Month: January 2008

Reject the expression ‘Arab Jew’

Philologos in the Jewish Daily Forward offers up this resounding rejection of the expression ‘Arab Jew’. But he/she fails to make the point clearly that Jews were among the indigenous inhabitants of the Middle East, preceding the Arab conquest by 1,000 years:

‘A senior Saudi royal has offered Israel a vision of broad cooperation with the Arab world if it signs a peace treaty and withdraws from all occupied Arab territories,” a Reuters dispatch reported last week, citing an interview with former Saudi ambassador to the United States Prince Turki al-Faisal. In the course of this interview, the prince was quoted as saying, “We will start thinking of Israelis as Arab Jews rather than simply as Israelis.”

Some vision of cooperation!

Needless to say, Prince Turki’s use of the term “Arab Jews” reflects either a comically naive misunderstanding on his part of who Israelis are, or the more sinister hope that they will one day cease to be who they are. In the best case, the prince’s remarks are ignorant and patronizing, and they reveal how even many supposedly sophisticated Arabs haven’t a clue that Israelis, although they live in the middle of an Arab expanse, are a people with a unique language, culture, history and identity of their own. If Prince Turki thinks that once peace is declared, Israelis will cheerfully agree to become another ethnic minority in the Arab Middle East, he is living in a cloud of nargileh smoke.

On the whole, however, one doesn’t come across the term “Arab Jews” in this context. Rather, it is used — mostly by Arabs but also by some anti-Israel and anti-Zionist intellectuals in the West — for the close to 1 million Jews who lived in Arab lands prior to the establishment of Israel, after which they left or were expelled from their native countries and immigrated to Israel or elsewhere. Thus, for instance, Ella Habiba Shohat, a professor of cultural and women’s studies at New York’s City University, writes of herself in an essay titled “Reflections by an Arab Jew”:

“I am an Arab Jew. Or, more specifically, an Iraqi Israeli woman living, writing and teaching in the U.S…. To be a European or American Jew has hardly been perceived as a contradiction, but to be an Arab Jew has been seen as a kind of logical paradox, even an ontological subversion [leading to] a profound and visceral schizophrenia, since for the first time in our history Arabness and Jewishness have been imposed as antonyms…. The same historical process [that is, the establishment of Israel] that dispossessed Palestinians of their property, lands and national-political rights was linked to the dispossession of Middle Eastern and North African Jews of their property, lands, and rootedness in Muslim countries….”

There is, of course, a cynical absurdity in blaming Israel for the wholesale plunder of Jewish property by Arab regimes in Iraq, Egypt, Yemen, Libya, Algeria, Morocco and other countries that forbade Jews to take money or possessions with them when they emigrated from or were thrown out of these places. But apart from this, what is it that makes one wince at the term “Arab Jews”? After all, don’t Ms. Shohat and others like her have a point? If a Jew living in America is an American Jew, and a Jew living in Europe is a European Jew, why isn’t a Jew living in an Arab country an Arab Jew? Is not the objection to calling him that a form of Arabaphobia?

I think not. Anti-Arab prejudice has nothing to do with it. Historically speaking, Ms. Shohat is simply dead wrong.

It’s true that Jews lived for hundreds and even thousands of years throughout the Middle East, and that after the Arabization of the region that started with the spread of Islam in the seventh century, they became linguistically and culturally Arabized, just as Jews in America have become linguistically and culturally Americanized. But it’s also true that, in the course of these centuries, no Middle Eastern Jew, if asked whether he was an Arab, would have said yes, no matter how at home he felt in his environment. And for that matter, no Arab would have called his Jewish neighbor an Arab either. Jewishness and Arabness were perceived as antonyms in the sense of denoting two mutually exclusive ethnic identities, just as “Jew” and “goy” were antonyms in Eastern Europe. It was only in the 20th century that small numbers of Jews — most of them communists or on the Anti-Zionist political left — in cosmopolitan Arab cities like Cairo and Baghdad began to argue on behalf of an “Arab Jewish” identity as a way of repudiating Jewish nationalism and justifying their participation in Arab revolutionary politics. (..)

To refer to these communities as “Arab Jews” is not only to imply that Zionism tore them away from their true homelands for the false lure of a Jewish state; it is to demean them by denying them their own sense of themselves. It’s a term that justly deserves to be rejected.

Read article in full

NB The comments are worth reading too. They make the point that the term ‘Arab’ is an ‘ethnic’ not a ‘geographic’ signifier; that nobody used the term ‘Arab’ before the emergence of Arab nationalism in the 19th century; that people used to identify each other by religion; and that the term ‘Arab’ usually referred to Bedouin from the desert.

Ami Issseroff’s essay

Vast majority of Sephardim were Zionists

Ashley Perry of the Sephardi Perspective blog tackles the phenomenon of ‘Sephardi skeptics’ who disparage Zionism, claim Zionism was an Ashkenazi plot to ‘dispossess’ Sephardim of their ‘Arab’ heritage, and in extremis identify as Palestinians.

“Recently, I have held many discussions with certain Sephardim who have disparaged Zionism and the State of Israel. These ‘intellectuals’, all from North America, have only distaste for Sephardi Zionists, denigrating them as Ashkenazi dupes or worse. Many of the arguments revolve around the fact that Sephardim were dispossessed of their culture and heritage by the mainly Ashkenazi political activists who helped create modern secular Zionism.

“These Sephardi Zionist-skeptics have reinterpreted a version of Jewish history in Asia and North Africa which barely resembles the actual events that took place. For every individual that was cited as a success story for Jewish integration in the wider Muslim milieu, there were dozens of events which prove that these instances were the exception and not the rule. The Jewish status of al-Dhimma necessitated a repression which even in the best of circumstances meant that the Jew was never equal to the Muslim.

“The Zionist-skeptics also point to a rich Arab civilization which the new Israeli was being deprived of when returning to his ancestral homeland. They essentially whitewash a culture and civilization which had been in decline for many centuries: today, the whole Arab world translates fewer books than Spain in any one year. There are certainly numerous aspects of Arab culture which are very positive; but many were Jewish customs and norms long before there was such a thing as ‘Arab culture’. It is certainly true that the modern State of Israel saw itself in Western terms and attempted to create a homogeny that did not allow for ‘other’ traditions. However, to use this element to call into question Zionism and the return to Jewish nationhood is extremely shoddy intellectual reasoning.

“As I have shown in previous articles, the vast majority of Sephardim were Zionists, whether they were religious or secular. The average Sephardi living in Israel is extremely patriotic and still retains a close connection to his traditions and religion. These skeptics thus remain on the extreme margins of the Sephardi discourse with Zionism.

“Any elements of Sephardi culture, however important, are still very secondary to the unity of the Jewish People as a whole and what unites us as a people is far greater than what divides us. Many use their Sephardi or Ashkenazi identity as a weapon against the other, hoping to score points sometimes at the cost of our unity as a people and nation. It is incredible that people like Professor Sami Shalom Chetrit consider themselves Palestinian and an ‘Arab refugee’ because they feel a deep sense of victimization. This understandable victimization has been misappropriated by these radical Sephardim into taking on the role of another people.

“In the debate of Arab versus Jew, Israeli versus Palestinian; they have looked to throw the proverbial “baby out with the bath water”. Or in the words of Meyrav Wurmser of the Hudson Center in an article titled ‘Post Zionism and the Sephardi Question‘, “the post-Zionist Mizrahi radical rejection of Zionism and the Israeli state is the wrong medicine for the disease. Rejecting Zionism is opting for a solution that is outside the Israeli political system. Such a solution will contribute little to solving the existing problems of Israeli society and its Mizrahi population. Destroying the state of Israel will not make the Mizrahim more equal or accepted by either Jewish or Arab societies.”

“This disturbing view of ‘Stockholm Syndrome’ sees the Jews as beholden to their Arab captors, and the Jewish People who have come to rescue them as the bad guys. The situation was and is not great for many Sephardim in Israel, but to cleave to a memory of persecution, exclusion and discrimination shows that the true amount of historic and philosophical gymnastics necessary are enormous.

Read blog post in full

The Jewish intellectuals nostalgic for dhimmitude

Journey back to my Cairene roots


In October 2007, Maurice Maleh went back to his native Cairo for the first time since the 1950s. His journalist father Jacques had been expelled from Egypt in 1953, and the rest of the family followed a year later. Here are Maurice’s impressions of his journey back to his roots. (Reprinted with thanks from the AJE newsletter, January 2008)

The unique occasion which prompted me, accompanied by my sister Lys, to return to my roots, for the first time since 1954, was the historic celebration for the centennial of the Shaar Hashamaim Synagogue (pictured above) in central Cairo. It lasted a few days starting on 30 October 2007.

This synagogue was built at a time when the Jewish community felt confident and prosperous. A wave of immigration in the 19th century of Sephardi Jews from Greece and Turkey, and Ashkenazi Jews from Palestine, had been attracted by the buoyant economic conditions in Egypt following the opening of the Suez Canal and the surging price of long cotton on the Alexandria Bourse.

My parents were married in 1940 by the Chief Rabbi Haim Nahoum in the Shaar Hashamaim synagogue, so it was natural that I should jump at the chance of attending the celebrations and reconnect to my past. My parents had discouraged me from going back. They had turned a new page in their lives, but I could not longer resist the constant call of my past. My own children and my wife had urged me to go many times. I was fated to come to these celebrations.

The synagogue has been refurbished and decorated so nicely it took my breath away. I had seen the pictures taken in 2003 by the Nebi Daniel Association but nothing prepared me for what I saw, which I captured on my camera.

Choral singing was drifting down from the ladies’ gallery and people were mingling and admiring in seeming disbelief, capturing the moment on their cameras and in their hearts for ever. The 900-strong Jewish community in Thessaloniki managed to produce a 30-member choir of exquisite quality, brought over for the occasion.

There were two rabbis present: Rabbi Andrew Baker, of the American Jewish Committee, gave a wonderful sermon on the week’s parashah: to quote a passage: “… standing here today in this synagogue, in Shaar Hashamayim, there is one thing that we can say for certain. The Jews who built this synagogue were not strangers in the land of Egypt”. The other Rabbi present was Rabbi El Fassy of Paris. He blew the shofar at the end, its sound echoing in the high dome of the synagogue as if to state: this synagogue is alive and well and a beacon for the future. A pity there was no religious service, though.

Carmen Weinstein is the president of the 30-40 strong Jewish community, mostly women. She stayed on whilst others left. She is proud to be Egyptian and repeatedly thanked the Egyptian President in her introductory remarks. What will happen after she dies is an open question.

I made the trip to Heliopolis, my home town, which had celebrated its 100 years in 2004. My apartment block was in a very poor state of repair and I only recognised the balcony. Most buildings in Cairo have their rents frozen so little is spent on maintenance. We did not venture past the bottom of the stairs for fear of an accident. Heliopolis is still recognisable with its unique arcades, wide avenues and stylish buildings. The Baron Empain who build the town had great taste, that’s for sure!

From my flat I could see the path to the focal points of my young life: the Sporting Club where we spent our days after school, my uncle Phonsy’s corner shop (which is still a fashion shop), the raised restaurant near Nona’s flat (which we visited and where my parents used to go and watch the world go by) and my lovely little school (Abraham B’tesh) next to the synagogue. I walked down and noticed several bored, armed shawish guarding the place. They stopped me from taking pictures of the buildings. One policeman even pointed his rifle at me to move away. I reluctantly left, somewhat scared and dispirited.

In sharp contrast, we managed to be asked into my Nona’s flat. It was in a road parallel to ours and on the ground floor. After my father’s sudden expulsion in 1953, my mother, my sister, and I slept at my Nona’s. She had a two-bedroom flat and two balconies with a large oak front door. The layout was still fixed in my mind although I was seven when I rejoined my father in Paris. The flat, turned into a doctor’s surgery, was in quite good condition. We were welcomed in by the nice young lady doctor who spoke perfect English and allowed us to take pictures. She sensed our genuine need to reconnect with our former home. My Nona used to listen to the Arabic radio. I can sometimes still hear the soulful music wafting towards me. My sister and I loved our Nona very much. She went on to live in Nice and then left for Israel in 1966. This was our saddest visit.

Seeing the Sporting Club of Heliopolis again after all this time filled me with sadness and also excitement. The entrance I knew so well was unfortunately closed. We entered via the passage from the car park, after paying E£25 each. This is a lovely walk, bordered with jasmine and trees. I recalled large sitting rooms but did not remember the large fireplace. My sister did.

The swimming pool I did remember, especially the path alongside where I had once been pushed onto my back drawing the breath from my lungs. We sat by the pool in the lovely sunshine and ordered a Turkish coffee and visualized how it must have been in the ‘golden age’ of my parents.

Old black and white pictures speak volumes. The whole place was too quiet and not as I recalled it, with children playing marbles and climbing up trees in the large gardens with their nannies chasing after them to feed them. The clay tennis courts and the manicured croquet field were still there but the place lacked the vibrant Jewish life I had stored in my memory.

What of the ordinary people, the famous traffic jams, the degradation of the infrastructure, the overcrowding, the noise and smells ? Our sightings were mostly from a slow-moving coach on our way to and from the Ben Ezra synagogue simcha or a taxi ride. Adly street (where Shaar Hashamaim is situated) and surrounding streets buzzed with life, and on the face of it commerce was buoyant.

It was a pity that the still impressive apartment buildings stood underneath the grime of years of neglect. I did not notice anyone without shoes; people seemed to be dressed in western clothing. Some wore galabeyas as we entered Old Cairo where the poverty was obvious. We met a few rich Egyptians and noticed others in the expensive restaurants on the Nile and the rooftop bar of the Nile Hilton. We crossed Kasr el Nil (I remembered the lions on either side) to Zamalek where my aunt Claire used to live. The conditions here were much better. The few Egyptians we met were friendly to us (in spite of the incident at the Heliopolis synagogue). Why shouldn’t they be, we meant them no harm!

Tourism has become the lifeblood of Egypt now. Arriving on our second day at the Ben Ezra synagogue, after skirting Old Cairo and its markets by coach, was a highpoint of the trip. I felt very privileged to be visiting the holy site of the oldest synagogue, restored by Canadians in 1999. This 9th century synagogue had existed at the time of Rav Moshé (Maimonides). According to Professor Reif of Cambridge University, Rav Moshe preferred to worship in his home which was yards away. Professor Reif explained the story of the Geniza and its documents as only he could. His presentation helped to set the scene for the visit. Later we visited the new annex describing the Geniza story.

We were immediately dumbstruck by the synagogue’s quiet magnificence. The trees lining the path to the doorway have gone. The synagogue was painted by my uncle André in 1955. We wandered round admiringly. How we would have loved to attend a religious service there, a rarity nowadays. Outside, in the distance, we could see church spires, but time did not allow for a good inspection of the surrounding area and places of Jewish interest.

Congress of Jews of Egypt proceedings published

The proceedings of the World Congress of the Jews of Egypt held in Haifa in July 2006 have now been published. The result is a unique book, titled History and culture of the Jews of Egypt in Modern Times. The book contains articles by 30 world-famous academic researchers, including the works of the three editors, Ada Aharoni, Aimee Pelletier and Levana Zamir.

This book describes the Golden Era history of the Jews of Egypt during the 19th and 20th centuries and contains sociological articles about their multiculturalism, culture, religion, women’s status, and how they spent their leisure. It also tells how they became refugees, and how they were absorbed and rehabilitated in different countries. The book deals too with the need to accept ‘The Other’ and looks at the Mediterranean Option – how the merging of Western and Oriental cultures in the region, as in liberal Egypt until 1952, could foster peace and benefit all the countries in the Middle East.

The 554- page book is in English, French and Hebrew and contains beautiful historical pictures of a model multicultural society that is no more.

To order the book price $55 /£28/38 Euros (registered post and packing included) please
send cheque directly to the Publisher: Keness Hafakot, P.O.B. 18260, Tel-Aviv 61182 – Israel.
To pay by credit card or Paypal email [email protected]
General enquiries to: [email protected]

Moroccan Jews in Israel happiest, but not healthy

Moroccan Jews are happiest with life in Israel, while Polish Jews grumble the most, according to this report in Ynet News. But happiness does not guarantee good health:

“It has finally been scientifically proven: Israelis of Moroccan descent are extremely satisfied with life in Israel, where as Polish Jews appear decidedly less contented, this according to a unique study conducted by the Ruppin Academic Center Institute for Immigration and Integration and published in Yedioth Ahronoth Sunday. The study, which examined the quality of life of Israelis of various ethnic origins, also uncovered that Polish Jews appear to be in far better health than those of Moroccan descent.

“Coordinated by Dr. Karin Amit of the Institute for Immigration and Integration, the study examined the quality of life and health of 1,500 individuals over 50 who had immigrated to Israel.

“Amit found that Israelis born in Far-Eastern and African countries had rated their quality of life far higher than Jews of European descent. Ashkenazi Jews, paradoxically, seemed to be in far better health than their Sephardic counterparts.”
Read article in full

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