Georges Bensoussan explodes idyll myth

With thanks: Dominique

It’s a well-worn paradox: on Sunday, a Jew from an Arab country swears that he lived happily alongside Arabs. On Thursday, he says life was awful. So which is the truth?

The Moroccan-born historian Georges Bensoussan (pictured) imagines he has found the answer in his ground-breaking new book Juifs en pays arabes – le grand deracinement 1850 – 1975 (not yet available in English). The two experiences are not contradictory, they are complementary.

What passes for the story of Sephardi and Mizrahi Jews in the West is actually folklore, says Bensoussan in thismust-see Akadem video, which I will try to summarise for non-French readers.

The Jews themselves spread the myth of the Jewish idyll in Arab countries because they were children at the time, and childhood is associated with happy memories. And the further you went up the social scale, the happier the memories. But Bensoussan cross-references available historical sources – the Zionist archives in Jerusalem, the Alliance Israelite Universelle archives in Paris and the French national archives in Nantes, travellers’ diaries, such as that of Charles de Foucault (1883) in Morocco, and diplomatic reports. Although the Arab archives remain closed, the overwhelming weight of evidence points to the fact Jews in Arab and Muslim lands lived in misery and fear.

Yet the myth of the enchanted history of the Jews refuses to die. In May Bensoussan issued a rebuttal via the CRIF, the organisation representing Jews in France, to an article in Telerama suggesting that antisemitism arrived in Morocco with the French and that Zionist agents made the Jews leave against their will. Bensoussan also find it irritating that Jewish sources lay great store by historians such as Moroccan Mohammed Kenbib without having read his work. According to Bensoussan, who read every line of Kenbib’s doctoral thesis, Kenbib blames the Jews for their own misfortunes.

Historians usually say that the definitive break between Jews and Arabs took place with the establishment of Israel in 1948. But for Bensoussan, the post-1948 exodus was not a break, it was an ‘aggravated divorce’. The process began a century earlier when Jews began educating their children in western schools; half a million Jewish children passed through the Alliance Israelite Universelle school system. What started as a crack became a gap, then a chasm. The Muslim Arabs lagged behind in literacy by at least a generation. This of course explains why the Nazis found it easy to brainwash the illiterate masses in Arab countries through intensive radio broadcast propaganda during WW2.

Jews were actually expelled only in 1956 in Egypt. Everywhere else, says Bensoussan, ‘the Arab states did everything in their power to make the Jews leave’.

In the 20th century Arab nationalism took on a Nazi-style blood-and-soil character which excluded Jews, in spite of their huge contribution to culture and society (one third of all writers in Iraq were Jewish). Then Jews were viewed as an ethnicity – today they are seen as a religion.

Bensoussan is one of the few historians to write about Jews in Arab lands as a whole, without treating each community country-by-country. Coexistence with the Muslims was only possible on the understanding that Jews accepted their inferiority as ‘dhimmis’. ‘The Jews were the colonised of the colonised,’ he says.

Juifs en pays arabes: le grand deracinement, 1850 – 1975 (Librairie du memorial de la Shoah)


  • I would like to know if this bensoussan is he french or Moroccan? All my life my parents my grandparents…leaved in Morocco and everybody knows that the sultan, the king hassan2 and Mohamed 6.. they've played a big role in protecting Moroccan Jewish so don't you forget it you ungrateful ****. Anyone can call them historian and write any gibberish they've choose to write about!!! Mr Bensoussan I don't buy it. Keep changing history to fit your purposes….but smart people are not brainwashed easily!

  • Why is that the Moroccan Jewry did and still do "mythization" of the relationship between the Jews and Muslims in Morocco including my dear dad?

    How come the Moroccan_French Jewish Adviser Andre Azoulay and others, praise the tolerance that stretches back for centuries? What did I miss? Was it really "me" or wast it something else?

    This is another crack in the wall of lies…

    For the sake of history, let us not forget that comparing with other countries in that region, Morocco was most comfortable place for Jews.

    2 B continue…

    (bataween, tnx for sharing)

    With your permission, here 2 links to my blog and relevant to this subject (translation is available on the page) :

  • Sylvia,

    "I've read some things by Abraham Serfaty, where he went back to Morocc…"

    Loved this comment most!
    Tnx for sharing.

  • Getting away from the question of why Jews left NA or Middle Eastern Arab and Muslim lands, you have to understand the profound hold that Communism had on some people, precisely on intellectuals. It was an intellectual system that answered all questions about the past and present and foresaw the future [כביכול]. How could the "enlightened" intellectual reject this gnostic cult? Now, since both the so-called utopian socialists [not all] as well as the original Marxist creed, were imbued with Judeophobia –actually drawing on earlier sources, & here I recommend Robert Misrahi's Marx et la question juive, Kant, Hegel, Voltaire– these movements [to be sure, not always nor all of these movements] were Judeophobic from their origins and shared the loathing of Kant, Hegel & Voltaire for any Jewish corporate existence, let alone a Jewish state, which Hegel would have seen as a historical impossibility. So Israel refutes Hegel's view of Jews and thus Zionism and the State of Israel were always likely to anger Hegelians loyal to the master on account of the cognitive dissonance. But Marx & Lenin were Hegelians. Oddly, Marx showed a relative sympathy for the Jews in Jerusalem in an article that is largely paraphrased from the French historian Cesar Famin [1854].
    Our situation nowadays features Jewish "leftists" in Israel who want to stay in step with the international "progressive" movement which has become extremely Judeophobic as we know and is encouraged by capitalist governments, by the UK and the EU, etc. That is, today's anti-Zionism is encouraged by those states that the Leninists used to call "imperialists" [see the NGOMonitor site for EU funding of anti-Israel NGOs]. Today's anti-Zionism is to a great extent a psychosis in which "radical" "leftists" and "revolutionaries" are on the side of the EU and UK govts, overlooking social problems that once occupied their attention. Consider the slight attention given to the millions of semi-slave foreign workers in the Persian Gulf emirates. Since they overlook the conditions of those workers, just objects –one would think– of leftist concern, then their focus on hating Israel is obviously a species of Judeophobia, which the "left" has been imbued with since its early 19th century beginnings. [that said, people like Robert Owen and Marx's daughter Eleanor are separate subjects].

  • As of now, the Fenton book has not been translated. I hope it will be soon, especially since the authors are/were English-speakers.
    You're right – it's complicated – too complicated to be boiled down to a single theory. I'm just wandering how many of the Jews you cite built their philosophies around a kind of stockholm syndrome.

  • I have the Fenton-Littman book in French. But I thought it has been translated.
    Some texts had already been translated for example in Stillman.
    The French traveler mentioned by Georges Bensimon (probably quoted in his book) is also in Stillman's book.

  • I've read some things by Abraham Serfaty, where he went back to Morocco from exile in France and kept wondering what happened to the Jews. Where were all the Jews? He was not in denial at the time he just didn't experience the pogroms.

    I've also read an interview of someone who knew Simon Levy real well, and who said that he was aware of dhimmitude, but has never ever acknowledged it explicitly – much less denounce it.

    Amram Elmaleh according to some things he wrote in his book on Jean Genet, clinged to his Sephardic identity – so as not to have anything in common with Ashkenazis/Zionists. Was his anti-Zionism a reaction to Ashkenazi contempt for people like him? Who knows? The fact is he preferred being a Sephardi and second-class citizen in his Muslim country than be a "Mizrahi" in Israel.

    All this is a lot more complex than meets the eye.

  • Link to the Littman-Fenton book (unfortunately not in English yet)

    You are right that western education was not accessible to the great mass of poor Jews. They stayed in a state of unrelieved dhimmitude, reason enough to escape when they had the chance to do so.

    I would say that Abraham Serfaty's response – communism – was a sophisticated form of rebelling against the dhimmi condition. He used his education to aspire to universal human and equal rights. Zionism was another response. The Christian Arabs preferred the pan-Arab nationalist route as their means of escape.

  • You understand correctly Bataween, that's his thesis.

    But then you have the problem of those who -as I said – within colonized countries, have never met a single European or learned one word of European languages. What arms did they have to rebel against their masters?

    Add to this that those who studied in prestigious universities in Europe (the super-educated), who came back calling for reforms. Abraham Serfaty comes to mind.
    How do these behaviors fit?

  • I'll add that dhimmitude was relieved only for the "proteges" and citizens of foreign governments – translators, etc. who didn't have, for example, the dress restrictions of indigenous (non-foreign protected) Jews. This was as true for Morocco under foreign rules(French, Spanish and other consulates) as it was for Ottoman Turkey (following the capitulations treaties).

    In any case, I still recommend tto read first the Fenton-Littman book if only for chronological coherence.
    Has it been translated yet?

  • If I understand Bensoussan correctly, the Jews threw in their lot with the colonialists but only to escape their situation as the colonised of the colonised.

  • I didn't mean that his thesis is pro-colonialist, but rather that -from the video – his thesis is that Jews were pro-Europeans, pro-emancipation, due primarily to colonialism and before that to AIU education, thus becoming well-ahead of Muslims in terms of education, hence the friction and the fact that they wouldn't stay.
    In fact, that's the reason he starts the period under study in 1850 – the founding of the AIU, the colonization of Algeria (1830), etc.

  • It's not a pro-colonialist thesis, it's the opposite: Armed with education the slaves were rebelling against their masters,and needed to be put in their place.
    Bensoussan says that the situation in Yemen, as in all Muslim lands which were never (or only for a short time) controlled by the Ottomans, was unrelieved dhimmitude.

  • He is right about one thing, the AIU archives in Paris are a gold-mine for researchers, still almost untapped.

  • I recommend reading first L'exil au Maghreb: La condition juive sous l'Islam 1148-1912 by Paul Fenton and David Littman, 792 pages of annoted primary texts, before moving to Georges Bensoussan. Then and only then can one have the background necessary to judge on the merits of his thesis.

    True, the notions of liberty and equality and extreme moral values taught at the Alliance school and the ensuing general drive for emancipation played a role in many people's decisions, not their decision to leave but rather in their decision not to return.

    It is a fact that Yemenite Jews didn't have access to this education, yet they were among the first to leave – and we saw recently before our eyes how the last families who clung there with their fingernails were driven out by means of assassination and robbery. An that's the MO, the means and the end. The rest is only pretext which varies with the period in history – europeanization being the last one.
    Not to mention that there were entire communities that haven't met one single European, didn't know one single word of French and spoke Kurdish or Berber, and yet they too disappeared.

    I speak only personally, but for me lack of equal access to higher education, unequal opportunity in employment, boycott, denial of travel documents, not to mention the ever-present possibility of another pogrom weighed a lot more than the desire for emancipation in my decision to leave.

    The "emancipation" and pro-colonialist thesis is dangerously close to the Arab narrative that tends to put squarely the blame on the Jews for their disappearance.


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