Searching for the Lost Mizrahim

Photo: Institut du Monde Arabe

Every so often, some corner of French academia will launch into a seemingly sterile controversy that nonetheless touches a deep chord amongst parts of the larger society and works as a barometer gauging its political climate. Over the past half-decade, Arab-Jewish relations past and present have been just that scholarly domain of contention. In 2015, the dispute leaped from the ivory tower to the courtroom. Historian Georges Bensoussan, an otherwise uncontroversial intellectual and a distinguished expert of the Holocaust, was sued that year for stoking racial hatred by an assorted group of progressive NGOs. His offense? Bensoussan had sounded the alarm about one form of racism that’s become palpably pervasive in today’s France but did so in a way the NGOs deemed racially insensitive. “In Arab families, everyone knows it but few dare to admit it, anti-Semitism is suckled at the mother’s teat,” he warned in a debate about French decline with a fellow historian on Répliques, a primetime, highbrow radio show hosted by fellow Jewish intellectual Alain Finkielkraut. Come the lawsuit, the plaintiffs failed to prove that Bensoussan’s wording implied a genetic transmission of anti-Semitism within Arab families, so Bensoussan, who maintains the transmission he alluded to was cultural, was acquitted. Yet the historian had hit a nerve in France’s ethnically conscious climate and emerged from his lawsuit with the reputation of an unwoke reactionary, much to his detriment.

To be sure, Bensoussan’s incriminating boutade referred to Arab-Jewish relations in contemporary France. Yet their global history has also been at stake; in June this year, an academic colloquium held at Paris’s Museum of Jewish Art and History saw Lucette Valensi, a fellow historian of Judaism with progressive sensibilities, launch an hour-long tirade against Bensoussan for allegedly casting the Arab world as inherently hostile to Jews in his bestselling history Jews in Arab lands: the great deracination (2012). Predictably, this most seemingly futile of scholarly feuds ended up betraying something deeply rotten at the core of French society, namely, the escalating mistrust and antipathy between French Jews and Arabs, and by extension, Jews, and Arabs worldwide. The country has become a microcosm of relations between the two peoples for two reasons. First, its past colonization of North African and Middle Eastern lands where a Muslim majority lived side by side with a Jewish minority, and second, the historical corollary of this, immigration from both groups into the former metropolis. France has Europe’s largest populations of both Arabs and Jews; consequently, violent outbursts in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict never fail to ripple through the hexagon. In the Second Intifada of 2000 and the Gaza War of 2014, unauthorized pro-Palestinian demonstrations devolved into rioting mobs that descended on various synagogues in and around Paris, hurling anti-Semitic expletives, stones, and Molotov cocktails.

These routine ripples are merely the tip of the iceberg; relations between Arabs and Jews have perhaps never been this direly confrontational in the 14 centuries since the two peoples first came into contact, engulfed as they are in the interlocked conflicts over land and civil rights between Palestinians and Israelis. This downward spiral may have begun as early as the 1880s, when the Zionist movement launched the first waves of Jewish emigration into Ottoman-controlled Palestine, but it accelerated markedly under the British mandate (1918-1948) and reached a fever pitch in the decades since Israel’s independence in 1948. The clearest sign of this vortex of conflict are migration patterns—whereas one million Jews inhabited Arab-majority countries as recently as 1945, today only 30,000 remain, sparsely dispersed across Morocco, Turkey, and Iran. Against this backdrop of scholarly discord, social and geopolitical conflict, Paris’s Institut du Monde Arabe (IMA) has launched an exhibit that sets out, in its own words, to “preserve the millennia-old cultures that were intertwined during centuries of coexistence,” a mission it deems “necessary to revive the dialogue that has been eclipsed by contemporary vicissitudes.” Titled Oriental Jews, A Millenia-Old History and borrowing pieces from some of the world’s finest museums, the exhibit is a commendable effort to shine an unprejudiced spotlight onto a parcel of world history that unfortunately continues to nurture unspeakable hate and resentment.

The exhibit’s story could have begun circa 622, with Prophet Muhammed’s first—rather violent—contact with the Jews of Medina. But that would make the exhibit one about relations between Jews and Muslims instead of Jews and Arabs for, in fact, the former had peopled most of the lands that Muhammed would later conquer long before Islam came into being. Indeed, whereas popular narratives hold that the Judeo-Roman wars of the 2nd century AD first sent the Jews into their worldwide diaspora, records document a Jewish presence across North Africa and the Middle East as early as the 6th century BC—26 centuries ago. With population hubs in Egypt and Syria, fluency in the languages of their neighbors—Greek, Latin, Arabic, Berber—was often a gauge of the integration of Jews into the host society. A vast Jewish contingent, for instance, never made it back to Palestine from Babylon, where they’d been forcibly exiled by Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar II, and even labored there to elaborate one of two versions of the Talmud, the medieval compilation of Jewish law. The exhibit recreates the inner frescoes of the synagogue at Dora Europos, a Roman colony in the easternmost confines of Syria, one of the few unearthed from this early. Judaism stretched further west, too. The further one ventures west of the Arabian Peninsula, the longer the Jews predate the Muslim conquest. In the Maghreb, Jews mixed with the Berber locals ten centuries before Muhammad’s Hegira, with French right-wing presidential candidate Éric Zemmour a descendant of this very miscegenation.

Islam’s meteoric expansion across the Middle East, North Africa and Spain beginning in 622 brought most of the world’s Jews under Muslim rule of one form or another until the 15th century, when the Jews of Europe began outnumbering their Oriental co-religionaries, the “Mizrahim.” This means that for most of Islam’s history, Judaism has numerically concentrated in Muslim-majority societies, a fact that may surprise European gentiles and that throws into even sharper relief the uprooting of Mizrahi Jews in barely a couple of decades after 1948. To attempt a comparison of the inferior status of Jews in Muslim and Christian lands through the Middle Ages would necessarily overlook a wealth of nuances within each of these civilizational spaces, but a few elements of comparison are helpful. Jews were perhaps subject to more lawless violence in Christian Europe, such as when armies of crusaders on their way to Jerusalem ravaged Jewish communities along the Rhine and Danube valleys in the First Crusade, followed by more violence in the Second and Third. Yet this is only because the dhimmitude, the legal construct codifying the inferior status of Jews in Muslim lands, canalized similar violence through legal means. Implemented variously by different Muslim rulers, the dhimmi status afforded Jews protection from external threats in exchange for their absolute political subservience and their lack of any civil rights whatsoever.

Granted, some Jewish communities peaceably co-existed with Muslim ones throughout this period, and some even thrived. Under the rule of the Fatimids between the 10th and 12th centuries AD, Egypt wrestled the title of cultural and religious center of Oriental Judaism away from Babylon and Jerusalem, with Fustat (Cairo) its capital. At the city’s Ben Ezra synagogue laid the Genizah, a storeroom housing an invaluable wealth of worn-out papers and documents—380.000 to be precise—, some of which were displayed at the exhibit on loan from Cambridge, New York, and Cairo. The Genizah is by far the largest and most diverse collection of medieval manuscripts in the world—not uniquely Talmudic, not even solely rabbinical. Some of them are administrative files that give us a detailed account of the commercial acumen and political linkages of Jews as the subjects of one of the more liberal medieval regimes they would know. Some of them document the peerless role of Saadia Gaon, a Babylonian Jewish philosopher who worked to reconcile rabbinical literature with Greek philosophy, engaged in a saga of exegetic disputes with the rabbis of Jerusalem, and translated the Hebrew Bible to Arabic, 12 centuries after the translation to Greek of the so-called Septuagint at the request of Ptolemy II.

During this same period, Spain—Sefarad in Hebrew, or Al-Andalus in Arabic—also vies for the title of “El Dorado” of Arab-Jewish conviviality, particularly after the low bar set by the early medieval, vilely anti-Semitic Visigoth kings. Between the 10th and 12th centuries, the golden age of Al-Andalus, the Umayyad Caliphs of Córdoba’s quest for greater independence from Bagdad coincided with a prosperous epoch for Spain’s Jews, at the time, Europe’s most numerous community. Hasdai Ibn Shaprut, a Jewish physician to Abd-er-Rahman III, became so trusted by the Caliph as to be promoted to the rank of vizir, with wide responsibilities over the Caliphate’s foreign relations with the world. As the Christian Reconquista of Spain progressed, this blessed period for Spain’s inter-faith relations gave way to the taifa kingdoms, a fracturing of Muslim Spain into several smaller provinces, with the Jews often cast into an intermediary role between the receding Muslims and the conquering Christian Spaniards. The going got even rougher under the Almohad kings, who ruled the few remaining redoubts of Muslim Spain between the 12th and 13th centuries and oversaw a wave of repression against religious minorities. Born in Cordoba in 1138, the rabbinic decisor Maimonides left the city around this period for Fez (Morocco) and then Egypt, where he was appointed court physician to the Grand Fatimid Vizier al-Qadi al-Fadil, all whilst composing his acclaimed commentary on the Mishnah, that towering work of rabbinical literature. The exhibit displays a hand-scribbled scrap of paper, on loan from Cairo, claimed to be Maimonides’ Arabic handwriting, along with several book-form reproductions of his acclaimed Guide for the Perplexed dating from the 16th century.

For Spain’s Jews and Muslims alike, the Reconquista drew to a fateful close in 1492. Despite many Sephardic Jews having lent considerable money to the Catholic kings as they waged war against the occupying Mores—or rather because of it—, some 100.000 of them were swiftly expelled by the edict of Granada. That figure is far below, mind you, the approximately 300.000 Jews who stayed on as Christian converts—“Marranos,” as Catholic Spaniards called them. Indeed, Spain’s newly reunified Catholic kingdom had confronted Jews with a choice between their faith and their lives, and those who valiantly chose the former by way of exile were bound to be a minority, leaving the marranos to fend for themselves in an increasingly inquisitorial Spain. And yet, though in the minority, the resettlement of Sephardic Jews across the Mediterranean in the decades that followed further grew the numerical superiority of Oriental Jews and entirely redrew the world map of Judaism, to the point where today’s popular distinction between the two major Jewish ethnicities still bears its mark—Ashkenazis being European Jews, and Sephardics being descendants of Spanish Jews.

Photo: Naftali Hilger/Institut du Monde Arabe

For many of these Oriental Jews scattered along the Mediterranean, the following centuries saw a return to the idyll of Arab-Jewish coexistence, up until the West’s colonization in the 19th century again upended existing arrangements—oftentimes to their benefit. In the intervening three centuries, European Jews had completed a long journey to emancipation launched with the French Revolution. Although anti-Semitism grew in virulence by wedding itself to falsely scientific theories about race, European societies had by and large welcomed Jewsish people into the social and cultural mainstream by the 19th century, with a few regressions here and there. Perhaps for that reason, Europe’s expansionist powers—the UK and France primarily, and to a lesser extent Belgium and Germany—reserved a special status to the Jews they encountered in lands they set out to colonize. They did so perhaps unaware of the extent to which colonization of territories where Jews and Arabs co-existed had entrusted them with the task of governing the already fragile relations between the two peoples. Had they known this, they would have kept a semblance of equality lest they fed Arab resentment against Jews. In 1870, the Third Republic French MP and assimilated Jew Adolphe Crémieux authored a namesake decree granting French citizenship to the 35.000 Jews of Algeria, which had been French territory for four decades, launching them into the sunny uplands of assimilation. The Jew thus became, in the Arab-Algerian imagination to this day, a closet European, a willful enabler of France’s worst excesses, a hatchet man for colonization.

Crémieux, one of the exhibit’s central characters, belonged to a larger cadre of European Jews who indulged in orientalist affinities in art, music, and science, all while taking an ethnological and humanitarian, if at times essentializing, interest in the Jews of the East. Painters like Eugène Delacroix and Théodore Chasseriau would portray the Jews of Alger (Algeria) and Essaouira (Morocco) in their ritual festivities or routine chores, striving to capture the mysteries of Oriental Jewishness that so amazed them. Between 1849 and 1951, Gustave Flaubert, the celebrated author of Madame Bovary, undertook a long voyage across North Africa and the Middle East, coming into close contact with the region’s Jews. But the largest breakthroughs were doubtless achieved in the realm of politics. As prominent European Jews like Crémieux and Moise Montefiore in the UK peeked across the Mediterranean at their Oriental co-religionists’s lot, they saw a people downtrodden, beset by squalor, poor hygiene and a high incidence of preventable diseases. In 1860, Crémieux was part of a group of Franco-Jewish politicians who founded the Alliance Israélite Universelle—whose history Bensoussan has documented in Jews of the East, Enlightenment of the West (2020)—with the mission of regenerating Oriental Judaism and spreading south the universalist gospel of civic rights. Over the years, the Alliance would come to run schools in virtually every North African and Middle Eastern city where Jews lived, considerably elevating the life prospects of its pupils.

This heightened concern for the plight of Oriental Jews coincided with—and was aided by—the increased politicization of European Judaism, not only against anti-Semitism on both sides of the Mediterranean but also in defense of the then incipient ideal of Jewish sovereignty, through Theodore Herzl’s Zionist movement. In 1840, the Jews of Damascus were accused of ritually murdering an Italian priest and using his blood for the baking of their unleavened Passover bread, a routine medieval libel. Following the confession under duress of a Jewish barber, 13 of the city’s Jews were arrested and tortured, with two dying and one forcibly converting to Islam, their synagogue looted and ravaged. Only after an intense diplomatic campaign by France’s geopolitical rivals, seconded by Jewish grandees including Crémieux, Montefiore and Rothschild, did the Egyptian authorities agree to free the imprisoned Jews. Meanwhile, such acts of Jewish solidarity, along with the spawning of supranational Jewish organizations like the Alliance, would feed the suspicion back in Europe that Jews were primarily loyal to their co-religionaries overseas instead of their French or German compatriots. Crémieux would unsurprisingly feature some years later in the illustrated versions of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, that infamous fabrication of an anti-Semitic tract.

In parallel to the bonds of mutual loyalty that Oriental and European Jews built under colonization, the fast-developing ideologies of nationalism, both Jewish and Arab, proved the final nail in the coffin of Arab-Jewish harmony, or the fantasized memory thereof. Already under Ottoman control of Palestine in the 1880s, Zionist organizations had begun fostering the emigration of Jews to the Holy Land, first escaping Russia’s pogroms, then increasingly from further west. This gradually stoked a nativist backlash from the Arab locals—and soon enough from the Arab world at large. These mounting tensions would come to a head in the 1920s and 1930s, as both the settling Zionists and the Arabs with whom they competed for land began seeing their respective longings for political emancipation as increasingly within grasp. The tension frequently erupted into bloody violence, too. In April 1920, an Arab mob worked up into a frenzy by Palestinian nationalists and met with the passivity of Britain’s colonial authorities descended into Old Jerusalem, killing 10 Jews, and injuring 250. The worst was yet to come. In 1929, a range of similar mobs killed 133 Jews, one of them succeeding to rout the Jews entirely out of Hebron, in today’s Israel. In the lead-up to World War II, the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem would infamously court Hitler’s sympathies and lobby to have the Nazis “final solution” extended to the region. The violence touched French colonies, too. In Constantine (Algeria), a week of tensions in August 1934 culminated in another pogrom that left 23 Jews dead.

This ratcheting of Arab-Jewish tensions morphed into war the moment Israel’s independence was declared following the UN’s vote of a partition plan between a Jewish and a Palestinian state in 1947. With this first conflict began in earnest the mass migration of Mizrahi Jews out of the Arab world, punctuated by a surge in outflows around the Six Day War in 1967. Naturally, fear of looming persecution was a major driver, but the reason they so abruptly left their homeland of two millennia are more varied and complex than that, as the exhibit makes aptly clear. Zionist Jews left out of belief that decolonization offered a chance to build a state of their own in the Holocaust’s wake. Others were expulsed by regimes in close alliance with the warring Palestinians, such as Nasser’s Egypt. Algerian Jews, many of them with close ties to French colonists, left for France following the country’s brutal war of independence in 1962. Middle Eastern Jews from countries like Iraq and Syria joined Israel’s growing Mizrahi population. Yet others would depart for the US and Canada. The outlier would be Morocco, with the Arab world’s largest Jewish community to this day, leading king Mohammed VI to inscribe the country’s Jewish heritage in its Constitution as part of last year’s Abraham Accords normalizing ties with Israel, which incidentally facilitated the loan of several pieces for the exhibit.

The manifold accounts of their uprooting, hastened by the vortex of cultural and geopolitical animosity, endures at the core of the Mizrahim’s culture to this day, a far cry from the readily baked narratives projected onto them from outwards. For Israel’s diehard nationalists, their state provided a haven to Jews who would otherwise have suffered persecution under the grip of threateningly anti-Semitic and authoritarian regimes, the better to strengthen Zionist ideals of a shared Jewish fate. For these same Arab states, Mizrahi Jews were violently torn away from the only homeland they knew by a colonizing, bellicose and anti-Arab newcomer state bent on dominating the region, only to offer them a life as linguistic and cultural outcasts in a hostile country, the underclass to Ashkenazi Jews. Neither narrative is entirely true. Migrating to Israel has unequivocally improved the lot of most Mizrahi Jews. But their more important contribution has been cultural—Mizrahi folklore and food are popular worldwide—and political—they’re an electoral bellwether courted by parties of the Israeli left and right. Everywhere Mizrahi Jews have emigrated, they’ve carried with them a unique legacy that reflects a confused memorial mix of trauma and nostalgia.

Given the unprecedented and seemingly unassuageable discord that taints Arab-Jewish relations in nearly every country involved in this story, the exhibit’s mission of restoring a more balanced memory of the past that reckons with the many centuries of peaceful, even cordial coexistence and cultural cross-pollination seems like an outstandingly tall order. This shouldn’t mean it is doomed to fail. “We have a tendency to recount Arab-Jewish history starting with the end, with the expulsions, the conflict and the two cultures drifting hopelessly apart,” said Benjamin Stora, a distinguished historian of the field and one of the exhibit’s commissioners to Akadem, a Jewish multimedia outlet. “We would like to start from the beginning, lest we forget the many centuries through which Jews and Arabs inhabited a shared universe—the same language, the same music, the same gastronomy and more.” This may sound like one of these hopelessly sterile scholarly endeavors that French academics are prone to launch. But then again, behind it lies the deliberately political mission of beginning to heal Arab-Jewish relations. “These days,” said Stora, “we are inundated by a rhetoric of distrust and division. Unless we lead with culture, the vacuum will be filled with hate.” I, for one, wish him good luck.

Jorge González-Gallarza (@JorgeGGallarza) is the co-host of the “Uncommon Decency” podcast on Europe (@UnDecencyPod) and an associate researcher at Fundación Civismo (Madrid).


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