The popular narrative of the Arab-Israeli conflict tends to overlook the history of one community – Arab Jews. In the context of the Arab Spring, diversity must now be embraced in an area that is not known for its tolerance of difference
2011 sowed the seeds of a new Middle East, when an entire generation of Arabs rose to demand their rights. The unfolding of these events, triggered a realisation that one section of the Arab world, long estranged, has never received recognition let alone justice.
Buried deep in the never-ending Arab-Israeli conflict, lays yet another dimension, another unresolved dispute that deserves justice. The international community alongside the Jewish and Arab worlds have laid idle a forgotten story: the silent exodus of the Jews of North Africa and the Middle East. An ancient minority that became entrapped in the flames of both Arab and Jewish nationalism and found itself burnt. Their abuse at the hands of both Arab and Israeli governments and society is a burning issue that needs addressing to ensure any viable Middle Eastern peace.
There is little advocacy for their plight, their story continues to remain ignored by social, political and academic circles. In a world where our distorted stereotypes of Jews are attached to fiddler-on-the-roof style clichés, an Iraqi or Lebanese Jew serves to sever our simplified concepts of the region and its identities. When the Arab-Jew is essentially the bridge between historical enemies, an authentic Semite, yet his plight remains unknown.
At the turn of 1948, a million Arab-Jews had remained in the Middle East; today 99% of these ancient communities are extinct. These Arab-Jews, are also labelled as Mizrahim, ‘Easterners’, an umbrella term used to lump the Jews of the Arab world with those of India, Iran and beyond, as if they were all the same. Yet these ancient communities, which once stretched from Morocco to Iraq, from Lebanon to Yemen, have existed for over 2,000 years and in many cases predating Islam.
With anti-Semitic hostilities on the rise in the 1940s, age-old prejudices combined with anger at the creation of Israel created a witch-hunt atmosphere, where ancient Jewish communities were portrayed as ‘enemy Zionist agents’ infiltrating the land. Governments rode the waves of hate furthering persecution through legislation. In a Baghdad that was a third Jewish, the Iraqi government subjected its population to a Kristallnacht of its own, the Farhud, destroying nearly a 1000 homes and murdering 175 in two days.
Arbitrary arrest, murderous rioters, looting and arsonists left communities in utter destitution, poverty stricken and homeless. Riots engulfed the Arab world, from Aden to Aleppo slaughtering native Jewish communities with no connection to the Israeli-Arab conflict. The result was complete decimation of Jewish populations in places such as Libya, once home to 38,000 indigenous Jews, today zero. An entire community destroyed.
As these Mizrahi communities began to escape, Arab governments imposed laws of confiscation, tying immigration with the surrendering of all property, businesses, gold and money and told never to return.
Whilst events unfolded in the Middle East, the international community remained silent, and today they continue to remain silent. Little has been done to address this open wound, Israelis and Arabs alike have chosen to ignore this chapter of persecution and exile as if nothing more than a minor blip. The atrocities of the 1940s-1970s are every bit essential to any potential Middle Eastern peace, for true reconciliation and progress to be made, the Jews of the Arab world need to be recognised by the international community, by Jews and by Arab governments who remain oblivious to their testimony. Derelict Jewish quarters and ancient cemeteries are the only remnants left to remind the current generation that the Arab world was once far more multi-cultural.
The silent exodus is further undermined when historians attempt to draw parallels between the Palestinian exodus and the Mizrahi exodus, interpreting it as a ‘population exchange’ between Israel and her Arab neighbours, a case of tit-for-tat. Whilst a just Middle Eastern peace would only be fruitful with a just solution for both groups, it should not justify the exoduses as a case of equivalent retaliation. Both peoples and their historical legacies should be understood and resolved separately.
What is evident is complete ignorance towards one of the Middle East’s oldest religious communities, which became victim to discrimination and blind hate, because they were Jewish and thus linked to Israel. Despite the fact that religion should never define ‘who is an Arab’. To this day, their exile remains an ignored chapter of the 64-year-old conflict. With compensation unpaid running into billions, and seized land and property five times the size of the Israeli state. The Jews of the Arab world are truly the forgotten refugees.
With the Arab Spring laying the foundations of democracy, we can only hope to witness a Middle East that begins to acknowledge its past, that pays homage to its historical minorities. The romantic image of reconciliation and the thriving of Judaeo-Arabic cultures in their native homelands are near fantasy. Sadly, sectarian violence against the Copts in post-Mubarak Egypt, only reinforces how little has changed. Before our very eyes the diversity of the Arab world is being destroyed, one community at time. The plight of these ancient Arab-Jewish communities, mostly extinct now, should be taken as a warning, to learn from the past and save the Middle East’s minorities.
This is the first piece in a two part series unearthing the histories of the Arab-Jewish community.