Jewish musicians in Morocco (photo: JIMENA)
Not content with driving out their minorities, Arab states are denying that Jews ever had a presence there. The mere mention of the word Jew has become offensive. Seth Frantzman writing in the Jerusalem Post blames the rise of Arab socialism for the onward march of ‘monoculturalism’. I would rather pin the blame a national and religious fascism, beginning in the 1930s, that cannot tolerate the ‘other’.
In 1948 there were 250,000 Jews in Morocco. Today there are less than
4,000. Across North Africa most ancient and important Jewish communities
vanished in the years 1940 to 1970. In February, when
“Tanghir-Jerusalem, echoes of the mellah” was shown at a theater in
Tangier a crowd of several hundred gathered to protest it. The film was
by Kamal Hachkar and sought to explore the history of Jews who had left
Morocco to settle in Israel. In March Egypt banned the screening of a
film about the Jews of Egypt. Like Hachkar’s film, the documentary
traced the lives of Egyptian Jews up through the 1950s when the
community left the country.
Throughout North Africa, and the rest
of the Muslim world, there is a rejection of the mention of Jewish
history in the region. At the same time there is a slow, grinding
destruction of whatever vestiges of historical Jewish life remain. For
instance, the Eliahu Hanabi synagogue in Damascus, which dates from the
8th century, was badly damaged in fighting on March 3. On January 27, 68
gravestones were defaced and destroyed in the Jewish cemetery of the
town of Sousse in Tunisia.
Raphael Luzon, a Libyan Jew, was arrested in July of last year for returning to the country to try to refurbish a synagogue.
isn’t enough that the Jewish communities don’t exist any longer in
these countries, the people also seek to erase the idea that they ever
This pattern of “monoculturalism,” the advancement of
the history and existence of only one culture, has been on the march
throughout the region. In the 1950s many large cities in the Middle East
were bustling, diverse metropolises. For instance, Tunis was 20 percent
Jewish, and 100,000 Italians and 13,000 Maltese also lived in and
around the capital city.
Alexandria had large communities of
Armenians, Greeks, Maltese, and people from all over the world. Today
those communities are gone, their properties nationalized since they
were categorized as “foreigners.”
The hatred toward them smoldered in the hearts of some of the local Muslim population.
the fascinating book Jewish Culture and Society in North Africa, one
writer notes, “Within the context of military rivalry [of the 1940s]
Italophobia grew… Muslims also accused the 13,000 Maltese of Tunisia
of being lackeys of British imperialism.” In the conspiracy-laden Arab
world, hatred of the other was cultivated, so that each group that was
not Muslim was accused of being a collaborator with some outside power,
or accused of having too much financial power.
When people write
about the destruction and vanishing of every ancient minority group in
the Middle East, from Assyrian Christians to Iraqi Yazidis, we see
behind this a policy of monoculturalism. But what is fascinating is the
degree to which these societies that have homogeniezed themselves by
deracinating Jews and others from their homes in the 1950s and 1960s,
now also reject the notion that Jews ever existed in their country.
and Morocco’s reaction to similar films is but one example. Another
example is the banning by Egypt of Jewish pilgrimage to the tomb of
Rabbi Ya’akov Abuhatzeira. A Cairo court forbade the pilgrimages while a
local mukhtar noted, “We prohibit Jews from visiting the tomb because
we identify with the Palestinian people and because we do not want to
offend the Egyptian public’s sensitivities.”
Similarly in Morocco the protestors shouted against “normalization” with Israel.
“sensitivities” in the region are so extreme that even a movie about
history or a pilgrimage is so offensive that it must be banned. The mere
mention of a community that, while it lived among the majority
population was subjected to insults, discrimination and harassment, is
considered unacceptable. Imagine American “sensitivities” according to
which the very mention of the fact that American Indians ever existed,
let alone were killed and driven from their homes, was “offensive.”
Although in some ways the Arab Spring has made this monoculturalizing tendency
more visible, it has its origins in the rise of Arab socialism in the