2017 has been quite a year for anniversaries: we’ve celebrated the centenary of the Balfour Declaration, and 50 years since Israel’s lightning victory in the Six Day War and the reunification of Jerusalem. On 29 November looms another cause for celebration: the 70th anniversary of the approval of the UN Partition plan, dividing Palestine west of the Jordan river into a Jewish and an Arab state.
Shimon Sasson, 85, remembers his excitement at hearing the UN vote over a crackly radio at home in Aden, a British crown colony at the southern tip of the Arabian peninsula with a Jewish population of about 5,000. But elation soon turned to horror as Arabs began burning Jews’ cars, stores, a school, businesses and homes. After three days of rioting, 87 Jews were dead – most shot by a unit of Bedouin troops under British command. Instead of protecting the Jews, the troops had fired at them and had eagerly joined the looters.
As a child in 1947, Joseph Howard recalls that an Arab neighbour told him not to go to school on the day that the riots broke out. ‘There were not riots, but murder,’ he says. Twenty years later, Joseph was caught up in equally fierce riots, when Adenites, furious at Israel’s 1967 defeat of the Arabs, vented their wrath on the few hundred Jews still living in the port city. The Jews were saved by two men: Abraham Marks, headmaster of the Jewish school, who shepherded them to safety in the Victoria Hotel, and Barnett Janner, who arranged for the entire Jewish community to be evacuated.
The destruction was repeated across the Arab world – today only Morocco and Tunisia have communities of any size – and these live under the shadow of Islamist terrorism.
While we must never stop celebrating milestones such as the Balfour Declaration and the Partition Plan, the disastrous reprisals suffered by the ancient Jewish communities of the Arab and Muslim world must also never be forgotten.
To preserve the stories of Jews like Shimon Sasson, the Israeli Knesset passed a law designating a Memorial Day for Jewish Refugees from Arab countries and Iran. But while it is important to document episodes of pain and suffering, it is also essential to celebrate the refugees’ successful resettlement in Israel and the West, and their exodus as a liberation from tyranny.
Jews should not be blamed for their own eviction, and the establishment of a national home for the Jews is not a provocation. Antisemitism predated Zionism in the Arab world. But as I explain in my book ‘Uprooted’ it is the extreme refusal to tolerate difference of any kind, whether Jewish, Christian, Yazidi or sectarian, that is the cause of displacement and strife in the Middle East.
The Arab states were never made to honour the last six words of the Balfour Declaration: that nothing be done to prejudice the rights and political status of Jews ‘in any other country’. We all know the tragic consequences suffered by the Jews of Europe, but 850,000 Jews left Arab states as a result of violence and state-sanctioned persecution.
So influential were Jewish communities that their exit left a gaping hole in Arab society and culture. In Iraq, for instance, almost all the musicians of the Radio Orchestra were Jews. The Jewish Al-Kuwaity brothers composed classics still popular with Iraqi Muslims today.
The centrepiece of our Jewish Refugee Week, arranged together with JW3, the Jewish Music Institute and the Israeli Embassy, is the 2 December Funky Dervish concert with Yinon Muallem, an Israeli musician of Iraqi-Jewish parentage living in Turkey. Yinon fuses Middle Eastern rythms and styles. He testifies to the dynamic and creative music scene in Israel today.
Let every celebration this coming week be a reason to commemorate – and every commemoration be cause for celebration.
Uprooted: how 3,000 years of Jewish civilisation vanished overnight by Lyn Julius is published by Vallentine Mitchell. Funky Dervish is at 8 pm on 2 December at JW3 (Book through JW3). Remember Baghdad will be screened on 3rd December at the Phoenix cinema. Booking details at www.harif.org.