Jews from MENA

Memory and identities of Jews from the Middle East and North Africa

There is an academic movement to rewrite the histories of Jews from the Middle East and North Africa to make people believe that they were corrupted by white European Zionists, who shattered centuries of utopian coexistence between Middle Eastern Jews and their Muslim and Christian neighbours.

This is an organised and well-funded challenge to the memories, the stories and the very identities of Jews whose families had lived in the Middle East for centuries. As in Europe, the history of Jews in the Middle East is long, diverse and contradictory. Sometimes life in the Ottoman, British and French Empires was better for Jews, sometimes life was worse for Jews. Yet in the end, Jews were ethnically cleansed from most of the states that replaced the empires, and which defined themselves in clear ethnic terms as ‘Arab’ or as ‘Islamic’. Under the multinational empires, there had sometimes been space for cosmopolitan cities and for human diversity. Too often, in the nationalist and Islamist movements that drove the imperialists out, there was no place for Jews at all, and frequently none for other minorities either.

The research agenda that is required here is one of carefully researching and writing up the diverse histories as they happened, and not as the ideologues wish them to have happened, so that they can fit them into simplistic worldviews of good and evil. There are still many survivors and so oral history can still be gathered; and there are archives and documents and written accounts that need to be understood.

We need to find funding, for example, for Adi Schwarz, to write the story of Shafiq Adas.  Schwarz writes: 

Shafiq Adas, considered the wealthiest Jew in Iraq, was hanged outside his Basra mansion on September 23, 1948, after a kangaroo court found him guilty of treason and aiding the ‘Zionist enemy’. His execution sent shockwaves through the millennia-old Jewish community in Iraq, and is mentioned together, with the 1941 pogrom of the Farhud, as a main reason for the hurried 1950-1951 Jewish exodus from Iraq. Adas’ tragic story and its significance – the deliberate targeting of a prominent Jew as a scapegoat by the government – is hardly known; not in Israel, not in Iraq, not around the world. 

Through Adas’ story, the book would recount the changes that befell the Jewish community in Iraq in the second half of the 19th century and the first half of the 20th century. It would rely on primary sources (archival documents, written and oral testimonies, etc.), as well as on secondary sources depicting the Jewish community in Iraq in general.

As an academic trend is gaining strength, denying and minimizing anti-Jewish sentiments and actions in Arab-dominated countries, this book’s aim is to serve as an antidote and as a bearer of truth: Middle Eastern Jews, just as everywhere else, suffered from discrimination and persecution, and eventually had to flee. At a time when antisemitic tropes in the West are used against the Jewish State, accusing it of being “white,” “colonialist,” and “imperialist,” this book could remind its readers that Jews are native to the Middle East, and that it was not ‘Ashkenazi European Zionism’ who ruined a fictitious Jewish-Muslim harmony. It would show that for many, Israel served as a haven for not only Jews fleeing Europe but also those fleeing the Middle East.’

There are similar stories to be told of the experiences of Jewish communities from Egypt, Yemen, Syria, Iran, Libya, Lebanon and the Maghreb.

This research agenda is controversial because it is likely to uncover complex and diverse stories, histories and identities; whereas simplistic ‘de-coloniality’ and of black/white binary politics require something else. 

Antizionism has to keep Jews ‘white’. That includes Jews who fled for their lives from a Europe that defined them as dangerous racial pollutants. And it includes about half the Jews of Israel, who would not have a chance of passing as white in any white racist space. 

Israelis whose families found refuge in Israel, from antisemitic movements that ethnically cleansed them out of their homes, are being told that their whole identity is a racist lie, invented by the apartheid invaders to assist in oppressing the Palestinians. It is an organised campaign of denial and it is genuinely evasive of Jewish identity. It portrays Middle Eastern Jews as non-whites who have been bought off by trivial privilege, to bolster white settler-colonialist rule.

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