Friday, May 09, 2008

What really happened to the Middle East's Jews?

Barry Rubin of the Gloria Research Center makes the very important point that, on the rare occasions when Jewish refugees of the Middle East are mentioned as in this Reuters piece, the treatment they suffered is rationalised as an 'understandable backlash' to Israel's creation. In fact, had Israel never existed, Jews and Christians would still have been 'ethnically cleansed' from Arab countries (with thanks: Jerusalem Posts) :

"Uh-oh! It's Israel's sixtieth birthday and that means articles on Israel in the news media and, in turn, that may often mean something between inaccuracy and slander.

I've been conditioned by now to know what to expect. Let's try a test. Read the following headline from a Reuters story, and guess the theme. Ready? Here we go:

"Israel's Advent Altered Outlook For Middle East Jews."

My assumption was that the headline implied a story saying: everything was fine for Jews in the Arab world and Iran until Israel was created and that fact was responsible for forcing them to leave. The article itself isn't that bad, does include material to the contrary, and doesn't directly blame the destruction of these communities on Israel's creation. Yet still this is an implication, no doubt, that many readers will take away from the text. Consider this formulation. The article states: "The 1948 war at Israel's creation, which forced some 700,000 Palestinians to flee their homeland, hardened Arab attitudes to deep-rooted Jewish minorities across the Middle East."

Get it? First the Palestinians flee and then the Arabs get angry at the Jews. Up to then the Jewish minorities are "deep-rooted" which implies they were well accepted and secure.

A couple of paragraphs down the article continues:

"Israeli statistics show more than 760,000 Middle Eastern Jews had moved to Israel by 2006, with more than 40 percent arriving in the first three years of the state's existence."

So let's summarize:

Step 1: Palestinians become refugees

Step 2: Arabs are angry. (Can you blame them?)

Step 3: They take it out on the Jews or at least these Jews "moved," a word used for when you get a new job, load up the U-Haul and head across town.

In other words, the sins of Israel's creation include both Palestinian Arabs and Middle Eastern Jews becoming refugees, rather than it involving a de facto population transfer with an equal cost to both sides, and in which only the deliberate creation of permanent refugee status for Palestinians by their own leaders and Arab states produced prosperity on one side and ongoing problems for the other.

What this concept also leaves out, at least in part, is:

  • Centuries'-long discrimination against Jews, ranging from the mild to the violent, including forced conversions at times, a problem Moses Maimonides was dealing with nine hundred years ago. Of course, as in Europe, there were long periods (certainly in Iraq and Egypt, for example) in which Jews fared very well. This is not to say that all Jews lived terribly among their Arab neighbors but clearly this was a major factor in their lives. A strong current of anti-Semitism in Islam long preceded the origin of Zionism.

    To be fair the article does say:

    "In the past, Moroccan Jews were considered subordinate to Muslims and discrimination was widespread. Every city has its Mellah, the poorest quarter to which Jews were once confined. Their residents were the first to leave when they could." And it mentions that "Over 120,000 [Iraqi Jews] were flown to Israel after 1948 when government persecution intensified.

  • Rising Arab nationalism which was not all or mostly, in contrast to what the article seems to argue, due to Zionism or Israel's creation. Even the secular nationalist movements had a strong tinge of Islam also, certainly so in North Africa, which made it hard to believe that Jews would be welcome in the future regardless of Israel.
  • It should be noted that Christians, too, have been pushed out of the Arab world and often treated badly, though their treatment varies widely among different countries. Indeed, leaving aside Egypt, the proportion of Christian emigration approaches that of Jewish emigration. There is a serious problem with intolerance in Arabic-speaking countries and a dominant "secular" nationalism (with some exception for Syria and Lebanon) that in fact discriminates against non-Muslims. Even if Israel had never been created, a high proportion of Jews would certainly have left or been forced to leave.

  • No mention of major violent incidents like the 1941 pogrom in Baghdad or a massacre a few years later in Yemen. Nor does it mention that Yemeni Jews had to flee their homes a few weeks ago to avoid being murdered or kidnapped. Or is there the story of how Jews tried to escape Syria, Iran, and other places, sometimes at the cost of their lives. Nor does it include the executions of Jews in Iraq, a trauma which shattered the remaining post-1948 community there.

  • The stress of being a dhimmi, meaning the need to shut your mouth and keep a low profile, again parallel to the deformations of Jewish life in Europe. But the article quotes Jews in Morocco (no anti-Semitism) and Iran (everyone is treated ok) who clearly cannot speak honestly.

For example, in Iran several Jews were arrested as spies without evidence and tortured while some historic synagogues were recently bulldozed out of existence. Don't these people really feel scared? Of course, these interviews are like asking people in Iraq a decade ago what they thought of Saddam or finding out that everyone was just delighted with Stalinist Russia, things journalists in those times actually did do.

Now to be fair the article, as I said I've seen much worse, does state: "Hundreds of thousands of Jews were displaced. Some migrated voluntarily from mainly Muslim countries to the newly proclaimed Jewish homeland. Others were forced out by dispossession, discrimination or violence. Thousands stayed on."

Clearly, the great majority, however, were forced out. What percentage stayed on? Less than one-tenth.

A key problem with the currently accepted narrative on Middle East history can be seen in a little two-line statement of fact:

"Conflict in Palestine in the 1930s made life harder for Egyptian Jews, as militant nationalist groups became active."

This relates the rise of militant nationalism to the conflict. Certainly, this was a factor (I wrote a whole book on it, The Arab States and the Palestine Conflict), but militant nationalism was due to far more than just the Palestine conflict. And this doesn't even mention the formation of the Muslim Brotherhood in the 1920s, seeking to transform Egypt into an Islamist state. It was first and foremost a response to conditions at home and to the kind of society that Arab activists wanted to build. As such, it is parallel to revolutionary, Communist, fascist, and nationalist movements in Europe and other places, all of which existed without Israel as a catalyst.

Those two lines are a very powerful theme today: everything Arabs or Muslims do is merely a response to what Israel (or the West) does and not an expression of their own beliefs and goals. This robs others of their history, under the guise of humanitarian egalitarianism, and puts the blame on others for everything that happens.

Here's another example:

"Jewish emigration accelerated after Israel attacked Egypt in 1956 and economic pressures mounted at home."

While there is some truth in the statement the "economic pressures" was the fact that the regime of Gamal Abdel Nasser expelled all non-Egyptians, not only Jews but large numbers of Greeks and others, due to xenophobia and militant nationalism.

Even in tiny phrasing choices--admittedly a matter of judgment but the judgments almost always go in the same direction--are certain assumptions present. Consider this phrase: "Iran, seen by Israel as its deadliest foe...." But since the issue here is Iranian Jews why not write: "Iran, which views Israel as its deadliest foe...." From which direction, after all, does the aggressive view come?

The article could easily have drawn a parallel between the Middle Eastern Jews and Palestinians. Both were refugees but the Jews rebuilt their lives rather than nursing grievances and pursing violence for decades. Moreover, one could say that their sufferings and claims balance those of the Palestinian Arabs. None of these arguments--very commonplace in discussion of these issues among Middle East-origin Jews--are presented.

Again, I don't mean to exaggerate the problems with this article, which does at least present the issue and some of the points that should be made. But it also shows weaknesses in dealing with Israel, some of the assumptions on which the contemporary hostile narrative is based.

Read article in full

Also published in Global Politician


Anonymous said...

The writer is not exaggerating the problems with the Reuters article, if anything he is understating them.

The Reuters article is a sophisticated piece of anti-Israeli propaganda, crafted with skill and care. It is full of venom and insults against Israel and Jews, disguised as fairminded and objective comment. One theme and one theme alone runs through it - the Jews are to blame for the injustices and oppression that they are subjected to. It is an ugly ecumenism of Christian and Islamic anti-Semitic theology dressed as judicious opinion.

Anonymous said...

Pro-Zionist says:

Bataween, I think the Israeli govt has been incompetent in this matter. There were 2 other exchanges of pop earlier, the 1947 Parttiton of India and the Greco-Turkish exchange sanctified by the Treaty of Lausanne.

In the Treaty of Lausanne, Greece and Turkey were allowe to de-nationalise the other's ethnics and transfer them and were REQUIRED to accept their own ethnics and re-settle them. The Israeli govt should have been spending the last half-century screaming for this view at the top of its lungs, since there was an effective exchange of pops without the Jews getting proper creddit and without completion on the Arabs part.

It would have (a) required the Arab countries to absorb Pal refugees (2) defused a weapon (3) required justice for Sephardim (4) given Israel a claim to wb and gaza as (a) rational borders and (b) compensation for confiscated Sephardi property.

bataween said...

Pro-Zionist, I couldn't agree more. the Israeli government have thrown away their best argument. But is it too late to make it now?