Thursday, December 27, 2007

Did Israel cause the rift between Jews and Arabs?

Did Jews and Arabs live in harmony before Israel caused a rift between them? Or was it the other way around, with Arab dictatorships needing the Jews and Israel to be their 'whipping boy'? Here is one reader's view, with my reply below. All are welcome to join the debate.

Dear Point of no Return

Your blog is new to me, though I come from an old Mizrahi family. I myself was born in Haleb (Aleppo), into a family that had lived there for almost 200 years, while my mother came from Haifa. One of my earliest memories is witnessing the burning of the synagogue in Aleppo, as at the time we lived opposite. We had to leave, and eventually ended in England.

I think it's unfortunate that your blog presents only one view of this history: as you state in your Introduction that `Israel is the legitimate expression of the self-determination of an oppressed, indigenous, Middle Eastern people'. In my view, it was the creation of the state of Israel that caused the rift between the various communities in the Middle East, which had lived there mostly in harmony for centuries.

Your blog tries to decry the `myth of a Golden Age' in the Middle East before the state of Israel. Whatever tensions and conflicts between communities there may have been, there were no pogroms, and certainly no holocaust. Both my parents told me stories of generally harmonious relations with their Arab neighbours.

Zionism as an ideology originated in eastern Europe, I think you must admit. The long struggle of Mizrahi Jews to gain anything approaching recognition in Israel testifies to the European colonial origins of the state of Israel. This was evident to me when I visited Israel as a boy, already in 1953, with my mother to visit her extended family, and saw through her eyes what was becoming of the Palestine she had known.

Even if you don't agree with this, I think it's a valid viewpoint held by very many Sephardi. Why can't we have some genuine debate about this crucial issue?

Sol Picciotto


Dear Sol

I too come from an old Mizrahi family. (Funnily enough, my ancestor also came from Aleppo, but moved to Baghdad in 1699.)

They were the most Arabised of Jews. My family was prosperous and had many Arab friends. However, their recollections are quite different to yours. They recall the 1941 pogrom which killed 179 Jews and that permanent feeling of insecurity so well captured in Albert Memmi's essay, "Who is an Arab Jew?"

One cannot deny that, as Memmi says, Jews did suffer from pogroms throughout their history among the Arabs. Let the 'golden age' myth not blind one to the fact that fundamentalist Muslims caused Maimonides to flee Spain. In Syria, there were dozens of blood libels* during the 19th century.

Of course there were good times and I know your family played an important part. But there were also bad times. I agree that the Jews suffered the repercussions of Arab hostility to Israel. But I happen to believe that the Jews would have been 'ethnically cleansed' in any case, due to the pressures of Arab nationalism, as were most of the non-Muslim minorities.

You are right that Zionism's origins are European. But then Arab nationalism too is a European import, and the 22 Arab states carved out of the Ottoman empire by the British and the French are nothing if not artificial.

When things got unbearable for them, your family was lucky enough to find refuge in England. As was mine. But would England have taken in the vast majority of destitute Mizrahi Jewish refugees, the Jews from Yemen and the Jews from Northern Iraq? Israel was ready to welcome them in and give them full citizens' rights. At least in their own state, for the first time, they would be masters of their own fate.

I'm surprised that your mother found 1953 Israel more European than the Palestine she had known. If you visited today you would find the country much more Middle Eastern than it was. Let's not forget - half the Jewish population are Mizrahi.


Account of the 1840 Damascus affair, in which Isaac Picciotto was one of the 16 accused Jews


Epaminondas said...

This is all anecdotal history. How about a nice fat dose of Joan Peters (yeah yeah I know, - cherry picking, but you can't claim her research on what happened to the jews of the ME and Africa is not utterly true)

As an american who happens to be jewish, never that religious, but has been in touch with arabs in the gulf on most days in a rather unvarnished fashion, and able to speak back and forth ... I can state without much doubt that jews around the world do not experience problems and hate because of Israel, ...rather it is Israel which is hated because it is full of jews.

Of course there is always this to explain Israel's exceptional and compulsory existance as well.

Eliyahu m'Tsiyon said...

Zionism as an organized movement started in Central and Eastern Europe in the 19th century. But as an idea Zionism goes back to the Bible. Read the book of Zechariah. The post Hurban Jewish tradition through Bar Kokhba and even our daily prayers [see the tenth blessing of the `Amidah (= 18 Blessings) prayer.

Now, Mr Picciotto had a relative who lived in Syria in 1840 and represented a European power as a consul there. That Picciotto was also involved in the Damascus Affair. Can today's Picciotto explain the 1840 Damascus Affair as having been caused somehow by Israel?? In fact, Islamic Judeophobic goes back to early Islam, to Muhammad. What about the medieval Muslim fable now included in the Hamas charter, Article 7? The fable goes like this: At Judgement Day, the Muslims will fight the Jews who will hide rocks and trees. The rocks and trees will cry out: O Muslim, a Jew is hiding behind me. Come kill him.
Can Mr Picciotto explain this fable as other than Judeophobia unconnected to the State of Israel???
Yes, it's quite possible that your family and others had friendly relations with Muslims. So what? Did your family's friends make policy?
By the way, I don't blame the Arabs/Muslims themselves entirely for their current Judeophobia. I think a lot of the blame goes to the British for encouraging Arabs to hate Jews in Israel and elsewhere, and for --in general-- building up Arab nationalism/Muslim peoples' nationalism. You are too young to have been an eyewitness to the Armenian massacres of WW One. But there was no Israel then. If anything, the Armenian genocide stimulated Jews in Israel to seek to get out of Ottoman/Muslim control. Sarah Aaronsohn had seen the wretched convoys of Armenians while she traveled by train from Constantinople to Haifa.

Another point. Leon Pinsker, a pre-Herzl Zionist, wrote about Judeophobia in the 2nd half of the 19th century. He cited Morocco, as well as Russia and Rumania, as the countries where the Jews were most oppressed. Was he inventing the oppressed state of the Jews in Morocco at that time??

bataween said...

I've added a link to an account of the Damascus affair which as you rightly mention involved a member of the Picciotto family. Sol would probably blame this incident on the French...

Anonymous said...


According to the Illustrated Atlas of Jewish Civilization by Josephine Bacon with maps by Sir Martin Gilbert, the first purchase of land in Israel by Sir Moses Montefiore, who was not a Zionist at the time, was made more-or-less on the heels of the Damascus Blood Libel and the Safed pogroms and not for the relief of Ashkenazic Jews at all. I'm afraid your correspondent's opinions are heavily influenced by living in the UK. The media there is just awful on the whole subject of Zionism and Israel.