Monday, December 05, 2016

Arab Jews: The Eternally Displaced

Priya Singh
(Priya is a Research Scholar at the University of Calcutta and a commentator on West Asian Politics. She can be reached at

 On December 1, 2016, the World Jewish Congress, along with Israel’s Permanent Mission to the United Nations, honoured the Jews who fled from the Arab lands after the establishment of the state of Israel, at the UN headquarters in New York. Evelyn Sommer, Chair of World Jewish Congress, North America, observed that “the time has come” for the international community to take tangible measures to make sure that there was justice for the refugees, who unlike the Palestinian refugees, have been neither acknowledged nor aided in any way by the United Nations. On November 30, 2016 in an event organised by the Social Equality Ministry, Israel observed the third annual commemoration of the expulsion of an estimated 850,000 Jews from Arab and Muslim countries during the course of the 20th century. It was on June 23, 2014 that the Knesset (Israeli Parliament) passed a law designating November 30 as Jewish Refugee Day. The explanation for this decision was to bring to the fore the “forgotten exodus and history of the region and recognition that there were two populations displaced, Palestinian and Jewish.” Both communities were regarded by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) to be “bona fide” refugees. 
Prior to the 1948 mass migrations, there was a significant and vibrant Jewish community in countries such as Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Libya, Egypt, Yemen, Iraq, Iran, Lebanon, Syria and Turkey. The story of the mass migration of Jewish refugees from Arab and Muslim countries, in the aftermath of the Shoah (Holocaust) and the creation of the state of Israel, has never really been part of the debate concerning Palestinian-Israeli and Arab-Israeli engagements at reconciliation. There are those who contend that the claims of the Jewish refugees and their voices have been excluded from the broader refugee narrative that has been dominated by the Palestinian refugees. Consequently, the Jewish refugee migrations conjure the notion of a Jewish Naqba (Catastrophe) along the lines of the more established and accepted Palestinian Naqba, signifying the expulsion of the Palestinians in the wake of the 1948 war, giving birth to the Palestinian refugee problem.  The contention has been severely criticised by the Palestinians who do not regard the Jews from Arab lands as refugees but as emigrants who returned to Israel, their professed homeland, either voluntarily or as part of a political decision. The Israeli government’s official position on the Jews from the Arab lands is that they are refugees who have a right to the property left behind in their country of origin. The Jewish exodus of 1948 apparently involved the migration of an estimated 850, 000 Jews from Arab and Muslim Lands. The Palestinian exodus of 1948, on the other hand is said to have witnessed the expulsion of an estimated 720, 000 Palestinian Arabs from their homes.  The Palestinian Arabs fled to the West Bank, the Gaza Strip, and to nearby countries such as Jordan, Lebanon, and Syria. The Arab Jews migrated to the new state of Israel, United States, west Europe and south America.
The term Arab Jews refers to people of Jewish faith historically connected with the Arab Muslim world. The Arab Jews had been thoroughly Arabized, proficient in Arabic and had become an indelible part of the social and cultural life in their nations of origin. In countries like Egypt, Morocco, Syria, Lebanon, Iraq and Tunisia, Jews occupied high economic and political positions though the picture was not idyllic at all times and there were the intermittent hurdles, instances of discrimination and violence as well. While Israel considers Arab Jews to be genetically Arab, Arabs regard them as inadequately Arab. The historical process that led to the displacement of the Palestinians was intrinsically linked with the process that expelled the Arab Jews from their land of origin. As a result, both communities were deprived of their property, land, national and political rights. The Arab Jews were uprooted from their roots in the Arab world and from their deeply entrenched history and culture in Israel. Unlike the Palestinians who have nurtured the shared advocacy of yearning for their land of origin in their diasporic existence, the Arab Jews have been confined to a situation of no return wherein they are prohibited from evoking nostalgia of belonging to their place of origin. The Arab Jews were painstakingly displaced from the Arab world and “de-Arabized.”  The Zionist ideology as well as the Arab national discourse considered “Arabness” and “Jewishness” as exclusive, binary categories. The state of Israel in the process of creating a Jewish nation, initiated the project of transforming the Arab Jews into Israeli Jews, which entailed a meticulous mobilisation of the educational and social apparatus of the state. A new term, Mizrahim (signifying “Easterners” or “Orientals”) was coined for the Jews from the Arab and Muslim world, which has become popular since the 1990s, indicative of both the origin and experience of the non-Ashkenazi (Jews of central or eastern European descent)Jews in Israel.

Once considered as  “backward” people who could destabilize Israel’s assertion of being a colony of the “civilised” west in the Middle East, only to be included in the nation-building project purely because of the holocaust, the Mizrahis enjoy a paradoxical existence in modern day Israel. The ruptures and fault lines within Israeli society and polity has not really succeeded in representing the warped identity of the Mizrahis. There exists a deep rooted resentment among the Mizrahis for the Ashkenazis, who in turn harbour a deep sense of mistrust for the Arab Jews. The Ashkenazis, by and large perceived the Mizrahis as having more in common with Palestinians than Jews, as such the state segregated Mizrahim from the Ashkenazim by means of separate communities and education systems, where Arabic was prohibited. The disconnect continues till date.

However, just as fused identities are continually evolving in nature, the Mizrahis continue to keep the connect by way of an animated exchange of ideas with Arab, Turkic, Greek, Indian, and Iranian popular cultures primarily through the medium of television, films, music videos and concerts that shatter the Eurocentric Israeli approach. Such instances of participation represent a type of subconscious contravention of a prohibited longing culminating in the construction of a new identity, which does not view Arabs and Arabness in contrast or contradictory to something but rather perceives “Arab” as an inherent, fundamental and completely spontaneous component of the Mizrahi identity. There has been some resistance from the Arab Jews, politically, since the 1970s when a local chapter of the Black Panthers, named after the militant African-American group in the United States was constituted replicating its demands for radical change. This was followed by the Keshet movement demanding an equitable peace for Israelis and Palestinians, as well as the cultural, political, and economic incorporation of Israel/Palestine into the Middle East in the process putting to close the binaries and one-dimensional chronicling of Middle Eastern identities.


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