Tuesday, January 25, 2022

By Daled Amos

It's one of the great patterns in Jewish history ever since the Jews were invited into Egypt and then enslaved there.
Rabbi Ken Spiro, History Crash Course, Aish.com

How often is a people personally invited to come be part of a country? 

In 1264, Poland's King Boleslav issued a charter inviting Jews to come live there. According to the charter, in matters pertaining to Jewish money or property, the testimony of a Christian was insufficient -- it had to be accompanied by the testimony of a Jew as well. It decreed that any Christian who desecrates a Jewish cemetery would be severely punished. It also allowed Jews the freedom to buy and sell merchandise just as a Christian could.

The charter even included some items that we only wish were being enforced today, especially in France and New York City:

"If a Christian should attack a Jew, the Christian shall be punished as required by the laws of this land."

"We affirm that if any Jew cry out in the night as a result of violence done to him, and if his Christian neighbors fail to respond to his cries and do not bring the necessary help, they shall be fined."

Of course, King Boleslav was not the only one to see the benefit of having Jews in his country, especially for the economy. He was, however, the most successful. The Polish leaders who came after him followed his example to the extent that by the middle of the 16th century, 80% of world Jewry lived in Poland.

Now, invitations and gestures of friendship are again being offered, to Jews in general -- and to Israel in particular.

From Arab countries, no less.
And for a variety of reasons.

According to The Economist, The Arab world is re-embracing its Jews. And it is not solely based on fear of Iran on the one hand, or on economic benefits on the other, though of course that is part of it. Other reasons given are:
o Failure of radical Islamism has led to a rethinking of attitudes
o The need to modernize
o The Palestinian issue is no longer central to how they think of Israel
o Israel/Jews as a model for success
o There is a new generation of Arabs who didn't live through the Arab Israel wars of the last century
o Israel as a key to better relations with West

In Saudi Arabia, Muhammad bin Salman -- the crown prince of Saudi Arabia -- may not be ready to follow the example of the UAE, Bahrain, Sudan and Morocco in joining the Abraham Accords, but he is taking measures to attract Jewish tourists. Towards that end, he has sponsored archaeological digs at Jewish sites. Bin Salman is also planning a $500 billion high-tech city to be called Neom, on the northwest coast -- the location intended to attract Israeli expertise. Meanwhile, last year an Israeli opened Habitas, a luxury hotel in Al Ula.

The changes in Saudi Arabia seem to go beyond external projects.

Not only are Jews being welcomed into Saudi Arabia -- Israelis are too, though only if they have a foreign passport. Hebrew is spoken at fairs and festivals. Antisemitic statements about Jews are being removed from textbooks. There is even an Israeli rabbi, Jacob Herzog, who often visits the Saudi capital, where he can be seen in public, dressed as an Orthodox Jew and handing out prayer books.

Rabbi Herzog's comment on all this is interesting. He says:

Jews used to be afraid of saying they were Jews in the kingdom. Now we’re getting embedded.

Contrast that with the situation Jews find themselves in today in the US and Europe.

In 2019, Germany’s commissioner on anti-Semitism, Felix Klein, said, "I cannot advise Jews to wear the kippah everywhere all the time in Germany."

That same year, an American Jewish Committee survey showed that nearly a third of American Jews were afraid of publicly wearing anything that would indicate they were Jewish, because of rising antisemitism. Attacks on Jews have only reinforced that fear.

In 2016, Tzvi Amar, the president of the local office of the French Jewish community’s organization responsible for religious services told Le Figaro that Jews should “remove the kippah during these troubled times” because “the preservation of life is sacrosanct.” The situation in France since then has only gotten worse.

Last year, it was predicted that 2021 would be the worst year on record for antisemitism in the UK

Yet of all places, there are now Arab countries where Jews are openly welcome and can walk there without fear.

As Middle East commentator Tom Gross put it:

I’ve witnessed far more hostility towards Israel among leftists in London and Paris and by some European-born Muslims, than people I have got to know who actually live in Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, Yemen and Iraq.

This move towards welcoming Jews is not limited to just the Gulf states.

The Economist also reports that in Egypt, al-Sisi is renovating Jewish cemeteries after having renovated the 14th-century Eliyahu Hanavi synagogue in Alexandria, which at one time was the largest synagogue in the Arab world.

And in Syria, Assad is not only restoring synagogues -- he reached out last year to the Syrian Jewish community in New York and hosted a delegation of 12 Syrian Jews in Damascus. No one is fooled that Assad's motives are altruistic.

According to David Lesch of Trinity University in Texas:

Syria is engaging with its Jewish exiles in order to buff up its image as a protector of religious minorities and to connect with communities who might possibly give it some political leverage in Washington at a time when it has very little of it.

It is a motive that might entice other Arab countries to welcome Jews and maybe even join the Abraham Accords, assuming Biden makes it worth their while to seek leverage with the current administration.

But there is the flip side -- the effect that this welcoming attitude in the Arab world is having on Israel.

According to The Economist, this is an opportunity for Mizrahi Jews in Israel who feel marginalized because of a larger focus on European Jewish history. The Abraham Accords provides an opportunity to travel to Morocco and the UAE, and maybe even to move there.

But more than that:

Those who stay put are more open about their heritage. In contrast to their grandparents, who listened to Umm Kulthum, an Egyptian diva, in secret, young Mizrahim blast Arabic music in public. In 2015 three sisters of Yemenite origin released Israel’s first Arabic chart-topper. “Coldness is turning to curiosity about the region,” says Liel Maghen, who runs the Centre for Regional Initiatives, a think-tank in Jerusalem. “There’s an Arabisation of Israeli culture.” [emphasis added]

What Maghen means by 'Arabisation' is not clear. Nor is it clear what the implications are. 

While The Economist says that Maghen runs the 'Centre for Regional Initiatives', actually the organization's full name is the Israel Palestine Center for Regional Initiatives. While one popular view of the Abraham Accords is that it may help Arab Israelis similarly develop a more positive view of Israel, Maghen might be hinting at developments in the other direction, of Israeli Jews becoming more sympathetic and open to Israeli Arabs, and to the Palestinian Arabs as well. And not necessarily that the Accords are only something that will leave Palestinian Arabs isolated. 

And yet with all the positives in the Abraham Accords and the varied reasons for its success, there is the matter of Jewish history.

Because for all the invitations to Jews over the centuries, there were also the expulsions.

the Jews were expelled from England (1290)
o  the Jews were expelled from France (1306 and 1394)
o  the Jews were expelled from Hungary (1349 and 1360)
o  the Jews were expelled from German states (1348 and 1498)
o  the Jews were expelled from Austria (1421)
o  the Jews were expelled from Lithuania (1445 and 1495)
o  the Jews were expelled from Spain (1492)
o  the Jews were expelled from Portugal (1497)

Following the expulsion from Spain, many Jews found new homes within the Ottoman Empire.

But that didn't last forever. 

After all, the title of The Economist article is "The Arab world is re-embracing its Jews." Jews have lived there before in Jewish communities, some that dated back to the time of the Talmud.

Rabbi Spiro's list reminds us, even when Jews were re-invited back, that second invitation sometimes ran out as well.

But for now, it is hard not to be optimistic.

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