Dhimmi denial: confessions of an Ashkenazi

Avril Mailer is an Ashkenazi who confesses she once knew nothing about the history and experience of Jews in Arab countries. But nine years ago, attending her first Limmud – an annual educational event attended by thousands of British Jews – she embarked on a journey of discovery, which she describes here.

In its annual report on the Limmud conference of December 2005, the Jewish Chronicle gave a flavour of the wonderfully rich diversity of enlightenment on offer. Its survey of the sessions covered Zionism on the Couch, with Jacqueline Rose, where she described her book “The Question of Zion”as “an attempt to understand…the obduracy.. and ruthlessness at the heart of Zionism, long before the Shoah.”

I attended her session. Professor Rose, in her own words, “engages with”a Freudian psychoanlytic approach. She prescribes a process of recognition by Jews and Israelis of the pain they have caused the Palestinians, which she knows will be traumatic, as they have suppressed this knowledge, but really it will be very therapeutic. Soon enough, she referred to the Palestinian Other.

She also emphasised that the hostility to the Jews who came to establish the Jewish state was not against them as Jews, but was hostility to Europeans coming to create a European colony.

A questioner who identified herself as a Jungian psychoanalyst and Rabbi (such is the rich variety of Limmud), pointed out that anti -semitism was also fear of the Other. She cited the dhimmi as Other, referring to the particularly severe persecution of the Jews in Yemen.

I then commented that Rose’s whole analysis was Eurocentric and ignored a huge component of the Palestinian and Jewish psychic drama she had described; namely the effect on both players of 1,000 years of dhimmitude. She had not recognised that the Arab objection was not just to a European state, or a Jewish state, but to the fact that it was a dhimmi state. The audience applauded and Prof Rose looked blank and asked, ” a what state?” My impression was that even at the second mention, this term, the big Other, the dhimmi, had no resonance for her at all.

I continued that this suppressed history needed recognising, even more so than that of the Palestinians. There was already some recognition by Jews of the suffering of the Palestinians (whatever the contention over causality) whereas there was still almost total flat denial of the history and true nature of the dhimmi regime among Arab historians. She misunderstood the “even more so” and began berating me heatedly for valuing Jewish suffering above that of Palestinians, and calling shame upon the audience for applauding my points. I approached her after the session ended to explain my point about the suppression of dhimmi history. If that were the case, she said (indicating thereby this was not something she knew about) then it should be spoken of, but not, she emphasised vehemently, at the expense of the Palestinians. This indicated to me she has not grasped why it is important for her, and all of us, to understand the whole history and dynamic for a proper context, before prescribing the remedy for healing what she regards as the great guilt trauma on the Jewish psyche.

Here I confess my guilt: ignorance, as an Ashkenazi, of the history and experience as dhimmis of the Jews in the Arab lands, until I chanced upon a session at my first Limmud some nine years ago. There, fuzzy preconceptions about Jews under Arab rule, Golden Age of Spain, tolerance compared to Christian Inquisition and all that -were overturned and replaced with a painful complexity. I learned of a system of deliberate ritual humiliation in day-to-day life which long preceded the Nuremburg laws. There were times of greater leniency and flourishing which varied from country to country, but even in Spain it was always conditional on homage to superior power , always subject to the vagaries of the administration.

Another Limmud, another session, by a dedicated young man from the Israel Justice department, showing us the copious documentation in support of the move for compensation for the confiscation of property and businesses by Jews driven out by edict or intimidation, either direct, or bred of the dhimmi experience. He explained why these Jews did not tell their story in the early days of Israel: politically discouraged by Israel’s need to emphasise the pull of Zionism rather than the push of the Arab regimes, out of deference to the trauma of the Holocaust survivors, the lack of a voice in Ashkenazi-dominated Israel, and the desire to put it behind them and start a fresh life.

An aspect of this silence is dealt with by Bat Ye’or in her magisterial first book on the subject The Dhimmi, in the chapter on the psychological effects of the dhimmi experience, an area which has unaccountably escaped the attention of Professor Rose. From the lack of status as witness in an Ottoman court, to the systematic obliteration of their history by the imperial powers of the umma, this reticence means that the Ashkenazi branch of Zionism has skewed the narrative, and in Bat Ye’or’s words, “ a comprehensive vision of the people’s endeavours along the road to independence is lacking.”

As the man from the Justice Ministry said, whatever the difficulties of their claim in international law, the claims procedure is a valuable part of the process of validating the history and sense of self of the claimants, by making their voices heard.

This is starting to happen, with showings of Pierre Rehov’s film Silent Exodus and the events run by Harif and other organisations; for information, see ‘Point of no return’. There was no excuse for ignorance at this year’s Limmud with films and several talks, some, ironically, by Prof. Raphael Israeli, against whom Prof. Rose debated last year on Zionism.

A vital aspect in conflict healing, the Truth and Reconciliation process shows, is that suppressed voices need to be heard, telling their story in their own voices to the perpetrators, who need to acknowledge the wrong done, if not by individuals, then by the oppressing system.

As Jonathan Freedlandconcedes, plenty of Jews already criticise and debate Israel in a spirit of pluralism absent from most of the Muslim world.

In the face of meticulous documentation by Bat Ye’or, Muslim scholars respond with flat denial, as they do when Melanie Phillips debates them on the radio. These have now been joined by anti-Zionists, including Jews, who maintain in the debating halls of the internet, that “dhimmi history” (their sceptic quotation marks) is just a Zionist fantasy. This echoes the Holocaust deniers who claim the Holocaust, or the use of it, is just a Zionist tool.

This leads me to the realisation that what is happening is becoming the equivalent of Holocaust denial. Crucially, those anti-Zionists who prescribe remedies for the Zionist “trauma” that involve subsuming the Jewish state, fail utterly to deal first with the trauma to both sides in the dhimmi paradigm.

The Tunisian-Jewish writer Albert Memmi writes: ‘The Arabs . . . have not yet recovered from the shock of seeing their former underlings raise their heads, attempting even to gain their national independence.”

Jews have a duty to educate on this history. There is a good programme on Holocaust education, and we must equally avail ourselves of the information now available on the Jews from the Arab lands.

Without this knowledge, remedies offered by the likes of Professor Rose will be deeply flawed, if not fatuous. As Bat Ye’or wrote all of 20 years ago in [page 149 the Dhimmi:Jews and Christians under Islam, 1985]:

“This shortcoming [ignorance or amnesia] is in part responsible for the difficulty of a dialogue with those who attribute the present situation of the Palestinian Arab refugees to European antisemitism and Nazism, whereas it is the consequence of a much more ancient tragedy. Only when the history of the dhimmis will have been taken into consideration will solutions be found to satisfy the rights of each party in conformity with historical realities.”

One Comment

  • It is astounding to find so many other Jewish websites repeatedly asserting that Islam treated Jews more tolerantly than did Christianity.” Jews should understand that such statements will be twisted into “dhimmi denial.”

    To retain and enhance Israel’s moral standing, it is essential (as this site so valiantly attempts) to bring to the world’s attention the long history of dhimmitude and perhaps even to refer to it outrightly as “Jim Crow” or as semi-apartheid.

    Only then might the world understand that Mizrahim have a moral claim against the Arab world far stronger than the Palestinian claim against Israel.

    Christian scholarship might help, as it cannot so easily be accused of representing “Zionist propaganda.” The fall 2006 issue of “Intercollegiate Review” contains an article, “The Myth of the Andalusian Paradise,”
    by Darío Fernández-Morera, debunking the assumption that Islamic Spain treated Sephardim with tolerance.

    It is worth checking whether the site will make the article available online in the archives once its next issue is printed.



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