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Tuesday, January 24, 2012

About "Arab Jews" (Point of No Return guest post)

Al Arabiya has an op-ed by Naava Mashiah asking "Are 'Arab Jews" extinct?"

Is it an oxymoron to be an Arab Jew? An Arab Jew refers either to a Jew living in the Arab world or whose ancestors came from Arab countries. This term flourished once in the Middle East but is not widely known today. Not long ago there were Jews living in the cities of the Middle East who were integrated into their societies and held influential roles in their communities and economies.

My grandfather, Baba Yona Mashiah, was such a figure in Baghdad. He was, I would say, an Arab Jew. My childhood was sprinkled with stories of his grand personality, power and business acumen. He was a prominent land and real-estate developer and in the 1940s contributed to building “Baghdad el Jedidah”, a chic neighborhood in the Baghdad suburbs. His partners were mostly Muslim and some were prominent government officials.

In the 1950s the Jews of Baghdad experienced an exodus from Iraq. A reluctant exodus, I would claim, which was brought about by a combination of increasing Zionism, anti-Semitic propaganda, envy of the privileged life Jews had when Iraq was under British control and the creation of Israel. The displacement of thousands of Palestinians and the humiliating defeat of the Arab armies were the final blow.

Life had become unbearable for the Jews and even those who had wanted to stay were compelled to leave. Jews were assumed to be a fifth column and turned into scapegoats following the defeat of Arab armies by the Israeli Defense Forces. Baba Yona watched his empire crumble. His peer and neighbor, Mr. Addas, another influential Jew, was hung in the square. He himself was imprisoned for three months, accused of having Zionist connections.

At a certain point the Iraqi government offered a deal for Jews, inviting them to escape to Israel if they would renounce their citizenship and relinquish their property. Baba Yona was forced to leave Baghdad with over 100,000 other Jews to the one country that would accept them at the time – Israel. Ironically, the Zionists, whose movement played a part in alienating Muslims from their Jewish compatriots, were there to save them.

I asked the blogger from Point of No Return to comment, and she kindly responded with a full post:

Naava Mashiah’s article is doing the rounds of the Arab media, gaining prominence in Arab News. Much of what she writes is only partially true, and is designed to ingratiate herself with her Arab Muslim readership.

Is there such a creature as an Arab Jew? Even Naava’s own father says there is no such thing. We agree.

Very few Jews from Arab countries self-define as ‘Arab Jews’, unless they are far-leftists. The ‘Arab world’ is itself a modern false construct, defining identity by language and culture. It’s like saying that a Spaniard and a Peruvian are both bound by a ‘Hispanic’ identity. But whereas a Spaniard and a Peruvian might have the same ancestry, religious communities in the Middle East always kept apart from each other; there was limited social interaction and almost no intermarriage.

Moreover - If you scratch away at an ‘Arab’’s identity, you will often find that he or she is not Arab at all. The region is a kaleidoscope of sects, religions and ethnicities. There is no such thing as ‘Arab’ culture. The famous singer Farid al-Atrash was not Arab but Druze, and many of the stars of Egyptian 20th century cinema were Jews or Copts. The roots of 20th popular ‘Arab’ musical culture in Iraq - the Jewish al-Kuwaity brothers had a powerful influence – could be said to be Jewish.

When she tries to explain why Jews left Arab countries, Na’ava Mashia assigns equal blame to Zionism and antisemitic propaganda. In fact antisemitism alienated Muslims from Jews. Miss Mashiah makes no mention of the 1941 Farhud pogrom, seven years before Israel was established, and the rise of pro-Nazi feeling in the 1930s. Zionist activity in Iraq was a response to the Farhud, not the other way around.

Miss Mashiah’s allegation that Israel ‘effaced’ the identity of Jews from Arab countries is a charge commonly levelled by radical leftists and anti-Zionists. It is true that in its zeal to create a new Israeli, the establishment disparaged ‘Arab culture’, in the same way as it did ‘Yiddish culture’. But whatever the situation in the 1950s – and there was real discrimination then – Mizrahi culture has come back with a vengeance in Israel today.

In the final paragraph, Miss Mashiah herself gives the reason for writing her article: ‘my interest in my Arab roots grew about 10 years ago when I established my business which focuses on economic cooperation between Israel and the Middle East.”

So now we know. Being an ‘Arab Jew’, and downplaying the impact of Arab antisemitism, is good for business.