(Photo: Institut Sepharade Europeen)
Nathan Weinstock: Sephardi Jews were different
Why did a Belgian Ashkenazi ex-Trotskyist decide to write a book about Jews from Arab countries? Adi Schwartz provides the answer in this long interview with Nathan Weinstock, whose ground-breaking work, Une si longue presence: comment le monde arabe a perdu ses juifs, is now out in Hebrew translation. Here is the first part of the article in English, which appeared in the Hebrew edition of Haaretz.
Nathan Weinstock never planned to write a book about Jews in Arab countries. This has happened almost by accident, he says. Every time he tried to find information about the modern history of the Jews of Morocco or Iraq, he was surprised to find that there is no book in French which tells the story of the elimination of the Jewish communities in the Middle East in the second half of the 20th century . "Ultimately," he says, " I decided to write it myself."
As part of an Ashkenazi family born and living in Belgium, he was rarely introduced to Sephardic Jews, but as he began to socialize in Paris in the 60s with Jewish students from Morocco, Iraq and Egypt, he noticed something which is very different. " There was not the reluctance to observe tradition which characterized the Ashkenazi Jews I knew," he says .
Ashkenazi Jews have always felt the need to distance themselves from Judaism, but Sephardic Jews felt no embarrassment in relation to their Jewish origins. An event he attended 15 years ago in Brussels was a significant catalyst for writing. The Egyptian ambassador was invited to a meeting with Egyptian Jews who then lived in Belgium. " The ambassador was pale," says Weinstock in an interview from his home in southern France, " he was afraid I think they would lynch him."
Lynch not in a physical, but moral sense. He had good reason to fear : just 10 minutes before he arrived, the Jews of Egypt were waiting for him. They told me stories of horror, of the difficulties and hardships that befell them in Egypt. But as soon as he arrived, a huge wave of nostalgia engulfed the room, and all these refugees were able to talk about was the pot of meat they left behind in Cairo and Alexandria. I got to know the difficult stories of some of them. Those people have suffered greatly, yet, at the same time, they savor their last days in Egypt. "
This strong relationship with their roots surprised Weinstock. "They had tears in their eyes ," he says . "Only then I realized how strong were the roots of Egyptian Jews in their homeland. The story I knew was that the Jews in Arab countries were happy to leave as soon as they were given the opportunity to do so. They did not tell us anything about the deep connection of the Jews to Arab culture, for example . It was only later that I learned that literature in Iraq was based on Jewish writers, and in Egypt, the man who invented in the 19th century the nationalist slogan " Egypt, Egypt " and was called the Egyptian Moliere, was a Jew named Jacob Sanua.
" The research I discovered made me understand that the story being told, that the Jews from Arab countries left because they were Zionists, is largely incorrect. It is certainly true that they connected to Israel as Israel, no doubt about that, but the organized Zionist movement was very weak in Arab countries. There were of course Zionists here and there but the great mass of Jews from Arab countries left because they were made to. The were expelled. There was such heavy pressure by the authorities and the general population, that they were given no choice but to leave . "
In this sense, says Weinstock, there is no big difference between the Jews who came to Israel from Romania or Poland and the Jews who came from Iraq and Libya . " Zionism estimated correctly the consequences of anti-Semitism," he says, " and historical events confirmed its forecasts. Unfortunately, the Jews were persecuted in their countries to a level such that they could not continue living in them. It happened in Eastern Europe, and it happened in the Arab countries."
Weinstock, a self-taught historian, previously published long studies on the Bund in Eastern Europe and Yiddish literature. He decided to take on the task and write the chronicle of the Expulsion of the Jews. He wanted to explore the myths and confront them with historical reality. The result was published in France in 2008 - Une si longue presence: Comment le monde Arabe a perdu ses juifs" and is now out in Hebrew (publisher Babel, with Hagit Bat-Ada) .
Weinstock 's decision to engage with the expulsion of Jews from Arab countries would be less interesting were it not for his political biography: he was considered one of the leaders of anti- Zionism in France in the 60s and 70s.
In those days he was someone who would describe Israel and Zionism as a colonial project that aimed to deprive the Palestinians of their land. In recent years he made a dramatic about-turn of thought that led him to explore a painful and little-spoken of aspect of the Israeli-Arab conflict .
"This book is a story of tragedy," writes Weinstock in the preface to the special Hebrew edition. "This is the uprooting of hundreds of thousands of Mizrahi Jews, torn brutally from their homes and native lands. Entire communities of Jews who were forever in the Arab/Muslim world - knew expulsions, persecution and terrible murder. However, this drama is not yet known and for a long time has been denied. "
Weinstock devoted a whole chapter to Jews living in the Holy Land under Muslim rule before the establishment of Israel. He explains that the pattern of relations between the Jewish minority and Muslim majority over the centuries was not only historically important, but also applies nowadays, as they form the basis of relations between Israel and the Arabs. Anyone who wants to understand the Israeli - Arab conflict today, Weinstock argues, must recognize the early complex history of these relations.
Part ll of this translation
Haaretz article in English (Registration required)
Original article in Hebrew
Review by Lyn Julius (Dissent)