Tag: Arab-Jewish relations

‘Arab Jew’ invention erases Mizrahi history and identity

The narrative branding Mizrahi Jews as ‘Arab’ is part of the ‘colonialism’ lie, intended to distort their identity and deligitimise the state of Israel, writes Adiel Cohen in the Jerusalem Post (with thanks: Yoel, Lily):
Adiel Cohen
Truth be told, Jews in Arab and Muslim societies kept their Jewish identity while not consider themselves Arabs, but rather Iraqi-Jew, Moroccan-Jew,  Egyptian-Jew, etc. This distinction is made clear in early Islamic writings, which refer to the Jewish tribes of the Hejaz (Saudi Arabia) as foreigners, whereas the Christian Arab tribes were considered as fellow Arabs.
For example, in Yemen, where my family spent the diaspora, Jews were prohibited from wearing their traditional headdress, because it was considered “too fancy”. They spoke a dialect of Judeo-Yemenite, which incorporated biblical Hebrew phrases and were prohibited from learning how to read and write in Arabic. Their cuisine was distinctly different from the Arab-Yemeni one, and they considered themselves nothing but Jewish.
The status of Jews under Islamic rule varied between different regions, but generally, they did not enjoy the same rights as their Arab neighbors and were often persecuted. When the State of Israel was established, those same Jews were not “Arab enough” to their neighbors to be spared from violence and expulsion. Even the Jews of Iraq, who somewhat managed to integrate into the local society, were the targets of a violent pogrom in 1941, which became known as the Farhud.
These very same struggles are often erased by anti-Zionist organizations like Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP). In 2019, a coalition of Mizrahi organizations issued a statement against the appropriation and distortion of the history of the Jewish communities of the Middle East by JVP, who seek to strip the Jewish people of their indigenous origins.
However, why are anti-Israel media outlets like Al-Jazeera and antizionist groups like JVP trying to push this false narrative?
This false narrative is part of their bigger “Colonialism” lie. Anti-Israel forces have tried to delegitimize the Jewish State by calling it a colonialist project, claiming that Zionism is a Jewish-European colonialism project, despite it being a project of indigenous awakening.
Since more than 50% of Jewish-Israeli citizens are originally from families that have lived in the Middle East and North Africa, and not Europe, these anti-Israel forces had to make up a story to isolate the European Ashkenazi Jews from the broader Israeli-Jewish population, to fit their “colonialism” sham. They have totally falsified history and are spreading lies, to push their narrative of delegitimization and that the State of Israel shouldn’t exist.
Attempts to strip Jews of their Jewish identity and homeland always result in historical revisionism.
The existence of Jews in Arab societies has always been conditional, much like the existence of Jews in European societies has, not only in the 20th century, but throughout the entire history of the diaspora. Now that Jews finally have a place to rest, where we can feel safe in our indigenous homeland, we won’t let our adversaries distort our identity and history, just to delegitimize our very own existence.

Despite arrests and threats, conference gives hope for peace

In spite of the official crackdown on the participants in a conference of Iraqis held in Kurdistan in September 2021 which called for peace with Israel, Jewish activists are cautiously optimistic, writes Karmel Melamed in Israel HaYom: 

The controversial conference drew widespread condemnation (Photo: AFP)

After arrest warrants were issued and public death threats were made against many of the 300 Iraqi Muslim leaders calling for their government to make peace with Israel at a conference held in late September in Iraq’s Kurdistan region, Jewish activists of Iraqi origin are voicing support for those in Iraq who seek peace with Israel.

“It is depressing that the conference participants have been bullied in this way,” said Lyn Julius, a Jewish activist of Iraqi descent and co-founder of Harif, an association of Jews from the Middle East and North Africa based in the United Kingdom. “They were very brave to have taken part in the first place but may have underestimated the risks they were taking.”

The conference, which was held in the city of Erbil, drew widespread condemnation from officials in Iraq’s government, who called it an “illegal meeting.” According to the Iraq News Agency, some Iraqi authorities also announced that they would arrest all 300 participants once they had been identified.

Likewise, an arrest warrant was issued for Wisam al-Hardan, leader of the “Sons of Iraq Awakening” movement, who had demanded that Iraq join the Abraham Accords and, at the conference, also encouraged establishing full diplomatic relations with Israel. Following widespread public condemnation in Iraq, al-Hardan later issued a recorded apology and withdrew his support for the event.

Moreover, arrest warrants were issued against other conference speakers, including former Iraqi politician Mithal Al-Alusi, and a senior Iraqi Culture Ministry official named Sahar al-Tai. Later, Al-Alusi, who has long called for peace between Iraq and Israel, claimed not to have attended the conference at all. Additionally, several other conference participants also backtracked from their earlier pro-peace statements.

Iraq has officially been at war with Israel since Israel’s establishment in 1948, and the country’s decades-old laws call for the immediate arrest and imprisonment of anyone dealing with Israelis or having any ties to Israel.

After 1948, members of Iraq’s Jewish community, which once numbered 150,000-strong, were stripped of their citizenship, had their assets confiscated by the government and were forcibly expelled from the country. The majority of Iraqi Jews resettled in Israel, though some immigrated to Europe and North America. Today, experts estimate that only a handful of Jews still live in Iraq.

Linda Menuhin, an Israeli peace activist of Iraqi background who spoke via Zoom to the Iraqi activists at the Erbil conference, said many attendees are now recanting their statements of peace with Israel out of fear of physical harm to themselves or their families from the Iranian regime’s militias operating in Iraq.

“I believe that Iran indeed is the biggest challenge on the way because Iraq’s regime cannot practice its free sovereignty and has many stakes currently in Iran,” said Menuhin, who made a 2013 documentary film, “Shadow in Baghdad,” about the abduction and killing of her father, Jacob Abdel Aziz, by Iraqi officials in the 1970s.

Nevertheless, she said she remains optimistic about the prospects of peace in the future between Iraq and Israel.

“I do believe there is hope for peace in the future due to the fact that millions are yearning to release themselves from Iran’s strongholds directly or through its militias,” she said. “The young are looking to build a future free of enmity based on good relations with all the neighbors.”

Other Iraqi Jewish activists living in the United States and Canada said Israelis and Jews living in the West can help encourage peace with Iraqis by engaging in possible business ventures or beginning a dialogue through social media.

“The best role of the Mizrahi Jews, in this situation, is to establish commercial contacts and develop business for the benefit of all sides,” said Sami Sourani, an Iraqi Jewish activist living in Canada.

Indeed, one Jewish nonprofit group based in San Francisco, “Jews Indigenous to the Middle East and North Africa” (JIMENA), has long been educating groups in the United States and throughout the world about the plight of nearly 850,000 Jewish refugees who fled or were expelled from the Arab and Islamic countries during the 20th century.

JIMENA’s leadership recently released a statement applauding the Erbil conference and calling for future similar events to be done with caution to protect peace advocates in Arab countries.

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Sephardi play explores Nazi stories in North Africa

Josh Azouz’s latest play was reviewed in all the major British newspapers. Although its run at the Almeida Theatre in London has now ended, Once upon a time in Nazi-occupied Tunisia brings a fresh Sephardi perspective to stage drama, writes John Nathan in the Jewish Chronicle:

Josh Azouz, a rare Sephardi British Jewish voice

Whisper it, but it might just be possible that a major new voice has arrived on the British stage. True, at 35 playwright Josh Azouz has been around for a while.  But with his latest work, which goes by the more than faintly familiar title of Once Upon a Time in Nazi Occupied Tunisia, even he recognises that he and the play might represent something rather rare in this country’s theatre culture.

“There are very few Sephardi British Jewish voices,’ he observes. “So I am interested to explore those stories. But not only those stories of course,” he quickly adds, as if the theatre gods were looking for a reason to pigeonhole him for all time.
They would have a job.  His latest play audaciously conveys life under the Nazis in north Africa but without the ramrod seriousness with which extreme suffering is normally conveyed. More of this later.  For the moment let us dwell on Azouz’s knack for finding subjects that have rarely, if ever, been seen in a theatre.

For example, when his two-hander The Mikvah Project was revived at The Orange Tree last year (before it was ripped from the stage by the pandemic)  the only people who would have seen a play about two Orthodox Jewish men who fall for each other while spiritually cleansing themselves would have been those who encountered the original production at The Yard Theatre in 2015.

So although nobody thinks that as a subject life under the Nazis is unrepresented in stage drama, Azouz’s still stands out. “It’s an opportunity to talk about the war from a Sephardic Jewish lens,” is the way he describes it when we meet on Zoom at the end of a day’s rehearsal at the Almeida Theatre where the play has just opened.

“Actually, I think I should clarify,” he adds..  “I think it is actually a mostly Muslim Arab and a Sephardic Jewish lens. When we think of World War Two and the Holocaust we think of Europe.  I don’t think North Africa has been on stage and I thought, ‘how interesting to explore Arab Jewish relationships at a time just before the creation of Israel.’”

In Azouz’s play that Arab/Jewish relationship is represented respectively by a Jewish and Arab couple who were best friends before the Germans occupied Tunisia.  But under the cruel rule of Nazi officer Grandma (yes, Grandma, but more on character names later) played in Eleanor Rhode’s production by Adrian Edmondson, the friendships come under intense pressure.

Take the opening scene in which Jewish Victor (Pierro Niel-Mee) is buried up to his neck in the Tunisian desert and Arab Youssef (Ethan Kai) is standing over him with orders to urinate on him.  But as awful as Victor’s situation is, Azouz is as interested in absurdity as he is atrocity.  For a start, Yousef is Victor’s best friend.

“When I was reading memoirs from the camps in Tunisia, the Nazis had names like Grandma and Little Feller and Memento. It was their nicknames coupled with the landscape — mountains and deserts full of cacti — that made me think of a Western. That’s sort of where the title came from,” explains Azouz alluding to Sergio Leone’s spaghetti classic Once Upon a Time in the West.

However it is not only the landscape that sets this story apart from most other Nazi occupation dramas.  There is, says Azouz, something funny about it too. “People being buried up to their neck is barbaric. But then I would read [while researching the play] that the Nazis would have to keep rotating the Arab guards because they were getting too friendly with the Jews.  And because the Nazis had names like Grandma, there was something very sort of surreal and silly about it. It was horrific but this was not the mechanical or methodical horror of Europe. It was much more wild.  These Nazis were losing their heads in the desert. There was something of a mirage about it;  something much more haphazard and much more uncertain.”

There was also yet another difference, one that perhaps more than all the others goes to the heart of the play. “The Arab population weren’t willing collaborators in the same way Europeans were,” says Azouz.
In terms of their genocidal objective, the Nazis were most successful in countries where there was an infrastructure to support their objective of annihilating the Jews, Azouz points out.
“Fundamentally the Arab nations in North Africa were not seduced by the Nazis in the same way [as the Europeans].”

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300 Iraqis regret ‘infamous ‘ Jewish flight (updated)

Update to the update: The Times of Israel reports that the Iraqi government has issued warrants for the arrest of Saha al-Ta’i and Wisam al-Hardan, two prominent participants in the conference. It also intended to arrest Mithal al-Alusi, who was not at the conference, but has long advocated normalisation with Israel. It intends to arrest all 300+ participants as soon as it has identified them.
Update:  According to Ronen Zeidel, an Iraq specialist at Tel Aviv University, the initiative is the work of an American Jew (Iraqi on his mother’s side) Joseph Braude. The conference got good media coverage thanks to Braude,  including an article in the Wall Street Journal (see below). The Iraqi-Israelis who took part on Zoom were important because the organizers highlighted the Jewish story in Iraq and claimed that the renewal of relations with israel is also a renewal of contact with most of the community that moved to Israel. The Iraqi organizers pledged that the next step will be meetings with Israelis. Several Committees were set up to further trade, culture, health, education and ‘peace exports.’
The Iraqi participants are almost all individuals from the Sunni tribal world, some of them  senior officials. The main character, Sheikh Wissam Al – Hardan, from a  tribe in  western Iraq, was a prominent figure in the tribal opposition to Al- Qaeda. All those who used their real names  are very brave people, especially al-Hardan.  However, the participants have no connection to any of the three senior Sunni politicians. The speeches at the conference echo demands heard in the distant past and especially from the tribes, to give federal status to the Sunni districts – a very sensitive issue.
Al-Hardan paid tribute to  the Kurdish leader, Massoud Barzani, for making it possible to conduct the conference. Official Kurdistan has been moving away in recent years from ties with israel.The Kurdish move to approve the conference is interesting and not completely explained. Opponents to the conference threatened to launch missiles towards Kurdistan as a furious response.
Israeli officialdom ‘reacted with excessive joy’, says Zeidel. Prime Minister Bennett and Foreign Minister Lapid suddenly ′′ discovered ′′ Iraq. ‘Where were they before? Sadly, the joy of discovery’, comments Zeidel, ‘expires when the festival’s fanfare is done.’

Here is the conference video.

In an unprecedented plea for regional reconciliation, over 300 prominent Iraqis have termed  the expulsion of their Jewish community an ‘infamous act’ and have called  for their country to normalize ties with Israel.  Among the Israelis participating on Zoom were Chemi Peres, son of Shimon Peres, and Iraqi-Jew Linda Menuhin.   The conference was arranged in conjunction with the American Centre for Peace Communications and  has created a ripple of excitement among Iraqi Jews. The more cynical, however,  point out that conference took place in Kurdistan, which has made no secret of its sympathy for Israel, and only concerned those tribes allied with the US. Nevertheless, it is a significant stride forward. Times of Israel reports (with thanks: Lisette, Lily): 

“We demand full diplomatic relations with the State of Israel…and a new policy of normalization based on people-to-people relations with the citizens of that country,” said Wissam al-Hardan, who commanded Sunni tribal militias that aligned with the United States to fight al-Qaeda in 2005 in response to the power vacuum that followed the 2003 American invasion.

Iraq has officially been at war with Israel since the Jewish state was founded in 1948. Iraqi soldiers have fought in three successive Arab wars against Israel. Saddam Hussein’s secret nuclear weapons program alarmed Israel, which ultimately destroyed the Osirak reactor in Iraq in 1981, and in 1991, the Iraqi dictator fired dozens of Scud missiles at Tel Aviv and Haifa in an attempt to draw Israel into the Gulf War.

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Wissam al-Hardan, who commanded Sunni militias aligned with the US, had this op-ed published in the Wall St Journal (with thanks: Lily)):

Wissam al-Hardan: called for Abraham Accords with Israel

Erbil, Iraq: “More than 300 of my fellow Iraqis from Baghdad, Mosul, Al-Anbar, Babel, Salahuddin and Diyala joined me Friday in this northern city, where we issued a public demand for Iraq to enter into relations with Israel and its people through the Abraham Accords.

We are an assembly of Sunnis and Shiites, featuring members of the (Sunni) Sons of Iraq Awakening movement, which I lead, in addition to intellectuals, tribal elders, and youth activists of the 2019-21 protest movement. Some of us have faced down ISIS and al Qaeda on the battlefield. Through blood and tears we have long demonstrated that we oppose all extremists, whether Sunni jihadists or Iran-backed Shiite militias. We have also demonstrated our patriotism: We sacrificed lives for the sake of a unified Iraq, aspiring to realize a federal system of government as stipulated in our nation’s constitution.

Now, in striving to rebuild our country, we commit ourselves to an awakening of peace. Our guiding light is the memory of a more honorable past: a young, modern state with a glorious ancient tradition; a country that, at its finer moments, witnessed a spirit of partnership across ethnic and sectarian lines. Iraq’s subsequent deterioration was marked by the dissipation of tolerance—a casualty of generations of tyranny and fear, imposed first by rulers, then by external actors, as a tool to divide and conquer.

The most infamous act in this tragedy was the mass exodus and dispossession of the majority of our Iraqi Jewish population, a community with 2,600 years of history, in the mid-20th century. Through their forced migration, Iraq effectively cut one of its own principal veins. Yet we draw hope from the knowledge that most Iraqi Jews managed to rebuild their lives, passing their traditions to their children and grandchildren in Israel.

In striving to rebuild Iraq, we must reconnect with the whole of our diaspora, including these Jews. We reject the hypocrisy in some quarters of Iraq that speaks kindly of Iraqi Jews while denigrating their Israeli citizenship and the Jewish state, which granted them asylum.

Some of the countries surrounding Iraq are withering in war, while others are blooming in peace. We reject the rule by warlords that has devastated Libya and Yemen. We refuse to allow the tyranny and atrocities of Syria to dissuade us. We decry the cascading tragedies of Lebanon, where a militia that began as a state within a state has swallowed the country whole.

At the same time, we see a hopeful trend in the region: an expanding community of peace, economic development and brotherhood that is the framework of the Abraham Accords—initiated by the United Arab Emirates with its Israeli partners, and joined by our brethren from Bahrain, Sudan and Morocco.”

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‘Arab Jew’ advocate confuses culture with politics

We’ve had Rachel Shabi. We’ve had Massoud Hayoun. Here comes the latest person to identify as an ‘Arab Jew’ : Hadar Cohen. The post-Zionist  +972 magazine  has found space for her article: ‘Zionism has no space for an Arab Jew like me’.

Hadar Cohen’s grandparents holding her father as a baby

Colonization works with our minds to distort our understanding of identity and perpetuate its own agenda. Because of this, my identity has been a great source of internal confusion that has taken me years to unpack and untangle. Recently, I began to understand how this internal self-dialogue represents a political dilemma born through the colonization of Palestine.

“I identify as an Arab Jew. My family has lived in Jerusalem for over 10 generations, and my other ancestral cities include Aleppo in Syria, Baghdad in Iraq, and Shiraz in Iran, along with a small village in Kurdistan. I grew up with primarily Syrian-Palestinian traditions and cultures. My grandmother was a feminist painter and cultural lover of film and literature. My grandfather was a prayer leader skilled in the art of maqamat, a unique Arab melodic framework, who recited prayers in the Syrian-Jerusalemite tradition. My family prayed in Hebrew and Arabic, with a thick accent rolling off our tongues as we pronounced Jewish blessings. I grew up with Mohamed Abdel Wahab and Shabbat piyyutim, Jewish liturgical poems, sung together. Until my parents’ generation, Arabic was the predominant language in my family.

In our traditional Jewish home, observing our Syrian-Palestinian heritage and culture came with ease. Jewishness and Arabness fit together cohesively — there was no contradiction. But outside our home, my faith and culture clashed. The State of Israel conditioned me to see the intersection of “Jewish” and “Arab” as non-existent or impossible, even though Arab Jews have lived at this intersection for years. I learned that in order to belong to Israeli society and participate in the Zionist project, I had to reject parts of myself — the Arab parts. Zionism teaches that “Arabs” are the enemies of the Jews, and, in doing so, it completely fragmented my identity.”

When Hadar  complains that Zonism stifles her Arab culture it is tempting to ask which planet she is living on. Arabic music has never been more popular in Israel. It is being performed in Israel’s most prestigious venues.  There is a  thriving piyyutim scene in Israel, much of it influenced by Arab popular culture. Has she ever heard of paytanim like Moshe Habusha, who sings tunes made famous by Mohammed Abdel Wahab? Has she heard that national treasure  Sarit Haddad sing ‘Unta Omri’, the Um Kalthoum classic? Has she heard of the Yemenite girl band A-WA, who sing in Arabic?  And it’s not just music. Iraqi Arabs are buying the book ‘Pictures on a wall’ written in Arabic by an Israeli called Tsionit Fattal-Kuperwasser.

Hadar labours under the false assumption that Jews in Arab countries only absorbed cultural influences from the Arabs. Yes they did,  but they also created ‘Arabic’ culture. The Jewish al-Kuwaity brothers  modernised the maqam  in Iraq. The Jew Yaakov Bilbul wrote the first novel. The Jew Yaakov Sanua wrote dozens of plays in Egypt.

Hadar confuses culture with politics. You can be an Arabic Jew without  being an ethnic Arab. The communities kept apart to the point that they spoke different dialects, had different values, and never intermarried.

The ‘Arab Jew’ concept did not exist until the invention of Arab nationalism, an artificial identity based on culture and language. However, Jews were never considered anything other than belonging to a faith  under the protection of Islam. They were never allowed into the public square.

‘Arab Jew’ is a recent construct popular with far-leftist anti-Zionists who abhor the idea of Jewish power.

Most Mizrahi  Jews would object  strenuously to being called ‘Arab Jews’.

Hadar’s family lived for 10 generations under Ottoman Turkish  rule. Does this make them Arab? Did the members of her family from Kurdistan or Shiraz identify as Arabs? Sadly, Hadar has got the ‘colonialism’ paradigm back-to-front.  Indeed, using the term ‘Arab Jew’ is an act of colonisation. It is indigenous peoples like Kurds, Berbers and Jews who have been subjugated by Arab and Muslim imperialism and colonialism.

Finally,  Hadar  manages to confuse culture with politics. The two are quite separate. Mizrahi Jews were victims of Arab politics – that is why they were driven out. That is why most now live in Israel, where for the first time they can rely on the state to protect them as Jews. Even the most acculturated Jew was forced out because of antisemitism.

One is  reminded of Albert Memmi’s seminal essay,’Who is an Arab Jew?’ ‘We would have liked to be Arab Jews,’ he writes, ‘but the Arabs prevented it through their contempt and cruelty.’

Reject the expression ‘Arab Jew’

Arab Jew:? ‘It’s like saying Hispanic countryside’

Of Jewish Arabists’ and ‘Arab Jews’

Arab Jews: ‘like mice of the feline persuasion’

Post-Zionist ‘Arab Jews’ ‘re-write history to flatter’



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