We were here before you – and not just in Palestine

” We were here before you”. (“And we will be there after you”).

MK Jamal Zahalka must be regretting uttering those words in the Knesset on 1 August, after being slapped down by no less than Israel’s Prime Minister.

Benjamin Netanyahu was not intending to speak, but felt an irresistible urge to step up to the podium to refute Zahalka’s lie. “The first is not true”, he declared, “and the second will not happen.”.

But it will take more than a curt one-liner to rebut an increasingly accepted tenet of Arab propaganda and trendy post-colonialism in our universities and media: the Jews are interlopers from Europe and the US. They are westerners who came to ‘colonise’ and ’steal land’ from Palestinian people of colour. Even some Jews believe the myth that the Arabs had been in Palestine since ‘time immemorial’.

After the Six-Day war Israel became a client state of the US. It came to be seen as an outpost of western imperialism. Drawing on Marxist terminology, the colonialist myth gained traction after 1967 when Israel annexed East Jerusalem and the Golan Heights and ‘conquered’ the West Bank and Gaza. The notion of ‘occupation’ and the use of the word ‘settlers’ reinforce the concept of Israeli ‘colonisation’ of ‘Arab’ land. From this flows a wrong-headed analogy with South African apartheid: white Israelis oppressing brown native Arabs.

The colonialism myth supports another myth: Jews are not a people, deserving of the right to self-determination, but a religion. They are “Khazar converts” with no specific links to the Middle East. Anti-Zionists habitually talk of US citizens of the Jewish faith, Germans of the Jewish faith and even Arabs of the Jewish faith.

The truth is the opposite: Although race should not be confused with peoplehood, studies have proved that Jews from East and West have genetic links with the Middle East.

” We were here before you” equally applies to the 50 percent of Israel’s Jews who trace their ancestry from Muslim and Arab lands.

The vast majority of these Jews merely moved from one corner of the ‘Arab world’ to that Middle Eastern coastal sliver known as Israel. Until their expulsion 50 years ago, Jews had been settled in Iraq, for example, since the Babylonians exiled Jews from Jerusalem in 586 BCE. In the early 20th century, Baghdad was the most Jewish city in the world, after Salonica and Jerusalem.

The Arabs are relative newcomers to the region; the ‘Arab world’ is a misnomer. By the time the Arabs had conquered land largely inhabited by Jews and Christians in the 7th century in the best tradition of imperialism, and had subjugated them as dhimmis in the tradition of colonialism, the Jews had been settled there for 1,000 years. People in the West tend to apply a common misconception to all Jews, borrowing the Christian notion that Jews have been punished to wander from land to land with no country to call their own. But not only have Jews always lived in Palestine, there was continuity of Jewish settlement in the Middle East and North Africa for more than 2,000 years. If only native inhabitants are entitled to political rights, the Jews are as indigenous as any people living in the Middle East can be.

But you say, the Jews have always been a minority since their dispersal 2,000 years ago from Judea. I recently heard a Coptic leader, Bishop Angaelos, reject the term ‘minority’ to describe Egypt’s 10 million Copts. They may constitute only 8 percent of Egypt’s population, but as Egypt’s indigenous residents – they are descended from the ancient Egyptians – the Christian Copts feel a sense of ownership.

Albert Memmi, the Tunisian-born Jewish philosopher and author of The Colonizers and the Colonized puts it well:

I simply wish to underline that as natives of those countries called Arab and indigenous to those lands well before the arrival of the Arabs, we shared with them, to a great extent, languages, traditions and cultures. If one were to base oneself on this legitimacy, and not on force and numbers, then we have the same rights to our share in these lands – neither more nor less – than the Arab Moslems.

The nation state is itself a western creation. If twenty-two Arab states, including the tiniest of emirates and principalities, are legitimate – then why should non-Muslim and non-Arab peoples, who were in the region since time immemorial, be denied ‘ownership’?

There is a good case to be made that Kurds, Assyrians, Berbers and other pre-Arab peoples with deep roots in the Middle East deserve self-determination. Jews deserve to maintain their sovereign state. They were there first.

Are you listening, MK Zahalka?

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)