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Arab Jews and Propaganda: Exploring the Myth of Expulsion PDF E-mail
David Green   

During Professor Joel Beinin’s visit to the Urbana campus of the University of Illinois in March of 2000, I was introduced to the seemingly esoteric topic of the plight of Jews in Arab societies subsequent to the establishment of Israel--specifically regarding his research specialty, the Jews of Egypt. In Beinin’s outstanding book on this subject, The Dispersion of Egyptian Jewry, he explores the ultimately unsuccessful attempt of 75,000 Egyptian Jews to “maintain their multiple identities and to resist the monism of increasingly obdurate Zionist and Egyptian national discourses.”

Beinin also spoke presciently—6 months before the beginning of the current intifada—of the dire conditions of the Palestinians in the occupied territories, which he described as “worse than horrible.” Six months after Sharon’s visit to the Temple Mount, in March of 2001, a political advertisement sponsored by The American Jewish Committee appeared in the Chicago Tribune titled “The Other Refugees.” It claimed “The Arab onslaught of 1948 and its aftermath tragically produced two—not one—refugee populations, one Jewish and one Arab. More than 700,000 Jews across the Arab world were forced to flee for their lives, their property ransacked in deadly riots, and their schools, hospitals, synagogues and cemeteries expropriated or destroyed.” The ad went on to compare the absorption of many of these Jews by Israel to Palestinians who “have remained “quarantined in squalid camps,” concluding that “Palestinian leadership, backed by many in the Arab world, seeks the destruction of Israel through the ‘return’ of the refugees and their millions of descendants.” The diatribe concluded by claiming that such a return would mean “Israel’s national suicide.”

This propaganda has its origins in, among other things, a tendentious revision of the history of Arab Jews, from one of general cooperation with Muslims (also over-simplified) to deep-seated conflict and persecution. Beinin mentions prominent examples of this revisionism in his book. In 1974, a Jewish Israeli woman with the pen name of Bat Ye’or, published Les Juifs en Egypte, to which Beinin credits with originating the “neo-lachrymose” view of the Arab and Sephardic Jews, or Mizrahim, as they have come to call themselves in Israel.

Beinin defines two motivations for the popularity of this “normative Zionist interpretation of the history of the Jews of Egypt” and, by generalization, the Jews of other Middle Eastern and North African countries. First, it served to counter the grievances of Palestinian refugees, by claiming a “fair exchange” between refugee populations. Second, it provided the Mizrahim in Israel a means with which to redress their mistreatment in Arab countries, and—just as important—to claim a status in Israel comparable to Ashkenazi survivors of European anti-Semitism. To distance themselves from Arab cultural attachments, Beinin argues, was “the price of admission to Israeli society.” As Beinin quotes one Israeli emigrant from Iraq: “In Baghdad we got along fine with the Arabs. But here we have to fight them.”

While Joan Peters’ notorious From Time Immemorial (1984) was discredited for its fraudulent demographic argument that the Palestinians essentially did not exist, it is rarely noted that Peters also supported the neo-lachrymose narrative of Arab Jewish history. This narrative has spawned various examples of tendentious scholarship and outright propaganda, some of which appear in Malka Hillel Shulewitz’s The Forgotten Millions: The Modern Jewish Exodus from Jewish Lands (1999). More important, as Beinin notes, this view was adopted by Martin Gilbert in The Jews of Arab Lands (1976), and Bernard Lewis in The Jews of Islam (1984). In Semites and Anti-Semites (1984), Lewis emphasized (according to Beinin) the “vulgar characteristics of Arab-Jewish relations.”[1]

This discourse raises at least three areas of inquiry. The first and largest, of course, concerns the actual causes of the emigration of Arab Jews to Israel and elsewhere. The second, already suggested, concerns the status of the Mizrahim in Israeli society as an oppressed population. The final topic is the propaganda itself, an explanation of its relatively recent popular dissemination.

I will briefly address the last topic first by speculating that, to a certain extent, Zionist propagandists have finally given up the ghost and ceased to claim that the Nakba, the 1948 expulsion of hundreds of thousands of Palestinians from their lands and property inside what was declared Israel, can be traced to “Arab broadcasts.” But while the expulsion of the Palestinian refugees has been at least tacitly acknowledged—if not its willfulness and the extent of its attendant brutality—this has in turn generated an alternative propaganda strategy based on the claim of “population exchange” that is put forward in the AJC ad. It is argued that this exchange has remained incomplete because other Arabs (the same who expelled Jews) “turned their backs on the hundreds of thousands of Palestinians who crossed into Arab lands.”[2]

Meanwhile, Israel, European nations and the United States “absorbed these dispossessed Jews,”[3] and can be lauded without too much useless reflection on their performance during the Holocaust. While Israel’s guilt for ethnic cleansing of the Palestinians was addressed by the immigration of Jews and its elevated moral stature confirmed, Arabs are still being held responsible for the plight of the Palestinian refugees. It is suggested that their flight, which began before the “Arab onslaught of 1948,” was caused by this “onslaught”—such as it was.[4] Palestinian demands for the right of return are seen as a plot to destroy Israel. Meanwhile, my strong sense is that it has become “common knowledge” among rank and file defenders of Israel that the advent of the Jewish state brought, quid pro quo, the brutal expulsion of hundreds of thousands of Arab Jews. Regardless of the pseudo-scholarship that is most often unread by those who assert this, there is very little common knowledge of the details of this expulsion, and for good reason—the claim does not withstand even superficial scrutiny.

A discussion of the second topic, that of the status of Arab Jews (Mizrahim) in Israeli society, may begin with Beinin’s observations quoted above, but centrally refers to the important work of Ella Shohat, a Jewish Iraqi emigrant to Israel and then the United States. In “Sephardim in Israel: Zionism from the Standpoint of its Jewish Victims,” Shohat begins with the observation that “Sephardi Jews were first brought to Israel for specific European-Zionist reasons, and once there they were systematically discriminated against by a Zionism which deployed its energies and material resources differentially, to the consistent advantage of European Jews and to the consistent detriment of Oriental Jews.” In historical discourse, this has meant that by “distinguishing the ‘evil’ East (the Moslem Arab) from the ‘good’ East (the Jewish Arab), Israel has taken upon itself to ‘cleanse’ the Sephardim of their Arab-ness and redeem them from their ‘primal sin’ of belonging to the Orient. Israeli historiography absorbs the Jews of Asia and Africa into the monolithic official memory of European Jews. Sephardi Jews learn virtually nothing of value about their particular history as Jews in the Orient.”

It is too simple, as Beinin would acknowledge, to assert that the “price of admission” for Mizrahim into Israeli society has been to learn to hate Arabs and to simplify their own complicated histories in Arab cultures. Shohat points out that Arab-hating has ironically become part of the negative stereotype of Mizrahim as defined by “enlightened” European Israelis, including those in Peace Now: “The Sephardim, when not ignored by the Israeli left, appear only to be scapegoated for everything that is wrong with Israel; ‘they’ are turning Israel into a right-wing and anti-democratic state; ‘they’ support the occupation; ‘they’ are an obstacle to peace. These prejudices are then disseminated by Israeli ‘leftists’ in international conferences, lectures, and publications.”

The result of this coerced assimilation and continuing prejudice, Shohat concludes, is that “the identity of Arab Jews has been fractured, their life possibilities diminished, their hopes deferred.” One response has been the emerging notion of Mizrahi identity as a “departure from previous concepts of Jewishness.” Central to forming this identity is a more complex historical analysis of the circumstances that led to the emigration of Arab Jews. Shohat suggests in “The Invention of the Mizrahim” that such an analysis would consider “the secret collaboration between Israel and some Arab regimes, with the background orchestration of the British; the impact of this direct or indirect collaboration on both Arab Jews and Palestinians, now cast into antagonistic roles; Zionist attempts to drive a wedge between Jewish and Muslim communities; the Arab nationalism that failed to make a distinction between Jews and Zionists; and Arab Jewish misconceptions about the secular nation-state project of Zionism, which had almost nothing to do with their own religious community identity. Arab Jews left their countries of origin with mingled excitement and terror but, most importantly, full of Zionist-manipulated confusion, misunderstanding, and projections.”

This begins a consideration of the history itself, which merits its own article to summarize the general circumstances, precipitating causes, and long-term processes under which the vast majority of Jews emigrated from various Arab countries: Algeria (1961-2), Egypt (1948-67), Iraq (1950-51), Morocco (1948-87), Syria (1948-56), Tunisia (after 1956), and Yemen (1948-49). My goal here is to refer to some helpful generalizations employed by reliable scholars, and to provide a selective list of references.

Beyond those mentioned by Shohat, the general factors that must be considered in each case include: the changing economic and cultural status of Jews under British and French colonization, especially French (Algeria, Morocco, Tunisia); the political relationship of Jews—religious or Zionist, bourgeois, nationalist, leftist, or Communist—to Arab nationalist movements (Egypt, Iraq, Algeria, Tunisia); the influence of Zionism among Jews, before and after 1948, and the extent of the messianic desire to emigrate to Israel (Morocco, Yemen); the effects of Zionist pressure and provocation with the specific goal of promoting emigration (Iraq, Morocco); the effects of ongoing conflict between Arab states and Israel from 1948 to 1967 (Egypt, Tunisia, Iraq); the consequences of the end of French colonization (Morocco, Tunisia, Algeria); and finally the general economic and social conditions under which Jews lived (Morocco, Egypt, Syria). To all of this must be added, in most cases, the cumulative effects of emigration as it relates to what Michael M. Laskier (discussing Morocco) calls the “self-liquidation” process.

At a superficial but appropriately critical level, the Israeli revisionist historian Tom Segev summarizes emigration immediately after the founding of Israel, especially in relation to North Africa: “Deciding to emigrate to Israel was often a very personal decision. It was based on the particular circumstances of the individual’s life. They were not all poor, or ‘dwellers in dark caves and smoking pits.’ Nor were they always subject to persecution, repression or discrimination in their native lands. They emigrated for a variety of reasons, depending on the country, the time, the community, and the person.” Segev summarizes the “messianic fervor” that led to “operation Magic Carpet” in Yemen in 1948-49, but also notes that the Jewish Agency emissary in Aden, “asked permission to prepare the Yemenite authorities to expel the remaining Jews from their country.”

Discussions of the rapid emigration of Jews from Iraq in 1951 often focus on allegations of Zionist provocation, which are convincing but cannot be completely substantiated. Just as important, the context of these alleged provocations was acutely described by the late Rabbi Elmer Berger in letters he wrote on the basis of interviews with Jewish leaders during a trip to Baghdad in 1955: “Zionist agents began to appear in Iraq—among the youth—playing on a general uneasiness and indicating that American Jews were putting up large amounts of money to take them to Israel, where everything would be in apple-pie order. The emigration of children began to tear at the loyalties of families as the adults in a family reluctantly decided to follow their children, the stress and strain of loyalties spread to brothers and sisters . . . Several caches of arms were ‘discovered’ in synagogues . . . What both Jews and the Government had believed to be only a passing phenomenon—emigration—began to assume the proportions of a public issue.”

Similarly, the fate of the Jews of Egypt is often linked to the infamous Lavon affair of 1954, during which Zionist agents attacked American installations. But in a broader context, Beinin writes of “more than occasional instances of socially structured discrimination against Jews in Egypt. In the 20th century, they (the Jews) were inextricably linked to processes of colonization and decolonization, the nationalist struggle to expel the British troops who occupied Egypt from 1882-1956, and the intensification of the Arab-Zionist conflict.” Jews, especially those whose Europeanized culture and bourgeois interests linked them to secular-liberal nationalism, were excluded from narratives of both colonial privilege and Islamic conceptions of the polity, and clearly had no place in the pan-Arab movement led by Nasser. They identified with the national narrative of neither Egypt nor Israel, and many of the wealthier moved to Europe.

Michael M. Laskier concludes his description of Moroccan emigration, which was largely prevented from 1956 until its resumption in 1961, with this comparison to Egypt: “Whereas in Nasser’s Egypt, Jews and other minorities were expelled or encouraged to leave in 1956-57 and subsequently as part of the national homogeneity campaign, Moroccan politicians frequently spoke of national heterogeneity, even though Moroccan Jewry was often portrayed in the local press as being disloyal and was becoming isolated from Moroccan society on various levels. The Jews were prevented from choosing the emigration alternative until 1961, because Moroccan authorities expected them to participate in nation-building, to invest their capital in Morocco and not in Israel.”

The long-term and disrupted emigration of Moroccan Jews stands in stark contrast to the “flash flood” of Algerian Jews, most of who immigrated to France after Algerian independence in 1962. Algerian Jews were more completely assimilated into French colonial culture, but nevertheless historically attached to Muslim society. Andre Chouraqui writes that “heavy pressure was applied (to Jews) from both sides in the hope of gaining both material and moral support; . . . the vast majority of Jews remained passive in the struggle.” Ultimately, FLN (liberation) attacks not specifically directed at Jews spread panic among both the Jewish and Christian elite, and “Jews saw headlong flight as the only escape from anarchy.” Chouraqui concludes that in North Africa, “neither the westernized elite nor the masses of Moslems, who were almost entirely ignorant of the implications of Zionism, reacted with great feelings against their countries Jews. Had it not been for the conflict with the French. . . . the Jews might well have remained in North Africa for centuries in comparative harmony.”

The end of Jewish cultures in Arab societies was a complicated and by no means inevitable process that has been neither properly understood nor appropriately mourned by its victims, other Israelis, and Jews of European background around the world. Its use as Zionist propaganda by the Ashkenazi elite reflects various degrees of racism towards Mizrahim, Palestinians, Arabs, and Muslims, and serves to harden the false bipolarity with which Israelis and their American supporters view the world, now through the lenses of “Judeo-Christian” civilization. The specter of the Holocaust has been unfairly transferred to the Arab world, and is used to justify the oppression of the Palestinians and the “war on terrorism.” While Arab Jewish cultures cannot be revived, an understanding of their history and demise can begin a process that will allow the Mizrahim to more actively shape a more just Israeli society, and a more peaceful future among Israelis, Palestinians, and other Arabs. In our own country, it can be minimally hoped that debunking mythology about Arab Jews will open some minds to a more fundamental questioning of Zionist conventional wisdom and its relation to American empire.

References

  • Beinin, Joel. The Dispersion of Egyptian Jewry: Culture, Politics, and the Formation of a Modern Diaspora. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998.

  • Berger, Elmer. Who Knows Better Must Say So. 2nd ed. Beirut: Institute of Palestine Studies, 1970.
  • Chouraqui, Andre. Between East and West: A History of the Jews of North Africa. Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1968.
  • Eveland, Wilbur Crane. Ropes of Sand. London: W.W. Norton, 1980.
  • ,font size="3">Giladi, Naeim. “The Jews of Iraq." 10 November, 2003 http://www.jewsagainstzionism.com/articles/iraqijews.htm
  • Laskier, Michael M. “Developments in the Jewish Communities of Morocco, 1956-76.” Middle Eastern Studies, 26.4 (October 1990): 465-505.
  • -------------. “Israel and Algeria amid French Colonialism and the Arab-Israeli Conflict, 1954-1978.” Israel Studies 6.2 10 November, 2003 http://iupjournals.org/israel/iss6-2.html>.
  • -------------. “Israel and the Maghreb at the Height of the Arab-Israeli Conflict: 1950s-1970s.” Middle East Review of International Affairs 4.2 (2000). Columbia International Affairs Online.10 November, 2003.
  • -------------. “Jewish Emigration from Morocco to Israel: Government Policies and the Position of International Jewish Organization, 1949-56.” Middle Eastern Studies 25:3 (1989): 323-362.
  • Masliyah, Sadok H. “Zionism in Iraq.” Middle Eastern Studies 29:2 (1989): 216-237.
  • Massad, Joseph. “Zionism’s Internal Others: Israel and the Oriental Jews.” Journal of Palestine Studies 25:4 (1996): 53-68.
  • Mendes, Philip. “The Forgotten Refugees: The Causes of the Post-1948 Jewish Exodus from Arab Countries.” 10 November, 2003 http://middleeastinfo.org/article2596.html
  • Segev, Tom. 1949: The First Israelis. New York: The Free Press, 1986.
  • Shohat, Ella. “Zionism from the Standpoint of its Jewish Victims.” Social Text 19-20 (1988): 1-35.
  • ---------------. “The Invention of the Mizrahim.” Journal of Palestine Studies (Fall 1989).

 

Footnotes
  1. Beinin refers to the work of Norman Stillman in this context, calling it “less crude.” I have not read Stillman’s work, but my sense is that it has scholarly merit and should be read.
  2. AJC ad.
  3. AJC ad.
  4. AJC ad.
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