Wednesday, April 13, 2016

The trauma haunting Israel's voters began in Arab lands

 You cannot understand the Middle East unless you understand the Jews from Arab countries. In this articulate blogpost, Joseph Timan explains why an appreciation of the experience of Jews in Arab countries is fundamental to the Israeli psyche,  swinging Israeli elections to right-wing parties.

King Faisal visiting Jewish leaders in Iraq in the 1920s

I’ve grown accustomed to the sheer surprise on people’s faces when I tell them that my parents are both Jewish and Iraqi. Yes, we exist. And so did Jewish communities in other Arab lands, the largest of which were in North Africa, but also notably in the Middle Eastern countries of Yemen and Syria. Jews living in Arab countries of the Middle East and North Africa once totaled 800,000. Today, with few exceptions, these communities no longer exist. Having previously taken some pleasure out of the surprised response I receive, I’ve now realised how incomplete an understanding of the Arab-Israeli conflict is, in the absence of the historical narrative of Jews from Arab lands and their descendants, who make up half of the Israeli electorate.

 Having lived in ‘the West’ all of my life, the majority of people I encounter who have met Jews, tend to have met Jews of European descent, or Ashkenazim. Those who haven’t yet had the fortune of such an encounter, tend to presume an image of the European all the same. After all, we ‘Jews of Colour’ make up a minority of the Jewish population in Europe and North America, which is predominated by Ashkenazim. But this isn’t a strictly non-Jewish phenomenon. Throughout my time at the largest Jewish school in Europe, the surprised reaction, although less common, was still there. Our minority representation in the British Jewry made this ignorance an unquestioned given.

(...) the most fundamental, and yet most overlooked factor is the shared historical narrative of the ‘ethnic’ electorate which swung the election and has shifted Israeli political discourse further right ever since. Although anti-Arab sentiment may not be at the forefront of voters’ minds, their experiences in Arab countries has a profound impact on their trust, sympathies and attitudes towards Palestinians and Arab Israelis, who are seen in many ways as the same enemy. What’s more, the politicisation of anti-Zionist and anti-Semitic sentiments within Islam, intensified a fear and distrust of Muslims – a fear perpetuated by continued anti-Semitism in parts of the Muslim world, and just over the border by Hamas in Gaza. The fact that this ethnic group make up half of the Israeli electorate, and have at points outnumbered their European counterparts, makes this shared historical narrative a fundamental characteristic of the Israeli psyche.

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