Ever since his research project into the mysterious Aleppo Codex brought him into contact with Syrian Jews in Israel, Matti Friedman began to realise that Israel must cease to be seen as a European enclave, but as the home of 50 percent of Jews native to the Middle East. Their history must be restored to the very centre of the Jewish story. Read his blog in The Forward:
Two Jewish worlds came to an end in the 1940s. We are familiar with the first, which many of us think of simply as the Jewish world: Jewish humor, Jewish cuisine, Jewish writing — all of these terms apply, in North American parlance, to the Jews of Europe. The Jewish world of the Middle East included fewer people and ended in less cataclysmic circumstances. But it was just as Jewish and just as important, and it is just as gone.
In discussing the modern state of Israel, the Jews of the Middle East are often mentioned as a kind of curiosity, an aside in what we tell as a European story — pogroms, Herzl, Zionism, the Holocaust. In this story, Jews and Arabs first encountered each other in the late 19th century; we imagine the Russian-born pioneer encountering the Arab fellah on the rocky soil of Palestine. But that isn’t true, and the Jews who had always lived in the Middle East are not a footnote.
When Islam began in Arabia, Jews were there, and when the first Muslims began spreading to cities across the Mideast, they found Jews there as well. Jews were recognized by Islam as a protected, second-class ethnic group, dhimmi, sometimes persecuted, sometimes tolerated. They were generally considered to be effete and without honor. In recent years it has become common to speak of the Muslim Middle East as a haven in which Jews thrived, but this is nonsense; the Islamic world owes its good reputation in this regard to Europeans, who set a standard for mistreatment that is impossible to match.
Jews had existed in the Muslim imagination for many centuries by the time the first Zionists arrived in the Middle East, and the place they occupied in that imagination made the Zionist project problematic in ways that are still playing out. Jews were inferior to Muslims by definition. They were weak, a subject community, and that made their success in Palestine impossible to accept: Being beaten and outsmarted by a powerful empire like Britain or France was one thing. Being beaten and dominated by Jews — as Arabs were, again and again, before 1948 and in subsequent wars — was a humiliation that simply could not be accepted. It was like being beaten by a girl. The depth of this humiliation, which lies at the root of today’s conflict, is something Israel and its supporters have too often failed to appreciate.
The dissonance between the very old Muslim perception of the Jew and the reality of the 20th century came to be explained in the Arab world by turning to conspiracy theories. Jews could not have beaten Muslims fairly; they were nefarious, and here Europeans had plenty of material they were happy to share, and which was translated into Arabic and still enthusiastically circulates across the Middle East. (I have encountered the Protocols of the Elders of Zion at otherwise normal bookstores in Istanbul and Cairo and in an academic bookstore adjacent to the prestigious American University of Beirut.)
By the 1950s, most of the Jews of the Middle East were concentrated in Israel, and they played a central role in forging the national life of the country. And yet it has been convenient for all parties, Israelis included, to describe Israel as a European enclave. For Israelis, this claim allows them a sense of superiority. For the Arabs, it allows the erasure of the fate of their own Jewish communities and enables them to portray Israel as a Western invader. It has become cliché, for example, to note that hummus and falafel and other Middle Eastern foods that Israelis consider to be Israeli are in fact a native cuisine appropriated by newcomers. This only makes sense if you don’t understand that fully 50 percent of Israel’s Jews are the people who were kicked out of Islamic countries or their descendants — the cuisine of the Mideast, of course, belongs to them and their countrymen as much as it does to anyone else. When we look at Israel and its neighbors, and at the last Jewish century, we would benefit by restoring this missing history to its place — right at the center of the story.