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.