Don’t force Jews into facile categories

JFS School (Jewish News)
JFS School (Jewish News)

Over 700 former students and staff have signed a petition calling for the Jewish Free School in London to adopt a ‘decolonised’ curriculum. It should provide an honest portrayal of the British empire and the white slave trade, they urge.

While it is laudable that the petitioners should wish to broaden the curriculum,  there are two pitfalls they must avoid.

One is to impose the straightjacket of identity politics on society – this categorises people into tribes or ethnic groups, some of whom can claim to be victimised by other groups. Thus black people are generally being seen as victims of white people. Third World people are seen as victims of white colonials.

Where do Jews fit in? There is a dangerous trend afoot to shoehorn Jews in to the white colonial category. Added to the classic antisemitic trope of Jewish power and world domination, Jews then become portrayed as oppressors of black or coloured people. It is a short step to extending the analogy to Israel: a ‘white’ colonial state oppressing ‘black’ Palestinians.

This tendency is worrying for two reasons. One is that Jews in Europe were also victims of oppression – until recently Jews suffered from systemic bans and quotas.

The other reason is that recent waves of Jewish refugees into Britain from the Arab and Muslim world testify to the oppression of (coloured or ) black people by other black people. It is a fact that Jews were only one notch above slaves in a systemic Muslim structure of racism branding non-Muslims as ‘dhimmis’. Ironically it was western colonialism which ‘liberated’ these Jews from their subjugated status.

The late Albert Memmi got it right. He was a Tunisian Jewish writer and philosopher who supported the anti-colonial movement for independence agains the French. But surveying the dismal failure of postcolonial states to respect the rights of minorities, and witnessing the flight of his fellow Jews from Arab countries, Memmi also acknowledged that ‘black’ people could be oppressors. As a result he was a fervent supporter of Zionism as the national liberation movement of the Jewish people.

If the JFS petitioners wish to broaden the curriculum, by all means. Let us talk about the evils of colonialism. Let us talk about the white slave trade. But let us also talk about the Arab slave trade, which trafficked 17 million people, whereas the transatlantic slave trade trafficked 11 million. Let us be frank about antisemitism in the Arab and Muslim world.

Let’s not reduce history to simplistic categories of ‘white’ bad, ‘black’ good.

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About the Author
Lyn Julius is a journalist and co-founder of Harif, an association of Jews from the Middle East and North Africa in the UK. She is the author of 'Uprooted: How 3,000 years of Jewish Civilisation in the Arab world vanished overnight.' (Vallentine Mitchell)
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