Sunday, September 05, 2010

Mizrachi Jews and new sorties in the "War of Ideas in the Middle East"

As you may know, Martin Gilbert has just published a book called "In Ishmael's House, a history of Jews living in Muslim lands." The book includes what happened to the Mizrachi Jewry after 1948 and Gilbert joins the not terribly large group of historians who have tackled this important subject in any detail. (The Jews of Islam by Bernard Lewis, if I remember correctly, deals with its subject in very general terms.) MondoWeiss excerpts the final four paragraphs from a review of the book by New Historian Avi Shlaim:
Nowhere is Gilbert more strikingly one-sided than in his account of the consequences of the 1948 Arab-Israeli War. In the course of this war, the name Palestine was wiped off the map and 726,000 Palestinians became refugees. In its wake, around 850,000 Jews left the Arab world, mostly to start a new life in the newborn State of Israel. For Gilbert, these Jews are simply the other half of the “double exodus” and he persistently refers to them as "refugees." With few exceptions, however, these Jews left their native lands not as a result of officially sanctioned policies of persecution but because they felt threatened by the rising tide of Arab nationalism. Zionist agents actively encouraged the Jews to leave their ancestral homes because the fledgling State of Israel was desperately short of manpower. Iraq exemplified this trend. The Iraqi army participated in the War for Palestine, and the Arab defeat provoked a backlash against the Jews back home. Out of a population of 138,000, roughly 120,000 left in 1950-51 in an atmosphere of panic and peril.

I was five years old in 1950 when my family reluctantly moved from Baghdad to Ramat Gan. We were Arab Jews, we spoke Arabic, our roots went back to the Babylonian exile two and a half millennia ago and my parents did not have the slightest sympathy with Zionism. We were not persecuted but opted to leave because we felt insecure. So, unlike the Palestinians who were driven out of their homes, we were not refugees in the proper sense of the word. But we were truly victims of the Arab-Israeli conflict.

Despite all its shortcomings, Gilbert’s book is an illuminating and a moving account of the history of the Jews in Arab lands. But he is psychologically hard-wired to see anti-Semitism everywhere. The picture he paints is consequently unbalanced.

By dwelling so persistently on the deficits, he downplays the record of tolerance, creative co-existence and multi-culturalism in Muslim lands which constitutes the best model we have for a brighter future.
One has to wonder (and certainly the inquiring minds of MondoWeiss don't inquire in that direction): does Shlaim appreciate his freedom? Does he think he would be free, or as free, to pursue his intellectual interests and speak his mind if somehow the Jewish community of Iraq had survived and he was part of it? What do all those nice distinctions ("victims," but "not refugees in the proper sense of the word") mean? Since he has introduced his own family into the discussion, did they have property? If so, what became of it?

The story of the Mizrachi Jews in Modern times is, in all frankness, not that lachrymose in its ending. The great ugly truth that everyone is too polite to mention is that having one's property looted by one's Arab Muslim overlords is not such a bad deal if the package includes ultimately being free of them. Mizrachi Jews left under various circumstances, as did the Palestinians. And while Mizrachi Jews may ultimately have encountered a happier fate than the Palestinians did, there is no justification for the suffering and injustice imposed on them by an Arab world that turned on its loyal Jewish citizens in a spirit of revenge.

As far as supposed wrongs to the Palestinian people as a whole are concerned, I don't think any serious historians argue that the Yishuv could have acted differently in 1947 and 1948. The New Historians have perhaps corrected an erroneous David-Goliath sense of the relative strength of the two sides, and the more extreme views regard 1948 as the rinse-cycle of the born-in-sin Zionist movement, but in practical terms, non-Goliaths who threaten your existence have to be defeated. The Mizrachi Jews, in contrast, did not threaten anybody.

And Shlaim's conclusion is breathtaking. Muslim "multi-culturalism" is "the best model we have for a brighter future"? Really? Is there a contemporary example of it somewhere we could hold up as a shining banner? If downplaying this supposed "best model" is the book's major shortcoming according to Shalim, I'd say that counts as an endorsement.

Crossposted on Soccer Dad

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