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Rachel Wahba
Rachel Wahba

The anti-Zionist Mizrahi heritage revisionist problem

My parent's Egyptian and Iraqi cancelled passports

Social media enabled Mizrahi activists to amplify our stories. And yet, too many people are mystified, what is a Mizrahi Jew? And what exactly happened, did something happen that emptied the Arab nations of its Jews? Do we have a word for the forced exodus of one million Jews from Arab lands in the 1950s -1960s?

Both Nishul and Yom HaGirush speak to dispossession – the massive rip-off of all assets, nationality, and everything familiar from most of the million Jews from native Arab lands throughout the 1950s -1960s.

Why is our history such a mystery? We were refugees returned to a Homeland vilified for doing exactly that.

Until recently Mizrahi Jews were deeply rooted for thousands of years in countries that became Arab lands. Rooted but never “Arabs” because we wanted to remain Jews. Considered an affront to Islam. Despite the claims of revisionists spouting anti-Zionist misinformation, we were never considered Arabs. We were Jew, Yahud, a word to be spat out. If we were considered “Arab,” it would have been a different story – but we Jews were never equal, and the punishment for not converting to Islam was ugly.

Many Jews did (convert) in the early days of the Muslim Conquest. Those of us who refused became legalized second-class citizens, dhimmi. A “‘protected’ minority” (subject to a punitive special tax, especially frightening Jews who didn’t have the funds). We were forced to know our place.

Until no tax, no bribe, no amount of money would do. Jews in Arab lands, became penniless refugees because Jews decided to take fate into our own hands by establishing the State of Israel. It was too much for Jew-phobic Islamized countries to stomach.

Out of the million Mizrahi and Sephardic Jews forced out of old Jewish communities all over the Middle East and North Africa, 750,000 Jews, including my extended family from Iraq and Egypt, had nowhere to go besides Israel’s makeshift tent cities and tin shack camps, the maabarot.

Israel was a dirt-poor country in the 1950s, struggling to survive the onslaught of hate and war. The nations surrounding Israel were sure they would get rid of the Jewish country as they did their Jews.

Tell me revisionists and anti-Zionists, how we were so stupid, and how we were duped by an Ashkenazi Zionist plan – how we were so gullible, leaving our communities, our homes, our wonderful lives – fooled so bad, we just left en masse for a dirt poor Israel?

Revisionists, you don’t want to sound that stupid, do you?

Revisionists and liars will do what they do. They will elevate the Nakba while shamelessly lying about our history. Israel is to blame for our “exile,” they will say we lived a golden dream, that we never had to “leave” our native lands, and maybe think about returning?

They blame anti-Jewish racism and the horrors of the Farhud, Violent Dispossession, in 1941 purely on Nazi influence in the region.

We know such hate does not come overnight. Arab Nazi sympathizers come from a long education of Jew hatred, the way the Holocaust was not born in a vacuum.

Anti-Zionist antisemitic revisionists will ignore the anti-Jewish racism we suffered, blame Israel’s existence for it, and spout their misinformation with impunity.

There was a time in the forties when my father, who knew his Egypt’s long history of anti-Jewish racism (but as a romantic hoping against hope what he knew and why he left in 1939…), freely socialized in the 1940s with the Egyptian Consul in Bombay, India. The two bonded as Egyptian nationals, shared hours of strong coffee, conversation, whisky, cigarettes, and those jokes Egyptians are famous for.

Once this consul-friend “complimented” dad as a Jew, by exclaiming (after hearing our Wahba family history), “Moussa you are more Egyptian than me!”

My father also sadly remembered his horror seeing this friend, his Egyptian consul, angry over witnessing my father’s face break into tears as he spoke of the Holocaust. The news was out, he brought the newspaper thinking the genocide of Europe’s Jews would matter. It didn’t. “Moussa, you are Egyptian, what is this to you?”

By June 5th, 1946, in Bombay, the consul-friend who was at my parents’ engagement party three months earlier, was no longer officially allowed to attend. The “You are an Egyptian not a Jew” turned into “You are a Jew not an Egyptian.”

By August 1949 dad’s passport was useless. Jews living outside Egypt lost citizenship first by having passports annulled. Most of the Jews inside Egypt were kicked out in 1956.

My grandfather never imagined after such a long history that he would be kicked out with a laissez passez, a one-way exit visa, and told “never come back,” in Mansoura Egypt in 1956.

Eli Wahba, the grandfather I never met, was a proud Egyptian and deeply spiritual Jew whose faith kept him sane after expulsion. He knew the children would weather the dirt and mud and dust of the refugee transit camps, the prejudice of the Ashkenazim who didn’t get Mizrahim, and the grandchildren, they would thrive as Jews in Israel.

My immediate family were already passportless and in Japan in the 1950s. We didn’t experience the maabarot our relatives suffered.

I remember the big cardboard boxes we packaged up with clothes we had outgrown, and anything else we could afford to send “to Israel.”

Anyone who doesn’t understand why we need Israel is not listening.

I grew up hearing and feeling from my mother and grandmother, and the Baghdadi Jews in India and then Japan, how it was never safe for a Jew in Iraq even before the Farhud.

A Jew had ways to survive, by lowering their eyes on the street, ducking fingers reaching budding breasts, female bottoms fingered.

Granny, an Iraqi Jew who was born and raised in Singapore until marriage took her to Baghdad at sixteen, had no way to understand how Jews were forced to live “like mice!” As a mother, she never forgot her son coming home beaten up on the street and crying – a jar of mango pickles he was sent to the store for marinating in urine.

Baghdad, where some Jews did very well, others suffered in slums, and every Jew knew their place.

No country had our back. And that, in a world of nation-states, is a very dangerous thing. All Jews, from all over the world, Ashkenazim, the Beta Israel from Ethiopia, and Mizrahim, experienced the hate.

Anyone who wants to revise the story, and tell us why Israel is not crucial to our well-being, doesn’t know what they are talking about.

Anti-Zionists have approached me many times since the 1980s here in the United States. My background as a Mizrahi Jew could be used to help delegitimize Israel.

After all, I was a Progressive a member of the Queer community, brown in skin tone, how could I refuse to preach the racism of the Ashkenazim towards Mizrahim?

I am not excusing the years of anti-Mizrahi prejudice from Ashkenazi Jews. But context is important. Seventy years ago all of us Jews and non-Jews, wanted to be European. Mizrahi Jews entering Israel were twice the population of Ashkenazim. Yes, there were disgusting fears.

Were we real Jews? We didn’t sound the same…we were never exiled in Europe… we ate, spoke, and sometimes looked different. Anti-Mizrahi bias caused suffering over the past seventy years.

There is still work to be done, but the prejudice has been diluted by intermarriage and the fact that over half of the Jews in Israel come from Mizrahi/Sephardi backgrounds.

There is catching up to do in many professions demanding advanced academic degrees. It is happening. Culturally, the fusion is undeniable. Israel has been Mizrahified. The once derided “Arabic-ness” we brought with us has been integrated into the vibe, the food, the music.

A lack of awareness with a dollop of antisemitism, anti-Jewish racism, makes it possible for revisionists to get grants and spout how golden our lives were in Arab lands, therefore there is no need for Israel to exist as a Jewish country.

I can’t repeat enough how important Martin Gilbert’s “ In Ishmael’s House- A History of Jews in Arab Lands” is. Gilbert was a brilliant author, he made a long and complex history accessible to non-academics.

Revisionists can only succeed when we don’t know our own history.

Being a legalized second-class citizen, a dhimmi, being reminded that your life is not worth as much as your fellow citizens, always precariously on edge, as my mother and her family were before and after the Farhud was something not a single free human would accept for themselves.

It’s not about going back, no one wants that. We got out of a bad situation. But we were sent out in a terrible way.

I am Mizrahi and Sephardic and a tiny percent Askenazi and Coptic Egyptian. Judeo Arabic was my mother tongue. I was born in India and loved my building on Arthur Bunder Lane in Bombay, populated by Baghdadi Jews. I grew up with a non-biological extended “family” of Jews from all over the world in Japan. Most of our relatives were in Israel and scattered in Brazil, Australia, France.

We are reminded to expand our knowledge as a nonmonolithic People. We must fight back deliberate lies as we continue to do with Holocaust Denial.

Anti-Zionists who think they can wage war on our history, and the one Jewish country by making up false narratives must be called out. NOW.

About the Author
Rachel Wahba is a San Francisco Bay Area based writer, psychotherapist and the co-founder of Olivia Travel. An Egyptian-Iraqi Jew, Rachel was born in India and grew up stateless in Japan. The many dimensions of her exile and displacement are a constant theme in her professional work as well as her activism as an advisory board member for JIMENA (Jews Indigenous to the Middle East and North Africa).
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