BBC asks: will ‘Arab Jews’ return?

 Over the next few days, the BBC Arabic Service (trailer below) is broadcasting a programme by Omar Abdul-Razek called ‘Arab Jews in Israel’. On the plus side : the programme humanises Jews in Israel, and interviews some who voice mainstream views – notably, Eli Avidar and Levana Zamir, who deftly quash the idea of a return to Arab lands while these are being poisoned with antisemitism. On the minus side, the programme adopts a far-left discourse, assuming ‘Arab Jews’ were exploited by Ashkenazim as a labour reservoir and  stripped of their culture. It gives a voice to marginal figures like Professor Yehouda Shenhavand Almog Behar, who traffic the 1950s allegation that Israel suppressed the ‘Arab ‘ heritageof Jews from Arab countries. The mere fact that the programme calls them ‘Arab Jews’ diminishes their separate Jewish identity. (Thanks to Levana for her translation from Arabic.)

Israeli Sociologist Yehuda Shenhav is standing before a plate hanging on one
of the walls of his  library crowded with hundreds of books: an old letter in Arabic
handwriting,  next to the
envelope, is kept under glass.

Professor Shenhav says: “This is one of the letters exchanged between my
father and my mother during my father’s long absences from the house.”

The text is filled with details and greetings to family members, asking about their
financial and living conditions, but the envelope is covered with Israeli military censorship stamps.

Shenhav’s father was working in Israeli intelligence, a sector in which Israel
hired at its inception, a large number of Arab Jews, for the benefit
of their language and in order to penetrate the “surrounding
enemies”. The problem in Shenhav’s view is the contradiction that treated
Israel’s Jews from Arab Countries: “it erased their Arab culture and was
increasingly in favor of the idea of ​​integration, and at the same time used
their arabism  to legitimise the security organs of the State. ”

The question of identity was the most pressing of for generations of Arab Jews. Says
Shenhav: “It was the most important issue in the neighbourhood and outside the
home. As a child in the tenth grade, for example, your family came originally from
Iraq and spoke Arabic,  you were ashamed of the Arabic language before school
friends and teachers, because the dominant culture was Ashkenazi culture.”

Perhaps  the picture changed a bit with the improvement of political and social
situation of the Arab Jews, and the emergence of a culture of indigenous music
and food without stigma, though official statistics suggests that they come in third in the education sector, for example, after the Ashkenazi and Russian immigrants who came
to Israel in the nineties.

History records that Arab  Jews in Israel live between
marginalization and integration, but that most of them did not embrace the idea of
​​Zionism before the establishment of Israel.

Yemenite Jews were the first arrivals to historic Palestine in the nineteenth
century as an alternative to Arab workers in the plantations of European Jews. In
Arahiv, a village near Kfar Saba generations the Dialy family lived. Eli has a
large family at the moment. He speaks like a Palestinian Arab about his
relationship with intimate neighbors in the Arab villages inside the Green
Line, but his cousin Carvana complains of ” Arab thieves” who are
attacking the village and says she will not be upset if they are sent away. Arahiv
itself was until Israel’s occupation of the West Bank in 1967, a military zone in
the front line with the Jordanian army. Eli recalls,
“we lived among the lice, the place was full of snakes and
coming from Yemen, they did not know any better – we worked and planted and raised
cows until the situation improved.”

Eli’s family came to Israel in 1949. Eli is taping his
mother’s recollections. She is approaching 100, her family from Yemen spoke the
original dialect: “Yemen Melih Melih, Imam Yahya Melih.”

As for the reasons for migration of Arab
Jews from their countries to Israel, 
history will tell that  many Jews believe Israel was the biggest beneficiary of the
migration and even  displaced  Arab Jews so they would be a reservoir of
labour. There are those who believe that they were forced to migrate
after the escalation of the Palestinian Arab conflict.

It says that poor Arab Jews came to Israel through the Jewish Agency, and they
had to live in development towns on the borders with the Arab
countries, or in the homes vacated by Arab population, while the displaced middle
class and the rich of them immigrated to Europe, America, Australia, South
Africa. (Not true, especially in the case of Egypt, where only 6 percent of Jews were poor in 1948, according to historian Gudrun Kraemer – ed)

Former Israeli ambassador Eli Avidar, head of manufacture of diamonds in Tel
Aviv,  worked in the Mossad and as
Israeli Ambassador to Qatar and the European Union. His family emigrated from
Egypt in 1967 in the wake of the Six Day War. They had Greek citizenship from Egypt in 1967.
I asked him how his family stayed in Egypt until that date, despite 
rumors that Abdel Nasser persecuted the Jews?

He speaks in Egyptian slang which has
not changed, “My father was a director of Cicurel, we were living well in Egypt without a problem,
but after the 1967 war, there were
demonstrations demanding the slaughter of the Jews,” But what about the
displacement in Egypt of its Jews? Avidar:
“No one said it targeted the Jews, you will not find a history book to say it,
but there was hatred of the Jews after the war, in 1948, and again with the
1967 war. We came to Israel only because our and relatives were here, but most
of the Egyptian Jews who came to Israel emigrated after 1948.”

On to the Egyptian Center in Tel Aviv, headed by Levana Zamir. She told me
at length about the persecution suffered by the Jews in Egypt until they were
forced to leave. “I was ten years old in May 1948, when David Ben-Gurion declared
the establishment of the State of Israel. In the middle of the night a dozen
Egyptian Officers came to our Villa in Helwan and arrested my uncle Habib
Vidal. He was not Zionist, he had a printing-business. But King Farouk arrested
600 Jews when war broke out, to exchange them later with Egyptian prisoners of war.

Levana tells how the Egyptian Government confiscated their family business, when a
special law passed to confiscate all Zionists properties. And her uncle was released from prison after a year and a half, on condition he left Egypt for
ever, without return.

Levana’s family had to leave Egypt to France, where her father preferred to stay; but her mother insisted on going to Israel, to prevent her children from
suffering racist abuse. The family were put up in a tent in the Tiberias Ma’abara (transit camp):
“My mother was crying every night, because we could not get used to this
kind of suffering, and I was ashamed to speak Arabic and I said I come from
France, because Israel was then an Ashkenazi country”.

 At the Iraqi Café, at Mahane Yehuda market, I met with the Israeli poet Almog Behar, backgammon players with Arak on the
table and challenging each other in Iraqi-Arabic, and shamelessly eating Iraqi foods and drinking Arak. But
Behar is telling me about the demise of the Arab Jewish heritage , which is the most
dangerous thing in his opinion.

Behar’s grandmother came from Iraq and forgot the Hebrew language in the last days of her life
and began to talk only in Arabic only. He loved his grandmother and loved to
communicate with her. He tells me: of course there was an attempt over the past
decades to erase the Arab culture fully of the Jews of the Arab world, but this
attempt did not succeed completely: my grandfather and my grandmother spoke Arabic but not my mum. The schools sent teachers home and
called for Arab Jews to stop talking Arabic.

 According to Behar, what is becoming extinct is not only the Arab Jewish communities but the Arab heritage of Judaism, that heritage which was recited in prayer books and poems in synagogues over the
centuries, but  does not exist now, because “the Zionist discourse that
the Jews cannot be Arabs and Arabs can not to be Jews, has been accepted by both the
Israeli and Arab sides, with the exception of countries such as Morocco.

 “In September of last year, sponsored by the Israeli Foreign Ministry, an international conference was organised at theUnited Nations entitled Justice for Jewish refugees from Arab countries, accusing the Arab League of responsibility for driving out the Jews
from Arab countries, and demanded compensation for them no less than that demanded
by the Palestinian refugees. Months afterwards, a controversy erupted in Egypt
following the invitation launched by the Muslim Brotherhood leader Essam
el-Erian calling for Arab Jews to return to their home countries and the
restoration of their property.

On the beach in the city of Bat Yam, where a large Egyptian community lives
till today, I met Egyptians again, most
of whom came from Alexandria. I asked them, why do not you return? They said: Israel
is our country and we don’t know another one.

I asked Eli Avidar, he said: “The Jews from Egypt have still a positive
memory of Egypt, but the problem is that when the Jews from Egypt listen
to the radio and watch  television what is being said about the Jews, and even
Jews of Egypt, one wants to forget that he was born in Egypt.”

As for Levana Zamir, who participated at the UN conference, her opinion is that
Egypt is not yet ready for this idea of Return: “Egypt where we were born,
which we have built, and where we lived in prosperity, where the Jews of Egypt
built the first banks and businesses, Bank Mosseri, Bank Qattawi … This Egypt of
ours, disappeared, does not exist. ”

The position expressed by Professor Shenhav, is nostalgic, but
stresses that political realism will not allow this dream. Extremism comes from
extremist Jewish nationalism and a sense of nationalism in the Arab countries
as well.

The picture may seem complex, and complexity is an extension of the region’s
political scene, a scene that establishes Israel as a country of Middle Eastern or Mizrahi Jews and Arabs, the largest demographic group.

‘Arab Jews in Israel’ will be shown on the BBC TV Arabic Servlce at the following times (GMT):

27/04/2013      02:06:00        02:30:00                becomes “Assignment – Arab Jews  (first placing)

 27/04/2013      12:06:00        12:30:00              becomes “Assignment – Arab Jews  (repeat)

28/04/2013      12:06:00        12:30:00               becomes “Assignment – Arab Jews  (repeat)

29/04/2013      02:06:00        02:30:00               becomes “Assignment – Arab Jews  (repeat)
29/04/2013      10:06:00        10:30:00               becomes “Assignment – Arab Jews  (repeat)

BBC Watch


  • Sylvia

    Because like in the past it would be on the whim of whoever rules the country (which historically never lasts), with a change of regime meaning a return to the status quo of Jews once more being oppressed, murdered and exiled?

  • Well, under the right conditions,and if a particular country is making real efforts toward equality, where Jew-hatred hasn't reached a point of no-return, and is welcoming, why not?



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