A major three-day conference begins tomorrow in Cambridge entitled Jews of Arab culture, 1948 - 2009. It is being organised by the Centre for the Study of Muslim-Jewish relations and the Department of Middle Eastern Studies at the University of Cambridge. Giving the opening address is Prince el Hassan Bin Talal of Jordan (Royal Institute for Interfaith Studies in Amman).
So far, so very 'interfaith'. Several respected Israeli academics, some with international reputations, are due to give papers. The conference also features a slew of Arab academics. Any event that spotlights Jewish-Arab interaction and cultural interchange must be a good thing.
But on closer examination, something appears very odd. The conference time-frame begins not 1,000 years ago, when Jews first began to interact with Muslims following the Arab Muslim conquest, but in 1948, when the mass exodus of Jews from Arab countries was in full train. By 2009, almost no Jews live in the Arab world.
The conference has deliberately chosen to focus on Israel, where most Jews of Arab culture have ended up. Its message is clear: Israel has 'de-arabised' Jews from Arab countries. They have been stripped of their Arabic culture. (For good measure, the conference throws in a couple of sessions on Palestinian literature in Israel. No doubt, the conference will also show how Israel has suppressed Palestinian Arab culture.) Conclusion: Jews must re-connect with their 'Arabic roots' and their Arab brothers and together throw off the oppressive Zionist yoke.
Some of the Jewish lecturers are well-known leftists or advocates of Jewish-Muslim coexistence on Arab terms:
Yosef Tobi, an Israeli of Yemeni origin, would like to return to the Golden Age of Spain. He denies that Yemeni Jews were mistreated before the 15th century. Therafter persecution had more to do with the 'general breakdown of law and order than an exclusive anti-Jewish sentiment'.
Almog Behar, author of the poem Ana min al yahoud, has argued that the Arabic language is intrinsic to Jewish identity.
Sassoon Somekh, an ex-communist emeritus professor of Arabic literature, has produced a new theory in which 250 Muslims died saving Jews in the 1941 Iraqi pogrom known as the Farhoud: the Farhoud thus ceases to be an anti-Jewish event.
Ami Elad-Bouskila has published works on the 'Israeli hegemonic cultural predisposition' towards modern Palestinian literature and culture.
Rachel Shabi (tbc), author of Not the enemy, a chronicle of discrimination and cultural suppression of Mizrahim by Ashkenazim in Israel.
Jonathan Mendel,founder of the Cambridge Musta'arabim Unit whose mission is 'Re-arabising the de-arabised'.
Sadly, this conference looks like it will be another Israel-bashing exercise masquerading as an 'interfaith' initiative.
The real issue here is: why does the conference programme studiously avoid discussing the persecution and 'ethnic cleansing' of Jews from the Arab world? Why does it intend to deny their suffering? Why are there no Jewish authors or poets still living in Baghdad or Cairo? Why are there only seven Jews still in Iraq of a community of 150,000? That is a hard truth that Prince Talal and his Cambridge collaborators probably do not yet feel brave enough to confront.
Postscript: from one day's attendance the conference was not as 'political' as feared. Much discussion was mainly about language and literature. The session with Rachel Shabi, with her allegations of discrimination againt Mizrahim, attracted much criticism from the floor, which she took gracefully; Yosef Tobi (perhaps unfairly maligned above) and Shmuel Moreh represented mainstream Israeli opinion and scholarship.