the BBC Arabic Service (trailer below) is broadcasting a programme by Omar Abdul-Razek called 'Arab Jews in Israel'. On the plus side : the programme humanises Jews in Israel, and interviews some who voice mainstream views - notably, Eli Avidar and Levana Zamir, who deftly quash the idea of a return to Arab lands while these are being poisoned with antisemitism. On the minus side, the programme adopts a far-left discourse, assuming 'Arab Jews' were exploited by Ashkenazim as a labour reservoir and stripped of their culture. It gives a voice to marginal figures like Professor Yehouda Shenhav and Almog Behar, who traffic the 1950s allegation that Israel suppressed the 'Arab ' heritage of Jews from Arab countries. The mere fact that the programme calls them 'Arab Jews' diminishes their separate Jewish identity. (Thanks to Levana for her translation from Arabic.)
Israeli Sociologist Yehuda Shenhav is standing before a plate hanging on one of the walls of his library crowded with hundreds of books: an old letter in Arabic handwriting, next to the envelope, is kept under glass.
Professor Shenhav says: "This is one of the letters exchanged between my father and my mother during my father's long absences from the house."
The text is filled with details and greetings to family members, asking about their financial and living conditions, but the envelope is covered with Israeli military censorship stamps.
Shenhav's father was working in Israeli intelligence, a sector in which Israel hired at its inception, a large number of Arab Jews, for the benefit of their language and in order to penetrate the "surrounding enemies". The problem in Shenhav's view is the contradiction that treated Israel's Jews from Arab Countries: "it erased their Arab culture and was increasingly in favor of the idea of integration, and at the same time used their arabism to legitimise the security organs of the State. "
The question of identity was the most pressing of for generations of Arab Jews. Says Shenhav: "It was the most important issue in the neighbourhood and outside the home. As a child in the tenth grade, for example, your family came originally from Iraq and spoke Arabic, you were ashamed of the Arabic language before school friends and teachers, because the dominant culture was Ashkenazi culture."
Perhaps the picture changed a bit with the improvement of political and social situation of the Arab Jews, and the emergence of a culture of indigenous music and food without stigma, though official statistics suggests that they come in third in the education sector, for example, after the Ashkenazi and Russian immigrants who came to Israel in the nineties.
History records that Arab Jews in Israel live between marginalization and integration, but that most of them did not embrace the idea of Zionism before the establishment of Israel. Yemenite Jews were the first arrivals to historic Palestine in the nineteenth century as an alternative to Arab workers in the plantations of European Jews. In Arahiv, a village near Kfar Saba generations the Dialy family lived. Eli has a large family at the moment. He speaks like a Palestinian Arab about his relationship with intimate neighbors in the Arab villages inside the Green Line, but his cousin Carvana complains of " Arab thieves" who are attacking the village and says she will not be upset if they are sent away. Arahiv itself was until Israel's occupation of the West Bank in 1967, a military zone in the front line with the Jordanian army. Eli recalls, "we lived among the lice, the place was full of snakes and coming from Yemen, they did not know any better - we worked and planted and raised cows until the situation improved." Eli's family came to Israel in 1949. Eli is taping his mother's recollections. She is approaching 100, her family from Yemen spoke the original dialect: "Yemen Melih Melih, Imam Yahya Melih."
As for the reasons for migration of Arab Jews from their countries to Israel, history will tell that many Jews believe Israel was the biggest beneficiary of the migration and even displaced Arab Jews so they would be a reservoir of labour. There are those who believe that they were forced to migrate after the escalation of the Palestinian Arab conflict.
It says that poor Arab Jews came to Israel through the Jewish Agency, and they had to live in development towns on the borders with the Arab countries, or in the homes vacated by Arab population, while the displaced middle class and the rich of them immigrated to Europe, America, Australia, South Africa. (Not true, especially in the case of Egypt, where only 6 percent of Jews were poor in 1948, according to historian Gudrun Kraemer - ed) Former Israeli ambassador Eli Avidar, head of manufacture of diamonds in Tel Aviv, worked in the Mossad and as Israeli Ambassador to Qatar and the European Union. His family emigrated from Egypt in 1967 in the wake of the Six Day War. They had Greek citizenship from Egypt in 1967. I asked him how his family stayed in Egypt until that date, despite rumors that Abdel Nasser persecuted the Jews?
He speaks in Egyptian slang which has not changed, "My father was a director of Cicurel, we were living well in Egypt without a problem, but after the 1967 war, there were demonstrations demanding the slaughter of the Jews," But what about the displacement in Egypt of its Jews? Avidar: "No one said it targeted the Jews, you will not find a history book to say it, but there was hatred of the Jews after the war, in 1948, and again with the 1967 war. We came to Israel only because our and relatives were here, but most of the Egyptian Jews who came to Israel emigrated after 1948."
On to the Egyptian Center in Tel Aviv, headed by Levana Zamir. She told me at length about the persecution suffered by the Jews in Egypt until they were forced to leave. "I was ten years old in May 1948, when David Ben-Gurion declared the establishment of the State of Israel. In the middle of the night a dozen Egyptian Officers came to our Villa in Helwan and arrested my uncle Habib Vidal. He was not Zionist, he had a printing-business. But King Farouk arrested 600 Jews when war broke out, to exchange them later with Egyptian prisoners of war. "
Levana tells how the Egyptian Government confiscated their family business, when a special law passed to confiscate all Zionists properties. And her uncle was released from prison after a year and a half, on condition he left Egypt for ever, without return.
Levana's family had to leave Egypt to France, where her father preferred to stay; but her mother insisted on going to Israel, to prevent her children from suffering racist abuse. The family were put up in a tent in the Tiberias Ma'abara (transit camp): "My mother was crying every night, because we could not get used to this kind of suffering, and I was ashamed to speak Arabic and I said I come from France, because Israel was then an Ashkenazi country".
At the Iraqi Café, at Mahane Yehuda market, I met with the Israeli poet Almog Behar, backgammon players with Arak on the table and challenging each other in Iraqi-Arabic, and shamelessly eating Iraqi foods and drinking Arak. But Behar is telling me about the demise of the Arab Jewish heritage , which is the most dangerous thing in his opinion.
Behar's grandmother came from Iraq and forgot the Hebrew language in the last days of her life and began to talk only in Arabic only. He loved his grandmother and loved to communicate with her. He tells me: of course there was an attempt over the past decades to erase the Arab culture fully of the Jews of the Arab world, but this attempt did not succeed completely: my grandfather and my grandmother spoke Arabic but not my mum. The schools sent teachers home and called for Arab Jews to stop talking Arabic.
According to Behar, what is becoming extinct is not only the Arab Jewish communities but the Arab heritage of Judaism, that heritage which was recited in prayer books and poems in synagogues over the centuries, but does not exist now, because "the Zionist discourse that the Jews cannot be Arabs and Arabs can not to be Jews, has been accepted by both the Israeli and Arab sides, with the exception of countries such as Morocco.
"In September of last year, sponsored by the Israeli Foreign Ministry, an international conference was organised at theUnited Nations entitled Justice for Jewish refugees from Arab countries, accusing the Arab League of responsibility for driving out the Jews from Arab countries, and demanded compensation for them no less than that demanded by the Palestinian refugees. Months afterwards, a controversy erupted in Egypt following the invitation launched by the Muslim Brotherhood leader Essam el-Erian calling for Arab Jews to return to their home countries and the restoration of their property.
On the beach in the city of Bat Yam, where a large Egyptian community lives till today, I met Egyptians again, most of whom came from Alexandria. I asked them, why do not you return? They said: Israel is our country and we don’t know another one.
I asked Eli Avidar, he said: "The Jews from Egypt have still a positive memory of Egypt, but the problem is that when the Jews from Egypt listen to the radio and watch television what is being said about the Jews, and even Jews of Egypt, one wants to forget that he was born in Egypt."
As for Levana Zamir, who participated at the UN conference, her opinion is that Egypt is not yet ready for this idea of Return: "Egypt where we were born, which we have built, and where we lived in prosperity, where the Jews of Egypt built the first banks and businesses, Bank Mosseri, Bank Qattawi … This Egypt of ours, disappeared, does not exist. "
The position expressed by Professor Shenhav, is nostalgic, but stresses that political realism will not allow this dream. Extremism comes from extremist Jewish nationalism and a sense of nationalism in the Arab countries as well.
The picture may seem complex, and complexity is an extension of the region's political scene, a scene that establishes Israel as a country of Middle Eastern or Mizrahi Jews and Arabs, the largest demographic group.
'Arab Jews in Israel' will be shown on the BBC TV Arabic Servlce at the following times (GMT):
27/04/2013 02:06:00 02:30:00 becomes “Assignment – Arab Jews (first placing)
27/04/2013 12:06:00 12:30:00 becomes “Assignment – Arab Jews (repeat)
28/04/2013 12:06:00 12:30:00 becomes “Assignment – Arab Jews (repeat)
29/04/2013 02:06:00 02:30:00 becomes “Assignment – Arab Jews (repeat)
29/04/2013 10:06:00 10:30:00 becomes “Assignment – Arab Jews (repeat)