Michael Stark on the disavowed history of Jewish persecution in Arab lands
The Synagogue in Coptic Cairo is a quiet place. It is replete with intricate and distinguished architecture and interior decoration, which we might associate with one of the most vibrant Jewish communities in the world. It is heavily guarded by Egyptian tourist police, and inside there are few visitors and even fewer Jews.
This is just a microcosm of the real tragedy that is the destruction and scattering of the ancient tradition of the numerous Jewish communities within the Islamic nations of north Africa and the Levant, whose history and geography stretch from the flowering of Alexandrian literary and religious expression during the Second Sophistic, to the first Muslim genocide perpetrated by Prophet Muhammad against the Medinese Jews of the Banu Qaynuqaa, and to the first half of the twentieth century, and as far away even as Baghdad. The Nakba – that overused word which in Arabic denotes a catastrophe, in this case the foundation of the State of Israel – was mirrored by the deletion of these ancient cultures, often in circumstances of appalling brutality.
1948 provided the Arab League with an excellent opportunity. Many newly-independent Arab nations included numerous cultural, ethnic and religious minorities. Moreover, regional linguistic and economic differences between Arabs in each individual country exacerbated problems of national cohesion and the lack of central governmental control. So the League saw an ideal opportunity to create a sort of ideological unity after the creation of Israel: persecute the Jews.
The often revolutionary nature of the formation of Arab governments, and the nature in turn of their consolidation, generally created fiercely anti-imperialist, authoritarian, unrepresentative entities hostile to Israel – fascist by any other name. So the reliance of the Syrian government, for example, until the present day, on a state of war with Israel as one if its main political supports, has its basis in the decision of various Arab-dominated nations, notably Libya, Iraq and Yemen, to issue pogroms against their Jewish citizens, confiscating their property and forcibly deporting them, in order to rally their disparate and sometimes polyglot populations around the flag of anti-Semitism.
Such is documented history, yet the eviction of Arab Jewish populations from their homelands continues to affect the present day question of Palestinian national self-determination and land ownership. The area of land owned by Jewish refugees from Arab nations was about four times the size of Israel. The Arab governments responsible for Jewish emigration succeeded in giving their treasuries a helping hand and making these emigrants feel bitter. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the tiny area into which they were placed along with other Jewish immigrants to the Middle East was not enough to accommodate them all. And so they have looked to a certain extent since then to the surrounding Arab areas, up to the present crisis of burgeoning Israeli settlements.
But for the Arab evictions and persecutions of Jews from the 1940s onwards, these Israeli settlers by and large would not be trying to settle in Palestinian lands. Imagine, if you will, the anguish of exile and dispossession felt by these Arab Jews and their descendants, combined with the demands on the limited land available in the modern state of Israel – not to mention the long history of Jewish inhabitation of the West Bank and Gaza, and the fact that Israel originally won control of these areas in a defensive war – and you may begin to understand why they have wished to settle them. Countries like Syria who issued pogroms against the Jews not only created the problem of large immigration to Israel, but have since complained when its effects were felt as the new state needed more land. As if that were not enough, by an astonishing double standard, nations like Lebanon, Syria and Gulf Arab countries deny Palestinian immigrants basic rights of citizenship, settling them in refugee camps in appalling living conditions. Indeed, the Arab League’s standing orders on the matter of Palestinian integration in other Arab nations are to do exactly that, ‘to avoid dissolution of their identity and protect their right to return to their homeland’.
Mahmoud Darwish wrote eloquently on the nature of the Palestinian condition, what it means to be a people without a nation. It might have been instructive to have informed him further about the extent of the Jewish Nakba. Regardless it is telling that, in contrast with the Arab League’s position and that of the Palestinian authorities, Jewish émigrés from Arab lands have not based their identity and self-worth on desires for revenge and rage at their losses. Comprehending the scale of the Jewish parallel to the Nakba, and comprehending in turn the wide-ranging effects of this migration, are essential in the continuation of the peace process in the Middle East, however difficult it may be for the average Arab, however right-minded, to disregard decades of propaganda and indoctrination by the successors of the leaders who perpetrated this most recent great anti-Semitic persecution.