When you read Jewish history, it is filled with centuries of massacres, kidnappings, expulsions, and oppressive policies by Arab federations.
Before Palestinian Arab leaders called themselves Palestinian, they had another name for their federation. And before that, an even earlier name. And so on and so forth — Zaydanis, Fatimids, Abbasids, and more.
And in the present era, across almost the entire territory once ruled by the Arab empires, many different Arab federations still fight for control in the form of countries, militias, fiefdoms, or unions.
Yet despite all that variety and all that territory, whether they are Iraqi Arab, Houthi Arab, Palestinian Arab, or some other group, the Arab federations generally have the same body of policies towards Jews and other groups indigenous to West Asia and North Africa.
In addition to the Arab federations’ policies regarding minorities, they also demonstrate consistency in other aspects.
Including the State of Palestine / Palestinian Authority, every single Arab federation defines itself in its constitution or charter as an Arab state and indivisible from the broader Arab nation — i.e., a self-governing Arab community, but not a distinct nationality or ethnicity. In addition, every single Arab state except for the Republic of Lebanon defines Islam as the exclusive basis for its legal system.
This level of consistency comes from the legacy of the Arab empires. It is an expression of imperialism and colonialism. In areas the Ottoman Empire centrally controlled for extended periods, the legacy was subordinate but remained strong.
According to the Quran, one of the first Arab Muslim victories was against Jewish tribes at Khaybar, near Medina. Following that victory, Mohamed’s federation of Arab tribes immediately implemented policies addressing the Jewish Question.
Mohamed, the founder of Islam, was aware of the Jewish communities across the region. This meant that Jewish people and Judaism posed a threat to the religious and territorial claims of his growing Arab Muslim federation — and thus, the Arab spin on the Jewish Question had been born.
From the very beginning, the Jewish Question was never just a local issue at Khaybar. It was an existential issue, because historic Jewish communities could be found beyond Khaybar, all the way east past Babylon and all the way west past Fez, in addition to core communities that remained continuously within Israel.
Mohamed created the first Arab Muslim empire, after which two more Arab Muslim empires followed, and then the Ottoman Muslim empire. The imperialist response to the Jewish Question, once formulated, has remained remarkably durable under Muslim rule, and especially Arab Muslim rule. It is common to see the exact same formulations on Jews whether in Marrakesh or Baghdad. It has been over a thousand years of colonization, imperialism, and apartheid against Jewish people, always looking to Khaybar as the first precedent.
And in turn, Khaybar continues to speak back to us in the present day. At “pro-Palestine” rallies in present times around the world, people are often chanting “خيبر خيبر يا يهود Khaybar Khaybar Ya Yahud” (Khaybar, oh Jews, Khaybar).
Under the Arab empires and subsequent Arab federations, the same policies on Jews kept getting recycled: Jews had to be identifiable by wearing specific symbols when out in public; Jews had to keep synagogues smaller and lower than mosques; Jews in cities had to live in a ghetto which in some cases was locked at night; Jews were forbidden from certain public offices; Jews were allowed a separate type of citizenship, or none at all; and Jews could not defend themselves from massacres, kidnappings, or expulsions.
Sometimes, there would be a sympathetic governor or other leader who would prune or soften these policies. But ultimately, they were never decided on by Jews.
With the collapse of the third Arab Empire, the vast Arab populations have created a beautiful tapestry of distinctive local cultures, histories, dialects, and traditions. However, the national and subnational Arab federations which continued to rule have remained mostly homogenous regarding the Jewish Question and its policies of colonization and apartheid.
What we saw happen in the Simchat Torah massacre was not a decolonial or emancipatory struggle. It was not a yearning for freedom.
The Arab empires and federations have been doing this exact type of violence against Jewish people for hundreds of years.
It was a tradition.
When I saw a video of a Hamas militant forcing a hijab onto a kidnapped Jewish woman this weekend, I remembered the accounts of Jewish women kidnapped during centuries of pogroms across the Arab empires and federations, e.g. in Fez, Hebron, Zefat, Baghdad, and countless other cities, neighborhoods, and villages.
Having read about such kidnappings so many times, it was a type of pain already etched into my soul. And I have seen so much documentation of similar cases of Ezidi women taken by the Islamic State.
Still, I was not ready. It surprised me that no matter how chaotic the situation, extremists in totally different Arab federations will still put a hijab onto a captive woman as a moment of ritualized tradition.
This type of policy is not just a policy. Because of centuries of this being official imperial procedure, it is inscribed into popular consciousness as part of how women are taken as captives. The extremist seemed to do it spontaneously, an idea springing out from his collective memory.
Jewish people are not the only indigenous regional community that is subject to this type of traditionalized violence.
Ezidis, Kurds, and Assyrians are just some of the other indigenous groups that experience almost the exact same types of events, not just in recent years but over the course of centuries across West Asia and North Africa.
This phenomenon is not uniquely Arab: the determining factor is not Arab-ness, but a history of imperialism and confederacy.
White imperialists and other imperialists — e.g. the Russian Empire, the Spanish Empire, the British Empire, the Japanese Empire, and more — have their own scripts when it comes to acting on indigenous groups or caste minorities.
And also, empires and federations can colonize each other’s territories — e.g. the British Empire vs. th Ottoman Empire; the Russian Empire vs. the Persian Empire; or the Arab Empire vs. the Christian federations.
Although personal identity, such as being White or Arab, will influence an individual’s personal experiences, it does not determine their beliefs.
There are many Arab progressives who do not support imperialism, colonization, and apartheid. In some cases, they actively oppose these phenomena. And in a few cases, they want to see them actively retracted.
Sadly, since their independence from the British, French, and Italian empires, the Arab federations have relentlessly executed progressive Arab leaders for generations. The loss is incalculable.
On the other hand, in the State of Israel, these progressive Arab thinkers are at the core of Palestinian Arab political representation in the Knesset (i.e. Israeli parliament). In that context, being progressive often, but not always, means being left-wing. Consider, for example, Mansour Abbas. He is one of the most significant Palestinian Arab politicians in the State of Israel.
As an imam at his local mosque, Mansour Abbas personally holds many socially conservative views which he sometimes expresses politically. Yet as a minority voice, and one who has actively bridged together feuding stakeholders, he has a progressive presence in the most literal sense: of progress towards liberal ideas such as Jews and Arabs building institutions together, in addition to having a two-state solution. He rejects stripping Jewish self-determination from the State of Israel, and criticizes lopsided assessments of the State of Israel as an apartheid state.
As the Simchat Torah massacre unfolded, Mansour Abbas recognized the massacre as a tragedy, and at the same time confronted it as a threat to both Jews and Arabs in civil society,
לאור האירועים המצערים, הטרגיים והמגונים, קורא לאזרחים הערבים וכלל האזרחים ערבים ויהודים, לשמור על איפוק ולהתנהג באחריות וסבלנות ולהקפיד על החוק והסדר. מפציר להימנע מלעסוק בכל מעשי אלימות או פגיעה בחיי אדם או ברכוש ציבורי ופרטי, ולא להיגרר לשמועות או הסתה המבקשת להסלים היישובים
And my personal translation,
In light of the unfortunate, tragic, and shocking events, I call upon the Arab citizens and all Arab and Jewish citizens to maintain restraint and behave responsibly and patiently and observe law and order. I beseech everyone to refrain from engaging in any acts of violence or harm to human life, or against public and private property, and to not be drawn into rumors or incitement that seeks to spiral the communities.
This nuanced, compassionate statement from Mansour Abbas reflects his progressive positions as a democratically elected representative, and a Palestinian Arab voice in the Knesset.
At the same time, I am aware that there are Jewish extremists who are also in positions of authority. I know that there are Jewish Israelis who are right-wing provocateurs, commit racist hate crimes, demonize LGBTQ and secular Israelis, and spout incitement against Arab countrymen. There are some Jewish people who will fight to have a municipal boundary cut through an Arab-owned agricultural field, or who will sue relentlessly, for decades, to evict an Arab family from a house they lived in for decades.
It is fundamentally dishonest to create a false equivalence between these issues and the Simchat Torah massacre. There has never, I mean never, been a target on civilians like what we saw this weekend — except, historically, by Arab federations against Jews, Kurds, Ezidis, Copts, and other indigenous groups in West Asia and North Africa. And I can recognize in good faith that the Simchat Torah massacre is not born from sporadic back and forth hate crimes, nor of rhetoric and fighting over clearly defined properties that Jews owned seventy years ago.
Although it has centuries of Jewish history, the only known Jews alive today in the Gaza Strip are prisoners or none at all. This is not a “cause and effect” situation with the State of Israel’s policies. We can plainly see it is the same issue in the vast majority of the Arab federations, such as the Republic of Iraq, the Republic of Yemen, the Syrian Arab Republic, and beyond. The Kingdom of Morocco is considered a proud exception, but it was lost over 99% of its Jewish citizens. That is as good as it gets. The exception proves the rule.
History matters. Context matters. Everything I have written here matters for understanding the Simchat Torah massacre.
If someone does not understand the Trail of Tears, then how can they understand the Cherokee Nation in the United States?
And if someone does not understand the Mawza exile, the Dawud Pasha persecutions, the Hebron pogrom, the Zefat massacres, the Holocaust in North Africa, or other such events, then how can they understand Zionism amid Arab federations?
Not to mention, of course, the many centuries of Jewish people attempting to return to Israel, sometimes just for burial, and at other times to re-establish Jewish self-rule. Six hundred years after an Arab Empire first took over Israel, the Jewish community still had a king-in-exile, an exilarch who endured until the Mongol invasion of Baghdad.
So we have to recognize context. We have to recognize history.
With that, it’s obvious that what we saw this weekend at the hands of Arab groups was a scene drawn from centuries of Arab imperialism, down to the exact custom of bringing a hijab for captive women.
That’s it. That’s the story.
There is one major difference, however.
I am proud that we can defend ourselves.
And I am proud that the IDF has a whole team notifying civilians in Gaza Strip the precise locations of air strikes before they happen, and the exact neighborhoods where it is safe to wait while the Arab federation that committed the Simchat Torah massacre is combatted — e.g. Hamas, PIJ, and some other similar groups.
We maintain our borders not to oppress others, but as protective walls.
Similar to the long list of violent attacks by White imperialists against Native Americans, including during spiritual ceremonies, our own history as Jewish people includes centuries of Arab empires and Arab federations breaking into our communities to murder, kidnap, and convert us.
We were okay with Hamas ruling its own population, within its own borders, so long as we could be free as Jewish people alongside fellow Arab, Circassian, and other citizens on our own side of the border.
We have a right to exist.
That is what decolonization actually looks like.