Thursday, July 20, 2006

A historic optical illusion - Israel & the invisible Middle Eastern Jews

As Ami Isseroff points out (here), Richard Cohen began a recent Washington Post column, "Hunker Down With History," by offering a rather peculiar judgment--one which was really in tension with the overall content of Cohen's discussion in that column.
The greatest mistake Israel could make at the moment is to forget that Israel itself is a mistake. It is an honest mistake, a well-intentioned mistake, a mistake for which no one is culpable, but the idea of creating a nation of European Jews in an area of Arab Muslims (and some Christians) has produced a century of warfare and terrorism of the sort we are seeing now.
I also think this conclusion is misguided. But instead of the issues that Isseroff addressed, I would like to highlight a basic historical premise that Cohen, like others, takes for granted here, but which is actually quite incorrect. To echo Cohen's own words, I'm sure he has made "an honest mistake, a well-intentioned mistake"--but it's still a mistake.

Did the creation of Israel involve "creating a nation of European Jews in an area of Arab Muslims (and some Christians)"? This is a common view, but it happens to be based on a fundamental misconception.

The way history actually turned out, what was created was not exclusively, or even primarily, "a nation of European Jews," but primarily a nation of Middle Eastern Jews, or Mizrahim. (No, that wasn't the original plan back in the late 19th century, but Hitler derailed the original plan by murdering most of the European Jews.) For most of the history of Israel, the majority of Israeli Jews have been Jewish refugees from the Islamic Middle East--the Arab world and Iran--and their descendants. In most cases, they came from Jewish communities whose presence in the Middle East long pre-dated the coming of Islam. As it happens, the number of Jews who fled or were expelled from the Arab world & Iran in the aftermath of 1948 is roughly equivalent to the number of Arabs who fled or were expelled from what became Israel. With the arrival of the Russian Jews in the 1990s, the Mizrahim for first time ceased to be the clear majority of Israeli Jews, and now there may even be a slight Ashkenazi majority--but given relative birth rates, this situation is probably temporary.

To look at it from the other direction, the overwhelming majority of the Middle Eastern Jews wound up in Israel, whereas most of the European Jews did not wind up in Israel--more of them went to the US and elsewhere (or were murdered). In short, the Zionist movement may have intended Israel to be primarily a refuge for the European Jews, but that's not what actually happened. Instead, Israel has turned out to be primarily a refuge for the Middle Eastern Jews--and the one place in the Middle East where they have some degree of self-determination. To see Israel as simply, or even primarily, a European intrusion into an alien Arab-Muslim environment is fundamentally misleading.

Back in 2004 I spelled out a few more details in a post on The Middle Eastern Jews & the Arab-Israeli Conflict. As I noted there:
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. [All that is part of a larger pattern that has played itself out repeatedly and pervasively, over the course of the past century, in the whole belt of countries running from the Baltic to the Middle East and North Africa that mostly used to be included in the Russian, Austro-Hungarian, and Ottoman Empires. For a 2008 addendum, see here.] The difference is that, a half-century after 1923, none of these Greeks and Turks were still stateless "refugees" living in refugee camps.
Perhaps it will turn out, nevertheless, that the creation of Israel was still a "mistake"--or, at least, something unsustainable in the long run. Maybe. But not for this reason.

Yours for reality-based discourse,
Jeff Weintraub

P.S. For some further discussion of these issues, in addition to my previous item on The Middle Eastern Jews & the Arab-Israeli Conflict, see Shalom Lappin's "Avoiding Distortions of History" and Joseph Braude's recent New Republic piece on "The Jewish Refugee Problem" (below).

[Update 1/6/2008: Also Irwin Cotler on the Middle Eastern Jews & the Arab-Israeli conflict; the 2007 report, of which Cotler is a co-author, on "Jewish Refugees from Arab Countries: The Case for Rights and Redress"; and the very useful website Point of no return.]

New Republic (On-Line only)
May 24, 2006
Due Recognition

By Joseph Braude

Later this week, a bipartisan group of senators and congressmen are expected to introduce a resolution that would make the Arab-Israeli conflict a little easier to resolve--by making it a little more complicated to discuss. The resolution urges the president to make sure that, during international discussions on refugees in the Middle East, "any explicit reference to Palestinian refugees is matched by a similar explicit reference to Jewish and other refugees, as a matter of law and equity." Sponsors of the measure include everyone from Rick Santorum on the right to Dick Durbin on the left, and a number of congressmen and senators in between.

The resolution constitutes a long-overdue acknowledgment of a tragedy which, for decades, Arab states have denied and the international community has ignored. Nine hundred thousand Jews have been forced to flee their homes in Arab countries and Iran since the years leading up to the 1948 Arab-Israeli war. (Most left in two waves--immediately before or after Israel's independence, and during the years following the Six Day War.) Some were deported outright; others faced widespread campaigns of violence and intimidation so unbearable as to render their ancestral homelands unlivable.

Though a small number of Jews from Arab countries identified as Zionists in the early twentieth century, most had been thoroughly integrated into their societies and embodied the fondest hopes for a progressive, pluralist form of Arab nationalism. They had started no war, yet they came to be overwhelmingly stigmatized as traitors by the majority culture. Consider the infamous "Farhud," an event that took place in Baghdad in 1941 when Iraqis from the military and security services, German-backed fascist groups, and Baghdad's slums stormed Jewish neighborhoods and killed nearly 200 Jews. They also killed scores of Muslims, many of whom were fighting to protect their neighbors. Jewish businesses were destroyed and synagogues desecrated. Such violence against Jews, in Iraq and elsewhere, was an early manifestation of an ugly brand of Arab nationalism that exhibits little tolerance for ethnic and religious minorities--and, even today, continues to function as a crutch for dictators across the region.

Having served the Arab Middle East as government workers, professionals, merchants, and artists, the indigenous Jewish population left a profound economic and social void behind them as they fled for their lives--a void that some Arab countries still have not managed to fill, 60 years later. These states' loss was Israel's gain: Today, 52 percent of the Jewish population of Israel consists of emigres from North Africa and the Middle East.

Acknowledgement of this tragedy has been slow in coming. Though the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) has asserted that Jews fleeing Arab countries were "bona fide" refugees who "fall within the mandate of the [UNHCR] office," not so much as a single resolution was ever passed by the United Nations on their behalf. By contrast, 101 resolutions have been passed on behalf of Palestinian refugees.

To his credit, Bill Clinton understood that the refugee problem was not one-sided. In July 2000, he told Israeli television that "Israel is full of people, Jewish people, who lived in predominantly Arab countries who came to Israel because they were made refugees in their own land." He called for an "international fund [to be] set up for the refugees" to resolve the claims of "both sides."

Still, international discourse on the subject has remained startlingly lopsided; and that, in turn, has played a role in perpetuating the Arab-Israeli conflict. By only acknowledging one mass dislocation--the Palestinian one--the international community has made the Arab-Israeli "refugee problem" appear to be intractable. In fact, once you acknowledge that both Palestinians and Jews have suffered dislocations, it becomes much easier to imagine give-and-take that would lead to a fair resolution of historical grievances.

Such claims are more than a political matter, however; for families like my own, they are also personal. My mother was born into a Jewish family in Baghdad in 1944. Several of her siblings are old enough to have personal memories of the "Farhud." My late grandfather and his oldest daughter and son--then twelve and eleven, respectively--were caught trying to flee the country in the late 1940s. The children spent six months in an Iraqi prison, which my aunt recalls as having been "full of Jews." They were eventually released and flown out of Baghdad with their mother, four more siblings, and 120,000 other Jews in the celebrated airlifts to Israel of the early 1950s. My grandfather suffered a year longer in prison before joining them on his own. They said goodbye to their friends, their home, almost all their belongings, and 2,500 years of Jewish history in Mesopotamia. Like many Palestinians, they too became refugees. And yet, somehow, over the last 50 years, their history has been largely ignored.

Joseph Braude is the author of The New Iraq: Rebuilding the Country for Its People, the Middle East, and the World.