Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Jews are not foreign but too familiar

 Inhabitants of Mosul fleeing the ISIS jihadist advance, among them many Christians.

In what has become a fascinating exchange of ideas in the Tablet, Matti Friedman elaborates on the idea that Israel is part of the Middle Eastern story. As a Middle Eastern minority, Israel has inverted the natural order of things by becoming sovereign in its own land. But what makes Israel even more of an affront, in my view, is that Jews were viewed as a 'despised' minority of feminised cowards. That is what makes Israel's military victories so hard to swallow. (With thanks David; Michelle)

 Over the past few weeks, in a part of Iraq that is closer to my home in Jerusalem than Detroit is to New York, a fanatical strain of Islam has executed an astonishing advance, butchering other Muslims and forcing the further exodus of native minorities like the Christians of Mosul. Some Christians from Mosul have taken refuge in the hills with the Chaldeans, members of a tiny Christian group with their own language and culture, whose future amid the extreme sectarian violence in Iraq is likely to be brief. Other native Iraqi sects, like the Yazidis, have seen entire villages destroyed. Syrian cities like Aleppo and Homs, home to some of the oldest Christian communities in the world, have been devastated and those communities displaced.

One of the biggest stories in the region in the past century—the disappearance of the old cosmopolitan mosaic that always found a way to exist under Islam but no longer can—has now picked up speed to an extent that would have been hard to imagine even two or three years ago. Soon these communities will all be gone, and one of the great cultural losses of our times will be complete.

As it happens, about an hour before sitting down to write these lines I was speaking with a grandson of the Levi and Barazani families of Mosul. That city houses what is traditionally held to be the tomb of the prophet Jonah and is associated with the biblical Nineveh; its ancient Jewish community left en masse for Israel in the 1950s. He called to speak about another matter, but we spent a few minutes being thankful that the Jews were removed in time to spare them the fate they would have met this month.

In my Mosaic essay, I wanted to bring the Jews of the Middle East into the heart of Israel’s story. But I was also trying to make the point that Israel itself is part of the Middle Eastern story—and not just because it has fought wars with Arab states. When one looks at the recently exiled Mandaeans, Zoroastrians, Christians, and others, the Jews displaced by Muslims from their ancestral homes beginning in the mid-20th century begin to look more and more like the proverbial canary in the coal mine. This is a role that Jews have often played in different parts of the world.

Are you an ethnic or religious minority that wishes to survive in the Middle East? You had better have a piece of land in which you are the majority, and the power to defend it. This is the lesson of the Kurds, as has been vividly brought home this past month, and it is the lesson of Israel.

The Jewish state is as imperfect as any state, and is not an Eden of religious tolerance and harmony. But with its growing populations of Middle Eastern and European Jews, Sunni Muslims, Arab Christians, and Druze, with its synagogues, Baha’i shrines, and Eastern, Catholic, and Protestant churches, it serves as one of the last minority bulwarks in a region that seems intent on expelling its minorities or consuming them alive. Israel is an intolerable affront to so many of its neighbors, and has been long before 1967 or (for that matter) 1948, not because Jews are foreign here but in large part because they are not foreign—they are a familiar local minority that has inverted the order of things by winning wars and becoming sovereign.

None of this will be easily apparent to anyone still trying to understand Israel through the old Hebrew folksongs, through the saga of the Zionist pioneers, or through the lens of colonialism. Israel is different from what its European Jewish founders imagined, and I think it is fine, in 2014, to say this and to say it without regret. Israel is in the Middle East, its population is largely Middle Eastern, and its culture and society increasingly reflect those facts. It is a Jewish state—and Jews are native to the Middle East. I hope that my essay made a modest contribution to advancing this proposition, which I believe should shape our understanding of Israel in the 21st century.

Read article in full 

Israel is a Mizrahi nation by Matti Friedman

Andre Aciman's response 

Arye Tepper's response

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