Why it can be ‘cool’ to suppress Mizrahi history

Arriving at Ben Gurion Airport last month, I sat next to a pleasant young American Jew on the sherut bus to Jerusalem. “What are you here for?” the young man asked. When I told him I was attending a conference on Jewish refugees from Arab countries, he thought for a moment.” You mean, about the discrimination the oriental (Mizrahi) Jews encountered when they first arrived in Israel?”

Well, not exactly, I explained. Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon was about to launch a campaign demanding justice for Jews expelled and dispossessed from the Arab world. From Jerusalem, Ayalon would be taking the issue to the UN in New York.

Compared to the blank stare from the (Israeli) airport security girl that greeted Congressman Jerrold Nadler on his way to the same conference, I should have been grateful that my sherut companion had actually heard of Jews in Arab countries.

Nevertheless it is disturbing that the mere mention of Jews from Arab countries triggers an association with “discrimination” at the hands of their Ashkenazi brethren. To be sure, discrimination loomed large in the 1950s, but it is no longer a serious issue today. The systematic persecution and violence one million Jews encountered in Arab countries just because they were Jews, on the other hand, does not seem to figure nearly as prominently. A possible explanation is the Eurocentricism that has prevailed in Israel for so long in the media, in schools, in politics. In the interests of social cohesion, successive Israeli governments have suppressed the unhappy history of Jews in Arab lands before Zionism or glossed over the human rights abuses experienced by these Jews.

During the Oslo years, Jewish refugees became viewed as a “stumbling block” to peace. It was never the right time to raise their issue. If you didn’t know any better, the only people with a justifiable claim to justice appeared to be the Palestinians.

A friend active in peace groups tells me that they are always eager to explore Arab “transgenerational trauma” but consistently ignore the trauma Iraqi Jews of her generation — for instance — went through in the late 1960s, when, during a reign of anti-Jewish terror, one in four Jewish males was executed or abducted off the streets, some never to be seen again.

And so the Israeli far left, which was only interested in exploiting the Mizrahim in order to bash the Israeli establishment, made all the running with the “discrimination” issue. Concurrently, anti-Zionists and communists speak of “Arab Jews,” or Arabs of the Jewish faith, as a way of repudiating Jewish nationalism. Such an identity presupposes that Arabs and Mizrahi Jews are natural allies, and that both are victims of Ashkenazim.

Ironically, most of these far leftists are themselves Ashkenazim, but a small number of oriental (Mizrahi) fellow travellers have been pushing this line. Rachel Shabi, author of “Not the enemy,” made her name out of stories of 1950s discrimination. Most recently, in an invective-laden article, she describes the campaign for Jewish refugees as an “obnoxious form of diplomacy.” To support her, case she and other critics of the Ayalon initiative have seized on the burblings of the hitherto-unknown Ramat Gan committee, which purports to speak for Iraqi Jews, but in fact consists of a tiny coterie of Arabic literature ex-students from Tel Aviv university.

Why are so many on the left so enraged by Ayalon’s campaign? Because it diminishes Palestinian exceptionalism. Anything that seeks to put Jewish rights on an equal footing with Palestinian rights becomes “cynical,” “manipulative,” and something to be fought at all costs.

In order to maintain the superiority of Palestinian claims, a young Mizrahi Jew such as Daniel Haboucha feels compelled to suppress his own Egyptian family history: he propagates a false narrative, where Jews from Arab lands are “Arab Jews” and Zionism is primarily responsible for uprooting the Jews from Arab countries. Any anti-Semitism they suffered was an “understandable” backlash.

By what right do Shabi and Haboucha get to denigrate Mizrahi rights to recognition and compensation? To talk of “Arab Jews” demeans their identity. Do any of these self-righteous critics stop to realize how insulting it is to deny justice to Jews who lost loved ones in pogroms, or fled in terror with one suitcase and the shirts on their backs? How sad it is that, in order to fit in with their Arab and left-wing peers, young Mizrahim feel forced to sacrifice their rights and subordinate their own narrative to a “politically correct” and “cool” Palestinian cause.

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)