Jews were in MENA before Muslims, Arabs - opinion

By reducing the complex cultural mosaic of Judaism in the MENA to simply another chapter in an Arab story, Avi Shlaim erases the rich memories of others.

 THE WRITER’S great-grandfather Alberto Berdugo (third from left) is joined by his fellow functionaries at the Glaoui Residence in Marrakech, c.1953. (photo credit: Aurele Tobelem)
THE WRITER’S great-grandfather Alberto Berdugo (third from left) is joined by his fellow functionaries at the Glaoui Residence in Marrakech, c.1953.
(photo credit: Aurele Tobelem)

On August 3, Israeli-British historian Avi Shlaim appeared on The Big Picture, a podcast series hosted by Middle East Eye. Born in Baghdad in 1945, Shlaim’s family fled as refugees to Israel in 1951 when conditions for Jews in Iraq became intolerable. Throughout the discussion, Shlaim referred numerous times to his status as an “Arab Jew”: 

“It’s very easy to define an Arab Jew. It’s a Jew who lived in an Arab country. So I am an Arab Jew because I lived in Iraq up to the age of five […] we were Arab Jews. We spoke Arabic at home. Our culture was Arab culture. Our friends were Arab friends. There wasn’t a real problem with being Jewish in Iraq.”

Shlaim’s nostalgic recollections of his childhood and his personal identity merit respect and consideration. He is a witness to the traumatic and collective dispersal of nearly one million Jews from the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) during the latter half of the 20th century. As a Sephardi Jew whose forebears fled Morocco as political refugees in the 1950s and 1960s, I have witnessed this same nostalgia when in conversation with my grandparents and extended family.

I do not seek to target Shlaim’s identity, nor do I wish to insult his experiences as a Jew in Iraq. However, it is important to deconstruct the problematic terminology and rationalizations he uses to frame his account of Jews in the MENA, and move past the romanticized memories upon which he draws to justify his view of Arabized Jews in the region as actually being Arab.

There are no "Arab Jews." Jews predate Muslims, Arabs in much of the Middle East

There is one fundamental problem in historicizing the “Arab Jew.” Jewish populations constitute a pre-Islamic demographic in the MENA. Their presence in the wider region predates the Arab-Islamic conquests of the Prophet Muhammad’s armies by at least a millennium. By the time the Muslim caliphates consolidated imperial power over the entire region, Jews had already developed their own local cultures in diasporic sites. 

 A drawing of General Khalid ibn al-Walid heading the Muslim Army during the Battle of Yarmuk. (credit: Wikimedia Commons)
A drawing of General Khalid ibn al-Walid heading the Muslim Army during the Battle of Yarmuk. (credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Jews have lived in the wider MENA since at least 586 BCE, when King Solomon’s Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed by the neo-Babylonian Empire. This forced many Jews into exile, marking the effective dispossession of their ancestral homeland in Israel. Some Jews chose to remain in Israel despite the challenges of everyday life wrought by such an enormous blow to their national and religious identity. 

Others settled in lands conquered by their imperial subjugators in the Levant and Mesopotamia, whereas their more defiant brethren undertook risky and potentially perilous journeys to North Africa and southern Arabia. For example, the oldest Jewish community in Morocco – Ifrane – is believed by scholars to have been established in the 4th century BCE. 

When Shlaim uses “Arab” as an umbrella term to describe Jews in this region, he implicitly erases a thousand years of distinctly non-Arab culture-building, not to mention the millennia spent living within their indigenous territory in Israel. 

The term also confuses audiences who may not fully understand the subtle underpinnings of Jewish history in Arabized environments. For example, Shlaim’s interviewer made references to “Jewish Arabs.” There is a certain historicity to the term Jewish Arabs, that references the few ethnic Arabs who converted to Judaism in the pre-Islamic period before the Muslim conquests. However, the term in no way denotes the process of mass Arabization undergone by definitively non-Arab Jewish populations in the MENA which has since yielded the term “Arab Jews.” 

Of course, 1,400 years under Muslim rule in the MENA had its effect on the Jewish population living in the midst of Arab hegemony. Over this period, a large proportion of Jews became thoroughly Arabized. Jews composed liturgical hymns and published intellectual theses in Arabic, alongside their native Hebrew and Aramaic, invented their own dialects of Judeo-Arabic, and enjoyed the same food and music as their Arab neighbors. 

In comparison to the deeply-embedded and horrifically violent antisemitism faced daily by Jews living in European Christendom, Jews in the Islamic world were far more able to blend in with the cultural fabric of their surroundings and establish close relationships with their Arab counterparts. As Shlaim observes, “[Jews] contributed at every level: the economic, the financial, the political, the literary, and journalism. The Jews were a very positive force in the making of Iraqi society.”

Yet, Shlaim ignores the religious hierarchies of an Arab imperialist environment which subjected Jews to the second-class status of the ahl al-dhimma (people of the covenant’). It did not matter how Arabized they became or how much they contributed to their surroundings: Jews, like other minorities who safeguarded their own ethnoreligious identities and refused to convert to Islam, were condemned to the fate of cultural “others’’ who could never become considered equal to Arab Muslims. 

Despite being drivers of cultural interchange throughout history, Jews were never allowed to become “Arab” in the same way that non-Arab Muslims in the MENA could attain Arab status. Even Arabized Jews who converted to Islam in the Middle Ages were generally nicknamed al-Isra’ili by their new Muslim co-religionists, a symbol of continued attachment to their ancestral roots in Israel. 

It was only centuries later, in the colonial era of the late 19th and 20th centuries, that Jews across the MENA attained some degree of emancipation and obtained the same rights to vote and hold elected office as their Arab neighbors. The increased potential for Jews to reach upper-class status in Iraq, which Shlaim praises throughout the interview, was granted by a combination of Ottoman reforms and later British control, rather than by the Hashemite elites. 

When push came to shove on the issue of the conflict between Zionist Jews and Palestinian Arabs, the Arab states were quick to remind Jews of their inferior non-Arab status. Even in Morocco, where my ancestors lived for centuries and which is often praised for its unprecedented levels of ethnoreligious symbiosis, Jews were actively discriminated against during the 1930s. 

According to Moroccan-Israeli historian Michel Abitbol, “[In 1935] the pasha of Casablanca forbade Jews to settle in the new medina and in 1937 the pasha of Marrakech tried to prevent Jews from hiring Moslem domestic help. Following instructions by the nationalists who were accusing Jews of financially supporting the fight against Islam in Palestine with their business profits, many Moslems came to limit their business transactions with Jews.”

The proponents of pan-Arab and Islamist ideology in the 20th century made avid use of imagery that decried Jews as foreign parasites with ambitions for socioeconomic domination through Zionism. Arab Muslims were advised to actively take up the fight against the perceived Jewish cabal. This poisonous rhetoric syncretized the legacy of dhimma policies with the antisemitic currents of European colonial interventionists. For the Istiqlal (Ar. “independence”) parties across the region, Jews were fundamentally non-Arabs who, hand-in-hand with European empires, sought to undermine the Islamic foundations of the “Arab” world. 

In Shlaim’s native Iraq, the 1941 Farhud was a Nazi-inspired uprising against the British colonial forces which used Jewish shops, Jewish homes, and Jewish lives as a medium of resistance. By the time the riots ended, more than 1,000 Jewish-owned stores had been looted, between 150-180 Jews had been lynched and 600 injured, and an undetermined number of Jewish women had been raped in the streets of Baghdad. In the following decades, Jews across the MENA would be ethnically cleansed by Arab nationalists and radical Islamist organizations, and forced to abandon a grand total of $300 billion in assets, for which no compensation was ever paid. 

Shlaim does not only erase pre-Islamic Jewish cultures when he refers to MENA Jews as “Arab Jews.” 

He also whitewashes centuries of discrimination against Jews in an Arab-Muslim society whose rejection of Jewish autonomy only grew stronger when its sociopolitical subordinates sought to empower themselves through Zionism. The process of Jewish state-building would ultimately eliminate the prospects of a pan-Arab utopia, amplifying hatred towards those who were seen to have enabled it.

Further, Shlaim uses the subject of Jewish trauma in the MENA and the romanticized ideal of the “Arab Jews” as a springboard for his own dubious theories surrounding the negative impacts of “cruel Zionism.” According to Shlaim, the Zionist underground covertly orchestrated bombings of Jewish communities, lending support to the Istiqlal policy of “accelerating the [Jewish] exodus” from Iraq. His theories are unconvincing and inconclusive, as all evidence ties the bombings to Istiqlal operatives. 

British journalist Lyn Julius, herself of Iraqi-Jewish descent, writes: “It is a travesty that Shlaim should not only fail to blame Arab regimes for the mass ethnic cleansing of their Jewish citizens, but that his reputation as an Oxford academic should lend ‘exceptional authority’ and respectability to these highly controversial claims.”

Shlaim’s narrative of Muslim-Jewish relations as all sunshine and rainbows before the rise of the Zionist movement and the creation of the State of Israel can only be considered a dangerously ill-conceived form of historical revisionism. 

He continuously uses the term “Arab Jews” to refer to a demographic which not only predates Arabization in the Islamic age, but was forced out precisely for its non-Arab status. Jews were not considered Arabs, otherwise Jewish sovereignty over a sliver of land in the Levant would not have posed such a threat to pan-Arab hegemony. 

Overall, Shlaim’s version of events does a tremendous disservice to those who are trying to discover why there used to be 850,000 Jews in the region, where now there are nearly none outside of Israel. As of 2022, there were only four Jews left in Iraq and three in Egypt, formerly two of the largest Jewish communities in the Islamic world. The last Jew in Yemen is currently being held prisoner by the Iran-backed Houthis. Recent efforts for Middle East peace-building in the form of the Abraham Accords have made Jews feel more welcome in some Arab states, but there is still a long way to go. 

Shlaim is rightfully proud of his roots as an Iraqi Jew. However, by reducing the complex cultural mosaic of Judaism in the MENA to simply another chapter in an Arab story, he erases the rich memories of others. The “Arab Jews” may exist in Shlaim’s account, but they cannot be found in historical reality.

The writer is a second-year history student at King’s College London, and is currently president of its Israel Society.