Jewish girls in Tunisia, late 19th century (photo: Library of Congress)
Middle Eastern Jews have become more prominent in all walks of Israeli life. But their history is still subdued, argues Adi Schwartz in i24 News. Into the vacuum comes the Hebrew version of Sir Martin Gilbert’s book In Ishmael’s House. But revisionist myths of peaceful coexistence have got there first:
Almost a million people vanished in the last few decades from the
Middle East. Perhaps not physically; but the Jewish communities that
flourished for more than two millennia throughout the region have
disappeared almost without leaving a trace. Jews who lived in Arab
countries found refuge mostly in Israel, but also in Europe and North
America. Their heritage, however, in fact their mere existence, has
escaped the attention of the international community.
The protection of Jews from European anti-Semitism, which culminated
with the Holocaust, is considered Israel’s raison d’etre. Even the
leader of Israel’s biggest ally, Barack Obama, said in his 2009 speech
in Buchenwald that the State of Israel rose out “of the destruction of
And what about the other half of Israel’s population – those Jews who
left Egypt, Syria, Morocco, Iraq, Yemen, Libya and Tunisia? Were they
free of the persecution suffered by their brethren in Europe for
centuries? In what circumstances exactly did 850,000 people emigrate
from these Arab countries beginning in the 1940’s, leaving behind just a
handful of elderly Jews?
Israeli society has changed tremendously in recent decades and Middle
Eastern Jews have become much more prominent in almost every segment of
society. But their history is still subdued – in the first decade of
the 21st century, only one PhD thesis was written in Israeli
universities about the destruction of the Jewish communities in the Arab
world. Schools do not devote comprehensive curricula to the subject:
amazingly so, the last episode in the lives of these rich communities
became a mandatory part of the Israeli matriculation exams only
Into this vacuum enters a new book, translated from English and
published in Israel. “In Ishmael’s House” by acclaimed historian Sir
Martin Gilbert is one of the first books in Hebrew to chronicle the
lives of Jews in the Middle East from Muhammad’s days in the 7th century
to the present. Gilbert skillfully blends day-to-day stories and
personal accounts with long term developments.
One of the main questions raised throughout the book is whether Jews
lived in perfect harmony, as the myth goes, under Muslim rule; whether,
as modern Arabs use to say, the problems between Jews and Arabs in the
Middle East started with the appearance of Zionism in the end of the
Gilbert’s unequivocal answer is a resounding “no.” While there have
certainly been periods of peace and tranquility, Jews were never
considered part and parcel of Muslim societies. They were always a
distinguished minority, non-Muslim subjects of the Muslim state, who
were assigned the inferior status of dhimmi (“dependent”). This position
ensured the protection of their lives and property, the right to
practice their religion, and a degree of internal communal autonomy. In
exchange, however, Jews were required to submit to various forms of
legal and social discrimination.
In the 14th century, for examples, the Jews of Egypt and Syria were
forbidden to live in tall buildings, to raise their voices in prayer, to
bury their dead in graves more impressive than those of their Muslim
neighbors, or to hold clerical jobs. Until 1912, the Jews of Morocco
were forced to walk barefoot or wear straw shoes outside Jewish quarters
as a sign of respect for the Arab nation.
A long list of pogroms hardly left a mark on Jewish historiography.
In the first decade of the 20th century a few such massacred occurred in
Moroccan towns – in Taza in 1903 (40 killed), in Settat in 1907 (50
killed) and in Casablanca in 1907 (30 killed). For the sake of
comparison, in the infamous Kishinev pogrom, which became a milestone in
the history of Zionism, 49 Jews were killed.