Month: February 2008

The Forward’s ‘Arab Jew’ controversy runs and runs

Yossi Alpher leaps into the debate conducted over the last several weeks in The Forward (here, here and here) over the expression ‘Arab Jews’. But Alpher almost excuses Prince Turki al-Faisal of Saudi Arabia’s controversial remark – that Arabs will start thinking of Israelis as Arab Jews when peace comes. He said it, says Alpher, for the benefit of his Arab audience to ‘sweeten the bitter pill’ of Israeli coexistence with Arab countries. Alpher’s apologia makes him complicit in the very myths and delusions which have kept misunderstanding and conflict going. To prepare his audience for true normalisation, Turki should have told them a few home truths: Jews are not just a religious group, they are not a European implant, and and have as much right to a sovereign state in the Middle East as the Arabs do.

“The debate among Forward readers about Turki’s “Arab Jews” remark has, quite understandably, focused largely on Diaspora Jewish perceptions of Judaism and Arab culture. But it is important to remember that Turki’s statement for publication was made very much in a Middle Eastern context.

“The former longtime ambassador is a sophisticated and intelligent man. I believe he knows perfectly well that almost no Jewish Israelis identify as Arab Jews.

“But in describing his vision of normalization for publication, which invariably means translation into Arabic for the Arab media, Turki threw in the “Arab Jews” reference for the benefit of his Arab audience. He threw it in to soften the bitter pill of coexistence with Israel for Arabs, many of whom, Turki told Reuters, “historically saw the Israeli state as a European entity imposed on Arab land after World War II.”

“This, then, is the regional-historic context of “Arab Jew.” Most Arabs, and not a few Westerners and others, insist on seeing Jews as members of a religion and not of a people. For this they have both Islamic religious backing and the legacy of their pre-Zionist history, when they forced Jews into dhimmi, or second-class citizenship status, and, rightly or wrongly, considered the Arab-Jewish relationship to be tranquil.

“Hence most Arabs view Israel as the artificial creation of Western Jews who had no business founding a state, and certainly not one on what Arabs believe was Arab, and even Islamic, land. Turki was selling normalization with Israel to his constituents by way of soft-pedaling the Israeli nationalist face.

“While we Israelis may not like to be portrayed as Arab Jews, Turki nevertheless deserves a lot of credit for pointing the way for Arabs to live at peace with Israel.

“There is also a specifically Israeli context to the Arab Jew debate. A very small minority of post-Zionist Jews in Israel does indeed envisage Israel so closely integrating into the region that we become Arab Jews. They can even draw encouragement from the naive remarks of a few peace-minded politicians like Shimon Peres — back during the euphoric Oslo days, not during his current presidency — to the effect that comprehensive peace could mean Israel joining the Arab League.

“Then there are some Israeli Jews of eastern origin who harbor strong resentment of Ashkenazic dominance of Israeli life — which is hardly an item any more in view of the degree of integration in Israeli institutions like the military and the Knesset — or simply long for the language and culture of their or their grandparents’ land of birth, and call themselves Arab Jews. No one gets very excited over this; you almost certainly will not encounter them on a flight to Cairo or at the bridge crossing into Jordan.

“Finally, and perhaps of greatest importance, there is a very immediate peace process-related context to the Arab Jew issue. When Turki talks about Arabs welcoming Israelis back into the fold as Arab Jews, when Arab citizens of Israel increasingly demand that Israel cease to be a Jewish state, when Palestinians and other Arab neighbors warn us that if the current Israeli-Palestinian negotiations fail they will have to reconsider the entire two-state concept, when even Prime Minister Ehud Olmert declares that the collapse of his current negotiations with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas will mean that “Israel as a Jewish state is finished” — they are in effect stating that the only alternative to a two-state solution is a single, bi-national state solution in which, eventually, an Arab majority determines that we are all Arabs, whether Jew, Muslim or Christian.

“Yet nothing could be farther from the minds of 95% of Israeli Jews, who insist on continuing to live in a Jewish state. Most want it to be Jewish and democratic and therefore have supported withdrawing from the West Bank and Gaza. Even those settlers who have no problem subjugating Palestinians in order to hold onto the territories insist that the latter remain second-class citizens and that Israel remain Jewish, not Arab.”

Read article in full

Philologos on ‘Arab Jews’ – Part lll

Jewish refugees resolution passes committee stage

Great news from Congress:
The House of Representatives Foreign Affairs committee has finally passed House Resolution no. 185. The resolution, which requires any official reference to Palestinian refugees to be matched by a mention of Jewish and other refugees, was passed unanimously. The next step is for the full House to vote the bill into law.

Here is the full text of the US Congress press release issued today: (with thanks: Doug)

“WASHINGTON, D.C. – A bipartisan group of lawmakers today welcomed the approval by the House Foreign Affairs committee of a bi-partisan Congressional Resolution (H.Res.185), which recognizes the plight of hundreds of thousands Jewish refugees who were displaced from countries in the Middle East, North Africa and the Persian Gulf. The resolution was introduced by Reps. Jerrold Nadler (D-NY), Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL), Rep. Joseph Crowley (D-NY) and Rep. Mike Ferguson (R-NJ). It was adopted by unanimous consent.

“Today, the House Foreign Affairs Committee recognized the suffering and terrible injustices visited upon Jewish refugees in the Middle East,” said Rep. Nadler. “It is simply not right to recognize the rights of Palestinian refugees without recognizing the rights of Jewish refugees, who, in fact, outnumbered their Palestinian counterparts. The forced exile of Jewish refugees from Arab lands must not be omitted from public dialogue on the peace process. By any definition, these displaced Jews are refugees, and we should recognize them as such. Seeking justice for those who suffered is a critical component of enduring peace.”

“In past Congresses, I have sponsored similar resolutions urging greater recognition of the plight of these refugees, and emphasizing that any comprehensive Middle East peace agreement can only be credible and enduring if it does justice for the rights of all refugees in the Middle East,” said Rep. Ros-Lehtinen. “In particular, it is imperative that we recognize the history and plight of history’s forgotten refugees, along with the circumstances surrounding their departure. Failure to do so only serves to perpetuate their suffering.”

“The plight and injustices of Jewish, and other displaced, refugees in the greater Middle Eastern region must be recognized by the United Nations and dealt with in a fair and balanced manner,” said Congressman Joseph Crowley. “This recognition will fulfill a very necessary step in the effort to establish lasting peace and stability in a critically important and historic part of the world.”

“This important resolution urges the international community to treat all refugees in the Middle East, North Africa and the Persian Gulf equally,” said Congressman Ferguson. “All religions – including Judaism and Christianity – must be treated equally and fairly in any credible Middle East peace agreement.”

“Following the creation of the State of Israel in 1948, the status of Jews in Arab and Muslim countries changed dramatically. When virtually all of Israel’s neighbors declared or supported war on the Jewish state, approximately 850,000 refugees were forcibly expelled from their homes. Others became political hostages. In virtually all cases, individual and communal properties were seized and/or confiscated by governments without any compensation provided.”

“The Nadler Resolution urges the President to ensure that when the issue of Middle East refugees is discussed in international forums, any reference to Palestinian refugees be matched by a similarly explicit reference to Jewish and other refugee populations. ”

JJAC press release

JTA article

Debka article

Has Sephardi cinema finally come of age ?

The recent New York Sephardic Film Festival has been attracting record attendances and it’s been a bumper year for Sephardi cinema, Nick Johnstone writes in The Jewish Chronicle.

“Ravit Turjeman is excited. She has just finished her first stint as programme director for the New York Sephardic Jewish Film Festival, in collaboration with the Yeshiva University Museum and American Sephardi Federation/ Sephardi House. It is now in its 12th year, having launched in 1990 and gone annual in 2001. Turjeman hopes this year’s selection of films, co-programmed with Lynne Winters, director of programming for the American Sephardi Federation,will further broaden the audience for Sephardic-themed film.

“The point of the festival,” explains the New York-based Israeli, whose parents left Morocco for Israel in 1964, “was to show through culture, through film, a type of Judaism that people are not very familiar with. Right now, it’s still exotic for people to see these Sephardic traditions in Judaism because whenever one thinks about a Jewish person, the immediate image is a white male Eastern European. These films offer a new, refreshing look at the different Jewish traditions and at the same time they’re really great cinema.”

“This year, on account of a big publicity push and the trickle-down effect from a golden year for Israeli cinema, she and Winters are expecting record attendance. Highlights of the festival’s line-up include Rina Papish’s Ladino — 500 Years Young (a documentary about Ladino singer Yasmin Levy), Operation Mural (a documentary retracing the 1961 Mossad operation which saw 500 Jewish children escape Morocco for Israel), Tomer Heymann’s Black Over White (a documentary following musician Idan Raichel to Ethiopia), Vivienne Roumani-Denn’s The Last Jews Of Libya (the history of a Jewish family for whom Benghazi was once home), and Mohamed Ismail’s Goodbye Mothers (a controversial Moroccan film made by a Muslim director telling of intimate Muslim-Jewish relations in Casablanca in 1960).

Read article in full

Cotler: end distorted framing of final status issues

Don’t miss this Youtube video of the interviewon the prestigious Ro’im Olam (Israel Channel 11, 23 February), with former Canadian Justice Minister Irwin Cotler MP, an indefatigable campaigner for the rights of Jewish refugees from Arab Countries. (With thanks Eliyahu, Bezalal)

To a question by interviewer Yaakov Achimeyer, “Are they really refugees?” Cotler responds that the Jews from Arab countries certainly fit the international definition of a refugee: uprooted, denationalised by law, their assets plundered and sequestered.

Cotler refers to the partisan role of the UN and the draft law threatening Jewish rights in Arab countries which the Arab League prepared as early as November 1947.

But the heart of the whole matter is beautifully articulated in this exchange.

Yaakov Achimeyer:”What is the responsibility of the Israeli government? As an Israeli citizen I don’t hear the Israeli government, Israeli ministers bringing up the issue of the Jewish refugees.”

Cotler: “That’s part of the problem, a selectivity in the narrative: We talk about Palestinian refugees, not Jewish refugees; an independent Palestinian state, not the legitimacy of the Israeli state; settlements, not an end to terror and incitement.

“We need an inclusive approach to final status issues, including a reference to Jewish refugees. If you don’t, you have a false framing of the issues. If you don’t, you won’t have a just solution.”

Jewish leader slams Arab writers’ boycott

A Sephardi leader has slammed Arab writers for boycotting the Turin Book Fair, where the guest country is Israel, celebrating its 60th anniversary this year. The move will only hold back Jewish-Arab dialogue – the key to an inevitable peace – he maintains.

“The Union of Arab Writers is falling into a trap which discredits it,” David Bensoussan, President of the Communaute Sepharade Unifiee du Quebec, told Canadian Jewish News.” It is sad to see how far poisonous messages of hatred and disinformation about Israel and the West put out by the media have reached the intellectual classes. In a world of mass communications the Union wants to go back to the gagging era of the old totalitarianism.”

Bensoussan was especially disappointed that Moroccan publishers were being discouraged from attending. “This boycott is happening at a time when we are trying to revive Jewish-Arab dialogue, and especially Jewish-Moroccan dialogue. Instead of going backwards, writers should be helping to get the Middle East out of its present stalemate.”

Bensoussan has just visited Morocco for the first time in 40 years. He noted a sameness of attitudes, with extreme left-wing and marginal Jewish ideas in evidence in intellectual circles. “They do not ask the right questions, or wish confront the truth about Jewish-Moroccan relations in all their diversity, the good times as well as the bad. There should be no limits to freedom of thought.”

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This website is dedicated to preserving the memory of the near-extinct Jewish communities, of the Middle East and North Africa, documenting the stories of the Jewish refugees and their current struggle for recognition and restitution.

Point of No Return

Jewish Refugees from Arab and Muslim Countries

One-stop blog on the Middle East's
forgotten Jewish refugees - updated daily.