Conference ‘outstanding’, but out-of-date on Israel

Conference co-convener Professor Tudor Parfitt (right), known for his research into Jews of Yemen and Jewish tribes of Africa

Point of No Return is grateful for the following report on the Bahrain-sponsored Conference on Jews from Arab Lands, held 23 and 24 November at SOASin London. All in all, the conference was an ‘outstanding’ achievement, the report-writer claims, but the latter sessions, taking place against the background of continued minority oppression, whitewashed the persecution of the Jews and failed to draw ‘exchange-of-populations’ comparisons with the Palestinian refugees. Far from being denigrated in present-day Israel as several speakers claimed, Oriental-Jewish musicians, after a difficult start, were now enjoying chauffeur-driven limousines, acclaim and prosperity.

“This well-organized and outstanding Conference on Jews from Arab Lands was supervised by Prof. Tudor Parfitt and Prof. Sami Zubaida of London University. It was attended by experts from various universities and institutions and sponsored by Dr. Khalid Al Khalifa, President, University College of Bahrain. Unfortunately Mrs Houda Nonoo (Bahraini Ambassador to Washington, of Iraqi-Jewish origin, was not able to attend to give her keynote address).

“In Day 1, Session 1-2, objective and profound lectures with insight were given on Iraq (Moreh), Egypt (Mabro), Morocco (Schroeter), Yemen (Parfitt), Baghdadi Jews in India and China (Benite), Population Distribution and Evolution of Jews in Arab Lands (Courbage), presenting a panoramic and objective survey.

“Session 3 devoted to Cultural Legacies were given by world experts on the topics of Music (Kojaman), Education (Marcus), Literature (Berg), Baghdad, the ‘City of Pluralities’ (Pieri). They presented the Iraqi-Jewish contribution to their homeland, aspects which were destroyed by the successive revolutions in Iraq after the mass emigration of its Jews (1950-1951).

“However, Session 4, The Dispersal of Middle Eastern Jews, was convened under the dark shadow of the massacres of Christian communities in Iraq and Egypt. This tragic fact rendered the lectures given by critical authors, Shenhav, Rejwan and Shabi (pictured), as pallid and out-of-date, since they dealt with the Israeli realities during the formative years of 1950-1970. In fact, the emigration of Iraqi Jews to Israel is considered today as deliverance from the worst regimes in the Middle East and the most vicious treatment of religious minorities in the world. However, these lectures should have taken a long-term historical perspective and made the comparison with the plight of Palestinian refugees. The two sets of refugees constitute an exchange of populations. However, the latter are suffering to this day at the hands of their Arab brethren in all Arab lands from discrimination and inferior status.

“At least ten lecturers were of Iraqi origin, to the point that a member of the audience from Morocco complained that this Conference was in fact an Iraqi one.

“In Day Two, Session 1, the lecturers tried to avoid dealing with the main reason for its prosperous Jewish community leaving Iraq, the Farhud of 1941, which was mentioned briefly by S. Moreh, pointing to the recently published books Al-Farhud, The 1941 Pogrom in Iraq, ed. by S. Moreh & Z. Yehuda, 2010 and E. Black, The Farhud, Roots of the Arab-Nazi Alliance in the Holocaust, 2010.

“In fact one would have expected a whole session on the Farhud and the persecution of Jews during the 1948 war to destroy Israel. This was probably an attempt to whitewash Arab complicity with the Nazis and the exchange of population between Jews from Arab Lands and the Palestinian refugees. To overlook this fact was meant to project an idealised view of Jewish-Muslim coexistence. As expected, Dr. Abbas Shiblak, who discussed The Exodus of Jews from Iraq in the 1950s, obscured the main reason for their exodus, the Farhud, and the systematic persecution of the Jews in Iraq and Arab Lands. Some people also felt the same way about S. Somekh’s superficial lecture read by Orit Bashkin. He could not answer the crucial question why his Communist and intellectual friends could not reshape Iraq’s cultural and political trends into a socialist, liberal and democratic tolerant state, in spite of all their sacrifices.

“In such a comprehensive and serious conference, one would have expected that at least one session should have been dedicated to the Farhud and the attacks and looting after the war of 1948 on Jewish life and property against all Jewish communities in Arab lands. In Bahrain, the synagogue was destroyed and two were killed in riots in 1947, but the king offered compensation for looted and wrecked property.

“Missing was one significant aspect among many of the Jews of Iraq, pointing to their status in Israel today: their musical activities. While they were able to take their musical instruments from Jerusalem to Babylon but refused to sing the Song of Zion, in Iraq of the 1950s they were banned from taking with them their musical instruments. Not only were Saleh and Dawood al-Kuwaity banned from taking with them their violin and oud, but the musical scores of the fascinating melodies which they composed were destroyed by the custom officers at Baghdad Airport.

“In their first years in Israel these musicians were starving, but today the second and third generation of musicians and singers of Iraqi origin are living in prosperity, to the degree that they have their own limousine chauffeurs and bodyguards. This is but one example of the prosperity, status and wealth which this active community achieved in all aspects of life in Israel. Scholars should have taken this aspect into consideration and re-evaluated their conclusions.”

Another conference-goer adds her comments:

“The choice of Robert Mabro to talk about Jews in Egypt was very strange. As he said when he started his speech is that he didn’t know why they chose him, as he was not an expert in the subject of the Jews of Egypt (he is Present and Former Director of Oxford institute for Energy studies). His speech turned out to be very light-hearted and humorous, and not professional.

“In Part Two of the first day Rachel Shabi pointed to a new example of ‘anti-Mizrahi discrimination’, the message she preached in her bookNot the enemy. It is a song by Sarit Haddad called Do you love me? I really do not know what she wanted to prove. The song is awful and actually degrades Mizrahi music.

“Yehuda Shenhav ranted on about ‘Arab Jews’. Even while he was sitting among the audience he continued to accuse the government of Israel of extending the closure of the archive about the immigration of Iraqis to Israel for another 30 years.

“Nissim Rejwan sang the same tune.

“To be fair to Youssef Courbage, he did mention at the beginning of his talk that there were one million Jewish immigrants from Arab countries and that until the 80s, they were 50% of Israel’s Jewish population.”

Alon Ben- Meir’s address on 24 November


  • I agree with Bataween. Where is Martin Gilbert? Or Norman Stillmans? They are well known authorities vis-à-vis the history of the Jews of Arab Land/Middle East.
    Not only none of their standard was present apart of Prof Moreh but on the second day Marina Benjamin had the Chutzpah to mock Martin Gilbert’s latest Book “In Ishmael’s House”.
    I wonder why? Is it because he is mentioning that Jews did actually suffer and were treated as a second class citizens despite their presence in these lands for over 2500 and they were the real natives and not the outsiders. A member of the audience confronted the panel but no one even bothered to apologise or tried to explain what was meant.
    With all due respect to Ms Benjamin, she wrote A book about this subject “her family’s story” but Mr Gilbert is a worldwide known authority who wrote this book after researching the subject objectively and professionally as a historian.

  • Hello Anonymous
    This is my reply to your first comment:

    If you read the post carefully you would know that the conference report was not written by me. 'Outstanding' was the report-writer's description. However, I think you will discover from his report that he had two quite serious criticisms to make. The first was that it whitewashed the persecution of the Jews. The second was that it projected a distorted and out-of-date picture of the Mizrahi experience in Israel.

    As I said in my pre-conference post, the conference was going to be a bit like a conference on German Jewry extolling the contributions of Heine and Mendelssohn without reference to the extermination of German Jewry. I am not ashamed to say my prediction came to pass.

    Nowhere did I use the word 'disaster'. I wrote that the lecturers chosen were by and large post- or anti-Zionists, albeit experts in their fields. Where were the Norman Stillmans or Martin Gilberts?

    Some of the lecturer choices were bizarre. This is borne out by the second opinion at the base of the post, who agrees with me that Robert Mabro was a bizarre choice. Indeed Mabro himself thought he was a bizarre choice.

    I think it was pertinent to mention that Sami Zubaida's father was executed by the Iraqi regime. This fact was bound to have had a profound impact on him, one way or another.

    I stand by what I said about Bahrain. I think mine was an objective analysis of Bahrain's motives for sponsoring the conference, and indeed we should be indebted to Bahrain for not joining in the mass erasure of Jewish life in Arab countries from the history books. However, I was alarmed to learn that some Bahrainis have rewritten the history of their own Jews: they now say that when trouble broke out in Arab countries against the Jews, Bahrain had been an exception to the rule.

    I know from my Bahraini Jewish friends that this is simply not true: the synagogue was destroyed, there was rioting and looting of Jewish property and two old ladies were killed in 1947. Most of the community left at this point.
    However it does need to be emphasised that the king was very upset at what had happened and offered the Jews compensation.


  • The term "pre-conference report " says it all…
    Absurd and contradiction in terms. Your words, not mine .
    As for lashon ha-ra, your definition of it needs refreshing, you should consult the Hafets Haim on that. But i guess one cannot expect much from someone who freely quote that joker lee kaplan who vilifies good people for no reason.

  • I'm sorry, but your criticisms are absolutely without foundation.
    My pre-conference report was pretty well borne out. the conference could have chosen from scores of scholars, but these were 'tainted' by their Zionism. I was not able to attend (can a person not go on holiday?)As a service to my readers I published a report by someone who was there. But you are not content with that.
    How is mentioning the fact that the conference convener's father was executed by the Iraqi regime 'disrespectful'? It seems to be a sore point with you. I also mentioned that Alain Gresh's father was the assassinated communist Henri Curiel. I did not 'speak ill' of the dead (lashon ha-ra), these were the plain facts.

  • Thanks for replying. These are lame excuses. The basic point is that you pass judgement on events such as this one BEFORE they place and not AFTER. This is hardly a serious practice. Also, to have a test such as "where is Norman Stillman" or "where is Martin Gilbert," is superficial. These two are not the only scholars in the world. And I think even they would object to such practices that have them as tools for litmus tests for the success of scholarly events.

    I find quite amazing that you pass judgment, discuss Sami father's fate in such a disrespectful manner while you know that you are not even going attend the meeting! (on vacation, ha? but "lashon ha-ra" never rests). then you defend yourself by saying "well.. i was not there" it was somebody else.
    If you were serious, and not a hot headed political partisan that looks for "zionists" and "antizionists" on participants' lists, you would say: "here is the event", I cannot attend, please attend and report."
    But instead, you engage in something that is utterly baseless and then ask, "where is norman stillman"?
    It is joke. Norm himself would tell you that.
    At the very least you should apologize to Sami for using the memory of his father like this and stop defending it. It's just not proper and disrespectful.

  • Your blog, in a typical manner I would say, predicted that the conference was going to be a disaster (see earlier post on the conference, posted BEFORE it took place). Now you say it was "outstanding." Would you care to reconcile the two positions? Furthermore, some of the speakers whom you named in the earlier post as the potential reasons for the forthcoming disaster, are now–after the fact–are named ones who "objective" and "profound" lectures.

    I wonder what happened to your prophetic powers. More seriously I wonder where is your shame. After all, you could say that the conference proved you wrong and that you were mistaken. There is nothing in admitting that you were wrong and the scholars who participated in this conference were dedicated researchers who do their jobs seriously and honestly.

    I cannot say that about you. In the earlier post, you made a big case of the Bahraini sponsorship, speculating it was behind an anti-Israel/anti zionist gathering. Now you mention the very same fact as if there was nothing to it. Just a mundane piece of news. You also, and for this you should really be ashamed, speculated what would Sami Zubaida's thoughts are going to be since is father was executed by the Iraqi regime. As if Sami is not an autonomous human being and a scholar, and as if the tragic biographical detail of his life could be traded in the market of ideas like nothing.

    But I guess this blog is not a serious as it pretends to be, and would admit mistakes.


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