My Word: Who counts and who’s counting?

During a visit to Egypt many years ago, I was told by a taxi driver how his neighborhood changed – for the worse – after the Jews moved out.

Jews gather to pray at the Western Wall during Succot (photo credit: AFP PHOTO)
Jews gather to pray at the Western Wall during Succot
(photo credit: AFP PHOTO)
Certain themes tend to recur in emails I receive from various nominally Jewish groups devoted to furthering a Palestinian identity. In the past, they have instructed members to stress their Jewishness and any connection they have to Holocaust survivors. Lately, they seem to have a different focus: The new message is that the Jews and Arabs lived together peacefully throughout the Arab world until the creation of Israel in 1948, and, in fact, could do so again.
Unfortunately, it is a myth, similar to the one that “the settlements” lie at the core of the Israeli-Palestinian dispute – conveniently ignoring the fact that the Arabs were slaughtering the Jews in the area decades before the Jewish state was born and sidestepping the matter of the unsuccessful wars fought against nascent Israel which brought these areas under Israeli control.
While some friends who were born in Morocco, Tunisia and Iraq (or whose parents were born there) do tell of friendly neighbors, others have horror stories.
During a visit to Egypt many years ago, I was told by a taxi driver how his neighborhood changed – for the worse – after the Jews moved out. He was not explicit about the reason the Jews left, however.
In October, when it was becoming clear that the Palestinian “lone wolves” in the latest wave of terrorism were running with a dangerous pack, I received an email with an extraordinary note that demonstrates the absurdity of this divide-and-rule approach to Sephardi and Ashkenazi Jews. It was attached to a link to an Al Jazeera story on Israelis who mistook other Jews (and in a particularly appalling and tragic case an Eritrean worker) for Palestinian terrorists. (There have also been cases of terrorists mistaking Arabs for Jews – for example, a Palestinian man was among the victims of a fatal attack at the Gush Etzion junction last month.) The clarification was from JPLO, a group with a lot of negatives in its name: the Jewish People’s Liberation Organization Against Zionism and Anti-Jewish Racism. I copied and pasted the content (I couldn’t make this up): “This is now a fascist regime together with Israel’s revisionist Prime Minister. This is the exposé of the Ashkenazi regime’s alienation from Arabic culture including the Jewish Arabs, who are not even counted in referring to ‘Arab Israelis’. The evidence points out that a majority of even [sic] the Israeli citizens are Arab.”
We have enough identities and enough crises without trying to refer to the Jews as Arab Israelis. And according to this line of thought perhaps those like President Reuven Rivlin, born here before the state was established, should be called Palestinian Israelis.
On the bright side, this could play hell with the EU labeling plan: “Made in a Jewish Arab settlement” should confuse our enemies.
The Al Jazeera article, titled “Paranoia fuels mistaken identity killings in Israel” (October 23) offers this insight: “Asked what is behind the trend of mistaken identities, Majd Kayyal, media coordinator for the Adalah Legal Centre for Arab Minority Rights, said that Israeli society is hyperfocused on ‘its European identity.’ ‘The notion that all Jewish Israelis are a united nationality is false.’” I searched through my inbox for the email this week for a reason. On November 30, the Knesset marked the Day of Commemoration for the Jewish Refugees from Arab Countries.
The event was organized by the Ministry for Social Equality together with the Education Ministry, the World Jewish Congress and Yad Yitzhak Ben Zvi.
More than 850,000 Jews fled or were expelled from Arab and Muslim lands in 1948, with Israel’s establishment as a state.
According to figures compiled by Stand- WithUs, in 1948 there were 140,000 Jews in Algeria; 75,000 in Egypt; 150,000 in Iraq; 38,000 in Libya; 30,000 in Syria; 105,000 in Tunisia; 55,000 in Yemen; and 100,000 in Iran.
In some places, the Jewish communities predated the birth of Islam. Today, some of those countries have no Jewish community; others have fewer than 100 Jews.
As the late historian Robert Wistrich, also commemorated in the Knesset this week, used to note, it is strange that Israel is accused of “ethnic cleansing” when the Jews have virtually disappeared from Muslim lands while the Muslim population in Israel has grown since 1948.
WJC CEO and Executive Vice President Robert Singer told the Jerusalem event: “It has always been in the interest of those who continue to deny Israel’s legitimacy to focus on Palestinian refugees and ignore the Jewish refugees, tossed out by the very same Arab states that time and again have refused to help refugees among their own.”
An event marking what some have nicknamed “The Jewish Nakba” was also held this week at the UN headquarters in New York, organized by Israel’s Permanent Mission to the United Nations and co-sponsored by the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations.
Minister for Social Equality Gila Gamliel told the UN gathering: “The history of the Jewish refugees is an almost untold chapter of the Middle East. I stand here in the heart of the Family of Nations to declare that our story be brought to light in this institution so that at long last justice shall finally be served.
Over the last 65 years, the UN and its agencies have spent tens of billions of dollars on Palestinian refugees, but not a cent on Jewish refugees. And since 1949 the United Nations has passed more than a hundred resolutions on Palestinian refugees and not a single one on Jewish refugees from Arab countries.”
The Jews who left the Arab world, like the Jews from Europe – and like many immigrants arriving today – were partly impelled to flee by rising anti-Semitism (the mufti-inspired “Farhud” pogrom took more than 180 lives in Iraq in June, 1941; more than 140 Jews were killed in Libya in 1945) and partly pulled by the Zionist dream.
It is not Israel that is Euro-centric but the world. Every claim that Israel was created because of the Holocaust detracts from the fact that the first wave of mass immigration of Jews joining the community that already lived here arrived in 1882-1903, notably from Russia and Yemen.
Similarly, it is a mistake to think of the Holocaust as a European phenomenon.
Sephardi Jews in places like Tunisia and Libya were affected and we’d be fooling ourselves to think that had the Nazi regime enjoyed greater control in Muslim-majority countries, the Jews there would not have been persecuted as much as their Yiddish-speaking brethren.
By perverse chance, the same day that the Knesset was commemorating the Jewish refugees from Arab lands, a video advertisement for a new housing project by the Bemuna group was launched in atrociously bad taste.
Quickly removed in face of the instant wave of protests on the social media, the video showed a stereotypical Ashkenazi family lighting Hanukka candles when there’s a knock on the door. (The candle-lighters were clearly posh Ashkenazi; nobody I know still uses “Yavo!” [Enter] to tell someone to come in.) When the door opens, it reveals an exaggerated typecast Sephardi Jew who then yells to his friend, with the Mizrahi-Jewish name Abergil, to come and turn the candles into an indoor barbecue.
At this point, the narrator asks: “Do you also dream of your own home? Would you like neighbors that are to your liking?” and introduces the national-religious housing project in Karmei Gat.
The video follows on the heels of a controversy over who counts as people of note, or at least as being important enough to merit a banknote in their memory. The question this week even managed to bring Shas leader Arye Deri and Yesh Atid chairman Yair Lapid together when Yesh Atid backed Deri’s effort to require the government to include a Sephardi figure on new banknotes.
The Bank of Israel designs for a series featuring poets and authors include Shaul Tchernichowsky, Nathan Alterman, Rachel the Poetess and Leah Goldberg.
While it could be considered progress that the Bank thought to include an equal number of men and women, Lapid’s faction released a statement saying: “The list of figures on banknotes should be changed to include a composer of Sephardi origin. The culture and heritage of Sephardim are among the foundation stones of Judaism and what it means to be an Israeli.”
People will always find something to argue about, something to take offense at, something that divides them – and also something to joke about and things that bring them together. Incidentally, when I discussed the Ashkenazi-Sephardi issue with friends and colleagues all of us noted our families were already mixed (the Israeli version of “marrying out”). All had children/grandchildren/ nieces/nephews graced with more than one Jewish cultural background. All of us have adopted some new customs from our relatives.
On December 6 in the evening, Jews all over the world will light the first candle of the eight-day Hanukka holiday.
Traditionally, the hanukkia is placed in a window, or outside the home, visible to all.
It is a testament to our people that we continue to celebrate the events marking the rededication of the Temple and the revolt against both the assimilation of the Hellenistic Jews and oppression by the Seleucid Greek government more than two millennia ago.
It’s to our credit that the Jewish civilization is still alive and thriving. It is a blessing to be able to proudly display the Hanukka candles without fear of pogram or attack in my Jerusalem home, surrounded by my “Kurdish,” “Iraqi,” “American” and “Russian” neighbors – all struggling with the oil-rich traditional Hanukka food. We have a lot more in common than our enemies think.
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