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Egyptian TV series shines light on the untold story of Arab Jews

A controversial new television show gives us a glimpse into Jewish-Muslim relations before Israel’s establishment, as well as a better understanding of those Jews who left Arab countries only to become Israel’s Mizrahim.

By Nadia Naser-Najjab

A recent controversy over a new Egyptian television series has served to highlight one of the central tensions at the heart of Zionist thought. This controversy has arisen in relation to “Haret al-Yahud” (“The Jewish Quarter”), a love story which depicts a romantic relationship between a male Egyptian-Muslim army officer (Iyad Nassar) and a female Egyptian-Jewish character (Mena Shalaby). The series, which is being broadcast during the month of Ramadan, has attracted both local and international media attention.

YouTube screenshot from Haret al-Yahud.

YouTube screenshot from ‘Haret al-Yahud.’

The Israeli embassy in Cairo approvingly observed that the series, which is set in a mixed and multicultural neighborhood of Cairo—and which develops over the period 1948-1954—has broken with the established conventions of the Israeli-Arab conflict and portrays Jews as “human beings.” Nonetheless, after this initially positive appraisal, the series failed to sustain the embassy’s approval, and it subsequently expressed its disapproval of the implication that the foundation of the Israeli state established the basis for many of the hatreds and mutual misunderstandings between Israelis and their Arab neighbors.

Although the series is undoubtedly interesting in its own right, my interest was primarily elicited by its engagement with Mizrahi Jews—Jews who, in contrast to their Ashkenazi brethren—lived in Arab countries before Israel’s foundation. In a manner that to some degree is comparable to Israel’s indigenous Palestinian population, their status has historically been, and indeed remains, highly complex and contingent.

For instance, in an event which has clear echoes of the Australian state’s forced removal of aboriginal children, hundreds of Yemenite babies and children were abducted in the 1950s, as Shoshana Madmoni-Gerber documented in her 2014 book “Silencing the ‘Yemenite Babies Affair.” In 1994 Rabbi Meshulam stirred the issue of the Yemeni babies and was incarcerated. Institutionalized racism was also frequently a factor in the relocation of Mizrahi communities to slum dwellings and economically disadvantaged development towns.

These events underline the fact that Mizrahi Jews have always been in a problematic relation to mainstream Zionism, a point which is reiterated by the fact that Mizrahi academics and activists have frequently emerged as strong advocates of Jewish-Arab co-existence.

The complexities and contradictions which have accompanied the integration of Mizrahi Jews into mainstream Israeli society appear to be inextricably linked to a Zionist mindset which situates a civilized, modern and liberal “self” in diametric opposition to an atavistic and essentially backwards Arab “other.” Ze’ev Jabotinsky, a key founding figure within political Zionism, encapsulated this viewpoint when he observed that: “Jews, thank God, have nothing in common with the East.” Indeed, it is testament to the influence of the Zionist mindset that those who continue to define themselves as Arab Jews, such as the academic Ella Shohat, frequently feel “obliged to explain the mysteries of this oxymoronic entity.”

Yemenite Jews walking to a ‘reception camp’ near Aden, 1949. (Photo by Kluger Zoltan/Israel National Archive)

Yemenite Jews walking to a ‘reception camp’ near Aden, 1949. (Photo by Kluger Zoltan/Israel National Archive)

The idea that these two are mutually exclusive made it all the easier to present the Jewish homeland as a means of salvation. In addition to the abstract proposition of an essential Jewishness, there was also a more concrete implication that Jews needed to be physically protected from the violence and barbarity of Arabs and Arab society. This was to be a central and recurring theme within, to take just one example, Theodor Herzl’s interpretation of Zionism.

Upon their “return,” Mizrahi Jews found that their “salvation” was subject to various conditions and uncertainties. Far from being saved from Arab societies, they remained, to a considerable extent, trapped within the rigid and inflexible representations which Zionist leaders had previously ascribed to Arabs. David Ben-Gurion, Israel’s first prime minister, expressed the view that Arab Jews lacked “the most elementary knowledge” and appeared to be without a “trace of Jewish or human education.” Moshe Sharett, in his capacity as a foreign Minister, told the Soviet Deputy Foreign Minister that “We cannot count on the Jews of Morocco to build the country, because they have not been educated for this.” The former Prime Minister Golda Meir, meanwhile, implicitly reiterated this racial hierarchy when she welcomed Soviet Jews with the observation that: “You are the real Jews. We have been waiting for you for 25 years.”

From my perspective, each of the preceding comments simultaneously highlights both a deeply rooted internal racism and Zionism’s inherent hypocrisy. By implication, and this is a point which Haret al-Yahud makes very well, both observations suggest that the Zionist project was as much a cause and embodiment of intolerance as a protection against it.

Jewish immigrants from Yemen at a camp near Rosh Ha’ayin. (Photo: GPO)

Jewish immigrants from Yemen at a camp near Rosh Ha’ayin. (Photo: GPO)

The official Zionist historical narrative, for example, systematically refuses to engage the level of opposition which the Zionist project generated among Mizrahi Jews. For instance, in 1929 the Chief Rabbi of Iraq wrote an open letter which denounced both the Balfour Declaration and the broader Zionist project of which it was part. In this respect it is particularly telling that Iraq’s Jewish community only departed after considerable harassment and intimidation from both the Iraqi government and pro-Zionist underground groups. Israeli sociologist Yehouda Shenhav, a descendant of Iraqi Jews, accordingly observes that the community, far from enthusiastically subscribing to the Zionist project, was left with no alternative but to leave.

Haret al-Yahud seems to have raised two main issues: firstly, it highlights the extent to which Zionism poisoned relations between Arabs and Jews and created the basis for so many of the divisions and mutual misunderstandings that we encounter today. Secondly, by focusing on the specific cultural, social and political situation of Mizrahi Jews, it encourages us to ask precisely how they have been integrated into Israeli society. This emphasis is important both in itself and because it raises broader questions about political Zionism—to observe that this project sustains itself through a prejudice towards “the other” is somehow insufficient and inadequate. However, as the experience of the Mizrahi Jews repeatedly reiterates, it is more accurate to state that this is a prejudice that is so insidious and deeply rooted that it is directed towards the other within itself.

Dr. Nadia Naser-Najjab has a PhD in Middle East Studies and is an Associate Research Fellow at the European Center of Palestine Studies-Institute of Arab and Islamic Studies at the University of Exeter.

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    1. David

      Susan Stein: Get to the history books and learn.

      Audio of lecture: http://www.soas.ac.uk/religions/events/jordan-lectures-in-comparative-religion/14may2012-opening-lecture-how-islam-saved-the-jews.html

      “So, what did the Muslims do for the Jews? – How Islam Saved the Jews.
      By Professor David J Wasserstein.”

      “David J Wasserstein is the Eugene Greener Jr. Professor of Jewish Studies at Vanderbilt University. This article is adapted from last week’s [May, 2012] Jordan Lectures in Comparative Religion at the School of Oriental and African Studies.”

      “Islam saved Jewry. This is an unpopular, discomforting claim in the modern world. But it is a historical truth. The argument for it is double. First, in 570 CE, when the Prophet Mohammad was born, the Jews and Judaism were on the way to oblivion. And second, the coming of Islam saved them, providing a new context in which they not only survived, but flourished, laying foundations for subsequent Jewish cultural prosperity – also in Christendom – through the medieval period into the modern world.

      “By the fourth century, Christianity had become the dominant religion in the Roman Empire. One aspect of this success was opposition to rival faiths, including Judaism, along with massive conversion of members of such faiths, sometimes by force, to Christianity. Much of our testimony about Jewish existence in the Roman Empire from this time on consists of accounts of conversions.

      “Great and permanent reductions in numbers through conversion, between the fourth and the seventh centuries, brought with them a gradual but relentless whittling away of the status, rights, social and economic existence, and religious and cultural life of Jews all over the Roman Empire.

      “A long series of enactments deprived Jewish people of their rights as citizens, prevented them from fulfilling their religious obligations, and excluded them from the society of their fellows.

      “Had Islam not come along, Jewry in the west would have declined to disappearance and Jewry in the east would have become just another oriental cult. This went along with the centuries-long military and political struggle with Persia. As a tiny element in the Christian world, the Jews should not have been affected much by this broad, political issue. Yet it affected them critically, because the Persian Empire at this time included Babylon – now Iraq – at the time home to the world’s greatest concentration of Jews.”

      Regarding the 1840 “Damascus blood libel” It was precipitated by the disappearance of a Franciscan Order superior and his servant. Without any evidence, the French consul in Damascus and the Turkish governor accused local Jews of killing the missing men so their blood could be used in a religious ritual. The Christian consul incited a wave of anti-Jewish hysteria among the Christians of Damascus by persuading them that their male children could also be murdered for “ceremonial blood.” Several leading Jews were interrogated and tortured by the authorities, resulting in the deaths of one or two and the “confession” of another. In addition, 63 Jewish children were held hostage until their terrified families agreed to “reveal” where the non-existent blood was kept. Intervention by Muslim notables brought the violence to an end.

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