Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Mizrahi Open Letter closed to Europeans

Remember Obama's speech in Cairo ? In what now seems a false dawn, the Left hailed it as a new beginning for relations between the US and the Muslim world.

At the time, so excited was a small group of leftist Mizrahim in Israel about the wind of change that Obama seemed to promise, that they drafted an Open Letter, directed at the Arab and Muslim world, called A new spirit .The letter did the rounds of blogs and email networks. It seemed to die a death and nothing more was heard about it, until it resurfaced this month in the Palestine Chronicle., revealing the anti-European,anti-Zionist agenda behind it.

An interview by Sherri Muzher with one of the signatories, self-styled Arab Jew and activist Mati Shemoelof, begins with a disingenuous reference to how Nasser demonstrated his regard for the Jews by choosing Leila Murad over Um Kalthoum as the Revolution's official singer - even as he expelled 25,000 Jews from Egypt. (Muzher forgets to mention that accusations of disloyalty to Egypt dogged Murad until she died.) The Palestine Chronicle reveals the Open Letter's signatories to be 'social activists' who seek to decolonise Israel - ie divest its of its European nature. In reaching out to the Arabs, bringing down the 'apartheid' wall between Judaism and Islam, they are prepared to drive a wedge between themselves and European Jews - an act of apparent racism.

The letter glosses over the antisemitism which caused the parents of these signatories to flee the Middle East and North Africa. It was a 'temporary crack'. The signatories are saying, "we are Arabs like you - Arabs of the Jewish religion. We have more in common with you than with the European Jews that fate has lumped us together with in Israel. We know something bad happened between you Muslims and us Jews but it's nothing really, nothing in the overall scheme of things."

At first sight, the letter is full of lofty sentiments:

" we express our support for the new spirit presented by president Obama in his Cairo speech. A spirit of reconciliation, realistic vision, striving for justice and dignity, respect for different religions, cultures and human beings, whoever and wherever they are."

You can't argue with any of that.

We were born in Israel and we are Israelis. Our country is important to us, and we would like to see it secure, just, and prosperous for the benefit of its inhabitants. Yet, the recent conflict into which we were born cannot erase the long history of hundreds and thousands of years, during which our parents and ancestors lived in Muslim and Arab countries. Not only they have lived in the region from time immemorial, but were also part of the fabric of daily life and have contributed to the development of the region and its culture.

These are younger Mizrahi Israelis with no direct experience of life in an Arab or Islamic country except for a romantic notion of the Arabic language and culture. They call themselves 'descendants of Jews from Islamic countries'. They are Jews from Turkey, Iran and Afghanistan, where Arabic is not the national language, as well as Morocco and Libya. Quite what all these Jews have in common is not clear. It is enough that they are not Europeans.

Nowadays, the cultures of the lands of Islam, Middle East, and the Arab world, are all still part of our identity; a part which we cannot, and do not wish to repress nor uproot.

A mighty strange way of referring to oneself. Imagine if Ashkenazi Jews were to say that they come from the 'lands of Christendom'. To say that you belong to the Middle East is one thing; to say your identity is rooted in the Arab world, and what's more, the lands of Islam, means that you define the region you come from primarily by its religion, a religion that conquered the region 1,000 years after your Jewish ancestors settled there.

Surely, the Jews living in Muslim countries endured some difficult times. Nevertheless, those painful moments should not conceal nor erase the well known and documented history of shared life. Muslim rule over the Jews was much more tolerant and lenient compared with non-Muslim countries. The fate of Jews in Muslim regions cannot be compared with the tragic fate of Jews in other regions, Europe in particular.

...endured some difficult times. The euphemism of the year. Jews were ethnically cleansed, robbed, their 2,000-year-old civilisation destroyed. Imagine the Ladino-speaking Jews of Spain telling the Spaniards - we endured some difficult times. The odd pogrom, denunciation, inquisition or auto-da-fe, but hey! it wasn't as bad as what Jews went through in other places. Our nostalgia for Spain and its glorious culture and language, which we still speak, more than makes up for any 'bad stuff'. And we adore borekas.

One can view the last decades as a period during which a deep chasm has been opened between the Jews and Israel and the Arab and Muslim world. We however, prefer to perceive these last decades as a painful yet temporary crack in a history that goes longer than that. We have a shared past and a shared future. Thus, when we look at the map, we see Israel as part of the Middle East, and not solely from a geographical perspective.

Judaism and Islam are not far apart from religious, spiritual, historical and cultural point of views. The alliance between these two religions dates back many generations. Yet the memory of this partnership and the unique history of Jews originated from the Muslim and Arab world (which today constitutes 50% of the Jewish population in Israel!) has unfortunately faded, both in Israel as well as in the majority of the Muslim world. In the necessary reconciliation process between West and East, oriental Jews can and should embody a live bridge of remembrance, healing and partnership.

From our point of view the rift between Israel/Jews and the Arab/Muslim world cannot last forever, it is splitting our identities and our souls. As for the tragic Israeli-Palestinian conflict, we hope that a fair solution of mutual respect and mutual recognition will be reached very soon. A solution that considers the hopes, fears and pains of the Palestinian side, as well as those of the Israeli side.

Anyone who believes that Judaism and Islam are not that far apart has little knowledge of either religion or the dhimmi status suffered for centuries by Jews who lived among Muslims. Do Jews really want to return to that permanent sense of inferiority and vulnerability? The letter-writers don't hold humans responsible for that deep chasm - It must have just happened. Arab governments bear no responsibility for persecuting their Jews, it was an act of God or Mother Nature. Note that in the last sentence Palestinian pain takes precedence over Israeli pain. But for true reconciliation to take place, the Arabs and Muslims must feel Israeli pain, and recognise that they are responsible for it.

Irony of ironies, these Mizrahim have taken on a guilt-ridden Eurocentric vew of the conflict, where Israel is the coloniser, the Arabs and Muslims lack agency for all the 'bad stuff' and the Palestinians are the main victims. The letter-writers' own Mizrahi history has been erased, lost in a cloud of warm, fuzzy nostalgia.

Crossposted on the
Israel News blog

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