“Why do you call yourself an Arab Jew?”
For those of us from Arab lands, identity has always been an issue. Some of us just want to forget, and erase the “Arab” part out completely. We have suffered, we never really belonged,we were eventually in the last sixty years kicked out. Its natural to want to be done with this identity.
However erasing our history instead of understand and highlighting the difference in being Arab Jews, instead of Jewish Arabs is more to the point.
Albert Memmi, in his deeply enlightening book, Jews and Arabs, explains the predicament i will attempt to paraphrase.
We were not accepted as equal/ as Arab. Under Islam, we were Dhimmis,People of the Book, a “protected” minority with inferior status, hostage to punitive laws meant to humiliate and punish Jews and Christians living in the region for thousands of years, predating the Muslim Conquest for not converting to Islam. We had no recourse but to put up with the laws and pay a special tax. In Memmi’s Tunisia, the “receipt” was a smack on the head.
With the rise of Arab nationalism after WW2, life for Middle Eastern and North African Jews became more oppressive and precarious. In 1948 with the creation of the modern state of Israel, life became unbearable for Jews in the Middle East and North Africa. But Albert Memmi reminds us that life was never idyllic, safe, or relaxed for a Jew under Muslim rules.
So why cling to an identity that treated you as if you never belonged? Personally, i don’t see a “choice.” It is our history.
In the United States where I live as a citizen today, I have the choice to identify as an American Jew or a Jewish American. My parents did not have this choice in Iraq or Egypt. They were Egyptian and Iraqi Jews, Arab Jews. One does not live as a national in a country for hundreds of years and remain so insulated that you are not part of the culture. So to say we were never Arabic is sheer denial.
The underlying problem of being legislated as Arab Jews instead of Jewish Arabs put us under the danger of being considered foreigners, who at any moment could be and were, subjected to arbitrary laws and eventually disposed of.
Until Hitler came to power, the Jews in Germany were free to identify as German Jews or Jewish Germans. The Nuremberg Laws changed and shocked Jewish Germans into a new and terrifying reality. Under HItler Jews were legally classified as non-Aryan.They were no longer Jewish Germans, they were simply Jews, a foreign population to be humiliated, tortured and finally exterminated.
With the inception of modern day Israel in l948, there is no question that the already discriminatory laws against Arab Jews were intensified. Jews always needed to know their place. Israel gave Jews a power that was unbearable. Until Israel, most Islamic countries in the region were satisfied making sure we knew “our place. After Israel they made our lives unbearable with new laws, imprisoning us, hanging Jews in public squares as the centerpiece for “picnics” for the crowds who gathered to celebrate.
A sovereign Jewish state in “their” midst was, and remains to this day, an unbearable affront to their sense of dominance.
Jewish life in “their” lands was to be extinguished. Between 1948- 1970 almost one million Arab Jews were expelled or forced to flee their native lands as penniless refugees. Stripped of all their possessions, they became traumatized paupers cruelly exiled from deeply rooted communities for two to three thousand years.
No Jew was simply allowed to leave. Arab Jewish refugees poured into an impoverished Israel with one suitcase of clothing, all the rest of their possessions “confiscated,”
There was no Jewish state for Europe’s Jews during Nazi Germany’s rampage into Eastern Europe. Even the one suitcase of clothing Jews left their homes with were plundered in the death camps.
My entire maternal and paternal families, all us Arab Jews, were lucky. The Arab nations were satisfied with expulsion. And we had Israel. Despite the hardships of an Israel only two years new and besieged by the Arab states on all sides, we had a future, if not a past.
Few if any remnants remain in our ancestral lands. Most cemeteries, synagogues, and sign of Jewish life have been demolished. Young Egyptians today are surprised when they hear of there was such a thing as “Egyptian Jews” despite the facts, and the facts remain:
In 1948 Egypt had a population of 80,000 Jews. By 1967 only 2,500 remained, and one too many Jewish men who did not give up on Egypt when they could, including a relative of mine, were imprisoned and tortured as “Zionist spies” in prison like Tora. Today there are a few old Jewish women are left in Cairo and Alexandria.
In my mother’s Iraq, in 1948 Jews numbered 135,000 strong, most with ancient ties to their country. Almost overnight they became poverty-stricken refugees, with 6,000 left in Iraq in 1958, 350 left in 1976, and five old Jews today.
Today, there are no Jews left in Libya where once 38,000 Jews lived. In Morocco, the number of Jews dwindled from 265,000 to 3,000 in 2012.
By 2012 less than a 1,000 from a population of 105,000 Jews were left in Tunisia (who did not expell its Jews, but had a long history of Dhimmi laws). The Jews of Yemen are quickly becoming extinct, and persecution continues to grow.
The story repeats itself all over the Muslim Arab world.
Today Jews in Iran (Islamic but not an “Arab” country) are quiet, afraid of their shadow. They are not free to leave with their possessions.
It is human nature to be attached to our country of origin, family, friends, community, customs, and yes, possessions. Masses don’t just leave. Identities are forged over lifetimes. Integral pieces remain in our history as Arab Jews.