Israel Is Rewriting the History of Middle Eastern Jews for Propaganda

After decades of being virtually absent from historical discourse in Israel, its communities of Jews from Middle Eastern and North African lands are finally getting their due, albeit in a partial and revisionist way

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A 1927 photograph of the Rassek family in Hamadan, Iran.
A 1927 photograph of the Rassek family in Hamadan, Iran. Credit: Courtesy of Moshe Rassek / Oster Visual Documentation Center / Beit Hatfutsot
Lior Sternfeld and Menashe Anzi
Lior Sternfeld and Menashe Anzi

In 1928, the Jewish historian Salo W. Baron published his essay on the dangers of writing Jewish history as a “lachrymose” narrative. In Baron’s article, called “Ghetto and Emancipation” and published in the Menorah Journal, he explored how a distorted perception of the past and poor understanding of historical context can be misused to advance political goals, which are not necessarily inevitable, despite the way willful parties present them. Baron was talking mostly about European Jewish communities, and his words carried different meanings during the interwar period in which it was written. Today, however, in a similar way, we are witnessing a large-scale national project – the writing of a “lachrymose” history of the Jews of the Middle East, so as to justify contemporary Israeli policies, and to make up for a generations-long marginalization of Oriental Jews in Zionist historiography.

In 1999, the visual artist Meir Gal created an astonishing work called “Nine out of Four Hundred: The West and the Rest.” In it, he is seen holding an Israeli history textbook; only 9 out of its 400 pages deal with non-European Jewry. Gal was aiming to make a statement about the lack of interest among both the Israeli public and the academic establishment in giving Middle Eastern Jews their proper share of the history.

Haaretz Weekly Episode 51Credit: Haaretz

In recent years, Israel’s ministries of culture and education, and others, have been investing efforts in rewriting early Zionist history. Even though during the course of most of Israel’s 71 years of existence, the country’s historiography became subservient to Zionist ideology and the worldview of the political echelon, it was not enough to justify the policies of the Israeli government. It appears as if present attempts to rewrite history are meant to prepare public opinion for certain political moves by giving historical justification to current events. In this way, for example, emphasizing the purported inherent anti-Semitism of the Muslim world is used to justify Israeli reluctance to promote a peace process in the Middle East or even to advance Jewish-Arab coexistence in Israel.

Earlier this year, Nir Hasson reported here how Jerusalem’s official street-naming committee had decided to name new streets in the Silwan neighborhood after Yemenite rabbis, in commemoration of the Yemenite Jewish minority who lived in the village in late 19th century and early 20th centuries. For hundreds of years, if not longer, Silwan’s population has been overwhelmingly Palestinian. The Jewish settlements established there of late, together with the extensive archaeological excavations intended to prove the ancient Jewish connection to the area, have incensed Silwan’s Palestinian residents. As one member of Jerusalem city council admitted, the move of naming the streets for the rabbis was intended to strengthen Israeli sovereignty, even though that had hardly been forgotten by any of the neighborhood’s Palestinians, even without the new street names.

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Bestowing Hebrew names on streets in Silwan and other Arab locales is a common practice, meant to distinguish between Jewish Arabs (Mizrahim) and Palestinian Arabs. The names of the Yemenite rabbis will not really get their place in the Israeli collective memory, since most Israeli Jews will never set foot in Silwan, to begin with. So, the “state” can try to wash its hands of decades of neglecting non-Ashkenazi history, since it has now paid lip service to that history and its legacy – but it is doing so in a location that assures that this history will never become part of the mainstream national story.

In fact, a site such as Silwan could have been the perfect location for a more balanced version of Jewish history. One of the rabbis whose name now adorns a street sign there, the late Yossef Madmoni, was among those who signed the following letter, from 1929: “We, the undersigned, residents of Shiloach village, publicly announce that we are indebted to the dear, good-hearted Mr. Hajj Muhammad Gozlan, one of the dignitaries of our Arab brothers, the residents of Shiloah-Silwan and his good-hearted friends that acted in an extraordinary, humane manner toward their Jewish brothers of Shiloach during the riots of 1929 [...] we hope that this kind of courteous relationship will last between us for many years, and may the good God loyally repay them for their deeds.”

Yemeni Jewish immigrants learn Hebrew after arrival in Israel, 1949.Credit: Universal History Archive/Unive

Soon after Israel occupied East Jerusalem, in 1967, a reporter from the Yedioth Ahronoth daily arranged a meeting between Yosef Maymoni, the son of one of the letter’s other signatories, and Muhammad Gozlan, the son of the same Hajj Muhammad Gozlan. The son of the Jewish man then told the son of the Muslim how he felt a “great obligation to honor [his] late father’s signature. We must not be ungrateful. We will do anything for you.”

A bigger story

In recent years, Israel has invested tremendous resources in showcasing, albeit in a very partial way, the history of Middle Eastern Jews. But simultaneously, there are parallel efforts to adjust and compartmentalize this history under the umbrella of Zionist history. This is the lachrymose historiographical approach that depicts Jewish history, including that in Muslim lands, as a series of tragedies – from the destruction of the Temples in Jerusalem, to the expulsion from Spain and Portugal and through the pogroms in late 19th-century Russia, until the eventual forced migrations to Israel. Besides, the Israeli media has adopted the tendency to view contemporary Jewish life in Europe through Islamophobic lenses. This is most vividly seen in the obsession in Israel with seeing France as suffering from Muslim immigration and anti-Semitism, while imploring French Jews to rescue themselves and pursue Zionist redemption by emigrating to Israel, although this is actually part of a much bigger story of human tragedy and refugeeism.

It seems like, after decades of Middle Eastern Jewish history being overlooked, and the framing of most developments as being related to the greater conflict between Jews and Muslims, the project of historical revisionism has landed on the desk of the cynical Zionist historian. This approach, as applied to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, has tainted even scholars’ reading of Middle Eastern Jewish history.

Much has already been written about the apparent lack of interest in the rich culture and history of the Jewish communities of North Africa and the Middle East, not to mention the highly problematic nature of lumping together the histories and cultures of Jews of more than 20 different lands in a single simplistic narrative.

The Jews in the Muslim world, so that narrative goes, lived humiliated lives as second-class dhimmis, just waiting for Zionist redemption. Once Israel was established, they immigrated there en masse – a story that also includes active deportation of Jews.

The Jews in the Muslim world, so that narrative goes, lived humiliated lives as second-class dhimmis, just waiting for Zionist redemption.

This narrative is misleading in many ways. First, it ignores more than a thousand years of Jewish existence in the Muslim world, a reality that was neither good or bad exclusively, but one that included both aspects, and was characterized by complicated relationships with the majority population, with other minorities, and with the local and imperial political structures. This is the nature of all history.

Second, the narrative denies the possibility that Middle Eastern Jewish communities were actually integral parts of their respective societies, and links the events and transformations those communities experienced to larger historical processes associated with Zionist history in Europe – rather than to developments that took place in the non-Western world.

Third, this narrative subjugates the religious traditions of Middle Eastern Jews to the way Middle Eastern Jewry and Judaism was imagined by Israel society, while ignoring the immense variety of options that existed in that context as well, during the modern age: Orthodoxy next to local rabbinical traditions, communism with religious elements, Arab or Iranian or Turkish nationalism, and more.

Can we talk about the immigration of Yemenite Jews the same way that we describe the experiences of the Jews of Morocco or Egypt? Is it accurate to say that Egyptian Jews were forcibly expelled for reasons of anti-Semitism while, in fact, their leaving was part of a much broader policy of the Egyptian government of deporting foreign nationals, and not Jews in particular? Can we ignore the role played by Israel in the deterioration of relations between the Jews and the governments of the region? Did Iraqi Jews leave in the exact same manner as the Jews of Lebanon? The way this story of expulsion on anti-Semitic grounds is being told today suggests a history that’s been unified and simplified.

In 2014, the Knesset passed a bill making November 30 (the day after the anniversary of the United Nations vote on the partition of Palestine, in 1947) a Remembrance Day for the Departure and Expulsion of Jews from the Arab Countries and Iran. Despite the name, Jews were never expelled from Iran. How do we reconcile the fact that Iran, just like Morocco and Tunisia, for example, still has a small but vibrant Jewish community? And that in Iraq and Egypt, discussions about Jewish history have become part of a vast public national conversation on local culture? Is it correct to echo Francis Fukuyama and declare that Jewish history in the Middle East came to an end with the creation of Israel?

Libyan Jews returning to Tripoli from Bergen-Belsen.Credit: Reproduction by Nir Keidar

This past summer, the Eretz Israel Museum in Tel Aviv hosted an exhibition called, “Leaving, Never to Return: A Tribute to the Jews of Arab Countries and Iran.” The title raises many questions concerning the nature of this “tribute.” The exhibition told the story of 10 Jewish communities – in Iran, Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Egypt, Tunisia, Libya, Morocco, Algeria and Lebanon. All were portrayed in the same way: Jews had lived for thousands of years in the same places; in recent generations, they suffered from harassment and riots, and in the end, they had to “leave, never to return.” The design of the space clarified the intent. The object repeated in different parts of the show was the tallit, the Jewish prayer shawl. But it was not presented as an object of sanctity or because of its use in worship, but as something Jewish prisoners in the Jadu labor camp in Libya used as a cleaning cloth during the Nazi occupation. Hence, the common denominator for all the Jewish communities is persecution and their being linked with the Holocaust. It appears that the “tribute” was really meant as a reminder of the bitter fate that awaited Mizrahi Jews had Zionism not rescued them.

Each section of the exhibition was dedicated to the memory of one community and presented images and objects from it, often with a very Orientalist (as per the conception of Edward Said) simplicity, such as talismans and amulets for each community, as if superstitions were a signifier exclusive of Mizrahi culture. Each section ended with a list of events in which Jews were harmed, in an apparent effort to provide the necessary context for Zionist rescue, by presenting their lives as being lived in the shadow and threat of endless danger, plunder and persecution.

Apart from the general approach, the ideological thread in the exhibition was reflected in various details and objects on show. The display on Iranian Jews described their lives as sheer misery, when actually their situation was very much dependent on the time and place. For example, there were periods when many of the Jews experienced upward mobility, becoming integrated and successful, while others were still poor and marginalized. Also, special attention was given to the “list of events in which Jews suffered harm” – from a massacre of Mashhadi Jews in 1839, to the Islamic Revolution of 1979. As proof of this lachrymose trend, the curators included a telegram that Tehran’s chief rabbi sent in 1874 to the Alliance Israélite Universelle in Paris, in which he explained the hardships Iranian Jews faced.

Nothing in this time line, however, conveyed the glorious history of some 100,000 Jews in Iran, up until the early 1980s – of their self-identification as proud Iranians, their connection to the language and culture, the vibrant Jewish press that numbered up to a dozen of newspapers in the 1940s and ‘50s, their poetry and literature, their disproportionately high representation in higher education and medical fields in the second half of the 20th century, their activism in communist and nationalist parties, or even of their many responses to Zionism.

The lay visitor to the exhibition learned about only six events, beginning with a massacre of Jews in 1839 and ending with the Islamic revolution. Also, one may ask, can we really consider Jewish life in Iran to have disappeared when there is still a community of some 20,000 Jews in the country?

The same approach was reflected in the other displays as well, but a close and critical reading of history reveals the different faces of history. Only then do we see the contribution by the Iraqi-Jewish merchant Avraham Jepani, a business associate of the country’s finance minister, Mohammad Hadidi, as part of the economic and cultural golden age of Iraq in the first half of the 20th century. In the same vein, we suggest considering the story of the idolized Jewish musician Habiba Masika as part of Tunisian history, as Tunisia itself is trying to do these days, and not just a tragic Jewish story, involving a murder. It emerged from this show at the Eretz Israel Museum that Masika’s piano will soon be on display at a museum under construction in her memory in Tunisia.

A similar lachrymose and simplistic history is presented in the book “The End of Judaism in Muslim Lands,” edited by sociologist Shmuel Trigano, and published in French in 2009. This volume, according to Trigano, was intended to offer for the first time a broad overview of developments that led to the expulsion of Oriental Jews from their countries. Trigano asserts as much while unifying the expulsion narratives of Jews from 10 different countries. His narrative claims that “the Jews of the Arab countries suffered from persecution and pogroms for many generations, hundreds of years prior to the emergence of Zionism [...] Their situation deteriorated in modern times and the appearance of Arab nationalism in the 20th century. The narrative that describes their immigration to Israel as colonialism is the opposite of the truth. These were fleeing refugees who found home and shelter in the State of Israel.” In fact, this is an overly generalized and narrow view, one that harnesses certain facts and omits many others, to suggest a process whose end is known and declared from the get-go.

Israel today is undergoing profound sociological changes. Population groups that have been pushed away and marginalized in the central discourse, such as the large Middle Eastern Jewish communities, now have increasing opportunities to stake a claim in society and in venues of public memory. The price they are required to pay, though, is enormously high – one that stipulates the linking of Mizrahi history to the Zionist narrative: Haskalah (enlightenment), Zionism, persecution, escape or expulsion, and at the end of it, “redemption” in Israel.

There is not sufficient room here to tell the complex story more than a thousand years of relations between of Jews and Muslims. In general, though, it seems as if the erasure of Mizrahi or Oriental Jewish history from its Arab and Islamic context goes hand in hand with the eradication of Palestinian history from our surroundings. As historians who study and teach the pasts of Jews in Muslim societies, we welcome the expansion of the narrative and the inclusion of Mizrahi Jews into the national story, but at the same time we call for the presentation of many voices and faces, so that the broad context of the history of the Jews of Muslim lands can be better understood. Selectively choosing facts and processes that serve narrow political objectives causes injustice to a magnificent tale of 2,000 years, that in many ways, is still alive and well. And half a truth is worse than a lie.

Dr. Lior Sternfeld teaches history and Jewish studies at Penn State University. Dr. Menashe Anzi teaches Jewish history at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev.

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