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Wednesday, June 24, 2009

More on Mizrahi Jews

I wrote on Monday about a Cambridge conference on Mizrahi Jews that downplayed the Arab role in their cultural disappearance.

This great article at ZioNation, a response to a different article by a "progressive" Sephardic Jew, explains things very well:
I would like to respond to "Why Jews left Arab Lands" a Progressive Sephardic view by David Shasha.

Allow me to briefly introduce myself. My name is Israel Bonan, I am a Mizrahi Jew. I was born in Cairo, Egypt in the mid 1940s. I was expelled from Egypt in 1967, and left with a torn shirt on my back, and a pair of mangled glasses, broken intentionally, on my face, and with very little else.

I am considered by any descriptive measure, a bona fide "refugee", a designation echoed by the United Nation High Commissioner of Refugees UNHCR, on behalf of the more than 800,000 displaced Mizrahi Jews fleeing the Arab countries (expressed twice, in 1957 and subsequently in 1967). I currently reside in the Boston area in the US.

I have been familiar with Mr. Shasha's views for quite sometimes now, and I find it disquieting that his positions, which run contrary to the factual history of the era and the conventional wisdom of the Mizrahi community, or as he prefers to call us "the Arab Jews", are taken as representative, when they are not.

It never ceases to amaze me, that Mr. Shasha who likes to refer to himself as an Arab Jew, though born in the US, has such a meager understanding, of the history of the era and about what constitutes a refugee or to dwell with any depth about their lot. Be that as it may.

I find that Mr. Shasha's logic and the common thread in his writings, have always consisted of three major assertions; making his discourse monotonously predictable and invariably repetitive.

One, life was always rosy for the Jews living in Arab lands and Israel's creation, as a cataclysmic watershed event, is the only cause for disrupting such an idyllic life.

Two, Israel as a product of an Ashkenazi culture, that is European by nature, has always suppressed, repressed and maligned the Mizrahi community and treated them as second class citizens; though they do represent, according to Shasha, the most effective group to undertake any peace initiative and dialog with the Arabs, having shared their culture, albeit without the author postulating any specific ideas as to the who, the why, the what, the when or for that matter, the how.

Finally, and he shares that notion with his counterpart (and much quoted resource in his writings) Professor Yehuda Shenhav; that it is unconscionable nay, immoral, to compare the plight of the Mizrahi Jews with that of the Palestinian Refugees.

Once again in the cited article, he did not disappoint, neither did he deviate from his usual template, but merely continued his revisionist approach to the Mizrahi historical narrative.

Extremism by its very nature does not allow for a tempered view of events or for cogent reflective analysis. The end result is always black or white; so regardless of how carefully and temperately Mr. Shasha seems to preface his views, the end result is always the same … black or white, all or nothing.

It is strange to note that in Mr. Shasha's attempt at historical fairness and balance, he used the following 26 words, in an article of more than 3300 words: :

Some arrived of their own free will; others arrived against their will. Some lived comfortably and securely in Arab lands; others suffered from fear and oppression.

That was the extent of defining what really happened to the Mizrahi Jews in an article titled: "Why the Jews left Arab lands," and you know what, Mr. Shasha is right!! Now if we can only take those 26 words and flesh them out a bit more with the historical facts of the matter, we get a totally different unfolding narrative that is not steeped in demonizing a country or a refugee class, or in cataclysmically defining some watershed events while glossing over others.

I took pains to chronicle my own personal Exodus ordeal, in "A Personal Exodus Story" after more than 35 years of silence. Shasha wrote:

It is curious that in a world that has largely ignored the voices of Arab Jews, the few we hear are filled with anger, resentment and hostility toward Arabs.

I invite Mr. Shasha to read it and to tell me, how much hate he can attribute to me vis-à-vis my Egyptian tormentors or Arabs in general, after reading it. By my accounting, none; yet I will let him be the judge. It is not hate, nor rancor or anger that motivates us to speak out as the "Forgotten Refugees". It is done out of fairness not retribution, it is about justice after having our human rights trampled upon and above all to record our own history that should not be denied us.

In a co-authored article with Dr. Rami Mangoubi titled: "Zionism for the ages", we rebutted the first two of Shasha's stated positions and in my article titled: "The Banana Jews"I took Professor Shenhav to task in rebuttal to his article "Hitching a ride on the magic carpet" about the third topic you both share.

In a nutshell, and again I happen to agree with Mr. Shasha, the Jews of Egypt participated fully and in greater proportion to their numbers in all aspects of life in Egypt; they more than made their mark on the cultural and economic landscape of the country. Where we disagreed with David Shasha, is that he choose the watershed event of the creation of the State of Israel as the turning point without which life in Egypt (and ergo the rest of the Arab countries) would have remained idyllic.

Idyllic indeed, when law after law (as far back as 1869), before even Zionism was spoken of, was enacted to limit access to citizenship for the Jews of Egypt in the country of our birth. through successive Nationality decrees and laws (of 1929).

Idyllic indeed, when law after law was enacted, to economically ethnic cleanse the Jews and other minorities by passing the Company law (of 1947) to restrict Jews and other minorities from access to work in the private and public sectors.

Idyllic indeed, when the Nationalization law (of the mid 1950s) was enacted, to deprive the members of our community of their remaining assets and businesses. Lest I forget and be judged guilty of omission, many other minorities at the time also suffered through this ordeal.

We also touched on the issue of the class system that favored the Ashkenazi community over the Mizrahi community; only to find ourselves citing some top government leadership roles that are today studded and replete with Mizrahi Jews. Mr. Shasha, class struggles are just that, they are struggles to improve ones status and to raise the ante for the whole country to improve, through an honest and thriving competitive spirit; and it will always will be and better be, a work in progress; for everyone's sake.

In my rebuttal of the third point, I wrote at length of my experience and that of my parents' experience and about what a refugee is, because it is not about being an arm chair apologist or being a Monday morning quarterback. It is about the suffering experienced, the dislocation, the angst associated with what was left behind and for one having to start rebuilding a life in one's old age. It is also about leaving behind a culture, a way of life and the familiar. Undoubtedly the older refugee generation has suffered, more so, than the younger one.

But then, what could I expect from Mr. Shasha, the Arab Jew, with his non-refugee status; or from Professor Shenhav, who as a Moroccan Jew by birth, had actually left with his family, of their own volition to settle in Israel, and with all their assets intact (Morocco being the only country out of 10 Arab countries that allowed such largesse). Are we being intentionally obtuse and blind to the fact that it is more than just assets and businesses that matter to a refugee, especially the ones that were left with nothing to call their own?

That takes me back again to the famous 26 words I alluded to earlier, and Shasha's attempt to cover all the bases for historical completeness; and in the process Shasha saw only what he wanted to see and felt what he could only touch; and the rest to Shasha, remained conceptual, at arm length and clinically sterile indeed.

As part of my public speaking educational campaign about the Mizrahi Jews "The Forgotten Refugees", I always stress the fact that the Middle East narrative has been one sided for far too long and that our history needs to be disseminated. I also never neglect to touch on the issue of the two refugee populations, as a study in contrasts; the same event (the creation of the State of Israel), that affected two classes of refugees, The Mizrahi Jews, the "Forgotten Refugees" and the Palestinian refugees and what became of them, after the fact.

They both started undeniably with a lot of hardships. The Mizrahi Jews who left for Israel, had to live in tents and ma'abarot (refugee camps), but not for long and in the process they helped and were part and parcel of creating a new country.

The Mizrahi Jews who were resettled elsewhere, invariably found the Jewish community at large eager to help, to get them started in their new life and they rebuilt their lives in the country of their choice.

On the other hand the Palestinian refugees, for the most part, were denied absorption in the Arab countries; they were left in camps as wards of the UN for over 60 years and they passed their refugee status much like an inheritance to the fourth generation. All this dehumanizing behavior on the part of their Arab brethren was simply for political expediency and never once did the Palestinian refugees' dignity entered into anyone's consideration.

This is my narrative, this is my parent's narrative, this is the Mizrahi Jews' narrative and we will not be denied our history. It is pathetic to hear Shasha suggest that he speaks for me or for the Mizrahi Jews; his perspective is flawed and does not add much value to the historical narrative of the era.

Arab Jewish voices have today largely been silenced, and with that silencing has come the lamentable absence of a perspective that could allow us to see the Middle East in different ways.

One last note, that is conspicuously absent from Shasha's writings, save for the inherent braggadocio without any real substance, which has to do with the sensitivity of the discourse vis-à-vis the Arabs. I again happen to share Shasha's notion, as I truly believe that the Mizrahi Jews are in a unique position to enhance the dialog between Israel and her Arab neighbors.

To resolve an ongoing feud, as ingrained in the Middle Eastern culture, both sides have to acknowledge and fully account for what they had done to each other. Admission and full accounting, is a prime imperative to reach a "sulha" or a sustainable peace. Yet we find the Arab governments in total denial about having harmed their Jewish communities.

A peace solution needs to include a priori such an acknowledgment phase, before they can reach a forgiveness phase and eventually a sustainable peace. It is paramount for both sides to acknowledge that there never was only one injured party, after so many years of feuding.

That simple detail was not lost on the Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, when he had the courage to apologize to both refugee classes, the Mizrahi Jews and the Palestinians for what they had to go through. Can Mr. Shasha find it in his heart to follow suit? I, for one, will not hold my breath.

Israel Bonan