Spare a thought for the other ‘nakba’

The news that student groups on Tel Aviv University campus will be commemorating the Palestinian “nakba” this week with a special ceremony should come as no surprise. Why shouldn’t they join the thousands of youngsters around the world protesting the “catastrophe” of Israel’s birth and the creation of hundreds of thousands of Arab refugees? Palestine is one of the great global “radical chic” causes.

None of these indignant protestors will spare a thought for the other “nakba” — the Jewish one. For, while 700,000 refugees fled in one direction — from Palestine — over 850,000 fled in the other — from Arab countries.

The cause of the flight of the Palestinians in 1948 was war — a war their side launched. In the Arab countries, the cause of the Jewish flight was ethnic cleansing. If Israel had had a deliberate policy to drive out the Arab population, Arabs would not constitute 20 percent of Israel’s population today, nor would they be occupying prominent positions in government and the judiciary.

In Arab countries, by contrast, the Jewish population is down from a million to about 4,000. The Arab Spring is taking a further toll on the Jewish remnants in Tunisia, Yemen and Morocco. A drastic reduction of over 99 percent cannot be explained away as “Jews leaving their homes of their own free will.”

Arab students protest in front the Hebrew University of Jerusalem on Nakba Day 2011 (photo credit: Ruben Salvadori/Flash90)
Arab students protest in front the Hebrew University of Jerusalem on Nakba Day 2011 (photo credit: Ruben Salvadori/Flash90)

Where their suffering is acknowledged, and not swept under the rug, “the Jews only have themselves to blame,” goes the argument. Riots, executions, internment and abuse were justifiable payback for the “usurpation of Palestine.” (In Tunisia and Morocco, a gentler form of exclusion and harassment ushered the Jews toward the exit.)

All those exercised by the destruction of 400 Palestinian villages in Israel should spare a thought for the Jewish life, culture and civilization erased from almost every city and town in the Middle East and North Africa. According to the World Organisation of Jews from Arab Countries, Jews lost not only homes, schools, shops, markets, synagogues and cemeteries, but deeded land and property equivalent to five times the size of Israel itself.

The “understandable backlash” theory exonerates the scapegoating of innocent civilians as “enemy aliens” hundreds of miles from the battlefield. To claim that before Zionism Jews and Muslims coexisted in harmony masks another inconvenient truth. Anti-Semitism in Arab countries did not suddenly spring up as a reaction to Zionism; it predated the establishment of Israel by centuries. Under Muslim rule, Jewish life was precarious and often dispensable, depending on the ruler of the day. The dhimmi rules, humiliating the Jews but sparing their lives in exchange for payment of a poll tax, may have appeared tolerant in the 9th century. Today they appear arbitrary and racist.

Furthermore, the “understandable backlash” theory collapses under the weight of evidence that the Arab League drew up a plan to persecute their Jews in 1947 — before it declared war, and just two years after the slaughter of six million Jews in Nazi camps had come to light. The brutal truth is that Arab states conspired to get rid of and defraud their Jews. In other words, the Arab regimes imposed a set of “Nuremberg Laws” on their own Jewish citizens. The result was ethnic cleansing and dispossession.

In 1948, five Arab states launched a double jihad on the Jews: they lost the military war on the Jews of Israel, but comfortably won the “civil war” against the defenseless Jews of Arab lands. What the keffiyeh-clad youngsters demonstrating on university campuses at Nakba Week events are really doing is deploring the Arab failure to wipe out the Jews entirely from the region. How progressive is that?

It is no accident that the fascism that precipitated both jihads will not tolerate Christians and other non-Muslims, heretical sects, and anyone else who doesn’t fit the Islamist “one nation, one people, one religion” straightjacket.

Rabbi Aharon Cohen, the head of the Jewish community  in Casablanca, is one of only a handful of Jews remaining in Morocco today. (photo credit: Abir Sultan / Flash 90)
Rabbi Aharon Cohen, the head of the Jewish community in Casablanca, is one of only a handful of Jews remaining in Morocco today. (photo credit: Abir Sultan / Flash 90)

Impressionable students and their professors are taken in by the lie that Jews came to steal land belonging to the natives. The refugees of the Jewish “nakba” are living proof that Jews are not colonial interlopers, but indigenous to the region, members of communities that in many cases predated Islam by centuries. The fact that some 50 percent of the Jewish population of Israel descends from these refugees is a powerful statistic.

Moreover, the anti-Semitism that Arab-born Jews suffered is key to understanding the Arab world’s deep religious and cultural resistance to the idea of a Jewish state. For 14 centuries Jews lived under Muslim rule as dhimmis – inferior subjects — surrendering their right to self-defense to Muslims. For all its shortcomings, Israel has delivered these Jews from the yoke of Arab-Islamist supremacy.

In all conscience, every liberal ought to see the self-determination of a small, indigenous Middle Eastern people – the Jews – as a progressive cause. Instead, students and their teachers supporting the Palestinian campaign against Israel – deceptively cloaked in the language of human rights — have become unwitting agents for ethno-religious fascism.

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)