Saturday, May 01, 2004

The Middle Eastern Jews & the Arab-Israeli Conflict

[A message that followed up a conversation at a conference on narrative. --Jeff Weintraub]

Subject: P.S. re Middle Eastern Jews
Date: Sat, 01 May 2004 17:18:28 -0400
From: Jeff Weintraub
To: X

Hi X,

Following up one of our conversations ... I happened to run across this website from JIMENA, one of the (international) organizations trying to represent Jewish refugees from Middle Eastern countries (mostly Arab countries, but also Iran). As I mentioned, in the wake of the 1948 war somewhere between 700,000 and 900,000 Jews fled or were expelled from Arab countries (the numbers are very approximate, but they happen to be fairly similar to the number of Arabs who fled or were expelled from what became Israel)--some in the immediate aftermath, and more over the decades that followed. Most of them wound up in Israel. These Middle Eastern Jews are often referred to as Sephardim, but this is a bit imprecise, since technically "Sephardim" include only Jews who can trace their lineage back to pre-1492 Spain ("Sepharad" in Ladino). It wouldn't include, for example, many of the Jews from Iran and Iraq (and the Iraqi Jewish community, whose presence in Mesopotamia went back more than two millennia, once numbered over 120,000). The most inclusive term is "Mizrahim" (roughly, "Eastern").

The best historical analogy here is the (partly violent, partly negotiated) "exchange of populations" between Greece and the new post-Ottoman Turkish nation-state after the 1922-23 Greco-Turkish war. Over a million Greeks fled or were expelled from Anatolia, which became the new Turkish nation-state. The Aegean coast of Anatolia, which had been part of the Greek world for over 2500 years, was almost completely emptied of Greeks. In the other direction (as Greeks sometimes like to forget) several hundred thousand "Turks" (a generic term that included various Muslim ethnic groups) fled or were expelled from Greece to Turkey. (The Greek community in Istanbul was allowed to stay, in exchange for which the Greeks agreed not to expel the entire Muslim population from western Thrace. But after a series of anti-Greek pogroms in the 1950s, almost all the remaining Greeks in Istanbul fled.) In the wake of the 1948 Arab-Israeli war, there was a roughly analogous "exchange of populations" between Israel and the rest of the Middle East. The difference is that, a half-century after 1923, none of these Greeks and Turks were still stateless "refugees" living in refugee camps.

From the early 1950s through the arrival of the Russian Jewish immigration to Israel in the 1990s (i.e., for most of the history of Israel), the majority of Israeli Jews were not Ashkenazim, but Mizrahim--i.e., Jewish refugees from Middle Eastern countries and their descendants. In one of history's many ironies, Israel, which the Zionist movement had conceived of primarily as a refuge for European Jews (who mostly were murdered by Hitler instead), wound up serving primarily as a refuge for Mizrahi Jews. The Mizrahim still constitute about half of Israeli Jews now. One crucial reason why the Likud became a potential governing party in the late 1970s is that it captured the support of the Mizrahim, most of whom have continued to support parties of the "right" (secular or religious) since then.

Given the importance of the Mizrahim in these and other respects, it is remarkable how little role they play in the predominant historical/ideological narratives about the Arab-Israeli conflict. It is clear enough why they have been largely ignored or marginalized by the Arab side and their supporters, who have focused on the "European" dimension of Israel's Jewish immigration and have been understandably inclined to equate "refugees" with "Palestinian refugees." What is more surprising is that they have played such a minimal role in the corresponding narratives from the Israeli side, whether from the peace camp or from their opponents. As I said, I think this demonstrates some misleadingly incomplete and otherwise unfortunate aspects of the main historical narratives of Israeli national identity (including those used by "progressive" and even "post-Zionist" Israelis).

(And also significant practical problems in Israeli society & politics, of course ... but that's a longer discussion ...)

Jeff Weintraub

(P.S. For example, did you know that the current Israeli President and Defense Minister, Moshe Katsav and Shaul Mofaz, both come from Iran? Or that the previous Defense Minister, Benjamin Ben-Eliezer, who was also head of the Labor Party for a while, was born in Baghdad? Or that the two Foreign Ministers during Barak's government, David Levy and Shlomo Ben-Ami, were both Moroccan Jews? If you didn't, you're not alone.)

Seeking peace, justice and reconciliation in the Middle East

In 1948, nearly 900,000 Jews -- indigenous to the Middle East and North Africa -- lived in what are now known as the "Arab States."

Today, 99% of these ancient Jewish communities no longer exist in the lands where we lived for thousands of years.

Arab governments forced us to leave, confiscated our property and stripped us of our citizenship.



Jews lived in what are now Arab states since the Babylonian destruction of the first Jewish Temple in Jerusalem, in 586 B.C.E.

Middle Eastern and North African Jewish communities, among the oldest in the Jewish Diaspora, came to a tragic end in the 1940s and early 1950s when Arab governments forced the Jews to flee.

In 1945 there were nearly 900,000 Jews living in communities throughout the Arab world.

Today, there are fewer than 8,000. In some Arab states, such as Libya, the Jewish community no longer exists; in others, only a few hundred Jews remain.

Of the 900,000 Jewish refugees, approximately 600,000 were absorbed by Israel, where today almost half of Israel's Jewish citizens are the original refugees and their descendants. The remainder went to Europe and the Americas.

Claims of the Jews Indigenous to the Middle East and North Africa

Click here for a list of these claims

Photos and Presentations: Conferenceon Forgotten Refugees: Jews Expelled from Arab Lands
March 23, 2003 in San Francisco

Click here


More news

Special Essay

Who is an Arab Jew?
by Albert Memmi

JIMENA is a project of the Jewish Community Relations Council
of San Francisco, the Peninsula, Marin, Sonoma, Alameda and Contra Costa Counties.