“The Jews have no history in Muslim lands”

Who said: “the Jews have no history in Muslim lands”?

Was it an Arab commentator? A European Marxist? An ISIS operative?

No. The bombshell was dropped by an Israeli academic at Tel Aviv University in answer to the question: “why do you teach only the history of the Jews of Europe?”

It is true that the Jews of the Middle East and North Africa have not written their own history. Their origins are shrouded in legend and mystery. The few chronicles that survive have been mostly written by outsiders, such as the traveller Benjamin of Tudela who visited eastern Jewish communities in the 12th century.

In one fell swoop, however, the Tel Aviv university academic who spoke those words had dismissed 14 centuries of Jewish life under Muslim rule including the great contributions of Jewish poets, thinkers and translators in Muslim Spain – to say nothing of 1, 000 years of pre-Islamic Jewish existence, as attested by the remains of ancient synagogues, Talmudic academies, and even a Jewish kingdom, such as once was established in Yemen.

Most of the world’s Jews come from Europe and Europe deserves a prominent place in the teaching of the history of the Jewish people. It is tempting to conclude, in the light of a recent survey by the mass circulation daily Yediot Aharonot, that our Tel Aviv academic was responding out of sheer ignorance. The survey, entitled ‘Joining Israel’s elite is a long way off’ found that Ashkenazim remain dominant in six fields – culture, security, politics, the economy, the academy and law. Over 90 per cent of professors were Ashkenazi. The only Mizrahim the Israeli elite was likely to come into contact with were security guards, canteen dinner ladies or shop assistants.

Out of 14 History professors at Tel Aviv University only one deals with the history of the Jews from Muslim lands. He is Yaron Tsur, who is half-Yemenite, half-Yekke (German).

In Israel, academia ought to be reflecting the new reality: Jews of Middle Eastern and North African descent form a majority, but schools have done little to educate children about Jewish history and heritage in Arab countries. Every schoolchild knows about the Kishinev riots of 1903, which claimed 49 Jewish lives, but not many have heard of the Farhud in Iraq, which took 179 identified Jewish lives. They hear about the Bilu’im – the waves of Ashkenazi immigrants who founded the Yishuv’s institutions – and nothing about the Yemenite Jews who preceded them. In 1997 the artist Meir Gal ridiculed this state of affairs with ‘Nine out of 400’, holding the nine pages out of 400 which covered the history of Jews in Muslim lands in an Israeli school textbook.

All this is changing slowly. Professor Yaron Tsur sees in his students the researchers of the future in the field of Jews from Muslim lands. Social Equality minister Gila Gamliel has expressed optimism that the Eurocentric trend is being reversed. Education minister Naftali Bennett is determined to reform the school curriculum so that it better reflects the rich history and heritage of Jews from the Middle East and North Africa.

But education needs to start with the educators. As the saying goes: “physician, heal thyself.”

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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