Tag: Arab-Jewish relations

Historians battle over nature of Jewish-Muslim relations

The historian Georges Bensoussan has hit back against accusations of ‘essentialism’ and writing a ‘lachrymose’ version of relations between Jews and Muslims in the Arab world.

Georges Bensoussan: hitting back

The accusations came from Lucette Valensi, herself a historian, speaking at the opening session of a recent conference in Paris. 

She singled out Georges Bensoussan, David Littman and Paul Fenton for criticism  and attempted to distinguish between legitimate historians and ‘jobbing’ historians. Littman and Fenton were the authors of the ‘excellent’ (according to Bensoussan)  Exile from the Maghreb, a compilation of  documents detailing antisemitic abuses suffered in 19th century Morocco.

Bensoussan himself was acquitted in a case against incitement to racial hatred in 2017. Given a right-of-reply by Akadem, the ‘Jewish digitial campus’, Bensoussan claimed that ‘essentialist’ was another term for ‘racist’, without the legal implications. It was simply an attempt to shut him down.

Pointing to the introduction to his major work, Juifs en pays arabes: le grand déracinement, published in 2012 (See English version here), Bensoussan had clearly written that a lachrymose version was as inappropriate as an idealisation of the past, vaunting a golden age, as promoted by the Wissenchaft historians of 19th century Germany. Nonetheless, his book was based  not on police reports but hard archival evidence that Jews had suffered grave abuses at the hands of Muslims.

There was not one memory of the the Jewish past in North Africa, there were several layers of memory, depending on social class. Cultural attitudes were not static but evolved over time.

In turn, Bensoussan accused Valensi of speaking for a privileged ‘comprador’ merchant elite, representing less than one percent  of the Jewish population. The great mass of Jews lived in the oppressive city mellahs.  Bensoussan remarked that the conference featured an appearance by royal adviser André Azoulay, who was pushing the agenda of the king of Morocco. Valensi could be said to have a political agenda herself, being associated with a project to establish a Jewish museum  supported by the Tunisian ministry of Tourism.

Bensoussan contrasted Lucette Valensi’s take on history with that of fellow-Tunisian, Albert Memmi, who grew up in the poor Tunis hara, or  Jewish quarter. Bensoussan quoted Memmi’s words, written in 1975: ‘ The much vaunted idyllic life of the Jews in Arab lands is a myth! The truth, since I am obliged to return to it, is that from the outset we were a minority in a hostile environment; as such, we underwent all the fears, the agonies, and the constant sense of frailty of the underdog.”

The Akadem interview by Antoine Mercier with Georges Bensoussan on Facebook has garnered over ten thousand views,  and comments mostly favourable to Bensoussan.

See Akadem interview with Georges Bensoussan (French)

More about Georges Bensoussan


Of ‘Jewish Arabists’ and ‘Arab’ Jews

Khaled Diab is an Egyptian journalist who has always had an interest in Jews from Arab countries. In fact he was one of the first to write about them and celebrate their contribution to Arab societies. But as this New Lines Magazine article demonstrates, he sees them as ‘Arab’ Jews ‘in love ‘ with Arab culture and in some cases Islam. (Even Disraeil is a ‘Mosaic Arab’). Here he writes about Sasson Somekh,  who called himself the last Arab Jew. But Somekh also saw himself as an Israeli patriot and repudiated those young Mizrahim who claimed a political ‘Arab’ identity without having themselves been immersed  in Arab culture and language.

The late professor Sasson Somekh

Despite the hatred and animosity created by the Arab-Israeli conflict, and the rampant scapegoating of local Jews that occurred across the Arab world, some Arab Jews continued to feel and express pride in their heritage and act as unofficial ambassadors between two worlds at war.

One such figure was the late Sasson Somekh, the Iraqi Israeli poet, writer, academic, and translator. Somekh had been a promising teen poet and leftist political activist in Baghdad, frequenting the city’s vibrant cultural cafes. “I recall the Tigris river where we used to go swimming in the summer. When the water level fell, small islands, which were known as jazra, would appear,” Somekh told me when I visited him at Tel Aviv University, where he was still allowed to keep an office despite having officially retired.

“We would take a boat, load it up with fish and a grill, and go out to one of those small islands and have a good time — those were the most enjoyable days of my life.” The Baghdad that Somekh recalls from his youth was in some ways a very Jewish city.

“When you walked down the main street, al-Rashid, which went from one end of Baghdad to the other,” he recounted, “half the names on the shops and offices, such as lawyers’ practices, were Jewish.” But a mix of popular anger at the Zionist project in Palestine, which was deftly exploited by Nazi propaganda during the war to spread a virile brand of antisemitism, made life progressively untenable for Iraq’s Jews.

This forced Somekh’s family, along with the vast majority of Iraq’s Jewish minority, to depart the country in 1951, stripped of everything but the clothes on their backs. After a life of comfort in Iraq, the Somekhs found themselves, like the Palestinians who were forced to flee during the 1948 war, stuck in impoverished refugee camps.

Caught between the racism and persecution they had experienced in their homelands and the racism and marginalization they experienced from Ashkenazi, or “European,” Jews in Israel, many Arab Jews quickly jettisoned their Arab identities in a bid to integrate in their new homes.

Somekh, who passed away in 2019, was among the minority who resisted this zero-sum identity game. He continued to identify as Arab as well as Israeli, write in Arabic, and dedicate his life to the study of Arabic literature.

The return of the anti-Jewish mob – this time in the West

Ben Cohen experiences a sense of déjà vu when he sees bands of Muslim youths harassing Jews. It is a reminder of the time when Jews were pushed to leave Arab countries by mob violence – a symptom of their failure to defeat Israel on the battlefield. He writes in JNS News:

A pro-Palestinian demonstration in London

The mutation of antisemitism that the latest fighting between Israel and Hamas has given us a glimpse of hasn’t been seen in almost a century. It is one of the most disturbing forms that Jew-hatred takes: semi-organized mobs of mainly young men deliberately targeting individual Jews or Jewish-owned businesses with verbal abuse and physical violence. 

We associate such images with the Nazis most of all, but there are slightly more recent instances of such antisemitic violence. Throughout the Arab world in the late 1940s and ’50s, Jews were subjected to pogroms and other atrocities as a prelude to their mass expulsion and expropriation by these countries. 

 History is full of horrible ironies, and this is one of them. The mobs we have witnessed attacking Jews in cities on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean are overwhelmingly composed of members of the various Arab and wider Muslim communities. 

In European demonstrations, for example, Turkish and Algerian flags can be spotted alongside Palestinian ones. The same impulse that drove the eventual expulsion of nearly 800,000 Jews from the Arab world is now coming back to haunt us in the very countries where we sought our freedom.

The impulse that I am referring to is failure.

 In the Arab countries during the first decade of Israel’s existence, persecution of local Jews was one feat that could be accomplished, and indeed relished, amid the humiliating battlefield defeats inflicted by the nascent Israel Defense Forces on the Arab armies. 

The legacy of that domestic campaign of antisemitism has traveled with us to different continents and vastly different political contexts. What remains the same is the conviction that Arabs are being disempowered, robbed, and murdered by Jewish conspiracies, and that ordinary Arabs are therefore justified in taking their anger out on ordinary Jews in response.

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Meron tragedy is greeted with outpouring of hate

The Lag b’Omer tragedy at Mount Meron in Israel, which led to at least 44 deaths and injuries to many more, has been greeted with an outpouring of hatred on social media.  Despite the Abraham Accords and multiple initiatives to improve Arab-Jewish relations, there is still a long way to go. Report by Jenni Frazer in The Jewish Chronicle:

The narrow passageway where the stampede occurred (Photo: TOI)

 According to investigative journalist David Collier, a report of the deaths by Al-Jazeera had garnered 30,000 responses, and that “10,000 — 33 per cent — were either laughing at or loving the fact [that] innocent Jews have died. The most ‘liked’ comments were the most vicious”. 

 “It isn’t about a few sickos celebrating the awful tragedy in Israel. It is the scale of it,” he wrote on Twitter. 

 Another report of the incident on a site called New Press featured the line: “A number of Israeli settlers were killed and wounded due to a bridge collapse in Galilee, north occupied Palestine”. 

 This received reactions such as “Even the bridge wants them dead” from someone called ‘Levantine Pali’, while a poster known as Ms.Andry responded with a picture of someone yawning and the comment “Drinks on me, y’all!” 

 Read article in full

Jerusalem Post

Arab towns offer food and drink to Meron survivors

Meet Zvi Yehezkeli, the Arabic-speaking James Bond

To many Israelis, Zvi Yehezkeli is something of a hero – an investigative journalist who has daringly infiltrated Islamic  state and the Muslim Brotherhood. However, he is not only an Arabic-speaking Jew, but a religious one. Profile by Kay Wilson in Israellycool:

Zvi Yehzkeli: considered one of Israel’s handsomest men

It is rare that a journalist garnishes respect from both sides of the political divide. But such is the case with Zvi Yehezkeli. 

Aside from once being voted among Israel’s most handsome men, he is our most famous Arabist: a non-Arab who is an expert in Arab affairs.

A son of parents who fled Iraq and thus with a background of spoken Arabic, Yehezkeli enlisted into the Shin Bet and worked for them in security details all over the world. While he was abroad, he became interested in Islam.

 He was especially fascinated with terrorist Yasser Arafat due to the fact that the mass murderer shook hands with the late Prime Minister, Itzhak Rabin, at the Oslo Accords.

In his work as a journalist he went undercover throughout Judea and Samaria to find out how local Arabs felt about the now outdated July 2020 plan to bring areas under Israeli sovereignty. A tiny camera was hidden in his glasses. 

Those interviewed didn’t even know they were being filmed. For the release of the report, he distorted their faces and voices to protect them from the brutality of the Palestinian Authority. Unsurprisingly, most of the interviewees stated their preference to live under Israeli sovereignty. 

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