Tensions between Russia and the Ukraine were being stoked well before Russia invaded Ukraine in February 2022 over two tiny exotic Jewish minorities – the Ukraine Karaites and the Krymchaks. The Jewish News of North California reported back in 2021:
Two tiny sects with Jewish roots have been dragged into yet another diplomatic fight between Russia and Ukraine.
The few hundred Karaite Jews who remain in Ukraine today are members of a sect that broke off from mainstream Judaism in eighth-century Iraq. They were documented in Crimea in the 13th century and nearly wiped out during the Holocaust. (Karaite communities elsewhere today include a sizable population in Israel and smaller ones in several other countries. The only Karaite synagogue in America is in Daly City.)
The nearly extinct Krymchaks, meanwhile, are related to Ukrainian Karaites but are believed to be more heavily descended from Georgian Jews.
Last year Ukrainian President Voldymyr Zelensky unveiled a bill that he said was designed to help preserve the heritage of the tiny minority groups, plus the Tatars, a Muslim people.
But by designating those groups “indigenous peoples,” Zelensky, who is himself Jewish, angered Russia, which zealously guards the interests of Ukraine’s ethnic Russian minority.
The history and expulsion of Jewish communities of the Middle East and North Africa reverses the central common understanding of the conflict between Israel and the Arabs, writes James Sinkinson in JNS News.
Few indigenous populations survived the centuries of onslaught on their authentic identity, and simply disappeared. Despite having second-class, dhimmi status imposed on them by Muslim rulers, Jews refused to relinquish their culture and tradition. They were made subservient to the majoritarian Muslims, who had arrived via invasion and colonization.
This history of conquest, occupation and colonization is one many anti-Zionists would like to hide, since it turns every popular Middle East narrative on its head. Today, strong forces and lobbies ensure that anything exposing Muslim colonial history is censored.
Only a few days ago, Nadia Murad, a former Islamic State sex slave, Yazidi human rights activist and 2018 winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, was banned from speaking at an educational event by the Toronto District School Board, because her story of mass rape and torture by Islamic State would promote “Islamophobia.”
In other words, students cannot be exposed to stories of persecution by Muslims because it might make other Muslims look bad. Truth be damned, history be damned—as long as no one hears the story of a minority in the Middle East that was treated as chattel in accordance with an extremist interpretation of the Koran.
Progressive leftists are so intimidated that they stop defending real victims, instead siding with the persecutors’ narrative. Murad, who has experienced so much horror and trauma, is not allowed to tell her harrowing story—despite being a Nobel laureate—thus compounding her and her people’s tragedy.
This singular episode speaks volumes about the Middle East conflict. Many—seemingly most—Muslim and Arab leaders cannot countenance a story in which they are the persecutors and not victims. They act to ensure that any mention of their history as conquerors, occupiers and colonizers is excised from the history books and banished from public forums.
It is for this reason that the history and expulsion of Jewish communities of the Middle East and North Africa is so challenging for Arabs and Muslims. It reverses their central common understanding of the conflict.
The story of Mizrahi Jews confirms that the Jews are the indigenous people of the region, who were conquered, occupied and colonized by marauding Arabs from the Arabian Peninsula. The Arabs imposed their religion, language and culture on those living there, including many Jews in the Land of Israel, who were converted at the point of a sword.
This is the reason some Palestinians in certain areas, such as around Hebron—the first Jewish capital city—have discovered they have Jewish DNA.
It behooves advocates for Israel to ensure the true history of the region is spread, despite threats. The story of Mizrahi Jews is the ultimate antidote to many of the lies told about Israel.
Responding to a Jewish Currents satire, Sarah Levin, executive director of JIMENA, explains why Jews are an indigenous, Middle Eastern people – historically, linguistically, spiritually, ecologically and politically. Jews should build relationships with other Middle Eastern communities as they strive for land rights, cultural survival and self-determination.
Sarah Levin was surprised to find herself in the Jewish Currents satire, which featured Jewish activists fighting the ‘Jews as settler colonialists’ slur
The Jewish Currents’ piece was deeply troubling for a multitude of reasons, most notably because it ignored Jewish and Middle Eastern history from the days of the Bible through World War Two. Instead, it asserted that Mizrahi Jews, and organizations like JIMENA, have “mythologized” a Jewish link to the land of Israel, despite having lived continuously in the region for over 2,500 years. The article was filled with contradictions, mischaracterizations, and cherry-picked definitions of indigeneity motivated solely by a desire to exclude Jews and Jewish history. My history. Our history.
Issues around indigeneity as a whole are certainly complex. Still, there are specific historical, cultural, geographic, and spiritual truths that need to be taken into consideration when exploring Jewish indigeneity to the land of Israel and issues of Middle Eastern indigeneity as a whole.
For thousands of years, the Middle East has been one of the most ethnically and racially diverse corners of the world and is home to a multitude of indigenous communities including Jews, Bedouin, Copts, Kurds, Shabaks, Tabaris, Samaritans, Assyrians, Yezidis, Chaldeans (the list goes on…). The indigeneity of any one of these communities does not negate the indigeneity of another. Unfortunately, imperialism and colonialism has had a devastating effect on the religious and ethnic diversity of the region. Luckily many Middle Eastern communities in diaspora, like the Jewish people, have clung tight to their heritages, practices, and ways of living that indelibly root them to land and place. For Jews, it is this rootedness—not vague and ephemeral “ties”, but concrete, ongoing, unbroken practice—that connects us directly to the land of Israel and the Middle East. To deny this is to render it nearly impossible to have an honest conversation on Jewish and Middle Eastern indigeneity.
The Jewish Currents piece, however, arbitrarily defines the term “indigenous” as only applying to those colonized after the 15th century. This is at odds with well-established descriptions and definitions used by the United Nations, Amnesty International, and a host of non-profit organizations working on indigenous rights issues. The United Nations does not delineate indigenous groups based on time in a region or when their land was colonized, but instead :
“Indigenous peoples are the holders of unique languages, knowledge systems and beliefs and possess invaluable knowledge of practices for the sustainable management of natural resources. They have a special relation to and use of their traditional land. Their ancestral land has a fundamental importance for their collective physical and cultural survival as peoples.”
As we all know, the common language of the Jewish people is Hebrew, passed down to Jewish children from generation to generation as part of their shared patrimony as a link to Jewish peoplehood. It is no quirk or historical triviality that young Jews, as part of their rite of initiation into Jewish adulthood, learn Hebrew for their B’nai Mitzvahs. Hebrew, a Semitic language from the land of Israel, is closely related to Arabic and Aramaic, dates back to the second millennium BCE, and has remained the Jewish liturgical language for over 2,500 years in diaspora, regardless of the foreign lands we’ve lived in. Our language is rooted not only in prayer, but in the actual land of Israel where our Jewish faith was built upon our ancestors ecological knowledge of the region.
In so many conversations around Jewish indigeneity, we fail to mention that at its root, Judaism is an earth-based practice that is grounded in strict laws created in Israel to govern agriculture, land-management, environmental stewardship, and food security. The three Jewish pilgrimage holidays of Sukkot, Pesach, and Shavuot are not just relics of our collective memories; for thousands of years, they have embodied and sustained the core of Jewish practice and ritual and have kept us deeply connected to the land of Israel and to each other. We would do well to acknowledge and learn how our Jewish ancestors observed these specific holidays as agricultural festivals that celebrated the harvests and natural elements of the land of ancient Israel.
As “wandering Jews” we’ve rightfully defined ourselves as a people in diaspora, dispersed from our original homeland and yearning for our ingathering back to our ancestral land. There is no better testament to this then the ancient Passover ritual of echoing the words, “next-year in Jerusalem.” This is not a construct of modern Zionism, but an embedded element of Jewish faith across race, ethnicity, and location. It is our 2,500-year-old cry for freedom and self-determination.
Sadly, like many other uprooted indigenous communities, Jews have been forced to live as “others” in lands around the world. In the face of threats ranging from forcible assimilation to violent genocide, we have adapted our earth-based practices to the environments we live in. We should be proud of these innovations and of the resilience we’ve displayed over generations of efforts to see our people destroyed. But does this mean we should not try to reclaim what’s been lost and forgo our tie to Israel because our exile began before the 15th century? Do they really think that divorcing ourselves from Jewish peoplehood will help solve the Arab-Israeli conflict?
What is most sad is that a Jewish publication seems intent on undermining Jewish self-determination (Zionism) while lifting up the rights of other indigenous groups in their quest for political self-determination. Because let’s be clear: the Jewish Currents piece was not, and scarcely claims to be, about affirming the rights of Palestinians. The piece was exclusively aimed at discrediting the claim that Jews are entitled to our right to self-determination. Whereas I proudly wrote that “Students will not be taught the lie that Jews are somehow foreign interlopers in our ancestral homeland,” the Jewish Currents yearns for a day when students are taught exactly this—that Jews in Israel are invaders, are outsiders, are foreigners, and ultimately, are expendable.
As Jewish Currents points out, indigeneity is about “naming power relationships in present-day conflicts.” If it is serious in this definition then it must look at the Arab-Israel conflict as a whole. Neither the status nor the history of Jews in the Middle East is reducible solely to a story of powerful Israelis and dispossessed Palestinians. Erasure or denigration (as “mythology” or as political opportunism) of the realities of Mizrahi history may make for catchy cartoon punchlines, but it betrays a fundamental disrespect for the full diversity of the global Jewish community. Our history, our rootedness to the land, and our indelible ties to Israel are neither mythology nor opportunism, and we will not stand silent when libeled as foreigners and invaders in the lands that nourished us.
For Jews, like most indigenous groups, the spiritual is political and also ecological, and we should not be afraid to lean into deep connections to the land of Israel. We can do so and uphold the dignity and rights of Palestinians and all other indigenous Middle Eastern peoples. As so many of us continue to support and identify with the decolonization of Israeli Jews, we should build relationships with other indigenous Middle Eastern communities and support them as they strive for land-rights, cultural survival, and self-determination. The lessons learned from our successes and failures as a dispersed indigenous group that has been successful in our quest for self-determination, can help the world find equitable solutions for oppressed indigenous peoples on every continent while simultaneously strengthening our collective ability to care for and protect our fragile planet.
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:
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.
A recent conference on minority and women’s rights and religious freedom invited Ellie Cohanim, former US deputy envoy to combat antisemitism, to speak on the plight of the Jews of Yemen. A community of 50,000 is now reduced to six people, including Levi Salem Marhabi, wrongfully imprisoned by the regime. Cohanim traced the anti-Jewish ideology of the dominant, Iranian-backed Houthis back to their founder, Hussein al-Houthi, who first chanted the official Houthi slogan’ Death to America, death to Israel and curse the Jews’ in a school hall in 2002. The Jerusalem Post reports:
Speaking at the conference, former U.S. Deputy Envoy to Combat Antisemitism under the Trump administration, Ellie Cohanim, noted the deeply anti-Semitic, Nazi-like nature of the Houthis.
“We have to be very careful when making any comparisons with the Nazis,” she explained. “But incredibly enough, there is much video evidence which has surfaced online over the years with the Houthis mimicking the Nazis, and expressing anti-Semitic and anti-American rhetoric during their ceremonies, military recruitments and other large gatherings, including videos in which the Houthi militia performed the Nazi salute.’ ”
Underscoring the close ties between the Houthis and Iran, Cohanim noted that while Iran chants “Death to America, Death to Israel,” the Houthis’ official slogan goes one step further. “They chant ‘Death to America,’ ‘Death to Israel’ and ‘Curse the Jews.’ ”
She said the Houthis’ founder—Hussein al-Houthi, for whom the group is named—took credit for coming up with the hateful slogan. “In a sermon at a school hall in January 2002, Hussein al-Houthi announced that he was the first to start a chant against America, Israel and Jews.”
Cohanim said “the Houthis have engaged in a policy of ethnic cleansing of Yemen’s Jews. Even prior to the civil war in 2015, we saw the Houthis begin their campaign against the indigenous Jewish community with their 2007 expulsion of approximately 70 Jewish individuals who lived in the Houthi stronghold town of Sa’adah.
“Nearly all of the last Jews, 13 from three different families were driven out in March,” she continued. “There is now only a handful left of the once 50,000-strong community. Most of them were flown to the Jewish state during an Israeli operation in 1949 to 1950.”
One of the few still in the country, Levi Salem Musa Marhabi, has been imprisoned since 2016, jailed for allegedly helping a Yemeni Jewish family flee to Israel with a Torah scroll. The Yemenis were particularly aggrieved about the loss of the scroll, which despite their mistreatment of Jews, they consider a national treasure.
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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