Tag: Media bias

Nostalgia for vanishing Jews masks their ethnic cleansing

The exit of the Last Jew from Afghanistan, Zevulon Simentov , masks the larger, dark issue of the rejection of the ‘other’. Thousands of years of Jewish history are completely erased, remembered only by the descendants of the dead. Dara Horn, author of People love dead Jews has written a heartfelt essay in The New York Times addressing the extinction of diversity, particularly in the Muslim world:

Dara Horn: feeling rage

These stories are used as comic relief, like a Mel Brooks skit injected into the relentless thrum of bad news. But when I read about the Last Jew of Afghanistan, a country where Jewish communities thrived for well over a thousand years, it occurred to me that there have been many “Last Jews” stories like this, in many, many places — and that the way we tell these stories is itself part of the problem.

Dozens of countries around the world have had their Last Jews. The Libyan city of Tripoli was, astonishingly, one-quarter Jewish in 1941; today the entire country is Jew-free. After the fall of Muammar el-Qaddafi, who banished the country’s lingering Jews during his reign, a lone Libyan Jew came back to Tripoli and took down a concrete wall sealing the city’s one remaining synagogue. But he was soon forced to flee, having been warned that an antisemitic mob was coming for his head.

Chrystie Sherman, a photographer for Diarna, an online museum of Jewish sites in the Islamic world, once told me how she tracked down the last Jewish business owner in Syria, a millenniums-old Jewish community that once numbered in the tens of thousands. In 2009, he took her to a magnificent 500-year-old synagogue. The structure didn’t survive Syria’s civil war. At another synagogue, she had to lie to government agents about why she was there; admitting that she was documenting Jewish history was too dangerous.

In my travels, I’ve also seen what happens in such places decades after the Last Jews have vanished. Often, thousands of years of history are completely erased, remembered only by the descendants of the dead. Sometimes, something even creepier happens: People tell stories about Jews that make them feel better about themselves, patting themselves on the back for their current love for Jews long gone. The self-righteous memory-keeping is so much easier without insufferable living Jews getting in the way.

Places around the world now largely devoid of Jews have come to think fondly of the dead Jews who once shared their streets, and an entire industry has emerged to encourage tourism to these now historical sites. The locals in such places rarely minded when living Jews were either massacred or driven out.

But now they pine for the dead Jews, lovingly restoring their synagogues and cemeteries — sometimes while also pining for live Jewish tourists and their magic Jewish money. Egypt’s huge Jewish community predated Islam by at least six centuries; now that only a handful of Jews remain, the government has poured funding into restoring synagogues for tourists.

I have visited, and written about, many such “heritage sites” over the years, in countries ranging from Spain to China. Some are maintained by sincere and learned people, with deep research and profound courage. I wish that were the norm. More often, they are like Epcot pavilions, selling bagels and bobbleheads, sometimes hardly even mentioning why this synagogue is now a museum or a concert hall. Many Jewish travelers to such sites feel a discomfort they can barely name.

I’ve felt it too, every time. I’ve walked through places where Jews lived for hundreds or even thousands of years, people who share so many of the foundations of my own life — the language and books I cherish, the ideas that nourish me, the rhythms of my weeks and years — and I have felt the silence close in.

I don’t mean the dead Jews’ silence, but my own. I know how I am supposed to feel: solemn, calmly contemplative, and perhaps also grateful to whoever so kindly restored this synagogue or renamed this street. I stifle my disquiet, telling myself it is merely sorrow, burying it so deep that I no longer recognize what it really is: rage.

That rage is real, and we ignore it at our peril. It’s apparently in poor taste to point out why people like Mr. Simentov wind up as “Last Jews” to begin with: People decided they no longer wanted to live with those who weren’t exactly like themselves. Nostalgic stories about Last Jews mask a much larger and darker reality about societies that were once ethnic and religious mosaics, but are now home to almost no one but Arab Muslims, Lithuanian Catholics or Han Chinese. It costs little to wax nostalgic about departed Jews when one lives in a place where diversity, rather than being a living human challenge, is a fairy tale from the past. There is only one way to be.

What does it mean for a society to rid itself of other points of view? To reject those with different perspectives, different histories, different ways of being in the world? The example of Jewish history, of the many Last Jews in places around the globe, holds up a dark mirror to those of us living in much freer societies. The cynical use of bygone Jews to “inspire” us can verge on the absurd, but that absurdity isn’t so far-off from our own lip service to diversity, where those who differ from us are wonderful, so long as they see things our way.

On paper, American diversity is impressive. But in reality, we often live siloed lives. How do we really treat those who aren’t just like us? The disgust is palpable, as anyone knows who has tried being Jewish on TikTok. Are we up to the challenge of maintaining a society that actually respects others?

I hope so, but I’m not holding my breath. The Last Jew of Afghanistan is gone, and everyone is glad to be rid of him.

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Iraqi normalisers recant while US fails to show support (update)

Update: In the Wall St Journal, conference organiser Joseph Braude responds to a misleading New York Times report and appeals to the media not to let Iran ‘shape the story’ (with thanks: Lily):

New York Times Baghdad bureau chief Jane Arraf was one of several journalists who interviewed me by phone about the incident. I explained how I had helped Mr. Al-Hardan develop the speech from his original draft and served as go-between with the Journal’s editors. I confirmed that I translated the edited English-language version back into Arabic and submitted it to Mr. Al-Hardan for approval.

In response to Ms. Arraf’s question about his later claim that he didn’t know the content of the speech from which the article was drawn, I provided the full video of his delivering it to the crowd as well as a clip of a Kurdish TV interview, taped after the conference but before the threats began, in which he reinforced the message. Ms. Arraf’s report mentions neither video, and asserts that I told her the Journal editors had provided “input” on the piece. That’s her word, not mine, and the Journal editors made no substantive changes. The Times thereby lent a measure of credence to a recantation that obviously was made under duress.

The Iraqis who participated in the conference came to me in part because I am the son of an Iraqi Jewish woman born in Baghdad, and I took on the commitment out of a sense of kinship and personal conviction. My organization is doing everything we can to help protect them. As part of that effort, we would like to call public attention to one of the ways international media can help: Don’t allow Iran or its violent proxies to manipulate your coverage. Don’t let their intimidation and threats shape the story. And, when courageous people stand up for peace at clear risk to themselves, take note of this and ask why it is happening and why the Iranians feel so threatened by it.

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An intense backlash of death threats and intimidation has been suffered by  Wissam al-Hardan and other leading Iraqi participants in the recent groundbreaking conference calling for normalisation with Israel. But the most disgraceful aspect of this story is the Biden administration’s silence, writes Jonathan Tobin in JNS News:

From left: Dennis Ross, who took part in the conference by Zoom, organiser Joseph Braude and leading participant Wissam al-Hardan

What was so wonderful about Al-Harden’s Journal article was his acknowledgment of the tragedy of Iraqi Jews, a 2,600-year-old community that numbered more than 100,000 persons, that was driven out of the country by anti-Semitic riots and hatred.

But as The New York Times reports, the backlash against the conference, which was attended by former U.S. State Department official Dennis Ross, was intense.

According to the Times, as news of the conference in Erbil spread, the overwhelmingly Sunni Anbar province issued arrest warrants for six of the participants. Others were fired from their government jobs. Pictures of the six – now wanted by the authorities for advocating peace with Israel – are now featured on huge banners erected at checkpoints between Anbar and Baghdad with the captions accusing them of “treason.”

Just as ominous was the way Al-Harden was intimidated by the Jew-haters. Reportedly, at the conference, he directly advocated Iraq joining the Abraham Accords and spoke of a desire for reconciliation between Jews and Arabs, especially in the light of the fate of Iraqi Jewry and its successful integration into Israeli society. He also warned of Iraq being reduced to a similar position as Lebanon, where Iranian auxiliaries have destroyed the country’s sovereignty and made it a puppet of Tehran.

But after being threatened for doing this and dismissed from his leadership position at the Awakening movement, Al-Harden completely recanted his position. The sheikh said he was deceived by the conference organizers and that he did not write the speech he gave at the conference or the Wall Street Journal article, claiming that since he does not read or write English, he had no idea what was being published in his own name.

The conference organizer, Joseph Braude, an Arabic-speaking American of Iraqi Jewish descent, insists that the sheikh understood everything that was in the article and his speech. Al-Harden’s son, who did not attend the conference but did drop his father off there, is also facing an arrest warrant if he returns to Anbar. Conference attendees are remaining in Erbil, which is part of the autonomous Kurdish region that broke away from Baghdad’s control decades ago. But they know if they go home, they may die.

Iran dominates much of Iraqi society in part because of the ties between Iraqi Shi’ites and Tehran, but also because Iran became immeasurably strengthened by America’s toppling of the Saddam Hussein regime, an unintended and unfortunate consequence of the 2003 invasion of the country.

As much as one might expect that Iran’s Iraqi allies would do their utmost to oppose the expansion of the Abraham Accords, the saddest and the most disgraceful aspect of this story is the reaction of the Biden administration. While Washington has largely remained silent about these events, it was telling that the one American statement about it demonstrated just how thoroughly Iran has also intimidated the United States.

The International Coalition for Operation Inherent Resolve – the U.S.-led force that has been fighting ISIS for eight years – did have something to say about the pro-normalization conference. In a tweet issued by the command’s spokesman, U.S. Army Col. Wayne Marotto, the force officially stated that it had been, “made aware of announcements … relating to the recent conference held in Erbil to discuss the normalization of ties with Israel. @Coalition had no prior knowledge of the event, nor do we have any affiliation with its participants.”

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Analysis by Tom Gross

A pro-Israel summit in Erbil (Dennis Ross  – Washington Institute)

NY Times mangles history of Iraqi Jewry

New York Times dispatch from Baghdad reports on reaction to a conference about peace between Israel and Iraq.  In the process, the Times news article distorts the history of Jews in Iraq, blaming their exodus on the creation of Israel and drawing a spurious distinction between antisemitism and anti-Zionism. Ira Stoll reports in The Algemeiner (with thanks: Lily):

The Times reported, “While the conference linked the two issues, many Iraqis draw a sharp distinction between feeling an affinity for the country’s former Jewish community and openness to the state of Israel.” The Times lets that make-believe distinction — we love Jews, it’s just Israel that bothers us — pass with no comment, consistent with the desire of many Times readers to minimize the considerable overlap between anti-Zionism and antisemitism. The Times even lends backing to the supposed distinction with its own capsule summary of Iraqi Jewish history: “The Iraqi Jews — an ancient community and an integral part of Iraqi society — were pressured by the government to give up their citizenship and property and leave Iraq after the creation of Israel in 1948.”

That falsely suggests that it was only “the creation of Israel in 1948” that turned Iraqis against the Jews. Yet the Times itself acknowledged back in 2016: “Iraqi Jews had always been the targets of sporadic attacks. But the danger soared with the rise of the Nazis’ influence in the 1930s as well as unhappiness around the Arab world with Zionism’s push for a Jewish state. A pogrom in June 1941, the Farhud, killed nearly 200 Jews in Baghdad.” The 2021 Times article makes no mention of the Farhud or of Nazi influence in Iraq.

The Farhud was before the creation of Israel, not “after.”

And the Farhud was, sadly, not the end of it.

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TV soap underplays Arab antisemitism

Israeli television’s latest hit, The Beauty Queen of Jerusalem, may be accused of cultural appropriation. It is also ‘ahistorical, politically biased’ and fails to challenge common myths about Israel. Michael Oren pens this trenchant critique in The Tablet

A scene from The Beauty Queen of Jerusalem (Photo: Nati Levi)

 

Based on a bestselling novel by Sharit Yishai-Levi, the series follows the vicissitudes of the Ermozas, an upscale Sephardi family in pre-state Jerusalem. Clumsily toggling between the early 1920s and late ’30s, the drama focuses on the materfamilias, Merkada, and her sybaritic son, Gabriel. The owner of a store that appears to sell only halvah, Gabriel falls in love with a working-class Ashkenazi woman but is forced by Merkada to marry an even lower-class Sephardi woman, their illiterate housekeeper, Rosa. Played by the alpaca-eyed Hila Saada, Rosa inundates the show with a stream of tears that stretches across all 16 of its first-season episodes. And there are the Ermoza daughters—Rachelika and Luna, with the latter growing up to become the eponymous beauty queen. Their loves and disasters, longings and disappointments take place against the backdrop of Palestine from the end of the Ottoman Empire and throughout the British Mandate. (…)

Unsurprisingly, the only villains in The Beauty Queen of Jerusalem are Jews. And not just any Jews, but the right-wing Revisionists of the Irgun and the Lehi. A ruthless bunch, including Rosa’s brother, Ephraim, they blow up a British officers club in 1937, killing soldiers and civilians alike, and assassinate innocent Arabs. “First we get rid of the English,” the ringleader declares. “Then we get rid of the Arabs, and then we get rid of the Mapainikim.” That third target—a reference to members of Ben-Gurion’s Mapai (the Land of Israel Workers Party)—is the most abhorred by the terrorists. For that is how they are portrayed, as bloodthirsty and treasonous.

These villains are also decontextualized. Like the Haganah, the Irgun was founded in reaction to the Arab revolts, as a means of protecting Jewish settlements and neighborhoods from terrorism. Attacks on the British began only in 1939, after the issuance of the white paper. But since none of this background is supplied or even alluded to in the show, the Revisionists appear motivated by bloodlust alone. “When did it happen to us?” a despondent Gabriel Ermoza asks. “When did it happen that we kill a man just because he’s an Arab?” Ultimately, in fact, Jews did kill Jews, in June 1948, when Israeli forces led by Ben-Gurion opened fire on the Revisionist arms ship, Altalena.

Ahistoricism and heavy-handed politicization are not, unfortunately, the program’s only flaws. Produced by the makers of FaudaShtisel, and Tehran, The Beauty Queen of Jerusalem is certainly destined for the American market. And yet by casting Ashkenazi actors—Michael Aloni as Gabriel, and Irit Kaplan as his mother—in its lead Sephardic roles, the series is liable to receive allegations of cultural appropriation. It might lend credence to the widespread American view of Israel as a majority-white country. American viewers are also likely to take umbrage at the series’ depiction of Arabs, all of whom are docile or decadent stereotypes.

But Americans, especially those unfamiliar with the seminal events in Israel’s history, will probably not resent—or even notice—the absence of any mention of the Mufti, the Arab Revolts, or Nazism. This is the series’ tragedy. Rather than reminding American audiences that the conflict did not begin in 1967 or even in 1948, but in the 1920s and ’30s when the Arabs attacked all Jews, Zionist and non-Zionist alike, the series lets the distortion stand. Instead of showing how the Arab resistance movement was riddled with religious fanaticism and hatred, the program ascribes precisely those attributes to Jews. And though Zionists spearheaded one of the earliest and most successful campaigns against colonialism, The Beauty Queen of Jerusalem, transforms freedom fighters into psychopaths and the imperialists into victims. Hundreds of thousands of Jewish refugees flooded Palestine during this period and showing them, or even alluding to their presence, would have recalled the need for a secure Jewish state, but The Beauty Queen of Jerusalem fails to present the most basic context to the story it purports to tell.

These and other missed opportunities mar the series far more than its soap opera-ish characters and lugubrious pacing. Most distressing, though. is the producers’ assumption that Israelis would watch the show and not find anything amiss. Forgetfulness might be unfortunate for Americans, but for Israelis it is dangerous. After all, why defend a country whose founders fought against a perfectly peaceful mandate and willfully killed Arabs? Why remain in a state whose very foundations are steeped in ethnic and religious strife? And how beautiful can any queen really be if her realm is built on myths?

Matti Friedman: ‘Israelis are not like Americans ‘

Thanks to the classic novel Exodus, Americans have tended to see Israel as a projection of themselves. Now, for some on the progressive left, the conflict between Jews and Muslims 6,000 miles away has become jumbled up with American ideas about race. Must-read by Matti Friedman in The Atlantic:

Matti Friedman
When Uris was writing in the 1950s, most Israeli Jews were natives of the Islamic world who’d either been drawn to the new state or forced from their home by their former neighbors. 

Many of the rest were survivors of the Holocaust trying to hack out a living without losing what was left of their mind. They lived alongside a sizable Muslim Arab minority, a remnant of those displaced by the war, feared as a fifth column and kept under military rule. 

Kibbutznik pioneers like Ari Ben Canaan were never more than a tiny share of the population—and as committed socialists, would never have gone anywhere near the foxtrot. Few people here were blond. A more representative hero for Exodus would have been the Arabic-speaking seamstress from the Jewish ghetto in Marrakech. 

 But Exodus wasn’t about representation, or about a strange country in the Middle East. It was an attempt to get American readers to look at Israel and see themselves. Ari Ben Canaan was a hero from the America of Ernest Hemingway and John Wayne. He was a blue-eyed, chiseled, gorgeous Paul Newman. 

 Although a close relationship between America and Israel has been taken for granted over the past half century, it solidified only once Americans decided that Israelis were like them. In novels and countless press reports about pioneers and fighters in the ’50s, “Israel and Jews came to be perceived as masculine, ready to fight the Cold War alongside America,” the scholar Michelle Mart wrote in her study of the topic, Eye on Israel. “By contrast, Arabs were increasingly stigmatized as non-Western, undemocratic, racially darker, unmasculine outsiders.” 

 “In the images of Israelis, then,” she wrote, “Americans constructed their own self-image at mid-century.”

That construction has been on my mind this month as disturbing events unfolding here have been picked up and interpreted abroad. Many Americans are now using their image of home to construct their image of Israel. Indeed, for some on the progressive left, the conflict between Jews and Muslims 6,000 miles east of Washington, D.C., has become jumbled up with American ideas about race.

 

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This website is dedicated to preserving the memory of the near-extinct Jewish communities, of the Middle East and North Africa, documenting the stories of the Jewish refugees and their current struggle for recognition and restitution.

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Jewish Refugees from Arab and Muslim Countries

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