Tuesday, September 07, 2010

Academics focus increasingly on Jewish refugees

The 1941 Farhud in Iraq was one of the most serious outbreaks of racist violence in the Arab world

This article for Eureka Street by Philip Mendes, who teaches at Monash University in Australia, is welcome evidence that western academics are focusing increasing attention on Jews from Arab countries, and such seminal antisemitic events as the 1941 anti-Jewish Farhud in Iraq. He identifies a 'post-colonial resentment of foreigners' as a key factor in the victimisation of Jews, but these 'foreigners' were in many cases indigenous, and have been or are being 'ethnically cleansed' because they were non-Muslim and non-Arab, regardless of whether Israel had been created or not.

"In my opinion, the Jewish exodus is best explained as a complex combination of push and pull factors. The pull factor was the growing influence of Zionism, and the attraction of many Mizrahi Jews after 1948 to the idea of living in Israel. Another factor, which was not specifically about Arab-Jewish relations, was the general Arab post-colonialist resentment of foreigners which led to their gradual exclusion from social and economic life as the Arab countries attained their independence. For example, many Jews appear to have left Egypt because of economic factors such as loss of jobs and livelihood (a direct result of antisemitism and xenophobia - ed), rather than specific anti-Jewish persecution.

"Nevertheless, a considerable number of Jews – perhaps the majority – seem to have exited as a result of either systematic harassment, or direct expulsion. Some communities felt obliged to leave over time due to ongoing government discrimination and popular hostility. Others were expelled en masse as in the expulsion of 120,000 Iraqi Jews to Israel in 1951. Many experienced outbreaks of serious anti-Jewish violence. It can reasonably be concluded that Jews in the Arab world were driven out as a direct and unapologetic retaliation for Jewish actions in Israel/Palestine.

"One of the most serious outbreaks of racist violence took place in Iraq in June 1941. The Farhud (or pogrom) resulted in the deaths of 179 Jews and several hundred injuries. In addition, numerous Jewish properties and religious institutions were damaged and looted.

"A newly edited book by the Israeli academics Shmuel Moreh and Zvi Yehuda (Al-Farhud: the 1941 pogrom in Iraq, Hebrew University Magnes Press, 2010) sheds new light on the causes of the Farhud. The authors note that the Iraqi Jews were a well-integrated community who could date their heritage back to the destruction of the first temple in 586 BCE. Following the establishment of the modern Iraqi state in 1920, Jews were prominent in professional and commercial life. Overall, Jews viewed themselves as Arabs of the Jewish faith, rather than as a separate race or nationality.

"Nevertheless, anti-Jewish feeling was reflected in both official and popular actions including discrimination and occasional violence during the 1930s. Matters came to a head with the pro-German military coup of April 1941. The coup leaders were quickly defeated and exiled by a British army occupation, but their departure was followed by the farhud which was perpetrated by Iraqi officers, police, and gangs of young people influenced by religious and nationalist fanaticism. These groups rejected the presence of national or religious minorities in the Arab world, and regarded the Jews as a fifth column sympathetic to the Western powers.

"The anti-Jewish rioters were influenced by a number of factors. One was ongoing incitement by a group of approximately 400 Palestinian émigrés residing in Iraq. These Palestinians were led by the extremist Mufti of Jerusalem, Haj Amin el-Husseini, who would later collaborate with Hitler’s Final Solution. Another factor was the anti-Jewish propaganda distributed by the German Nazi envoy in Baghdad. In addition, there was the cynical political decision by the British Army to delay the timing of their intervention to restore order lest they be labelled as friends of the Jews.

"The most significant finding from the many Jewish memoirs cited in this text was their terrible sense of betrayal. Many of the killed and injured were attacked by local Muslims whom they personally knew. Others gave jewellery and money to their neighbours in trust who then refused to return the property. But conversely, many recalled with gratitude the bravery of their Muslim neighbours who acted to save their lives.

"Today, the Jewish refugees are increasingly demanding recognition of the injustices they suffered. They definitely do not want to return to the Arab countries, but they want some form of compensation or redress for their loss of homes and livelihood. Both the Israeli Knesset (Parliament) and the US House of Representatives have passed motions (in 2010 and 2008 respectively) demanding that the Jewish refugees from Arab countries be granted the same rights as those of Palestinian refugees.

"In my opinion, the two exoduses are not identical in motivation and cause, and should be considered separately. However, I do believe that the Arab League would make a significant contribution to Israeli/Jewish-Arab reconciliation if they formally recognized the positive role that many Jewish communities previously played in Arab life and culture, and apologized for the intolerance that turned them into refugees.

(Associate Professor Philip Mendes teaches social policy and community development at Monash University)

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