Conference co-convener Professor Tudor Parfitt (right), known for his research into Jews of Yemen and Jewish tribes of Africa
Point of No Return is grateful for the following report on the Bahrain-sponsored Conference on Jews from Arab Lands, held 23 and 24 November at SOAS in London. All in all, the conference was an 'outstanding' achievement, the report-writer claims, but the latter sessions, taking place against the background of continued minority oppression, whitewashed the persecution of the Jews and failed to draw 'exchange-of-populations' comparisons with the Palestinian refugees. Far from being denigrated in present-day Israel as several speakers claimed, Oriental-Jewish musicians, after a difficult start, were now enjoying chauffeur-driven limousines, acclaim and prosperity.
"This well-organized and outstanding Conference on Jews from Arab Lands was supervised by Prof. Tudor Parfitt and Prof. Sami Zubaida of London University. It was attended by experts from various universities and institutions and sponsored by Dr. Khalid Al Khalifa, President, University College of Bahrain. Unfortunately Mrs Houda Nonoo (Bahraini Ambassador to Washington, of Iraqi-Jewish origin, was not able to attend to give her keynote address).
"In Day 1, Session 1-2, objective and profound lectures with insight were given on Iraq (Moreh), Egypt (Mabro), Morocco (Schroeter), Yemen (Parfitt), Baghdadi Jews in India and China (Benite), Population Distribution and Evolution of Jews in Arab Lands (Courbage), presenting a panoramic and objective survey.
"Session 3 devoted to Cultural Legacies were given by world experts on the topics of Music (Kojaman), Education (Marcus), Literature (Berg), Baghdad, the 'City of Pluralities' (Pieri). They presented the Iraqi-Jewish contribution to their homeland, aspects which were destroyed by the successive revolutions in Iraq after the mass emigration of its Jews (1950-1951).
"However, Session 4, The Dispersal of Middle Eastern Jews, was convened under the dark shadow of the massacres of Christian communities in Iraq and Egypt. This tragic fact rendered the lectures given by critical authors, Shenhav, Rejwan and Shabi (pictured), as pallid and out-of-date, since they dealt with the Israeli realities during the formative years of 1950-1970. In fact, the emigration of Iraqi Jews to Israel is considered today as deliverance from the worst regimes in the Middle East and the most vicious treatment of religious minorities in the world. However, these lectures should have taken a long-term historical perspective and made the comparison with the plight of Palestinian refugees. The two sets of refugees constitute an exchange of populations. However, the latter are suffering to this day at the hands of their Arab brethren in all Arab lands from discrimination and inferior status.
"At least ten lecturers were of Iraqi origin, to the point that a member of the audience from Morocco complained that this Conference was in fact an Iraqi one.
"In Day Two, Session 1, the lecturers tried to avoid dealing with the main reason for its prosperous Jewish community leaving Iraq, the Farhud of 1941, which was mentioned briefly by S. Moreh, pointing to the recently published books Al-Farhud, The 1941 Pogrom in Iraq, ed. by S. Moreh & Z. Yehuda, 2010 and E. Black, The Farhud, Roots of the Arab-Nazi Alliance in the Holocaust, 2010.
"In fact one would have expected a whole session on the Farhud and the persecution of Jews during the 1948 war to destroy Israel. This was probably an attempt to whitewash Arab complicity with the Nazis and the exchange of population between Jews from Arab Lands and the Palestinian refugees. To overlook this fact was meant to project an idealised view of Jewish-Muslim coexistence. As expected, Dr. Abbas Shiblak, who discussed The Exodus of Jews from Iraq in the 1950s, obscured the main reason for their exodus, the Farhud, and the systematic persecution of the Jews in Iraq and Arab Lands. Some people also felt the same way about S. Somekh's superficial lecture read by Orit Bashkin. He could not answer the crucial question why his Communist and intellectual friends could not reshape Iraq's cultural and political trends into a socialist, liberal and democratic tolerant state, in spite of all their sacrifices.
"In such a comprehensive and serious conference, one would have expected that at least one session should have been dedicated to the Farhud and the attacks and looting after the war of 1948 on Jewish life and property against all Jewish communities in Arab lands. In Bahrain, the synagogue was destroyed and two were killed in riots in 1947, but the king offered compensation for looted and wrecked property.
"Missing was one significant aspect among many of the Jews of Iraq, pointing to their status in Israel today: their musical activities. While they were able to take their musical instruments from Jerusalem to Babylon but refused to sing the Song of Zion, in Iraq of the 1950s they were banned from taking with them their musical instruments. Not only were Saleh and Dawood al-Kuwaity banned from taking with them their violin and oud, but the musical scores of the fascinating melodies which they composed were destroyed by the custom officers at Baghdad Airport.
"In their first years in Israel these musicians were starving, but today the second and third generation of musicians and singers of Iraqi origin are living in prosperity, to the degree that they have their own limousine chauffeurs and bodyguards. This is but one example of the prosperity, status and wealth which this active community achieved in all aspects of life in Israel. Scholars should have taken this aspect into consideration and re-evaluated their conclusions."
Another conference-goer adds her comments:
"The choice of Robert Mabro to talk about Jews in Egypt was very strange. As he said when he started his speech is that he didn’t know why they chose him, as he was not an expert in the subject of the Jews of Egypt (he is Present and Former Director of Oxford institute for Energy studies). His speech turned out to be very light-hearted and humorous, and not professional.
"In Part Two of the first day Rachel Shabi pointed to a new example of 'anti-Mizrahi discrimination', the message she preached in her book Not the enemy. It is a song by Sarit Haddad called Do you love me? I really do not know what she wanted to prove. The song is awful and actually degrades Mizrahi music.
"Yehuda Shenhav ranted on about 'Arab Jews'. Even while he was sitting among the audience he continued to accuse the government of Israel of extending the closure of the archive about the immigration of Iraqis to Israel for another 30 years.
"Nissim Rejwan sang the same tune.
"To be fair to Youssef Courbage, he did mention at the beginning of his talk that there were one million Jewish immigrants from Arab countries and that until the 80s, they were 50% of Israel’s Jewish population."
Alon Ben- Meir's address on 24 November