Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Aciman: Jews erased from Arab memory

Andre Aciman, the Egyptian-Jewish novelist (above), has penned this response to Matti Friedman's excellent essay Mizrahi Nation, published in Mosaic magazine. He broadly agrees with Friedman - except in one respect: the irksome memory of the Jews is no longer alive among Arabs, but has been brutally erased, so that the false charge of colonialism can levelled at Israel.

As the grandson of an Aleppan Jew, I needed to be reminded of what happened to Jews in two of the most ancient capitals of Middle Eastern Jewry—Aleppo and Baghdad—in the wake of the 1947 UN vote to partition Palestine.Matti Friedman accomplishes this very strongly in the opening section of his essay, “Mizrahi Nation.” By invoking events in present-day Syria, he also allows us to imagine what massacres would have resulted today had Syria’s remaining Jews not fled Hafez el-Assad’s viciously anti-Semitic regime.

As a Jew from Egypt, I was also pleased to see Friedman bring up the fate of the one-million displaced and dispossessed Jews of the Arab and Muslim world, about whom little or no mention is ever made in the press or in institutions of higher learning in the U.S. and around the world. Yet the vast majority of these Jews were autochthonous to the Middle East, and their presence there (as Friedman notes) predates the advent of Islam or of Christianity, in some cases by more than a thousand years.

No less compelling is Friedman’s treatment of the lingering aftereffects of nationalism, the dominant political ideology in Europe in the mid- to late-19th century, whose arrival in the Middle East at the turn of the 20th century is what spurred the persecution of Jews in many Arab countries. This contradicts the frequent claim that the real irritant to Arab and Muslim sensibilities was either the Zionist movement or the creation of Israel. “Rather,” as Friedman writes,
Zionism exacerbated a growing precariousness that, like Zionism itself, was a result of the advent of modernity and the rise of nationalism, and that appeared atop an older and more stable kind of discrimination.

Indeed, Friedman reminds us, Jews had always held—at best—second-class status in the lands stretching from the Ottoman Empire and the Middle East all the way around the Mediterranean littoral west to Morocco. To pretend that something like an era of convivencia lasted more than a few decades in Andalusia during the centuries after the Moorish conquest or, in the Ottoman Empire, after the initial welcome extended to Jews in the aftermath of their 1492 expulsion from Spain, is to engage in mythmaking. The dhimmitude of Jews in the Middle East has a long, ugly, and painful history.

Friedman might have done well in this connection to note what ultimately freed many Jews from their inferior status: namely, the advent of the much-deprecated force of Western colonialism. For the impoverished Jewish communities of the Middle East, British and French colonialism, accompanied by such large-scale educational enterprises as the Alliance IsraĆ©lite Universelle, enabled rapid acquisition of modern languages, culture, and values. But such liberation also exacted a price. If one recalls Benzion Netanyahu’s thesis on the origins of anti-Semitism in ancient Egypt (where Jews allegedly sided with the foreign power—first Greece, then Rome—against local Egyptians), one might better grasp how, 2,000 years later, Arabs and Turks would come to nurse ill-will toward Jews the moment the latter began turning their eyes to the West.

Still, there are nuances and ironies here that complicate Friedman’s linking of modern Islamic anti-Semitism with the burgeoning of nationalism in the Middle East. Take, during this same period, the hasty rise of Jews in modern Egypt, to say nothing of their visible presence as bankers and members of the Egyptian parliament. In Syria, where anti-Semitism hit hard in the 1920s, my grandfather was among the many who left; but unlike those whom Friedman mentions as having ended up in New York City or Manchester, he moved to Egypt, where he set himself up as a bicycle merchant and prospered. Other relatives of mine, from the Ottoman Empire, did go temporarily to England and the United States, but didn’t settle there. They, too, would make their homes in Egypt, where they felt safe and became wealthy. British colonialism was a significant help to them and many others like them; in fact, it was only with the disappearance and displacement of colonialism and the protectorate system by homegrown autocrats that their sojourn in Egypt was brought to an abrupt and brutal end.

And that brings us to Israel, the alleged thorn in the side of the Arab and Islamic peoples of the Middle East, and to the issue of Israel’s legitimacy—a legitimacy vociferously denied by its enemies who to this day insist on branding it as an alien, Western intrusion into their homeland territory.

Friedman’s answer to this charge, more implied than stated, goes something like this. Yes, Ashkenazi Jews were central to the founding of Israel. Yes, Israel was the brainchild of the Viennese Theodor Herzl, and, as the long-dreamed-of homeland of world Jewry, it did indeed come about through being settled largely by European Jews fleeing pogroms, poverty, and the Holocaust. But even if not seminal to the country’s founding, the living, breathing Mizrahim of present-day Israel are the direct descendants of the same Jews of the Middle East who continuously inhabited that region since long before the advent of Islam until their summary expropriation and expulsion from most of it in the mid-20th century. Jews, in other words, are not exogenous to the Middle East; they have always been there.

According to Friedman, the Arab and Muslim peoples who expropriated and then expelled their Jewish populations still harbor the irksome memory of a Jewish presence in their midst. In this I believe he is largely mistaken. Arabs schooled in the Middle East after 1956 have no knowledge whatsoever that Jews once lived among them. The propaganda machine has erased (or defaced) all vestiges of Jewry, and the names of streets bearing Jewish names have been altered. Ask anyone in my home town of Alexandria where the Jewish cemetery is and you will get a baffled look. A Jewish cemetery?

Read article in full


Sylvia said...

I am following the presidential elections in Israel and there is a a chance we might have the first "Mizrahi" President (Navon doesn't count he said he regards himself as a European ladino being a European language)

The contenders:
Reuven Rivlin (Likud), Meir Shitrit (Kadima), Dan Shechtman (the Nobel Prize, first timer in politics), Dalia Dormer (former Justice, chairwoman of Journalists Association), Dalia Itzik (Labor)

Two Mizrahim with good chances (Sylvan Shalom and Fouad Ben Eliezer) were targeted by new investigations. Sylvan Shalom was hit with allegations of "rape fifteen years ago" at the beginning of the race so he had time to clear his name, but decided not to run.

For Eliezer his anonymous detractors waited until 4 days before the vote (of which Friday and Shabat) to embroil him in a police investigation for which a lot of time is needed to present documents. He too decided not to run.

Bibi's actions however were most puzzling. First he wanted to defer the vote to a later date, then he changed his mind and threw the idea that David Levy should run (without going as far as endorsing him) but David Levy smelling a rotten fish has declined. Clearly, Bibi wanted to divide the "Mizrahi" vote.

As to Rivlin, I think he is very well qualified, very assertive, very attentive to human rights, and a Likudnik very much to the right.
Bibi didn't want him and it was clear they didn't get along, but rather than vote for Shetrit or someone to his left Bibi finally and reluctantly endorsed Reuven Rivlin.

The left and radical left of which Meretz, have endorsed Dormer and Zahava Galon sounds like she is biting her fingers at the moment.

Meir Shitrit is originally from Boujad in Morocco, a very small town that was also the birthplace of Amir Peretz (former Defense Minister and former head of the Labor party) of Yehudah Lancry (former ambassador to the UN and Mayor of Acco). Boujad is known for having produced a great number of lawyers, law professionals and law professors mainly Muslims but also many of them Jewish.

Meir Shetrit himself served at one point Justice Minister.

Stay tuned. I'll post the results as soon as they're in.

Sylvia said...

Rivlin 44
Shitrit 33
Itzik 28
Dormer 13
Shechtman 8

There will be a second round Rivlin/Shitrit since Rivlin doesn't have 50 votes

Sylvia said...

Regarding Itzik she used to be Labor but left for Kadima when Peretz became the party's chairman.

bataween said...

Thanks for being our political correspondent. From what you say about Rivlin, he sounds like a safe pair of hands

Sylvia said...


Rivlin 44
Shitrit 31
Shechtman 1 (his)

Regarding Itzik she used to be Labor but left for Kadima when Peretz became the party's chairman.
I don't know that she will endorse Shetrit in the second round even though they're from the same party. She once said of Amir Peretz:"he came from nowhere and he is going nowhere"

Meretz now supports Shetrit for the second round.

Anonymous said...

seems too complicated for a Jew outside Israel with no accesss to Israeli TV!

Sylvia said...

Bataween yes but Rivlin is not a proponent of two states unless he has changed his mind recently.

So far, support is growing for Meir Shitrit:
New endorsements: Dahlia Itzik (Kadima) and Eytan Cabel Labor chairman join Meretz in support of Meir Shitrit.

But too early to say. Lieberman is the big unknown and will be a determinant since ideologically he is closer to Rivlin.
Arab parties are more likely to vote for Shitrit than Rivlin.

Sylvia said...

This is a very difficult choice.

Facing each other are two very good people who unlike Peres will be closer to the people and truly "President for ALL the people).
Both are very democratic and human rights are important to them.

The difference is that Rivlin is for one state solution (under Jewish rule)and Shitrit is for a two state solution.

Rivlin is from a family that has been in Israel for many generations.

Dalia Itzik to reporters at this moment voices support for Meir Shitrit.

Sheli Yechimovitch supports Rivlin even though ideologically they far apart.

The radio host mentioned that it will be determined also along "ethnic" lines.

The vote for the second round is starting shortly.

Stay tuned.

Sylvia said...

Shas although they were told to vote each according to his conscience will very likely for the most part vote for Rivlin.

The reason is that 7 years ago in the race between Rivlin and Peres Shas voted in bloc for Peres but Rav Ovadia promised to Rivlin that the next time around they'll support him. The next time is now.

So obviously this will not be decided along ethnic lines.

Second round in process at this time.

Sylvia said...

Deri is saying that there was no promise by Rav Ovadia Yosef. What he told Rivlin, he says, was: "You are qualified to be President.

Deri is apparently voting for Shitrit.

Naftali Bennet's Jewish Home ALL vote Rivlin. Predictable.

They are at the letter lamed. MKs are called to vote in alphabetical order.

Sylvia said...

Reuven Rivlin is the 10th President of Israel

63 votes for Ruby Rivlin
53 votes for Meir Shitrit

bataween said...

thanks Sylvia - as you say the voting was not on ethnic lines

Eliyahu m'Tsiyon said...

Reuben Rivlin won 63 to 53 over Meir Shitreet. Rivlin's family came to Jerusalem about 1810.

Eliyahu m'Tsiyon said...

background of the Rivlin according to family writings


Sylvia said...

Haaretz must have taken their poll among extra-terrestrials:They had Dorner winning (she had 13 votes) with Schechman second (he received one vote)

Sylvia said...

Correction meir Shetrit is not from Boujad as I wrote, he was born in Ksar as-Souk. Sorry for the confusion in the heat of the elections.