Dana Segall

A response to Susan Abulhawa’s Al Jazeera article, ‘The Invention of the Mizrahim’

Susan Abulhawa posits in her 2017 Al Jazeera article, The Invention of the Mizrahim, that the term ‘Mizrahi’ was invented by European Zionists as a way to effectively strip Middle Eastern Jews of their distinctive national cultures and identities – whether that be Egyptian, Moroccan, Iraqi, Syrian, Yemenite, or Persian. The Zionists invented this term following the mass exodus of Mizrahi Jews from the Arab lands, which Abulhawa claims was caused singularly by “false flag terror incidents” carried out by the Zionists themselves, such as the bombing of Jewish cultural centres or synagogues. The Zionists provoked this exodus of the Mizrahi Jews in order to “build a population large enough to conquer the indigenous Palestinian population”.

Unfortunately for Abulhawa, Mizrahi is an ancient word in the Hebrew language. Just as ‘Ashkenazi’ means German and ‘Sephardi’ means Spanish, Mizrahi simply means ‘Eastern’, rendering Abulhawa’s definition as ‘those of the East’ slightly inaccurate. Thus her description of the term as having been “invented” by the elite European Jews as some plot to “lump all of these peoples of different nations into a single miscellaneous category that erased their individual ancient histories and cultures” is an unreasonable and ridiculous claim. There is a dangerous tendency amongst left wing, anti-Israel media to characterise Zionism as a kind of evil conspiracy against the Arab world rather than as what it was – Jewish nationalism – and Abulhawa’s assertion manifests precisely this trend. The term Mizrahi was not necessarily “a project to strip ancient peoples of their identities” – it was simply a convenient way to describe the general ethnic and cultural identity of a large segment of Israeli society, in the exact same way that the terms Ashkenazi and Sephardi serve the purpose of broadly describing Jews of European and Spanish descent respectively.

Abulhawa correctly states that before the establishment of the State of Israel, “Jews of Iraq identified as Iraqi, of Morocco as Moroccan… of Iran as Persian, of Syria as Syrian, of Egypt as Egyptian”. However, her assertion that these Jews lost these distinctive cultural identities solely because “recruitment of Jews from the surrounding Arab world was a necessary inconvenience” for the European Zionists, is extraordinarily absurd. The expulsion of the Mizrahi Jews by their national governments that occurred during the 1940s and 1950s has been comprehensively and thoroughly researched in accordance with the highest standards of academic rigour. Although Jews in Arab countries had maintained reasonably stable relations with their Arab governments over the centuries, their status as Dhimmi had fostered an ever-present culture of discrimination in the Arab world. This centuries-old social status ultimately combined with the modern forces of European anti-Semitism, Zionism, and Arab nationalism, the latter of which alienated the Jews of the Arab world by linking them with Zionism and casting them as traitorous. Finally, the 1947 United Nations Partition Plan and eventually the 1948 Arab-Israeli war led to the expulsion and exodus of Mizrahi Jews. By 1947, Jews in Syria faced restrictions on emigration to Israel and found their bank accounts frozen, synagogues looted, and private property confiscated by the government: similar persecution occurred in Egypt and Libya. In Yemen, the Jewish quarter of the city of Aden was burned to the ground, undermining the community’s economic base. In 1930s Iraq, as German influenced anti-Semitism was burgeoning, Jews were forced out of their civil service jobs, and pro-Nazi uprisings against the Jews saw hundreds of homes looted, shops damaged, and lives lost. By the 1940s, Zionism was criminalised in Iraq, Jews were imprisoned on false charges, and a number of influential Jews were hanged in public. In North Africa, the Jews of Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia experienced similar waves of anti-Jewish riots, although suffering fewer casualties as a result of the protection offered by French authorities in these countries. However, the testimonies of these North African Jews show that they ultimately fled out of fear of a potentially sudden deterioration in their circumstances, considering the anti-Semitic developments in other Arab countries as well as the 1948 war. Moreover, the public records of the United Nations General Assembly from 1947 show that death threats were frequently and openly made against Jews by delegates from a number of Arab countries, including Egypt and Iraq. In 1948, the Political Committee of the Arab League adopted a new law which stipulated that all Jewish citizens of the signatory countries would be considered “members of the minority Jewish state of Palestine” were it to be established, indicating a clear strategy on the part of the Arab states to collectively expel their Jewish citizens. Approximately 850,000 Jews from the Arab world were either forcibly expelled or fled out of fear between 1948 and 1975: 600,000 would immigrate to Israel, and the remainder would find refuge in the US. The Israel Ministry of Foreign Affairs estimates that the present day US dollar value of Jewish property confiscated by Arab governments during this period ranges between $8 billion to $30 billion.

This vast quantity and quality of evidence for the state sponsored, violent anti-Semitism in Arab countries demonstrates that Abulhawa’s claim that Zionist Jews single-handedly provoked this mass exodus is an utter fabrication. It engages in conspiracy theory for which there is not a shred of state, archival, or any kind of tangible evidence for whatsoever. The author fails to acknowledge, even for a moment, the vast breadth of reputable evidence which directly serves to contradict her claims, or the testimonies of almost 900,000 Mizrahi Jews who fled their countries over the intolerable persecution they experienced by their own governments. Indeed, it offers not even one authentic voice that could perhaps strengthen its claims; not one Mizrahi voice that may have bore witness to one of Abulhawa’s “false flag terror incidents”. Indeed, throughout my research, I could find not one reliable academic source which referenced these alleged terror incidents, verified that it was ‘the Zionists’ who plotted them, or which sourced evidence for this in the stringent and reliable method that is fundamental to the disciplines of history and the social sciences. The author utterly fails to cite any reputable historical source or witness account to support her claims of these events.

The text is rooted in a deep-seated hatred of the State of Israel and the Zionist ideology upon which it was founded. It attempts to smear the State of Israel and to cast doubt upon the morality of the country’s foundational ideology. The author attempts to achieve these political ends by systematically bashing the idea of Jewish nationalism and its European origins, putting forward a ludicrous narrative of why and how these Jewish nationalists expelled Middle Eastern Jews from their homelands, and how this entire project was rooted in Zionism’s supposed racism. The unspoken political bias inherent in this text is palpable. The text attempts to sow hatred and anger towards the State of Israel through utter sensationalism, and by exploiting the emotional sensibilities of its readers. Its depiction of the plight of Mizrahi Jews is heart-wrenching. Its detailed assignment of blame on the wicked Zionists is thorough. However, it is the text’s foundation in unproven conspiracy and sensationalist falsehood that is essentially what transforms this text from an opinion article into a piece of anti-Israel propaganda. Moreover, the text’s hypothesis that European Jews secretly conspired to “conquer” the Palestinian people by expelling Mizrahi Jews from their homes throughout the Middle East is simply a mutation of that timeless anti-Semitic trope, which posits that there is an international Jewish conspiracy which seeks to dominate the entire world: in Abulhawa’s case, the Arab world.

Link to Susan Abulhawa’s Al Jazeera Article (2017):

About the Author
Dana Segall was recently awarded a Bachelor of International Relations from the University of Sydney with Highest Distinction, and will be pursuing her Master's in Political Science at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.
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