The triumph of monoculturalism in the Middle East
Terra Incognita: In 1948 there were 250,000 Jews in Morocco. Today there are less than 4,000.
Morocco Photo: Tanya Powell-Jones
In 1948 there were 250,000 Jews in Morocco. Today there are less than 4,000. Across North Africa most ancient and important Jewish communities vanished in the years 1940 to 1970. In February, when “Tanghir-Jerusalem, echoes of the mellah” was shown at a theater in Tangier a crowd of several hundred gathered to protest it. The film was by Kamal Hachkar and sought to explore the history of Jews who had left Morocco to settle in Israel. In March Egypt banned the screening of a film about the Jews of Egypt. Like Hachkar’s film, the documentary traced the lives of Egyptian Jews up through the 1950s when the community left the country.
Throughout North Africa, and the rest of the Muslim world, there is a rejection of the mention of Jewish history in the region. At the same time there is a slow, grinding destruction of whatever vestiges of historical Jewish life remain. For instance, the Eliahu Hanabi synagogue in Damascus, which dates from the 8th century, was badly damaged in fighting on March 3. On January 27, 68 gravestones were defaced and destroyed in the Jewish cemetery of the town of Sousse in Tunisia.
Raphael Luzon, a Libyan Jew, was arrested in July of last year for returning to the country to try to refurbish a synagogue.
It isn’t enough that the Jewish communities don’t exist any longer in these countries, the people also seek to erase the idea that they ever existed.
This pattern of “monoculturalism,” the advancement of the history and existence of only one culture, has been on the march throughout the region. In the 1950s many large cities in the Middle East were bustling, diverse metropolises. For instance, Tunis was 20 percent Jewish, and 100,000 Italians and 13,000 Maltese also lived in and around the capital city.
Alexandria had large communities of Armenians, Greeks, Maltese, and people from all over the world. Today those communities are gone, their properties nationalized since they were categorized as “foreigners.”
The hatred toward them smoldered in the hearts of some of the local Muslim population.
In the fascinating book Jewish Culture and Society in North Africa, one writer notes, “Within the context of military rivalry [of the 1940s] Italophobia grew... Muslims also accused the 13,000 Maltese of Tunisia of being lackeys of British imperialism.” In the conspiracy-laden Arab world, hatred of the other was cultivated, so that each group that was not Muslim was accused of being a collaborator with some outside power, or accused of having too much financial power.
WHEN PEOPLE write about the destruction and vanishing of every ancient minority group in the Middle East, from Assyrian Christians to Iraqi Yazidis, we see behind this a policy of monoculturalism. But what is fascinating is the degree to which these societies that have homogeniezed themselves by deracinating Jews and others from their homes in the 1950s and 1960s, now also reject the notion that Jews ever existed in their country.
Egypt and Morocco’s reaction to similar films is but one example. Another example is the banning by Egypt of Jewish pilgrimage to the tomb of Rabbi Ya’akov Abuhatzeira. A Cairo court forbade the pilgrimages while a local mukhtar noted, “We prohibit Jews from visiting the tomb because we identify with the Palestinian people and because we do not want to offend the Egyptian public’s sensitivities.”
Similarly in Morocco the protestors shouted against “normalization” with Israel.
The “sensitivities” in the region are so extreme that even a movie about history or a pilgrimage is so offensive that it must be banned. The mere mention of a community that, while it lived among the majority population was subjected to insults, discrimination and harassment, is considered unacceptable. Imagine American “sensitivities” according to which the very mention of the fact that American Indians ever existed, let alone were killed and driven from their homes, was “offensive.”
ALTHOUGH IN some ways the Arab Spring has made this monoculturalizing tendency more visible, it has its origins in the rise of Arab socialism in the 1950s.
Wars and conflict have also taken a harsh toll on minority communities.
One interesting example of this monoculturalism is the case of Samira Ibrahim. She was selected to receive an International Women of Courage Award from the US State Department. However, it emerged that she had made a series of anti-Semitic tweets. In one she praised a passage by Adolf Hitler: “I have discovered with the passage of days, that no act contrary to morality, no crime against society, takes place, except with the Jews having a hand in it.” She also claimed the Saudi monarchy was “dirtier than the Jews.”
When The Weekly Standard reported on the tweets, Ibrahim claimed that “any tweet on racism and hatred is not me,” claiming her account had been hacked. She subsequently backtracked and said, “I refuse to apologize to the Zionist lobby in America regarding my previous anti-Zionist statements.”
Most Egyptians would likely agree; quoting Hitler and labeling people as “worse than the Jews” is not anti-Semitic, merely “anti-Zionist.” Ibrahim herself had been warned by a sympathizer on Twitter to characterize anything anti-Jewish as “anti- Zionist.”
This neat trick, of turning “Jew” into “Zionist,” means the desecration of a Jewish graveyard isn’t part of a campaign at erasing history, but is merely “anti-Zionist,” and opposing a movie about Jewish refugees is actually part of “resisting normalization with Zionism,” even if the Jews in the movie or the graveyard have no connection to Israel or “Zionism.”
What is scary is that the excuses being offered for this monocultural onslaught are legion. In an interview with Laura Bush, CNN anchor Erin Burnett asked, “[Samira Ibrahim] has also been criticized for sending tweets that are anti-Semitic, anti-American.
Does the US need to accept that when we want to make change?” The notion is that one should accept in the Middle East what one would never accept at home. The same goes for the spray-painting of swastikas on a banner of President Barack Obama in Bethlehem.
Except for The Washington Post, this story was not widely picked up in the US. But if swastikas were spray-painted on the president’s image in Europe or in Texas, it would have been major news.
The notion is that swastikas in Bethlehem are part of “accepting anti-Semitism” in order to “make change.”
But when you accept anti-Semitism, do you really make any changes? Mutliculturalism and monoculturalism are related. At precisely the same time the West began to accept multiculturalism in the 1960s, the Middle East began to turn disastrously toward monocultural ideologies.
Numerous articles have waxed poetic about the old days in Cairo, Tehran, Yemen, Kandahar and Gaza when women wore skirts or bikinis (not that lack of clothing is always a sign of progressiveness, but in this case it can be a yardstick) and people were far more open-minded than today.
The “secular Left” in Egypt, or in any of these countries, tends to be infused with the same notions as Ibrahim or with the same “sensitivities” that make it so an Orthodox Jew cannot even visit the grave that his ancestors visited for generations.
Monoculturalism is the tragedy of the Middle East; as the rest of the world became diverse, the Middle East became homogenous, and that homogeneity is also encouraged in Pakistan, Indonesia, Malaysia, Sudan, northern Nigeria, Kosovo, Turkey, Chechnya and a myriad other countries that learn too much from the example of Saudi Arabia, and learn too little from the example of the United States.