as Albert Memmi writes,
The Arabs . . . have not yet recovered
from the shock of seeing their former underlings raise their heads, attempting
even to gain their national independence. They know of only one rejoinder –
off with their heads!
In Histoires de chiens (Paris:
Mille et Une Nuits, 2004),Nathan Weinstock, a former Trotskyist, claims that
the breakdown of the traditional dhimmi relationship was one of the root
causes of the Israel-Palestine conflict. Jews became the focus of Arab aggression,
he believes, when in 1908 the Hashomer Hatza’ir pioneers of Sejera dismissed
their Circassian guards - who protected their settlement against Bedouin raids
– and replaced them with Jewish guards. For the Jews, this was an ideological
statement of self-sufficiency. But for the neighbouring Arab fellaheen,
they had crossed a red line. They had reneged on their part of the dhimmitude
agreement: the dog-like dhimmi, who was not allowed to bear arms, should
always look to the Muslim for protection. The title of Weinstock’s book
is taken from the battle cry of those who slaughtered members of the old yishuv
in Hebron in 1929: ‘The Jews are our dogs!’ Because the targets
were indigenous Jews, not Zionists, he argues that Palestinian nationalism was
predicated on bigotry.
The colonial era
By the late nineteenth century,
the colonial powers had made inroads into the declining Ottoman Empire, extending
protection primarily to the Christian minorities. Under European pressure the
jizya was abolished. But even though the Turks declared all the Sultan’s
subjects equal under the law in 1856, the best guarantee of one’s inalienable
rights was a western passport. (After 1860, Jews, along with Armenians, were
denied Egyptian citizenship. The majority were left stateless, but a privileged
25 per cent of the Jews held foreign passports. To them a parallel legal system
At the turn of the last century, life was incomparably better
than before for the Jews of Iraq, Syria and Egypt. Jews sat in the Istanbul
parliament after 1908. They served in the Turkish army. The major cities of
the Middle East were heavily Jewish; along with other minorities, the Jews controlled
trade and business.
But unlike the German Jews, many
of whom aspired to assimilate, the Jews of the Middle East had no desire to
be like the Muslim majority. Although they lacked political power, they felt
superior. The 60 Alliance Israélite Universelle schools established in
1860 had hauled the Jews out of poverty and ignorance and turned them into an
educated elite speaking English, French, Turkish, Arabic and Hebrew. Soon they
had also established trading networks through relatives in Manchester, India,
the Far East and Latin America.
Iraq – a test case
Iraq on the threshold of independence
is a good test case of how Arab states were to treat minorities. The authorities
had little excuse to treat the Jews badly. They were thoroughly Arabized in
language and culture. They were the backbone of the country’s civil service.
Arriving as Babylonian slaves in 586 BCE, the Jews had sunk deep roots in a
country which witnessed the birth of Judaism at Ur of the Chaldees. A Muslim
could not tell a Jew to go back where he came from when the Jew had been there
before him. The dearth of foreign passport-holders made it hard for the Jews
to be tarred with the brush of British imperialism. And there was another thing
in their favour: most Jews were indifferent or even hostile to Zionism.
Although the communities were
strictly segregated, Muslims and Jews got along perfectly well in everyday life.
Children enjoyed a carefree existence – although only within certain limits.
Naim Kattan writes in Adieu Babylone (Paris: Albin Michel, 2003) that
he would never have ventured alone into a dark cinema. Boys his age, Christian
and Muslim, would have leapt on him and beaten him up.
Even before the Palestine question
started having an impact, it is clear that Jews viewed the prospect of Iraqi
independence with foreboding. In 1917 they asked Britain as the mandatory power
to allow them to become British subjects. They gave three reasons for not wanting
an indigenous government to rule over them. The Arabs, they said, were politically
irresponsible; they had no administrative experience; and they could be fanatical
and intolerant. Their pleas were not heeded, and in 1921 the Jews sent another
delegation to the British High Commissioner, Sir Percy Cox. They came away empty-handed,
but a London-Baghdad agreement signed in 1922 laid down that the laws of the
country guaranteed freedom of creed and conscience for all (see Nissim Rejwan,
The Jews of Iraq, London: Weidenfeld and Nicholson, 1985).
But if national independence paid lip service to equal rights,
Islam was still the state religion. Entrenched cultural and religious attitudes
reasserted themselves. One story illustrates the corruptibility of the justice
system: in 1931, a Jewish landowner was murdered by an Arab squatter he wished
to evict from one of his properties. The killer was arrested and tried, but
he was soon released after protests from his clan. The victim, no matter how
wealthy or influential, was still a Jew.
The Jews were keen to play their
part in building the new Iraq, but in the face of discrimination, their enthusiasm
gradually waned and gave way to anger, frustration and disappointment. As Naim
Kattan puts it,
For centuries we learned to live
with injustice, even coming to see it as part of the nature of things. Was it
not the price we had to pay for being different? We had no reason to envy the
Assyrians, the Armenians, the Kurds, nor even the Christians and the Shi’ites.
We lived in the shadow of a beast which for years had maintained a stony silence,
and suddenly his giant frame was wracked by a fever. We could feel him quaking
and then he threw his full weight upon one victim or another.
Newly independent Iraq gave formal
undertakings on minority rights when joining the League of Nations in 1932 –
and massacred thousands of Assyrian Christians within the year. Xenophobic nationalism,
together with anti-British and anti-French feeling, gave rise to political parties
and paramilitary youth movements of the Nazi and fascist type. The German envoy
to Iraq, Dr Fritz Grobba, set about disseminating Nazi ideology and anti-Jewish
propaganda, reinforcing local prejudice. Dozens of Jews were quietly dismissed
(although some were reinstated after the community protested). Laws were gradually
brought in to deprive Jews of jobs, then education and, eventually, property,
residence and free movement. The Mufti of Jerusalem, Haj Amin Al-Husseini, colluded
with the ex-Prime Minister, Rashid Ali, to engineer a pro-Nazi coup, eventually
culminating in the farhoud massacre of 1941. For two days and one night
of looting, rape and murder, the mob rampaged through Jewish districts of Baghdad.
One hundred and seventy Jews were killed.
Naturally, the Palestine question
was also to have serious repercussions on the Jewish population. Menahem Salih
Daniel, a Baghdad Jewish leader, expressed his misgivings as early as 1922 in
a letter to the Secretary of the Zionist Organisation in London (quoted by Nessim
Rejwan), even though there had as yet been no active resistance to Zionism:
It is . . . the feeling of every
Arab that it is a violation of his legitimate rights, which it is his duty to
denounce and fight to the best of his ability. Iraq always having been an active
centre of Arab culture and activity, the public mind is always stirred up as
One Jewess, growing up in the 1930s, recalls how the mob
would rampage every anniversary of the Balfour declaration carrying clubs dipped
in tar. It fell to a kindly neighbour to shelter her until the mob had passed.
In the 1941 farhoud too,
when the forces of law and order failed to come to the Jews’ rescue, the
last line of defence was again the kindly neighbour. As Nessim Rejwan writes,
Throughout the disturbances, with
a few exceptions, Jewish homes in mixed neighbourhoods were defended and hundreds
of Jews were saved by the willingness of their Muslim neighbours to protect
them, in some cases at the cost of their own lives.
The broader picture
For the Jews, the 1930s and 1940s
were a time of turmoil across the Arab world. Seven years before the farhoud,
Jews had been killed in the pogrom of Constantine, Algeria. In Libya, 136 Jews,
36 of them children, were slaughtered in 1945. That same year, bloody riots
erupted in Egypt and Aden, as in Syria in 1947.
All these events, targeting civilian
communities, predated the creation of Israel. They demonstrated the vulnerability
and insecurity to which Jews were exposed up to 50 years ago. Things might have
turned out differently – Crown Prince Faisal, later the British-appointed
King of Iraq, had signed a pact in 1919 with Chaim Weizmann viewing with sympathy
the establishment of a Jewish home in Palestine. Instead, Arab ruling elites
made Zionism a crime from 1948 onwards, passed discriminatory legislation and
whipped up popular feeling against the Jews to distract attention from their
illegitimacy, their internal problems and obligations.
The 1948 defeat of the Arab armies
by Israel marked the beginning of the end for most of the Jewish communities,
although some claim that Arab governments had planned to expel their Jews even
before the UN partition vote (see Yaakov Meron, ‘Why Jews fled the Arab
countries’, Middle East Quarterly, September 1995). Three-quarters
of the Iraqi community fled in 1951, stripped of all possessions. The Egyptian
Jews were expelled after Nasser amended the Egyptian nationality law in 1956,
their property confiscated and a number imprisoned. The Jews of Algeria left
en masse with the French. The other Maghreb countries adopted a policy
of economic strangulation and emigration restrictions. When these were lifted
in the early 1960s the Jews streamed out to France and Israel. With every Israeli
triumph on the battlefield the remaining Jewish communities were targeted with
economic boycotts, mob violence, mass arrests and even show trials and executions.
Ultimately, the Jewish populations
of the Arab countries were given little choice but to leave. Jews signed loyalty
petitions, proclaimed themselves Arabs first, gave money to the Arab war effort
against Israel – all to no avail. The situation of all Jews, even the
anti-Zionists and the nationalists among them, was untenable. The root cause
of the exodus was the dangerous failure of Arab autocracies to protect their
minorities – and, indeed, their propensity to scapegoat them.
The situation today
At the beginning of the twenty-first
century, the concept of Ottoman pluralism (whatever its limitations) could not
be more remote. The Arab world is almost monolithically Muslim and judenrein.
Pan-Arab nationalism is a spent force but pan-Islamism is asserting its grip.
Those Copts, Assyrians and other groups who have not fled continue to be persecuted
The mass media of the Muslim world
pump out a new antisemitism, inspired by Saudi Wahabism, fed by Koranic accounts
of Jewish treachery and drawing on every antisemitic motif and conspiracy theory
in the book. This antisemitism is a product of the Israel-Arab dispute, but
a fight between two nationalisms over the same piece of land has changed, with
the rise of Islamic fundamentalism, into an intractable religious conflict.
Israel is an affront to the umma: what was once Muslim territory can
never become non-Muslim. Palestine must be reconquered by jihad and the
Jews revert to their natural status of dhimmitude. Until this alarming religious
dimension is addressed and the forces of Islamic militancy subdued, the conflict
will be insoluble.
The only long-term answer is Arab
democratization. Already the Iraqi elections have whetted the popular appetite
across the Arab world for change. Dissidents have been emboldened. Despots are
quaking in their boots. Democracy will bring accountability, end
arbitrary government and enforce pluralism, freedom and equal rights for all
ethnic and religious groups. Only then might Arab states once again be able
to give any Jews who chose to live in them that protection against vulnerability
- what Albert Memmi calls ‘our constant sense of frailty of the underdog’
– they enjoy in Israel and the West.
Lyn Julius was Editor of the Sephardi Bulletin
for seven years until 2004. Her parents left Iraq in 1950. She lives in London
with her husband and four children.